In a short article on “Bled ou Blé” (grain) in the wide-ranging 1770–1774 Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, Voltaire famously explained that
Around the year 1750, the nation, satiated with verses, tragedies, comedies, opera, novels, fantastical stories, even more fantastical moral reflections, and theological disputes about grace and convulsions, finally turned to reasoning about grain.
The citation is characteristically witty, but does it reveal something about the world of the Patriarch of Ferney, not just about the author? While he relished irony, indulged gladly in frivolity on occasion, and swore no oath of ethnographic accuracy, here he seems to be pointing to a multifaceted phenomenon that enjoyed real traction in French society, with analogies and extensions elsewhere. Grain must not only be understood as the massively present, palpable object that was a crucial everyday concern for the state and the vast majority of the population, but also as the privileged and powerful metaphor for the plethora of issues of policy and theory that increasingly came to be called political economy. In his essay, Voltaire hinted as well that what had once been a rather recondite matter now reached beyond the confines of the intellectual or specialist microcosms and mobilized the attention of a much more substantial audience, composed largely of elites of one sort or another, but quite diversely situated, including certain kinds of artisans and farmers along with seigneurs and affluent merchants (and their wives who could not distinguish between wheat and rye).
We believe that Voltaire was pointing to what we call the “economic turn,” a prodigious set of changes that did not happen all at once: far from it. Rather than a sudden swerve, the economic turn was a gradual, cumulative process that touched much of Europe, with variable degrees of intensity and significant time lags from place to place, and burst forth in different domains of activity, sensibility and mindfulness at different moments. It involved primordially the economic sphere, as our locution suggests, but not just, for we construe the “economic” as simultaneously material and symbolic, as relating to the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, but also to their organization and regulation, to the discourses that generate or are generated by these practices, and to the conflicts that are inseparable from them.