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19.11.23 Yamamoto, Taming Capitalism before its Triumph

19.11.23 Yamamoto, Taming Capitalism before its Triumph

Koji Yamamoto's Taming Capitalism before its Triumph is a deeply researched, ambitious, and impressive examination of what was known as projecting in seventeenth-century England that seeks to disrupt Whiggish narratives about the emergence of the English capitalist economy. Projectors were men who designed and sought to establish profitable ventures that promised, for example, to increase employment, replace foreign imports with domestic production, improve infrastructure, or foster technological innovation. To do so, projectors needed royal patents or parliamentary backing, along with financing. In return, they would share profits with the king and their investors. Yamamoto is careful to acknowledge that there were medieval and sixteenth-century precedents for projecting, not just in England but on the continent as well, but he treats the English story as a distinctive chapter in the history of projecting, and of English socioeconomic and political history itself.

Projecting began with a bad reputation, for in Tudor and early Stuart days projects were seen as (and more or less functioned as) monopolies whose only "public" service was to feed the fisc of the fledgling state, but projectors even then had vague pretentions of serving the public more broadly. During the early Stuarts, when Yamamoto's story effectively begins, any such claims seemed laughable; projects seemed, and for the most part were, more about courtiers and monopolists who drew on royal favors. By the time of Daniel Defoe's Essay upon Projects (1697) that referred to the 1690s as the "Projecting Age," however, projects, often financed by joint-stock companies rather than private subscription, could be presented as innovative efforts to provide consumers necessary (or desired) goods, and projectors could be positioned as entrepreneurs who were reforming the English economy and serving a models for others like them.

Yamamoto's purpose in the telling this story is not, however, to draw a straight line from the early Stuarts to the Glorious Revolution. He does not track how projectors came to see how they and the economy should operate--as though they entered the eighteenth century understanding themselves as "enlightened" developers serving a public that benefitted both as investors and consumers. Instead, he wants to document the tortured history by which projectors navigated a changing political and economic terrain and a boisterous cultural arena where they were for the most part mocked, condemned, and despised. In the end, they could mobilize a discourse about public good based on consumer needs and desires and come to see themselves (or a least confidently present themselves) as expert entrepreneurs who could serve social needs rather than parasitic monopolists. Although the book is a densely empirical study of the people, events, and sources populating this journey, it is loosely structured by one historiographical debate and several analytical points.

It enters historiographical debate as a polite critique of scholars like Paul Slack, who credited early modern England with "a pervasive attachment to improvement [that] encouraged the accumulation of skills and appetites necessary for innovations and investment in them" [16, quoting Slack, Invention of Improvement, 161] or Joel Mokyr who similarly credited England with "a culture of practical improvement, a belief in social progress, and the recognition that useful knowledge was key to their realization." [16, quoting Mokyr, Culture of Growth, 276]. England's projectors, their investors and patrons, and their commentators did not partake of this elevated discourse. Instead projectors were focused on how to cast their claims to serve the public, convince patrons and investors of their ability to succeed, and make money for themselves. If they arrived at a place like that such scholars described, it was not foreordained. Or easily reached.

Here Erving Goffman's concept of "role-distancing" helps Yamamoto; he argues that after the collapse of the Caroline regime, projectors tried to position themselves not as the ridiculous and grasping fops portrayed in many literary texts that mocked projecting but as men whose projects were well designed, directed at the public good, and entirely feasible. Key moments in this history are illustrated by the work of the Hartlib circle of reformers whose plans rejected monopolies, emphasized collaborative research, advocated experimental science, and sought to serve both God and profit. They did not succeed in part because they could not figure out how to prevent free riders without the fines and penalties that had so corrupted earlier efforts at projecting. A kind of turning point in the history seems to have come when Andrew Yarranton, a man experienced in inland navigation and hydrostatics, sought to develop the Stour navigation project [ca 1661], which was to make the Stour navigable from the Severn River, to construct railway lines to connect nearby coal pits to the river, and to establish a tinplate industry along the Stour, using cheap coal from the region. He had backing from a wide social and ideological range of individuals, but he failed to obtain the money needed in time to keep the project on schedule and fully completed. Yamamoto uses this episode to illustrate the "social 'reach' of distrust" [172]; even Yarranton, an acknowledged expert, had to navigate that history as he made his bid with Parliament and his investors. Memories of what projecting had been, Yamamoto argues, would continue to govern just how England arrived at Defoe's "Projecting Age". The interventions of the countless "Post-Restoration promoters, statesmen, savants, craftsmen, petitioners, and even street protesters...collectively amount to what Jan de Vries has called 'structure-modifying acts'--'sequences leading to path dependent outcomes'." [227-228, Quoting de Vries, The Return from the Return to Narrative, 11]--another way of saying that the present is prisoner of the past.

Yamamoto makes his argument by providing a massive amount of detail about the many actors in the history of projecting between about 1640 and 1710, about the prospective and realized projects, about cultural texts that described projectors and their projects (usually negatively), and about institutional records documenting political debates about particular projects and projectors. The result is a book thick with evidence mostly familiar only to specialists, but medievalists will benefit by thinking with him both about method and theory. He builds his case meticulously, systematically moving between different genres of sources, different archives, different actors, and different moments in time, all the while trying to combine cultural history with institutional, economic, and political history. The result is an historians' book, perhaps one so chock-a-block with detail as to obscure the larger argument, but nevertheless a satisfyingly rich effort to tell a non-linear story about the "rise" of the English economy and of capitalism itself. I would have wished for a more streamlined text but on the whole I think he succeeded.