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The Enlightenment’s promotion of the potato reflect the close relationship between new ideas about the political importance of everyday eating habits, and new ways of thinking about the economy. Just as Adam Smith recommended that allowing individuals to pursue their own interests would ultimately result in a flourishing economy, so potato-enthusiasts (Smith included) argued that the best way to build a robust population was to empower individuals to make sound dietary choices through campaigns of information and exhortation. Rarely did they suggest that people be obliged to grow or eat potatoes. Such suggestions would have run counter to the entire philosophy that underpinned much enlightened interest in food supply: the new discipline of political economy. This history reveals the eighteenth-century origins of the current, neoliberal, insistence that healthy eating is best understood as a form of individual consumer empowerment that at the same time builds a stronger economy and body politic. Potatoes offer a concrete, everyday example of how this confluence of private interest and public benefit was imagined to occur, at the very moment when these ideas were first theorised.
The crisis of the Ancien Régime colonial empire sponsored a flurry of political economic debates on how to preserve French colonial and metropolitan prosperity. Attentive to the numerous economic recipes in circulation, Chapter 2 shows how the French Physiocrats broke with prevailing norms and offered a radical new vision of empire. Based on their connections to the colonies, the French government, and European intellectual elites, the co-founders of Physiocracy - Victor Riqueti de Mirabeau and François Quesnay – crafted a powerful critique of the French plantation complex and its underlying exclusive commercial system which they baptised the ‘mercantile system’. Casting the ideal French colonial empire as an agricultural empire with overseas provinces, they and their followers promoted colonial production based on free labour, international free trade, and the exportation of ‘civilisation’ to Africa. The chapter explores how Mirabeau, Quesnay, and acolytes such as Pierre-Paul Le Mercier de la Rivière, Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Nicolas Baudeau, and Pierre-Joseph-André Roubaud developed the Physiocratic colonial doctrine. It also carefully pinpoints internal tensions among the main intellectual participants with regard to colonial slavery and historical specificity.
Since the days when the interest of historians was principally focused on forms of government the age of absolutism has been a label commonly attached to the period of European history between 1660 and 1789. Mercantilism as practised on the continent of Europe was an essential concomitant of absolutism and developed in every state pari passu with the growth in the monarch's power. To the Germans, mercantilism seems an integral part of the Enlightenment because of the rational and secular nature of its thinking. The Cameralism or mercantilism of central Europe was distinguished from its French counterpart because the study of its doctrines constituted an academic discipline which was obligatory for all the holders of administrative posts, and because the rulers themselves were its most receptive students. Civilization in the age of absolutism rested on a peasant base. In the major continental countries the Physiocrats' gospel appealed most strongly to the governments that found themselves in difficulties.
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