Charles Fourier (1772-1837)

“The Rise of Commerce and the Birth of Political Economy”

Source: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier. Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Published by Jonathan Cape, 1972;
First Published: Manuscrits de Charles Fourier. Années 1857-58.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

Well! Why have nations taken so long to realise that the commercial order is a temporary monstrosity, an utterly senseless system that places the three productive classes — proprietors, farmers and manufacturers — at the mercy of a parasitical class which has no national loyalty and which can do whatever it wishes with the fruits of industry over which it exercises arbitrary control? So faulty a system is obviously the result of a failure in social science. Commerce could have seemed tolerable in the childhood of human societies, although even then it was scorned. But it is unworthy of the modern age which aspires to enlightenment and perfectibility, and which boasts of seeking the truth — of which commerce is the mortal enemy. Let us then investigate why the invention of a better system has been put off until our own time and why no effort has been made to discover some means of liberating society from the influence of commerce and deceit.[16]

I have already said that the wise men of antiquity never made commerce an object of study; they simply treated it with the scorn which it deserves. The masters of the world, the Alexanders and the Caesars, would have smiled with pity if someone had advised them to subordinate their policies, in today’s fashion, to the interests of dealers in oil and soap. The privileges that commerce had enjoyed at Carthage[17] were alone sufficient to debase it in the eyes of Rome., thus the Roman writers relegated it to a place among the filthy professions.

As for the small republics of Tyr, Carthage and Athens, which were devoted to traffic, they never influenced opinion in the great empires. They vaunted their trade for the same reason that brigandage was vaunted by the Tatars and piracy by the Algerians. They fleeced their neighbours as often as possible, and they were regarded as birds of prey whose voracity is abhorred but who are tolerated because they are not entirely useless...

The role of commerce in antiquity amounted to very little. Just what was the vaunted trade of Tyr, Carthage and Athens? I would say that the activity of these three ports was barely equal to that of three of our small ports, like Nice, Bayonne and Dieppe, in peacetime. At that time there was little to exchange among the states on the shores of the Mediterranean. Since the goods which they produced were just about the same, farming and industry provided few occasions for trade. The backwardness of navigation prevented them from finding markets for their goods in the torrid and cold zones... It is clear that the commerce of antiquity must have been quite insubstantial when we consider that its most important branch, the grain trade, was frequently controlled by rulers. We read that Hiero, the King of Syracuse, made shipments of wheat to the Roman Senate. Thus in the nations of antiquity commerce was only a shadow — no more than a tenth — of what it is today. For this reason it is not surprising that the statesmen of that time paid little attention to their merchants and scorned their wiles without trying to reform them, just as the gross customs of the lower classes are disdained but tolerated today. Antiquity neither could nor would devote itself to the search for another mode of exchange; it simply tolerated commerce as a vulgar vice.

Circumstances are very different today. Various unforeseen events have produced a colossal growth in commerce. Progress in the art of navigation, the discovery of the East and West Indies with all their resources, the extension of farming to northern latitudes, the establishment of communications between the three zones, the rapid development of manufacturing, and the competition for trade among a multitude of nations — all these factors have led to a prodigious increase in the volume of commerce. It can be said to have increased ten-fold since Antiquity. Trade has now become one of the principal branches of the social mechanism; it has finally drawn the attention of the philosophers; they have ceased to ridicule it. Among them one group of men, who are called the Economists, has devoted itself to the study of industrial policy...

When political economy emerged as a science, commerce was already powerful and revered. The Dutch had already accumulated their hoards of gold, they had discovered the means to bribe and corrupt kings and their courts long before anyone had heard of the Economists. At the outset, then, commerce was a giant and political economy was only a dwarf. When political economy entered the lists against commerce, the ports were already swarming with wealthy ship-fitters and the great cities were full of those dandified bankers who are intimate with ministers and give orders to diplomats. It was no longer possible, as in antiquity, to treat commerce as a laughing stock, for there is no greater title to respect in civilisation than a bulging safe. The first efforts of political economy were all the more modest in that its authors possessed neither wealth nor an established body of doctrine. Since the legacy of antiquity amounted to no more than a few jeers about commerce, they had to create everything for themselves. Deprived of the wisdom of antiquity and thrown back on their own resources, the poor Economists were obliged to adopt modest and timid dogmas. This was only becoming in a few unknown savants who had to enter the scientific world by doing combat with the Croesus of the age.

There could be no doubt about the outcome of such a combat. Political economy made only a faint gesture of resistance. Praise for that gesture is due to Quesnay, the leader of the French sect.[18] Trying to make the truth known, he propagated dogmas which tended to subordinate commerce to the interests of agriculture. But the English cabal, which had sold out to commerce, triumphed with the help of a few religious intrigues. Philosophy, which had opened hostilities against the priesthood, was in need of reinforcements; it prudently decided to ally itself with the money-bags and to flatter commerce, which was beginning to acquire a great influence. Thus the Economists hitched themselves to the wagon of commerce. They proclaimed it infallible like the ancient popes. They declared that a merchant’s dealings could never fail to promote the public interest and that the merchant ought therefore to enjoy an absolute liberty. All the dogmas were adapted to this paradox.

Soon merchants were being showered with adulation. Raynal, Voltaire, and all the most eminent philosophers could be seen kneeling before the golden calf. But they secretly scorned it; for when Voltaire dedicated his play Zaire to a London merchant, whom he overwhelmed with banal compliments, he was no more sincere than when he dedicated his Mahomet to Pope Benedict. Voltaire was himself a consummate practitioner of mercantile trickery; he excelled at duping book-sellers. Thus he knew the true worth of the fine art of trade; he knew that merchants detest learning, that they scorn the sciences and the arts, that they are bored even by the flattery of writers when it does not serve to fine their pockets. But the philosophical party was in need of new recruits, and so they praised the merchants to the skies. ...

It must be said in defence of the philosophers that during the eighteenth century commerce was not as perverse as it is today. There were relatively few merchants then and they made their profits easily. Thus they did not need to resort to the innumerable subtleties and audacious tricks that degrade their profession today. This is so true that elderly merchants are constantly voicing their stupefaction at today’s wiles. They are agreed in describing modern commerce as a snare, a Black Forest, by comparison with the friendly spirit in which trade was carried on before the Revolution. We should add that at that time the English monopoly was not yet dominant. France was still standing up to England and, along with its allies, it had a very substantial monopoly of its own. That is why the French philosophers were not alarmed by an abuse from which their own nation benefited. Everything conspired to make this mismatch seem attractive to philosophy. In associating itself with commerce philosophy behaved just like a young noblewoman who marries a commoner whom she supposes to be an honest man. And, in fact, it was impossible at that time to predict the immensity of vices and scourges that commerce was going to inflict upon the nineteenth century.

But now the mercantile spirit has shown its profound malevolence. The mask has fallen; monopoly and deceit are now revealed. Philosophy can no longer deceive itself about the infamies of the serpent with which it has been associated. It is time for philosophy to break with commerce and return to the path of Truth, which is wholly alien to the mercantile spirit. A discovery is about to banish commerce from the womb of civilisation. If it was pardonable to encourage commerce when there was some doubt about its perversity, it would be odious to do so today, now that Truth has unmasked it and cast it into disgrace.