Antinomies of a commercial age: Adam Ferguson on the moral and political tensions of early-capitalism
Arbo, Matthew Bryant
This dissertation seeks to clarify the moral and political shape of economic exchange with an intellectual history of capitalism at its eighteenth-century inception. It seeks to avoid the familiar polarities of Marxist and capitalist economic ideologies by framing the ethical questions of economic exchange in historical terms: Why does the modern economic order seem to create moral contradictions and undermine political institutions? In response to this question, the thesis recovers the contributions of the Scottish historian and moral philosopher, Adam Ferguson (1723- 1816). Because modern economy had not yet taken on its modern abstraction and was still a thinkable reality, Ferguson’s treatment on history, action, and political institutions provide a fertile starting point for envisaging a distinctly moral configuration of the economic sphere. He prepares ground for a critical assessment of the political and economic relationship by criticizing the ideal of progress and emphasizing the need for dignified human exertion. His claim is that the liberalized marketplace undermines political institutions—especially law—to the extent that is leaves a people enslaved both to their own dependencies, as well as to other nations for whom commercial luxury is not a vice. My argument carries Ferguson’s claim forward by asserting that the Market itself now tyrannizes and enslaves in much the way Ferguson imagined a military despot would tyrannize unprepared societies of the eighteenth-century. Eighteenth-century theology is, in many respects, a period of relative theological austerity; so it is therefore unsurprising that a morally confused political instrument (capitalism) would emerge in an age largely devoid of theological imagination or conscience. Jesus Christ is no longer the origin, end, or meaning of history; co-creation is no longer the principal object of human action or labour; and the means of Christ’s rule through the political order are rejected in favour of luxuries and conveniences of modern commerce. The marketplace now embodies all the fears eighteenth-century theorists reserved for despots, tyrannizing western societies and threatening the resolve of already fractured political institutions.