Daily Archives: July 24, 2009

project enlightenment, briefing from the cambridge/prague bureau, 1981

From Mikulas Teich’s “Afterword” to his co-edited volume with Roy Porter, The Enlightenment in National Context (1981):

By the eighteenth century the influence of capitalism on trade and industry was global and pervasively affecting the contemporary social, economic, political and intellectual scene from North America to Russia.  This is reflected in the convergencies and divergencies of the different Enlightenments.

In no area is this more apparent than the problem of ‘unfree’ and ‘free’ labour, one of the key issues of this period.  North America and Russia were as different in this period as chalk and cheese.  Yet, although without a feudal past colonial America had its unfree labour.  It has been estimated that at the eve of the American Revolution 80 percent of all immigrants to the colonies were indentured servants or black slaves.  Their position–not unlike that of Russian serfs–was that of chattels, and of relevance to the American theorists and practitioners of the ‘Rights of Man.’  Most agreed that such ‘Rights’ could not be granted to the unfree (216).

This was the passage that leaped out at me, as I was rereading the Porter/Teich volume.  Initially, the essays by Porter (on the English enlightenment) and Phillipson (ditto, for the Scottish) were the ones that really got me started thinking about the historiography of the enlightenment years ago in graduate school.  Now I’m surprised to find Teich’s materialist essay on Bohemia in this collection, and his afterthoughts about the effects of globalization and world capital on the diffusion of Enlightenment in places as different as Russia and North America.  Now his thoughts seem quite prescient to me, but maybe this stuff is old hat to others.

Now, though, I suspect that there’s a new history of the enlightenment to be written (if it hasn’t been written already) out of E.P. Thompson’s memorable attack on Hont’s and Ignatieff”s interpretation of Adam Smith in Customs in Common. How would we begin to write a history of the enlightenment’s discussions of/basis in free and unfree labor?  I suspect we’d have to start thinking again about the historical movement from the “luxury debates” to the birth of sociology and economics (Mandeville, Rousseau, Ferguson, and Smith), but also adopt Teich’s distinction between enlightened discussions of agricultural and other (non-chattel, or “skilled?) labor, wherein chattel labor fails to register as a problem with those who are otherwise associated with the causes of freedom or liberty (most notoriously, Thomas Jefferson).  And somehow the 18th-century technological innovations that led one way or another to the Industrial Revolution need to be factored into this discussion, as well.  It seems significant to me, however, that the economic historians I’ve been looking at repeatedly point to the geographic and regional interactions that helped to foster this historical process.  As one historian points out: “[T]here was only one route to the twentieth century–and it traversed northern Britain.” (historian Bob Allen, qtd. in the DeLong post linked above)

Still, the question that had me rereading Porter/Teich in the first place never got answered: is there such a thing as a Caribbean enlightenment in this period?  If we can talk about the enlightenment in national contexts, why not regional ones, as well?