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6 - Capital, Class, and Empire: Nineteenth-Century Political Economy and Its Imaginary

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 August 2019

Warren Breckman
Affiliation:
University of Pennsylvania
Peter E. Gordon
Affiliation:
Harvard University, Massachusetts
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Summary

Even before venturing into the realm of ideas, the historian of the nineteenth century is confronted with the inevitable question of why political economy acquired so much importance during this period. Not only did economic thought gain full autonomy from philosophical and legal thought, but it also established itself as a central domain in the study of society. This was, to a large extent, due to the advent of industrial capitalism in northwestern Europe and to its subsequent spread southward. Through a good part of the century – at least until the development of Emile Durkheim’s sociology – political economy (and its critique) represented the only theory of capitalist society. Be it a “bourgeois science,” an anti-bourgeois science, or one of social mediation, it could not evade the great problem of industrial society, that of wealth distribution. “To determine the laws which regulate this distribution, is the principal problem in Political Economy,” wrote David Ricardo. He was echoed by N. W. Senior, for whom political economy was “the Science which treats of the Nature, the Production, and the Distribution of Wealth.”

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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