Книга Nature's Evil Александр Эткинд читать онлайн бесплатно (2023)

Table of Contents


Series Title

Title Page

Copyright Page




Part 1 History of Matter


1 Cry Fire

Not slash, but burn

Roman fires


Deforestation of Europe


2 Grain’s Way

The bog civilisation

The grain hypothesis

Crop rotation

Improvements and indolence

Supplying the capitals

War and potatoes

Space and power


3 The Remains of Foreign Bodies








The sea otter


4 Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice



Islands in the ocean



Colonies and calories


5 Fibres


Hemp and flax

Hemp and the Oprichnina

Hemp and Napoleon

Wool and the Mesta

Leviathan in sheep’s clothing



The birth of the proletariat

Uzbek cotton, Russian textiles


6 Metals








The Demidovs


Part 2 History of Ideas


7 Resources and Commodities

Natura vastata

The light, the rare and the dry

Sweet refinement

Mono-resource as an economic platform

The gold standard


8 Resource Projects

Robinson Crusoe on the British Isles


The regent and coffee

John Law



9 Labour and the Mercantile Pump

The benefit of colonies

Two monopolies

Undivided labour

A live monster

Two pumps


10 The Resources that Failed

Anti-imperial France

Post-colonial America





Part 3 History of Energy

11 Peat


12 Coal

Water power

Ghost acres


The Mitchell thesis


13 Oil

Fountains and pipes

Farflung corners

The blood of nations

The petrostate

The science of curses

Carbon and gender

The oil standard

The Russian disease

The carbon standard

Oil into food

Destroying society


Conclusion: Leviathan or Gaia

The Gaia hypothesis

The parasitic state

Progress and the katechon

Four justices


References and Bibliography


End User License Agreement

Series Title

New Russian Thought

The publication of this series was made possible with the support of the Zimin Foundation

Vladimir Bibikhin, The Woods

Alexander Etkind, Nature’s Evil

Boris Kolonitskii, Comrade Kerensky

Sergei Medvedev, The Return of the Russian Leviathan

Maxim Trudolyubov, The Tragedy of Property


A Cultural History of Natural Resources

Alexander Etkind

Translated by Sara Jolly


Copyright Page

First published in Russian as Природа зла: Сырье и государство by New Literary Review.

Copyright Alexander Etkind © 2021

This English translation © Polity Press, 2021

This book was published with the support of the Zimin Foundation.

Книга Nature's Evil Александр Эткинд читать онлайн бесплатно (1)

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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-1-5095-4758-6 – hardback

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Ėtkind, Aleksandr, 1955- author. | Jolly, Sara, translator.

Title: Nature’s evil : a cultural history of natural resources / Alexander Etkind ; translated by Sara Jolly.

Other titles: Природа зла. English

Description: Medford : Polity Press, 2021. | Series: New Russian thought | First published in Russian as Природа зла: Сырье и государство by New Literary Review. | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Summary: “Retelling the story of humankind through our relationship to the natural resources”-- Provided by publisher.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020057164 (print) | LCCN 2020057165 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509547586 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509547609 (epub)

Subjects: LCSH: Natural resources--History. | Natural resources--Government policy--History. | Economic history.

Classification: LCC HC85 .E85 2021 (print) | LCC HC85 (ebook) | DDC 333.709--dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020057164

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This is the translation from the Russian original, which was published by New Literary Review – the sixth book I have created in tandem with this unique publishing house. For this and much else I give my deepest thanks to Irina Prokhorova. I could not imagine my intellectual itinerary without her trust and support. And it is the third of my books to be published by Polity Press. I am deeply grateful to John Thompson for the pleasure of a collaboration over many years. The editor of the Russian version was Ilya Kalinin. He has done an excellent job, as he always does; I hope we will continue our conversations. The Zimin Foundation supported the translation project – another step in their tremendous contribution to international scholarship. Courageously and painstakingly, the translation was done by Sara Jolly. It was much more than translation – a true co-authorship. I am thankful for this unexpected opportunity to learn, to teach, and to advance together. Masha Bratischeva generously helped me with the manuscript in both languages.

While I was writing this book I had a lot of other things on my plate, and I feel grateful to all of them for kindly allowing me to get it finished. I was helped very much by the generosity of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. The book grew out of several post-graduate seminars, and many PhD students contributed to it with their probing questions. For support and criticism of my ideas I am indebted to my colleagues Federico Romero, Regina Grafe, Pavel Kolar, Dirk Moses, Laura Downs, Ann Thompson, Giorgio Riello, Giancarlo Casale, Stephane van Damme and Glenda Sluga.

This text starts with a story that I learnt from my friend Dmitry Panchenko; he helped me with some other stories as well. Less obvious, but also important, has been my long-standing dialogue with Oleg Kharkhordin. From various corners of Europe, Leif Wenar, Mikhail Minakov, Kacper Szuletski and Sergey Medvedev have given me their feedback and advice. I am grateful to Evgeny Anisimov for his help with one incident from the times of Peter the Great and to Alexander Philippov for discussing the times of Ivan the Terrible. Anastasia Pilavsky and Dina Guseinova helped with advice on everything, including the title. Anatoly Belogorsky and Martin Malek spotted some mistakes in the Russian edition.

I am eternally grateful to the late Mark Etkind, Moisei Kagan, Efim Etkind and Svetlana Boym. My mother, Julia Kagan, has been the greatest source of love and support. My brother Mikhail Kagan and my cousin Masha Etkind shared with me many moments of joy and sorrow. Elizabeth R. Moore was both an inspiration and a reality check. My friends and role models – Leonid Gozman, Jay Winter, Simon Franklin, Ely Zaretsky, Nancy Fraser, Vadim Volkov, Timothy Mitchell, Maxine Berg, Aleida Assmann, Jane Burbank, Tony La Vopa, Stephen Kotkin and Katerina Clark – have left their imprints in this book. Many other important thanks are at the very end of this volume: the bibliography there is the inventory of my intellectual debts.

Over the years, I kept discussing this growing manuscript with my teenage sons, as it is all about the problems confronting their generation. So the book is dedicated to Mark and Mika .


It was the thirty-third year of the new era, although nobody knew that then. Harvests failed throughout the empire; there was a financial crisis in the capital and unrest in the colonies. The emperor Tiberius gave the banks 100 million sesterces so that they could distribute loans to landowners. Prices continued to rise even faster. In the capital, ‘The high price of corn almost brought on an insurrection,’ wrote Tacitus. In Jerusalem, Jesus was put to death after he had started a revolt of the poor against the local moneymen – one of his followers, Matthew, was a tax collector. But in the same year the richest man in the empire, Sextus Marius, who owned silver and copper mines in Spain, was also struck by disaster. Sextus was ‘accused of incest with his daughter and thrown headlong from the Tarpeian rock.’ Tiberius ‘kept his gold-mines for himself, though they were forfeited to the State,’ commented Tacitus. 1 A few years later the new emperor, Caligula, faced another food crisis. The Praetorian Guard preferred to kill him rather than do battle with the enraged populace over the remaining supplies of corn. Decades passed, and another emperor, Vespasian, introduced a tax on latrines. ‘Money doesn’t stink,’ he said.

The leading characters in this book are unusual: peat and hemp, sugar and ore, cod and oil. Raw materials of different sorts are at once elements of nature, components of the economy and engines of culture. Civilised life is built out of them. Their specific characteristics explain the conduct and experience of societies through history. The state has a special relationship with them. This is the main subject of my book. As we follow the story of these commodities we will encounter many booms and even more busts. From earthly flints to lunar soil, people have learnt how to use many things that they they originally had no clue about; exchanging these products according to need and want, they have involved in this circulation more and more different sorts of matter. This is a general process of commodification , but it worked in vastly different ways, depending on the nature of the commodity. Every crisis in the supply of raw materials leads to the ruin of some and the enrichment of others. The state accumulates grain so that, in a time of famine, it can distribute it to the people; people hoard gold, hoping to hide their wealth from the state; and everybody counts on order and stability. But when a famine, epidemic or insurrection happens, resources are redistributed according to new rules which nobody could have predicted. When Tiberius killed the mine-owner in order to give loans to the landowners, he saved the property rights of some by destroying those of others. Rulers knew only too well what the money changers didn’t realise: that different sorts of capital aren’t equal even if their exchange value is the same.

The owner of a silver mine might have more sesterces than all the landowners in the empire. But an individual producer of silver can be declared an enemy, his mines can be occupied and his capital seized, while there are so many producers of grain that it would be suicidal to make enemies of them. Silver is a topical resource : it creates wealth from a particular point on the earth for a comparatively low input of labour. Grain, on the other hand, is a diffused resource , demanding much land and a big investment of labour. 2 The difference in space- and labour-intensity is huge, but the sums involved, calculated in monetary units, may be equivalent. Still, silver is no more equal to grain than it is equal to air. When there’s a shortage of silver, the rich suffer. When there’s a shortage of grain, the poor suffer. When there’s a shortage of air, we all suffer. Money changers think of money as if it were a universal equivalent; rulers rely on the qualitative differences between commodities. Different natural resources have different political characteristics. * It may well be that silver sesterces didn’t stink. But if you smell a dollar bill or a rouble close up, as if you were smelling a flower, you will catch a whiff of oil from both.

Any product – grain, a table or a smartphone – consists of raw materials extracted from nature and the labour invested in its production. The table is made of wood or plastic; the smartphone contains more than a hundred different alloys and plastics. The production of goods or services requires energy, which is produced by the physical effort of humans or animals, or by burning coal or gas. Unlike labour, which conforms to rules and lends itself to generalisations, raw materials have always been a matter of chance discoveries, distant journeys, successful ventures or, alternatively, disasters. The ambitions of rulers, the caprices of nature, the mistakes of scientists, the cupidity of managers, all culminated in the sovereigns finding themselves tête-à-tête with their mines, fields, boreholes, while the intermediaries were sacrificed.

An economy that deals in metals is different from an economy based on textiles, which is different again from an economy depending on oil. In the age of empires, each of the great economic machines concentrated on a particular form of natural resource. Embedded within the culture of its time, such a mono-resource defined the epoch. To this day, the speaker of the British House of Lords sits on the Woolsack. The artists of the Italian Renaissance honed their skills on rendering the play of light on fur and silk. Spanish portraits glitter with silver, while the paintings of Dutch artists capture the light falling on black broadcloth. In their paintings, the Russian masters portrayed bearded peasants, dwarfed by the vastness of the wheat fields, as inevitably as Venetian artists depicted palatial storehouses and canals and Victorian artists steam engines and smog, symbols of the coal economy. Following the economic law of comparative advantage, this ever-growing specialisation helped nation-states and empires to acquire the things they lacked through trade or colonisation; but then a resource shift would arise, and the more exclusive the previous specialisation, the worse the crisis that followed. Viewed over the long course of its development, capitalism is not a linear ‘production of commodities by means of commodities’. 3 Rather, it is a series of world-shattering choices that focused the global economic machine on one of these commodities at the expense of many others, followed by another unexpected choice of the leading commodity and another revolutionary shift.

A specialisation in a chosen commodity turns it into a fetish , an obsession that saturates cultural imagery and directs economic practices. Karl Marx famously wrote about commodity fetishism, but the underlying process is much closer to the staple theory formulated by the Canadian sociologist Harold Innis (see chapters 3 and 7 ). 4 Bypassing the people, the mono-resource economy simplifies the cultural-political system by connecting the sovereign directly to his natural source of power. Using many examples, I will demonstrate how a dominating staple captures the cultural imagination, defines its symbols and fetishes, and shapes the kingdom’s second body . * The philosopher Bruno Latour describes a mononatural condition as the tendency of a civilisation to simplify its relations with nature. 5 In contrast to this mononaturalism , multiculturalism brings internal complexity, diversity and disenchantment.

Economists have long been writing about the fact that natural resources are more like assets than goods. The price of a barrel of oil or an ounce of gold does not depend on the cost of its extraction any more than the value of an asset depends on the salaries of a bank’s employees. Other factors define the price of gold: the rate of inflation, festivals in India, the threat of war. In contrast, the price of goods reflects the labour of engineers, workers, retailers and researchers. Labour is law-abiding; nature is contingent and, sometimes, rebellious. Unlike labour or knowledge, natural resources have a habit of running out. Extraction begins with peak productivity: the sea teems with fish, grain grows effortlessly, gold gleams in creeks, oil gushes in fountains. At the start of any extraction cycle, there is an Eldorado. As the years go by the earth loses its fertility, the mines become ever more dangerous, and the boreholes ever deeper. The fish in the sea and the trees in the forest disappear as a result of ‘the tragedy of the commons’: people exhaust a precious resource, considering it limitless because it doesn’t belong to any one individual. 6 But even an individual owner exhausts his land, which is the reason for agricultural techniques such as crop rotation. Owned privately or publicly, fountains of oil dry up and the oil has to be pumped out, while adjacent oilfields are usually less productive.

Discussing this effect, eighteenth-century economists formulated the ‘law of diminishing returns’. It applies only to the gifts of nature, while a reverse effect – ‘economy of scale’ – operates in relation to the products of labour: when manufacturing expands, productivity increases. Each ton of grain, silver or coal extracted is more difficult to get than the previous one; but every nail, boot or car produced is easier to make than the previous one. If a ploughman enlarged his field or added more fertiliser, then his expenditure per bushel of wheat would also increase; but if a miller increased his output of flour, his expenses per bushel would reduce. 7 This was ‘a view of the world which filled with deep-seated melancholy the founders of our political economy,’ wrote John Maynard Keynes about a century ago. 8 The imminence of climate catastrophe has added to these debates our most basic resources – air and water. During the nineteenth century, the per capita consumption of energy doubled; in the twentieth century it grew a hundredfold. But we’ll run out of air before we run out of oil. Critical theory becomes more radical as the pace of changes accelerates. Marring the present, the crisis transforms the understanding of the past. In the era of the Anthropocene, the neoliberal canon feels neither new nor liberal.

My question is not which comes first, resources or institutions. The relations between them are not cause and effect but are based on cohabitation, even symbiosis. The non-human agents of history interact with working, suffering, hopeful or disillusioned human beings. Harnessing nature, people endow natural phenomena with independent agency and deprive themselves of this agency. We will discern such elective affinities between sugar cane and British mercantilism, between hemp and Russian feudalism, between oil and globalisation. Every primary commodity is a social institution, and each one is different. Different natural resources have different political qualities and generate different cultural forms of reflection.

Inspired by the material turn in the study of the humanities, which has replaced the earlier fascination with language, I wish to combine a history of matter with a history of ideas. 9 You can’t understand the thoughts of the past without addressing the things which were so familiar to the people who lived then – silk and grain, gold and coal. Material history and intellectual history are both interwoven with moral history. You can’t understand the origins of the state, or revolutions, or global warming, without understanding political evil – its variety, origins and change. Political evil entails violence, economic inequality and the suppression of freedom. This isn’t news. What is news is the realisation that, in our world, ecological damage has also become a part of political evil. The confluence of the four axes of history – politics, economics, ecology and morality – is a particular feature of modern life. And the further forward this rhombus of history goes, the more obvious it is that ecology should supersede economics and moral judgement should trump political choice.

In recent times, post-colonial research has concentrated on the Global South, post-socialist research on the Global North – and both have contributed to our understanding of the natural history of evil. This book is Eurocentric and examines global commodities from a North European perspective. It focuses on the historical experience of Northern Eurasia, from England and Holland to Siberia, and refers only occasionally to events in China, Africa or the Indies. The North is just as global as the South. The rivers, bogs and trackless wildernesses of Eurasia are no less romantic than the high seas and deserts of the South. Living through the climate catastrophe, we feel a new power in the cold, mist-shrouded stories of the North – in the poems of Ossian, in Wagner’s operas, in Tolkien’s novels or, to give a current example, in Game of Thrones . But my book is concerned with real, not fictional history. Presenting a global picture of the rise and fall of resource-dependent empires, I often support my arguments by drawing on the historical experience of Russia. No more or less important than any other empire, the Russian state has been typical in its permanent reliance on the trade in raw materials; in its repeated crises which came with the switch from one resource platform to another; and, despite frequent setbacks, in its growing role in the external and internal colonisation of the human world.

New problems call for new ways of interpreting ancient arguments – and for acknowledging that some current ideas are obsolete while other long-forgotten theories are right up to the moment. Marx wrote, ‘primitive accumulation plays in political economy about the same part as original sin in theology.’ 10 With similar irony, Walter Benjamin imagined ‘historical materialism’ as ‘a puppet in Turkish attire’ whose master is theology, ‘small and ugly and … out of sight’. 11 Indeed, the history of matter is interdependent with the history of the spirit. From Luther to Swedenborg, and from the medieval alchemists to the Russian Old Believers, religious thinkers and dissenters were involved in extracting, processing and interpreting the gifts of nature (see chapter 6 ). From silk to sugar, and from gunpowder to oil, many of these commodities had oriental origins, like Benjamin’s puppet.

The historian is a prophet looking backwards, 12 but economists and sociologists often believe in presentism: you can only understand the present within its own context. While I don’t entirely share this belief, neither do I agree with the kind of historicism that says that today’s news is a development of yesterday’s trends. The most important news is not a development – it is a fresh start. Material history focuses on situations of change, moments of danger, states of emergency. Following Benjamin, my position also combines the philosophies of moralism and naturalism. Evil has its roots in nature, and nature also limits it. But the choice is ours; we are making it here and now, as we always have done. We do not know the outcomes of our current choices, but we know the consequences of those that people made in the past. Paradoxically, it is the uncertainty of the future that makes historical experience relevant for the present. The world is the unity of human beings and nature; and, since we have failed to change the world, now is the moment to understand how it works. In our gloomy age this is the task for a New Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment culminated in a disaster. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook the world, inviting a re-evaluation of the nature of evil. If God created the earthquake, then he is either not omnipotent or not good. Among the survivors is the hero of Voltaire’s novel Candide, or Optimism . Candide, a sweet-natured youth, believes everything his tutor, the philosopher Pangloss, tells him: ‘It is demonstrable, that things cannot be otherwise than as they are … Stones were made to be hewn … Pigs were made to be eaten … Individual misfortunes lead to the common good, so the worse such misfortunes, the better.’ But then the tutor falls ill with syphilis and witnesses the death of 30,000 people in Lisbon. Candide flees to Eldorado, where golden fountains flow with rum, and then to the Dutch colony of Surinam. On a sugar plantation he meets a black slave, who lost his hand when it was crushed by a millstone. He tried to run away and had his leg cut off. ‘This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe,’ says the black man. He doesn’t know the word ‘optimism’, and Candide explains: ‘it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.’ 1 3



1 Tacitus, The Annals , Book 6, secs 13, 19; Panchenko, ‘Tiberius i finansovyi krizis v Rime’.2 Auty, Resource Abundance and Economic Development ; Dunning, Crude Democracy .3 Sraffa, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities .4 On the staple theory, see Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada , and Watson, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis ; on the fetishism of commodities, see Marx, Capital , and Pietz, ‘Fetishism and materialism’.5 Latour, Politics of Nature , p. 33.6 Hardin, ‘The tragedy of the commons’.7 Cannan, ‘The origin of the law of diminishing returns’; Rainert, How Rich Countries Have Been Enriched ; Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism .8 Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace , in Collected Writings , Vol. 2, p. 6.9 Two books were the most significant for the material turn: Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel , and Mitchell, Carbon Democracy . See also Bennett, Vibrant Matter ; Miller, Cultural Histories of the Material World ; LeCain, The Matter of History .10 Marx, Capital , Vol. 1, p. 784.11 Benjamin, ‘On the concept of history’, in Selected Writings , p. 389.12 Ibid., p. 405.13 Voltaire, Candide , p. 2.



Good history writing has always interwoven different peoples and disciplines. The link between resources and institutions lies at the deepest level of this interweaving. Social history aspires to reconstruct ‘history from below’, but it has usually ignored the very lowest level – raw materials. Endowed with their own life, each and every one of these commodities makes a rich and fascinating subject for historical study. Together with people, they have also been agents of our joint history. ‘For men and commodities are the real strength of any community,’ wrote David Hume. 1 Agency is always partial. No single agent is completely autonomous – neither man, nor nature, nor a sovereign ruler. A sack of grain, a bale of cotton, a barrel of oil – they all have their agency. The history of resources is the real history from below: you can’t go any lower. And this history is full of its own distinctive agency. It is not a reductive explanation of human experience. On the contrary, I wish to learn how to find partners in a grain of wheat, a fibre of hemp or a lump of coal.

Addressing a huge variety of natural resources, I will explore their economic, cultural and political lives from the bottom up – from the earth to the state. Each chapter takes four steps in this upward movement. First, we look at the inherent characteristics of the raw material. Second, we learn about the methods of processing it, which define the specifics of the labour required. Third, we switch our attention to the institutions which organise this labour and which derive income from this material. Fourth, we engage with the political features of the state which depends on the given resource .


1 Hume, Political Essays , p. 124.


Cry Fire

Our forebears migrated from the African savannah about 70,000 years ago. Hairless skin and the ability to sweat from all parts of the body allowed them to adjust to living in the subtropics. They were not particularly swift but had stamina: over a long distance, a man could catch up with almost any mammal. Having settled in the wetlands and coastal areas, humans learnt to make use of sticks and stones and to domesticate animals. Climate change forced people to migrate in search of new spaces. They soon learnt to cross open water, to catch fish and to seek a better life.

Not slash, but burn

Human migration northward was made possible by a revolutionary technology – the mastery of fire. Having learnt to walk upright, this particularly successful primate could now use his hands to strike a spark from a flint and set fire to dry grass. By gathering and burning the first non-edible resources – brushwood and reeds – people were able to control the temperature in their lairs or caves. Now that they were able to cook food over a fire, people consumed seeds, beans and bones that they couldn’t digest raw. Practically everything that humans have made subsequently – terracotta and brick, bronze and iron, salt and sugar, petrol and plastic – they have made in collaboration with fire. In the myth of Prometheus, the hero steals fire from the gods, hides it in the hollow centre of a reed and carries it to humanity. The gods’ revenge is long-drawn-out and cruel. All the details of the myth are significant – from the hero on the frontier between two worlds to the humble reed, with which the whole story begins.

The mastery of fire was the first practical act in which brain was more important than brawn. After a fire, forests were more productive, there was more game and the predators disappeared. A fire in the hearth tamed humankind. Armed with fire, humankind could tame nature. These hunters, whose only weapons consisted of cudgels or sticks, burnt forests to create great swathes of natural golf courses. This is how the American prairies were created, and probably the Eurasian steppes as well. For their physical survival, each human being needs to consume between 2,000 and 4,000 kilocalories per day. The production of a daily portion of the modern, meat-rich diet takes approximately 10,000 kilocalories of solar energy. Human muscles convert food into work, but most of the energy we use comes from elsewhere. In ancient Rome the consumption of non-food energy, most of it through the burning of wood, reached 25,000 kilocalories per person. In the modern world the energy consumption per person is 50,000 kilocalories per day, and in developed countries it is five times higher. 1 In 1943, the anthropologist Leslie White defined culture as the harnessing of energy with the help of technology. 2 Solar energy, which reaches our wicked world straight from the nearest star, is available to human beings in various forms: wind, water currents, firewood, fossil fuel and food. No energy is produced by human beings; it all comes from the sun. The only exception to this rule of thumb is nuclear energy; perhaps that’s why it is difficult for humans to harness it.

We learnt to cut wood and plough the earth once we had acquired the ability to attach a stone tip to a wooden handle. Wood was abundant, but rare flint was needed for the tip. In axes, crude stone was replaced with flint in about 4000 bce . Found all over Europe, flint axes and knives were produced in great quantities – about half a million every year. But there were very few flint mines. Axe heads originating from one flint deposit in the Alps have been found all over Western Europe. Axes from central Poland have been discovered 800 kilometres away. 3 So the earliest human tool, the flint axe, already combined two types of raw material – the easily replaceable stick and the precious flint, which was handed down from one generation to another, travelling huge distances on its way. The owners had to protect the sites where flint was found, and the first property rights developed. Others had to produce something of value to exchange: a flock of sheep, for example, or cured hides. This is how trade began.

For almost all of history, people lived in autonomous groups, communities or tribes. They fed themselves from the land on which they lived. When they had exhausted it they moved on to another plot and again burnt the forest. Fire helped to produce excellent harvests. Mature trees survived forest fires, and cereals or vegetables were sown around them. Field and forest existed side by side, and animals helped people clear the land. Horses and oxen hauled timber, pigs and sheep devoured grass and roots. It required about an acre of cleared forest to support one human being. Any growing population needed to expand the land available for burning and sowing. Like all technological revolutions, fire liberated people and reduced their dependence on nature. But no sooner had he achieved symbiosis with fire than bipedal man fell into the resource trap. In his quest for freedom and happiness, he was constantly destroying the very resource that made him prosper.

Groups of people moved from place to place looking for firewood. These people had neither maps nor even word-of-mouth information about their environment. When they found a forest they could use, they settled there until they had burnt everything flammable. In need of timber, humankind migrated north, to the wooded tracts of Europe. But there were already similar creatures living there – the Neanderthals. Shorter but more heavily built than Homo sapiens , the Neanderthals were intelligent and aggressive. They lived in small communities, were capable of collective action and used fire and stone tools. They coped with the cold climate more easily than H. sapiens . Their brains were bigger than the brains of early modern humans, their sight was sharper, their muscles stronger. For five millennia, H. sapiens and Neanderthals lived side by side in Europe, mating and learning from each other. Then the Neanderthals died out. Archaeologists have found teeth marks from H. sapiens on their bones: early humans had eaten Neanderthals. The anthropologist Pat Shipman has proposed that the main difference between the Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern man was the symbiosis between man and wolf. Homo sapiens and wolves complemented one another. One species could track game; the other could kill it. One was swift-footed and had a superb sense of smell; the other had a big brain and tools. Hunting with dogs gave early humans their greatest advantage over Neanderthals. 4

American archaeologists investigated adjacent settlements of humans and Neanderthals in the mountains of the Southern Caucasus. The main source of food there was the Caucasian goat. Both groups knew this animal’s seasonal migration routes and settled in the vicinity. They behaved more like breeders than hunters, eating only adult animals and leaving the juveniles to mature. The Neanderthals lived in smaller groups than the humans. Their tools were more primitive because they made them out of local stone. In the human camps the archaeologists found knives made of obsidian, the nearest source of which was 100 kilometres away. With these knives, humans could split strong bones into needles. 5 These implements were highly prized and used over and over again for scraping skins and sewing them together, making clothes and shoes. These goods entailed a huge amount of labour, but they could be exchanged for other things such as obsidian. This is probably the first example of long-distance trade in human history, but the pattern was fully developed: a rare, distant natural resource was exchanged for products of human labour.

Having left their subtropical Eden, humans needed to dress in furs and skins. The Neanderthals had more subcutaneous fat and more body hair, and they did not need fur garments in the temperate climate. They could scrape animal skins but used them as bedding. In contrast to the human traders who exchanged sheep and skins for obsidian, the Neanderthals lived by subsistence farming. Along with dogs, trade gave humankind an advantage in its first battle for survival. Perhaps humans’ symbiosis with wolves was connected to their ability to carry out trade. Hunting with dogs relies on the ability to relate to another creature who has different needs from your own. This is also the basis of trade.

Roman fires

The level of harnessed energy reached a temporary peak in ancient Rome. The historian Ian Morris has used the number of kilocalories harnessed per head of population per day as ‘the measure of civilization’. 6 Those religions that worshipped the sun as the ultimate source of life – the religions of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton and the Persian prophet Zoroaster – understood this. Burning wood provides energy that can warm man and raise him up but can also destroy him. It is up to man which of these alternatives happens.

The building boom in ancient Rome required enormous quantities of timber. The exhaustion of forests caused the move from wooden walls and roofs to structures made of brick and ceramics; but the firing of clay in kilns also needed fuel. 150 cubic metres of dry firewood were needed to make 1 cubic metre of bricks; it took 10 tons of firewood to burn the limestone to produce 1 ton of cement. To heat ancient Rome, with its underfloor heating, huge baths and cooking stoves, required the cutting down of 30 square kilometres of forest per year. 7 Those who worked on the felling, transporting and processing of timber were not slaves but hired hands, either peasants or barbarians. The smelting of bronze, iron and silver created the need for quality wood to make props for the mines and charcoal for heating the smelting cauldrons. Time after time, the authorities claimed the forests as state property, but this did not improve the supply. Rome’s drive towards the north, to the forests of Germany and even Britain, was connected with its thirst for timber and energy.

Emerging from the forests, the barbarians put out this fire. By the seventh century, the level of energy harnessed per person fell by a factor of two. Only many centuries later did the mass consumption of Dutch peat and British coal allow societies to exceed the energy consumption reached by the Romans. Like any other activity, extracting fuel requires energy. The production of a kilogram of firewood or coal takes about 5 megajoules. When wood is burnt, it produces three times the amount of energy used to produce it. For coal, the figure is up to a hundred times greater and, for oil, up to a thousand times. Different forms of stored energy have very different characteristics, and they shaped different societies. Cities heated by wood, such as Rome, are organised differently from cities heated by peat, such as Amsterdam, and from cities heated by coal, such as London. The Romans dreamt of gold, of miraculous machines and voyages to other worlds. None of them could have guessed that the peaty sludge and black stone they found in their chilly colony would turn out to be the greatest miracles of the new world.


Humans’ earliest sources of energy were renewable. The wind filled sails, sending adventurers off in search of raw materials or their substitute, gold. Commodities floated downstream, and animals hauled goods upstream. Always on the front line of technology, shipbuilding sent people back to the forests. Ships required timber of the highest quality and of various sorts: straight oak for the planking, crooked oak for the ribs, pine for the masts, beech and spruce for the decks. And ships needed other products from the northern lands – tar for caulking the hull planks, hemp for ropes and linen for sails. But, in Southern Europe, forests remained only in the most inaccessible areas, on islands or on mountainsides. Wars were fought over these vital supplies of timber, and they were turned into colonies – Cyprus and Sicily, Istria and Macedonia, and later the Tyrol and Galicia. Sawmills and quays had to be constructed at river estuaries. All this activity depended on the population living on the river banks and sea coasts. But the imperial exploitation of the forests came into conflict with the native ways of using them and led to the policing of increasingly distant and inhospitable lands.

The Roman trireme had a wooden hull and deck, about 200 oars and two masts. Building such ships required thousands of trees of rare species. The Vikings’ ships were simpler and lighter, but more seaworthy thanks to their use of tar. This sticky, impermeable substance, produced by the dry distilling of pine or birch wood, protected the craft from leaks and rotting. The Vikings dug a big clay pit, filled it with chunks of pine, covered them with turf, and set them alight. After several hours, tar trickled down out of an opening at the bottom of the pit. The sailors of antiquity also knew the recipe for making tar, but it required pine trees in quantities which they could hardly obtain. The Vikings produced tar on an industrial scale, 300 litres at one go; two such distillations would produce enough tar to caulk one craft. The sails, which the Vikings made out of wool, were also soaked in tar – they turned black. It is only thanks to the archaeologists who found these tar pits that we understand why the Vikings were better seafarers than the Romans or the Phoenicians. 8

Republics and empires alike were preoccupied by the shortage of oak for hulls, beech for decks and pine for masts. It took up to 2,000 oak trunks, preferably from hundred-year-old trees, to build one large warship; but oaks grow in rich soil suitable for agriculture, and they were always in short supply. The Venetians invested in planting and protecting forests along the Adriatic. 9 Powerful religious orders – Benedictines in the Alps, the Teutonic order on the Baltic – cleared forests at the European frontier, pushing it to the north and the east. Combining wood and metal, new implements – axes, yokes, wheels and ploughs – increased the productivity of the cleared land. Later, wooden palisades and stockades – no match for firearms – were replaced by clay and stone. But there was nothing to replace the floating fortresses built from choice timber.

The treeless Dutch Republic imported timber from Norway and the Baltic lands, floated rafts down the Rhine from the German princely states, and procured rare species from Java. In England, Queen Elizabeth I banned her own subjects from felling trees within 14 miles of any coast or river bank; Peter the Great followed suit in Russia with similar decrees. Portugal imported timber from Brazil, Spain from southern Italy and, at the time of the Armada, the Baltics. As was often the case with raw matter, the cost of transportation exceeded the production cost. The price of timber delivered to an English port was twenty times higher than its purchase price in the Baltic forests. In the eighteenth century, it took 4,000 oak trunks, or 40 hectares of mature forest, to build a British battleship. Contrary to the ideas of mercantilism, it turned out that building ships in the colonies was cheaper than transporting timber across the ocean. Almost half the Portuguese fleet was built in Brazil, a third of the Spanish fleet in Cuba, and much of the British fleet in India. 10

Firearms intensified the great powers’ dependence on their forests. Making guns and gunpowder required an enormous supply of firewood. The smelting of a ton of iron took 50 cubic metres of firewood, or a year’s growth of 10 hectares of forest, and then the forging process needed charcoal. Deforestation was one of the reasons for the decline of Venice and then of the Ottoman Empire. The abundance of firewood was one of the reasons for the success of metallurgy in Sweden and Russia. The pan-European shift from the Mediterranean to the North Sea followed the exhaustion of the southern forests.

Deforestation of Europe

While a forest stood, it remained subject to multiple ownerships, privileges and rights of use. The right to hunt belonged to the aristocracy, but the locals usually had the right of way through the forest, could collect brushwood, and let their pigs forage for acorns or cattle graze in the woods. 11 Once a forest was felled, the land became private property and could be mortgaged or sold. The spreading of Roman law through the North coincided with forest clearings. Surviving as hunting grounds for the local elite, the remaining forests were turned into enclosed parkland. Long considered a byword for wildness and barbarity, the forest, as the historian Keith Thomas has observed, ‘become an indispensable part of the scenery of upper-class life’. 12

Soldiers, traders and monks kept moving east to discover new lands that seemed to them wild, uninhabited and promising. Mingling with the Slav or Finnish tribes who lived in their native forests, the migrants from the west or the south enticed them into the fur or fish trade and then into farming the cleared lands. The historian Fernand Braudel wrote that the Baltic lands were Europe’s ‘internal Americas’. 13 But most of these lands in the North-East of Europe produced nothing but grain and timber. In Prussia, Russia and the Baltic countries, it took 1.5 hectares of woodland to construct a single farmhouse with a barn, which would last only fifteen years – less time than it took for new pines to grow. For most of this time, the house had to be heated with firewood. The rising price of grain and timber led to a new serfdom: landowners forced the peasants to work in the fields in summer and to fell trees in winter. Transportation costs were often prohibitive. The landowners delivered rye and timber to the nearest harbour. Then foreign ships transported the cargoes, and most of the trading profits went to Dutch and English merchants. 14 Thousands of their ships traded in the Baltic, exchanging iron goods, luxuries and firearms for grain, timber and a few other forest products, such as hemp, beeswax, tar and potash. Until 1760, the Baltic ports exported masts throughout Europe; later, American-sourced masts got their share of the market. Endowed with diffused, labour-intensive commodities, the Baltic lands were dominated by their neighbours who possessed topical resources – silver, iron and specialised labour. It was a colonisation by proxy. Trade was profitable, but landowners captured the rent, and the population of these lands grew more slowly than it would have done had people been left to subsistence farming.

Southern Europe made use of the roads built by the Romans, but in Northern Europe the branching network of rivers played a similar role. Instead of building roads, collecting taxes and investing in land, the Baltic states collected customs duty at river estuaries. Their capital cities grew in these chosen locations. Granaries, sawmills and aristocratic mansions sprang up on the quaysides of Königsberg, Danzig and Riga. Landowners managed their estates, which functioned upstream as colonial plantations, remotely. Brute force was used there to make the peasants work.

Before we harnessed fossil fuels, each European city needed a tract of forest a hundred times larger than its own area. Heated with wood and often built out of wood, growing cities pushed the forests ever further away. A city could replace wood with stone and clay, peat and coal. But clay had to be fired, stone had to be transported, river banks and mine shafts had to be reinforced, and wood was still needed for all these purposes. But the greater part was burnt where it stood, to provide land suitable for planting crops. The woods around Madrid were exhausted – from the seventeenth century onwards, this city had been heated with charcoal, which provides more heat per unit of weight than firewood. Every year thousands of tons of charcoal were produced by burning even more wood and delivered by oxen from provinces up to 50 kilometres away. Less than 7 per cent of the British Isles was covered in woodland, falling to a minimum during the First World War. Even in the departments of northern France, no more than 15 per cent of the territory was covered in forests. Firewood was brought to Paris from up to 200 kilometres away, along canals and the Seine. Each Parisian needed, on average, 2 tons of firewood per year, equivalent to harvesting 1 acre of woodland. If forests were felled and not replanted, then the radius of delivery increased annually. In contrast to that of Paris, the London price of firewood remained stable thanks to the abundance of coal. But the timbering of mines required good quality logs, and they had to be frequently replaced; only a few species – particularly chestnut – did not immediately rot in the mines. Metal smelting needed even more firewood. Charcoal produced a hotter fire than wood, but it needed high-quality wood such as oak. Smelting furnaces were built next to the mines, but these were often in the mountains, and charcoal had to be taken up there on carts. A journey of between 5 and 8 kilometres was viable, but once all the timber within this radius had been felled the mine had to be shut even if there was still ore to be mined. The irony was that timber, not ore, defined the economic geography of the Iron Age.

In the imperial period, the Europeans were as anxious about the disappearance of the old forests as they were delighted about newly discovered ones. Felling and burning woodland, they harnessed enormous expanses of territory from Rome to St Petersburg, and from the Amazon to Siberia. Starting from the west of Europe, the further a traveller went, the more forests he saw. In Prussia about 40 per cent of the land was forested, and the woods in Poland and European Russia still seemed boundless. Discovering new islands and continents, expeditions found woods instead of gold. But you can’t depend on what you destroy; you can’t have your cake and eat it. Our parks – places for relaxation and sites of nostalgia – are great monuments to the vanished forests. The places where we work bear no resemblance to bosky glades, but the places where we choose to relax still look like forests.


1 Smil, Energy in World History .2 White, ‘Energy and the evolution of culture’.3 Van Gijn, Flint in Focus ; Lech and Werra, ‘On artefacts from the prehistoric mining fields’.4 Shipman, The Invaders .5 Adler et al., ‘Ahead of the game’.6 Morris, The Measure of Civilization .7 Williams, Deforesting the Earth , p. 92.8 Hennius, ‘Viking age tar production and outland exploitation’.9 Appuhn, A Forest on the Sea .10 Williams, Deforesting the Earth , pp. 196–201; de Vries, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis .11 Fedotova and Korchmina, ‘Cattle pasturing as a traditional form of forest use’.12 Thomas, Man and the Natural World , p. 209.13 Braudel, The Mediterranean , Vol. 1, p. 62.14 De Vries, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis ; Lupanova, Istorija zakreposhchenija .


Grain’s Way

It is only recently that farming has become sufficiently productive for some people to create surpluses that others can use. The creation of the first agrarian states in Mesopotamia occurred within the most recent 5 per cent of the history of human kind. The era of petrofarming has lasted for less than a quarter of 1 per cent.

The bog civilisation

The first farmers were marsh dwellers, and their greatest skill was not ploughing or irrigation but the ability to drain water. The anthropologist James C. Scott describes how nomads came to the flood plains of Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago. The sea level was higher than it is now. The changing courses of rivers great and small criss-crossed broad tracts of marshland. Regular floods washed away weeds and brought in silt, in which cereals and beans could be sown. Thanks to annual flooding, the soil was never exhausted. It was at this time that the selective breeding of plants began, as well as the domestication of cattle and the building of houses and boats from reeds. Probably it was at this period that people learnt to dig up, dry and burn peat – a crucial skill for surviving in wetlands (see chapter 11 ). Although these people sowed seed on the available plots of land and harvested crops from them, they had no inclination towards private ownership. It seems likely they had no enemies. The wetlands protected these first peasant farmers from the attention of the desert nomads. 1

As Scott describes it, Mesopotamia was not unlike Holland on the eve of the Golden Age. On various continents, civilisation took its first steps in wetlands; this is how the first settled populations arose along the Jordan, Nile, Niger, Indus and Amazon rivers, and then in the early rice states of Africa and China. The central role of wetlands in the history of civilisation has been forgotten. In the written history of the Judeo-Christian world, deserts have played a disproportionate role. But wetlands are closer to our primordial condition – to the Golden Age, the lost Garden of Eden – than deserts. Humble wetlands left few traces for the historian. And yet written history began when people started keeping a tally of the grain grown on the wetlands, on tablets made of clay which was extracted from the wetlands and baked in a fire, itself fuelled by peat lifted from those wetlands.

For a long time historians believed that peasant agriculture replaced the world of savage hunters and warlike nomads. Anthropologists have revised these narratives of early states, many of them coming from biblical sources, and tell a different story. The first farmers had a poorer diet than the desert nomads; they were shorter in stature and died younger. Walls, gates and towers controlled the population, helping to tax their trade. Indeed, these early towns were more like concentration camps. Nomads robbed them, or exacted tribute, and settled inside as chieftains or kings. But epidemics were a more frequent cause of death. People and animals lived cheek by jowl; sheep, rats, lice, mosquitoes and humans spread infection. Epidemics led to hunger, uprisings, flight – in a word, to collapse.

In time, a local strongman or passing nomad would appear on the scene and impose taxes on the locals. 2 He had two problems. People constantly lived on the brink of disaster. Skimming off a tithe from their meagre harvest would deprive the farmers of seed and starve them to death, an outcome which would be of no benefit to the master. The other problem was that, apart from grain, he could not count the other products these people created. They depended on perishable goods, such as fish, game or berries, or even stuff that was hidden underground, such as roots and tubers. As a stationary bandit became a local lord, he turned his village over to grain cultivation, preventing the peasants from growing other sorts of staple crop. Fencing his village and using metal tools that were unavailable to the commoners, the strongman wielded a new source of power over them: only he could cut the timber that his subjects needed for their ploughs, houses and boats. Paid in kind, he stored the grain against the risk of famine or exchanged it for things he couldn’t get locally. Taxing the captive population, such a strongman needed an independent source of power that would be different and more ‘space-intensive’ than grain. 3 Exploiting and distributing this natural resource at will, he would build up his material legitimacy .

We read this in the earliest written story, preserved on clay tablets. Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk, one of the earliest cities in Mesopotamia. Tired of squabbles with his subjects, Gilgamesh leaves the city and captures the Cedar Forest. By cutting cedars and bringing their precious timber to town, he gains true power: this is the difference between a topical resource such as cedar and diffused ones such as clay and grain. The story ends when Gilgamesh uses his cedar to build a very special door and a fabulous ship. On board his ship, Gilgamesh survives a flood and comes back to his city, telling new fables and bringing new treasures. But a recently found tablet, which belongs to the same epic cycle, sounds remorseful: ‘My friend, we have reduced the forest to a wasteland … My friend, we have cut down a lofty cedar, which top abutted the heavens.’ 4

The grain hypothesis

James Scott poses an interesting question: what was it about cereals that made them central for agriculture? They are dry and storable, but so are lentils. In a mixed field, with cereals, beans and vegetables, different plants ripen at different times, and the peasants harvest them as they become ready. This is fine for subsistence but pretty inconvenient for taxation purposes. Therefore cereals underwent a historical process of selection, which set their biological clock so that myriad ears would ripen simultaneously. Already in ancient Mesopotamia, a field of ripe wheat had to be harvested in the space of a week. Then the tax collector could inspect, count and tax the harvest. Going round the fields, he valued the crop and took his cut (usually a tithe, but sometimes two tithes) to the state stores. Turning human beings into a means, the new state not only forced the peasants to plough the land but also prescribed what crop they were to plant. Overriding the objections or rebellions of the peasants, the authorities forced them to go over to growing cereal crops.

Uruk and other city-states with defensive walls, tax collection and an internal hierarchy emerged in the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates in about 3000 bce . Similar states appeared on the Nile, then on the Indus and in the Andes. The anthropologist Roberto Carneiro points out that these were all fertile but naturally isolated territories where, as chance would have it, farming was more productive than elsewhere. 5 People fought over such favoured places, and they changed hands. Geographical variation defined the formation of states and their survival.

In Mesopotamia the preferred grain was wheat. Centuries of irrigation made the soil increasingly saline, and the heirs of Gilgamesh switched to millet. Ancient Athens depended on grain, supplied by sea from Egypt and Sicily. Chinese cities needed rice. In the sixth century they were already supplied by canals, which transported rice over distances of up to 2,000 kilometres. Wheat bread was always prized in Europe, but rye predominated in its northern regions. The Baltic trade in rye kept Holland and England supplied for hundreds of years. Canals, ports and granaries were built to accommodate this trade. Rivalling churches and palaces, these structures were the most complex that man could build at the time. The state collected taxes and guaranteed the storage of grain, taking on the responsibility of providing for its population in times of war or crop failure. Many revolutions, including the French and the Russian, began in response to the fact that the state granaries were empty.

Even today, four sorts of grain – wheat, rice, barley and maize – provide more than half the calories consumed by humankind. They are all crops that ripen simultaneously and they all have a long shelf life, making them suitable for trading and taxation purposes. But they are all very different. Unlike wheat or rye, rice grains are easily cooked, but rice flour doesn’t keep well. In China and other rice-dependent countries, hand mills were mostly sufficient for preparing the occasional meal that needed rice flour. 6 For Europeans, wind- and watermills for grinding grain embodied technical proficiency and historical change.

Crop rotation

Continuing the migration of the naked ape from the African savannah to the forests and wetlands of Eurasia, civilisation moved northwards. For millennia, the Mediterranean was the centre of trade. In the crisis-ridden seventeenth century, the North Sea assumed this role. Luxuries from the East – silk, sugar, cotton – continued to exert their charms. But northern products, such as tar, hemp and saltpetre, shaped the world to come. The Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War were pan-European conflicts between the North and the South; from this time on, the North was usually the victor. Vienna repelled the Turks, but Prague was seized by the Swedes. The first oceanic empires, Portugal and Spain, looked for colonies in the southern seas. Holland and England focused on trade with the great expanses of the North – from Arkhangelsk to Newfoundland, from Danzig to Bergen. Hanseatic and then Dutch and English trade in raw materials from the North – grain, timber, fur, linen, hemp, iron – was in greater volumes than the colonial trade in sugar, tea, cotton and other southern products. 7

Burning a forest and clearing the land gave immediate results. Land would never again be as fertile as it was after the ashes were first ploughed in. In the eighteenth century, agronomists called this the law of declining fertility, while economists called it the law of diminishing returns. If the fertility of your land is declining, you need more land. The deforestation of Europe was the direct result of the expansion of grain cultivation. But, between the forest and the field, there always existed a third space – pasture, meadow, wetland. In the estates of ancient Rome, a third of the land lay fallow – i.e., uncultivated. For centuries the peasants to the north of the Alps had practised the fire-fallow system of agriculture, sowing and harvesting crops, then putting cattle onto the land, and then, after several years, abandoning that field and advancing deeper into the forest. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a quarter of German lands lay fallow. The history of agriculture was the process of the peasants learning what to do with fallow land, how to use it productively.

In the system that was typical for Northern Europe, land was divided into three parts. In autumn, a field was sown with wheat or rye. In spring the crop was harvested and the field was sown with barley, oats or beans, which were used as cattle fodder. Then the field lay fallow for a year. In this way, a third of the land was non-productive, while the cultivated fields produced at a ratio of 4:1 – i.e., from every grain sown, four new grains grew. This was the average productivity of arable farming throughout Europe, from Italy to Scandinavia. Bumper harvests could be achieved only with the addition of fertilisers – animal manure or night soil from the towns. Intensive agriculture developed only on the outskirts of towns, close to the markets.

Crop rotation was the main reason for an increase in productivity. It also supported the reorientation of farming from grain to fibre – wool, linen, hemp. From each harvest the peasant had to feed his family and also pay his master and the state for the land and for protection. This obliged him to earn cash by reducing the share of raw, perishable products he grew for survival and increasing the share of dry, cash crops he grew for trade. This was the road to riches. Cottage industry left the peasant families with a part of the profit which in other circumstances would have gone to the merchants and landowners (see chapters 5 and 7 ). But this new economy continued to depend on the massive supply of grain from Prussia, Poland and the Baltic lands. 8

The landowners in Eastern Europe battled with the same problems of the grain economy that the Mesopotamian authorities had encountered thousands of years earlier: low productivity, extended transport routes, and a ‘lazy’ population with little motivation to work and still less desire to save. But grain didn’t require much labour. Unlike the slave-owner who met all his slaves’ needs as he understood them – provisions, clothes and tools – the landowner let the peasants survive on subsistence farming. Thanks to their simultaneous ripening, cereal crops could be harvested and processed in one fell swoop. During the rest of the year the peasants didn’t work in the landowner’s fields. They had vegetable plots, pastures and crafts. The landowner didn’t interfere in these activities, which meant that peasants were able to develop them better and faster. Nor was the landowner interested in the complex crop rotation systems needed to increase productivity. They only made the process of collecting rent more complicated, especially if the noble owner ruled in absentia. His opportunities for trading depended on the proximity of his farm to the riverine system. If a farm was 10 or 20 miles from the river, trade was unprofitable. The income of the landowner depended not on the productivity of his land but on its proximity to a river and the sea. Foreign shipowners reaped the lion’s share of the profit, and they invested it back in their countries. For the village, these earnings were lost. 9

Agriculture provided general employment, but it was not full-time or year round. The landowner had to have physical mastery over the peasants to force them to work, just as the peasants forced their horses to work. But the work was seasonal. People worked in accordance with the annual rhythms of preparing the soil, sowing, harvesting and processing the crop. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, men in Russian villages spent no more than half their time working, and women and adolescents no more than a third. But at harvest time, when the crop had to be brought in all at one go, everyone joined in the toil, men, women and children. Technological innovations very slowly changed the key moments in this cycle. The gradual replacement of oxen with horses was an important step. In England this happened as early as the sixteenth century, in Europe much later. The change travelled, like many similar ‘improvements’, from west to east. Peasants opposed this replacement, because they knew that, if war broke out, horses would be requisitioned. Although ploughing with oxen was slower, it was the more reliable option. Stunted horses, shod with wooden shoes, couldn’t pull a plough. Over the centuries the weight and strength of horses increased, but this was the result of selective breeding that happened in cavalry stables, not in peasant farmyards. Iron replaced wood, helping to save effort, increase productivity, and bring peasants to compliance. Iron horseshoes, iron ploughshares, iron hoes allowed farmers to turn over deep furrows and drain fields with ditches. The conversion of military technology for civilian use was a reward for the incessant taxes, requisitioning and billeting which victorious states imposed on their civilian populations.

Over the centuries, crop rotation became more complex. First tested in Holland, the four-field system spread during the eighteenth century to England, Sweden and Prussia. The amount of agricultural land lying fallow at any given time halved. Consumed on the spot by the farmers and their animals, turnips and beans from the rotated fields freed up wheat, which could be sold as a cash crop. The increase in demand was a powerful stimulus for these changes: the growing towns always needed more provisions. Later, the multiple-field system became ever more complex. Some agronomists promoted seven- or even eleven-field rotation, but it did not lead to a great leap in productivity.

The difficulties of long-term planning are obvious to a modern mind. In 1742, the governor of Astrakhan in southern Russia, Vasily Tatishchev, pressured the local landowners to divide their estates into four parts. ‘Let the first be for rye, the second for spring wheat, let the third lie fallow, the fourth be pasture for cattle …, so that in a very short time, all the land will have been enriched with manure and become exceedingly profitable.’ 10 Tatishchev was dismissed from his post in Astrakhan in 1745 – three years after he wrote his exhortation about four-year crop rotation. Another Russian expert in crop rotation, Andrey Bolotov, managed a crown estate near Moscow. Having seen the advanced field system in eastern Prussia, where he had served in the Seven Years’ War, Bolotov marked off seven fields on the crown estate and forced the peasants to separate them by ditches. After two years Bolotov was transferred to a more lucrative post, and the fields returned to their original condition. Landowners and their bailiffs complained that the peasants were lazy, improvements failed to be embedded, land lay fallow, crops rotted in the fields, and there were no roads. There was no point in increasing the production of grain without transportation routes. Excess grain was used mainly for distilling. It turned out that the bailiff’s efforts to raise the productivity of the peasants succeeded only in lowering the price of vodka in the village tavern.

Improvements and indolence

Even if markets were accessible, military conscription, the requisition of horses, the passage or billeting of troops, and the state’s modernising plans all interfered with crop rotation. Young and aggressive European states, the heirs of the crusades and religious wars, juggled multiple risks – riots in the towns, revolutions in the capital cities, and peasant sabotage in the countryside. Agricultural innovations came to England from the Netherlands, and then returned east. Canals and dams for draining fields, and crop-rotation systems, which included animal fodder and the use of manure on a massive scale, were all Dutch imports. Agricultural productivity along the coastal strip was everywhere much higher than in the heartlands. Port towns expanded if they were situated at the intersections where one influx of commodities arrived from the countryside and another came from the colonies. By 1700, Amsterdam and London contained a tenth of the populations of their respective countries. For these trading cities, the secret of survival lay in ‘ghost acres’ – natural resources which were outside their borders but were available to them thanks to trade. * Crop rotation required the peasant to combine many skills, crafts and trades. Comparing the economic life of a European farmer with that of a nineteenth- or twentieth-century worker, for example a miner or a factory hand, we come to a surprising conclusion: the peasant economy was more complex, the peasant’s work was more varied, and his diet was better than the proletarian’s. The changing seasons lent variety to the peasant’s work. The patchwork pattern of crop rotation offered the chance to escape from supervision.

In the towns, highly specialised labour processed valuable, topical resources, which were often brought from afar. There, the printing press was invented, banks carried on their business, ships were built. The peasants rested their land, keeping large tracts fallow. Human muscles were supplemented only by the muscle power of livestock, but animals took up a large amount of arable land. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an English farm with 20 acres of wheat needed another 8 acres to graze four bullocks, without which the harvest couldn’t be brought in. At the beginning of the twentieth century in North America there were 25 million horses and mules – one horse for three humans. A quarter of all agricultural land was needed to keep them fed.

According to the historian Robert Brenner, agriculture in Europe went through two class wars. In the late Middle Ages, when plague caused a shortage of manpower in the countryside, the peasants of Western Europe won the first class war, establishing their right to change masters and hire themselves out just like the townspeople did. The peasants of Eastern Europe lost this war and remained in dependence as serfs. As a consequence, the landowners in Western Europe strove to save on labour by improving the productivity of the land. When they failed in this they started the second class war. Now the landowning aristocracy wanted the freedom of contracts to be on both sides, so that, just as the peasants had the right to leave of their own accord, now the landlords would also have the right to dismiss them and change the use of land or sell it. In England, this war was won by the elite. The nobility got the right to enclose their land, introduce ‘improvements’ and get rid of their surplus peasants, who then went to the towns. In France it was the peasants who won the second class war. The country continued to depend on millions of small landowners, who had no motive to introduce innovations because even improved land was difficult to sell. 11 In Eastern Europe, landowners obtained a land market, but it had limitations. Land could only be sold along with the serfs, and, later, peasants could only be sold along with the land. It was difficult to rent out or mortgage such land.

Was the peasants’ resistance to modern efficiency a cunning and purposeful sabotage – a ‘weapon of the weak’ (James Scott) – or an inherent feature of the peasantry – the ‘idiocy of rural life’ (Karl Marx)? Landowners and reformers usually blamed laziness, as if it was endemic to the countryside. The English aristocracy suspected their Irish peasants of indolence, but Robert Malthus linked Irish idleness to potatoes – they were more productive than grain but were not easy to trade. The American plantation owners believed that their black slaves were innately lazy. Adam Smith developed a theory that peasant laziness was on account of the lack of specialisation. ‘The habit of sauntering … acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy.’ 12

In the 1920s, the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov described the peasant household as a ‘moral economy’. The peasant was accustomed to earning the amount he considered necessary; he worried about getting less but was not interested in making more. This attitude was not peculiar to the Russian peasant. On the contrary, Chayanov showed that Swiss and German farmers also lacked a profit incentive and were risk averse. For example, Chayanov saw that the peasant willingly kept a couple of cows, whose upkeep amounted to ‘practically nothing’. But keeping more cows needed more work than the peasants were prepared to do. For most of the year the peasants had no employment: working in the fields of central Russia occupied no more than a quarter of their time. Using their free time, the peasants mastered the production of goods, such as linen, for export. But, even as they got richer, they didn’t abandon their subsistence farming, which functioned like a self-regulating mechanism, along the lines of a thermostat. In order to trade, you need a surplus, but the reverse is also true: there is no surplus without trade. This is nature’s own way, and the main concern of the farmer is not what to do with a surplus but how to avoid a deficit. The peasant toiled not to earn money but to survive; not to maximise profit, but to make enough to live on. 13 Although specialisation was always the most efficient solution, peasant farms remained diverse: even if their main product, for example grain or wool, was successfully traded on the market, they continued to produce many other things – vegetables, meat, hay, which they consumed themselves. The production of these commodities didn’t appear in accounts and they weren’t taxed. The state and landowners attached no importance to subsistence farming, but it was fundamental to the survival of the peasantry. The seasonal nature of many important tasks meant investment in expensive machines was not practical. The cyclical life of nature was alien to the town, preoccupied with stability and expansion. Still, urban life required supplies of grain, firewood and much more, which could only be secured by the peasants.

Supplying the capitals

Trade hubs and sites of power, capital cities grew so rapidly that they far outpaced the limited ability of the surrounding lands to feed them. For most of them, trade in fibres, metals and finished goods was the push factor, and the shortage of grain and timber the pull factor, of development. From Venice to St Petersburg, full granaries symbolised the stability of power, just as they had done thousands of years before in the cities of Mesopotamia.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Paris consumed 3 million bushels of grain per year, Amsterdam, 1.5 million, Rome 1 million. Transporting such quantities of grain by cart was impossible – all growing cities were situated near the sea or navigable rivers. The shortage of grain was a constant problem for Mediterranean cities. As early as the sixteenth century, Dutch ships had transported grain to them from the Baltic lands, sailing around Europe. Amsterdam was supplied from the Polish lands around Danzig, while Stockholm depended on the fields of Livonia and Estonia. The provisioning of London was helped when the East Anglian fens were drained and large farms were established on the reclaimed fenland. Paris was kept supplied via the Seine and the canals built by Colbert. Completed in 1734, this network deprived provincial France of supplies, and local riots accompanied the growth of the capital. 14

The delivery of grain to the new capital, St Petersburg, was to become a perennial problem for the Russian Empire. Having occupied the delta of the Neva in 1703, Peter I appreciated its similarities to the situation of Amsterdam, where he had spent the best time of his youth. The Baltic route to Europe was three times shorter than the White Sea route around Scandinavia. Impatient to join the Northern trade, the newly proclaimed empire turned this freshly captured Swedish colony into its capital city and resettled many thousands of people there. It had to supply them with grain and other essentials of life.

The fertile lands lay far away. The low (200 metres) but wide (500 kilometres) central Russian upland separates the basins of the Baltic and the White Sea from the basins of the Black Sea and the Caspian. Its hills formed the heart of the Muscovy state – they became the curse of the Petersburg Empire. In the south, the empire had black soils which produced excellent crops. The construction of a short linking canal, just 2.8 kilometres long, would create an uninterrupted waterway almost 1,000 kilometres long, connecting the trading capital with its resource base, the Baltic Sea with the Caspian, the markets of Europe with the treasures of Asia. Having rejected tenders from foreign adventurers, Peter gave a concession to build the Vishny Volochok canal to Mikhail Serdyukov (1678–1754). A Mongolian captive from the heart of Siberia who, like many successful Russian entrepreneurs, was suspected of the heresy of Old Belief, Serdyukov had taught himself about canals from studying French books. His Vishny Volochok canal was a success. * It served to bring grain to the capital for almost 200 years, right up until the arrival of the railways. But cargo could not go in the opposite direction, against the current, with the result that the prices of imported textiles in the Russian provinces were several times higher than in St Petersburg.

Once he got his canal, Peter imposed prohibitive duties on the export of hemp and pelts from Arkhangelsk. 15 St Petersburg’s population grew rapidly and in 1790 overtook that of Moscow. The mass influx of soldiers and peasants needed to keep building the city only exacerbated the shortage of bread. But the farms around the capital didn’t turn to growing rye. The Finnish peasants sold meat, milk, hay and firewood in the city and themselves bought bread. All the rye for the commoners, wheat for the rich, oats for horses and hemp for ships’ ropes were brought from the south. Transportation costs dictated consumer prices. During the time of Peter the Great, rye flour cost four times as much in St Petersburg as it did in Moscow. St Petersburg rapidly turned into a city of scandalous inequality, as described in the classics of Russian literature. But right up until the twentieth century St Petersburg never experienced the kind of bread riots that took place in Paris or London.

Grain’s way to the new capital was long: 2,000 kilometres. Barge haulers or horses pulled grain barges up from Kazan and the southern steppes along the Volga River. With luck, the grain reached the capital within six months; if things went wrong, it could take a year. The cargo might rot on the journey or the vessel carrying it might sink. Flour was easier to transport than grain. Milled locally, it was packed in birch bark baskets, each holding from 120 to 160 kilograms of flour. In autumn or winter the baskets of flour were delivered from the mills to the grain quays by cart or on sledges. Barge haulers pulled the barges upstream; it took sixty men to pull a barge carrying 2,000 baskets. In the shallows at Rybinsk the baskets had to be loaded into small boats. Like the baskets, these barques were sold for firewood in St Petersburg. One of the busiest trade routes in the world, the short canal was the bottleneck in the whole system. A barque stuck on a weir could hold up traffic for a week. New, bypassing waterways weren’t built until the nineteenth century. 16 In the meantime, the area of arable land doubled in the newly colonised lands of Ukraine and Southern Russia. The empire’s problem was that in the south there was no one to sell grain to, and in the north there was nowhere to buy it. Unable to reach the grain in Ukraine, the government sent the mountain to Mohammed, billeting a quarter of the Russian army there.

After 1850, St Petersburg had the second biggest population in Europe after Paris. The development of the Black Sea ports took Ukrainian grain to Europe. But only the railways created a national grain market, and a significant share of the Russian grain export went via St Petersburg. State intervention played a decisive role in this success. Although grain was grown mostly by private producers and the price of bread was mostly free-floating, only the state could develop infrastructure. When the price of commodities is defined not by their production cost but by the cost of transportation, the state has a defining role in creating the market.

War and potatoes

The revolution in European agriculture occurred only when America and the most important of her treasures, the potato, were discovered. Following the example of the Incas, the Spanish fed potatoes to the workers in the silver mines of Potosí. Their ships carried potatoes back to Europe. Accustomed to the purity of grain, European farmers were appalled by the dirty, oddly shaped potato. In France, people believed it caused leprosy, but in other places it was thought to be an aphrodisiac. In Ireland, the potato appeared just when the English were colonising the country in the sixteenth century. Walter Raleigh may have introduced it there himself. In 1594 he had been looking for gold in South America; when he failed to find it, he wrote a book about Eldorado. Queen Elizabeth gave him tobacco plantations in Virginia and estates in Ireland, which were also called plantations. In 1602 Raleigh sold his Irish plantations to Richard Boyle, the father of the famous chemist. Potatoes were already being grown there on a massive scale. The Catholics rebelled, the English suppressed the uprisings, and the Irish discovered the strategic superiority of the potato. The enemy trampled down your crops and stole the grain from your barns, but the humble potato continued to lie in the ground waiting for its rightful owner.

Potatoes contain seven times more moisture than wheat and are therefore prone to rot. This made potatoes beneath the notice of the Exchequer and saved millions of peasants. An acre of potatoes could feed ten people, five times as many as an acre of wheat. Having discovered potatoes on his own land, Frederick II forced his farmers to plant potatoes on their fallow fields. As a result, the peasants consumed less grain and paid more taxes. The population increased thanks to the potato, and this was a long-standing aim of the Prussian crown. The potato helped Prussia to survive its multiple wars. 17 Following Frederick’s example, European monarchies introduced the potato throughout Northern Europe. Potatoes and crop rotation were the key reasons for the population explosion in Europe in the nineteenth century. Diseases in cereals are quite different to those in potatoes, which helped to stabilise the harvests. Without the potato there would have been no urbanisation and no industrial revolution. In the 1830s, in the central Russian provinces, peasants rioted against the potatoes that landowners imposed on them in order to get more revenue from their ‘empty lands’. In contrast, in Ireland the landowners complained about ‘the idleness of peasants’, which they explained by the easy productivity of their potatoes. Undoubtedly, potatoes in the ground saved the peasants from starvation in a bad year. Perhaps that is why Soviet collectivisation led to a worse famine in the black soil, grain-growing regions of Ukraine than in northern Russia, where more vegetable crops were grown. Across Europe, potato growing increased the area of land under cultivation by a whole quarter. Then the introduction of tractors and motor vehicles released another quarter of the land which had been used for feeding horses. Agricultural expansion kept pace with industrial expansion.

Space and power

On the eve of modernity, the European economy depended on hundreds of towns with surrounding green belts. The main route for trade was by water. On the canals built in the Low Countries, one horse could pull as big a barge-load of grain as fifty horses could carry on a good road. Thanks to its rivers and sea coast, Poland was the main supplier of grain to the Netherlands. Productivity was low, but Poland contributed to the Netherlands a huge number of ‘ghost acres’ – according to the historian Jan de Vries, almost 2.5 million hectares of arable land, half the area of modern Holland. Still, only 5 per cent of the wheat and 12 per cent of the rye grown in Poland was exported. All the rest was consumed locally or kept back as seed. To increase his revenue, the landowner needed to reduce his peasants’ consumption even further, but they were barely able to subsist. Grain exports fed the thriving Dutch culture but led to serfdom in Poland. 18

While big cities were increasingly dependent on foreign trade, the countryside relied on the nearest town. In 1826, the Mecklenburg landowner Johann Heinrich von Thünen demonstrated that agricultural revenue depends not on the soil or the farmer’s skill but on the farm’s distance from the nearest town. In his book The Isolated State , von Thünen constructed a formal model for the relation between town and country. In this model, each town is surrounded by concentric rings of agricultural activity. The inner ring consists of nearby farms, which produce vegetables, milk and meat for the town’s markets. These fetch high prices in the town, but only the nearest farms make a profit on these perishable goods. They do not practise crop rotation because they fertilise the land with night soil which they get from the town. The next ring out is made up of arable farms, which supply wheat and rye to the town. The closer the farm is to the town, the cheaper the cost of transport; von Thünen’s estate was situated 5 miles from Rostock, so he knew what he was talking about. If a farm is 10 German miles (75 kilometres) away from the town market, the horses and carts will be on the road there and back for four days. The horses have to be fed. According to von Thünen’s calculations, on such a journey they would eat one-eighth of the grain delivered. Delivering grain from farms further than 50 German miles from a town, the horses would eat the entire load on the journey. The forest zone is situated in the third ring, on the periphery. The prices in the town shift the borders of the agricultural belts: the higher the price of grain, the greater the area of arable land, but then firewood will be too distant. 19 Therefore von Thünen re-examined the theory of land rent: it is defined not by the productivity of the land, as Ricardo thought, but by the land’s distance from the market.

Grain is the most widespread of all main resources after air and water. However, it became the subject of protectionist laws, which limited free trade for the sake of security. The interests of the grain producers, who wanted to raise prices, clashed with the interests of the consumers, who faced starvation. When the Napoleonic wars ended and troops were demobilised all over Europe, there was an immediate fall in the demand for grain. In England, a parliament of landowners chose to protect the market and voted for the Corn Laws, which limited the import of cereals. The price of industrial products fell but the price of grain and flour stabilised. The cotton mill workers couldn’t earn enough to buy food, and bread riots broke out in London. In 1815 the volcano Tambor erupted on the remote island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies. The result was ‘the year without a summer’, when harvests failed on a catastrophic scale. Defending the ‘cotton interest’ against the ‘grain interest’, a group of journalists and intellectuals from the cotton-processing town of Manchester demanded a free market. The leader of the movement was Richard Cobden, the owner of a profitable calico factory. Free trade, wrote Cobden, is the secret of permanent peace, because all nations will have as great an interest in the prosperity of other nations as in their own. For the generation that had lived through the Napoleonic wars and the continental blockade, this opinion was convincing. In 1841, Robert Peel, a reader of Adam Smith and supporter of free trade, became prime minister. He was the son of a textile magnate – the first leader of the government whose wealth came from cotton, not grain or sugar. In 1846 the Great Famine began in Ireland after blight devastated the potato crop. The same variety – a monoculture – was planted throughout the island, and the blight spread like wildfire. A proportion of British grain went to Ireland, and this helped Peel to repeal the Corn Laws. The debate about the advantages of free trade over mercantilism resulted in a victory for the free trade lobby.

Karl Marx moved to London in 1849, and the debates about the Corn Laws helped him to formulate his idea of class warfare. The fall in grain prices resulted in the ruin of the tenant farmers. The effect was similar to that of the earlier land enclosures – landless peasants went to the industrial towns or emigrated. In the countryside, economy of scale helped the largest farms to survive. In order to facilitate land sales and mergers, the government had to create a free market in land, abolishing inheritance rights and entailments. The radical followers of Bentham and Cobden had long been calling for this. This was a victory of industrial over agricultural interests, of metals and textiles over grain and sugar.

The abolition of corn tariffs in England led to soaring prices on the continent. Because of railways and steamships, American and Russian exports of grain dramatically increased, and the price of grain fell. At the end of the nineteenth century practically the whole of Europe was practising food protectionism, which largely meant grain import tariffs. Only the most industrialised countries, Great Britain and Belgium, refrained from this. In the 1880s Great Britain imported 65 per cent of its wheat, paying for it with its industrial goods. On the eve of the First World War, Russian peasants harvested three times less wheat per acre than English farmers, but the area of arable land kept pace with the growth in population and the expansion of railways. 20 The Russian prime minister, Sergey Witte, a former railway official, took British mercantilism from the sea onto dry land. His plan worked: thanks to the railways and low tariffs, the growth in the grain trade made up more than half the growth of the whole economy. But after the war, global wheat prices collapsed again. The economic historian David Allen characterises the late period of the Russian Empire as a one-off boom in raw materials.

The agricultural experiments of the Soviet authorities led to mass starvation. Collectivisation of agriculture brought crop failures, ecological devastation and mass famines. Things got so bad that in 1982 the Communist Party voted for the Food Programme, which entailed annual purchases of huge amounts of grain in exchange for oil. The USSR collapsed, and its successor, the Russian Federation, has become a major exporter of grain. However, petrofarming is just another method of converting oil into food (see chapter 13 ). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the double action of farm subsidies and energy-intensive technologies has reproduced the Soviet Food Programme all over the developed world.



1 Scott, Against the Grain .2 Kant, ‘Conjectures on the beginning of human history’; Olson, The Logic of Collective Action .3 Olson, ‘Space, agriculture, and organization’.4 Al-Rawi and George, ‘Back to the cedar forest’, p. 83.5 Carneiro, ‘A theory of the origin of the state’.6 Pomeranz, The Great Divergence .7 De Vries, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis .8 De Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age .9 Von Thünen, The Isolated State ; Małowist, ‘Poland, Russia and Western trade in the 15th and 16th centuries’; Moon, The Russian Peasantry .10 Zheleznov, Ekonomicheskie vozzreniia pervykh russkikh agronomov , pp. 153, 201.11 Aston and Philpin, The Brenner Debate .12 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , p. 19.13 Chayanov, Krest’ianskoe khoziajstvo .14 Kaplan, Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV ; Kaplan, The Bakers of Paris and the Bread Question .15 Jones, Bread upon the Waters .16 Ibid.17 McNeill, ‘Frederick the Great and the propagation of potatoes’.18 De Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age ; de Vries and van der Woude, The First Modern Economy .19 Von Thünen, The Isolated State . Chayanov saw von Thünen’s scholarship as exemplary, and Braudel compared him to Marx. See also Parr, ‘Overlooked aspects of the von Thünen system’.20 Allen, Farm to Factory .


The Remains of Foreign Bodies

Anthropologists can’t agree about whether our ancient ancestors were omnivores or corpse eaters, or whether they preferred shellfish. It was later that people developed a taste for meat and for milk. Feeding an animal takes a lot of land, more than it takes to support a human being. But stock-rearing is less labour-intensive than arable farming. On the Mongolian steppe, two shepherds on horseback could look after a flock of 2,000 sheep. A Turkmen herdsman with an assistant could graze a herd of 800 bulls and cows. Hunting requires even less labour and, correspondingly, more land. In Europe, hunting remained a privilege of the aristocracy. The Austrian Hapsburgs were deeply attached to this strange pastime right up to the end; even during the First World War they numbered their hunting trophies in the thousands. If it is true that political power is defined by excess, a surfeit of the necessary, then collections of hunting trophies illustrate this thesis just as well as the harems of oriental sultans.


Animals are at the top of the food chain, and a calorie of meat was always more expensive than a calorie of plant food. In many cultures, the consumption of meat was a privilege of the elite. Meat was available for mass consumption only on rare occasions – that was the gift economy in action. Alcohol was consumed with the meat and the whole event was a feast – a communal release of physical and sexual energy.

All world religions, except for Zoroastrianism, surrounded meat eating with various prohibitions. In India, eating cows is forbidden; in the Middle East, pigs are banned; in the British Isles, dogs and horses are off the menu. Anthropologists theorise that these taboos follow the rule ‘edibility is inversely related to humanity’. 1 Some cultures consider horses to be close to humans and they aren’t eaten, while in other cultures cows have this status. Prolonged fasting – regular abstinence from meat and dairy products – was embraced by Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. Over a couple of thousand years, this practice has demonstrated that the plant-based diet is good for physical health.

Meat perishes quickly, which makes it unsuitable for long-distance trade. Drying, smoking or, alternatively, freezing meat commodified it. For centuries, the British Navy lived on salt beef and rum. This diet resulted in scurvy, which seamen thought was a severe form of seasickness. Farmers focused on hides and wool – they could be preserved and traded, and meat was eaten within the household. Once again, distance from the town was a crucial factor. Meat could be sold if a farm was close to the town, but every extra kilometre lowered the profit, especially if it had to be transported overland. Selling sausage and cheese made economic sense in places where they could be transported by water, preferably along a canal. An alternative was to drive live cattle to market, but that also entailed losses in proportion to the distance.

Haute cuisine was unknown in Europe until the fifteenth century. Asia was more advanced in this as in other matters of luxury. But Western Europe ate more meat than Eastern Europe, and much more than China. Depopulated by the plague, Europe in the Middle Ages was rich in meat. Herds of horned cattle were taken to Venice by boat from Dalmatia or driven overland to Germany from Hungary. One such herd might contain as many as 20,000 oxen. Naturally, only large towns could handle such quantities of perishable food. The upper classes ate more meat than the lower orders, and more meat was eaten in capital cities than in the provinces. In Paris in the sixteenth century, pork was considered as poor man’s food; merchants and noblemen preferred venison. By the crisis-ridden seventeenth century, meat consumption was lower but nevertheless remained at the level of an average of 20 kilograms per year. On the eve of the French Revolution, the average Parisian consumed three times as much meat as his average fellow countryman in the provinces. 2

Many states saw controlling the grain supply as their strategic aim, but it was rare for them to pay similar attention to meat. Robert Malthus considered dairy and beef herds a luxury. Land given over to cattle doesn’t produce more food but decreases supply. Following his lead, vegetarian activists calculated that the amount of food from an acre would increase tenfold if people moved from a carnivorous to a vegetarian diet; they called for pasture land to be turned over to arable farming. 3 But the sparsely populated lands of the New World offered unheard of opportunities for cattle grazing. At the end of the nineteenth century, millions of semi-wild cows and bulls roamed on the Argentinian plains. The only tradable parts were dressed hides. The gaucho ate the tongues and left the flayed corpses to the coyotes. All this changed thanks to the discoveries of Justus von Liebig.

The founder of organic chemistry, Liebig remembered the terrible year of 1816, when Europe didn’t see the sun because of the eruption of a volcano on a distant island in Asia; in Darmstadt, where he was born, people were on the verge of starvation. All his future work would be concerned with food and fertilisers. In 1847 Liebig invented a method of making a meat extract which he decanted into glass bottles; 30 kilos of meat produced a kilo of the extract, which was as thick as syrup and kept very well. 4 The first factory was built in Uruguay; the sales in Europe were healthy. Then Liebig invented the stock cube and a method of preserving meat in tins. Argentina and Uruguay underwent an unprecedented boom; European hospitals, armies and the poor got a new source of provisions. Then the Chicago slaughterhouses invented a way of freezing meat. Refrigerated units were put on rails or installed in the holds of ships. Later, smaller refrigerators for domestic kitchens were produced. Frozen meat transformed the lives of billions of people. A scarce and expensive resource, formerly available only to the elite, became an item of mass consumption. Such inventions fed the growing cities, engendered new flows of commodities, created new fortunes. It was only at this point that long-distance trade started to compete with local trade. In the 1930s two Swedish economists, Eli Heckscher and Bertil Ohlin, described this effect; the model they constructed used the old production factors of land, labour and capital and took long-distance trade into account. 5 However, the model didn’t include the costs of the new wonders of trade – the emissions from the burning of coal and the pollution from the packaging waste.


One particular part of the story of meat is abstinence from it. Jews refrained only from eating pork, but the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans that Jesus advised against eating any meat. St Jerome thought that before the Flood people neither ate meat nor drank wine. During the Renaissance, vegetarianism was linked to the Pythagorean tradition, which promised dominance over nature and the immortality of the body. Following this, many freemasons abstained from meat. In the eighteenth century the most successful proponent of abstinence from meat-eating was the Italian doctor Antonio Cocchi, a fellow of the Royal Society and founder of the first Masonic lodge in Florence. Drawing on the experience of doctors and travellers, he was the first to show that scurvy was caused by sailors’ rations, which consisted of salted meat. The conquering of scurvy was one of the crowning achievements of the Enlightenment.

In the British Empire, vegetarianism was connected with Hinduism, which was often promoted by people returning from the colonies. John Holwell, a governor of Bengal, was a vegetarian. In retirement, he promoted vegetarianism and tried to prove that Hinduism was the root of Christianity. 6 Such vegetarianism was a manifestation of positive Orientalism, in which the centre – London and Manchester – imitated the periphery – India. In Europe, vegetarianism was considered an English fad. The first lifestyle movement, vegetarianism filtered down from the elite, captivating the middle classes and absorbing other new ideas. As one London newspaper wrote in 1878, ‘As a matter of fact, vegetarianism does seem somehow or other to be correlated to all sorts of strange “isms” … A vegetable solus eater is pretty sure to hold new and strange views on political economy, to be a member of the Society for Psychical Research, to dress in all wool clothing, to abjure the razor, or to wear soft and unsightly hats.’ 7 The Russians and Americans connected vegetarianism with the simple life, the rejection of luxury, and the love of nature. The popular sects – the Russian Khlysts, the American Shakers – didn’t eat meat. Henry Thoreau and Lev Tolstoy produced similar arguments in support of vegetarianism: meat was a symbol of luxury, lust and inequality between people. Vegetarianism was the subject of ideological battles and also a personal choice. There were notable vegetarians on both sides of the divide between good and evil – Shelley and Wagner, Gandhi and Hitler.

This debate gained another dimension in the twenty-first century. Meat and dairy products provide just 18 per cent of the global consumption of food calories, but their production creates 60 per cent of carbon emissions from agriculture. As a result, farm animals produce more emissions than come from the total of all kinds of transportation. Beef, for example, contributes only 3 per cent of the calories in the American diet, but emissions from cattle make up half of all agricultural emissions in the USA. Using up a great deal of oil and land, beef should be expensive, but agricultural subsidies halve its price in the consumer market. Governments are directly financing one of the main sources of pollution on the planet. If humanity gives up meat and milk, it will liberate three-quarters of the land currently taken up by agriculture. More water would become available as well: worldwide, cattle are responsible for a third of water consumption and more than half of water pollution. 8 The only chance of feeding the growing world population while at the same time reducing emissions is to make radical cuts (up to 40 per cent) in cattle farming in the countries of the Global North. This is a realistic goal: during the last fifty years the consumption of beef has already reduced by a third, in part thanks to the propaganda of vegetarian ‘cranks’.

Scientists don’t believe that animal protein has any advantages over plant protein, while its disadvantages are many: to produce a kilogram of protein from peas takes fifty times less land and creates twelve times fewer emissions than to produce it from cattle. If you become exclusively vegetarian, you will cut your personal contribution to the pollution of the planet more than if you give up flying or change your diesel car for an electric model. The transition to a vegan diet by all of humankind will not be cheap to achieve; but the world pays out half a trillion dollars a year in agricultural subsidies, and political will could employ this money for rebuilding agriculture. Scientists are proposing to do this gradually, by redirecting subsidies and introducing taxes on carbon emissions. Meat and milk will be treated like tobacco and alcohol, which are taxed at an especially high rate. Supermarket shelves are filled with plant alternatives to milk. Vegans are for the most part young people with university degrees, and it isn’t clear how veganism can turn into a mass movement. Getting people hooked on sugar, tea or opium was easier than getting them used to non-dairy milk and fresh vegetables (see chapter 4 ).


In 1784 the Massachusetts State House passed a resolution to install a wooden carving of a cod above the chamber, ‘as a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth’. The most important source of protein in colonial America, cod was irreplaceable as a food source for slaves on the sugar islands and Catholics during their fasts. The cod’s biology meant it could be caught in vast numbers, preserved and consumed. Each fish weighed 10 to 12 kilos or even more. Its muscular, non-oily flesh made it easy to dry, and it contained 80 per cent protein – much more than dried beef. Dried cod could be kept in a ship’s hold for years and transported anywhere in the world. Oily fish, such as herring, was not suitable for drying. It had to be smoked or pickled in brine, which meant it was heavier to transport or didn’t keep well.

The fishing technique was simple. Cod was caught using homemade tackle and bait consisting of fish guts from a previous catch. The stunned fish were split, generously salted and pegged out to dry in the sun and wind. This could be done right on deck, but large catches had to be landed and dried on the shore. Cod’s liver was dealt with separately. It produced oil that was used for greasing anchors and later for lubricating steam engines. In Italy and Spain, cod – baccala – is still considered a traditional dish. The industry flourished on account of the cod’s unusually prolific breeding cycle: the average female cod produces 3 million grains of roe. The sea belonged to everyone, but a catch of fish belonged to the fisherman concerned. In order to get paid, a fisherman would cut out the tongues of all the fish he had caught and collect them in a box on the deck.

Europeans started to enjoy dried cod from the northern shores of Scandinavia as early as the thirteenth century; soon it became one of the staple products of the Hanseatic League. In Northern Europe, people preferred herrings soused in brine pickle, but in Southern Europe, and then in America too, dried cod was more popular. From the sixteenth century onwards, the Basques fished regularly near Newfoundland. They organised triangular trade by carrying Spanish wool to England, taking English woollen and manufactured goods to the American colonies and then, on the return trip, transporting salted cod to northern Spain: one such trip took a year. 9 The shipowners took the lion’s share of the profits – the biggest houses in Boston, Salem and other ports belonged to them. In the 1640s, British capital was added to the mix and a new triangle developed: English ships unloaded finished goods and salt at Boston, from there shipped cargoes of cod to Jamaica and other Atlantic islands, where they loaded up with sugar to take back to England. Cod disappeared from coastal waters – this always happens with communal resources. The Boston fishing schooners went further and further out to sea, all the way to Newfoundland. The risks grew fast, and insurance premiums increased too. This meant the fishermen became even more dependent on the merchants who gave them credit or provisions. In mid-ocean they dried the cod on board their ships. This resulted in a large quantity of inferior-quality dried cod, suitable only for the slaves on the sugar islands. As the American ships forced out the British vessels supplying the West Indies, they took industrial quantities of molasses back to Boston, where they distilled rum, in contravention of the mercantilist Navigation Acts. Worse still, the American fishermen sold their cod at Saint-Domingue (Haiti) and other French colonies and bought molasses there cheaply. In retaliation, the English fleet began seizing American vessels.

Mercantilist law primarily defended the interests of the plantation owners and sugar traders, which conflicted with the interests of the fishing industry. After the end of the Seven Years’ War, Parliament introduced stamp duty – essentially, a tax on labour. Within the American colonies, this tax had to be paid on all deals, contracts and legacies. As a measure against smuggling, London sent additional ships to the Atlantic. This triggered the protests with their famous slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. Protesters occupied commercial ships in Boston Harbour and threw chests of tea overboard. The choice was highly symbolic – tea was the only British commodity that the American colonies did not have. During the War of Independence, the New England fishing fleet supplied the revolutionary troops with gunpowder, rum and provisions from the West Indies, as well as the usual dried cod. During the peace talks, the fishing rights off Newfoundland were one of the most hotly debated subjects of negotiation. In the end, the Americans asserted their rights at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. It was only 200 years later that the Canadian government introduced a moratorium on cod fishing off Newfoundland.

Fish and meat share one paradoxical quality. In any market, fresh meat is more expensive than frozen. But it takes more capital and labour to produce frozen meat. This is also the case with fish and some other perishable goods: fresh costs more than conserved, the locally produced costs more than the product delivered from a distance. The economist will say that, when we pay for a piece of fresh meat or fish, we are, in fact, paying not only for it but also for all the bits that are thrown away. This paradox is one of the features of modern life. Only when we pay for a perishable local product do we add to the cost of catching and processing a unit, the cost of similar units that the buyer does not see or wish to hear about.


After fire and stone, fur was the third item essential to the survival of early man in the chilly climes of Europe. Even without curing, the warm pelts of wolves, bison, deer and sheep were used as bedding, blankets or parts of a shelter. Skins could be cut with an obsidian blade and sewn together with a bone needle and dried sinews to make garments and shoes. Thanks to these items, people could move deeper into the northern forests, and there they found more fur-bearing animals. Centuries passed and Roman soldiers marvelled at the fur garments of the Germanic barbarians. But the Romans also started to wear fur as they moved north. Gradually fur became a commodity – a source of revenue and a convertible currency in the northern lands.


In the east Slavic languages, the first word to denote a monetary unit was ‘kuna’, a marten. Founded by the Vikings, the city of Novgorod – the first organised power on the territory of contemporary Russia – used millions of squirrel pelts for clothing and trade. Local strongmen asked the peasants of their own estates to supply the pelts as a form of quit-rent. Later they colonised all of North-Eastern Europe right up to the Urals in pursuit of this squirrel. Much earlier than the French entrepreneurs who harnessed the wealth of furs in Canada, Russian furriers learnt to use the experience and technology of the northern tribes. Curiously, The Russian Primary Chronicle attributes the discovery of northern fur to Alexander of Macedonia. ‘We have encountered a divine marvel … Their language is unintelligible. They point at iron objects and make gestures as if to ask for them. If given a knife or an axe, they supply furs in return.’ 10 These people, the Yugras, were ‘unclean’, and therefore Alexander locked them up in the mountains of the northern Urals. They will be liberated on the Day of Judgement, but until that time it is their fate to trade furs for iron goods. This exchange by dumb show set the pattern for many subsequent events.

In the forests of Eurasia, the habitat of the squirrel coincided roughly with the human habitat. Dry, lightweight, and easily preserved under the right conditions, the squirrel pelts were an ideal commodity. For three centuries they were the mainstay of exports from Novgorod. The thin, light and supple skins were made into warm garments, stockings, hats and much else besides. Even taking transportation costs into account, these goods were cheap. A widely dispersed resource for mass consumption led to prosperity and relative equality. While Novgorod was trading in squirrel pelts, it enjoyed wealth, independence from a ruling prince, and something like democracy. In the winter, when their coats were thicker, squirrels were shot with blunt-tipped arrows so that the fur wasn’t damaged. Any peasant could turn his hand to this task. The pelts were scraped, washed and dried. Curing them was a time-consuming and skilled job – this was women’s work. Brought by sledge to Novgorod, the pelts were packed for export or prepared for local use. The trade in squirrel pelts was one of the main enterprises of the Hanseatic League, which included Novgorod. In the fourteenth century, a vast trading post known as the ‘German Court’ was built in the city. After buying and sorting the pelts, the Germans tied them into bundles and packed bundles of the same quality into barrels. Dozens of Germans were stationed in Novgorod to carry out this work. As the monopoly purchaser of a communal resource, the Hanseatic trading post was able to hold costs down and make excess profits. In accordance with mercantilist logic, the Germans were interested only in pelts, leaving profitable tasks such as sewing and tailoring to their partners at home. The Novgorod furriers worked only for the local market.

In the spring, barrels of pelts were sent down the Volkhov River, across the northern lakes to the Neva, and then on across the Baltic to Lübeck and Bremen. From there Russian fur continued its journey to London, Paris and Florence. In exchange, the Novgorod merchants received silver, arms, textiles, herring and non-ferrous metals. When there was hunger in the city they also imported grain. The fur trade guaranteed a significant amount of silver, which the trading republic needed for its mercenaries. By the end of the Novgorod Republic, fur was exported on a massive scale: 12,000 squirrel pelts travelled thousands of miles from the East so that London furriers could make one particular robe for Henry IV. But the bulk of imports were destined for mass consumption. A total of half a million squirrel pelts were exported per year. 11

As the squirrel population became depleted, the Novgorod merchants had to advance into unknown territories further east and force the local tribes to procure pelts. The trade was risky: in 1445, Yugra tribes inflicted defeat on a 3,000-strong detachment from Novgorod. And, in the fifteenth century, London imported fewer furs. The reason was that squirrel pelts could not compete with the wool textiles which England had begun to produce in increasing quantities. Although the Hansa traded in many goods, such as grain, timber and cod, it went into decline following the collapse of the fur trade. The fall in profits led to clashes among the Russian principalities. Resource-dependent states always worry about running out of raw materials. They are actually more at risk from the advent of new technologies which make their resources redundant.


The occupation of Novgorod by Muscovite troops in 1478 followed the fall in prices and the reduction of the market for fur. In the quest for fur, the Russians continually moved further east, colonising huge swathes of northern Asia and, later, northern America. In historical paintings we see the Muscovy nobility portrayed in fur coats and hats edged with sable, beaver and ermine. Monomakh’s cap was the sable-trimmed symbol of supreme power of the Russian tsars. Similarly, the Scottish crown was trimmed with ermine. A top hat made out of felted beaver fur was a status symbol of the European elite.

A luxury item, sable didn’t compete with wool and was in steady demand in Europe; sable (sobol ) is among the very few loan words that have gone from Russian into English. The route to Siberia, the home of the sable, lay through Kazan. The Muscovite troops captured Kazan in 1552 – a defining moment in the history of Russian colonisation. In 1581 Yermak Timofeyevich, with a company of 800 Cossacks, reached the Siberian Khanate. Like the Vikings long before them, the Cossacks dragged their boats, made from hollowed-out tree trunks, between great Siberian rivers and drifted down or rowed up them. After three years of trade and battles in Siberia, Yermak died, but 24,000 sable pelts, 2,000 beaver pelts, and 800 pelts from black foxes were sent to Moscow. 12

The Russians were only present in small groups and they rarely hunted themselves. They relied on the indigenous population to catch the animals, skin them and cure the pelts. The natives traditionally used fur for warm clothing and as insulation for their dwellings. However, they had no interest in the large-scale hunting of fur-bearing animals, just as they had no conception about fair prices or profit and accumulation. Fishermen and reindeer herders could be turned into trappers and hunters only by the use of force. The fur tribute was officially known as the yasak , a Turkish word, and was imposed only on non-Russian and non-Orthodox peoples. The yasak furs were taken to Tobolsk, a city in south-western Siberia that featured its own Kremlin – a fortified storehouse for furs and supplies. There pelts were graded, priced and sent to the Moscow Kremlin by winter road, in a convoy of sledges. The yasak went directly to the state, but private trade also flourished and was taxed at a tenth. When officials were returning from Siberia to Moscow, their sledges were searched carefully, and extra furs were confiscated. In Moscow, the Siberian office controlled the trade, and the best pelts remained in the Treasury. In exchange for fur, the Russians supplied Siberia with metal handicrafts, alcohol and tobacco, which rapidly became a habit for the northern tribes. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Muscovite monk Epiphany Premudry recorded the words of a shaman from the Urals: ‘You Christian people have one God, but we have many gods … so they give us squirrels, sables, martens and lynx … Aren’t your princes and boyars and grandees getting rich on what we catch? … Isn’t it our catch that you send to Orda [the Tatars], and … even to Tsargrad [Constantinopole] and to the Germans and the Lithuanians?’ 13

In 1557 every Yugra man had to hand over one sable pelt per year, but by 1609 this demand had already risen to seven. More than 7 million sables were trapped between 1621 and 1690. 14 Russian sources put the revenue from the fur trade as one-quarter of the gross revenue of the Muscovy state. For the medieval economy, with its subsistence farming, gross revenue doesn’t mean much. What mattered for the state was its disposable income, and the fur trade was a major contributor to that. When there was a shortage of silver, pelts played the role of currency for Muscovy. There were times when Kremlin officials, mercenaries and doctors were paid part of their fees in furs.

The conquerors encountered opposition from many tribes, including the Chukchi, the Kamchadals and the Koryaks. When they met with resistance, the Russians retaliated with ever more cruel methods, from public floggings to mass killings. A common method of extracting pelts from the locals was to take hostages (amanat ). * The Russians held local women and children hostage until yasak was paid by the men. If the kidnapped children lived to grow up they learnt to speak Russian; if christened, they could marry Russians and played their part in the creolisation of the local population. In 1788, for example, the Cossacks held 500 children from the Aleut tribe in the Northern Pacific as hostages. The Russian rulers, including the enlightened Catherine II, sanctioned this method; official documents described it as the right way to ‘pacify the natives’ and collect yasak . In 1882, the Siberian historian Nikolay Yadrintsev counted up the number of Siberian peoples that had already been exterminated but who had existed within living memory. The Kamchadals lost 90 per cent of their population; the Voguls, 50 per cent; and so on. 15 The sables disappeared as well. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a good trapper could get 200 sables per year, but, by the end of the century, no more than fifteen or twenty.

Gradually the Cossacks and the traders learnt how to bring the indigenous people ‘under the high hand of the great tsar’. The leaders of local tribes swore an oath to serve the Russian tsar under a ceremonial salute from muskets and cannons. The tribespeople were lined up as if they were members of the Russian Imperial Guard. In many respects, the Russian possessions in North Eurasia were comparable to other areas colonised by Europeans. Rule was indirect and the number of colonists was tiny. But the local tribes were exterminated on a massive scale that wasn’t possible in India. The loss of the indigenous peoples was more analogous to what happened in North America.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century a Polish observer, Bishop Jan Lasky, compared the wealth created by the Muscovy fur trade with the success of the British trade in Indian spices. But in the 1560s and 1570s the volume of the fur trade fell sharply. This time, the explanation was in the actual depletion of sable. In response, the tsar monopolised the export trade in all kinds of fur and the internal trade in sable. It did not help: when hare replaced sable in the Kremlin Treasury, the Muscovy period of Russian history drew to a close. Soon the Time of Trouble started – a civil war with foreign intervention, a major crisis of the state. The Volga merchant Kuzma Minin then saved Russia from defeat by financing the war with his profits from salt extraction. When the Time of Trouble was finally over, Russian ambitions switched from the north-east to the south-west. The cautious policy of the Muscovy state towards the southern steppe changed to an expansionist strategy. Hemp, iron and, finally, wheat replaced fur as Russian exports. Grain, the mass commodity of the future, demanded a much greater input of labour than the fur trade, and labour of a completely different quality.


When the Breton navigator Jacques Cartier discovered Newfoundland in 1534, he was convinced that he had arrived in Asia, somewhere near China. In Newfoundland he encountered the Iroquois and took cured pelts back to France, along with two sons of their leader. The humble, easily hunted beaver turned out to be the main attraction for three rival powers, the Dutch, the French and the British. New York was founded thanks to the beaver trade; Henry Hudson, who discovered this convenient harbour in 1609, traded fur with the natives first for the Muscovy Company of England and then for the Dutch East India Company. 16 After the Swedish victory in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), tall Swedish hats became fashionable all over Europe. These wide-brimmed, unbending hats which kept their shape whatever the weather were made of felted beaver. The same material was used to make military headgear: Frederick the Great’s tricorne and Napoleon’s bicorne were made from felted beaver. Military men and civilians, Catholics and Protestants – anybody who could afford one – wore a felted beaver hat. Only the Quakers made their humble hats, which they would doff to no one, out of felted wool.

In fact, it was not so much the beaver’s fur that was of interest as the nap undercoat beneath the fur, ‘beaver wool’. Combed out and processed, it made a sturdy, waterproof felt, an excellent material that is warmer than leather and stronger than wool. In the Middle Ages there were beaver ponds all over Europe, but by the sixteenth century they were found only in Scandinavia and the Russian north. In Siberia beavers had been almost eradicated, and a beaver pelt was worth more there than a sable. 17

The beaver pelts were processed using mercury, an extremely hazardous substance. The furrier’s craft was one of the most risky jobs, on a par with mining or metallurgy, which also used mercury. The most expensive hats still contain so much mercury that they cannot be safely exhibited in museums. Hatters fell ill with neurological diseases unknown to science, went mad and died young. As the beaver became rarer in distant Canada, hatters started mixing its nap with rabbit’s fur, which was fifty times cheaper. Still, this trade consumed an enormous quantity of beaver pelts – the import to France was counted in hundreds of thousands. In Canada, the French learnt the tricky art of enticing the Native Americans into bartering goods on their terms. Having no intention of populating these vast territories, they set up trading posts where beaver pelts were exchanged for weapons, alcohol or cauldrons. The most important trading partners were from the Huron tribe. Living in clusters round trading posts and adopting firearms, the Huron turned into settled traders. Their traditional skills, such as making a canoe by covering a light frame with birch bark, also came in useful; the Europeans had no means of transportation other than these canoes.

In alliance with the Huron, France prevented the penetration of these shores by the Dutch, who were collaborating with the Iroquois. In 1670 the English founded the Hudson Bay Company, which competed with the French trading posts across the Great Lakes to the south. The traditional hostility between indigenous tribes turned into proxy wars, a typical instrument of imperial influence. Between 1675 and 1687, the annual delivery of beaver pelts to Europe doubled. But on the cusp of the eighteenth century the suppliers of fur encountered a new phenomenon: the prices for beaver were falling – silk hats came into fashion. But new markets in Germany, Poland and Russia had started using beaver pelts for making fur coats. The market became specialised and global. White beaver fur went to England, where white hats were in fashion. Dutch firms first combed out the nap to make hats for local consumption and then sent the pelts with the outer fur to Russia to make fur coats. Some beaver pelts were exported to Arkhangelsk, via Amsterdam, for specialised processing; the Russian Pomors, a northern people, had a method of combing out the underhair which wasn’t known in Western Europe. 18

The British, French and Dutch colonies in America tried to limit the supply of pelts and stop the fall in prices. In 1720 New York prohibited trade with the French colonies; in response, the Iroquois started smuggling beaver pelts to English ships, avoiding customs and lowering prices. In the Seven Years’ War France lost its territories to the English. ‘You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of barren land in the neighbourhood of Canada, and that they have expended much greater sums in the contest than all Canada is worth,’ wrote Voltaire in Candide . As a result of her victory, England obtained a monopoly on beaver fur, but after the American Revolution England lost her trading posts on United States territory though she kept those in Canada. In 1821 the British Hudson Bay Company merged with the Canadian North West Company. Its rival, the American Fur Company, was even more successful; its owner, John Jacob Astor, diversified his business by smuggling opium to China and engaging in New York real estate. For a while he was the richest man in America, but the fur trade was in decline.

The Canadian sociologist Harold Innis, in his pioneering history of the fur trade (1930), showed that the modern borders of Canada coincide with the territory of the beaver. Just as Siberia in its current form was created by the sable, Canada was created by the beaver. As the fur trade flourished, the number of colonists grew, and the number of trappers grew even faster. But the beaver died out in the places populated by men. The white population developed more peaceful relations with the indigenous people in Canada than was the case in the USA or Russia: these relations were based on barter and collaboration between the races and not on competition for land. Innis states that the trade in raw materials divided North America into three zones: the northern zone that produced fur; the southern zone that produced cotton; and the central zone that depended mainly on the labour of its own population, though it also relied on local resources. In his ‘staple theory’, Innis traced how the timber industry replaced the beaver trade. When steamships replaced canoes, it turned out that agriculture was entirely viable, and the export of timber and paper also increased. The sawmills and paper factories used the same water routes as the beaver trading posts had done, and the same agricultural lands provided them with food. But every change of staple created new ecological-economic problems. Tree felling and rafting turned rivers into marshland. Felling activities and sawmills had to be situated further and further upstream. Large cities developed on the sites of the trading posts; where there had once been beaver ponds, there were now power plants. Canals and then railways were constructed to streamline the routes for transporting raw materials, which had formerly followed the bends in the rivers. The Atlantic ports, built for fishing and then for the fur trade, now exported timber, paper and grain to Europe and the USA. As Innis wrote, Canada emerged not in spite of geography but because of it. 19 This is also true of Russia and other resource-dependent countries. The vast expanses of Russia and Canada were equally formed by the fur trade.

The sea otter

In the middle of the eighteenth century, fur was still the major Russian export to China, which bought every sort – even hundreds of thousands of cat pelts a year. Catherine the Great turned the state monopoly on fur into a private one, transferring the running of the fur trade from the Siberian office to her private cabinet. But the sable was almost extinct and squirrel was out of fashion. After the Seven Years’ War, Catherine sent her best sailor, the British-trained Captain Vasily Chichagov, to map the northern extremity of Siberia. He failed to find the Northern Passage to the Pacific but heard rumours about incredible animals that would make your fortune if you could catch them. In 1774 Grigory Shelikhov, a Siberian merchant, made a voyage to the North Pacific. He founded a colony on the island of Kodiak, which had abundant animals and spruce forests. The island made an excellent base for ship repairs and for mounting new expeditions to the east. The native Aleutian population were dispersed with cannon shots; hundreds were killed, but the survivors agreed to exchange pelts for beads and vodka. The Aleutians had always used their prisoners as slave labour – now the Russians put themselves at the top of this hierarchy. In 1786 Shelikhov returned with pelts of the sea otter, or sea beaver as he called it; his cargo was valued at the astronomical sum of 300,000 roubles. To develop the colony he wished to double the sum and asked for a monopoly on all Russian trade on the American coasts. Catherine refused – she had been reading Adam Smith and believed in the free market. But she dispatched four battleships to Alaska and ordered Captain Grigory Mulovsky, another British-educated seafarer, to sail them round the world. George Forster, one of Captain Cook’s companions, agreed to join the voyage as a scientist. But yet another war broke out against Sweden, and Mulovsky was killed in battle. The ambitious expedition came to naught.

English and French ships were already plying between Kamchatka and Alaska. All of Europe was reading the memoirs of the American John Ledyard, a member of Cook’s final expedition. Cook’s sailors had traded glass beads in exchange for a few sea otter pelts, which they sold in Macao for £2,000. This unusually thick fur was especially prized in China, where the pelts were used to make imperial robes. Ledyard was so enamoured of sea otters that he tried to reach Alaska overland, travelling alone from St Petersburg across Siberia. He travelled many thousand miles by sledge but was arrested in Yakutsk in 1788. The experienced Shelikhov used other tactics. The turnover of his fur business was the equivalent of a tenth of the Russian budget, and he raised more capital after registering several companies on the St Petersburg stock market. Preparing for his new voyage, he hired British sailors. He even recruited Samuel Bentham, the brother of Jeremy Bentham. Since 1783, Samuel had been in the service of the Russian government – he supervised the mines in Olonets, inspected the Ural factories of the Demidovs (see chapter 6 ), built ships for Prince Grigory Potemkin and even established a school in Siberia. He also had a secret plan for seizing America. In 1790, he went through Siberia with his Cossacks, intending to sail across to California and win it for his boss, Prince Potemkin. This plan was cut short by the death of the prince, and Samuel returned to Europe. 20 Shelikhov fared better – he reached the Pacific coast and built a frigate in Okhotsk. But English ships were already anchored in the bays of Alaska, and in 1790 they drove off the Spanish ships. That was bad news: before Shelikhov could start skinning sea otters he would have to fight the British fleet.

In 1794 a young officer from Siberia, Nikolay Rezanov, married Shelikhov’s daughter. Rezanov was one of the most remarkable people in Russian history, but his fourteen-year-old bride didn’t have any inkling of this. She died a few years after the wedding, one of the richest heiresses in the empire. Shelikhov and Rezanov now jointly controlled a great part of the Chinese-Russian trade in fur and tea. 21 All this massive volume of trade went via Kyakhta, south of Lake Baikal. An old transit point on the Great Silk Road, this town was the only legal customs post on the Chinese-Russian border, the longest in the world. Trade was done mostly by barter; it was only in 1762 that Catherine allowed private trade in Kyakhta. More than a million chests of tea entered Siberia from China every year, as well as gunpowder, paper and silk. The Russian merchants mostly traded fur, but also hides and horses. The English were a threat to this trade: they had already taken American furs to Canton (Guangzhou).

Catherine died, and after much manoeuvring the young emperor Paul I signed a statute for the creation of the Russian-American Company. The documents were drafted by Gavriil Derzhavin, the president of the Collegium of Commerce, who is better remembered as a powerful poet. Rezanov was a student of Derzhavin’s and had served in his office. The collaboration between Derzhavin, Shelikhov and Rezanov resulted in the most ambitious global project ever known to the Russian Empire. The Russian-American Company obtained a monopoly on a huge territory to the east of Siberia and to the north of Japan, including Alaska. Rezanov’s plan encompassed the colonisation of these lands, their settlement by peasants and Cossacks, the building of ports, wharves and towns, the extraction of minerals and furs, and trade across two oceans. He intended the Russian-American Company to expand south as far as California and Sakhalin and planned a naval base at the estuary of the Amur. If his plans had been accomplished, the Pacific Ocean would have become a lake within the Russian Empire. In the meantime, Russian roads, bad as they were, ran out at Irkutsk, in the centre of Siberia. The winter route from there to the Pacific coast took seven months, and all the time in the world would not suffice to make the route possible in summer. To provision its colony in Alaska, the empire sent ships from Odessa round Africa: this journey across three oceans turned out to be quicker, cheaper and safer than the overland route through Russian territory. In 1805 a pud (16 kilograms) of flour cost 50 kopecks in Irkutsk, 10 roubles in Okhotsk, 40 roubles in Kamchatka, and even more in Alaska.

The establishment of the Russian-American Company closed a large circle in which the plans of world empires were codified according to the spirit of corporate capitalism. The Muscovy Company, which had been established by Sebastian Cabot and John Dee in 1533, was one of the first joint stock companies founded for long-distance trade (hemp and timber); then came the English East India Company (tea and opium), the Dutch East India Company (tea and spices), the Hudson Bay Company (fur), and a number of Prussian, Danish and even Latvian projects. The Russian-American Company was another institution of resource-oriented expansion based on a state–private partnership. Triangular trade in the Atlantic was bringing unheard-of wealth to the merchants and state treasuries. The Russian-American Company would create an equally massive trade in the Pacific. American-manufactured goods would be traded for Alaskan fur, fur bartered for Chinese tea, and the tea sold in the Russian Empire and the Americas.

With credit from the tsar, the Russian-American Company bought two old English frigates and hired a British crew. Rezanov was appointed the expedition’s commander and the tsar’s representative in Russian America. The captain was Ivan Krusenstern, and the rivalry between these two powerful personalities started immediately. 22 When the ships reached Russian America, the expedition’s doctor, Georg Langsdorf, was horrified: ‘The Russians kill everything that moves, for the sake of an instant profit. They don’t realize that they are permanently depriving themselves of a potential source of wealth.’ Steller’s sea cow, a helpless source of meat, became extinct. Seals had no fear of people, who beat them to death with sticks. More than a million seals were killed by the company, and their rotting carcasses and skeletons littered the shoreline. The more wary, but much more valuable sea otters were killed in their thousands. In essence, this colony was a trading post which bartered fur with the Aleutians, who were able to hunt sea otters using their traditional kayaks and javelins. To motivate the Aleutians, the company banned them from their traditional fishing. They were made to buy dried fish from the company; this put them in debt, which they had to work to pay off. Russian ships very rarely took supplies on board, and only trade with American ships saved the crew from starvation. During the whole century that this Russian colony in America existed, the authorities never set up a court or built a prison. The administration used corporal punishment or exiled uncooperative natives to remote islands. Epidemics of unknown illnesses broke out among the Aleutians. Their population dwindled almost as fast as that of the sea otters: in 1805 there were ten times fewer Aleutians on Kodiak than in 1791. But monks opened a church school for the natives.

The colonists developed scurvy. The monks tried to grow watermelons and tobacco but were successful only with potatoes, radishes and barley. Living with their Aleutian wives and creole children, the colonists had no desire to return to Russia. There was no Russian currency in the colony; it was either completely banned or ersatz banknotes were printed on seal skin. There was no ownership of land; as the colony depended entirely on trading fur in exchange for provisions, land had no value. The real unit of exchange was barrels of American rum. From the naval officers to the downtrodden Aleutians, practically everyone was constantly drunk.

In 1802 skirmishes broke out between the Russian colonists and the Tlingit warrior tribe. The Tlingits traded fur with the Americans and possessed firearms: a sea otter pelt went for a musket. After two years of war the Tlingits retreated to the mountains, and the Russians captured their citadel, Sitka. 23 This now became the capital of Russian America, Novo-Arkhangelsk. The bay provided a convenient anchorage for American sailors, and they willingly exchanged provisions for fur; moreover, they could hire Aleutians and their kayaks to hunt sea otters in California. An American sea captain, John DeWolf, sold Rezanov an eight-cannon ship with a cargo of tobacco and rum; Rezanov paid with a promissory note from the Russian-American Company and 572 sea otter pelts. The bargain was kept – having sent the pelts to Canton, DeWolf crossed Siberia overland, received his money in St Petersburg, and returned to Connecticut. This Russian-speaking Yankee had an interesting nephew, the writer Herman Melville, who learnt about whales, travel and determination from him. In an official letter to the Russian-American Company, Rezanov warned that the fur trade would lead to extinction and suggested a diversification plan. From his base in Alaska, he planned to export timber, develop Sakhalin Island and oust the Spanish from California. He planned to sow wheat, which would finally solve the problem of provisioning Russian America. Following the English model, he proposed to export criminals from central Russia to Alaska and, in addition, to buy up male serfs. The women would be brought from the Aleutian population.

In 1803 President Jefferson bought Louisiana from the French at the price of 3 cents per acre; this almost doubled the territory of the United States, and Napoleon got the money for his European war. Rezanov knew that the world would be made anew, and he intended to be a part of it. In 1806 he set off for the Spanish colony of California. In San Francisco he fell in love with the daughter of the Spanish governor, and fifteen-year-old Conchita accepted his proposal. After the betrothal, his ship took on grain and the happy Rezanov started planning new projects. Russian-Spanish America would stretch from Alaska to California. Prairie farming, the timber trade and new industries would compensate for the depletion of fur. But to marry Conchita he needed to receive the blessing of the emperor and the permission of the pope.

While galloping to St Petersburg, Rezanov fell off his horse, and he died in Krasnoyarsk, in the middle of Siberia, in 1807. Conchita Argüello never married. During her long life she used to tell friends about her love for her dead Russian fiancé. The Russian-American Company paid smaller and smaller dividends. Its main investor, Alexander I of Russia, died unexpectedly in 1825. This led to the uprising of liberal-minded officers and intellectuals in St Petersburg, the so-called Decembrist Revolt. It was crushed by artillery fire, and an investigation found that officials from the Russian-American Company were implicated in the revolt. The rebels had held their meetings in the company’s mansion; they were planning to create a constitution along American lines. The new tsar withdrew his investments. Despite having killed 73,000 sea otters, about 30,000 beavers and 30,000 sables, more than a million foxes and an incalculable number of seals, the Russian-American Company was insolvent. Alaska was sold to America in 1867 at 2 cents per acre. 24

‘In the tender annals of political economy, the idyllic reigns from time immemorial,’ wrote Marx, explaining the primitive accumulation of European capital by the plundering of the colonies. 25 The sources of imperial wealth are hidden in plain view. They are the raw materials extracted by slaves or natives and sold in Europe for monopolist prices – silver and fur, sugar and opium. Empires and, later, nation-states often fail to remember these humble origins of greatness. They sing the praises of the wisdom of rulers and the labour of the people. But there were also heretics. In the mid-nineteenth century, the world learnt about the Aleutian catastrophe thanks to the testimony of the missionary Innokenty Venyaminov. The bishop of Alaska and subsequently the metropolitan of Moscow, Innokenty wrote that, in 1766, Ivan Solovyev and his crew of sailors had killed nearly 3,000 Aleutians – more than half of a tribe that had risen up in rebellion. Among Russian historians, Afanasy Shchapov described the key role of the fur trade in the development of Russia. As a Siberian, he knew all about the tragedies which occurred on the frontier of imperial expansion. Shchapov’s favourite example of ‘zoological colonisation’ was the Aleutian Islands, where the Russians had forced the local population to hunt the sea otters until all the otters and all the Aleutians had disappeared. 26

But, even at the end of the nineteenth century, the fur tax, collected from the Siberian peoples, made up more than 10 per cent of the revenue of the Imperial Cabinet. This money, minted from the distant lives of fur-bearing animals and northern peoples, purchased the treasures of the Hermitage and the loyalty of the court. At the beginning of the twentieth century the fur trade in Siberia was still going strong. During his Siberian exile from 1900 to 1902, the young Leon Trotsky worked for the merchant Yakov Chernykh, who traded with the Tungus people on the Upper Lena, exchanging vodka and cotton prints for fur. The illiterate Chernykh made millions of roubles and had thousands of workers. ‘He was an absolute dictator’, Trotsky wrote. These youthful impressions defined his own horizon. *

Following Voltaire’s advice, Catherine the Great justified monarchical rule in Russia by the country’s unusually large size. In fact, these lands were seized because of fur, though the empire held onto them well after the fur trade had ended. In the nineteenth century, Siberia was used as a place of exile and hard labour. In Soviet times, military-industrial sites were built there, and then enormous reserves of oil and gas were discovered. The history and geography of resource streams are full of devilish irony: the delivery routes for oil and gas, from western Siberia to the Baltic and then to Germany, follow the ancient sledge tracks along which Siberian fur travelled to European buyers.

Trade in the fur of the sea otter was banned in 1911. Their population on the Aleutian Islands did not regenerate, but these delightful animals are a common sight off the beaches of California. The beaver was considered almost extinct, but a ban on hunting in Scandinavia, Canada and Russia helped to re-establish populations. In 2020 we learnt that Denmark is farming 17 million mink – three animals for every citizen; this population was the breeding ground for a new, potentially more lethal mutation of the COVID-19 virus. Sable is also bred on farms, and auctions of sable pelts continue. The squirrel remains one of the most widely distributed mammals; but, hopefully, nobody uses squirrel pelts or cat fur any more. The price of fur has fallen on account of alternative materials made from fossil fuel and thanks to campaigns by animal rights organisations and activists. Suddenly people have started worrying about fur allergies – oddly, this was never a problem in the past. In 2018 several fashion houses – Gucci, Versace – publicly renounced the use of real fur. In England, Austria and some other European countries, fur farming has been outlawed. It is more difficult to abstain from fish and other marine products. But fish farms produce heavy pollution, and the fishing industry is one of the most corrupt sectors of global business. The number of vegetarians in the world keeps growing, and at some point we will see meat eating as an aberration on a par with wearing fur.



1 Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason , p. 175; Goody, Food and Love .2 Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism , pp. 190–4.3 Mayhew, New Perspectives on Malthus .4 Pomeranz and Topik, The World that Trade Created , p. 137.5 Feenstra, ‘The Heckscher–Ohlin model’.6 Stuart, Bloodless Revolution .7 Cited in Gregory, Of Victorians and Vegetarians , p. 115.8 Poore and Nemecek, ‘Reducing food’s environmental impacts’.9 Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause ; Grafe, Distant Tyranny .10 The Russian Primary Chronicle , p. 184.11 Veale, The English Fur Trade ; Etkind, Internal Colonization .12 Fisher, The Russian Fur Trade , p. 26.13 Zhitie Sergiia Radonezhskogo .14 Vilkov, ‘Pushnoi promysel v Sibiri’.15 Iadrintsev, Sibir kak koloniia .16 Tarle, Ocherki ; Butts, Henry Hudson .17 Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada ; Edwards, ‘The North American fur trade world system’.18 Rich, ‘Russia and the colonial fur trade’.19 Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada .20 Kirchner, ‘Samuel Bentham and Siberia’; Morriss, Science, Utility and Maritime Power ; Papmehl, ‘The regimental school established in Siberia by Samuel Bentham’.21 Matthews, Glorious Misadventures .22 Ibid.23 Kan, Memory Eternal .24 Bolkhovitinov, Russian–American Relations and the Sale of Alaska .25 Marx, Capital , Vol. 1, p. 507.26 Shchapov, Sochineniia , pp. 280–93, 309–37; Etkind, Internal Colonization , p. 65.


Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice

Salt and sugar are both white and crystalline, but their flavour differs as much as their historic roles. Salt has always been part of the human diet – we can’t survive without it. Sugar is a relative newcomer. Produced by hundreds of small enterprises and mostly traded locally, salt was usually a product of private initiative. Sugar was the material basis of long-distance trade, slave plantations, colonial wars and mercantilist empires.

People consume salt up to the point of satiety. The body knows what level of salt it needs; too little or too much causes discomfort. For every population, there is a point of equilibrium which defines the optimal price of such a resource. The per capita consumption of this kind of resource is stable, and consumption increases only with the growth of the population. This is where economics, focused on the balance between demand and supply, comes into operation. But there are other sorts of resources, such as sugar. An individual or a country can consume them in unlimited quantities: the more such products are available to consumers, the more they want them. The growth in supply stimulates a still greater demand. I would call this kind of commodity ‘addictive’ or ‘narcotic’. In such cases it is not demand that dictates supply but the other way round: production stimulates consumption . Satiety, or equilibrium between demand and supply, simply doesn’t arise, or is always deferred to the future; what does arise is an increasing dependence, an unquenchable and unquenched need, an addiction. Examples are sugar, and the alcohol produced from it, but also spices, tobacco, coffee, tea, chocolate and opium. All these substances create in the consumer a narcotic dependency, which may be severe or mild and, correspondingly, inflicts more or less harm on the consumer. When economists describe the link between production and consumption, they talk about the elasticity of supply : if production of a commodity grows quickly in response to a rise in demand, then this production is elastic. In the opposite case, when consumption grows, quickly or slowly, in response to a rise in supply, we see a demand which is, to various extents, addictive and toxic; I propose to talk in these cases about toxicity of demand. From pepper to tea to sugar to tobacco to opium, and later to petroleum, different substances exhibit different levels of toxicity. Importantly, the very concept of consumption in its economic meaning originates from the debates about the taxation of ‘intoxicants’; before these mid-seventeenth-century English debates, consumption meant a wasting disease. 1 ‘Intoxicants’ were wine, tobacco and coffee; sugar did not figure in these debates – clearly, it was in a special category, together with tea and chocolate. Following the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, I call these consumables, from sugar all the way to opium, soft drugs.

Throughout the long age of empires, Europeans enjoyed these dried remains of several exotic plants from the two Indias. Gradually, soft drugs became an everyday habit for every civilised person – moreover, a habit that became the very essence of his or her civilised behaviour. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these addictive substances, from tea to opium, made up the biggest group of commodities in international trade. There is a biological component in this addiction, but it is also shaped by traditions, fashions, prices, political contexts and much else. For example, tobacco is addictive in any form – whether chewed, taken as snuff, or smoked; legal or smuggled; consumed alone or in cigar lounges. The habit is conditioned and contagious – it spreads from one person to another in the manner of an infection. If a certain form of tobacco is cheap, or if it is well advertised, it spreads faster. Taxes and high prices reduce the toxicity of a product; fashion or advertising can have the opposite effect. Administrative measures – e.g. criminalisation – have lesser impacts. The habit spreads among a population as a result of imitation and because of the social character of consumption. Addiction is individual but also societal: the consumption of such a commodity may grow even if individual doses stabilise.

Capital grows endlessly; this is essential for capitalism. Its most rapid growth occurs not when consumption leads production but, conversely, when supply boosts demand. Addictive substances are invariably connected to energy. This is the energy that sugar gives to the body and petrol gives to a driver, the energy that is expended in work, procreation and recreation, the energy that is stored in the form of fat. Concentration encourages a monopolistic development and arbitrary pricing, and addiction guarantees the unlimited growth of trade. Even technical progress does not change the pattern of addiction. In 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons formulated a startling paradox. An increase in the efficiency of a certain resource does not reduce its consumption but, on the contrary, increases it. Precisely because efficiency produces cheaper products, they become available to more customers, demand for them grows, and more raw material is expended in making them. Collective addiction grows into fetishism – an extreme case of a mono-resource dependency. Changing fashions bring variety to this fetish and boost its consumption.


Ubiquitous in markets, salt is the only raw material available both in the sea and on dry land. It is sourced in mines and lagoons and processed in salt works. And yet there are places where there is no salt. This makes the trade in salt massive but local. Kept dry, it doesn’t rot, catch fire or become infested with vermin. The salt trade developed local markets; transporting and taxing salt helped to fill the coffers of early modern states. To collect their levies, they established customs posts at the bottlenecks of the transportation networks – at seaports, porterages and the rare bridges over rivers, and on mountain passes. Instead of sending tax collectors into peasants’ farmyards, these states switched to taxing everything that moved and did not decay. Often, this meant salt.

Although edible salt is freely available in seawater, boiling brine is an inefficient way of obtaining it. It takes a lot of firewood to produce a spoonful of salt. On the sea coast near Rome, brine was poured into shallow pans made of lead and evaporated by the sun. Venice adopted a cheaper and safer method of crystallising salt in ‘cascades’ – coastal salt works. A small bay was partitioned to create a chain of pools which were separated by dams but connected by locks. A windmill channelled seawater into the upper pool; evaporated by the sun, the solution went down a level when the lock was opened. Collected from the lowest pool, the salt had to be dried and milled, and the product was ready. The method is simple but it did not work in many other places. Venice exported huge amounts of salt to Constantinople, though there was no shortage of seawater there. In the tidal marshes of Northern France, fine sea salt – fleur de sel – forms a thin crust floating on the water; it has to be harvested by hand, a task which was traditionally done by women, but the volumes were low. The Venice-style ‘cascades’ require bays that are protected from storms and flooding but not connected to river estuaries where the water is fresh, not saline. Widespread in the Mediterranean, this method was less common in Asia. There are few places in the world with lagoons like that of Venice.

In the thirteenth century Venice established a monopoly on the salt trade. Practising mercantilism avant la lettre , the republic allowed salt trading to be conducted only through its own warehouses. Packed into sacks, salt was taken from the cascade farms onto terra firma in the countryside around Venice, to Bologna and even Tuscany. It was also exported by sea and traded all over the Adriatic. The salt monopoly became the economic foundation of the only Italian state which didn’t have a Roman heritage. The islands in the Mediterranean developed their own cascade farms; when returning from these early colonies, commercial ships brought the salt to Venice, using it as ballast. Importing salt to Venice, grading and storing it, selling it to the locals and re-exporting it became the vital tasks of the republic’s administration. Like the Navigation Acts which England would later introduce, the salt monopoly did not nationalise the commodity but controlled its movement. All sea trade in salt had to go via Venice and only Venetian ships could transport it. The fleet earned revenue and the republic received taxes, which were easy to collect on home territory. Salt producers who broke these rules were destroyed by force of arms. A whole region of Venice, Punta della Dogana, was converted into salt warehouses. Surprisingly modern, the Salt Administration was a kind of super-ministry consisting of three tiers – Collegio, Ufficio and Camera. The salt college took strategic decisions and was subordinate to the Council of Ten; the salt office managed monopoly trade, subsidies and taxes; the Camera, the salt chamber, was the bank, which issued trade credits and promissory notes guaranteed by the future production of salt. For centuries, the salt trade was the main contributor to Venice’s revenue; the salt monopoly continued until the military defeat of 1509. The profits were spent on canals, palaces, the navy and other state expenditures. But, like the canals, the salt works were prone to silting up so that the law of diminishing returns affected them as much as any other extractive industry.

Terrestrial heartlands had to find another source of salt. Riddled with mines and tunnels, the Alps produced rock salt for the areas to the north. From the seventeenth century onwards, England extracted salt from the Cheshire mines. As a result, whole areas of Cheshire subsided, turned into swamp and vanished like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. The Middle East and Persia obtained salt from salt lakes, the remains of ancient seas. Relatively cheap to produce, salt was a heavy commodity, and in large countries such as France and Russia the salt trade remained local. Nationwide salt markets did not develop there until the coming of the railways, as was also the case with grain, firewood and building materials.

Cardinal Richelieu said that the salt tax was as important for France as the silver mines were for Spain. In Brittany, where salt was obtained in coastal ponds, it was cheap; but there was no salt in the interior of the country. The kingdom divided its own territory into six regions, imposing different levels of salt tax, gabelle , in each one. This was a sad story: Paris was collecting funds to enable centralisation, but its actions led to the further fragmentation of the country. Louis XIV stationed thousands of soldiers on the Loire at the border crossing between coastal Brittany and saltless Anjou. They searched everyone going across the river. Notorious for their crudity, these gabeleurs had no choice – women carried lumps of salt under their skirts. The gabelle was the most hated of taxes; one of the key demands of the French Revolution was the abolition of the salt tax. 2 But it was reinstated by Napoleon and continued in various forms until the middle of the twentieth century. In 1930 the link between salt and revolution reappeared in British India. Mahatma Gandhi led the famous Salt March in protest against the British monopoly on the salt trade. After walking 240 miles, Gandhi collected grains of salt from a cascade salt farm, deliberately breaking the law of British India. The first independent government of India abolished the salt monopoly, but it was soon reintroduced. National governments are just as much in need of revenue as empires.


Sugar cane grows only in the tropics and needs plenty of soil, sun and water. This tall, robust plant is a very efficient photosynthesiser. In the right conditions it produces a large biomass – 20 kilograms per square metre. But it quickly exhausts even the most fertile soil. Producing sugar on colonial plantations was all about timing. Sugar cane had to be planted at exactly the right time of the year. It grows for a year or more and can reach twice the height of a man. It had to be cut before it flowered, because when the plant matured the sap lost part of its sugar content. Then the cane had to be processed immediately to prevent the sap spoiling. One slave gang chopped the stalks with a machete or crushed them in a mill. Then another gang boiled the sap in vats heated by cane waste which had been dried in the sun. This process caused sugar to crystallise, so that yet another gang could separate the crystals from the molasses. One team cleaned and packed sugar, while another distilled molasses into rum. The whole process was very labour-intensive but endlessly repetitive, which meant the work could be carried out by slaves and later by machines. Free labour was no match for slave gangs when it came to mass-scale, tropical commodities such as sugar or cotton. The size of the plantation was also crucial: the rapid processing of the cane required many pairs of hands at once, and small farms couldn’t compete.

Originating in New Guinea, sugar cane was brought to India around 500 ce , and the method of boiling the sap was invented there. Caravans brought it to Europe by the Silk Road from Persia, together with silk and pearls. The first mention of sugar in Venice occurred in 996; before that the only form of sweetener was honey. In the Middle Ages sugarloaves were worth their weight in gold, and statuettes were carved from them as if from marble. Sugar was taken as a medicine; cookery books suggested adding a pinch of sugar to meat and fish as a precious spice.

Columbus’s father-in-law was a sugar planter from Madeira, and on his second voyage Columbus took sugar cane to the island of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. At first, the Spaniards forced the natives to work the cane, but they died out, so from 1509 the planters started buying African slaves. The Portuguese planted sugar cane in Brazil; for a while, they produced most of the sugar for European consumption. Sugar plantations fed triangular trade: Africa supplied labour and America provided land, while Europe consumed sugar, paying for it with industrial goods.

Antwerp was the first centre for refining sugar, but later this ‘sweet trade’ switched to Bristol and Bordeaux. When the mines that had lured the conquistadors were exhausted, sugar became the main source of colonial wealth. The planters felled forests and imported slaves, taking over vast territories in South America, from Mexico to Paraguay, to grow sugar and other exotic commodities – indigo, tobacco, cotton, cocoa. These luxury items that were previously unknown in Europe contributed to the refined, urban way of life. Conspicuous and delicious signs of progress, they depended on the invisible – for the Europeans – labour of black slaves, on the massive use of force and on mounting inequality: on political evil.

The turning point in this story was the colonisation of Barbados, a little island five times smaller than modern-day Luxembourg. On Barbados, planters made fortunes within the course of one generation; in 1666 it cost seventeen times more to buy a plantation there than it had in 1643. Specialisation secured growth, and the whole economy focused on the monoculture of sugar. In exchange, England supplied the island with slaves, food and goods. The much larger island of Jamaica and other Antillean islands followed in Barbados’s footsteps. France developed sugar production on Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the importation of sugar had already outstripped that of tobacco: the demand for sugar grew faster. A sixteenth-century German traveller who had an audience with Elizabeth I noted her sparkling eyes and bad teeth, which, he wrote, were characteristic of all English people – they ate too much sugar. The Spanish, who had discovered sugar earlier, were astonished that the English added it to everything, even wine and meat. Transportation and security services kept pace with the trade. Convoys from the Royal Navy escorted the commercial ships in their transatlantic voyages. By 1675 a fleet of 400 ships sailed between the West Indies and the British Isles; at this point the sugar imported into England exceeded the total of all other colonial goods. In 1731 the sailors of the Royal Navy received a half-pint daily tot of rum; by the end of the century this ration had doubled. By 1750 the poorest agricultural labourers in England were drinking tea with sugar. Even in English almshouses the old men and women each received 23 lb of sugar per year. In 1775 the average Englishman consumed ten times more sugar than the average Frenchman. Sugar had turned from a rare oriental luxury into an item of mass consumption – a working man’s treat. 3

Innovation and labour have created myriad goods made from non-addictive materials such as salt. But the wealth of this world relied on narcotic commodities such as sugar. There was something sugary and addictive in the baroque forms of the European architecture of this period. Commerce is sweet, capital fruitful, money slavery – there was no time in history when these truths were so clear. For getting people hooked on non-stop consumption, only petroleum compares in toxicity to sugar and other soft drugs. By supplying the body with a great number of easily absorbed calories, sugar and its derivatives blunt the appetite and take the place of protein-rich foods. The profits from sugar, tobacco, tea, cocoa and coffee stimulated the slave trade, the annexation of colonies and the engagement in wars. They created millions of ‘ghost acres’ which were added to the limited territory of the Old World. They also encouraged rural families to abandon the ‘idiocy of rural life’ and shaped the familiar features of modernity – the division of labour, mass consumption, urbanisation and a nine-to-five culture. Grain formed the peasantry; textiles made the proletariat. The bourgeoisie was created by tea and sugar.

Islands in the ocean

The cluster of sugar-producing Caribbean islands known as the West Indies inspired fierce rivalry among the European empires. Small in size, these islands were immensely profitable. By the end of the seventeenth century, English trade produced an annual revenue of £2 million sterling, about half of which came from the West Indies. A century later, William Pitt estimated the annual revenue from plantations in the West Indies at £4 million and the revenue from all other colonies at £1 million. Dalby Thomas, a slave trader and popular author, believed that every worker, black or white, on the sugar islands of the West Indies produced as much value as 130 workers in the British Isles. Before the American Revolution the revenue of the British West Indies was twice that of British America. The revenue from these tiny islands greatly exceeded the income from the Indian subcontinent. Adam Smith wrote without surprise: ‘The profits of a sugar-plantation in any of our West Indian colonies are generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America.’ 4

The anthropologist Sydney Mintz showed that the sugar plantation was a pre-industrial factory, which combined the field and the processing facility into a single enterprise. These large plantations, with up to 500 slaves on each, were organised differently from arable farms. They consisted of a series of specialised premises, and the product went from one to another as if on a conveyor belt. Hundreds of slaves worked in the fields while a minimum of twenty-five people, black and white, worked on the processing. While the former used only their machetes, the latter operated equipment that cost thousands of pounds. As in a factory, there was a division of labour; a worker didn’t own his tools and work was subject to a schedule. However, the work rhythm was defined by nature – by the crop’s tendency to spoil quickly and by dependence on the weather for all stages of production.

As with many factories, the economy of scale was crucially important here. The shift from tobacco to sugar entailed the enlargement of plantations and the ruin of many farmers. Small plantations were uneconomic; the need for rapid processing meant that a large workforce was needed. The production process didn’t involve deep specialisation as was the case with grain, where the farmer owned the field and the miller owned the mill. Unlike grain, the raw cane was unsuitable for transportation and needed primary processing on the spot. The natural characteristics of a raw material not only defined the biology of its cultivation and the chemistry of its processing – they also shaped the institutions that specialised in it. Europe believed that it was developing the colonial world in its own image, spreading farming skills to the Americas and the Indias. In fact, the colonies, with their commercial factorias and specialised slave labour, purged of tradition and obedient to instrumental rationality, were true ‘laboratories of modernity’.

Unlike the proto-industrial treatment of sugar and cotton, the primary processing of tobacco involved typical agricultural processes: harvesting, cleaning, drying, packing. When the first colonists grew tobacco on smallholdings in the West Indies, their workforces were not slaves but hired hands. Then tobacco growing was introduced in Virginia. Tobacco needed more care and skill than sugar, was profitable on smaller plantations, and did not need massive processing facilities close to the fields. Tobacco from different plantations had brand names, like wines from different estates. The price reflected quality, and small farms did well out of this system. Conversely, sugar from different plantations was mixed together. The sugar trade developed the hierarchical system of ‘sorts’, which was later adopted by cotton and then oil traders. In a word, tobacco is a branded commodity , while sugar is a sorted commodity .

Tea had been known in the West since the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was used as a medicine, and the market was small. Later, people started drinking tea with sugar – a combination that became the most successful marketing ploy in history. The Dutch imported tea from India, but in the middle of the eighteenth century the Europeans succeeded in opening up Canton for trade. British and Dutch traders competed there along with the French, the Swedes and the Danes. The price of tea fell tenfold, and the consumption of tea per capita in England increased 400 times over a century. The influx of sugar from the Western Atlantic and tea from the Pacific met and mingled on the sceptred isle. With imperial elegance, this encounter took place at the exact midpoint – in the millions of cups served by British ladies during the daily ritual of high tea, a pale imitation of the Japanese tea ceremony, just as the tea cups were an imitation of Chinese porcelain. But the tea and sugar were real, as were the cotton tablecloths, and the tobacco and port which were the male version of the ceremony.

The century of the Enlightenment enthusiastically embraced these drugs. Initially exotic and luxurious, they became affordable items of mass consumption. They increased sociability, filled the stomach, created dependency, gave rise to profit and, usually, escaped the censure of church and state. 5 While opium in England remained the preserve of libertines, tea with sugar, a pinch of tobacco, or a cup of coffee or chocolate were available to everyone. Sugar was at the core of this addictive bundle. Thomas Dalby openly advised the colonies of the American South to follow the example of the West Indies rather than New England: they just needed to produce more sugar and import more slaves. However, sugar cane didn’t thrive in the continental colonies – even in Louisiana the winters were too cold. In that sweet era, the main function of America was to keep the West Indies supplied. On the islands where black slaves produced white sugar, there was no spare land available to grow food crops. The mainland colonies supplied the sugar islands with all the salt fish they needed and most of the oats, grain and flour, lumber, horses and sheep. The planters paid the American farmers, fishermen and blacksmiths with sugar, rum and molasses. Launching unparalleled capital flows from their tiny territories, the sugar islands financed the American colonies, the English textile industry and the British Royal Navy.

While enjoying their good fortune, the West Indies planters yearned to return to England. There they bought London townhouses or country estates from the old aristocracy. Many a stately home in England and Scotland, with its classical portico, ceremonial staircase and ballroom, was built by a sugar plantation owner. Public schools such as Harrow and Eton were full of pupils from the West Indies. Later these children, some of them the descendants of pirates or convicts, married into the aristocracy. They became members of parliament, ministers, mayors. When King George III came across a carriage that was grander than his own, he said to his prime minister, ‘Sugar, sugar eh? … how are the duties, eh Pitt, how are the duties?’ 6 The wealthiest sugar producers managed their plantations in absentia: they lived in England and appointed bailiffs, sending them their written instructions by mail. One of these fortunate men was William Beckford, a grandson of a governor of Jamaica. Known as the richest subject of the British crown, Beckford was elected Lord Mayor of London twice. John Gladstone, a Scottish merchant and member of Parliament, owned a company in Liverpool which traded sugar and slaves with the West Indies, hemp with Russia, cotton with India and grain with the American colonies. The owner of several plantations in Jamaica, he continued to live in Liverpool and later returned to Scotland, where he bought a huge estate. His son became prime minister of England. As Montesquieu said, this really was ‘la commerce douce’ – sweet trade.

It was the sugar trade that engendered the policy and practice of British mercantilism. * In accordance with the Navigation Acts, all goods had to be transported on British ships; colonies could trade in raw materials with each other but could not export them; they could only buy manufactured goods produced in England; and no industry could develop in the colonies apart from the primary processing of raw materials. Thus the mercantile regime underwrote the supply of sugar to the metropole, guaranteed the markets for manufactured goods in the colonies, created profits for the merchants and supported the commercial fleet. The mercantile regime drew a sharp distinction between manufactured goods and raw materials, linking these economic categories to the political difference between the colonies and the metropole: raw materials are sourced in the colonies, goods are manufactured in the metropole, and that is how it must ever be. Members of the British parliament openly cited ‘the West India interest’ in their speeches. On the eve of the Seven Years’ War there were fifty to sixty votes representing this interest, and they supported the mercantile laws and the sugar monopoly. 7 William Pitt the elder, the Whig leader and prime minister, fought honourably for the privileges of the West Indies; William Beckford was his friend and financial sponsor.

Holland and France had their own mercantile legislation, but their trade regimes were not as consistent as that in England. The French colonies, such as Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe, were producing sugar more cheaply, using fewer slaves and less land per sack. The French legislation in the islands, based on the Code Noir established by Louis XIV, was more humane than the English. The French planters weren’t protected by a group monopoly; they had to compete among themselves, which kept prices low and focused on productivity. Selling for half the price of the English product, French sugar conquered the European markets. All this led to the Seven Years’ War, which ended in an English victory. But the outcome was paradoxical. The English seized the big sugar islands of French Guadeloupe and Spanish Cuba but did not annexe them: this would have caused sugar prices to crash. Instead, the English preferred French Canada and Spanish Florida. The control over prices was more important than an increase in sales. Nevertheless, sugar prices fell because of competition with Brazil and the record growth in the number of plantations on Jamaica. The planters were the first to learn an important lesson of capitalism: luxury items generate profit, but only mass consumption brings super-profits.

From being a luxury, sugar became an everyday item. Without it there would be no rum, no jam, no puddings or cakes. The per capita consumption of sugar in England grew more quickly than the consumption of bread or meat. According to Sidney Mintz, 8 in the eighteenth century the annual consumption of sugar increased from 4 to 18 lbs per person. Millions of people were now working in factories, and a cup of tea with sugar replaced their customary ration of gin and beer. In poor families people derived a fifth of their energy calories from sugar. As with alcohol, people feel they can’t have too much sugar: the more you eat, the more you want. Together with oriental luxuries, which had come down in price dramatically in the eighteenth century – porcelain cups, cotton tablecloths, soft furnishings – sugar, tea and coffee played a leading role in shaping the new way of life. Its substance was social pleasures, its output the public sphere, its first locations the coffeehouse and the club. The first London coffeehouse was opened by a Turkish merchant in 1652; soon coffeehouses and tea shops spread across Europe. In eighteenth-century London, chocolate clubs became fashionable. These were pricey establishments with a closed membership, and they did not admit women. Aristocrats met there to play cards and sneer at the neighbouring coffeehouses, where anyone could enter to drink coffee, read newspapers and engage in debates. In 1777, David Hume wrote: ‘An author is little to be valued, who tells us nothing but what we can learn from every coffee-house conversation.’ 9 Two hundred years later, his fellow philosopher Jürgen Habermas linked the history of the Western public sphere with the development of coffeehouses. 10

But the most popular drink was tea, always with sugar. In 1840 the British East India Company was the biggest employer in the empire. It harvested tea from 2 million acres in India, employing a million people in this activity. Everyone drank tea, from the royal family to the poorest peasants. Obviously, the cheaper the quality of tea, the more the drink became just a hot sugar solution. Social historians believe that the quality of the English diet deteriorated at this time; there was a shortage of bread, wages had not risen in decades, and millions of people were short of protein and calories. Calories from sugar were cheaper than calories from bread, and much cheaper than calories from milk. Unable to earn their living by farming, people migrated to the towns, where their wages would allow them to drink tea with sugar.


In 1791, a slave rebellion began in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Black slaves and free mulattos joined forces in their hatred of the sugar planters. After many battles, Haiti declared independence from France in 1804. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who was born a slave, became Jacques I, emperor of Haiti. The extraordinary news about the revolution led by black slaves was a burning topic of discussion in the coffeehouses of Europe. After reading the newspaper reports from Saint-Domingue, a Prussian professor of philosophy, G. W. F. Hegel, formulated his master–slave dialectic, which sowed the seeds of the later revolutions. 11 Dessalines abolished slavery, but he could not outlaw racism. He massacred several thousand whites, but the mulattos continued to exploit the blacks. Soon a new uprising began and Dessalines was assassinated. Dividing the land into smallholdings, the former slaves destroyed the hateful plantations. The slaves became peasant farmers, but the country had to pay vast sums of compensation to France. Formerly the most profitable of the French colonies, Haiti became one of the poorest states in the world.

The reason for the ultimate fall of sugar prices was a scientific discovery that helped produce a cheap, widely available alternative to cane. Andreas Sigismund Marggraf was the son of a Berlin apothecary who studied metals in the spirit of the old alchemist tradition. In 1747, he discovered that sugar could be obtained from beetroot juice. The taste was identical, but the sugar content was low, less than 2 per cent. Hoping to fill a hole in his budget, Frederick II ordered his scientists to breed new kinds of beet, and this was duly achieved: another Berliner, the Huguenot Franz Karl Achard, bred a commercially viable beet plant. Napoleon also supported such experiments: France ran short of sugar because of the revolution in Saint-Domingue and then again during the British naval blockade. In 1811 Napoleon obliged all the departments in France to allocate land to growing sugar beet and promised subsidies for the sugar-processing factories. Selective breeding raised the sugar content of the beet to 20 per cent, equalling cane. Now sugar beet could be grown on almost any field in Europe. After 1815, two competing sugar markets arose in France, the local and the colonial. Beet and cane each had their own lobby in Parliament. The future prime minister François Guizot, an Anglophile and a Calvinist, had such sympathy for the colonies that in 1843 he proposed an outright ban on growing sugar beet. But Napoleon III spoke in favour of sugar beet and against cane. 12 There was a certain logic in these swings of policy: the more nationalistic and anti-British the leader, the greater the enthusiasm for sugar beet. Slavery was abolished in the English plantations in 1833. After the revolution of 1848, Guizot stood down and slavery was abolished on the French islands. With free trade, sugar cane was no competition for sugar beet. In England the Navigation Acts were repealed in 1849; they had remained in force for almost 200 years, pumping capital from the colonies to the British Isles.

But sugar is still with us. In fact, it is a biochemical battery that stores the sun’s energy with extraordinary efficiency. Today 1 acre of subtropical land produces 8 million calories from sugar cane; to get the same number of calories from potatoes would take 4 acres, from wheat, about 10 acres and, from beef, as much as 135 acres. The global consumption of sugar per capita continues to grow.


The milky latex that seeps out of the unripe seed capsules of the poppy contains alkaloids which work on the human nervous system. These give a feeling of well-being and create dependency. The more one uses this drug, the more one wants it. People get more pleasure out of using it in the company of other users, so opium use spreads like an epidemic. The consumption of increasingly high doses of opium leads to loss of appetite, apathy and degradation – the user loses interest in anything other than opium.

Nothing in the life cycle of either organism, the poppy or the human being, predicted their mutual dependence. Nature created the beautiful flowers of the poppy so that the bees would pollinate them, enabling poppies to reproduce and spread. Were the bees created so that they could pollinate the poppies? Philosopher Pangloss would have exclaimed at this point that all was created for the best: flowers for bees, bees for flowers, both for people – such is the divine plan. But the disillusioned Candide would have found many counter-examples. It is simply impossible to believe that the latex from unripe capsules was created so that people could derive pleasure from it, and that man was created so that he could spread the poppy around the globe. The poppy has caused so much evil in the human world that it makes it hard to believe in the benevolence of Providence; moreover, what actually happened between the poppy and people makes it hard to believe in the Creator’s wisdom. Even if a superior intelligence could have arranged the encounter between Homo sapiens and Papaver somnifer , it clearly did not predict the implications of this event. The historical prototype of Pangloss, the German philosopher Leibniz, taught that the world was predetermined by divine purpose and therefore was the best of all possible worlds. Opium refutes this theodicy as effectively as if the poppy had been created for that very purpose.

The opium poppy grows in many areas of the world – in Southern Europe, Africa and Asia. This undemanding plant easily reverts to its wild state, keeping its beauty and narcotic qualities intact. When dried, poppy latex keeps for a long time, so it can be transported and sold. People did this on such a scale that the volume of global trade in opium in the nineteenth century was worth more than the volume of any other goods and commodities. But the history of the opium trade is full of mysteries. It is not clear why India supplied opium to China at great expense, although poppy could just as well have been cultivated there, which did eventually happen. It is also not clear why the Chinese were more susceptible to opium dependency than Indians. It was only in China that opium use became epidemic, destroying tens of millions of people and bringing down the whole machinery of the state. What is clear is that the opium trade between the two countries was based on geographical inequality – the usual source of economic growth and political evil; and that it was a third power, the British Empire, that owned this trade. When long sea voyages connect unlimited demand with unlimited supply, the beneficiaries are the merchant-carriers, and they continue their trade against all the odds.

The Dutch started this business, but the British East India Company displaced them in the 1760s. Its new monopoly on the opium trade in India resulted from a series of military victories in the Seven Years’ War and then in Bengal. Having requisitioned the ports and warehouses, the company forced the Indians to deliver opium at fixed prices. Edmund Burke accused it of depriving the natives ‘of their natural right of dealing with many competitors’. The head of the company, Warren Hastings, rejected the accusations. Later he was convicted of corruption, so Burke was probably right, but the opium monopoly continued. At the beginning of the nineteenth century opium was India’s largest export item and China’s largest import. It was also the second largest source of imperial revenue for British India after the land tax. 13

In Victorian England, opium was a common remedy. Taken with alcohol, it was believed to relieve pain, fever and melancholy. Containing 10 per cent opium, the mixture was called laudanum – an ancient alchemic word. Right up until the twentieth century British pharmacies sold laudanum over the counter. The smoking of opium was considered a Chinese speciality; in other cultures it was used differently – either boiled and inhaled or eaten in various mixtures. In nineteenth-century Europe opium smoking quickly caught on. Still, people considered it an oriental extravagance. Addicts were accused of lack of character and moral decadence. Europeans were also susceptible to addiction, but an epidemic on the scale of the Chinese one never happened elsewhere.

The British East India Company purchased opium as a standing crop, paying for it a year in advance. The business was on a gigantic scale: half a million Indian peasants grew poppy over an area of half a million hectares. The company did not allow the peasants to convert fields from poppy, even in years of hunger, allegedly for moral reasons. ‘It is not our mission to encourage the consumption of opium, but rather to lessen its use, or more properly speaking, the abuse of the drug, and for this end, as well as for the purpose of the revenue , to make the price to the public as high as possible,’ the directors of the company explained to the governor general of India in 1817. 14 But, in China, the company was facing threats from competitors. American ships transported opium from Turkey, but the company directors were even more concerned about the domestic production in China. The Chinese addiction to opium was strategically important for the balance of trade – the cherished value of the mercantile era. For centuries, Europe’s trade balance with Asia had remained negative. China did not need British wool or colonial goods such as sugar and tobacco. The deficit was covered by Spanish silver from the American colonies – up to half of this silver ended up in China. The rapid growth of tea imported from China changed this equilibrium; if the trade gap wasn’t covered, gold and silver would leave European treasuries. Opium from British India filled this gap.

Opium consumption in China spread rapidly, catching on in ports and mining towns. The Chinese authorities tried to protect the country by forbidding the use of opium. In 1799 Peking published the first decree that proclaimed opium a global evil and committed the bureaucracy to fight against it. This had little effect; the civil servants could hardly cope with their own addiction. During the nineteenth century the number of opium addicts in China reached 10 million; some estimates put the figure much higher – up to 10 per cent of the population, or 40 million people. The cities were filled with opium dens. Like the coffeehouses of the Enlightenment or the chocolate clubs of the Restoration, they became hubs of local culture where people shared news, did deals and made contacts. The informal and hedonistic character of these dens and clubs placed them in direct opposition to the Confucian state. This was the Chinese version of civil society. Living off their staple rice diet, peasant coolies could not buy opium. It was for people with money to spend – craftsmen, miners, gardeners and civil servants. As its use spread among the wealthy, opium dragged people down, creating a new poverty. It also spawned new crimes, unknown to traditional society, and new fortunes. This was a vicious circle, the nature of evil: toxicity exacerbates inequality, which provokes a greater anomie, which increases the demand for drugs.

Though the British controlled the trade by importing opium on their ships, they relied on Chinese middlemen, who rapidly made their fortunes. Silver flowed out of China, and a currency crisis began, which increased the role of opium as a means of payment. For the Confucian state, based on rationalism and a kind of meritocracy, opium was evil incarnate. Patriots saw it as a hostile invasion, a retribution of the highest order: people perished, the state was undermined, traditional institutions disappeared. Drug addiction was associated with literacy. In 1839 the Chinese emperor ordered the destruction of opium in the ports and warehouses; on that occasion more than 1,000 tonnes were found and burnt. Outraged by this interference in free trade, the British Empire declared war. Using their first military steamships, British troops forced China to pay compensation. The British obtained Hong Kong and five more ports for duty-free trade. The price of opium fell sharply, and people lower down the social scale began using it, just as had happened with sugar in Europe. Only then did the production of Chinese opium increase. It was considered poor quality and its price was half that of Indian opium, but it saturated the market. As it got cheaper, opium was available to ever increasing numbers of ever poorer people. In reply, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) started in the coastal areas of China: the rebels were Christian reformers battling the forces of evil. The leader of this peasant war, Hong Xiuquan, called himself Christ’s younger brother – he was an unsuccessful civil servant who had failed his examinations four times. Practising asceticism, the Taiping movement forbade opium, alcohol and prostitution. But it had few weapons and no revenue, and the rebellion was put down in bloody battles. The Western powers supplied the Chinese army with artillery and military officers. Together with a parallel uprising of the Muslim Dungans in north-west China, the Taiping Rebellion constituted a civil war, engulfing most of the state. Many millions died from hunger or in battle. Millions more emigrated and settled in South-East Asia. 15

Back in England, the opium war was the subject of parliamentary debate. The prime minister, Henry Palmerston, supported intervention. Richard Cobden, the leader of the Manchester liberals, and William Gladstone, the future prime minister, spoke against it. Gladstone’s sister Helen was an opium addict. 16 Her way of life threatened Gladstone’s political career; he spent many years trying to get her addiction cured and understood the nature of the disease better than others. Responding to the war in China, the British authorities in India increased the production of tea, seeing it as an alternative to opium. From 1854 they gave away large plots of land (up to 3,000 hectares) to any European farmer who wanted to grow tea for export. When the railways reached the foothills of the Himalayas, Indian tea exports to Europe approached those of China. Eventually it should have restored the balance of trade, but in 1856 the Second Opium War began. French and English troops joined forces to occupy Chinese ports and warehouses, liberating them for the opium trade. Undermined by opium and the Taiping, the Chinese lost one battle after another. After seizing Peking, the Western powers signed a peace treaty with China through the mediation of the Russian ambassador, Count Nikolay Ignatieff. China made opium use legal and ceded new ports for free trade. A declaration on the freedom of worship did not prevent a crackdown on the Taiping.

The irony was that Chinese entrepreneurs were now ousting India from the opium market. The British could not resist this development. Opium was grown mainly in the interior provinces of China, but the British controlled only the coastal territories. Opium opened up the interior provinces for domestic trade: more opium was shipped throughout China than salt or rice, which were consumed locally. Prices fell, demand grew, and internal production grew too. Opium and tea supplanted cereals; later, this became one of the causes of mass famine. By the end of the nineteenth century China was already producing nine times more opium than India. But, unlike India, China grew poppy entirely for domestic consumption. At the beginning of the twentieth century, opium became China’s internal affair: the country consumed 95 per cent of the global production of opium, and it was nearly all home-grown. This was the Chinese version of the Great Transformation: the peasants worked in the fields, growing opium for wages paid in opium, which was consumed on the spot. Sugar opened markets for global trade; opium closed them.

Deprived of their revenue, the British opened up new markets for opium throughout South-East Asia. Free-trade ports trans-shipped opium on two oceans; for many years Canton had been such a port, and Singapore had similar beginnings. In the 1840s Hong Kong, now a British colony, became the main trans-shipping port. Many Asian economic tigers owe their origins to opium, and only Japan resisted it. From the outset of talks with the Europeans in 1854, Japan stipulated a ban on the opium trade as a condition for the partial opening of its markets. At the beginning of the twentieth century the very same states which had made money out of the opium trade now curtailed it. In 1906 China concluded an agreement with Great Britain, committing both sides to reducing opium production. Peking undertook several confiscations, but in 1912 the Qing dynasty fell and with it the Confucian state. In 1909 the British authorities abolished the opium trade in Singapore. But they outlawed the opium trade throughout the empire only in 1943, when practically the whole of the British Empire east of Bengal was under Japanese control. Between the two world wars, both Chinese states – the communist insurgents and the Kuomintang regime – actively traded opium. After 1950 totalitarian China removed poppies from its fields and opium from the life of its subjects. But, in Europe, public opinion didn’t react to the opium trade in the same way that it had reacted to the slave trade; preconceptions about Orientalism, closely bound up with opium, played their role. To those who believed that opium was a ‘vice of the yellow race’, it didn’t seem particularly sinful to make money out of it. In fact, the opposite causality was in action, the same that had earlier worked with slaves and would later work with oil: those who benefited from the opium trade blamed the victims in order to justify their own deeds.

Colonies and calories

The intensification of agricultural labour led to its convergence with urban labour and, therefore, to the destruction of the peasant way of life, with its notorious ‘idleness’. Dispersed among countless rural cottages, the English textile industry was so cost-effective that it led to the collapse of its more technologically advanced Italian rivals. A crucial question is what exactly led the rural households out of the equilibrium of the moral economy and diverted them onto the highway of pre-industrial capitalism.

The eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm identified one of the reasons as the appearance in rural households of colonial goods such as sugar, tobacco, coffee and tea. 17 Producing a quasi-narcotic dependency, these products motivated people to earn more than the minimum needed for survival. The more affordable they were, the bigger the role they played in family budgets. We are talking about a mass phenomenon: after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and then for decades after that, these goods made up a quarter of all British imports. Trade in addictive commodities made English merchants fabulously rich. This trade channelled Britain’s colonial appropriations into the financial expansion of its markets, banks and stocks. But the sugar dependence of the metropolitan population was even more important for the empire.

A sweet tooth quickly leads to a sugar habit, and the habit leads to growing consumption. Everyone is subject to these effects – men and women, young and old, rich and poor, although age and gender play their roles. The sociologist Werner Sombart theorised that the development of capitalism was linked to the emerging role of women in consuming oriental luxuries. Sugar was a crucial ingredient in this process; Sombart wrote that the link between women and sugar was ‘supremely important in the history of economic development’. 18 Alcohol and tobacco were masculine pleasures, coffee was equally favoured by all, and tea and scones were more appealing to women. Unloaded at the Atlantic ports, colonial groceries were unequally distributed across Europe, emanating from the North Sea and gradually reaching distant corners. 19 The inclusion of sugar, tobacco and tea in the diet of ordinary people led to the reliance of rural families on these imported commodities, which opened up subsistence farming to the circulation of goods and money. Incorporating the ‘moral economy’ into global trade shaped new mechanisms for motivating labour. If a household increased its consumption of sugar, tea or chocolate with every year that passed, it meant that the householder, his wife and children had to work harder and earn more cash with every year that passed. Defying the ‘moral economy’, the growing consumption of addictive commodities led to a shortage of money, to the necessity to work more, to look for extra work, and to bring women and children into the workforce. This seemed only fair as women and children consumed just as much sugar, tea and chocolate as men.

Sugar, jams and sauces, chocolate and other sweet treats, together with tea, created a new ritualised set of consumables with a recognisably feminine aspect. The masculine consumption of tobacco and strong alcoholic drinks from the colonies – rum, gin and port – developed in parallel. The trade in all these tasty things grew enormously. In 1750 the volume of tobacco imported from the American colonies on British ships was six times greater than a hundred years previously, the quantity of gin twelve times greater, and the amount of tea, rum and coffee immeasurably greater. The prices for all these goods fell, regardless of inflation, which raised the price of grain and local goods. Women’s labour, paid and unpaid, played a key role in all these processes. On the eve of the eighteenth century, city life as we understand it today – cafés and tea houses, theatres, hotels and shops – began to develop in Western Europe. Local goods were sold in the town’s markets, and shops sold colonial goods. The new colonial economy interacted with older commodities such as linen (tablecloths, sheets, curtains), metal alloys (tableware, cutlery), wood (furniture) and paper (books, newspapers). Common people scaled the consumerist heights that had formerly been accessible only to the aristocracy. Now the bourgeois family routinely consumed all those things, from imitation silk to beet sugar to steam-powered travel, which were practically indistinguishable from what their grandparents had seen as royal luxuries. This ascent conveyed a dizzying sensation of progress, which the middle-class family saw not so much as increasing their consumption as climbing up the social scale.

Throughout the centuries, extraction and suffering in the poor and distant parts of the world fed ‘consumption’ – pleasure and disease – in the rich countries of the Northern Atlantic. Two forces moderated this addiction-driven exchange – governmental regulation and the power of the consumer. But a third power was arguably the most important – the word of truth. Creating the modern public, imaginative writers played leading roles in sensitising people to the life of others. Making myriads of individual decisions, both the officials and the consumers followed the texts that they trusted, if only because there was nothing else to rely on. A disenchanted Jesuit priest who refashioned himself into a central figure of the Enlightenment, Abbé Raynal, gathered a stellar team to write the History of the Two Indias ; published in 1770, this encyclopaedia of the colonies led to the public revelation of slavery as evil. Influenced by this overview of global inequality, the Russian customs officer Alexander Radishchev in 1790 published a radical response – a travelogue local, sentimental and subversive – A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow . A public revelation of serfdom as evil, this book got him sacked and exiled to Siberia. The so-called Clapham sect – a high-brow group of English scholars and priests – played a definitive role in the development of the abolitionist movement. One of its founders was Zachary Macauley, a Scottish highlander who managed a sugar plantation in Jamaica but refashioned himself into an anti-slavery activist; in 1825, he founded the Anti-Slavery Reporter , a fact-based monthly publication that continued for many decades. His eldest son, Thomas Babington Macauley, became a historian and politician who promoted the idea of progress, which he identified with extending English-language education and British institutions to India. The Dutch author Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), in his novel Max Havelaar, or, The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860), described the working conditions in the coffee plantations of the Dutch East Indies. 20 Leading to mass protests in Holland, this novel initiated the fair trade movement. The power of the consumer rules supreme, but its success depends on the nature of the commodity: for coffee or bananas, fair trade works well, but for sugar or petroleum not so much. Another milestone of cultural decolonisation was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), which portrayed the barbaric exploitation of black workers in the Belgian Congo, the symbolic source of all our ivory towers. 21 One of the best historians of slavery, Eric Williams, in his seminal book Capitalism and Slavery (1944), demonstrated that slave labour paid for the Industrial Revolution. A descendant of slaves, Williams became prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. When he defended his thesis at Oxford right before the start of the Second World War, he defined the nineteenth-century ‘slavery crisis’ – the incomplete emancipation of the American slaves and, I would add, of the Russian serfs and the Chinese coolies as well – as the very first world war.



1 Withington, ‘Intoxicants and the invention of “consumption”’.2 Chanel, ‘Taxation as a cause of the French Revolution’.3 Mintz, Sweetness and Power .4 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , p. 389.5 Breen, Tobacco Culture ; Moss and Badenoch, Chocolate ; Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures ; Grivetti and Shapiro, Chocolate ; Breen, The Age of Intoxication .6 Mintz, Sweetness and Power , p. 156.7 Williams, Capitalism and Slavery .8 Mintz, Sweetness and Power , p. 67.9 Hume, Political Essays , p. 93.10 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere .11 Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History .12 Yarrington, ‘Sucre indigène and sucre colonial ’.13 Farooqui, Smuggling as Subversion ; Trocki, Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy .14 See the Eclectic Review 7 (January–June 1840): 805.15 Reilly, The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom .16 Isba, Gladstone and Women .17 Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire ; see also Sahlins et al., ‘The sadness of sweetness’; Pomeranz and Topik, The World that Trade Created .18 Sombart, Luxury and Capitalism .19 De Vries, The Industrious Revolution , p. 161.20 Feenberg, ‘“Max Havelaar”: an anti-imperialist novel’; Salverda, ‘The case of the missing empire’.21 Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost ; Etkind, Internal Colonization , chap. 11; Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch .



Unlike metals or fossil fuels, fibres are a product of organic life which has grown on the earth very recently. Some animals and plants produce long, sturdy filaments as part of their bodies. These can be harvested and then mechanically processed – cleaned, stretched, interwoven – to make smooth, pliable cloth. These processes don’t change the individual fibres but combine them with thousands of similar ones. So the processing of fibres – spinning, weaving, tailoring – requires the repetition of an enormous number of single, consecutive movements. This had been predominantly women’s work, but then inventors designed machines which could reproduce these small movements more quickly and precisely than human hands. From the time of the Great Silk Road and up until the era of oil and plastic, industry and capitalism consisted for the most part in the processing of fibre and the trading in goods made from fibre.

Unlike grain, which is relatively easy to process, fibre requires two different tasks – first the production of the raw material, which includes its preliminary processing, and then a very elaborate secondary processing. The cultivation of the raw material needs plenty of land, water, sunlight and unskilled labour; on the other hand, the processing requires little land and an abundance of skilled work. For this reason it isn’t practical to cultivate and process fibre in the same place. Mercantile empires would solve this problem by using the land of their distant colonies to produce the fibre and the labour of their metropolitan centres to process it. Transportation was the task of merchant and armed fleets. Fiscal-military states were fibre-producing states; more than anything else they depended on wool and cotton, but their fate was also defined by hemp, flax and silk. Until the advent of railways, the textile industry was ‘the main driving force’ of civilisations, wrote Braudel. 1

Many technologies were common to all fibres. The plant or animal had to be nurtured and the fibre collected; all that was required for this was land, time and labour. The harvested fibre was cleaned – combed, pulled, washed, dried. Once the moisture had been removed from it, it was softened and straightened. This heavy, mostly manual work transformed a damp, dirty raw material into a tradable commodity – a dry material which would keep well and was light to transport. On arrival in the metropole, this material underwent secondary processing. Short filaments had to be twisted together to form one long thread, and the thread had to be wound into balls or hanks and then woven into cloth. It was then sent on to other craftsmen who cut the fabric and stitched it into garments, bedclothes, sails, cables or sacks. In the era of the Silk Road the cost of transporting the material made up almost all of the price of the finished goods. Sea transport lowered the trading outlay; but even during the period of the Industrial Revolution, cotton in Virginia cost 20 per cent less than in Manchester.

Fibre demonstrates the fortuitous link between human needs and nature’s variety. Living creatures are made up of cells; a minute number of these cells elongate into fibres. In order to make thread, these fibres have to be joined to one another – a process that doesn’t happen in nature. An individual cotton fibre is one long cell, which develops in the coating of the cotton seed. The cell twists itself into a microscopic tubule that is hollow inside, which explains why it holds heat so well. But there is more to it. The cell walls that allow it to roll itself into a hollow tube also allow it to curl together with another cell. Joined along their length, these micro-tubules make a flexible and robust thread in which the individual fibres are inseparable – their bonds are just as strong as the individual filaments. 2 These threads can be further rolled together or interwoven to produce cloth. The cloth can be dyed using a complex chemical process requiring different raw materials – natural dyes. The hollow tubules of cotton absorb these dyes better than any other fibre except for silk. But these dyes – violet purple, blue indigo, red cochineal – are also by-products of nature, which evolved them for quite other purposes. In nature, these organic substances would never be anywhere near the cells of silk or cotton.


In order to obtain 200 grams of silk thread for a shirt, producers had to rear a thousand silkworms and feed them 36 kilograms of mulberry leaves. Then they spent many long hours unravelling the silk cocoons of the larvae into long, unbroken filaments, washing and drying, scutching and combing them before twisting individual filaments into a thread, weaving the thread into cloth and finally sewing a shirt. At first people gathered cocoons from the forest. When the moths hatched, the chemical structure of the cocoon changed and the fibres shortened. It was crucial to unravel the cocoons before that, so people kept them close to the house. About 1600 bce the ancient Eurasians began to plant mulberry and cultivate silkworms in their gardens. This was how the symbiotic trinity of man, mulberry and moth started. The caterpillars eat the mulberry’s leaves but the adult moths pollinate its flowers; the fertilised flowers produce sweet fruits which are eaten by humans, who disperse the seeds; the mulberry grows and needs pollination by moths. Using the silk fibres, humans cocooned themselves from heat, moisture and insects. In due course, this material became an inexhaustible source of beauty, wealth and power. In exchange for these favours, silk required labour, warmth and loyalty and led to the development of settled life, private ownership and global trade.

The ability of the silk moth to overcome the chemical defence of the mulberry tree and the ability of man to clear land to grow this tree created a new ecological niche for all three of them – man, moth and mulberry. But the tree and the moth were more sensitive to climate than man. Outside particular areas in China, India, Japan, Central Asia, Persia and, by the early modern period, Southern Europe, silk proved very difficult to produce. Because of this, silk had always been a monopoly of remote, exotic places. Light to transport, easy to dye, not prone to rotting, silk came from a great distance, was therefore extremely expensive, and proved to be an ideal product for early European trade.

The first silk moth farms appeared round contemporary Peking long before our era. Only the higher echelons of society had the right to wear silk garments; a peasant who dared to wear silk could pay with his life. Silk was used as a currency. The salary of civil servants, and later of army personnel, was calculated in rolls of silk, and commoners paid their taxes in silk. Thus silk products became the embodiment of luxury throughout the civilised world. There were many producers but very few carriers who could lead their caravans across the deserts. The regional monopoly meant that prices could be maintained, producing high profits even with low volumes and extremely long cycles of trade. Hardly anything had more impact on world affairs than this substance secreted by the grubs of a strange insect which ate the leaves of the mulberry tree.

Legend has it that Europeans first encountered silk during Alexander the Great’s campaign; he may even have wanted to conquer India because of silk. Rolls of silk travelled from the East; sacks of silver and bales of wool went from the West. Pack camels travelled for months, covering about 10,000 kilometres. In the mountains the bales were transferred onto horses. For the camels and merchants this was more often than not a one-way journey; many perished on the road. But for those who survived the profits could be colossal. Dozens of books have been written about the Great Silk Road, but some researchers doubt if it ever existed. Up until the Industrial Revolution, Asia was a more capacious market than Europe. But trading in Asia was quite different from carrying a cargo across an ocean on a ship that sailed to its destination without calling in at any ports on the way. It was more a case of the slow diffusion of goods from one transit point to another. Whatever the merchants couldn’t sell locally, they sent on further towards the West.

Silk was popular in ancient Rome just at the time when the severe Romans began to acquire the taste for luxury. ‘Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body,’ fumed Seneca. 3 The Romans used this airy fabric for every style of tunic and cloak, but they didn’t know the secret of its origins; this was a mystery which travellers, scholars and missionaries tried to solve. Warm fur and water-repellent silk were often worn together. The Roman custom was to wear a silk cloak with a fur lining. The Renaissance fashion was the opposite – a fur coat with a silk lining. The contrast between the fine silk, which fitted the body like a second skin, and the coarse animal skins or wool garments of peasants and paupers built an image of the noble body that was characteristic for Western man. Followers of ascetic traditions chose wool in preference to silk and fur; Franciscan monks still wear a brown wool robe tied with a white girdle, also made from wool. In Central Asia there was a useful myth that the Koran forbade Muslims to wear silk, so people there wore a mixture of cotton and silk while pure silk was exported.

Later, silk dressed the walls of the elegant rooms of the wealthy – the house was compared to a human body and took on the same kind of class distinctions. Carriages and gondolas were upholstered in silk and decorated with pennants and standards – the symbolic bodies of Western states. During the Renaissance the global demand for oriental silk was so high that Europe was constantly in a trade deficit with China and Japan, paying them with silver from the Spanish mines in Mexico. In this global trade one primary commodity was exchanged for another – silk for silver; but the proportion of paid work invested in silk was much higher than that invested in silver, and thus China prospered while Europe lagged behind.

Sericulture remained a Chinese secret until two Christian monks brought back some silk moth eggs and seeds of the mulberry tree; according to legend, on the journey to Constantinople they hid them in a bamboo stem, just as Prometheus had hidden fire in a hollow reed. In any case, sericulture flourished in the coastal towns of Italy, and particularly in thirteenth-century Venice. There was a boom in farms growing mulberry trees in Veneto, Tuscany and Lombardy. However, in Italy the spring frosts prevented the cocoons of the silkworms maturing on the mulberry leaves, as they did in China and Persia. The larvae had to be reared indoors, spread out on special tables, fed with chopped mulberry leaves and kept at room temperature. The maturing of the cocoons was stimulated by particular flowers which had to be brought indoors. At the right moment, the cocoon had to be soaked in hot water, killing the larva inside it, and then unravelled. The process required the cleanliness of a lab and the exact control of temperature and timing – hardly typical conditions for peasant work.

The domestic part of this work, when the larvae needed warmth and care, was carried out by women. In spring, when the mulberry trees came into leaf, the Italian women collected silk moth eggs in little bags and carried them against their breasts. Their body heat made the larvae hatch. In Samarkand there was a belief that if a man looked at the larvae they stopped spinning their cocoons. A source of female employment and family prosperity, silk saved many regions of Southern Europe and Central Asia from economic stagnation. The farmers kept no larvae or grubs after they unravelled the cocoons – no seed corn for the following year’s crop. The supply of quality larvae to a farm was a separate business. These specialists ensured the continuity of sericulture; they were also the commercial agents, who benefited from the silk business more than anybody else. In manufacturing and selling finished goods, these people are usually called entrepreneurs; but, when it comes to the extraction and distribution of raw materials, I prefer to call them curators . In Italy, these silk curators supplied the larvae, collected the fibre, placed orders for spinning and weaving, and then sent the finished silk to the end user. Organised in a guild or cartel, these curators had a group monopoly on the whole industry. It is not clear why the farmers themselves could not have kept a small number of cocoons and allowed a new cycle of moths to hatch – this was, after all, what they did every year with seed corn. But if the curators had given up control over the silk moth eggs they would have lost control over the whole silk industry. These curators dominated the silk business just like the merchants who traded across the Atlantic dominated the production of tobacco. But, in the silk trade, the producer and the buyer might live only a few miles apart from each other. 4

The elaborate processing of the silk filament was concentrated in towns; the lion’s share of the profits also remained there. Mulberry trees are nice and shady, and the people of Verona planted them in disused moats. The more expensive sorts of silk were spun in Venice, Florence and Pisa. Bologna catered for the mass end of the market. In the mid-fifteenth century, every third Florentine family depended on sericulture. The first water-powered machines appeared in the silk factories of Bologna as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. The number of hand looms could be counted in their thousands. Patent rights furthered technical progress; in Venice, inventions had been legally protected since the fifteenth century. In 1410 the Silk Guild achieved a complete ban on importing ready-made silk into Venice, but the import of the raw material for processing received every encouragement. This was an early version of mercantilism. Venice had a monopoly on the import of raw silk from Persia and Syria; processed in the city, the manufactured goods were exported by sea or across the Alps at great profit. In the sixteenth century this profitable business collapsed because of the Turkish wars and competition from other European countries; having set up their own silk manufacturing, they drove up the price of raw silk. Still, it remained a diffused raw material with a high production cost, which made up more than half the price of the finished goods. The secret of this rare success was the easy transportation by multiple routes that could not be monopolised by a handful of curators. As happened with other luxury commodities, the use of silk underwent top-down democratisation. Silk garments, stockings and hats became standard wear for doctors, lawyers and prostitutes. It helped that the guilds relaxed their regulations that prohibited the blending of different sorts of silk. Moreover, silk was now blended with wool or cotton to create a warm, cheap fabric. Whole towns in Flanders and southern Italy specialised in creating these blends. Italian craftsmen established sericulture in Spain, the American South and Crimea. But attempts to establish sericulture north of the Alps failed.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, an epidemic of the ‘pepper disease’ killed silkworms all over Europe and Central Asia; Louis Pasteur intervened, but science was powerless to help. Monoculture, a result of the breeders’ selection to create a homogeneous kind of silk moth, was one of the causes of the disease. But, in Japan, the breeders had crossed the local silk moth with the Chinese species, and these Japanese hybrids were not susceptible to the disease. On the eve of Japanese industrialisation, silk became the country’s main export commodity. During the Soviet era sericulture was successfully established in Uzbekistan and Crimea – silk was produced for military parachutes and for export. But the technology of sericulture had hardly changed since the Middle Ages. A woman who worked in Soviet sericulture in the 1960s describes the intricacies of the process which have eluded written history:

Whole plantations of mulberry were grown nearby. We cut great armfuls and brought them to feed the larvae. They munched the leaves so loudly that it sounded as if the place was full of horses, not insects. When the larvae became dormant we filled the whole room with thistles from the steppe – this plant is also called ‘tumbleweed’. After dormancy the caterpillars became a transparent yellow colour and transformed into pupae. They crawled onto the thistle stems and began to ‘cast their spell’, swaying as if they were dancing as they spun their cocoons. 5

Hemp and flax

Hemp and flax – the plant from which linen is produced – are unfussy plants and can grow anywhere except in deserts and the tropics. Their need for sun, water and soil is no more than any weed requires; hemp easily grows unattended. Linen and hemp do not absorb dyes, and their natural hues are yellowish or grey. Although more expensive, cotton and silk are much more attractive. But linen sailcloth is as durable as cotton cloth, and hemp fabric is much stronger, though coarser. There were tasks that only these tough fibres could perform.

It was simple to grow flax and hemp, but processing them needed more steps and skills than were involved in the processing of wool or cotton. Flax had to be plucked by hand so that the whole stem, right down to the roots, was taken; it was dried, cleaned, braked and scutched to separate the fibre from the woody stems, heckled with combs of different gauges, pounded, sorted, then steeped in water and dried again, and finally drawn out into threads and spun. The coarser hemp went through roughly the same cycle, repeated over long periods of time. The male and female hemp plants have different characteristics; the fibre from the male plants is finer, so the grading of plants needed special skills. While most of these operations were mechanical processes, retting (the practice of dissolving or decomposing extra cellulose from the fibres) was a chain of biochemical reactions that required very particular conditions. All in all, the processing of flax and hemp was a dirty and laborious task, which involved shifting huge masses of the raw crop from the field to the barn and then from the barn to the river and back. The sheaves of hemp needed constant attention but the work was not continuous; there were long breaks which might last weeks or months. While the fibre was drying or soaking, the peasant could get on with other tasks. As the processing involved chemical changes, it could not be hurried up or intensified. These slow, uneven cycles led not to the division of labour but, on the contrary, to multitasking – combining different occupations and shifting from one to another. For this reason the forced labour of slaves, which was suited to tobacco and cotton, was ineffective for hemp.

Although both plants grow on dry land, they were profoundly important for maritime civilisations. Sails were made from linen, and ropes, sacks and cables from hemp. The toughest of natural fibres, hemp is not affected by seawater. This is one of the numerous contingencies that underlie the raw materials economy. A plant which in nature never comes into contact with seawater turns out to be uniquely adapted to function in this hostile environment. All maritime empires, from the Roman to the British, needed vast quantities of hemp, and there was simply no substitute for it. But the Catholic empires – the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French – and Orthodox Russia managed hemp better than the Protestant and Puritan ones.

In Venice there was a Hemp Guild which controlled both the quality of hemp produced and the middlemen who traded in it. Having founded the English Royal Navy, Henry VIII in 1533 laid every farmer under the obligation to set aside some land for hemp production. Elizabeth I raised this hemp tax and increased the punishment for non-payment. In 1611 London asked the colonists in Jamestown to sow hemp alongside their tobacco crop. The obedient deputies of the colonial assemblies in Virginia, then Maryland and Pennsylvania, copied these decisions. The British government offered a subsidy for every acre sown with hemp. Ten of the thirteen American colonies followed suit. In Virginia, if a household couldn’t manage the required consignment of hemp, it paid a fine of 1,000 lb of tobacco. Clearly, the farmers preferred growing wool and tobacco for the mass market to growing hemp for the government’s benefit. Then a myth arose that the English climate was unsuitable for hemp growing. In 1808 the government asked the East India Company to implement the production of hemp in India. The empire was permanently short of hemp and its by-products. The reasons had little to do with climate: hemp grew everywhere, and it grew in England. It was the processing that needed certain environmental conditions. There was no similar problem with any other raw material – with grain or wool or cotton; if there was a shortage of them, prices rose and then production increased, even though with delay. 6

Unable to impose hemp on their farmers, the British Empire and its American colonies depended on Russian hemp. The eminent historian Alfred Crosby wrote his first book about America’s resource dependence on imperial Russia. Hundreds of American ships plied back and forth across the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. Each vessel had sails, ropes and rigging lines, and nearly all of them were made out of North European, for the most part Russian, hemp and linen; a mere 2 per cent of the hemp which they used in ships’ rigging was home-grown in America. For example, the three-masted, 44-cannon frigate Constitution , which left the Boston shipyard in 1794 and is still afloat today, had about a hundred tons of rigging; every rope was made out of imported hemp. Such a frigate needed two sets of sails, each containing about an acre of linen canvas, and this too had been sourced from the ports of Northern Europe. Every few years the rigging and sails had to be replaced. ‘Russian hemp’ was considered the most robust and reliable. Linen from Silesian flax was finer than Russian, and this quality was prized for underwear and clothes. But Russian linen made the best sails and Russian hemp made the best ropes.

The unusual processing shaped the history of hemp: turning plants into a commodity needed competent, honest and prolonged labour. The long filaments of the hemp plant are joined together by a sticky tar which has to be removed before the splitting and cleaning process can begin. The Americans used natural ventilation to do this. After the harvest, the hemp stalks were left lying on the ground for about a month and occasionally turned over. This got rid of the unwanted tar but damaged the fibres, which became coarse and partly lost their ability to curl up. These fibres were suitable for making sacks but made poor-quality ropes; the American sailors refused to use them, even though they were cheap. The Russian method began by drying the stalks in sheaves, but then the stalks were strewn in water and pressed under wooden frames. The purer the water, preferably running water, the better the fibre produced. Depending on its intended use, the hemp was soaked for anything from two weeks to three years. In some cases the water was heated up. Then the fibre was dried, and only after this was it scutched and combed. As a result, commercial hemp, suitable for rigging, was only ready for sale two years after the crop had been cut in the fields. This method of retting never lent itself to mechanisation or to slave labour; the production process needed knowledge, experience and patience. Much of this work was done by women, and probably by children too.

The main buyers of Russian and Baltic linen and hemp were the English, who needed them for sails, ropes, fishing nets, underwear, tablecloths and cheap clothing. The Admiralty established the production of canvas and hemp in Scotland and Ireland, but the British fleet still depended on supplies from abroad. The prices for hemp and canvas constantly increased, especially during times of war, but the production of hemp and linen in England declined. It was a paradox of mercantilism that, while the British economy made its profits by processing American cotton, which was used largely for decorative purposes, the Royal Navy sourced its vitally important fibres from continental Europe and distant Russia – independent and frequently hostile countries.

Throughout two centuries, Russian hemp was more expensive than American. There was plenty of sunshine and water in Kentucky and Connecticut, where hemp was planted, but production there could not keep up with demand. It was a large-scale market failure. The invisible hand of the market worked for silk, wool and cotton, but with regard to hemp no commercial stimulus was enough. In his excellent book, Crosby asks why the American hemp growers didn’t use the Russian ‘secrets’, which everybody knew. 7 The explanation should be sought in the natural characteristics of hemp, the operations required for its processing, and the economic rules and political events which underwrote these operations. The mass production of linen and hemp developed on estates in Brittany, Silesia and parts of Russia, where serfdom had either been recently abolished or still existed. But the best hemp was made in those lands of northern Russia where serfdom was unknown. Serfdom does not explain the Russian success with hemp. My explanation comes from outside the realm of economics.

Today industrial hemp contains almost no narcotic resin; but this is the result of scientific breeding in the twentieth century. Before this every hemp plant contained narcotic substances. These properties of hemp, also known as cannabis, had been commented on since the time of Herodotus: the Scythians strewed hemp seeds over the scorching hot stones in the bath house, where they inhaled the fumes and conducted orgies. Historians and ethnographers have documented the use of hemp seeds by shamans, priests and pleasure-seekers. There is a theory that the ancient Israelites used these seeds for preparing anointing oil. Hashish – the crushed and pressed leaves and flower heads of the hemp plant, rich in narcotic resin – had its origins in China and the Middle East. But Europeans started smoking hashish only after Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. Living among jungles of hemp, the farmers of the Russian and European North made use of the unusual properties of the seeds and resin of this plant. They used hemp seeds in cooking, ground them into flour, pressed them to extract oil. Medical manuals prescribed hemp seeds as a painkiller, a sedative, a diuretic and even a contraceptive. Anyone who had a field of hemp was susceptible to the temptation. And this is my hypothetical explanation for the stubborn resistance to hemp production in the Protestant and Puritan contexts: those who wanted to avoid temptation shunned hemp, sacrificing the profits.

The fact that hemp was a useful plant and yet had unusual psychoactive properties defined its later fate. Its production was repeatedly banned, either by royal decree or by Acts of Parliament. The US Congress considered any hemp plant, even scientifically bred, as a source of drugs and in 1937 introduced a prohibitive tax which undermined its production; the industry had to be urgently re-established during the war. For similar reasons, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Protestant farmers didn’t wish to cultivate a source of easy pleasure in their fields. As a result, the Protestant states had to buy processed hemp from other countries. It isn’t clear, however, why this logic didn’t prevent the Anglo-Saxons and the Dutch from cultivating hops and tobacco.

Hemp and the Oprichnina

While the Spanish and Portuguese empires were directing their ships to the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, England was preoccupied with the North. In the sixteenth century, the Venetian navigator Sebastian Cabot made his base in Bristol; from there he searched for a northern route to China. His interests chimed with the dreams of another trailblazer, the alchemist and astrologer John Dee. Having drawn up horoscopes for the royal houses of Europe and maps for the Muscovy Company, Dee was the first person to formulate the concept of the British Empire. Mixing legalese, mysticism and history, Dee asserted British rights to all northern lands, great and small, from Greenland to the possessions of the duke of Muscovy: according to Dee, this exclusive right of the English crown came down from King Arthur. In 1555 Dee and Cabot formed the Muscovy Company – the first joint stock corporation registered in England. Elizabeth I took an interest and commissioned Dee to work on a book, The Limits of the British Empire . 8

This was the era of travel without maps, the hasty colonisation of distant lands, and well-thought-out ‘alliances’ with neighbouring countries. In 1553 three English ships, watched by the boy king Edward VI, set off from Greenwich to seek a new route to China through the northern seas. The ships were locked in the ice of the White Sea; one of the captains, Richard Chancellor, was saved by the Pomors, a northern people who had long been under the rule of Moscow. Chancellor managed to reach Moscow, conducted successful talks with Ivan IV (the Terrible), and took back to England a present of furs. More importantly, the tsar granted him a monopoly on trade in the White Sea. A year later Chancellor set off back to Russia, taking presents from the new English queen, Mary Tudor, to Tsar Ivan. He drowned on this voyage, but the English equated his discovery of Russia with the Spanish discovery of America. Another heroic Englishman, Anthony Jenkinson, sailed across the White Sea four times and reached Persia this way. All the same, he didn’t succeed in finding a new route to India; having entered Khwarazm in present-day Uzbekistan, he realised that he was on the old Silk Road. But Ivan the Terrible granted the English the right to trade freely and without duties, wholesale and retail, on the White Sea and throughout Russia; from there they could trade with third parties such as Persia or India. Most important was the English monopoly on trade on the White Sea; other foreigners, for example the Dutch, were forbidden to land on its shores or islands. The English were granted other unusual privileges – e.g., they were not subject to the Russian courts, and if they committed a crime on Russian territory they had to answer only to the Muscovy Company in London. They were also presented with a house in Moscow (now a museum, the Old English Court, not far from the Kremlin). They were given the right to establish trading posts in the north. The most important trading post was at Kholmogory, and there the English started a factory, making rope from local hemp. Customs officials and local governors did not have the right to interfere in Muscovy Company business. 9

What Ivan and his English partners created was a political regime intended to benefit traders and enrich the ruler. Today this would be called a special economic zone. Ivan called it ‘oprichnina ’. History textbooks use it untranslated, as if it were a proper name. In fact, the word comes from ‘oprich ’, which means ‘except’, ‘out-of-this’, ‘exceptional’, combined with the usual ending ‘nina ’ which means a domain or condition. The best translation of this Russian word is ‘the state of exception’. * Under the direct rule of Ivan, this state-within-the-state existed on the Russian land from 1565 to 1572.

Fighting endless wars, Ivan the Terrible needed allies and funds. He knew that he could no longer rely on the old source of revenue for the Moscow exchequer – fur: the tsar’s agents in Siberia reported difficulty in finding decent pelts. When the English adventurers expressed interest in the abundant hemp and pine trees in the estuary of the Dvina, it seemed like a miraculous solution to Ivan’s problems. English trade gave a boost to the White Sea coast at the very moment when Russian troops were losing their battle for access to the Baltic Sea.

Ivan’s new State of Exception controlled the convenient harbours of the White Sea, the upper course of the Volga, which the English had hoped to use as the route to Persia, and the profitable salt deposits on the Kama River. It had twenty cities, where about 6,000 special troops – oprichniki , ‘the exceptional ones’ – were stationed. The new capital assigned for this internal colony, Vologda, was the starting point of the river route to the White Sea and also the point of departure for long overland routes to Siberia. The construction of a new Kremlin in Vologda began, and a wharf and a rope factory were built. Later a new seaport, Arkhangelsk, was fortified. Expanding his State of Exception, Ivan destroyed the rival commercial centres, Novgorod and Pskov. His old capital, Moscow, had to send him enormous sums of money when he was not there. Initiated by the new authorities, pogroms resettled thousands of commoners from the old to the new commercial centres.

Engendered by despair, avarice and calculation, Ivan’s project entailed a root and branch reform of the Muscovy tsardom. The tsar divided his country into two domains with different political-economic regimes – the exceptional domain under the direct rule of the sovereign, where old laws and customs were abolished, and the boyar-owned domain which preserved its traditional ways of life and property rights. Geographically, the northern State of Exception (Oprichnina ) was oriented towards the White Sea; economically, it focused on the new trade with England, and it depended on hemp and a few other commercial products of the north. In contrast, the southern Land Domain (Zemshchina ) relied on grain. Deprived of access to northern rivers, it was condemned to subsistence farming and barely paid duties to the crown. If it had a function in Ivan’s geopolitics, it was to defend the zone of exception from possible raids from the south. Economically, this project seemed beneficial to Ivan; politically, it gave rise to opposition from all those whom the tsar deprived of an exit to the wider world.

Trying to understand Ivan’s project, Russian historians have seen it as a feudal conflict with hostile aristocrats: like medieval English kings, Ivan wished to smash their estates and castles. I suggest the Oprichnina should be seen as the establishment of a royal monopoly on the local natural resources, mainly hemp. In fact, this State of Exception worked as a big, specialised plantation with fertile fields and forests, a competent population and convenient delivery routes – an internal colony with a special regime of trade and power. The navigable rivers that crossed the territory guaranteed the export of hemp and a few other resources – flax, timber, wax, salt – to the White Sea and then around Scandinavia to England. Serviced by English vessels, the same route promised generous imports of weapons and luxury goods. Grain fields and cattle to the south ensured food and protection for this northern plantation. It was at exactly this time that Elizabeth I – now the main partner and model for Ivan – established colonial plantations in several parts of Ireland. Started in the 1550s, these royal initiatives led to the development of the plantation of Ulster – a later and much smaller project than the Oprichnina but also a very bloody colonial establishment. Giving sense to the extraordinary history of the Oprichnina , all these conceptions – northern plantation, internal colony, state of exception – were perfectly intelligible to Ivan as well as to his enemies. He worked on reforms to his tsardom at the same time as conducting talks about a military and nuptial alliance with the English throne. By cordoning off his exceptional state, he had created an internal India which would sell its raw materials to England, subsidising the tsar along with his northern nabobs and planters. A site of development, this zone of exception would become a model for admiration and worship by the country and the world – a Holy Land, as Ivan put it. As for the rest of the country, this landlocked domain would be left to feed and police itself, albeit contributing nothing to the crown.

In 1571 Ivan abolished his Oprichnina regime after his relations with England cooled severely. In a letter to Queen Elizabeth, dated October 1570, he complained about English merchants and acknowledged the futility of his hopes for a dynastic marriage. He took away from the English their right of free trade along the Volga and opened the White Sea ports to Dutch traders. Observing these changes, the Muscovy Company had its own agenda. It hadn’t found a northern route to China, but it opened up a northern route to Persia via the Dvina and the Volga. The English hoped to trade their broadcloth, calicos and weapons in exchange for northern furs and Persian silk. Few of their hopes were realised. Furs were no longer available around the White Sea, and the Volga was too long a route to go for silk. The Muscovy Company focused on hemp, which grew abundantly along the banks of the northern rivers. The Pomors had taken a great fancy to English wares, and they could be relied upon to process their hemp cheaply and expertly. There were no aristocratic landowners around, and the English traders could deal directly with the local producers. The English merchants’ transactions with the Pomors were quite similar to their interactions with villagers back home, whereas the French would have to invent new methods for their dealings with the Huron. As was their usual custom at home, the English distributed their orders among peasant households, collected the processed commodity, checked the quality and paid the suppliers. Having a monopoly on transportation, they kept the lion’s share of the profits for themselves. Bypassing the rapacious Muscovy state, they established their own cottage industry on the shores of the White Sea.

The trade was distant but simple: British ships sailed around Scandinavia and anchored in the Dvina, unloaded their holds, and exchanged processed hemp for their manufactured goods – broadcloth, ironmongery and guns, for which there was a steady demand in the Russian north. The Dvina Gulf was frozen for many months of the year, and work at sea came to a halt, as did work on land. But hemp processing carried on throughout the year. Russian trade on the White Sea was more of a stimulus to development than Polish trade on the Baltic: hemp promoted equitable development among northern smallholdings, whereas grain led to the enrichment of the nobility and to a second serfdom. 10 With hemp, the investment and quality of human labour was more important than who owned the land. The peasants had free time for other tasks and combined the hemp trade with their traditional economy. Along with hemp and ropes, the English ships filled their holds with seasonal products such as fatback, pelts, tar, beeswax and whale oil. For all its well-remembered sins, the Oprichnina had not established serfdom on its land. The underlying reason for the difference between the fates of the White Sea and the Baltic was the larger share of local labour in the price of hemp and the larger share of land in the price of grain.

Having never known serfdom, the Pomors and other peoples of the Russian north lived in individual farmsteads which were very different from the crowded villages of central Russia. Their fishing and whaling traditions made their way of life distinct from peasant husbandry. They owned spacious plots of land that often remained unfenced, and their extended families developed a non-monetary, non-specialised economy. They had rich resources – fish, grain, hemp, linen, timber – which they alternated as the seasons and custom dictated. They could not trade in these commodities because of the huge distances involved and also because everyone around had the same resources. Under English and later Dutch influences, the Pomors eagerly switched their smallholdings to commerce. Foreign merchants integrated into this cycle, monetising trade and introducing modern goods such as broadcloth and metals. Unusually, these curators changed the resource ecology of the local communities without disrupting their moral economy. Thanks to hemp, the river routes and free trade, the Pomors’ standard of living was higher than that of the most prosperous regions in central Russia.

Elizabeth I’s successor, James I of England, was a passionate empire builder. He united Scotland and England, settled Protestants in Ireland and colonised Virginia. Colonial adventures needed the navy and the navy needed hemp and timber. Realising the global deficit of these commodities, James planned to colonise the White Sea by creating a ‘protectorate’ made up of Arkhangelsk, the Dvina Gulf and the Solovetsky Islands. In the winter of 1612–13 James discussed this project with the Muscovy Company. In Russia, this was the peak of the civil war which became known as the Time of Troubles. Ivan’s failed reforms led to chaos, and the state ran out of money for its mercenaries. James was particularly worried by the involvement of the Swedes, who were determined to occupy Novgorod and block the White Sea trade. In the summer of 1612 a band of English mercenaries landed in Arkhangelsk under the command of a Prussian officer, Adrian von Flodorf. After presenting a document signed by the English king, he travelled to Moscow. There he offered help to Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, one of the Russian leaders at the time. Some English mercenaries were stationed in Moscow, some in Arkhangelsk; they saw the hostilities developing all over the land. In the winter of 1613 John Meyrick, the head of the Muscovy Company, who doubled as the British ambassador to Russia, promised James that he would finance a military campaign to annex the White Sea. In April James took the decision to create the Russian protectorate. Realising the scale of the task, he decided to send 10,000 soldiers to the White Sea. That was a considerable military force – double the number of former Oprichnik guards and twenty times greater than the number of white settlers in Virginia. The English troops were supposed to seize the Solovetsky monastery – a powerful island fortress. Using it as a base for invasion, they would capture Arkhangelsk, advance upstream along the Dvina, and occupy the territory as far as the Upper Volga. From this position, the English would control Moscow’s communications with the White Sea. Geographically, James’s proposed Russian Protectorate closely resembled Ivan’s State of Exception, and its economic intentions were similar. This Russian Protectorate was also modelled on the Irish plantations, where English settlers had changed the system of land tenure and created substantial estates for themselves; not long before, in 1609, James had officially established the biggest plantation in Ulster. But the status of the White Sea domain would be higher: James was planning to send his younger son, Charles, there as viceroy. 11 Charles went on to inherit the English throne and was sent to the scaffold after the English Civil War. Things might have worked out better for him in the Russian north.

In June 1613, John Meyrick again sailed to Arkhangelsk, where he learnt about the coronation of Mikhail Romanov. The new tsar had found out about English intentions and begun a secret investigation of the conspiracy. But Meyrick skilfully mediated in talks with the powerful Swedes and helped to end the Russo-Swedish war by the Treaty of Stolbovo (1617). This reassured both the English and the Dutch: Russian resources would not be landlocked and the Swedes would not be able to stop or tax the White Sea trade. As a result, James abandoned his idea of colonising the Russian north; instead he placed his confidence in the ability of the new tsar to establish order in his tsardom. The English were never again granted a monopoly on the White Sea trade.

According to various estimates, the Muscovy Company at the turn of the seventeenth century guaranteed between a third and a half of the English Navy’s requirements for rigging. 12 But Dutch ships visited the Dvina more frequently, taking a large share of the hemp market. Trading on behalf of their German or Spanish customers, the Dutch were more flexible and paid in silver (the English preferred barter). There were years when the Dutch became so successful at the White Sea trade that they bought up all the hemp from the Pomors and then sold it to the English. All this changed when Peter the Great realised the centuries-old dream of Russian autocrats and captured several Baltic ports, opening them up to Russian commodities. The founding of St Petersburg led to a rapid decrease in White Sea commerce, not because of fair competition, but because Peter imposed prohibitive tariffs on Arkhangelsk to help develop St Petersburg. From now on, hemp from central Russia would go to St Petersburg by the new canal which Peter had built for supplying his capital, and then sail west across the Baltic.

Hemp and Napoleon

On the eve of the eighteenth century, hemp was the leading Russian export, linen was second and iron third, followed by fatback. Fabrics made out of hemp and linen – i.e., canvas and sailcloth – were counted separately; they occupied fifth and sixth place in Russian exports. Grain lagged behind these products. England was Russia’s biggest customer, with North America in second place. The British import of hemp doubled throughout the eighteenth century and 90 per cent of it was consistently supplied by Russia. Providing hard currency, hemp was now grown in the most productive estates of central Russia that belonged to the top nobility. For the first half of the nineteenth century the export of hemp and linen made up a third of Russian exports, a figure which did not diminish even during the Crimean War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the significance of fibre in Russian exports had lessened dramatically – it made up just a tenth of it. Grain was now the main Russian commodity. 13

The history of the Romanovs is full of attempts to nationalise the export of raw materials. The list of export commodities that were under state monopoly lengthened considerably in Peter’s reign: items included hemp, linseed, pelts, potash, tar, fatback and caviar. Private firms had to supply these goods to the state at a fixed price, and then the exchequer sold the raw materials to foreign buyers at market prices. In 1719 Peter repealed this decree ‘out of pity for the merchants’, but imposed custom duties which continued making profits for the empire. All goods were exported on the purchasers’ ships – the Russians had no merchant fleet. Only 7 per cent of exports went overland, including exports to China via Kyakhta. In 1724 Peter established a monopoly import-export company with a handful of shareholders, following the example of the Dutch East India Company, which he remembered from his tour of Holland. ‘I would like my people to become manufacturers,’ said Catherine the Great in 1764. But the production of hemp and canvas remained cottage industries. Attempts to push the Russian merchants to export commodities on their own ships failed, but the balance of trade was usually in Russia’s favour. Export tariffs on raw materials financed state expenditure. The Hermitage bought up treasures from all over Europe. The army which would defeat Napoleon paid salaries to mercenaries of all ranks. Russian landowners wore frock coats of English broadcloth, drank French wine from Bohemian glasses, took pinches of Virginia tobacco, and then blew their noses on handkerchiefs dyed with indigo. In between all these activities they read Voltaire, Rousseau and even the anti-colonial Raynal. The richest landowners, such as the Demidovs and the Chertkovs, invested their wealth in Italian or British estates or even, like Alexander Herzen, in American bonds. All this was financed by the income received from the overseas sales of Russian raw materials.

During the Napoleonic wars Russia supplied the British Royal Navy with practically all the hemp it needed for rigging its ships, thus keeping Britain in a strategic dependency. But, in 1800, Emperor Paul I of Russia entered into a coalition with Napoleon – they planned to conquer and divide India. Paul confiscated all British property in Russia, including 200 ships harboured in Russian ports. Stopping trade in the Baltic was a blow for the aristocracy in Russia, Poland and Prussia; the curtailment of supplies was equally unacceptable for the British Navy. Admiral Nelson’s flotilla set fire to Copenhagen, clearing a route for British ships to reach the Baltic ports. But a palace coup in St Petersburg was more effective: British diplomats, Baltic barons and Russian landowners took part in the plot against Paul. Straight after his assassination, trade with England in hemp and grain started up again. In 1807, Russia and France again became allies. Having decided against invading England, Napoleon blockaded her trade with Europe by imposing the Continental System. With the consent of Alexander I of Russia, Napoleon deprived the British Navy of Russian rigging and left Russian cities without silver or sugar. In 1808 the British import of hemp diminished by a factor of three and its price in London doubled. Usually, the northern ports of the Russian Empire unloaded and loaded 4,000 to 5,000 ships per year; in 1808 there were fewer than a thousand. The Royal Navy made desperate attempts to grow hemp in India or to make ropes out of tropical trees. The Russian rouble was in free fall. As a consumer of Russian raw materials, France could not replace Britain: a continental power, France herself produced hemp, grain and hides.

With the Russian rouble devalued, the tsar had to choose between economic catastrophe and a change of allegiances. For a while, neutral American ships breached the blockade, took on loads of Russian hemp and sold it to England. Moreover, many British ships sailed under the American flag. Tsar Alexander, still an ally of Napoleon, did not stop them: he had not forgotten how his father and grandfather had perished, both victims of an aristocracy that had been impoverished by trade crises. In 1811, commodity trade prevailed over great power politics: the Russian cabinet rejected French overland imports and resumed sea trade with England. The value of the silver rouble on the European stock exchanges increased by 40 per cent. When Russian and American efforts dismantled the Continental System, everybody was happy except for the French emperor. Napoleon had money, having sold Louisiana to the Americans for $11 million in 1803: this sum would have covered many years of Russian exports and left the British fleet without ropes or sails. But Napoleon hoped to keep his ally for free – a grave miscalculation.

Wool and the Mesta

In Spain, the celebrated Merino sheep were migrants from North Africa. They were selectively bred to produce a fine, white wool which set the standard for woollen clothing throughout the civilised world. The sheep appeared on the Iberian peninsula before the Great Plague. An indigenous breed of sheep – the Churra, more sturdy and valued primarily for its meat and cheese – had been farmed there earlier. Churra flocks were kept on permanent pastureland. Over the centuries local workshops had used their coarse, warm wool to produce cloaks, carpets and blankets. Merino yarn was finer, more attractive and more expensive. Many Spanish shepherds were Berbers, and they taught the Spanish their unique methods of rearing their Merino sheep, which included transhumance – a seasonal migration across the hills of Castile and Aragon. From this came the unusual division of labour: the fine-fleeced Merino sheep moved from one pasture to another, crossing the peninsula annually in huge flocks; the coarse-fleeced Churra stayed on permanent pastures around the towns. The Reconquista in the thirteenth century united the southern, Muslim part of the peninsula with Christian Spain. Ever larger flocks now spent the winter on uninhabited southern pastures. Members of religious-military orders protected the flocks – some of those knights still remembered the Crusades. Travelling with the Merinos, they used force of arms to occupy the territories needed for the migrating flocks and oust the Arabs with their settled flocks of sheep. At the peak of the wool trade in the sixteenth century, there were about 3 million Merino sheep on the peninsula. The sheep were privately owned, but along with their shepherds and guards they were under the patronage of the crown. The government had a monopoly on the export of Merino wool. 14

There were many more Churra sheep than migrating Merinos; peasants used some of their wool, meat and cheese on their farms and sold the surplus to the towns. But the Merinos were considered to be creatures of a higher order. These two sorts of sheep exemplify with textbook clarity the difference between a local raw material and a resource for long-distance trade. The law forbade the killing or eating of Merinos. Their cross-breeding with Churras was banned. It was a capital crime to export live Merino sheep abroad. The Habsburg Empire depended on its Merinos more than on its Churras and, probably, more than on its men and women. The migratory pattern of the pure-bred Merinos and their contrast with the settled flocks of the peasants had something aristocratic about it, as if it evoked memories of the nomadic, foreign origins of the European nobility.

Leaving in October from León, Segovia and other inhabited areas, the shepherds and their Merino flocks travelled between 100 and 500 miles south. Their journey took a month or more. The passage of huge flocks of sheep over the craggy hills of Castile was an impressive spectacle. The lands they passed through were privately owned, but the law required the landowners to step aside while the migration took place. If conflicts arose, armed guards and special clerks defended the shepherds. The only places off limits to the Merinos were enclosed agricultural areas – fields with standing crops, orchards or vineyards. Twice a year the Merino flocks passed by the permanent pastures where the Churra grazed. Well-armed curators safeguarded the pure pedigree of the Merino flocks.

The Shepherd Brotherhood, or Mesta – the first agricultural corporation in European history – was created for dealing with the Merinos. The Mesta didn’t own any sheep and didn’t pay the shepherds; it was a guild and not a joint stock company. It branded every Merino and noted the brand markings in special books; it also licensed the shepherds. All these operations combined the ancient practice of transhumance with the complex logistics that could be achieved only by a bureaucratic state. From the end of the fifteenth century, the head of the Mesta became a member of the Consejo Real , the Spanish cabinet of ministers. The shepherds of the Mesta became a privileged stratum; they were exempt from military service and civil law. Authorised officials of the Mesta defended them in local conflicts. The courts of the Inquisition also supported them.

But then, just about the time when America was discovered, the Spanish Empire fell into a debt crisis. Charles I, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, involved the powerful banker Jakob Fugger in these transactions, and after 1545 the house of Fugger controlled the finances of the Mesta (see chapter 6 ). Most of the wool was now sent to Spanish Flanders for spinning and weaving; Bruges was the centre for this activity. Pirates and storms increased the cost of transportation: in the middle of the sixteenth century a sack of Spanish wool cost three times as much in Bruges as in Burgos. The influx of American silver exacerbated the problems. Imported goods cost now five times more, but the price of wool only doubled. The volume of wool exports fell, and old truths had to be revisited. The enlightened historian Pedro Campomanes became in 1762 head of the Treasury and, later, head of the Council of Castile. Judging that the privileges of the Mesta acted as a hindrance on the path to development, he persuaded the king that more tax could be obtained from arable land than from pasture; that settled sheep rearing was more profitable than transhumance; and that the population was denser on the northern coast where there was no Mesta presence. Supporting his ideas with field research, he wrote two substantial volumes about the damage caused by the Mesta . Like his contemporary Adam Smith, Campomanes believed that landowners were better placed to decide on how to use their land than state bureaucrats. 15

By the end of the seventeenth century the Mesta was on the verge of bankruptcy. The price of grain rose while the price of wool fell. Cavalry horses displaced the Merinos from the best meadows. The most unusual privileges were abolished. Liberal lawyers characterised the Mesta as ‘the enemy of the towns’. Only then was it discovered that Merino sheep were perfectly happy leading a settled existence. Smuggling delivered the final blow: in 1720 a flock of Merino sheep was sold to Sweden; then they appeared in Prussia and France. Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, imported Merino sheep to England, and Jefferson took some to North America. In 1836 the new Spanish government banned the use of the word Mesta . Throughout the world, flocks of Merino sheep now grazed on fenced pastures.

Leviathan in sheep’s clothing

Medieval England, like Spain, exported wool to Flanders. In the mid-fourteenth century, King Edward III, wanting to celebrate the importance of wool in the country’s revenue, ordered his lord chancellor to sit on the Woolsack. The Company of Merchant Adventurers, founded in 1407, enjoyed a monopoly on wool exports and was hugely successful under Henry VII; financed by the company, ‘wool churches’ all around East Anglia testify to its ambition. 16 Eager to do business with the company, landowners replaced their traditional grain and meat production with wool, which could now be traded and taxed. This caused a rapid growth in state revenue. Not content with their own fields and pastures, the landlords turned to the commons to provide more grazing land. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, English landowners, with the support of Parliament, took arable land and common meadows from the peasants, enclosed the plots, and put sheep on them. The smallholders and the poor had used these fields for producing wheat, meat and dairy products for their survival. Enclosing these plots, the landowners lost their tenants but increased their flocks: unlike humans, the sheep were able to ‘turn sand into gold’. The interests of the landowners, the merchants and the crown finally coincided.

Deprived of land, the peasants rebelled; the most famous example was Robert Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk (1549), which was put down by the army: 3,000 peasants were killed and Kett was hanged. Thomas More, in his Utopia (1516), wrote of sheep ‘devouring men’ as the major problem of the kingdom: ‘the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, … stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge sheep in them.’ 17 The alarmed authorities limited the enclosures, but they continued. In the early seventeenth century, there were twice or three times more sheep than people in England, and, while sheep were producing income for the state, people were wasting it in their ‘consumption’. Pre-dating continental cameralism, the English bureaucracy revered science, collected statistics, invited craftsmen from abroad and scorned traditional rights. Wool became a mono-resource – the backbone of the state economy, the nourishment of the sovereign, the kingdom’s second body. This was exactly the period when the country’s elite adopted the fashion for wigs, which were made of sheep’s wool and horse hair.

From the fourteenth century onwards, the export of raw wool was gradually superseded by the trade in cloth. The Company of Merchants of the Staple, already incorporated in 1319, helped to regulate the domestic market, but the direct prohibitions on the export of raw wool were issued 300 years later. Still, the proportion of woollen cloth in English exports, and therefore the proportion of paid labour, was growing steadily. 18 The wool industry was structured like a pyramid that relied on land, with sheep and shepherds at the base, and turned into gold at the apex. The body of this pyramid was made up of the thousands of rural workers who produced wool. A flock of sheep supplied wool to a carder, three carders provided the roving – a bundle of fibre – for a spinner, three spinners produced the yarn for a weaver, and several weavers sent their cloth to a shopkeeper. Men, women and children took part in this continuous process. Located in lofts or outbuildings, small workshops were equipped with spinning wheels and hand looms. Work on a loom or spinning wheel could be fitted in with other sorts of agricultural work. The diffused character of wool as a resource, and the significant part played by labour costs in the export of cloth, counterbalanced monopoly trade and supported the English economy. Providing income to the poor, ‘cottage industries’ drew them into the larger economy and opened new prospects, but only after it had impoverished many thousands of families.

English raw wool was grey or whitish; the art of dyeing wool was unknown in England. Woven in thousands of cottages, the cloth was exported to Antwerp, where it was dyed and tailored, and then sold all over Europe. The strategy of the growing export revenue was clear: without the skill of dyeing, the lion’s share of profits would remain with the Flemish and the Dutch. If only the English masters could dye wool as well as their colleagues in India dyed cotton!

Pursuing this idea, in 1614 William Cockayne, governor of the Eastland Company, convinced James I to grant him a monopoly on exporting dyed wool. By the same act, the export of undyed woollen goods was banned. Failing to employ Flemish refugees with the necessary expertise, Cockayne was unable to succeed in production. His real interests were different; the Eastland Company, a counterpart of the Muscovy Company which traded with the Russian north, traded with the Baltic states, from Prussia to Poland. With the decline of the Hanseatic League, the English competition with the Dutch in the northern seas led them further east. The Cockayne project led to the reorientation of the English wool trade from the Low Countries to the north-east of Europe. As a result, the export of wool collapsed, the London merchants were ruined, and revolts started in the countryside. 19 Chronologically, the Eastland Company’s failed project of dyeing wool and establishing a wool monopoly developed simultaneously with the Muscovy Company’s project of colonising the Russian north and establishing a hemp monopoly. But, in 1617, James I reversed his course and cancelled both projects. He permitted the export of undyed wool again and allowed his ambassador to Moscow, John Meyrick, to set up a peace deal that made English intervention impossible. Nevertheless, Cockayne was promoted to be lord mayor of London, and Meyrick went back to Moscow to sign yet another treaty. At this point, wool prices were falling, although the cottage industry continued against the odds. The aristocracy had long been investing in land, and any profit was better than nothing. Parliament, which was made up largely of landed gentry who owned sheep, refused to allow James to raise new taxes; eventually this course led to the Glorious Revolution, which only strengthened the dominance of the wool merchants over the sheep owners.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published his Leviathan . On the famous frontispiece of this book, we see depicted the composite body of the sovereign, which consists of swarms of his tiny subjects, sprouting from his skin like sheep’s wool. 20 Born and educated in Malmesbury, an important centre of the wool industry whose fortunes declined during his lifetime, Hobbes was aware of the crucial relations between the humble sheep and the terrifying Leviathan. 21 Probably the most discussed image in the history of philosophy, the composite body of the state on Hobbes’s frontispiece confronts the city and the country, which are both depicted with conventional line engraving. The city is empty; two doctors wearing masks and two guardsmen patrol it, as if it is on lockdown. 22 The creator of this powerful picture is unknown; some scholars suggest the artist was Wenzel Hollar from Bohemia, who settled in London as a war refugee. While still in Prague he had studied with Arcimboldo, the master of composite portraits, which explains his unusual style. The dominant theory, however, is that the engraver was the French artist Abraham Bosse. *

In these sophisticated debates, scholars have ignored the visible resemblance of the sovereign’s body to sheep’s wool. However, I believe that this simple reading has its merits. First, it explains the fact that only the body of the sovereign is composite: the state consists of the sheep-like, sheepish people and the king who is their head and shepherd. Second, it explains why the city is depicted as empty: the wool economy depended on pastures and cottages, and there was no role for the city in this ‘body politic’. Paradoxically, it was the towns, with their excessive ‘consumption’, that became a burden for the mercantilist state. Third, it resonates with the concerns and statements of Hobbes’s contemporaries. In 1696, Charles Davenant, a customs official and the eldest son of William Davenant, a poet who corresponded with Hobbes, wrote: ‘As bread is called the staff of life, so the woollen manufacture is truly the principal nourishment of our body politic.’ 23 This was not about interpreting the frontispiece of Leviathan . Calling for a ban on raw wool exports, Davenant proposed to force the large population of English almshouses (counted as more than a million) to work on woollen goods for export, which would entail a new mass-scale organisation of proto-industrial labour. Fourth, this reading of the frontispiece reveals a direct line of continuity from More’s Utopia , to Hobbes’s Leviathan , to Davenant’s version of mercantilism, to Bentham’s Panopticon .

Overseen from the Woolsack, Parliament moulded the new wool market in a long series of Acts. Between 1660 and 1824, twenty-four different acts of legislation on wool exports were passed – roughly one every six years. 24 The export of raw wool was prohibited; if smugglers were caught they had their left hands cut off. In 1666, ‘An act for Burying in Wollen onely’ required woollen shirts for burials: under fear of penalty, subjects had to use wool in their deaths as they did in their lives. After many debates, this Act was strengthened in 1677. In addition, the Wool Act of 1699 prohibited the export of wool and wool products from Ireland and the American colonies. The purpose was to encourage both the local production and processing of wool. The Acts of Parliament shaped the internal demand for processed wool, the demand stimulated cottage industry, and this led to a boost in sheep farming. But there was no land to sustain it, which called for new acts of legislation. The series of wool laws brought the mercantile system home. Enforcing this system needed a huge effort – in 1742 the government of Robert Walpole created 330 salaried posts for registering all wool sheared in England. 25 Adam Smith attacked the wool laws, saying that they halved wool prices in Scotland and were ‘the effect of violence and artifice’. 26 The export ban on raw wool was withdrawn in 1824. Smith’s free trade celebrated a victory, but by now wool was relatively unimportant. The consumer switched from wool to cotton as ruthlessly as her forebears had switched from fur to wool.


In human hands, plant and animal fibres competed with one another for thousands of years. Animals are higher up the food chain than plants, and, per unit of land, the cotton plant produces twelve times more fibre than a sheep produces wool. Not as durable as hemp but easier to process, cotton is cheaper than silk and more robust, lighter and finer than wool. For humankind a vital characteristic was cotton’s ability to interact with dyes – rare substances that came from the most unexpected parts of certain molluscs, insects or plants. The beauty of linen textiles lay in their whiteness, the beauty of cotton fabrics in their colours, the beauty of woollen cloth in its texture. In contrast to the northern fibres, cotton produced several crops per season, a fact which dictated the unremitting character of work on the cotton plantations. Like sugar, cotton required the intensive, machine-like work of slaves, which was quite at odds with the varied, ‘idle’ work of the peasantry. Cotton was the first raw material to benefit from the invention of mechanical devices and, later, steam-powered engines. It also gained from the mass impoverishment of the peasants who flocked to the cotton mills.

The ancient Romans brought back from India cloth made from the fibres of the round, white, fluffy ‘boll’ of the cotton plant. In the Middle Ages camels carried cotton textiles from India to Persia and from there to Byzantium and even to Ethiopia. In fourteenth-century China, special edicts commanded the peasants to grow cotton. From the sixteenth century, Portuguese ships exchanged Indian textiles for silver and brought cotton to Europe. But for a long time Europeans did not know how cotton grew; people thought of it as similar to wool. John Mandeville, who travelled to India in the fourteenth century, described seeing a plant that had sheep hanging from its branches, like fruit. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, cotton grew on the semi-wild plains of South Asia and Central America; sitting on low stools, women spun the thread and wound it up into balls using a wooden wheel on an axis. Selectively breeding cotton, peasants left the seed heads to develop on the best plants – those with a robust but fine fibre. Coloured Indian textiles which had no European names – muslin, chintz and calico – arrived on Portuguese caravels at the European ports, where they were sold on a par with silk. Then cotton processing developed in the Mediterranean colonies of Venice. Lacking their own raw materials, the Venetians were the founding fathers of ecological imperialism: they obliged their colonies to pay duties in a chosen commodity – in some cases this was timber, in others, grain, for Cyprus it was cotton. Cotton prints with a botanical or oriental design were used for decorating interiors instead of silk panels and trellises. In Africa, there was a demand for striped fabrics with symmetrical patterns; there the majority of cotton was used for clothes, not for upholstery. 27

European garments were often made of a blend of cotton with wool or linen. This fabric was called ‘fustian’; the forerunner of denim, it was hard-wearing and relatively cheap. The warm, brightly coloured clothing we see in Brueghel’s winter scenes was made of this long-forgotten material; it was all made at home, using very simple equipment. In Southern Europe, light clothes made of coloured cotton displaced silk. For a long time, India had the monopoly on the art of dyeing cotton or printing a design on it. The price of coloured textiles doubled during the course of the eighteenth century. Silk panels decorated the bedchambers of kings and the altars of churches. Furniture, walls and windows, upholstered or curtained with cotton textiles, became a feature of middle-class households. Still, they were precious. In 1791 a mob of Anglican supporters attacked the house of Joseph Priestly in Birmingham – the celebrated chemist was a Dissenter. Priestly claimed compensation and listed among his losses the matrimonial bed with a cotton canopy and a set of bed linen. He valued them at £25, a quarter of his annual income. 28

Joint stock companies were created to trade in cotton and other Eastern goods, with royal households the main investors in these companies. The British East India Company specialised in importing cotton to Europe, while the Dutch East India Company concentrated on trade between the Asian powers. But the growth of the cotton trade undermined the traditional interests of the wool producers – the majority of British landowners and tenants who got their income from sheep and wool processing. To protect its sheep, weavers and landowners, the British Parliament in the early eighteenth century issued the Calico Acts (1700, 1721), which banned the import of printed textiles from India; for the same reason, France, Spain and Prussia banned any imports of cotton. India was impoverished; huge areas were deprived of their usual income. Then the American plantations entered the picture. The route from America to England was shorter than that from Asia, and the mercantilist system encouraged the import of raw materials from the colonies while limiting the import of manufactured textiles. All this gave a boost to cotton mills in England and plantations in the American South.

Tobacco, sugar and cotton: all three plant-based raw materials needed large plantations and cheap, repetitive labour. Economy of scale played an ever-increasing role: the bigger the enterprise, the cheaper the cost of production and, therefore, the greater the profit. For the sake of cotton, any gentleman got the right to trade in human beings (1698); moreover, the governors in the British West Indies received a bonus for every slave supplied. The risks of the slave trade were unparalleled. On the transatlantic crossing one in five ships was lost; but in Liverpool it was thought that, even if one in every two ships made it to port with its cargo, then the owner made a profit. Capital acquired from sugar, cotton and slaves went to shipbuilders, insurers, bankers and mill-owners. Barclays Bank was founded by a family of Quakers who worked as slave traders in the West Indies. Lloyd’s of London began by insuring deals in slaves, sugar and cotton. James Watt, inventor of the first steam engine, was financed by a bank that derived income from trade in the West Indies. 29

In the name of efficiency, slave-owning plantations specialised in monoculture – they produced nothing but cotton. The harvested cotton had to be cleaned, pressed into bales and delivered to the docks. The cleaning process caused a bottleneck in the system – it was tedious to separate each fibre from the seed coat. By inventing the ‘cotton gin’, a mechanical gadget that made cleaning fifty times quicker, Eli Whitney enabled the rapid burgeoning of cotton plantations in the American South. Whitney patented his invention but never made any money from it; after many unsuccessful lawsuits he switched to designing muskets. Like sugar cane, cotton rapidly depleted the soil. But, unlike sugar, cotton would grow in Louisiana – a vast and boundless territory compared with the small islands of the West Indies. Labour was in short supply there, but the volume of the cotton trade doubled nearly every decade. Little else in history can compare with the explosive growth of the cotton trade; only sugar before it, and petroleum after it, grew as fast.

‘King Cotton’ led to the catastrophically rapid deforestation of the new continent. New plantations in Louisiana needed canals, which dried out the boggy soil. Supplies reached the plantations via these canals – slaves, grain, dried or salted fish, hemp ropes and bales, linen shirts for the slaves, and luxury items for the plantation owners. The work went on all year round; in December the third cotton crop of the year was harvested, and then it had to be cleaned and pressed into bales. The life of a slave was nothing like the life of a peasant with its complicated tasks and periods of creative idleness. Focused on nothing but profit, the cotton plantation became the first capitalist enterprise, while slaves were the first industrial workers. It was not for nothing that factory workers were later compared to slaves.


On the other side of the ocean, in England, the village processing of cotton expanded and became more specialised. Even in 1833 the majority of the wool and cotton in England was processed by hand, in rural workshops. But, as had earlier happened in Italy, the mills gravitated towards cities. Bales of cotton were brought straight from the ports and distributed to individual houses; the peasants spun it by hand or wove it on hand looms, sometimes adding wool or linen that they themselves had produced. Much more than wool, the processing of cotton depended on middlemen. It was they who delivered the bales of raw material to the villages, and they who collected the rolls of finished cloth and delivered them to tailoring workshops. As always happened, these curators took the greatest share of the profits. Servicing a cluster of neighbouring villages, they paid for the cotton out of their own pockets. Their business was simple, risky and profitable. The spinners, knitters and weavers earned a wage in a free labour market without leaving home. While women were working the looms, their husbands worked the land, as subsistence farmers. But it was this industry that led the villages onto the hard road of trade and growth. Peasant families were able to spend the cash they earned on sugar and tea, rum and gin, horses and harness, and, finally, silver and decoration. Many, though not all, of the goods introduced into the countryside came from the colonies; from sugar and tobacco to fashionable calico prints, these addictive commodities engendered habit and dependency. These led to the ‘decomposition of the peasantry’, a process that Lenin and other critics of capitalism wrote about. In fact it was exactly the same thing they called ‘progress’. The development of the fibre proto-industry in different parts of the world engaged in global trade – in England, India, New England, and on the shores of the White Sea in Russia – played a key role in the change in gender relations and the development of mass consumption. Characteristic of textiles, fashion became a universal tool for accelerating the market. 30

Invented for wool, spinning and weaving technologies were easily adapted for cotton. Water-powered machines gave cotton its decisive advantage, which was later amplified by the power of coal and steam. In 1780, ten times more woollen textiles were produced in the British Isles than cotton goods. In 1850, six times more cotton textiles were produced than woollen. By this time, in order to replace the output of British cotton factories with woollen textiles, it would have required 168 million sheep, which would have grazed 50 million acres of pastureland, twice the area of all the agricultural land in the British Isles. The intensive cultivation on the American plantations, and the mills of the first Industrial Revolution, gave England millions of ‘ghost acres’. 31 The balance of trade also gained by this massive switch from wool to cotton. During the eighteenth century, the deliveries of raw cotton to the British Isles increased threefold, while the export of manufactured cotton goods increased by a factor of fifteen.

With a constant supply of cotton, English village workshops developed new techniques of dyeing cotton. The old colouring method that Alderman Cockayne had failed to master, even under royal patronage, relied on a supply of exotic and expensive dyes from the colonies and needed expert knowledge. In the mid-eighteenth century, craftsmen applied to cotton the new methods of print-making which had been developed by engravers and book printers for work on paper: wooden or brass plates were coated with dye and the cloth was rolled over the plates. Imitating Indian calico, printed fabrics increased profit; thanks to machines, their productivity was eighty times greater than that of traditional Indian techniques. Then chemists created a dye to replace the very costly cochineal. Proto-industry materialised the exchange between slave labour across the ocean, subsistence farming in the British countryside, and early capitalism in towns and ports. The source of raw materials, for example silk or cotton, was remote and concentrated; but their processing in Italy or England was based on the distribution of this commodity among dozens of adjacent villages and thousands of workers. New industries combined topical resources, such as sugar, cotton and silver, with diffused resources such as grain, wool, coal and hemp. But the extraction of topical resources and their primary processing – the cause of great evil – took place across the ocean, while the extraction of diffused resources and the secondary – most profitable – processing remained in England and Europe.

One of the most well-informed participants of the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton, wrote that there was something in the nature of cotton that made it particularly suitable for being processed by machine. 32 Waterwheels powered wool, flax and silk factories, but the newest cotton factories were powered by steam engines. Those entrepreneurs who could take production away from cottages and put all the processing under one roof in a factory profited from the economy of scale, cutting transportation distances and using machines. In 1841 in Manchester there were already 128 cotton factories – ‘satanic mills’– and they produced more than half of all British textiles. The number of domestic workshops producing cotton and wool fell by a factor of ten. Having lost their work and land, people were moving to the factories.

The historian Karl Polanyi considered the Industrial Revolution to be a transformation ‘as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians’. The new creed consisted in the belief that ‘all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities.’ 33 New factories astonished contemporary observers by their size. More and more machines – for cleaning, spinning and, finally, weaving – were powered by the energy of falling water, harnessed by weirs and driven through mill-races. They all benefited from the economy of scale, but this scale depended on the nature of the resource being processed: in England in 1835 the average cotton factory employed 175 workers, while a wool factory had forty-four. Cotton mills were the first in which steam machines supplemented waterwheels; wool factories were several steps behind. The cotton thread, sturdier than wool, was not damaged by the tension and vibration produced by the machines; more expensive, cotton fabrics offset the expenses of complex machinery. Most of the inventors of the new machines started as watchmakers. Their machines were expensive and the cost of entering this new business was very high. But the expenditure was well worth it: large weaving looms, powered by waterwheels and supported by steam engines, could process the same quantity of cotton as hand looms but needed only a tenth of the workforce. 34

Richard Arkwright was the first entrepreneur to install a steam engine in a cotton mill; he used it to pump water to the mill-race of a waterwheel. He also invented a ‘water frame’ which continuously spun cotton threads and could be reconfigured; it was far more powerful than the hand-powered spinning jenny. Using new mechanisms, Lancashire businessmen produced grey cloth with linen warp and cotton weft, which could be printed almost like a calico. Robert Owen, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, introduced this system in the Scottish village of New Lanark, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century became a centre for social experiments. Owen limited the working day in his cotton-spinning mill to ten hours, refused to employ children under twelve years old, and expected workers to know their multiplication tables. Robert Peel, the owner of watermills in Lancaster, soon adopted these rules; in 1819 these two mill-owners introduced to Parliament the Factories Bill, in an attempt to regulate the work of children in the cotton industry. Dogged by patent scandals and lawsuits, Arkwright still succeeded in becoming a wealthy man. Owen lost control of Lanark in 1825 but won fame for founding New Harmony, a utopian community in America. One of Peel’s sons, another Robert, became the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

The birth of the proletariat

With wool in decline, farmers and tenants lost their incomes, and shepherds turned into paupers. Again, the growing cities absorbed the surplus population. Much bigger than the metals-processing industry, the textile industry was the real cradle of the proletariat. Mechanised spinning and weaving looms needed constant input from human workers to keep them going. At the lowest levels, these people themselves had to work like machines, repeating thousands of identical movements and doing nothing else. The monotonous character of this work repelled the peasants, but their children excelled at this work. To a greater extent than ships or mines, these factories shaped an indistinguishable mass of human bodies who had nothing to lose but their work. These untrained but disciplined, poorly motivated and exhausted workers did constitute a proletariat of sorts – an alienated workforce subjected to the machine.

As long as cotton mills depended on waterwheels they had to be located near river weirs, which preserved the rural character of the industry. These mills were far from sea ports, usually in hilly terrain – they needed a fast-flowing current and stable river banks. Only the second generation of steam-powered machines, which didn’t need a waterwheel, made the cotton industry urban. Thanks to these new machines, coal-powered factories were built in the same coastal clusters which had been developed for long-distance trade. The Industrial Revolution led to the depopulation of interior regions. The widely scattered cottage industries that had absorbed displaced agricultural labour and the watermills that had been built where nature dictated were all abandoned. Proceeding at an extraordinary pace, new coastal urbanisation boosted inequality. Radically changing its terms, the exchange between town and country increased the power of the ports and metropolitan cities, which sucked in everything – people, resources and capital.

The Napoleonic wars caused a spike in the demand for fibre; it was needed in all its variety to meet the demands of war – ropes, sails, uniforms, blankets, tents and much more. After the war, demand plummeted and prices collapsed. Ships with American cotton stayed unloaded in British ports for months. Having returned to the hemp market in 1814, Russian landowners once again saw no profit. The pay of weavers in English factories was three times lower than during the war. In Lancashire, the centre of the textile industry, people were hungry. In August 1819 an infamous massacre took place at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. A mass rally of 10,000 textile workers and their families, dressed in their Sunday best, demanded bread, work and parliamentary reform. A regiment of mounted hussars with drawn swords dispersed the crowd, leaving fifteen men and women lying dead on the field. The incident was dubbed Peterloo, an ironic reference to the recent Battle of Waterloo.

The 1840s was a time of crisis all over Europe. The demand for textiles and manufactured goods in the colonies stagnated. Again, British industry was changing its resource platform. The new development project – metal, coal and railways – was just evolving. The resource platform has changed time and again, but the world continues to produce and consume enormous quantities of cotton – 123 million bales in 2013. To replace this volume of cotton we would have to rear 7 billion sheep, which would require all the land of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals. ‘The great divergence’ which allowed the West to outstrip the East came about thanks to cotton – a traditional product of the East that was imitated in the West. 35

Uzbek cotton, Russian textiles

The Russian customs tariff in 1822 followed a reduced version of mercantile principles: encouraging the import of raw cotton, it protected the internal market from manufactured goods, but transportation was still entrusted to foreign vessels. Thanks to this tariff, Russian manufacturers were able to make a profit processing American cotton. There was huge domestic demand for calico prints, and cotton factories sprang up to replace proto-industrial sites that had specialised in flax processing. Powered by waterwheels, cloth factories in the Moscow region adapted their looms for cotton. In the village of Ivanovo, surrounded by flax fields, new dynasties of textile manufacturers appeared; most of them belonged to the ‘priestless confession of Old Believers’ – a radical, semi-clandestine sect who didn’t recognise the Orthodox priesthood. Hired labour was cheap and credit was informal. Looms were imported from abroad, as was the cotton. In 1832 an English steam-powered machine was brought to Ivanovo. Out of the 130 factories in Ivanovo in 1844, many had the right to have their own serfs, and the bigger ones had nearly a thousand of them. But almost half the factories belonged to peasants, some of whom were still serfs. 36 The bureaucrats were surprised by the growth of this town, which was absent from the administrative map – the whole town belonged to Count Sheremetyev, one of the biggest serf-owners. But the economic growth of such places was phenomenal. When the Soviet powers made Ivanovo a regional centre in 1929, this region was third in the whole Soviet Union for the value of its industrial output.

Russia contradicted the thesis that capital-intensive machinery was adopted only in countries where the workers were highly paid, such as England. According to the economic historian Robert Allen, if the cost of labour was low, as it was in India or Poland, it was more profitable for employers to hire extra workers and develop cottage industries than to spend money on machinery. 37 Russia was different: labour was cheap, but persecuted communities, especially the Old Believers, had accumulated large amounts of capital, were unable to export it and therefore used any business opportunity available. During the decade before the Crimean War, the number of spinning machines tripled. Then cotton prices rose fourfold during the American Civil War, and this boosted the import of cotton from Central Asia.

These wars ended, but the Great Game – proxy conflicts between the British and Russian empires – continued in Central Asia. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Russian troops invaded Turkestan. Some hoped to find metals there, but cotton proved to be a far more valuable resource. While the government in St Petersburg wished to resist English influence there, manufacturers were concerned that the Uzbek Khans could also introduce protectionist duties on raw cotton. At first unstable, the quality of Bokhara cotton gradually improved; deliveries were expensive but, taking all wars and crises into account, more reliable than those from across the ocean. Almost as in the American South, Central Asian cotton was king. After the annexation of Turkestan, cotton imports increased tenfold, giving work to millions of local peasants, thousands of workers in central Russia, and a great number of coachmen, barge haulers and dockers who were employed in the transportation of cotton across half of Eurasia. Carried from Fergana on camels, cotton bales were delivered to the Caspian Sea and from there were transported up the Volga. By 1865 cotton and textiles made up 15 per cent of the trade turnover of the major Russian fair in Nizhny Novgorod. The railway from Samarkand to the Caspian Sea was completed in 1888, but even then the journey to central Russia took six weeks. 38 In contrast to the British Empire, no oceans separated the places where cotton was produced and where it was processed – only vast unpopulated steppes and tracts of marshland. But, in this case too, textiles were manufactured thousands of kilometres from where the cotton was grown. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the nature of cotton made it suitable for mechanical processing; he might have added with even greater surprise that nature created cotton for long-distance transportation.

The Russian authorities made Turkestan a textbook example of mercantilism in action: they encouraged the production of raw cotton, prevented it from being processed locally, held back local consumption, and kept the means of transportation in their hands. In the greater part of Turkestan the Russian authorities established indirect rule, which suited the traditional ways of Uzbek peasants. By the end of the century, however, a new threat emerged. The peasants of central Russia began a mass migration into Central Asia, making a beeline for the oases where cotton was grown. Fearing overpopulation and ethnic conflicts, St Petersburg put a brake on this migration. The governor-general of Turkestan was Konstantin Kaufmann, an experienced colonial administrator who had brutally suppressed rebellions in Poland and Fergana. Against expectations, he defended the local population from the Russian colonists by limiting their land purchases. Kaufmann saw that the transfer of the cotton fields to Russian ownership would be a bloody and very expensive enterprise. A civil war in Turkestan would have raised the price of cotton more than the Civil War in America. This protection of the local population against the influx of colonists was a rare instance in colonial history. All the same, Russian banks gradually deprived many Uzbek peasants of their land; by 1914, a quarter of the cotton-producing farms were left landless because of debts. Peasant uprisings in this distant periphery of the empire pre-dated the revolution in the capital.

In Russia the price of textiles rose, as did the price of bread, outstripping everything else. In 1900 the government again raised the tariff on imported cotton products, and domestic prices became higher than international ones; all the same, Russian capitals and port cities increased the import of expensive European textiles. The growth of cotton from Central Asia and the booming textile industry round Moscow depended on internal consumption in Russian villages. While coastal and industrial cities were booming, the standard of living in villages stagnated. One of many explanations for this effect is beet sugar: cheap and available across the country, it raised consumption among the peasants but failed to connect local households to distant trade and world affairs. Huge, barely populated expanses depressed trade. The division of labour was contingent on seasonal work and migration. Having made it to the town, peasants quickly mastered new skills; but they refused to use them when they returned to their villages. Theirs was the world described by Chayanov in his model of the moral economy – a world which didn’t need growth. 39 In the eighteenth century, the state used both stick and carrot in its treatment of the peasants. The twentieth-century state kept only the stick.

Industrialising the countryside, the ironclad Leviathan had one method of interfering in the moral economy of the village: brute force. Explaining his goals in the summer of 1928, Stalin said that, in capitalist countries, industrialisation had happened at the cost of plundering the colonies. The Bolsheviks, he said, built their industries at the cost of ‘internal accumulation’ – in other words, by plundering the countryside. The state confiscated the modest reserves accumulated in peasant smallholdings, transferring the proceeds into the development of mines and factories. ‘This is an additional tax on the peasantry in the interests of raising industry … it’s a little bit like “tribute” … It is, not to mince words, an unpleasant task,’ said Stalin. He didn’t agree with the opposition, who proposed ‘an alliance between towns and villages’, which meant supplying more textiles in exchange for food. ‘We will not just give the peasants calico. We will give them every sort of machine, seeds, ploughs, fertilisers … so the alliance will be based not only on textiles but on metals as well.’ Stalin spelt out the details. ‘An alliance through textiles is concerned, primarily, with the personal needs of the peasants’, but ‘an alliance through metal’ signified the collective remaking of the peasantry. ‘In general, how can you rework, remake the peasant, his psychology, his productivity?’ asked Stalin. To this end, his plans presumed ‘the mechanisation of agriculture, the collectivisation of peasant labour, the electrification of the country’. 40 To turn the Russian peasantry into a proletariat, sugar wasn’t necessary and there was precious little calico. For collectivisation and urbanisation – the Soviet versions of enclosures and resettlements – what was needed was metal.



1 Braudel, A History of Civilizations , p. 378.2 Haigler et al., ‘Cotton fiber’.3 Seneca, Declamations , 375.4 Molà, The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice ; Rezakhani, ‘The road that never was’; Classen, The Deepest Sense .5 Kosunova, ‘Krimskii kokon’.6 Crosby, America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon .7 Ibid.8 Green, ‘John Dee, King Arthur, and the conquest of the Arctic’.9 Rutherfurd, The Importance of the Colonies to Great Britain ; Kaplan, Russian Overseas Commerce with Great Britain .10 Małowist, ‘Poland, Russia and Western trade in the 15th and 16th centuries’.11 Liubimenko, ‘Angliiskii proekt 1612 g’; Dunning, ‘James I, the Russia Company, and the plan to establish a protectorate over North Russia’.12 Crosby, America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon .13 Kulisher, Istoriya russkoy torgovli , p. 227; Tengoborskii, O proizvoditel’nykh silakh Rossii .14 Klein, The Mesta ; Phillips and Phillips, Spain’s Golden Fleece ; Phillips and Phillips, ‘Spanish wool and Dutch rebels’.15 Kamen, ‘The decline of Castile’; Engstrand, ‘The Enlightenment in Spain’; Bacigalupo, ‘Two journeys with one vision’; Mahoney, Colonialism and Postcolonial Development .16 Bisson, The Merchant Adventurers of England .17 More, Utopia , p. 12.18 Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England .19 Leng, Fellowship and Freedom ; Friis, Alderman Cockayne’s Project and the Cloth Trade .20 Brown, ‘The artist of the Leviathan title-page’; Skinner, From Humanism to Hobbes ; Bredekamp, Thomas Hobbes, Der Leviathan ; Malcolm, ‘The titlepage of Leviathan ’.21 Martinich, Hobbes , p. 6.22 Agamben, Stasis .23 Davenant, ‘An essay on the East-India trade’, pp. 88, 100.24 Hoppit, ‘The political economy of wool’; Hentschell, The Culture of Cloth in Early Modern England .25 Hoppit, ‘The political economy of wool’.26 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , p. 248.27 Riello, Cotton .28 Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain , p. 2.29 Williams, Capitalism and Slavery ; Pomeranz, The Great Divergence ; Beckert, Empire of Cotton .30 Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain ; Riello, Back in Fashion .31 Riello, Cotton , pp. 238–45; Sugden and Cockerill, ‘The wool and cotton textile industries’; Sidorova, Indiiskii khlopok i britanskii interes .32 Hamilton, Report on the Subject of Manufactures .33 Polanyi, Origins of Our Time: The Great transformation , p. 42.34 Chapman, ‘The cotton industry and the industrial revolution’; Riello, Cotton ; Beckert, Empire of Cotton .35 Pomeranz, The Great Divergence ; Berg, ‘From imitation to invention’.36 Stolbov, ‘Kapitalistye krest’jane-staroobrjadcy’; ‘Selo Ivanovo’.37 Allen, Global Economic History .38 Obertreis, Imperial Desert Dreams ; Allen, Farm to Factory .39 Moon, The Russian Peasantry .40 Stalin, ‘Ob industrilizatsii i khlebnoi probleme’.



People dig metals from under the earth and harvest fibres that grow on its surface. In processing metals, we use chemical methods which change the inner quality of every individual piece; in processing fibres we use physical operations which do not transform the individual pieces but join them together. Extracting metal from ore requires very particular conditions that are difficult to create – for example very high temperatures; in contrast, processing fibres needs protracted manual labour. A textile can be unpicked to return it to its original fibres; once an alloy has been created it cannot be separated into its original elements. Unlike the processing of fibre, which was usually women’s sphere of activity, the mining of ore and the smelting of metals were predominantly men’s work. But the historical roles and prices of these two types of commodity changed in parallel ways. Rising over the centuries, from the eighteenth century onwards prices stabilised, lagging far behind the rocketing costs of food and energy. The history of metals is full of insights, delusions and accidental discoveries, passed on to posterity by those who undertook perilous adventures and survived to tell the tale. It was a natural selection of the strange ideas promoted by people who might not have been the fittest, but who undoubtedly had luck on their side – a Darwinian process lasting 8,000 years.


Unlike water, grain or wood, metals are topical resources, and the trade in them is all about location. If you are able to extract a resource that you have, you need to trade it for another commodity that you do not have, and transport these things both ways. These questions simply don’t arise if you have the same grain, wood or apples that your neighbours also have. You might be doing well, but you have neither trade nor capital. And probably you do not have metals.

Metal ores occur randomly, without rhyme or reason, and very inconveniently for humankind. Ores are embedded in the depths of the earth; tectonic processes only rarely push ores up to the surface in folds in the earth’s crust. These folds are usually located in the mountains – uninhabited places far from sea routes, fertile lands and trading towns. So it happened that the sources of wealth – gold fields, silver mines and, later, deposits of copper or iron ore – were found in remote places. Or, conversely, just because these deposits were few and far between they turned into sources of great wealth. Compare metals with a resource that is distributed more widely – clay. The source of bricks and pottery, clay was a godsend for humanity; the firing of clay brought greater benefits to people than any other technology. But clay never became a cult object; an evenly dispersed resource benefits people without creating inequality and does not make fortunes. The potter’s technology was often superior to the blacksmith’s; many methods of processing metals borrowed their techniques and tools from the craft of working with clay. But only metals, with their miraculous transmutations, specialised uses and monopoly sources of supply, created a society based on knowledge, inequality and growth. The era of capital coincided with the age of metal.

The Bronze Age was preceded by the long period of human history when metal, prized for its glitter and scarcity, was an object of worship. Using stone tools, people shaped metal nuggets into ritual ornaments. The Bible tells the ancient story of the golden calf: when the people fell into despair, Aaron melted down thousands of personal ornaments to make a community idol. Then Moses, ‘a stranger in a strange land’, came down from the mountain; he destroyed the golden calf and taught the Jews to worship the invisible God. The religion of the Golden Calf lingered on in the worship of gold – the universal equivalent of money and abundance. But there was also the religion of the Golden Fleece – an anticipation of wonder and adventure. The people of the mountains found metals in their barren rocks, but the people of the valleys could also obtain them in exchange for grain, wool or ceramics. Thanks to the exchange of fibres for metals, people understood the expanses of the globe as a source of treasures and a place for discoveries.

If you added black sand to a furnace, then – with luck – the alloy produced would be sturdier than ordinary copper. This alloy of copper and tin was bronze; people started making tools and weapons out of it. But in the bogs of Mesopotamia and the delta of the Nile even stone was a curiosity. Nomads from the North supplied metals to the nascent civilisations of the Middle East in exchange for artisan products from the South. But, in their search for wood and metal, people from these fertile plains migrated ever further north – to Lebanon, Anatolia and the whole Mediterranean. Egyptians extracted copper from mines in Sinai and captured gold mines in Nubia. Weapons made of metal allowed them to control the peasants who dug the earth with wooden implements. Synonymous with control over grain stores and cedar forests, power was now concerned with mines, furnaces and delivery routes.

Armed with the sword, the plough and the wheel, civilisation moved north. Smithies appeared in peasant villages. Their owners made a living by barter, not by agricultural labour, and were often considered as interlopers and magicians; many of them were migrants. Metallurgy needed men to assemble various resources – for example, copper, tin and charcoal – in one place, although they were all sourced from different areas. There were many deposits of copper ore in Europe; tin, less common, had to be brought from far away. In bronze alloys, tin made up less than a fifth by weight, but its sources were distant and limited, which meant that tin was expensive to barter. Alternatively, smiths could make bronze by smelting copper with poisonous arsenic. They died young, and although the god of blacksmithing, Hephaestus, was depicted with powerful shoulders, he was lame in both legs. But he forged weapons that were prized by the gods, and he was married to the beautiful Aphrodite.

At about the same time as people were learning to combine tin and copper, they also discovered how to separate silver. They heated ore in a hearth to the highest temperature they could achieve. Tin melted in the hearth and flowed out as if from a font or cupel, and the silver remained inside. This miraculous process was called cupellation. Athens rose thanks to the silver in the Laurion mines of Attica. The mines belonged to the state, although they were often farmed out to private individuals; nameless slaves worked the mines. From approximately 500 bce the profits from silver and tin financed the creation of a navy and the upkeep of a mercenary army. The Athenians also used this silver to maintain grain colonies in North Africa and the Mediterranean, thus avoiding the dirty work of earning their daily bread. A little later the Thracian mines in northern Greece produced even more silver; at one time they were run by Thucydides, the first historian. These mines were the source of power of the Macedonian dynasty that gave the world Alexander, the conqueror of Asia. The Phoenicians worked even richer mines in Spain. Hannibal financed his expeditions from these mines; indeed, behind every military leader there was a silver or copper mine. From his mines near Cadiz, Sextus Marius supplied Rome with both metals; as we remember (see Introduction), Tiberius accused him of incest and threw him off a rock.

The Roman Empire grew like an amoeba, spreading its tentacles now in one direction, now in another. According to the anthropologist Jack Goody, the main motive behind these advances was the quest for metals. 1 The goals of Roman colonisation were copper in southern Italy, tin in England, silver in Spain, and lead in Attica and Sardinia. The Romans loved soft, malleable lead and used it for plumbing and baths and as vessels for soft drinks. Lead salts dissolve in water, and this solution is sweet but poisonous. Lead acetate causes organ failure, and small doses cause brain damage in children. According to one study, more Roman emperors died of lead poisoning than died by the sword. 2

Smelting furnaces, sunk in the earth and faced with bricks, appeared in different parts of the world – in Western Europe, South-East Asia, northern China. The quality of the metal depended on the temperature in the furnace, which in turn depended on the up-draught, which depended on the height of the chimney, which depended on the quality of the brick. Progress in smelting was advanced by a breakthrough in firing clay. Smelting furnaces with chimneys 4 metres high were the ultimate in the art of engineering in the Bronze Age. Such furnaces were ready for smelting iron.

A noble metal that did not rust, bronze had its limits: a short sword could be made out of bronze, but not a long sabre. Bronze shields and armour offered little protection against the crude but heavy weapons of the barbarians. For making ploughs, bronze was too expensive and also prone to wear and tear. The extended delivery routes for tin were the weak spot in the production of bronze. With time, the invasion by the ‘people from the sea’ – the barbarian tribes from Eastern Europe who used iron – destroyed the ancient supply routes for tin. Relying on rare and remote resources, the Bronze Age was a time of social inequality. The owners of pits and mines became rich, but even they depended on those who controlled the delivery routes. 3


People found nuggets of pure iron in meteorites; they were rarer and more precious than gold. In the mountains accessible to the people of the ancient world – in Anatolia, the Appenines, later in the Balkans and the Carpathians – there were outcrops of iron ore. These were extracted from quarries, but iron ore appears on the earth’s surface as rarely as a meteorite. Most ancient iron was found in bogs and lakes. This type of ore is now called limonite, mudstones or simply bog iron. Historians tend to underestimate its significance.

Bog iron comes in the form of unprepossessing, rough stone nuggets of a distinctive colour, ranging from brown to yellow. They consist of ferric oxide and various admixtures; for modern metallurgy they are worthless, but they have some special qualities. Progress in the art of smelting was dictated by the use of ever higher temperatures. Different metals have different smelting temperatures; the smelting temperature of iron (for modern processes, it is higher than 1,500º Celsius) is much higher than for copper (1,000º Celsius). But iron from bog ore smelts at an unusually low temperature, starting at 400º Celsius. This temperature could be reached even by burning peat from that same bog; using good wood or, better still, charcoal, an experienced blacksmith could produce high-quality iron from bog ore. Repeated forging in a furnace removed oxygen and chemical impurities. Moreover, bog ore contained a lot of silicon. This made the iron stainless, a result that the blacksmiths of the mountains were unable to achieve for centuries.

The Iron Age staggered into being after a series of false starts. The switch of the resource platform happened about 1200 bce , when the ‘people from the sea’ arrived from beyond the Balkans to destroy and plunder the ancient centres of civilisation. The invaders were armed with iron weapons, and this metal enabled their feats as seafarers. In Anatolia, the previously unknown Hittites founded a powerful state, which was based on iron; it competed with Egypt, the leading power of the Bronze Age. The Hittites forged swords and axes from iron and made iron parts for their chariots too. They ousted the Egyptians from the Levant and Canaan, but then the Hittite state also collapsed, unable to withstand the onslaught of the Phrygian cavalry who had attacked from the North. This was the era when massed infantry, armed with iron sabres and helmets, gained victory over chariots from which high-born warriors fired arrows and wielded lances – a period of global destruction of the old priestly elites. The barbarian peoples – the Etruscans, the Phoenicians and the Celts – were great masters of iron and used it for making ploughs, horseshoes, nails and cheap weapons for the infantry. For the Romans, iron was a despised metal, but they learnt from their enemies.

In ancient Israel, the tribe of Yahweh cleared the land with iron axes, mattocks and ploughs. In the first temple of King Solomon, started in 950 bce , both copper and iron were used. The invention of the iron plough was a major factor in the productivity of agriculture. The wheels for war chariots, carriages and wheelbarrows needed iron parts. Then ploughs were also put on wheels; combining wood and iron, these implements enabled the mass use of draught animals. Only Eurasia used the plough; before the arrival of settlers the plough was unknown in America, Africa or Oceania. Experiments by anthropologists have shown that you can chop down a tree with a bronze axe three times faster than with a stone axe and eight times faster with an iron axe. Increasing the area of arable land and making the competition for land more intense, iron tools strengthened social stratification and the role of the state. From now on, property rights would define life and wealth, and only the state could protect these rights.

But the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe characterised the Iron Age as a time of democracy and monotheism. The use of iron weapons enabled the overthrow of the priestly elites; exchanging iron tools for farm products improved the life of the peasants. As it happened, the change of the resource platform was defined by the technical progress that had created a cheaper and abundant alternative. Throughout the civilised world, from India to Spain, the transition from bronze to iron was accompanied by the destruction of towns, the growth of violence and the decline of written culture. The magnificent palaces and trading towns of the Middle East disappeared. Archaeologists detect signs of the catastrophe in the deterioration of pottery and in the mass migration from coastal areas to the hilltops where cattle herders could protect themselves from pirates. It was a Time of Troubles; centuries passed before the peoples of Greece and Palestine could find new paths of cultural development. Then the Axial Age began, with its mass religion, written law and metal coins. 4

The success of the Hittites and the ‘people from the sea’ demonstrated that their iron weapons were at least as good as bronze ones, and probably cheaper. But the early methods of processing iron are still a mystery. The temperature at which mined iron melts has not changed to this day; it is impossible to achieve it in a furnace fuelled by wood. According to one theory, the ‘people from the sea’ used bog iron, which they brought from the Scythian steppes further to the north; using charcoal to heat the furnace, they were able to forge blades from this ore. Another theory claims that the Hittites forged weapons using ore with a high nickel content, which produced something like a steel alloy; in Anatolia there are deposits of this ore. According to a third hypothesis, the Hittites combined the carburisation of metal with its ‘tempering’. 5 Burning crushed iron ore with a large quantity of charcoal, they rapidly quenched the alloy in cold water. The alloy crystallises into a sturdy, malleable material, discovered anew by the German engineer Adolph Martens in 1902; this material was named Martensite.

The mysterious Hittites did not pass on their secret to descendants. The later armourers alternated folded layers of forged iron and tempered steel – the resulting sandwiches were lighter and sharper. Metallurgy is an art. The physical changes that occur in fibres are simpler and more predictable than the chemical reactions produced when various substances are heated and combined, such as oxidation, carburation or cupellation. Acquired through millennia of trial and error, empirical knowledge was secret. Every generation of miners and smiths had to learn their trade: starting his apprenticeship as a child, the pupil found himself completely under the power of his master. A rare and profitable profession passed down from father to son; childless blacksmiths (and there were many) easily found apprentices.

In peacetime, Rome depended more on brick and wood than on metal. But every Roman legion used hundreds of tons of iron for defensive and attack weapons. The further the borders of this empire stretched in the search for metal, the more arms, forts and metal it needed. The Roman mines were worked by slaves; many of them, however, were paid for their work and some became masters or managers. The smelting and forging depended on firewood, and the advantage of the north was evident. Mines in the Alps produced iron with a high manganese content; something akin to steel was forged from this ore, although the temperature wasn’t high enough for casting. In their battles with the Roman legions, the barbarians used long, masterfully forged iron swords. Visigoths and Vikings made excellent weapons, strengthening bog iron with magical practices harking back to the cult of the dead. Throughout Scandinavia, archaeologists have dug up forges in which they find the bones of humans and large animals such as elk and bear. With faith in their magic powers, blacksmiths forged bog iron with powdered bones to make sturdy swords. Experiments have shown that, with a limited supply of oxygen, bone meal carburises iron, creating a coating of sturdy, stainless steel.

In the China of the Han period, both the mining and forging industries developed with extraordinary speed. In northern China, people started using coal very early, which allowed them to create extremely high temperatures. In around 1000 ce , Chinese blacksmiths were making refined weaponry, coins and ornaments from bronze and iron. Forges used waterwheels which powered bellows and hammers. The Chinese rulers decreed a monopoly on mining. Copper, iron and salt became the property of the state. But something always went wrong, and these decrees had to be reissued time and again. Iron was used for the forging of swords, shields and lances, the making of ploughs, and the construction of bridges and sluice gates. The Chinese used iron to make statues of the Buddha and the roofs of pagodas. They added the blood of sacrificed animals – sheep or buffalo – to the smelted metal. The abundance of implements helped agriculture to thrive; peasants adopted intensive methods, ploughing up new lands and digging irrigation channels. Nowhere else in the world was there such a flourishing of industry up until the Industrial Revolution. The extraction and smelting industries were concentrated in several centres in northern China, close to the mines. Thousands of workers were employed in one such centre; towns with populations of about a million each grew up around the mines. In the middle of the tenth century, Chinese mines and forges extracted and smelted more iron than at the beginning of the twentieth century. 6

This early industrialisation came to a dramatic end: the iron industry of northern China completely disappeared. At the end of the Song dynasty the government was disillusioned: the Confucian state acknowledged the social problems caused by mono-resource development. The owners of pits and mines became richer than princes. According to documents from the beginning of the eleventh century, government inspectors found that the mines led to moral decay. This ‘moral decay’ was very close to the contemporary sense of ‘corruption’. Workers suffered injuries; accidents were frequent. Worst of all, the mines led to the destruction of the state: at first the entrepreneurs paid bribes to the bureaucrats, then the bureaucrats tried to seize the mines from their clients. Probably this was the first time that a technical civilisation encountered the resource curse. In 1078, a decree from the emperor forbade the extraction of metals, blaming the mines for all the woes of the empire. The decree was ignored, but the Song state was also doomed. The Mongol invasion brought hunger, floods and epidemics. Dams and roads were destroyed, trade stopped, and the survivors reverted to subsistence farming. The Mongols introduced paper money, but they still needed sabres and lances; however, the mass use of iron implements ceased. Over three centuries the population of these lands fell by a factor of ten. From the eleventh century until the beginning of the Second World War, the mines of northern China produced no iron. Although the Silk Road already connected China to Europe, the secrets of Chinese metallurgy did not travel along that route. The technology of smelting metal heated by coal would only be reinvented in England in the eighteenth century.

But the borders of the European world were widening thanks to the quest for ore. The exchange included increasingly remote lands – England, which was rich in tin, the Caucasus with its copper deposits, the Alps with their silver and copper, the Carpathians with their forests and metals. The curators who conducted the trade in metals belonged to various ethnic communities: at first they were Phoenician, then Armenian and Jewish, and later Venetian and German merchants. Europe exchanged its metals for ‘Eastern luxuries’ – sweets, spices and textiles, brought by Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch ships. The first such centre of exchange was Venice; supplied by the mining industry in Central Europe, it developed in new ways which did not depend on the Roman traditions. New industrial centres were set up on the frontiers of the German and Slav worlds – in Bohemia, Saxony, Styria and the Tyrol. Disappointed by the revenue from their peasants, local landowners put their faith in the depth of mines and the heat of furnaces. At German princely courts, alchemy and the science of minerals were held in high regard. From Munich to St Petersburg, cabinets of curiosities displayed local ores and crystals jumbled up with exotic finds from the colonies (whalebone, a shaman’s tambourine, the horn of a rhinoceros), the corpses of newborn freaks and sculptures carved from sugar.


The most successful entrepreneur of the mining Renaissance was Jakob Fugger – as his recent biography attests, he was the richest man who ever lived. 7 Fugger was born in 1459 in Augsburg, the textile centre of southern Germany. The most important route of medieval Europe, from Danzig to Venice, ran through Augsburg. Blending local linen with Egyptian cotton, the Fugger family distributed orders to local spinners and then sold fustian at fairs in Cologne and Frankfurt. They competed with dozens of other fibre curators, but Jakob was lucky: his family business had a branch in Venice, and he was sent there as an apprentice.

Venice was the commercial centre of the world. Silk, pepper and cotton from the East were traded there for French wine, German steel, Russian fur, Italian wheat and Venetian salt. Splendid palaces began as warehouses which stored goods for long-distance trade. The banks stored silver and circulated promissory notes for trade. With his newly acquired experience, the young Fugger changed business. Using family funds, Fugger bought a silver mine in Schwaz in the Austrian Alps. A silver boom had begun there in 1409, and Schwaz was booming. Taverns and churches sprang up on the land as mineshafts were sunk into it. Until the opening of the Mexican mines, it was the biggest known deposit of silver in the world – a super-profitable monopoly.

We know about the conditions of mining in those times thanks to the works of Georgius Agricola – a Saxon doctor and alchemist. In his metallurgical recipes, published at the dawn of the age of printing, ore was repeatedly heated and cooled, crushed and washed. The alchemists of his circle discovered the phenomenon of liquation: when an alloy is cooled, different metals crystallise at different times, which separates them from one another. They also discovered catalysis: the addition of mercury helped to separate copper. A scholar of mining craft, Agricola had no understanding of the chemical processes which took place in the furnace and the forge. He compared veins of ore with the veins of the human body; just as blood collects in the arteries, the power of the earth collects metal. Agricola’s language remained the language of alchemy, which compared the processes which occurred in metals to the phenomena of body and soul. Fire purifies metals just as faith purifies the spirit. But Agricola knew how to build waterwheels, how to pump the mines, how to get ore to the surface. He could tell by the colour when metal had reached forging temperature and how many times it had to be smelted and forged to hammer out the impurities. His stories were a rich mix of Nordic paganism and frivolous Latin imagination. Agricola classified the demons living in the mines: goblins do harm, but gnomes surreptitiously help miners. Pure essences exist in mixtures but can be separated from one another and, moreover, dream of nothing but this separation. * Olaus Magnus, the author of the first history of the northern lands, published in Rome in 1555 (he was the brother of the last Catholic archbishop of Sweden), claimed that the peoples of the North had a special relationship with trolls. With or without their help, medicine and metallurgy, two fields of natural magic, spread from the south of Europe to the north. 8

Alchemists wished to turn copper or lead into gold. But only the financiers did what the alchemists promised – they turned lowly substances into jingling coins. The Tyrol belonged to Duke Sigmund, a Habsburg. People said that he had fifty children and was short of silver. A group of bankers financed him by issuing credit notes, which were calculated in pounds of future silver, with a discount. Fugger joined this group; he would receive from Sigmund a pound of silver for 8 florins of debt, and then sell it in Venice for 12 florins. Then the Tyrol lost the war with Venice and had to pay reparations. Fugger collected this sum on behalf of Sigmund after demanding full control over the mines of Schwaz. When the Tyrol was handed over to Maximilian, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the mines remained with Fugger. The capital of his empire was Arnoldstein, a woody estate halfway between Vienna and Venice. Fugger mined copper there and built furnaces to process ores from all over the Alps and the Carpathians. The Saxon engineer Johann Turtzo built pumps powered by waterwheels, which were adopted there for the first time. The sovereigns of Europe learnt the first lessons of the political economy of resources: the fate of states was decided not on the fields of battle but in scary mines and quiet offices. Mercenaries fought their battles, and sovereigns were even more dependent on their creditors in times of war than in times of peace. And the creditors, in turn, depended on the mines.

The collaboration between the bellicose Maximilian and the thrifty Fugger continued for decades. In 1515 Maximilian arranged the marriages of two of his heirs, a grandson and a granddaughter, to the offspring of Vladislaus II, the king of Hungary and Bohemia. Western and Eastern Europe were to enter into a dynastic marriage, uniting two great royal lines, the Habsburgs and the Jagiellonians. A double wedding of unbelievable luxury was planned. Albrecht Dürer designed a triumphal arch for the occasion; it was exactly like a Roman arch, but made out of wood covered in paper, printed with drawings. The arch was never made, and Dürer was not paid for his three years’ work. Maximilian again put himself in debt to Fugger, against the security of mines in Hungary. Smelted from Fugger’s copper, bronze was forged into cannons and muskets; without them, the Turks would have occupied Vienna. To separate silver from copper in the process known as liquation, lead was needed. It was found near Krakow – this was globalisation in action. The silver mines in the Alps created Fugger’s wealth, and the copper mines in the Carpathians magnified it.

After Columbus’s return from America, the two most powerful empires of that period, the Spanish and the Portuguese, agreed to divide the world into two spheres of influence. To avoid coming to blows, they drew a vertical line on a map of the Atlantic, which was at that time blank. This line skirted the coast of Brazil: all future discoveries to the west of this line would belong to Castile – to the east, to Portugal. Authorised by the pope, this line became known as the Tordesillas meridian. In 1498 Vasco da Gama skirted Africa; on the island of Angediva, off the west coast of India, he met a Polish Jew who had travelled there by the Silk Road from Poznań. He took this man to Lisbon; there he was baptised and given the name Gaspar da Gama. Manuel I, the king of Portugal, later appointed Gaspar as a counsellor. He was part of the expedition that discovered Brazil, and he discussed the layout of the world with Amerigo Vespucci. The Portuguese became pioneers of the spice trade. Fugger also had his finger in this pie: in 1504 he bought from King Manuel the right to build a pepper-processing factory in Lisbon, supplying a thousand tons of copper per year in exchange. From these operations with Portuguese merchants, Fugger made a profit of almost 200 per cent per annum. His agents organised the first circumnavigation of the globe, led by Magellan in 1519. Magellan was killed by natives in the Philippines, but his crew sailed round Africa and returned to Spain. On the way they put the Moluccas – a small archipelago of islands lying between Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea – on the map. The priceless spices of Eastern trade – nutmeg and cloves – only grew there.

All this time the Nuremburg master Martin Behaim was making globes for the Portuguese king, while the Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro was drawing maps for the Spanish king. After the return of Magellan’s expedition, the Tordesillas meridian was extended on the other side of Behaim’s globe; it became the new ‘Zaragoza antimeridian’. It turned out that the Molucca archipelago remained with Portugal. But Diogo Ribeiro continued to work for the Spanish king. At the Zaragoza peace talks, he slightly amended his map so that the Moluccas passed to Spain. 9 The skills of these experts, who were hardly paid for their work, would decide the fate of unbelievable treasures. Both Ribeiro’s map and Behaim’s globe feature in Hans Holbein’s famous painting The Ambassadors ; together with a Turkish carpet, a book of Lutheran hymns and a bronze astrolabe, they form the background to a world in conflict. In the foreground two imposing ambassadors from the new superpowers – France and England – are discussing this new carving up of the world. On the floor lies a spectacular skull.


Mines could collapse, flood, explode or give off poisonous gases; it was impossible to rescue the victims of such disasters. Even a soldier on the battlefield could count on more help from those who had sent him out there. The years of working in the mines inculcated a spirit of rationality, an ability to calculate risks and common-sense solidarity. An ordinary miner earned a third more than a peasant, which meant that his wife didn’t have to work in the fields but took care of the house and children. The miners were the first workers to defend their group rights. Their guilds in the Alps were unusually powerful; by the end of the fifteenth century they were already influencing pay rates, supporting the widows of miners and negotiating the length of holidays. More than once, miners’ guilds called strikes, and sometimes their leaders were arrested.

Success in mining promised career progress or even the prospect of starting your own business. The father of Martin Luther was a Saxon miner who became a furnace foreman and, towards the end of his life, the owner of a copper mine. 10 Martin grew up in the little town of Mansfeld, among mines, furnaces, chopped-down forests and smoke-blackened fields. Since the thirteenth century silver had been mined there, but by the time of Luther’s father it was a copper-smelting town, responsible for up to a quarter of all European production. The bankers of the southern princely states invested in Mansfeld, and Fugger also took an interest. There were about a hundred smelting furnaces in the town, and they were run by masters – this was a respected and well-paid job. Hans Luther ran seven furnaces with 200 workers. The miners were mostly migrants and foreigners, many of them from Bohemia. They were able to stand up for their own interests and wrote collective petitions that are still in the archives. In 1511 the Mansfeld miners formed a professional fraternity.

Copper gave excellent rents to the local landowners; during Luther’s time, three of them built castles round Mansfeld. But they were always in conflict: subterranean property rights were difficult to demarcate. After work the miners drank; alcohol relaxed tension and the town was full of taverns and brothels. Many miners had serious diseases of the lungs, stomach and skin. But Martin Luther preserved a fondness for Mansfeld and a sympathy for its problems. Thanks to his father’s income, he was able to study at university and become first a lawyer and then a monk. Giving his blessing to the investors and even the money-lenders, Luther wrote pamphlets against Fugger, the monopolist who had got rich at the expense of the miners’ toil. The miners, Luther’s local admirers, went on strike and occupied the mines. But Fugger was a harsh manager, and it was thought that his men killed some of the protesters. He insisted on having Luther arrested and handed over to the ecclesiastical court. Fugger’s money was behind the imperial Diet of Worms, which found Luther guilty of heresy. After this event, the emperor Charles V handed over control of all book printing in the empire to Fugger. By the end of his life Martin Luther’s father was in debt and had sold his business. His sons inherited land and houses but the creditors kept the mines. The number of working mines and furnaces decreased in Mansfeld; people were leaving the town, and new conflicts broke out among the mine-owners. In January 1546, Luther set off to settle a dispute between the five dukes of Mansfeld; discontented with their falling income, they had personally taken up the management of the mines. Luther persuaded Count Albrecht, one of his supporters, to make peace with his brothers so that they would hand over the management of the mines to an expert. Albrecht failed, and Luther decided that he must take on the task himself. He travelled to the neighbouring city of Eisleben, met the dukes and the miners, and listened to their grievances; it was while occupied with these matters that he died. Martin Luther shook the world with the Reformation but he died while mediating in a mining conflict.

By the 1560s the industry of Mansfeld had come to a complete stop. The silver and copper it produced could not compete with the metals brought from the New World. Neither Luther nor the dukes nor the miners could have imagined such an outcome; the boom and bust that they lived through were unthinkable in a feudal, essentially peasant culture. Complicated and tragic, life needed a new interpretation. It was precisely these conditions that gave rise to the religious doctrine which would change the life of Christians. Luther didn’t believe in portents or prejudices. But the idea of an omnipotent God whose will must be obeyed, even though it couldn’t be understood, dominated his refined imagination as much as it directed his fellow countrymen who descended into the mines every day. Acknowledging evil and believing in the power of good deeds were central parts of this faith.

Having secured a monopoly on silver, Fugger set his sights on gaining a monopoly on copper. To get the better of his few competitors in the Carpathians, he resorted to dumping. By saturating the Venetian market with copper, he was able to lower the price enough to force his rivals to declare bankruptcy, and their mines fell into Fugger’s hands. Another enemy was the Hanseatic League – it intercepted Fugger’s ships as they transported copper through Lübeck. But the might of the Hanseatic League was on the wane. In 1494 the tsar of Muscovy, Ivan III, had put a stop to its monopoly on trade in Novgorod, and a hundred years later Elizabeth I would follow his example in London. The traditional herring catch in Bergen was exhausted. Sweden, a rising star of imperial rivalry, was supporting the Dutch in the Baltic Sea. For his part, Fugger paid lavish sums to Danzig and Lübeck to deter them from supporting the monopoly rights of the Hansa. History was once again on Fugger’s side: in the sixteenth century the Hansa ceased to exist.

The Hansa had been the most powerful trade organisation of the Middle Ages. Trading in the Baltic and the North Sea, from London to Novgorod, the league had dozens of bases and warehouses, hundreds of armed ships, thousands of skilled workers. The Hansa’s strategy was diversification – herring in Bergen, fur in Novgorod, timber in Riga, grain in Danzig. With Fugger, monopoly on metals merged with monopoly of power. Charles V united the Spanish and the Holy Roman empires, and Fugger extended credit to him. In response, Charles gave him mercury mines in Spain. This mercury was used to purify silver in Potosí. Once he possessed mercury, Fugger had the whip hand over American and European silver.

The art of the financier consists in manipulating the future. In 1514 Fugger, in collaboration with Leo X, a son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, hatched a new financial scheme. It had long been a custom that the church would pardon sins in exchange for donations; now, this procedure was securitised. The sinner paid in silver and received a piece of paper stating the number of days that his soul would have to spend in purgatory. The indulgence was a security denominated in dark purgatory years: the more the sinner paid, the shorter would be his sufferings. Remarkably, the market in indulgences appeared in Europe before other securities, and even before paper money. Because it would happen in the future, salvation could be purchased at a discount in the same way as Fugger purchased metals that had not yet been extracted. The first indulgences were sold in Annaberg, a mining town near the Czech border. Then this profitable business spread throughout the German lands and the whole of Catholic Europe. Leo X announced that the profits from indulgences would be spent on building St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In fact, this money was divided between the pope and Fugger. The merging of these two monopolies, on salvation and on silver, was a decisive step towards full monotheism. Thanks to indulgences, the Golden Calf miraculously merged with the wooden cross.

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Fugger had his own social policies. In the suburbs of Augsburg he built the Fuggerei, an innovative social housing complex; it consisted of more than a hundred houses, built according to a standard plan and let for a peppercorn rent. His best workers, trusted people, veterans of labour, lived there. These low-rise apartment blocks exist to this day; people live in them and visitors are taken on guided tours where they hear that this social housing was the sign of progress. But Fugger could not atone for his sins in this way. Indulgences provoked furious rebukes from Luther’s followers; this was a crucial moment in the rise of the Reformation. In revolts of 1524, weavers, miners and farmers combined into a revolutionary movement that entered the history books as the Great Peasants’ War. In his Dialogues , the ideological leader of the uprising, the knight and poet Ulrich von Hutten, accused Fugger of creating ‘mercantile monopolies’, which robbed the miners, undermined the peasants and supported Rome. The biggest uprising experienced in Europe before the French Revolution, this Peasants’ War caused hundreds of thousands of casualties. Fugger paid mercenaries to fight against the people and armed his troops with cannons made from his own copper. The uprising was quashed – miners and weavers were no match for artillery. The leaders were tortured and executed, and the fields ran with blood. The Protestants loathed Fugger, seeing him as the incarnation of evil. In their minds, the resource economy as implemented by Fugger – mines, mercenaries, venal bureaucrats and priests, social housing for the chosen few, and monstrous indulgences – all blended into the kingdom of the Antichrist.


When the Spanish captured native towns in the New World, they did find gold. The natives had forged nuggets and accumulated sacred pieces of metal for centuries. The continent was engulfed by gold fever. Somewhere to the south of the isthmus between the Americas lay the fabled Eldorado. In 1545 a native climbed a mountain peak in the Inca capital of Cusco in order to plunder an ancient tomb. This was how the silver deposit of Potosí was discovered; nowhere else in the world was silver so near the surface. The Spanish sent hordes of ‘Indians’ there, and soon Potosí was bigger than Seville. As in the Alps, smelting furnaces and waterwheels were established next to the mines. The natives carried supplies – timber, firewood, food, lead and mercury – up steps carved into the rockface. Supplying the world with silver, Potosí was the source of untold riches; but this town was nothing like Eldorado. To the inevitable smoke, dirt and slag heaps of a mining town was added the discipline of a military base. But Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, gave Potosí a coat of arms on which was inscribed ‘Treasure of the world, king of all mountains and the envy of all kings’. 11

Back home in the Pyrenees, the Spanish had been working mines since Roman times, but using their skills in the Andes was not easy. They brought German masters to drain the bogs around Potosí and dig canals and reservoirs. More than a hundred watermills stood on two dozen dams, crushing ore; one dam burst in 1624 and hundreds of people perished. Natives worked down the mines, but black slaves were also brought there; the daily norm for each miner was to raise half a ton of ore. There were so few Spaniards there that the ‘Indians’ did almost everything – dragged loads, went down the mines and stoked the furnaces. So experts and managers who had mastered the secrets of metal emerged from the native population. The division of labour along ethnic lines, usual for raw materials economies, recurred in the division of property rights. The Spanish owned the mines in Potosí, while Native Americans owned the furnaces. The alchemical methods of metallurgy such as cupellation and liquation easily combined with the indigenous culture. In the same way as the Alpine magicians used folk magic to master the smelting of ores, the Native American metallurgists learnt this art with the help of their shamanic traditions. The natives underwent the typical process of class stratification: the furnace owners and master smelters got rich even quicker than the Spanish, but the workers died out or ran away from Potosí. The viceroy, Francisco de Toledo, introduced the system of mita : all districts of Peru had to send their indigenous people for compulsory service in the mines. As the mines got deeper, the expenses grew, productivity fell, and the shortage of manpower became even more acute. Then a German chemist who had studied in Italy invented a new method of processing ore. Realising the alchemists’ ideas, he mixed pulverised ore with mercury in a salt solution. The silver formed an amalgam with mercury, the mercury was driven off by evaporation, and pure silver remained at the bottom of the vessel. In the old Spanish mines of Rio Tinto, the German used his method to extract silver even from slag heaps. In Potosí, many old mines got a second wind. Having created enormous wealth with his discovery, this chemist failed to get rich, and even his real name remains unknown: he enters into history only as Maestro Lorenzo. Thanks to him, the production of silver in Spanish America in 1550 equalled that of Europe and continued to grow. Mines in the German and Austrian lands were closing. The guilds were powerless to stop this process; ironically, they could only make the European mines even less competitive.

In America, the new method was given the innocent-sounding name of the ‘patio process’. The natives poured mercury into stone baths filled with brine and crushed ore, then churned this poisonous concoction with their bare hands; later this deadly task was assigned to tethered mules. One and a half kilos of mercury were needed to produce a kilo of silver. Since mercury was thought to be unavailable in America, it was brought from Spain. As it happened, the mercury mines of Almadén were owned by Fugger. Emperor Charles V declared a monopoly on mercury, adding to Fugger’s profits. However, mercury deposits were later found not far from Potosí; again, the Spanish owed this discovery to the Native Americans who used mercury dyes in their textiles. 12

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Spanish colonies were supplying silver and gold to the whole of Europe. Trading in precious metals extracted and processed by Native Americans, Philip II united the Spanish and Portuguese possessions to become the most powerful monarch in Europe. He had colonies on four continents; the Philippines were named in his honour, the sun never set on his empire. Pirates robbed individual ships but did not dare attack the majestic convoys which twice a year delivered American silver to Castile. When metal reached Seville, the crown imposed duties. It had to pay for the upkeep of the Spanish army in the Dutch provinces. It was building a great Armada, intended to conquer the globe. It financed expeditions in search of new revenues. It created a tobacco industry to stimulate internal consumption. As a result, bread, wool, labour, and almost everything else rose in price throughout Europe: this was one of the longest periods of inflation in history. The influx of silver did not stop at creating monopolies. Predominating in the exchange, a mono-resource becomes money. People have to earn more and more of this money to buy less and less.

Spanish diversification wasn’t at all effective. First, seventeen Dutch provinces – the most profitable part of the empire – revolted; then the English defeated the mighty Armada; and all this time the purchasing power of silver in Europe kept falling. In 1642 an imperial decree banned slavery. This led to a disastrous increase in expenditure. Supporting the mine-owners, far-off Seville made concessions, reducing its share of profits. But the mines were exhausted, profits fell, and the workers were dying or fleeing. Spanish extravagance and inertia were known throughout Europe. The crown was supported by raw materials – silver, wool and cod – but the lower orders had to live off subsistence farming. The metropolitan cities and the ports kept growing, and everything else was doomed to stagnation. Having seized a mountain of silver, the empire was now going to ruin. During the reign of Philip II, Spain defaulted on its debts five times and debased its currency: Spanish coins contained less and less silver. The Habsburg crisis led to a slump throughout Europe. In Russia, the succession crisis led to a civil war, Polish–Swedish intervention and decades of chaos – the Time of Troubles. The Thirty Years’ War ended with the taking of Prague by Swedish troops. The war devastated the German states; the losses – a third of the population – were comparable to the effects of the plague, remembered from the Middle Ages. The centre of European gravity was shifting north. The climate cooled, the Dutch canals froze, the English harvest failed and bread riots began. Not receiving any revenue, sovereigns raised duties, debased coins, and sold positions in the judiciary. Failing to meet their commitments, and unable to secure the common good, absolutist states turned into institutional parasites. 13

By the end of the seventeenth century the situation had improved. Gold from Brazil and new banking instruments, such as promissory notes, helped financial transactions. The first economic studies appeared – attempts to fathom the mysterious movements of raw materials, money and goods – and with them the projects of central banks in Scotland, England and France. Maritime trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Baltic and the North Sea. The economy of the Dutch Republic and her dependant, Sweden, were the drivers of growth. Stockholm became the new centre for magi and metallurgists, many of them trained by Italians or Bohemians. In 1627 the Dutch entrepreneur Louis De Geer moved to Sweden from Liège, which had been destroyed by the Spanish. Granted a concession by King Gustavus Adolphus, he smelted bronze but soon switched to iron and cannons. Under Dutch management the Swedish mines turned into suppliers of metal for the whole of Europe, including England; in the course of a century, iron smelting in Sweden increased by a factor of five. The old centres of primary commodities – Venice and Seville – went into a slump from which they would not recover.

The Little Ice Age (1500–1850) was the opposite of today’s global warming. The latest explanation for this long-drawn-out cooling is the extinction of the indigenous populations in both Americas. Epidemics and wars brought about by the white incomers led to the death of more than 50 million people, whose traditional agriculture and hunting, based on the burning of forests, ceased. When the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fell, cooling began throughout the northern hemisphere. 14 Harvest failures contributed to the European crisis; wars, uprisings and massacres erupted all over the continent, from England to Ukraine. The genocide in the Americas over the centuries was motivated by the thirst for gold or, failing that, silver. The change in climate was not a cyclical phenomenon: it was brought about by political will. The Spanish Empire created vast quantities of silver and destroyed a huge number of people; silver and wool gave birth to this empire and drained it to the last drop. Behind every sort of raw material stood the people who extracted it and the laws regulating their work. But everything began with nature – with the ore-bearing rocks of the Andes, the shoals of fish in the North Atlantic or the stretches of pastureland in Castile – and came to an end as a result of human actions. It is easy to imagine the resource economy as a man-made construct: people created it, to their advantage or detriment, in their routine appropriation of raw materials. But all these events and policies must also be looked at from the point of view of the ore, sheep, fish and weather – significant players in history, its autonomous agents.


Paracelsus, the father of modern medicine and a contemporary of Luther and Fugger, writes in detail about spirits. Their life is similar to human lives: spirits eat, drink, have sex with one another, and even marry, but they don’t have souls. Spirits of the mine can pass through a solid rock mass, like a person moving through the air. Sometimes they come to an agreement with a human being, seduce him or take him into service. Kobolds, also known as mine fairies, are harmless; the metal cobalt is even named after them. Gnomes can be useful, although they are cunning and treacherous; trolls are dangerous. In the German Alps, gnomes were represented as little old men equipped with beards and tails. In Sweden, mine spirits were most often described as alluring women. The Swedish geologist and alchemist Urban Hjärne participated in a witch trial in 1676. An official of the Royal Bureau of Mines, he was a renowned scholar with international connections; a member of the Royal Society in London, he spent several years in Paris. But Hjärne voted that two of the women who had had sexual relations with the devil should be burnt on a bonfire. This was one of the last witch burnings in Europe.

Alchemists had a broad knowledge of natural magic; they were also metallurgists, physicians and astronomers. Paracelsus taught that the world consists of three universal ‘principles’ – the principle of salt, the principle of sulphur and the principle of mercury. God designated one of the elements, fire, to separate these principles. In 1661 the scientist and alchemist Robert Boyle, one of the directors of the English East India Company, published his treatise The Sceptical Chemist , which was directed against Paracelsus. The world consists not of three principles and four elements but of a countless number of atoms, which bump into each other in chance encounters. The chemical elements are primary substances that cannot be taken any further apart. Boyle thought it possible that elements could transmute; in his world there was no ether, but lead could nevertheless become gold.

From Sweden to Peru, the miners’ lives were shaped by their ores, just as the neighbouring peasants’ lives were shaped by their cereals and cattle. The peasants lived on the surface; they ploughed their land and the land of their masters. The mines went deep underground, the furnaces reached up into the sky, and the wealth that they produced also had peaks and troughs. The peasants lived by tradition and calculation; they knew what they would do in winter and what in summer, which field would be ploughed the following year and which would lie fallow. The miners and blacksmiths lived by secret knowledge combined with sheer fluke. In every mining town, local legends told about how metal was found there by chance: in Tyrolean Schwaz a peasant woman wandering across a field with her cow stumbled across a nugget of silver. In Saxon Halle a shiny gleam of ore revealed itself on a roadside verge while someone was transporting salt. These were unheard of treasures; but then strangers who didn’t speak the local language tasted and smelt the ore, dissolved it in urine, crushed it to a powder and heated it in crucibles. Alchemists believed that metals grew in the earth in the same way as plants; they sought the magic words that would allow them to smelt lead into gold. But their mystical language really helped them to distinguish metals, purify ore, plan mines, reinforce them and pump the water out. These people often belonged to the medical profession; the bowels of the earth seemed to them to be a living organism which could experience growth, convulsions and bloating with gases. The juices of the earth, such as mercury, entered into a sexual union with metals such as silver. Monotheism was left at the entry to the mine and the smelting furnace; within them ‘prejudices’ ruled. Witches and trolls were the true rulers of the mines; physiological analogies and poetic metaphors were the tools of the craft. But they did help to control the highly complex processes of smelting, casting, forging and tempering.

Alchemy was the profession of refugees, counterfeiters and spies. Scary and comical, their contribution to the establishment of early modernity competed with those of the giants of the Italian Renaissance. This was an alternative Renaissance, a mineral reawakening. Its leaders weren’t artists and humanists, but entrepreneurs and alchemists. It makes perfect sense that the Reformation was engendered in such an atmosphere. The Renaissance was moving to the east and the north of Europe; its last site – the Prague of Emperor Rudolph II – saw an unprecedented blossoming of arts and sciences, with the alchemists stealing the show. Their furnaces produced neither gold nor immortality, but they forged modernity. Many of the alchemists’ undertakings were carried out in imitation of the East; they were not so much seeking new materials as trying to reproduce known and expensive ones. 15 In 1708 the elector of Saxony, August II, arrested the Prussian refugee Johann Friedrich Böttger; in prison, the alchemist found a method of mixing kaolin and alabaster, achieving vitrification – the formation of a glass-like material that was similar to Chinese porcelain. This was the origin of the factory in Meissen which would go on to bring great profits to Saxony.

In a similar way, the alchemists had success with gunpowder. The key element was saltpetre (rock salt), a strangely named substance which bacteria create while breaking down organic matter. In China, saltpetre was simply collected from the surface of the soil – in some places it emerged as a layer of white powder. Europe developed its own methods of preparing it. Elongated pits were filled with manure, straw and ashes, covered over and then left for a year; to be on the safe side they were drenched with urine, and occasionally the contents were mixed. Then water was poured into the pits, the solution was mixed with ashes and evaporated. In this way, gunpowder was produced from manure and rubbish. Its discovery was the result of the folk knowledge of the East, followed by meticulous imitation by the West. Gunpowder was adopted for military ends and also for the mining industry. While the mass manufacture of cannons and muskets increased the demand for metals, new mines used explosives along with chisels and axes. 16

Like other low-capital, time-consuming trades, the production of saltpetre flourished in the Baltic lands. Dutch merchants transported it to Amsterdam and then to England. Grand empires were dependent on saltpetre which foreign peasants made from their farmyard waste. In 1579 in England, the Eastland Company was formed to trade in saltpetre, hemp and other Baltic products. Then the alchemist Lazarus Ercker, the head of Emperor Rudolph II’s Bohemian mines, revealed the secrets of saltpetre using scales, proportions and diagrams. Based on these new recipes, the British crown obliged its landowners and farmers to make saltpetre. In the sixteenth century the ‘saltpetre men’ went around private estates collecting ready-made saltpetre. Then, in distant Morocco, deposits of mineral saltpetre were found; similar treasures were found in India, and new monopolies undertook the business. A century later Ercker’s alchemical treatise served as the basis of an impressive debate in the Royal Society in London; the luminaries of the new science debated the transformation of manure into saltpetre. Robert Boyle’s celebrated invention, the air pump, was made during his work on saltpetre. 17

Although he laid down the foundations of experimental science, Boyle remained an alchemist; throughout his life he sought the red elixir which would turn lead into gold and attract angels. The air pump demonstrated the strength of science – Boyle pumped air out of a transparent glass retort in which he had placed a bird, which suffocated in the vacuum. In fact the famous air pump was a simpler invention than many of the mechanisms that metallurgists used in their furnaces. The body of the pump was made from Swedish copper. There, in the wooded hills of the North, miners extracted ore by heating the rock with large fires overnight and breaking chunks off. They pulled the chunks up to the mill and pulverised them into a powder with hammers powered by a waterwheel, then heated the powder on an open fire for a week and smelted it in a furnace. To remove the molten metal, they had to destroy the stove. Then they crushed the metal again. The stove was rebuilt and the ore was resmelted. The whole process took up to three months. Endless trials and errors by local craftsmen were supervised by the cameralist Bureau of Mines, a body made up of aristocrats and alchemists.

The eighteenth century was a time of disenchantment, and this infected alchemy sooner than other branches of natural magic. Having lost the Great Northern War with Russia, the Swedish king, Charles XII, closed the chemical laboratory of the Bureau of Mines and switched his scientists to engineering projects. In 1705 Charles captured Otto Arnold von Paykull, the commander of the Saxon cavalry and a key ally of the Russian troops; a Swedish nobleman by birth, he was sent for trial as a traitor. Paykull also happened to be an alchemist. In the course of his trial he said that he possessed the secret of making gold and promised to share his art in exchange for clemency. The Bureau of Mines guaranteed that Paykull could make Sweden richer than ever, but the king executed the alchemist-cavalryman.

A little later, a new star appeared in this circle – the heir of a wealthy family of mine-owners, Emanuel Swedenborg. He was born very near Falun, a gigantic mine dug among idyllic lakes and forests in central Sweden; both Emanuel’s grandfathers were stockholders in this mine. Started by the Vikings, at its peak in the seventeenth century it produced two-thirds of global copper. Copper from Falun covered the palace of Versailles, was minted into Swedish coins, and was a primary source of wealth for the kingdom. A thousand workers toiled there, burning huge fires and sinking shafts into the rock bottom of three separate pits. The fire-setting method of mining devoured tons of wood; the pits were covered in dense smoke. After visiting the mine, Carl Linnaeus wrote, ‘it was horrible as hell itself.’ On Midsummer’s Eve 1687, just a few months before Swedenborg’s birth, a big part of the mine collapsed: the walls between the three open pits fell down, creating a sinkhole about 100 metres deep and destroying shafts and caves underneath. No one was killed: it was a holiday, the one such day of the year apart from Christmas. The mine continued working, but its output halved.

The family wealth was not completely lost. After studying Lutheran theology in Uppsala, young Swedenborg spent four years in London. A regular visitor to the Royal Society, he bought an air pump there, which might well have been made of copper from his Falun mine, and took it back to Sweden. Charles XII, an admirer of all things English, appointed him an assessor of the Bureau of Mines. Compared to the previous generations of alchemists, Swedenborg looked like an empiricist. His specialty was mechanics, and he worked on new constructions for mines, canals and bridges. He wrote long books – one about copper, another about iron. He also wrote elegiac poetry about the catastrophe of Falun. 18 Later in his life Swedenborg had strange dreams and visions. Christ appeared to him and ordered him to transform the world. The mine official conversed with the spirits of the dead who visited him in the form of angels. He published one anonymous work after another until, in 1760, he admitted his authorship and became the most celebrated mystic of the century. Focused on telepathy and clairvoyance, he understood them mechanically: thought is a vibration, like sound and sight, and fine membranes in the brain respond to oscillations. Before that midsummer day in Falun, subterranean rumblings had foreshadowed the collapse, and this is how psychic powers work. The mechanical engineer turned into a spiritualist and visionary. However, at this point he left the Bureau of Mines, where he had worked for more than thirty years. 19


In mid-eighteenth century Europe, the hard tasks of royal management engendered a new kind of political science. Cameralism, or ‘office science’, was the continental counterpart of mercantilism; in practice, the theories of cameralism were more like the doctrine of the French physiocrats (see chapter 10 ), only cameralism gave pride of place to mines and metals rather than to fields and grain. Nearly every land in the Holy Roman Empire and then in the Baltic countries had its Camera – an administration that worked for the ruler of the land, whether he was prince, baron or bishop. The Camera housed civil servants and scribes, who collected revenue, did the accounts, and dealt with complaints. Now this system was to be regulated by the new science.

In relation to mines and metals, the new science worked out a symbol of faith which was the opposite of alchemy. Seven metals exist – gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin and mercury. These primary elements cannot be transformed, but there are also alloys, such as bronze, and ‘semi-metals’ – arsenic, manganese, and more. The universe is like a machine – a watch or a clock, or maybe a sailing ship; the chemical elements are its parts. The way of turning matter into gold is to manufacture goods and sell them in the market. Traditional for an entrepreneur, this task was new for a statesman. On the one hand, the princes of Northern and Central Europe, where wars were constant, organised their rule for military purposes. Civil servants wore uniforms, had hierarchical titles, and submitted to a particular form of discipline; many of them were, in fact, retired officers. On the other hand, the sovereigns understood that the tasks of civil servants were quite different to those of army officers: bureaucrats must bring money to the state’s coffers, whereas officers were only able to spend it. In fact the classics of politics and policy that the cameralists read – Machiavelli, Hobbes, Pufendorf – mostly discussed how to spend revenue. Now the cameralists promised their masters that they would create a science which would show them how to make money.

The cameralists realised that money could be found only in three places: the crown could take silver from its subjects, earn it through enterprises that belonged to the crown, or borrow from its foreign peers. While French, English and Scottish texts of the time discussed labour and taxes, the chief subject of German cameral science was natural resources. There were forests, grain, salt, linen, wheat and wool. The trouble with diffused resources was that there was no one to sell them to: the neighbouring lands also had linen, wheat and wool. Therefore it came down to grain and timber, if only they could be transported by sea. For the Baltic lands, there was also potash (originally, pot ash ). Burning 1,000 kilograms of oak produced 1 kilogram of potash, which the English wool industry needed in massive quantities. Following the great Swedish model, the ultimate dream of rulers was to own metal works; but only a handful (Saxony, Hannover, Austria and Hungary) had mines, and many of them were not profitable. Cameralists were also concerned about the population. For the mercantilists, people emigrating overseas reduced the burden of domestic consumption; cameralist regimes guarded their populations more jealously, and sometimes even competed for migrants. 20

The Seven Years’ War began when Frederick II occupied neutral Saxony, the centre of mining activity. It was clear to everyone that the great struggle between the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs was primarily for possession of the mines of Silesia and Saxony. If the minor princes, these distant heirs of Gilgamesh, hoped that their forests would fill the state coffers, the sovereigns of Prussia and Austria understood the role of the mines. Focused on metals, their cameralists paid less attention to traditional trades in grain, timber, potash or hemp, even though these massive exports brought money to their lands. 21 According to the law of Bergregal , all mines belonged to the ruling prince. For a landowner, the discovery of ore on his land could mean the eventual confiscation of his property. In practice, princes and vassals usually came to a compromise which would deliver profits for both sides. But the revenues were in the future, while the mines needed initial capital. The Cameras sought investors, and frequently these were foreigners – usually Dutchmen. Alternatively, the princes pledged their future profits in exchange for direct investments – bankers from southern Germany proposed such transactions. Once it had obtained funds, the Camera appointed managers with experience in the mining business, and the managers hired miners who were also often foreigners. There was never enough money, so the Camera made use of non-economic incentives. The miners often had a judicial privilege so that they could not be put on trial by the local civil courts, as if these miners were colonists in lands populated by natives. And sometimes they were colonists: German-trained cameralists spread their influence all over the European north – Scandinavia, Poland and Russia.

Since the time of Luther and Fugger, the life of the German lands had been connected with the subterranean world of the mines just as the life of the British Isles was connected to overseas colonies. In need of experts, princely states launched mining academies – Saxony in 1765, Prussia in 1770. When Ingolstadt organised a new academic centre for cameralists in 1784, its president defined its subject as ‘the science of resources’ (Quellen Wissenschaften ). 22 Leading German minds were trained as mining engineers, and many of them actually managed the extraction: Leibniz oversaw the booming mines in the Harz mountains, Goethe worked for the silver and copper mines of Ilmenau, Novalis served as a director of salt mines in Saxony, Humboldt managed the Freiberg mining field. No surprise that these Romantics perceived the unpredictable but fruitful environment of the mine as their chosen metaphor for the life of the soul. 23 If the mind was a mine and the poet a digger in search of truth, he could refine and sublimate his precious findings by using the hidden tradition of miners and smelters. Romantic literature developed as the alchemy of feelings, with psychology as its new scientific incarnation.

When the Seven Years’ War began, Frederick the Great appointed the leader of the cameralist movement, Johann von Justi, as the chief inspector of the Prussian mines, glassworks and steelworks. Born in Saxony, Justi began his career as the head of police in Göttingen and then became a professor of cameral science at the university there. The ‘iron kingdom’ of Frederick was poor in ores; it exported timber and grain so that it could buy iron in Saxony, Sweden and Russia. The Seven Years’ War ruined Saxony and interrupted supplies from Russia. The price of English and Swedish iron kept rising, and the Prussian artillery lagged behind its rivals. The war ended with the miraculous salvation of Frederick, and it became a matter of survival for Prussia to smelt its own iron. The king knew about the deposits of iron ore which were found to the east of the Oder. But the iron there was low grade, and the king put his faith in science. Frederick was particularly interested in the process of ‘tempering’, which had been invented by the English: iron blanks were heated for weeks in a mix of charcoal, ashes and salts. The iron absorbed carbon and became strong and durable; but the process depended on the characteristics of the local ore, and only the Swedes managed to reproduce it successfully.

By this time Justi had written many books on the theory and practice of cameralism; he had also written about metals. His fiscal theory was considered an achievement, but his conception of metallurgy was not very different from that of the alchemists. In his view, metal was obtained when the heat of the furnace caused inert matter to combine with phlogiston. The appointment of Justi to the mines was disastrous. One of the furnaces built to his design produced iron that was fit only for making horseshoes; another one produced no metal whatsoever. To fuel his furnaces he cut down trees in two royal parks, leading to conflict with Frederick’s personal forester. His new method of smelting copper didn’t work either; it turned out that he couldn’t distinguish between copper ore and barren rocks. In 1768 the enraged king sent Justi to prison, where he went blind and soon perished.

Historians disagree about how much he was to blame; early biographies posited that Justi was guilty only of ignorance, but recently discovered documents mention forgery and embezzlement. 24 Whatever the case, over millennia the same tragedy overtook the owners and managers of mines and boreholes from Sextus Marius to Mikhail Khodorkovsky: some were guilty, others not, but the nature of evil runs deeper than the passion for profit. Rare raw materials are profitable for their owners, opaque to inspection, ruinous for society. Their geographical distribution is beyond rational understanding. Even Frederick the Great, an experienced and thrifty ruler, was tempted by the fantasies of Justi; and nobody could explain to him why his inept neighbours had good iron while he did not. Nature originates the conditions for evil, but it is people who are the evil doers, and when they punish evil they multiply it.

The Demidovs

The Russian lands were familiar with bog iron from the time of the Vikings. Deposits of bog iron were scattered under peat or lay in the silt at the bottom of lakes. These deposits were widely distributed but were known mostly in the northern lands; when the wetlands were drained, bog iron was forgotten. In fact, it is a renewable product of natural biotechnology: anaerobic bacteria, Leptothrix, create nuggets of iron in ferruginous water in the absence of air. This iron can be harvested and the process will continue. New nuggets will have formed after a couple of decades, as long as the bog hasn’t been drained in the meantime. Such nuggets are usually hidden in turf, water or peat. As the bacteria digest the iron, they secrete an oily liquid that floats on the surface of the water in patches. Looking for the nuggets is like looking for mushrooms; it involves a lot of labour, time and local knowledge, but requires no capital investment at all. The techniques for smelting the nuggets in single-use stoves, and for hammering and reforging the iron, were also accessible to many primitive smallholdings scattered about the northern expanses. This was how the Vikings obtained their iron, and they disseminated their craft round the northern lands. Unlike mined ore, which concentrated highly valuable production around a few mines, bog iron was a diffused resource like timber, peat and grain. Even during the Renaissance, when mines supplied iron to the massed armies of Western Europe, iron was still extracted from bogs on the north of the continent, for example in the Novgorod republic. When supplies of bog iron were depleted as a result of the felling of the forests and the draining of the wetlands, metalworks moved further north and east. The main region for bog metal ores was the sparsely populated Olonets district, today’s Karelia – a quiet, distant corner of Russia, bordering Finland. Local blacksmiths performed wonders, and in the nineteenth century they forged bog iron that was close to the quality of steel. 25 Bog ore was also known in North America – some rails and ploughs were made of this cheap iron.

In 1639, the Dutch merchant Andrey Vinius founded the first mining and smelting factory near Tula, the birthplace of Russian metallurgy, not far from Moscow. He became a Russian subject, and the Kremlin gave him hundreds of serfs. Vinius soon switched to tar and wool, but his son became the head of the Siberian chancellery. 26 Central Russia was poor in ores, but the military ambitions of the tsars required them in large quantities. Moving from the centre to the distant peripheries of the country, mining involved alien landscapes, exotic peoples and mysterious religions.

A blacksmith from Tula, Nikita Demidov, brought metal works to the Urals and Siberia. 27 A charismatic and enigmatic Old Believer, he would grow into one of the most productive of Russian entrepreneurs – the actual creator of the country’s industrial revolution. It so happened that all the Russian ore sites – in Olonets, the Urals and the Altai mountains – had large concentrations of Old Believers, who were clearly attracted by the new industry. Conservative and secretive, they eagerly interacted with foreign experts. Historians have paid much attention to the visiting scientists and managers – English, Dutch, Saxon and Swedish. But I believe that the most interesting part of this story is their mutual understanding with the ‘natives’, who were either endemic peoples of Siberia or exiled Old Believers. 28 As in the Spanish mines in America, technical knowledge came largely from Europe, but the local folk – most of them also colonial settlers – appropriated it, combined it with their beliefs, and grew into the masters of the business.

After the Time of Troubles, the Moscow state had introduced a church reform. A significant part of the population, particularly in distant provinces, did not accept it. Some Old Believers refused to serve in the army, others rejected the use of the money or other official papers, and many believed that the tsar was the Antichrist. Culturally conservative, they were mobile, industrious and secretive; some of the biggest merchant families, including the Demidovs, came from these people. In the eighteenth century Old Believers encountered harsh oppression, including double taxation, resettlement, or conscription under torture. Some of them, such as the Demidovs, concealed their beliefs; others were persecuted. In several well-documented cases, Old Believers committed collective suicide, usually by self-immolation, when pursued by military units. In 1684 a cloister of the Old Believers was founded on a remote lake by monks who had fled from the Solovetsky Monastery when it was occupied by the Moscow troops. Many of them were Pomors – members of an ethnic community who still populate the European North of Russia. To escape persecution, in 1694 the Pomor monks resettled even further to the north. They founded a monastery on an island in the River Vyg, between Olonets and the White Sea, and collected ore from this vast area. In 1701 Peter I invited master craftsmen from Saxony to Olonets. Led by Johann Friedrich Blüher from Freiberg, the Saxonians installed new furnaces in the Olonets factories. These labour-intensive processes required discipline and exact timing, and also an endless quantity of charcoal. There was plenty of birch in the area, but manpower was a more difficult question. In 1702 thousands of the Pomor Old Believers were signed up at the ‘Olonets mountain factory’ – this was a Russian analogue of the Spanish mita . These pious sectarians had their own understanding of the life of metals; although we know even less about their beliefs than about the shamanic ideas of the Native Americans of Potosí, the Pomors were equally efficient. Clearly, their ideas were compatible with those of their Saxonian visitors, who taught them – and learnt from them – in the name of ‘science’.

Religious minorities often worked in the metal industries. The Huguenots, fleeing persecution in France, brought their metal-making skills to England and later to Prussia; Abraham Darby, who was the first to turn coal into coke and smelt pig iron, was a Quaker. It is hardly surprising that the production of metal in Russia was in the hands of Old Believers. But northern iron was an accursed business: the history of this idyllic territory was as packed with dramatic incidents as an adventure story from the South Seas. Monasteries were built by some, only to be destroyed by others. The ‘mountain factories’ bonded thousands of peasants as their ‘factory serfs’. In 1702, Peter I assigned some factories in the Urals to Demidov. Thousands of Old Believers found refuge there. Some miners perished in 1723 in the mass self-immolation at Yelunsk, near Tomsk: over 500 people committed suicide rather than give themselves up to the troops sent by the tsar-Antichrist. In 1735 the government investigated the Old Believers working for Demidov; 2,000 of them were discovered in just one factory. Nikita Demidov was constantly accused of heresy – trials and denunciations occurred throughout his life. By giving shelter to thousands of schismatics and runaway serfs, he was breaking the law but obtaining a cheap and devoted workforce.

At this time of unending wars, bureaucratic experience was transmitted from one enemy to another. Peter’s Twelve Colleges, the first experiment in ministerial rule in Russia, were modelled on the Swedish pattern. In 1719 the Berg College, the Russian version of the Bureau of Mines, was set up with the rights of a ministry. Its first president was the Scottish immigrant James (in Russia, Jacob) Bruce, an artilleryman and alchemist. The Saxonian Johann Blüher was the leading expert. During the Northern War with Sweden, Peter I relayed urgent orders to Demidov. The Ural iron was considered the equal of Swedish iron, but Demidov’s cannons cost only half as much. During the war Demidov got the monopoly on supplying cannons, anchors and nails for the Russian Navy. He also obtained the right to export his iron. Demidov used the advanced technology of watermills to provide energy for the blacksmiths’ bellows, hammers and drills. He built dams, canals and sluice gates – the same rivers that provided transportation gave energy for production; just one of his factories, in Barnaul, had fourteen waterwheels that powered twenty different machines. 29 Demidov’s blast furnaces were much taller than the Tula furnaces in central Russia, and five times more productive. And he became fabulously rich from his munitions work. Towards the end of his life he was producing two-thirds of all iron in Russia. He died in Tula in 1725, the same year as his patron, Peter I.

Nikita Demidov had three sons; after their father’s death they were ennobled. According to Nikita’s will, his eldest son, Akinfy, inherited all the factories and estates. The youngest son, Nikita, served in the Berg College and built state factories. The middle son, Grigory, was murdered by his son Ivan, who was executed for the crime. A worthy heir, Akinfy Demidov continued to expand to the east; he opened new factories in the Altai, close to the Chinese border. Copper and rare metals were processed there, and silver was also present. Demidov’s people extracted it from the mine they dug on the Zmeiny (Serpentine) Mountain. The Saxonian Johann Samuel Christiany ran the business. There were rumours that he was minting silver for Demidov without the exchequer’s knowledge; but, unlike his compatriot Justi, he survived. Management skills and the ability to keep secrets were rare talents which both Demidovs possessed in abundance. Running dozens of factories situated in such remote places that letters from them could take years to arrive, they needed a network of people in whom they had complete confidence; the Old Believer community was fundamental to this.

Expanding their mining network across Siberia, delivering silver from the Altai and iron from the Urals to St Petersburg, the Demidovs built new roads, canals and bridges. From 1723, their workers were free from conscription, and their factories were granted the right to buy and sell serfs. However, after the death of Akinfy Demidov in 1745 an investigation began into the silver workings on the Serpentine Mountain in the Altai. But no crime was found, or it was discreetly ignored. The reasons why Christiany did not share the dismal fate of his compatriot Justi were simple: there really was silver in the Serpentine Mountain, and Christiany’s skills were also real. In 1764, in one of these Altai factories, the engineer Ivan Polzunov, a Siberian peasant who had studied in the Urals, built the first steam engine that didn’t depend on a waterwheel. Emancipating the energy of coal from the flow of the river, Polzunov’s engine started the second phase of the global industrial revolution: his steam engine was the first ever that could be installed anywhere, even on the top of a mountain, though it needed a three-storey building.

Like his father before him, Akinfy also had three sons, but he left the business to the youngest, Nikita. The eldest son, Prokofiy, disputed the will, accusing Nikita of the heresy of Old Belief. The empress Elizabeth I personally supported Prokofiy; the Demidov empire was split, and the sons received equal shares. Prokofiy worked as a botanist, helped the poor and founded a bank, but he was mostly known for his various eccentricities; in 1778 he organised a public festivity in St Petersburg, and for some reason hundreds of people died from drinking wine there. The other sons travelled abroad a great deal. Nikita, the youngest son and his father’s favourite, corresponded with Voltaire but took no interest in the mines. Nikita’s son, Nikolay, preferred Tuscany, where he became a noted philanthropist. He bought up property throughout Italy, and there is a square named after him in Florence. His son, Anatoly, married a niece of Napoleon. The ancestral line degenerated from disgraced but industrious Old Believers to high, indolent nobility.



1 Goody, Metals, Culture and Capitalism .2 Needleman and Needleman, ‘Lead poisoning and the decline of the Roman aristocracy’.3 Childe, Man Makes Himself ; Drews, The End of the Bronze Age .4 Graeber, Debt .5 Muhly et al., ‘Iron in Anatolia and the nature of the Hittite iron industry’; Pense, ‘Iron through the ages’; Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality .6 Collins, ‘Mineral enterprise in China’; Hartwell, ‘A cycle of economic change in imperial China’; Lynch, Mining in World History .7 Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived .8 Fors, The Limits of Matter .9 Jardine, Worldy Goods .10 Roper, Martin Luther ; Schilling and Johnston, Martin Luther .11 Cole, The Potosí Mita ; Findlay and O’Rourke, Power and Plenty ; Lane, Potosí ; Barragán, ‘Extractive economy and institutions’.12 Nriagu, ‘Mercury pollution’; Lynch, Mining in World History ; Lane, Potosí .13 De Vries, The Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis ; Fagan, The Little Ice Age ; Parker and Smith, The General Crisis of the 17th Century ; Koch et al., ‘Earth system impacts of the European arrival’; Blom, Nature’s Mutiny .14 Koch et al., ‘Earth system impacts of the European arrival’.15 Principe, ‘Alchemy restored’; Smith, The Business of Alchemy ; Bauer, The Alchemy of Conquest ; Fors, The Limits of Matter .16 Cressy, Salpeter ; Buchanan, Gunpowder, Explosives and the State ; Robertson, ‘Reworking seventeenth-century saltpetre’.17 Robertson, ‘A gunpowder controversy in the early Royal Society’; Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump .18 McCune, ‘Mining the connections’; Heckscher, An Economic History of Sweden , pp. 85–7.19 Fors, The Limits of Matter , pp. 84–90.20 Bartlett, ‘Cameralism in Russia’.21 Tribe, ‘Baltic cameralism?’.22 Small, The Cameralists ; Wakefield, The Disordered Police State ; Raskov, ‘Kameralizm knig’; Zubkov, ‘Kameralizm kak model’’.23 Ziolkowski, German Romanticism and its Institutions , p. 18.24 Adam, The Political Economy of J. H. G. Justi ; Wakefield, The Disordered Police State .25 Kolchin, ‘Obrabotka zheleza’; Serbina, Krest’y anskaia zhelezodelatel’naya promyshlennost’ .26 Boterbloem, Moderniser of Russia ; Yurkin, Andrei Andreevich Vinius .27 Ogarkov, Demidovy ; Hudson, The Rise of the Demidov Family .28 Pashkov, ‘Inostrannye spetsialisty’; Yurkin, ‘Genrikh Butenant’; Kiselev, ‘State metallurgy factories’.29 ‘Sozdanie pervoi v mire universalnoi parovoi mashiny’.



From Adam Smith to contemporary ‘neoclassicists’, the main thrust of economic theory has focused on the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, which raised both the haves and the have-nots to a new level of prosperity. From Richard Cantillon to Immanuel Wallerstein, the alternative tradition of social sciences has asserted that this imperial exchange has ruined the suppliers of raw materials and enriched the organisers of labour. In the twenty-first century all these contradictory but equally plausible certainties suddenly look obsolete. Throughout the century of oil, wealth had been increasingly connected to resources – moreover, they themselves have become wealth. But, at a time when the human world is running short of air, civilisation is again changing its resource platform.

With the Enlightenment, writes J. G. A. Pocock, ‘the history of things, and of material culture, became the history of ideas as well as of commerce and power; … yet all these histories rested on an infrastructure which necessarily included the history of fiction and even fantasy.’ 1 In the history of natural resources (a big part of material culture), this complex infrastructure developed in space as well as in time. Labour and knowledge are global but resources are local. Geography plays as much of a role as physics and chemistry in determining the exchange values of various sorts of raw matter. Starting with flints, from which the first axe blades were made, and ending with the rare metals that are used in smartphones, every material has its place of origin, and that place is usually very far from the consumer. The Roman Empire procured silver from Spain; the Holy Roman Empire got its silver from Peru. Spices had to be transported across three oceans; pearls and diamonds were found in the most exotic parts of the planet, and for some reason only in those places; ores, coal and oil are generously distributed in the earth’s crust, but there are few places where they are found near the surface. More often than not, transportation costs have exceeded the costs of extracting the raw material. Trade, markets and capital itself were based on these natural variations, and none of them would exist if the world had been uniform – a point well understood by the English boy king Edward VI, who wrote to Tsar Ivan IV, explaining the rationale for trade:

Marchants [who are] wandering about the world, search both the land and the sea, to carry such good and profitable things, as are found in their Countreis, to remote regions and kingdoms, and againe to bring from the same … commodities for their owne Countreis … For the God of heaven and earth, greatly providing for mankind, would not that all things should be founde in one region, to the ende that one shoulde have neede of another, that by this meanes friendshippe might be established among all men. 2

But grain, for example, can be grown practically anywhere, although the productivity of the crop varies according to conditions. The most fundamental resources – air, land and water – are still more evenly distributed. These resources are basic necessities. They exist in all inhabited parts of the earth – or, rather, people only inhabit the parts of the earth where these resources exist. But even they can run out; in fact, they constitute the limits to resources of secondary importance, guaranteeing that grain and oil will never run out. In this century, we see very clearly that air will be exhausted sooner than oil and water sooner than land. Only a third of the known supplies of oil will be used by humanity, and only about a third of the planet is suitable for human settlement. The climate crisis tells us that the future consumption of secondary resources such as oil will lead to the destruction of the fundamental resources such as air. This will be irreversible and, from the human perspective, inadmissible. The paradox is that the lack of air, which has no economic value, will leave oil, the very embodiment of this value, unsold and unburnt. The factor that limits economic growth is not the earth but the sky.

In the mid-twentieth century, the historian Karl Polanyi formulated an evident truth: ‘Production is interaction of man and nature.’ Classical political economy, he wrote, did not take natural factors into account; only human labour was deemed worthy of attention (I would add an obvious caveat: not any such labour but only that part which took place in the imperial metropoles). Polanyi was surprised that ‘nature in the physical sense was consciously excluded by Smith from the problem of wealth.’ He explained this by Adam Smith’s ‘broad optimism’; a sceptical acknowledgment of nature’s limits, so characteristic of the French physiocrats, was alien to Smith. 3 Walter Benjamin saw a similar mistake in what he called ‘vulgar Marxism’. Exaggerating the role of labour, this teaching ignored nature, treating it as ‘gratis’. Benjamin called this position naïve; instead, he wished to comprehend the ‘exploitation of nature’ and the ‘exploitation of the proletariat’ as two sides of one process. 4

Following Benjamin, the philosopher Hannah Arendt criticised the ‘glorification of labour’ that she found in ‘modern theory’. It was opposite to ‘the contempt for labour’ in ancient thought, which saw labour as the lot of slaves. From the eighteenth century labour became a source of property (Locke), wealth (Smith) and value (Marx). This glorification of labour went hand in hand with a disdain for nature. In her hierarchical system, Arendt made a distinction between labour and work. Labour is a cyclical exchange between man and nature; like the subsistence farmer, the labourer creates necessary but perishable products that he consumes straight away. Work, on the other hand, transforms nature, creating artefacts which keep their value for years or centuries. Taking matter out of nature, work produces ‘worldly things, whose durability will survive and withstand the devouring processes of life.’ Work, not labour, ‘guarantees the permanence and durability of our world.’ 5 And Arendt also saw a third category – human action, which partly, but never completely, liberates humanity from its dependence on nature .


1 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion , Vol. 4, p. 40.2 Hanway, An Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea , Vol. 1, p. 3.3 Polanyi, Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation , p. 112.4 Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in Selected Writings , pp. 393–4.5 Arendt, The Human Condition , pp. 94, 108.


Resources and Commodities

In his History (430 bce ), the Greek author Herodotus related that, while his native Hellas had a climate which was favourable for human beings, ‘the extremities of the inhabited world had allotted to them by nature the fairest things.’ 1 His list was very long. In India, ‘the most easterly country’, there was an incalculable quantity of gold, and her plants grew ‘tree wool’ – cotton, which was better than sheep’s wool. In Arabia, ‘the most southerly country’, there were trees bearing frankincense, but they were guarded by winged serpents. There was also cinnamon – scary birds built their nests of its sticks. Ebony trees grew in Ethiopia, with wood as dark as the people. Tin was brought to Hellas from the most westerly isles that were later called British. In the north of Europe, there was gold, as in India, but it didn’t reach Hellas, remaining as mythical as cinnamon.

The classical idea of the universe was like a map of fabulous resources which surrounded the sphere of civil life, with the storyteller at its centre. Two hostile empires, Hellas and Persia, constituted the inhabited world; the extremities furnished them with their exotic fruits, and the further away these products came from, the more precious they became. The work of the carpenter, the tailor and the blacksmith was limited and easy to understand; but the remote worlds of fishermen and lumberjacks, miners and gold prospectors, were filled with adventure, risk and profit. An anonymous multitude of spinners and weavers created the economies of world empires; but the civilised world admired those who sought the golden fleece and tamed overseas colonies. Raw materials were over there, goods were here. Production was humdrum, extraction was extraordinary. The banality of labour coexisted with the exoticisation of raw materials. The processing of commodities into goods, and of energy into services, are the chief tasks of civilisation, and they are subject to rational understanding and regulation. But real wealth comes only with trade. Distance raises the price, risks bring profits, and an image of adventure is the best decoration for a gold chest – or for a bank note. The double meaning of the English ‘fortune’ conveys this connection better than philosophical treatises.

Reworking this tradition, Karl Marx saw mystery at the very heart of trade. In his Capital , he borrowed the key concept from peoples as distant as those described by Herodotus – fetishists (for Marx, they were a religious rather than a sexual sect). Explicating ‘commodity fetishism’, he used a German word, vertrackt , which is usually applied to sick eccentrics; in English translation it sounds even stronger – queer. ‘A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing.’ 2

‘The old colonial system’, as it was known in the British tradition, did not move too far from Herodotus. The empire consisted of a metropolitan centre, or ‘mother country’, and colonies. Different races lived in them, and different laws applied. The daughter colonies extracted raw materials and delivered them to the mother country; the mother country processed them into manufactured goods which she sold back to her colonies or traded with other empires. The Republic of Venice and the Spanish Empire also used this dual model, but it fully developed later in England as mercantilism – the political-economic doctrine that was the ideological foundation of the British Empire.

Some countries are rich in resources, others in labour. Raw materials and goods are constantly being exchanged. Robert Malthus said that the greatest sector of world trade was the exchange between town and country. Extending this formulation, we could say that the greatest sector of world trade has been the exchange between labour-dependent and resource-dependent partners. In earlier times these partners were the metropoles and the colonies. Today they are ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries: the first world and the third world, the post-imperial centre and the post-colonial periphery – and the second, post-socialist world, still shaky and uncertain. All these definitions share the prefix ‘post’. 3 Post-colonial, post-socialist and, on the top of that, post-modern – but have we actually parted with the old mercantile system? Do we live in a post-mercantilist world?

Natura vastata

The silkworm has a complicated life cycle, but humankind uses only one stage of it – the cocoon. Unravelling the thread from the cocoon, man throws away everything else that makes the silkworm grow, move and reproduce. The cotton bush has roots, stems and flowers, but man uses only the single-celled fibre that grows from the husk of the seed. Nature created this fibre to allow the seed to float on the wind, dispersing the plant across the land. Using these little filaments, humans refused to follow the path that evolution had mapped out for them; they learnt to cover their bodies with the fibres of the silkworm cocoon or the cotton plant, which protect them from heat and cold. The poppy is also intricate; but only a small and incidental part of it, the sap of the unripe seed head, is of interest to man. For humans, all these resources are both the condition of their freedom and the road to new dependencies. By multiplying the ways they extract some elements and ignore others, humans increase consumption and proliferate waste. In mastering the nature of other beings, they change their own.

As long as nature seemed infinite and good, it was possible to think of her as God made manifest in another form; that is what Spinoza thought, distinguishing between Natura naturans and Natura naturata (Nature the Creator and Nature Created). Today it would be more accurate to contrast Nature Created with Nature Used and also with Nature Wasted, Natura vastata . The first has always been greater than the second; but it is the third that defines our survival. As Kant wrote: when man realised that he was ‘the true end of nature’, he said to the sheep, ‘The fleece which you wear was given to you by nature not for your own use but for mine.’ 4 The power of man over nature consists not so much in modifying Nature Created – the possibilities for that are limited – as in selecting his Nature Used and ceaselessly reproducing the chosen thing: out of many insects man chose the silkworm, from plants he selected cotton, from animals he chose sheep, and so silkworms, cotton and sheep are bred in quantities that far exceed their natural limits. This is also a natural selection, but Spinoza’s terms make it more basic than Darwin’s. The power of humans is also realised in the deep processing of selected materials: a great deal of knowledge and labour is required to make cotton into cloth and cloth into clothes. Natural selection leads to the development of new kinds of technology and standards of taste – or, conversely, these technologies and fashions make the use of new materials possible and desirable. If Nature the Creator has a plan, it nowhere coincides with human plans, which is precisely why it is so difficult for us to understand her plan.

The light, the rare and the dry

Aristotle distinguished between things for use and things for exchange – between domestic economy and property that is used for trade and profit. * Hume’s theory of value bracketed all the corn, wool and silver that people consume or just keep at home: ‘As the money and commodities, in these cases, never meet, they cannot affect each other … It is only the overplus, compared to the demand, that determines the value.’ 5 In 1910 a multi-volume textbook on the economic history of Russia began with these words: ‘The experience of history shows that trade and industry can flourish only in times of peace, in densely populated countries with good communication routes; if these conditions are not met, the peasants are obliged to produce everything they need themselves.’ 6 Peaceful times were rare, convenient routes a luxury; but, without them, how could a dense population flourish? In fact, the vast majority lived by subsistence farming. They consumed what they produced and produced only as much as they could consume, because their products were perishable and difficult to transport, and there was no demand for them elsewhere. Only a few products of nature and labour were suitable for making into goods which could be traded. Three difficult conditions had to obtain – these products had to be light, rare and dry. Bulky and heavy commodities were difficult to transport. Those that were universally available met no demand. And only dry products would not spoil when they were stored or transported. The initial meaning of the word ‘drug’ was ‘dry’; in the fourteenth century it referred to all dry and valuable goods, from herbs and spices to dyes and soaps. 7

In the structural anthropology of the last century, ‘the raw’ was considered the opposite of ‘the cooked’: the former was a part of nature, the latter was a product of culture. In my historical anthropology, the opposite of the raw is the finished, completed, directly usable. In English, this opposition can be rendered as ‘raw materials vs. finished goods ’, or even ‘raw bads vs. dry goods ’. 8 In a state of nature, tea leaves, fur pelts, fish bodies, salt solution, sugar sap, cotton linters and many other sorts of raw material are wet; in this initial, perishable condition they cannot be transported and traded. Only with dehydration do they acquire an exchange value. Drying is the universal operation of primary processing which preserves commodities for transportation over long distances and prepares them for secondary processing. Grain, hay and firewood were the first commodities that needed covered storage and markets. But many kinds of goods produced by arable and cattle farmers – meat, potatoes, fruits – were difficult or impossible to transport; they became tradable only when new technologies for preservation and transport appeared, which themselves required energy and raw materials.

Empires did not send expeditions overseas to admire the noble savages. They needed tangible value that they could appropriate, transport, and sell to their own peoples, or other populations, with profit. As a rule, these were raw materials, dried into goods. Colonial stores selling dried goods (épicerie in France, Kolonialhandlung in Germany) were the first groceries. They sold tea, sugar, dried fruits, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and dried fish, and gunpowder as well. These dry goods had to be protected from the weather, so warehouses and shops were needed to store them. Conversely, local trade in fresh, wet products – meat, fish, milk, fruits and vegetables – had no need of roofs; numerous open-air markets sprang up in towns to meet the needs of local trade and sold perishable goods at competitive prices; supplying the towns and providing employment in rural areas, this capillary system of distribution did not lead to the accumulation of capital. Ports and industrial cities developed because of long-distance trade in dry goods. Market cities sprang up in the places where commodities were delivered from afar, trans-shipped or processed, and where the arterial routes of long-distance trade intersected. The best trade went by water, but the best goods were dry. Protecting commodities from humidity was the foundation of the art of commerce, but emerging capitalism depended on water as much as it dodged it.

Commodification resulted from the progress in two major commercial disciplines – transformation and transportation. Primary processing turned raw, wet, perishable materials into dry, light, packed commodities. Various kinds of transport moved them overland or overseas, from the source where this material was abundant to the place where it was absent and in demand. It was only by combining these two processes, transformation and transportation, that commodification created value. A moving frontier, commodification crept forward from the domestic use of raw products to wet markets of local commerce and then to long-distance trade in dry goods. Until people learnt how to cure pelts, dry cod, salt herring, freeze meat, they consumed these products on the spot or shared them with neighbours. Until people learnt how to transport these products without their perishing on the way, they did not generate revenue, customs and taxes. In those times of subsistence, materials remained raw, capital refused to multiply, and people were ‘indolent’. New technologies of commodification led to prosperity in the metropoles and violence in the colonies. Through the use of slavery and serfdom, the external and internal colonies of great empires produced raw materials and energy. The creation of goods and the provision of services were reserved for the imperial centres. From flint to gold, from wool to silk, from peat to oil, the rarer, dryer, lighter and more distant the commodity, the bigger the profits it brought and the greater the evil it caused.

Sweet refinement

The century of the Enlightenment was also the century of commerce. Economists and historians understand this crucial connection mostly in the context of production, as primitive accumulation (Marx), the great transformation (Polanyi), or the industrious revolution (de Vries). An alternative tradition comes from the classics of philosophy and political economy, whose authors saw this connection in the context of consumption. Hume argued that ‘the refinement of taste’ was the key to progress; Malthus talked about ‘effectual demand’.

The Enlightenment cultivated the desires, tastes and habits of mass consumption. Exotic products from the East, such as sugar, silk and porcelain, were in demand among the European elite. Prices fell when locally produced versions replaced expensive imports. First, Indian cotton replaced the more costly Chinese silk; then American cotton, woven in England, displaced Indian fabrics. First, sugar came from Asia and was a luxurious treat for the aristocracy; then sweet commerce from the West Indies led to mass consumption; in its turn it was ousted by a cheap European substitute, beet sugar. For early capitalism, the strategic line of commodification was to imitate Eastern luxury by using cheaper materials produced in the West. 9 While cultural scholars talk about Orientalism – the Western idea of domination over the passive, submissive East – economic history saw the opposite trend: European masters imitated Eastern models, using local materials and practising reverse engineering. * Furniture, clothes, gardens and even the architecture of the age of Enlightenment were full of ‘chinoiseries’ – simulacrums of an imagined China which was known only through very rare and expensive imports. Fashionable in England from the 1620s, chinoiserie blended easily with the culture of the baroque, adding playful notes to it. China was associated with silk in the same way that India was associated with cotton. Lacquered handicrafts were in demand, but the original lacquer came from the sap of rare trees which grew only in East Asia. During the course of the eighteenth century, these luxury items – silk panels, lacquered furniture, porcelain tea services – all underwent reverse engineering using European raw materials. In imperial centres, these high-status goods became available to the masses. The bourgeoisie was extravagant and thrifty, reticent and ostentatious, and ever more numerous. It could have had better taste, but its ever-growing demand for affordable luxury drove technological progress and economic growth.

In less fortunate parts of the world, where the risks of hunger and shortages were perennial, a new problem arose – a lack of demand. Comparing the Dutch and English markets to the massive periphery of Europe, economic experts saw the main difference not in a shortage of goods or services but, on the contrary, in a lack of demand for them. Demand depended on the raising of the general level of education and culture: savages did not have a taste for luxury items, nor did peasants. It was fine that poor peasants did not have the goods that were routine for the bourgeoisie. The fact that they did not want them was a problem. Lack of taste and ambition made them lazy and poor, which did not help their ambition. Demand, taste and aspiration – they all had to be created among these unfortunates. Fashion and addiction became the magical means of taking the peasant economy out of sloth and idleness.

Bernard Mandeville, the author of the remarkable Fable of the Bees (1705), was the first to voice the idea that individual virtues have little effect on the common good, but that the free play of private vices creates it from scratch. Mandeville described a hive of bees that live just like people. Worker bees fed ‘half the world’ with their labour but remained poor. Their judges took bribes. Their priests were lustful, and even manure was fake. And yet life flourished as never before. ‘Thus every part was full of vice / yet the whole mass a paradise.’ But then, all those fancy things ‘which the Indies had been ransacked for’ vanished. It was the way back to misery. ‘The slight and fickle age is past; / and clothes, as well as fashions, last.’ Speaking in rhyme, Mandeville launched a war against the old ascetic morality.

In 1718, Nathaniel Torriano set off for China on the Augusta , an East India Company ship. In Canton, he sold the copper and iron ingots, watches and jewellery he had brought from England, and also calicos from India. In exchange he took on a cargo of tea, which became all the rage when he brought it back home. In London the value of his cargo was estimated at £50,000; this would have been enough to buy several English estates. The exchequer received less revenue from land taxes than from customs, which produced from half to three-quarters of its income. 10 Fashion led to a particularly rapid turnover of capital. Mandeville wrote: ‘fickleness / in diet, furniture and dress, / that strange ridiculous vice, was made / the very wheel that turned the trade.’

In his Essays (1777), David Hume organised these early ideas into a philosophical system. In the ancient world, almost everyone was a peasant, but now every peasant fed another person: it could be a soldier who made the state safer or an artisan who made life more pleasant. But what forced the peasants to produce more than they needed for themselves? There would be no surplus, wrote Hume, if peasants lived in their idle way, working only enough to take care of their own families’ needs. Indeed, a peasant works either under compulsion or of his own free will. Armed men could force peasants to work; but this slave-driving method is impractical, it enfeebles the state and diverts soldiers from their duties. The peasant would only work willingly to meet his own desires. There are certain things, products of nature or manufacturing, that create ‘temptations’ – goods that stimulate desires rather than satisfy them. These ‘temptations’ would motivate a peasant to work more effectively than force of arms. Temptations had first been delivered by foreign trade, which, Hume says, ‘in most nations has preceded any refinement in home manufactures.’ But then local artisans learnt to reproduce these tempting goods in ever larger volumes, using domestic resources. ‘And this perhaps is the chief advantage which arises from a commerce with strangers. It rouses men from their indolence; and presenting [them] with objects of luxury, which they never before dreamed of, raises in them a desire of a more splendid way of life than what their ancestors enjoyed.’ Nobody is left behind, because those very merchants who had specialised in importing foreign goods eagerly reinvest in producing home-grown imitations. ‘Their own steel and iron, in such laborious hands, become equal to the gold and rubies of the Indies.’ 11

Tempting commodities excite admiration, stimulate desire and, ultimately, create a habit. A peasant who grows accustomed to drinking tea with sugar or using fashionable calicos will work harder than a peasant who consumes only the things he can produce himself. The former will overcome his indolence, the latter won’t. According to Hume, it was only because of the imports and imitations of luxury goods that landowners could rely on the free will of their tenants and avoid the unpleasant duty of forcing them to work. Importantly, Hume does not speculate about the utility value of ‘the gold and rubies of the Indies’; he does not say that sugar is particularly healthy or silk beautiful. The only common feature of tempting goods is the inability of the peasant to produce them himself. Thus the trade in oriental commodities, and then in their domestic imitations, overcame the indolence, idleness and laziness of the lower classes.

While some scholars write about the Victorian invention of idleness, I see this set of regulatory ideas – idleness, indolence, laziness – coming into fashion much earlier. In the English language, the usage of these words grew rapidly around 1750, reached an all-time peak by 1800, and then declined. * Hume saw idleness as an economic problem that could be resolved by economic means. His solution was a stimulation of demand. Luxury leads to imitation, imitation to commerce, and commerce to liberty. Going against the ascetic legacy of Christianity, which resonated with Hume’s Presbyterian background, it was a radical idea. Be it food, drinks or clothes, most versions of asceticism proclaim both the superiority of the local over the foreign or global and the virtues of production rather than consumption. But the spirit of capitalism invoked something entirely different, and Hume responded to this call. The philosopher was discussing a problem that social sciences understood in the twentieth century: subsistence farming was an obstacle to economic growth, but of course growth could not be based on the destruction of subsistence. Peasant ‘indolence’ was an equilibrium between labour and nature. If progress failed to incentivise the peasant, it would lead to slavery. Using the word ‘progress’ at least as much as ‘imitation’, Hume combined these opposite concepts in his sceptical view of history, which he saw as a cyclical process. If imitation leads to progress, and progress consists of imitations, there is no room for creative energy to break the cycle, no novelty, no revolution. Hume came to this conclusion in a recently colonised Scotland, which had its ambitions curbed by the dominating power. It was in Scotland that scholars formulated the laws of economics and, several generations later, the laws of thermodynamics as well. 12 Energy, the potential of work, was the opposite of idleness. But energy was finite and its perturbations cyclical. Deprived of autonomy, progress turned out to be a pendulum.

In Hume’s view, by imitating oriental luxuries – supplanting fur by wool and silk by cotton, enjoying ever cheaper sugar and tobacco – European societies enter the ‘progress of improvement’. Descending the social ladder, these ‘innocent gratifications’ overcome sloth and invigorate labour. ‘Where luxury nourishes commerce and industry, the peasants, by a proper cultivation of the land, become rich and independent; while the tradesmen and merchants acquire a share of the property.’ With constant new goods available to them, peasants become hard-working and free-minded. Increasing revenue and acquiring property, shopkeepers turn into a middle class – ‘that middling rank of men, who are the best and firmest basis of public liberty.’ Indolence leads to dearth, which leads to barbarity: ‘when sloth reigns, a mean uncultivated way of life prevails amongst individuals, without society, without enjoyment.’ Poor land and bad work are connected to unsociability and ignorance. Like Adam Smith, Hume extended his sympathies only to those commodities that belonged to the mainstay of the English trade and detested Spanish ones: ‘since the discovery of the mines in America, industry has encreased in all the nations of Europe, except in the possessors of those mines.’ 13

Without having any data, Hume produced a pioneering theory of demand-side modernisation, as it would be called nowadays. ‘The ages of refinement are both the happiest and most virtuous,’ he wrote. Refinement comes from industry, knowledge and civility. It leads to progress and happiness. It depends on certain commodities that bring ‘innocent gratifications’, and not so much on supply but on demand for these commodities. ‘In a nation, where there is no demand for such superfluities, men sink into indolence.’ In contrast, ‘encrease and consumption of all the commodities which serve to the ornament and pleasure of life, are advantageous to society.’ 14 Hume uses these ambiguous terms, ‘commodities’ and ‘luxury’, interchangeably; he also gives the same meaning to ‘delicacies and luxuries’. It is wrong to understand these commodities in line with a traditional idea of luxury, such as particularly expensive items of art or furniture. Clearly, Hume is interested in the conversion of luxury goods into items of mass consumption which form ‘a kind of storehouse of labour’ – drugs on the one hand, textiles on the other. When demand for these commodities meets supply, which happens only in a refined and industrious country, people reveal their public virtues. ‘Particular clubs and societies are everywhere formed. Both sexes meet in an easy and sociable manner; and the tempers of men, as well as their behaviour, refine apace.’ 15

In the revolutionary year of 1793, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham subjected these ideas to a radical re-evaluation. Bentham’s utilitarianism developed in a direct polemic with mercantilism: the purpose of the state was not to accumulate gold in its coffers but to promote the utility or well-being of its citizens, which Bentham defined as the difference between the sum of their pleasures and the sum of their sufferings. Pleasure is not a natural constant but is formed by habit, and its total sum can grow infinitely. Like Montesquieu’s ‘sweet commerce’, Bentham’s ‘principle of utility’ belonged to the age of sugar, when trade unexpectedly turned into a promise of peace, and pleasure into the central concept of political philosophy. Bentham noted with surprise that even the richest men of the ancient world didn’t know sugar, but for his contemporaries it was quotidian. Calling upon the French revolutionary Convention Nationale to emancipate the sugar colonies in the West Indies, Bentham developed a sound theory of monopoly. ‘Monopoly produces mischief without remedy.’ 16 It increases prices and amplifies their fluctuations; it reduces the number of traders and impoverishes or enslaves the workers. Affirming a role for pleasure and presenting its maximisation as the duty of the state, the utilitarian philosophy of Bentham articulated the very essence of an empire whose crowning glory was the sugar islands.

Bentham is one of the most quoted philosophers from the classical age. He was first rediscovered by Michel Foucault, who presented Bentham’s Panopticon as a universal image of power. 17 Foucault did not address the anti-imperial overtones of this imagery. In fact, Bentham invented the Panopticon while he was living and working in a colony of the Russian Empire, as a secretary of Prince Potemkin in Krichev, in modern-day Belarus. Later, he spent decades trying to build his utopian Panopticon in England. In his article ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’, Bentham explained the benefits of organising an internal panoptical colony rather than transporting convicts to Australia. Closer to our time, the distinguished Australian philosopher Peter Singer proposed utilitarianism as the foundation of moral philosophy. In contrast to sceptical Hume, Bentham believed that the ‘felicific calculus’ was capable of infinite growth. A good government had a duty to maximise the sum of pleasures, and this is what is called progress. But this utilitarian progress means the total sum of man’s addictions, which expands at nature’s expense. Perhaps this calculus needs broadening. It should also take into account the experiences of nature – her pleasures and sufferings, elements of growth and destruction. This comprehensive calculus would enable the mutual recognition of man and nature, though their relations are not symmetrical: in this couple, man is uniquely susceptible to addiction.

Mono-resource as an economic platform

In 1802, the Prussian explorer and mining official Alexander von Humboldt found guano on islands off the coast of Peru. Attracted by abundant shoals of fish, huge colonies of seabirds deposited layers of excrement on the rocks. Used by the Incas for centuries, guano was a very productive soil fertiliser. It did not need processing, so the production price consisted of the transportation costs plus mandatory payment to the Peruvian government. Inadvertently, Humboldt’s discovery gave rise to the first case of what would later be called the ‘Dutch disease’. Peruvian currency strengthened. Cheap imports flowed into the country, depriving local peasants and artisans of work. When the supplies of guano ran out, just as silver had previously done, the Peruvian state was left with debts which it could not pay off; in 1876 it filed for bankruptcy. European farmers switched to nitrate fertilisers that were extracted from mines. In another surprising contingency, these mines were also located in Peru. Thanks to these gifts of nature, Peru went to war with its neighbours. Having lost this battle, it ceded its nitrate sites to Chile. Just a little later, the German chemist Fritz Haber found a way of synthesising nitrate fertilisers. They are now made literally from the air, albeit with a huge investment of energy (see chapter 13 ).

Guano is just one example of the tragic fate that a unique, topical mono-resource brings to the nation that happens to own it. It promises wealth and simplicity, and these temptations are irresistible for any political body. Getting a magic tool for distinguishing between good and evil, the state uses a mono-resource, invests in it, protects it, identifies with it, and distributes its profits for the benefit of the subjects. All other sources of prosperity are left to private interests or historical chance. The closer this state is to the exclusive ownership of a mono-resource, the more evident it becomes that this particular kind of raw material is money – the proper currency of this state. Gold, silver, silk, fur, tobacco, opium – all of them were used as money, as the means of payment for labour and goods. Only in labour-dependent countries is capital a converted form of labour; more frequently, capital turns out to be the transfiguration of a chosen resource.

Working on the history of Canada, the sociologist Harold Innis formulated a ‘staples thesis’. He presented this resource-bound development as a succession of changing ‘staples’ – different sorts of raw material: in the beginning there was fur, then timber, then grain, then oil. Following Innis, the historian Robert Allen based his version of global economic history on a similar idea. 18 Similar concepts of a dominant staple , mono-resource platform or commodity fetishism assert that the economy of political communities – nation-states or, in earlier epochs, empires with their colonies – tends to concentrate on a particular form of raw material to the exclusion of others . In my view, this concentration has been historically typical for most resource-bound states; labour-bound states escape it. The higher the concentration, the more disconcerting the shift. This ‘fetishist’ moment ends either because the raw material runs out or, more frequently, because its consumption falls. When this happens, the economic mechanisms of supply and demand go into a tailspin. With the change of economic platform, the whole pyramid of production and trade, state and society, shakes or even collapses. 19 Such moments are times of trouble – no wonder that the struggling elites try to prevent them by any means.

Why is the raw materials economy concentrated and the labour economy pluralistic and complex? One mechanism is comparative advantage, as described in the economic theory of international trade. States trade because they specialise in different commodities. With time, each economy increases the share of that particular commodity in which it is most efficient. For example, if coal in England was cheaper than in India but in India cotton was cheaper than in England, then the share of coal would grow in the English economy and the share of cotton would grow in the Indian economy. Another mechanism is monopoly. In the commercial exploitation of raw materials, the price of a commodity can differ from the cost of its extraction, changing the calculus of efficiency. 20 The formation of a monopoly is more likely in the case of topical, geographically concentrated resources – sugar rather than salt, diamonds rather than coal. The theory and history of monopoly have been strangely underexplored; we have heard much more about free trade, competition, equilibrium theory and the informational role of prices – all those mechanisms of ‘complete markets’ that historical monopolies have been able to abolish for the sake of their profits. From Jeremy Bentham to John Marshall, social thinkers saw in monopoly a great challenge – a major source of wealth, inequality and evil. But monopolies and cartels continue to define our civilisation. Granted, all these economic mechanisms have always been subjugated to political decisions: when the Indian calicos were banned in England, the whole system of trade was transfigured, as also happened when the OPEC cartel was formed. But, in each case, the terms of trade also grew out of the natural characteristics of a raw material. It wasn’t the Spanish king who ordained Potosí to be the site of silver mines, just as it wasn’t the members of the Politburo who located the site of oil extraction in Western Siberia. This is how nature arranges things; her actions are either random or, what comes to the same thing, inscrutable. But the fates of the Spanish emperor and the Soviet general secretary depended on these acts of nature.

The broader relations between natural resources and labour also belong to the context of comparative advantage. In 1949 two economists who worked for the United Nations, Raúl Prebisch and Hans Singer, wrote that the price of a raw material changed more slowly than the price of labour. If one country produces mainly raw material while another invests the productive labour of its citizens, then the first country will gradually become impoverished while the second will become increasingly prosperous. 21 For example, German merchants bought Argentinian hides, took them to Central Europe, made bags or jackets, and sent them back to Argentina. Over the course of decades, you will be able to buy fewer and fewer leather bags and jackets for the same quantity of Argentinian hides (and, while the hides are always the same, the fashion in bags will change dramatically, giving another advantage to their makers). If you exchanged cars for oil, you would get more oil for a Tesla in 2020 than for a Packard in 1920. Prebisch and Singer ascribed this asymmetry to the democratic institutions, which are more successful in labour-dependent countries. Or was it the other way round – was it democratic choice that shunned the reliance on natural resources?

The gold standard

By virtue of their geological rarity and chemical stability, gold and silver have been used for hoarding capital from the dawn of human history. Always in short supply, gold was both the stimulus and the limit for the development of the banking system in Renaissance Europe. Silver was the first global commodity in the sense that its price throughout the world, from Mexico to China, fluctuated in one wave. The further east one went, the more gold was paid per unit of silver – silver was more expensive in China than anywhere else. At the opposite end of the world, the English thought up the gold standard – the idea that any financial transaction was potentially guaranteed by a stipulated amount of gold, and every deal had its place in the linear hierarchy of value. But there was never enough gold and silver to secure all possible transactions, so the idea of the gold standard remained a legal fiction. In the real world, if silver was in short supply, coins were debased with copper. In times of peace, this worked.

But, in a time of crisis, gold and silver are no more reliable assets than paper – shares, debentures or title deeds to property. The very materiality of metals, which seems so reliable, turns out to be a factor of vulnerability. Granted, gold doesn’t rot or burn like grain or oil; but gold and silver are vulnerable to theft, plunder, corruption – to the evil with which gold has been intertwined for millennia. Gold has to be hoarded and counted, kept in safe boxes or carried about in armoured trains, weighed by the ton to the accuracy of a milligram – and guarded, constantly guarded.

Karl Polanyi wrote that the gold standard was a rare phenomenon in which heaven concurred with hell and Marx with Ricardo. In fact, the gold standard was maintained thanks to the extraction of gold from South African mines: again, worldwide development depended on one tiny, remote spot. Finding the roots of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century in the racist empires of the nineteenth, Hannah Arendt examined the interwoven history of apartheid and gold. Gold had no function in production or consumption; it was precisely because of this that gold, that most superfluous of resources, acquired its special role as a means of exchange. Limiting consumption, the mercantile empires found in gold the key to their problems of surplus. Gold became a ‘reserve’, a converted form of labour and resources through which mercantilist empires could calculate their redundant capital. These empires disagreed about everything, but the consensus about the gold standard was astonishing. For Arendt, the gold fever of South Africa started off the process that ‘turned peoples into races’. 22 Destined to be a bulwark of stability, gold added to the financial sphere a shade of unreality and meaninglessness.

The secrets of the Russian economy in the twenty-first century are known to its critics: its dependence on the export of raw materials, its excessive military expenditure, the degradation of human capital. Its passion for turning the state’s revenues into gold is less well understood. The gold reserve of the Russian Federation is disproportionate to its economy. According to the economist Yakov Mirkin, Russian gold reserves have increased threefold in the period 2009–19, although during this time the economy grew only by a quarter. In 2009 the share of gold in the Russian reserves was 5.2 per cent, in 2018, 16.9 per cent. 23 This is very unusual from a global perspective. The budget for education is falling, the pensions deficit is rising, but the weight of gold in the Russian reserves is increasing at unbelievable speed. During this decade, Russia was the major purchaser of gold on the world markets. Great Britain has seven times less gold, although its economy is larger than Russia’s. The population of India today possesses huge stores of personal gold, possibly more than in any other country; but the Indian state has three times less gold than Russia. And even China, whose economy is many times larger than Russia’s, has less gold.

The Russian Empire also accumulated large gold reserves, but they didn’t help it. In 1913, the gold reserve of the Russian state bank was 1,300 tons – the largest reserve in the world. On paper, it remained so until October 1917; but the national debt was also among the largest in the world. The historian Oleg Budnitsky has traced the adventures of Russian gold after the Bolshevik Revolution. 24 In 1915, during the First World War, the state gold reserves were evacuated far behind the lines, to Kazan. By the summer of 1918, bank vaults in Kazan housed more than half of Russian gold. For this and other reasons, the Volga region turned into the epicentre of the civil war. The Bolsheviks attempted to remove the gold reserve but they managed to dispatch from Kazan only a hundred boxes; all the rest were seized by fleeing Czechoslovakian units and their allies in the White Army. In October 1918 the gold was deposited in the middle of Siberia, in the Omsk branch of the state bank. Admiral Alexander Kolchak, self-proclaimed supreme governor of Russia, had at his disposal 490 tons of gold. Most of it disappeared: according to accounts from 1923, the Soviet state’s gold reserve was ten times less than the pre-war reserves of the Russian Empire. The Soviet state had to obtain gold by new means – through the labour of prisoners in the Gulag camps and the system of Torgsin – hard currency pawn shops which exchanged food provisions for the gold of the starving population. 25 After the Second World War, the first Soviet capitalists joined in these experiments. Survivors of the Gulag, they procured gold in the Arctic with unparalleled efficiency. Later, massive exports of Russian oil and gas brought many more tons of gold into the vaults of the central bank.

The conversion of natural riches, extracted by the efforts of many generations, into gold reserves is not an economic but a political phenomenon. Norway invests its profits from oil in shares in American and European companies. Some petro-states, for example Iran, spend their oil revenues on physical survival and armaments. But, in Russia, the exchange of oil for gold played a uniquely important role. Following the Russian model, in 2018 the president of Venezuela promised to create the second greatest gold reserve in the world; he didn’t succeed, and his country is suffering from hyperinflation. In the world of petro-states and sovereign funds, the strategy of the Russian authorities to convert oil revenues into gold is their special invention.

The Russian political economy is reproducing, either consciously or more likely not, the mercantilist policies of classical empires. Exploiting their colonial resources, the mercantilists believed that the main goal of state policy was a positive balance of trade – more exports than imports – which would lead to the accumulation of gold and silver in the treasury. The mercantile state was there not for the glory of the sovereign and not for the happiness of its subjects, but for the sake of gold in the treasury. Modern economic thought began with the criticism of these regimes, so that mercantilism today is considered as something known and obsolete but not quite intelligible. The mercantile system divided the world into ‘us and them’, and the relations between these two were considered along the lines of a zero-sum game or a tug-of-war: someone’s gain is always another’s loss. The mercantilists weren’t socialists; land, factories and commodities remained in private hands. But the state was always imposing new taxes, tariffs and excise duties on the merchants and entrepreneurs. The restraint of public consumption was a key element in this system. Subsistence farmers could consume whatever was locally available, but the import of foodstuffs or luxuries involved the spending of gold, and this had to be checked. Adam Smith’s ideas of free trade and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principles turned mercantilism into an archaic apparition from the era of sugar islands, plantation slavery and the gold standard. In theory, mercantilism could not survive democracy: if people are empowered to pursue happiness, they want their state to spend funds, not to hoard them. In practice, some of the most powerful states in the world still practise – though they do not preach – mercantilism. But it is still true that excessive attention to gold reserves is a sign of imminent disaster.



1 Herodotus, The History , p. 106.2 Marx, Capital , Vol. 1, p. 47.3 Appiah, ‘Is the post- in postmodernism the post- in postcolonial?’; Moore, ‘Is the post- in postcolonial the post- in post-Soviet?’.4 Kant, ‘Conjectures on the beginning of human history’, p. 225.5 Hume, Political Essays , p. 122.6 Istoriya torgovli , Vol. 1, p. 29.7 Breen, The Age of Intoxication , p. 7.8 For the concept of ‘public bads’, see Beck, The Metamorphosis of the World .9 Berg, ‘From imitation to invention’.10 Berg, ‘In pursuit of luxury’, p. 118; Daunton, State and Market in Victorian Britain .11 Hume, ‘Of commerce’, in Political Essays , p. 102.12 Daggett, The Birth of Energy .13 Hume, ‘Of money’, in Political Essays , p. 118.14 Hume, ‘Of commerce’, pp. 93–104.15 Hume, ‘Of refinement in the arts’, in Political Essays , p. 107.16 Bentham, Emancipate Your Colonies , p. 21.17 Etkind, Internal Colonization .18 Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada ; Allen, Global Economic History .19 Podobnik, Global Energy Shifts ; Fischer-Kowalski et al., ‘Energy transitions and social revolutions’.20 Krugman, Rethinking International Trade .21 Toye and Toye, ‘The origins and interpretation of the Prebisch–Singer thesis’; Harvey et al., ‘The Prebisch–Singer hypothesis’.22 Polanyi, Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation , p. 26; Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism , pp. 188, 199.23 Mirkin, ‘Rost zolotogo zapasa v Rossii’.24 Budnitskiy, Den’gi russkoy emigratsii .25 Osokina, Zoloto dlya industrializatsii .


Resource Projects

Empire was a social practice. Its political economy had many practitioners, and there were also critics; theoreticians were few. Political thinkers taught about valour and glory, war and peace; they didn’t discuss where the government would find the money for the upkeep of its army. Mercenaries were the crown’s main expense, and they did not forgive debts, so the crown had to borrow. Using banks to finance debt, rulers needed revenue from which they could repay their loans. Governments increased taxes on the peasants, but they had always lived on the breadline. Only ‘industry’, ‘commerce’ and ‘colonies’ could improve the state finances. Waged for the sake of colonies, wars created debts which were secured by future revenue from those colonies. All three elements of this system – colonial profits, bank credits and mercenary armies – depended on the expected resources in the newly conquered territories. But these profits fell disappointingly short, and vanguard theories developed on the ruins of failed practices.

Robinson Crusoe on the British Isles

Daniel Defoe was perhaps the first theoretician of the new system of imperial economy. A prolific writer and skilful spy, Defoe is remembered for his Robinson Crusoe , but he also wrote hundreds of analytical briefs for both the Whigs and the Tories. In one of his early texts, An Essay upon Projects (1697), Defoe compared fashionable world-shaking schemes – the new specialty of the educated elite – to the Tower of Babel, ‘too big to be manag’d, and therefore likely enough to come to nothing’. 1 Many such projects were connected to the new colonies. Some worked, others failed, and the only proof of the pudding was in the eating.

Together with his Scots friend William Paterson, Defoe worked on creating the Bank of England; a little less ambitious than the Tower of Babel, this project met with success. Incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1694, the new bank would finance the crown’s war efforts by selling its own shares at 8 per cent annual interest. It would cover this debt from taxes on the tonnage of ships, and also from duty on wine and beer. In this balanced way, the Bank of England brought the colonial and domestic influx of revenue to one place. In a pamphlet concerning standing armies (1698), Defoe wrote that wealth would win wars, while the idea of military valour was archaic, ‘Gothic’. A truly modern thinker, Defoe despised the Gothic past – the realm of brute force, subsistence farming and chivalric romances. What the country needed was a standing army that would be supported by Parliament and financed by regular taxes and tariffs.

A worldwide best-seller, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was a refutation of Don Quixote , written a hundred years earlier. A seafarer, sugar planter and slave trader, Robinson embodied the image of early capitalism just as Don Quixote symbolised the vanished Middle Ages. After crossing two oceans, Robinson returns to England overland, through China and Russia, with a consignment of Russian fur – a strangely archaic product of his adventures. But in his work of 1728, A Plan of the English Commerce , Defoe called for the factory processing of English wool to supply Europe and the colonies with ready-made products. A nonconformist, Defoe admired Holland and despised Spain. An enthusiast of industry, he was a consistent mercantilist. In 1706, Defoe set off for Scotland to secure its merger with England; his partner was again William Paterson, the Scottish trader who had made a fortune in the West Indies. Defoe was then working for Robert Harley, who prepared the Union with Scotland Act (1706) and concluded the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). State finances were a perennial headache for this restless statesman. In 1711 he created the South Sea Company, whose task was to convert state debt into shares and secure them by future colonies. A royal charter granted this company a monopoly on trade with South America. By buying shares in the new company, Englishmen were investing in anticipated revenue from the silver mines, sugar plantations and fishing grounds which still belonged to the Spanish enemy. The alchemy of stock markets would solve the problems of financing wars much more effectively than a tax inspector.

Under the Peace Treaty of Utrecht, Spain was forced to open its American ports to British trade. There was no demand for English wool products in the tropics, but the South Sea Company delivered many thousands of African slaves to the Spanish plantations in exchange for silver and sugar. In this way, the company exchanged services for raw materials – a mission worthy of the empire. In 1718 a new war began, and Spain confiscated many English assets in the Southern Atlantic. The shares of the South Sea Company reached a peak in 1720 (in one year they rose tenfold) and then collapsed. Defoe also lost his fortune and spent time in a debtor’s prison. His most successful projects were his novels. Moll Flanders was full of scenes of vice and retribution. Moll crosses the Atlantic, going back and forth between tobacco plantations in the colonies and sex work in the mother country. Repenting of incest, bigamy and other sins, Moll thanks the hand of Providence: sentenced to hard labour, she flees to America, where she buys a plantation. Apparently, a benevolent Providence was a speciality of the colonies.

The South Sea Company was one of the first stock market bubbles; many other ‘projects’ would follow. The old money of the Don Quixotes flew into the new pockets of the Robinson Crusoes. Robert Walpole became first lord of the Treasury, Harley was put in prison, and Defoe began working for Walpole. The new government’s strategy was to withdraw from colonial escapades; Walpole focused on local industry, and primarily on the processing of wool. Implementing the teachings of mercantilism, he banned the building of metal-making factories and big ships in America. The Navigation Acts controlled commerce on the seas: colonial commodities and British goods could be transported only on British ships. The sole task of the colonies was to produce raw materials and deliver them to England.


In the meantime, England had annexed its nearest and arguably most important colony – Scotland. As an undercover agent, Defoe had contributed to preparing the Union of 1707. He saw in Scotland a brave but poor nation – freedom and industry were all that she needed. However, Scotland had just as much freedom as England; what Scotland lacked was colonies. Everyone knew the role that sugar, tobacco and other commodities played in English prosperity. The Scots must create their own colonial project. Looking at the map, Defoe’s colleague Paterson chose the isthmus of Darien. Connecting South and North America, this is the place where the Panama Canal is now located. If a trading colony, New Caledonia, were to be established there, an overland porterage would provide a short cut between England and India, or Scotland and China. Paterson told stories about the gold that the indigenous people in Darien wore. Stocks of fish and game were untouched, the natives were friendly, the Spanish were far away, and the British fleet would provide armed support. In fact, Paterson had read about Darien in a book written by a former pirate. He had promised to marry the daughter of a local chief, and his maps turned out to be as unreliable as his marriage proposal.

Paterson formed the Darien Company, and the Scottish Parliament supported the project. The whole country bought its shares; it is estimated that a fifth of all the money then in circulation in Scotland was invested in the company. But the planned expedition rang alarm bells in London: the porterage in Darien would be in competition with the East India Company’s ships. In 1698 a fleet of five ships prepared to set sail to Darien. Led by Paterson, they were loaded with industrial goods – cauldrons, crockery, weapons – which would be exchanged for gold, spices and other treasures of the East. Paterson had reasons to fear a confrontation with the English Navy, and his ships cast off from Kirkcaldy, a harbour north of Edinburgh. For some reason this port and the neighbouring county of Fife became the cradle of economics. The economist and ‘projector’ John Law had been born in Fife a quarter of a century earlier. A quarter of a century later, Adam Smith would be born in Kirkcaldy.

The Scottish expedition arrived at the isthmus and built a fort, defended by fifty cannon. Difficulties soon ensued – the greatest problem was malaria. The colony didn’t last even a year; only a handful of colonists managed to flee to New York. Meanwhile the Scots had sent another thousand settlers to New Caledonia. Defoe wrote about the Darien disaster as a ‘contrivance’ – just another failed project. 2 But thousands of Scots perished, many families were on the verge of bankruptcy, and the local shilling was devalued. Broken by events, the Scottish elite agreed to the formation of the Union with England in 1707. Scholars working on David Hume detect the influence of the Darien trauma on his work. 3 Adam Smith grew up with the stories of his fellow countrymen who sailed to their deaths from the village where he was born. It was a national trauma, barely remembered today. *

The regent and coffee

Meanwhile, the French king Louis XIV broke all records with his seventy-two years on the throne. His rule was long and pleasant, but it turned out that he was mortal. A virtuoso of political evil, the king left France with a debt of 3 billion livres and a tax system that failed to collect even 5 per cent of this sum. The greater part of this debt was linked to France’s defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession – a global conflict about overseas and European colonies. England won the war, and Louis XIV lost Canada, with its beaver and fish, but kept a colony to the south. Named in 1682 in honour of the king, Louisiana was a godforsaken place. The French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle had begun his adventures much further north, at the Great Lakes, and expected to find friendly natives and fur-clad animals on the Mississippi as well. The French had no concept of the vastness of the new continent; Louis XIV ordered de La Salle to continue south to seize the silver mines of Peru. Five years later, in Texas, de La Salle perished at the hands of his own sailors. But as a result of his efforts the French territory extended from modern Louisiana to Minnesota, encompassing eight American states. Neither beavers nor metals were to be found in this vast territory. The climate was too cool for sugar cane. The white population of French America was negligible. The bloody War of the Spanish Succession had lasted thirteen years, and only one French expedition had sailed up the Mississippi. Meanwhile France itself was turning into a wild wetland like Louisiana.

Philippe, duke of Orléans, became regent – he was married to his first cousin, a daughter of the late king. Voltaire later spread rumours that Philippe was having an affair with his own daughter, the duchess of Berry, and had fathered her child. For this impertinence, Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille, where he wrote his first play, Oedipus . Unabashed, the regent and his daughter attended the opening performance. Ancient Egypt was just becoming fashionable, and these French royals saw themselves more like pharaohs than emperors, whose powers were a little too limited. But the duke of Orléans was an enlightened ruler. In the recent war he had been a successful military leader; as head of state he became a peacemaker. But there was no money for reconstruction. The great building projects of the previous reign – Versailles and others – were a cause of financial outlay. Paris had no banks, although Genoa and Amsterdam had successfully run banks for years, and even London had one. But the elite, who had been longing for peace, gave themselves up to pleasure. As the Russian romantic writer Alexander Pushkin wrote in his historical novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great , ‘The Duke of Orléans, combining many brilliant qualities with vices of every sort, unfortunately possessed not the slightest degree of hypocrisy. The orgies which took place at the Palais Royal were no secret to Paris; the example was contagious.’ 4

It wasn’t just the orgies that were contagious. One after another, fashionable coffeehouses opened around the Palais Royal. Louis XIV had his first taste of coffee with the Ottoman ambassador and received a coffee bush as a gift. According to legend, seedlings from this bush started the coffee plantations in Martinique. By the middle of the eighteenth century, millions of these bushes were growing in the French Atlantic colonies. ‘The whole of Paris turned into one big café,’ wrote the historian Jules Michelet about the regency. Indeed, the French Revolution began in the coffeehouses near the Palais Royal. Discussing human and civil rights, the revolutionaries drank coffee, stirred sugar into it and smoked tobacco, which were all produced by black slave labour. In Radishchev’s Journey (see chapter 4 ), two white men chat over coffee in far-away Russia: ‘“Remember”, my friend once said, “that the coffee in your cup and the sugar dissolved in it, have deprived a man like yourself of his rest, that they have been the cause … of tears, groans, blows and abuse …” – my hand trembled and I spilled the coffee.’ 5 In Voltaire’s Candide , it is the mutilated black slave who speaks. ‘If we catch a finger in the sugar mill where we work, they cut off our hand; if we try to run away, they cut off our leg. I have undergone both these experiences.’ 6

John Law

In the first year of his regency, the duke of Orléans was persuaded by the Scottish economist John Law to launch a very unusual project. Law, the son of a jeweller, was known in London for his luck in games of chance. But he had killed someone in a duel and somehow escaped from prison. After an unsuccessful attempt to start a national bank in Scotland, he moved to Paris. There he got to know the regent, also a gambler and libertine. The Scottish economist explained to the French regent that a country needs money like a body needs blood; that there would be no income from taxes until the circulation of money was re-established; and that gold wasn’t essential to achieve it – there were other means. The last point was of particular interest to the regent. As Pushkin wrote, ‘It was at this time that Law appeared. Greed for money was united to a thirst for enjoyment and dissipation. Estates vanished; morals went by the board; Frenchmen laughed and calculated, and the state fell to pieces to the skittish music of the satirical vaudevilles.’ 7

Paper money was John Law’s pet subject. In England it had been introduced to finance the war effort; Sweden and even far-off Massachusetts had also experimented with bank notes. At first these pieces of paper functioned as credit notes, and they guaranteed precise sums of gold or silver. The probability that all the bank’s clients would simultaneously want to cash in their bank notes didn’t seem very likely, and the banks issued more notes than they could redeem. The supply of money grew while the metal was locked in the bank’s safes. Now the banks could give credit to merchants, princes and generals without running out of money. Law wrote that, if England were to convert her circulating paper notes back into silver, the volume of its trade would be halved. 8

Then it turned out that probability theory, which was also developing then, was not entirely applicable to banking. Economic agents are mutually dependent and inclined to run into difficulties simultaneously. Granted, different clients took credit for different reasons and would lose their fortunes at different moments. But they all went to the bank to change their bank notes for gold every time they felt that a crisis was looming; moreover, this feeling arose in different people simultaneously. The first newspapers in Europe appeared at about the same time as paper money. Every day they published the value of shares and currencies, as well as reports from battlefields, geographical discoveries and high society rumours. Various investors all read the same newspapers.

John Law knew that, in England and the Netherlands, paper money was backed by gold. France had no such reserves. Her national wealth consisted of land, and Law proposed to create a land bank which would release money guaranteed by land. Every unit equalled a specific portion of land; on demand, the bank would have to distribute land from its reserves in exchange for the assignat. The amount of the bank’s land would grow as a result of colonial conquests, and the quantity of money would also increase accordingly. If there was enough money in circulation, wrote John Law, French land would be just as well cultivated as Dutch.

In May 1716, the regent approved John Law’s project. The new Banque Générale was privately owned, and everyone could buy shares. Soon the regent ordered his agents in the provinces to collect taxes exclusively in this bank’s notes. Law could barely print them quickly enough to meet the demand. The regent also founded a new joint stock company, to which he handed over the management of all the French colonies. Merged with Law’s bank, this company changed its name several times; the Company of the West, the Company of the Indies and, finally, the Mississippi Company. French bank notes were now guaranteed by the vast territory of Louisiana. The city of New Orleans, named in honour of the regent, was founded in the malarial swamps in 1718. John Law sent 6,000 white and 3,000 ‘coloured’ settlers to Louisiana.

The crown was paying the interest on its huge wartime debt to numerous rentiers – wealthy citizens who owned bonds issued by the government. Now the regent transferred the whole French national debt to the Mississippi Company: it would be covered by the income from the Louisiana swamps. The young regent won plaudits in Paris; he had found a way of monetising the ‘civilising mission’, in which the French were losing faith. This was how things should be: the empire’s outgoings would be offset by income from the colonies.

The business grew – John Law added French colonies in Africa to his company. Within three years its share value went from 140 to more than 10,000 livres . On the black market, shares were even traded at 18,000; people who couldn’t obtain shares bought options and futures, which were another invention of the time. At the beginning of 1720 John Law was made general controller of finances. Renamed as the Banque Royale, his bank became the first central bank in French history. The rentiers became richer than ever before. The most fortunate became millionaires – this was when the term ‘millionaire’ was first used in French. The biggest shareholders of the company obtained the rights of ownership on large plots of land on the banks of the Mississippi. The newspapers published articles about silver deposits found west of the Mississippi – the rock there was apparently richer in silver than the Peruvian mines. Misleading articles, images and maps buoyed up the rise in share prices. This was the dawn of PR.

In fact, the Parisian millionaires could place their hopes only in three sorts of raw matter from Louisiana: tobacco, sugar and felt. Tobacco required a mass influx of African slaves, and they had to be fed. Sugar cane from Saint-Domingue was planted right in the middle of today’s New Orleans; but, even in good years, the sugar was of low quality, and in cold years it didn’t grow at all. After they lost Canada, the French kept on hoping that they would find beaver and establish trading posts in Louisiana. They didn’t know that there were no beavers south of the Hudson. The stock market bubble fed on nostalgia for the lost colonies. Unprofitable Louisiana was passed from hand to hand over the course of many years. Half a century after John Law, as a result of the Seven Years’ War, Louisiana passed to the Spanish Empire. Then Napoleon got it back, only to sell it to the United States. These lands would become commercially successful much later, when slaves drained the swamps, built canals and developed cotton plantations.

The profits reaped by the regent and some shareholders in Paris derived not from overseas colonies but from French subjects. But John Law did fulfil some of his promises. He almost eliminated the national debt. His currency was convertible – shares could be exchanged for bank notes and bank notes for silver. The aristocracy experienced the pleasures of money, but they hardly understood the reason for the ebbs and flows in their accounts. The financial system assembled by Law was very complex; the Parisian public lacked the financial know-how to keep up with his creation. Thanks to the inexperience of the shareholders the crash was a long time coming, but then everything unravelled very fast. In the spring of 1720, the value of shares collapsed and Law stopped their conversion to gold. The price of bread in Paris rose instantly by 50 per cent. Angry Parisians occupied the financial quarter, which was situated near the regent’s palace. John Law fled from Paris.

In March 1721, Peter the Great of Russia ordered his College of Mines to offer John Law a princely title, the rank of active privy councillor, the order of St Andrew, and estates with 2,000 households and 6,000 serfs. Law would also have the right to build towns, invite foreign manufactories and create trading companies. In return, Law was expected to put Russian trade with Persia on a new footing and fill the state coffers with a million roubles in silver. Having conquered the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, Peter wanted to found a Persian trading company, giving to it extensive rights along the lines of the Mississippi Company. The east was still seen as full of treasures; Peter’s idea was that a new Silk Road would run through Russian territory, providing the crown with tariffs. 9 A new city at the estuary of the River Kura, where it drained into the Caspian Sea, would give the empire the industry which the city at the estuary of the Neva had long failed to provide. To achieve all this, Peter needed John Law, who was at that moment a bankrupt and a refugee. But Law didn’t accept Peter the Great’s invitation. Perhaps he knew how difficult it would be to get a million roubles in silver from the shores of the Caspian Sea, devastated by war.

At the peak of the market boom Law was believed to be the richest person of his time apart from kings, but he hung on to his shares right up until the crash. After fleeing Paris in a borrowed carriage, he succeeded in saving a few of his assets. When he died eight years later in Venice he left a big art collection – eighty-one crates of paintings, including canvases by Leonardo and Titian. The collection was to be shipped to Amsterdam, but the ship ran into a storm and the canvases got drenched. Out of all that wealth, only a few paintings survived.

In 1828 another talented schemer, Alexander Griboyedov, the Russian ambassador to Persia, presented the government with the idea of a Transcaucasian company. The idea – to capitalise on Persian trade and the fertile lands of the Caucasus – was the same one that Peter had proposed to Law. Griboyedov modelled his ‘project’ on the British East India Company. He asked the government to give his company land, the right to resettle serfs from central Russia, and to be free from all taxes, duties and conscription for fifty years. According to Griboyedov’s calculations, Russian merchants were spending huge sums, more than 10 million roubles a year, on purchasing colonial materials – cloth, sugar, dyes, dried fruits – from the British East India Company; the new Transcaucasian company would substitute its own products for these imports. 10 The plan was rejected, and Griboyedov was killed in a massacre in Tehran. Like Defoe, he was more successful as a writer than as a ‘projecter’ – he is remembered today for his comedy Woe from Wit .


In pioneering the banking business in France, the Scot John Law was joined by another unlikely hero, the Irishman Richard Cantillon. Like many in the social sciences, Cantillon was a political refugee. His parents were Irish Catholics, and their estate was confiscated by the English. Cantillon moved to France and began working in the new bank founded by Law, first as an employee and then as a junior partner. Having made money with the Mississippi Company, by 1719 he decided that the boom had reached its peak, and sold his shares. He was too hasty; the shares he sold tripled in value before they became worthless. This sale of securities brought him into conflict with Law, and he left for Italy. Later, in 1734, Cantillon was burnt to death in his own home in the centre of London. His cook was suspected of having started the fire – he disappeared with documents and jewels. Later a certain Chevalier de Louvigny was discovered in distant Surinam. Allegedly, he possessed papers and other things which belonged to Cantillon. Antoin E. Murphy from Trinity College Dublin, who has written Cantillon’s biography, believes that this chevalier was actually Cantillon, who had himself started the fire in London and fled to Surinam. 11 If he had lived in Surinam for another twenty years he might well have met Candide and his accidental friend, the mutilated slave. I think Cantillon would have loved to talk to them.

All that has come down to us is Cantillon’s treatise An Essay on Economic Theory . Written in 1730 and published in French in 1755 as Essai sur la nature du commerce en général , this book was largely ignored, though Adam Smith duly referred to it. Much later, William S. Jevons, who ‘rediscovered’ the book and translated it into English, wrote that it was, ‘more emphatically than any other single work, the cradle of political economy’. Labour without land is worthless, as is land without labour. As long as land is freely available, ‘men multiply like mice in a barn,’ wrote Cantillon. The general measure that expresses value is not gold, but land. John Law had also built his ‘system’ on this theory, but Cantillon’s examples showed more clearly how it worked. The humblest life can subsist on one and a half acres per head. The price of a finished product could be calculated in units of land. An acre will graze enough sheep to provide sufficient wool for a suit, but a suit made of fine wool would need ten times more land to feed spinners and tailors. Wine in Paris costs more than wine in Burgundy because of delivery costs, which could also be calculated in the units of land that horses and coachmen need for subsistence.

Labour could increase the value of a natural product many times over. For Cantillon, this is a miracle which needs investigating. He was surprised to learn that, in the steel spring inside an English watch, the relation of the cost of the material to the cost of the work was one to a million. His method celebrated the superiority of labour over land. If one country exchanges its labour for the raw materials of another country, then the first country will have the advantage in this trade, since it maintains its people at the expense of that other country. As an example, Cantillon puts forward the trade between Paris and Brussels: lace is exchanged for champagne for the sum of 100,000 ounces of silver per year. He calculates that the harvest of a single acre of Flemish flax, with value added by the Brussels lace-makers, is equal in value to the wine from 16,000 acres of French vines. Thanks to this exchange, many people could live on every acre of Flemish land, doing other things – shipbuilding, military service or scholarly work – and buying food from Burgundy or elsewhere. The more productive the labour, the less land it needs for creating wealth. Thousands of acres of French land went to Brabant along with the barrels of wine every year, just as if France had temporarily lost this land in a war. From Brussels, Cantillon went on to examine the problems of Eastern Europe. If a Polish landowner is also fond of Brussels lace, it will cost him a sixth of the income that he receives from selling the grain grown on his estate; if he is fond of wines from Burgundy, he will pay another sixth of his income for them. In exchange for the product of 1 acre of land in Brabant and 1,500 acres of land in Burgundy, the Polish landowner will give grain harvested on hundreds of thousands of acres of his own land. In this way Holland and Flanders maintain half of their population, exchanging the fruits of their labours for products from a foreign land. For any single product, the higher the value of human labour and the lower that of raw material, the better it is for the economy that trades in this product. 12

Cantillon looked at energy and mines as well. England prospers thanks to its deposits of coal, he wrote. He calculates that English coal saved several millions of acres which would otherwise be needed to grow timber – those very same acres which 300 years later would be called ‘ghost acres’. Some mines create wealth, wrote Cantillon, others lose money. The more gold or silver the Spanish mines extract, the more meat the Spaniards will eat and the more luxuries they will buy. The higher the value of land in a particular country, the higher the prices of all other goods. Moreover, explains Cantillon, wages don’t rise in line with prices, because they had been fixed by contract. While the entrepreneurs and landowners are counting their profits, it will become clear to the workers that their wages buy fewer and fewer goods. Some of them will tighten their belts, others will emigrate. Exacerbating inequality, the wealth of the mines has a ruinous effect on farms and factories. A part of the new money will be spent on importing foreign goods, and the country’s own industry will go into decline. Poverty and neglect will be evident everywhere. Cantillon is describing the mechanism of the ‘Dutch disease’ hundreds of years before it was identified.

Law and Cantillon’s experiment in Paris was a lesson for the teachers of the Enlightenment. The young Voltaire triumphantly observed the collapse of the Mississippi Company; a financial counterpart of the Lisbon earthquake, it probably played a role in his mockery of optimism. Montesquieu met Law and had in-depth discussions with him when the latter was already in disgrace; this experience must have fed into Montesquieu’s ideas about trade and power. The Abbé Prévost wrote about this era in a popular novel, The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut (1731). In this world of rich idlers and savage inequality, government favours can be bought as easily as sexual services. After a chance encounter, a man gives a woman a house, a carriage, a maid, three lackeys and a cook. The Chevalier des Grieux lives with Manon, but she is deported to Louisiana as a prostitute. Things do not go as well for Manon Lescaut in Louisiana as they went for Moll Flanders in Virginia. Astonished by the poverty of New Orleans, des Grieux buries Manon after she dies in the wilderness. Right up until the publication of Candide in 1759, the novel remained the favourite reading of the Enlightenment public. Voltaire and his enlightened friends willingly, although at a price, gave advice to the Russian empress, recommending that she widen her empire and acquire new territories. Nevertheless they believed that colonies were bad for France. For continental Europe, and later for independent America, the task was to find a new post-colonial model of political economy to oppose the ‘British system’.



1 Defoe, An Essay upon Projects , p. 20; Hamilton and Parker, Daniel Defoe and the Bank of England .2 McKim, ‘War of words’.3 Armitage, ‘The Scottish vision of empire’; Prebble, The Darien Disaster ; Roger Emerson, ‘The Scottish contexts’.4 Pushkin, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great , in his Complete Prose Fiction , p. 11.5 Radishchev, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow , p. 157.6 Voltaire, Candide , p. 44.7 Pushkin, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great , p. 11.8 Murphy, John Law ; Rist, History of Monetary and Credit Theory .9 Troitskiy, ‘“Sistema” Dzhona Lo’; Anisimov, Petr I ; Kurukin, Persidskiy pokhod Petra Velikogo , pp. 41–2.10 Markova, ‘Novyye materialy’.11 Murphy, Richard Cantillon .12 Cantillon, An Essay on Economic Theory ; Jevons, ‘Richard Cantillon and the nationality of political economy’; Spengler, ‘Richard Cantillon’; Brewer, ‘Cantillon and Mercantilism’, in Richard Cantillon: Pioneer of Economic Theory ; Thornton, ‘Was Richard Cantillon a mercantilist?’; Ananyin, ‘“Quorum pars magna fui”’.


Labour and the Mercantile Pump

Mercantilists believed that the main goal of trade was the accumulation of gold in the state coffers. The population was of secondary importance. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, England seemed to be overpopulated, and the politicians were pleased by the emigration of the surplus population to America. Conducted by private individuals, trade always needed the backing of the state. British trade on the oceans would have been impossible without the Royal Navy protecting merchant ships from enemies and pirates. But the Royal Navy was equally dependent on the merchant fleet: commercial vessels were the training ground for sailors. The strength of the state lay in the wealth of the Treasury, which depended on the strength of the state.

The benefit of colonies

In the era of mercenary armies, it was probably true that gold would help in the event of a war or other crisis. Even though wars were financed by loans rather than by the Treasury, the interest did depend on the gold reserves. In order to accumulate gold, the Treasury needed a positive trade balance, with exports exceeding imports. Every single exchange was a transaction between private individuals, but a highly placed regulator – in England, it was Parliament – could control the balance of trade by restraining internal consumption, checking imports and incentivising exports. Colonies should not compete with the mother country but benefit her by providing raw materials, absorbing her excess population and buying her goods. The volume of world trade was considered finite: what went to one competitor left another empty-handed. As the turnover in these exchanges increased, the tax base of the empire also increased. More gold ended up in the Treasury.

External partners were unreliable: trade with them was at risk from wars, diplomatic failures and arbitrary tariffs. The more England depended on its own colonies and the less it relied on trade with other empires, the better. Under mercantilist law, all exchanges with the colonies had to go through the mother country; English colonies were discouraged or banned from exchange among themselves. All this was connected with a growing faith in the power of the state. A private merchant was like a sailor steering a sailing ship, but only the sovereign, the captain of the ship, could determine the course of this gigantic machine. The Navigation Acts, which were passed by Parliament in 1651 and remained in force for nearly 200 years, banned foreign ships from carrying commodities from English colonies and permitted the colonies to trade their raw materials exclusively via English ports. Creating a transport cartel, the Navigation Acts caused the prices of colonial commodities to rise. As a result, sugar from the French colonies was much cheaper than British sugar, which enabled the French to capture most of the European market. British industry suffered from the Navigation Acts, but the merchant fleet and shipowners benefited from them, prompting Adam Smith to write that power over the world belonged not to the producers of commodities but to their carriers.

The historian Klaus Knorr outlined the arguments in support of the colonies expressed in Parliament and in the press: they were needed for the conversion of savages; without colonies sailors wouldn’t get training; the empire needed deposits of gold and silver; the metropole needed to get rid of its surplus population; and, finally, colonies increased the state’s revenue. 1 The most frequent argument in favour of colonies was that their raw materials were vital for the British economy. British imports during this period included four categories: ships’ rigging and other ‘marine supplies’ and potash from Russia and the Baltic lands; salt, wine, dried fruits, silk, sugar and tobacco from Southern Europe; spices, cloth and dyes from the Far East; and dried or pickled fish from the Atlantic. Some of these goods were luxury items, and these imports could be stopped if necessary. Others were vital for England, though attempts were made to find substitutes from British colonies. Around 1700, Parliament was constantly discussing the fact that England’s enemies controlled the supply of vitally important raw materials. In case of war, such dependence could have fatal consequences. For example, Sir Gilbert Heathcote said in the House of Lords in 1721: ‘while we fetch’d our naval Stores from Russia, it was in the Power of the Czar, not only to set what Price he pleas’d upon them, but even to prevent our having them at all.’ 2 The politicians hoped that extracting raw materials from the colonies would solve this problem. America was thought of by analogy with India: the English needed to establish trading stations there, and the ‘Red Indians’ would supply pelts, hemp, fish, timber and other necessities in exchange for the products of British industry.

Only some of these hopes were realised, but the English succeeded in expanding the American colonies on a scale that could hardly have been imagined in the original plans. The population of the colonies grew much more quickly than the population of the British Isles. The income of the white settlers was higher than earnings in England, and consumption in the colonies was also growing fast. The hopes for an influx of gold into the Treasury were not fulfilled. Charles Davenant calculated that only a quarter of the English revenue came from the export of domestic items such as wool and tin; everything else came from the two Indias. Davenant wrote that ‘Colonies are a Strength to their Mother Kingdom, while they are under good discipline … But otherwise, they are worse than Members lopp’d from the Body Politic.’ Moreover, if the mercantilist Navigation Acts were breached, ‘our own Plantations may become more profitable to our Neighbours, than to us.’ British colonies were not sufficiently profitable in peacetime and were not sufficiently reliable in wartime, wrote Davenant. 3 He thought that, while the sugar islands were useful for the empire, the colonies of North America only swallowed up resources. Sir William Petty, one of the founders of the Royal Society, proposed resettling American colonists in Ireland. According to another theorist, Malachy Postlethwayt, ‘it is a law founded on the very nature of the colonies, that they ought to have no culture or arts.’ 4

But history is uncanny. Colonies did have cultures, and this is exactly what made them disloyal and unreliable, if not unprofitable. It took about a century for the Dutch to do away with the Habsburg Empire, but it required much more time for them to leave their own colonies. However, the relatively peaceful trade with the Baltic lands gave the Dutch merchants greater profit than trade with both Indias. Having won their independence from the British, the Americans promoted free trade as one of their revolutionary principles. They also applied this regime to the slave trade. It was the British who led the Abolitionist movement.

Two monopolies

Trade in natural resources gave rise to the urban boom that defined the face of Europe. Roman cities had developed from fortified camps in strategic places. In contrast, the towns of modern Europe grew up where natural conditions offered convenient places for ships to berth or waterwheels to turn. Cosmopolitan centres of long-distance trade and early industry, such towns were outposts of global exchange. Indifferent to the surrounding lands and villages, many of these cities were built where the land was still unoccupied because of the risk of floods or pirate attacks – on deltas and marshland, near fords and dams. In the twenty-first century some of these cities will be the first victims of global warming.

An example of such a city, a part of the great world that fitted uneasily into the local space, is Glasgow. It had a convenient port, abundant timber, huge wharfs and an excellent university. Tobacco was Glasgow’s main product. In 1752, when Adam Smith became a professor of moral philosophy, Glasgow was processing more tobacco than all the English ports put together. 5 Scottish merchants avoided competition by buying tobacco from small farmers at flexible prices (the English preferred to buy from large plantations at fixed contracts). Moreover, the Scots were old hands at avoiding British duties – or, in other words, smuggling. But the tobacco traders actively collaborated with the authorities, and in due course they became the authorities. From 1740 to 1790, every mayor of Glasgow owned a tobacco firm. Like any transatlantic business, the tobacco trade was full of risks; it needed financial acumen and capital, and also trust in Providence. Banks, insurance offices and Presbyterian churches developed alongside the wharves and factories.

The union between Scotland and England had happened in 1707, and Adam Smith started a meandering career that was typical for an intellectual from the colonies. After finishing school in Kirkcaldy and completing a degree at the University of Glasgow, he went to imperial Oxford. He didn’t like it there and returned to Glasgow to teach moral philosophy. Apart from his involvement with the university administration, Smith had no business experience. He picked up knowledge of the world in clubs and coffeehouses, where the professors consumed the addictive fruits of colonial trade in the company of sea captains and manufacturers. After many years of teaching Scottish students, he agreed to take up a position as tutor in a family of English aristocrats. Later, Smith, a firm supporter of free trade, became a member of the Scottish Customs Committee.

His celebrated book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations is constructed like an optical instrument that gradually shifts its focus from the most minute details of the local economy to the panorama of global trade. Every value is created by labour. The wealth of a country can only be created by the labour of its people. The division of labour is the key to the wealth of nations. In a Scottish workshop Smith had observed the eighteen operations that were needed to make a pin – a shiny little item made of pure steel. On the receiving end of the same trade, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin described how the wealthy connoisseurs of St Petersburg relished the fruits of British industry:

Whatever clever London offers

For those with lavish whims and coffers,

And ships to us by Baltic seas,

In trade for tallow and for trees …

Steel files and combs in many guises,

Straight scissors, curved ones, thirty sizes

Of brushes for the modern male –

For hair and teeth and fingernail.

Eugene Onegin, the ‘modern male’ depicted in this Russian verse novel, read Adam Smith while sauntering between other fashionable preoccupations. 6 In contrast, the workers in London or Glasgow who made all these pins and scissors were trained to repeat one and the same operation many times a day. The manufacturers protected their commercial secrets so that their products would not be copied elsewhere, though one of them did demonstrate his eighteen operations to Smith. As long as such secrets were not cracked, these masters kept their temporary monopolies and the workers kept their jobs.

Significantly, Smith does not tell us where the steel to make the pin came from. Glasgow had its own ore, but there is a good chance that iron bars came to Glasgow across the sea from Sweden or Russia. The rarer a raw material, the less its price reflects the labour expended on it, because it is then a product of monopoly. But this monopoly of extraction is very different from a monopoly of knowledge: the former is enduring, the latter temporary. Trading in raw materials, monopolistic companies owned cargo vessels, ports, canals, wharves; they were protected by naval warships; and they were the dominating influence in the establishment of prices, taxes and duties. According to Smith, the mercantile system preferred the interests of producers over the interests of consumers, and all those interests were sacrificed in favour of the merchant seafarers. Hobbes saw the state as a clumsy landlubber. Smith returned to Leviathan its initial meaning of a sea monster.

In Smith’s optimistic view of the markets, monopoly was an aberration, an improper and temporary deviation. He did not create a sound theory of monopoly; this honour fell to Bentham. Monopoly allowed great fortunes to be created, but over time the invisible hand would eliminate all these undeserved advantages. This regularly happened to commercial secrets – the key to the success of small manufacturing monopolies. Labour is based on knowledge; this knowledge spreads unevenly, but competition smooths out these differences. However, most powerful monopolies were built not on commercial secrets but, rather, on the means of transportation. Smith describes how quarries on the outskirts of London produced a good profit but in Scotland made no income at all. The same went for forestry: in the south of England regular felling was profitable; in Scotland trees were left to rot. Coal mines near Oxford were lucrative, but in Scotland many mines remained idle. All these examples had nothing to do with commercial secrets – they are closer to Pushkin’s ‘tallow and trees’ than to Smith’s pins. Producing sophisticated devices such as pins, Scotland was losing bigger money on its natural riches, because the distances were long, transportation was expensive, and the resources were diffused.

Smith’s magisterial idea of free trade was devised to overcome the hostile principle of monopoly. The ‘invisible hand’ was improving the valuable products of labour, but its relation to the rare fruits of nature remained unclear. Smith believed in labour and did not appreciate nature – neither the romantic Scottish lochs and mountains which would become fashionable among the next generation nor the tropical islands with their tobacco and sugar. Trade in such things meant the power of the monopoly and unearned profits for merchants and shopkeepers. For the same reason, Smith had nothing to say about coal: as a fuel for stoves, firewood was healthier, he wrote. Unlike Cantillon, who was much more forward-looking, Smith couldn’t see any other future for coal. But the Industrial Revolution had already begun in Glasgow; Smith and the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt, were friends.

Coal and ore were available nearby; some mines around Glasgow already had more than a hundred workers, and they would have a great future. But Smith wrote that the mining business was a lottery. Looking at the fluctuations in silver prices in Europe, he compared them to the prices for grain. In every stage of development, the price of grain is the measure of labour. The price of silver, on the other hand, is not connected with labour; it is unpredictable and therefore not truly relevant. Whether new mines opened or old ones closed, civilisation would neither improve nor deteriorate. Spanish wealth, based on precious metals, was not productive, wrote Smith. Spain remained as poor as Poland, although the former had income from American mines while the latter did not. He didn’t mince his words when he denied any significance to overseas treasure which belonged to another empire and was not subject to the labour theory of value. As the philosophers of the Enlightenment focused on the vices of the Catholic world, so Smith demolished Spanish ideas about wealth. ‘The most abundant mines … could add little to the wealth of the world,’ he said. 7

Undivided labour

For many centuries, almost every human lived on subsistence farming. While economic growth and long-distance trade were developing in the coastal enclaves of the Atlantic civilisation, the silent majority of subsistence farmers remained separate from them. Describing this long-standing coexistence, the historian Fernand Braudel wrote: ‘Thus we have two universes, two ways of life foreign to each other, yet whose respective wholes explain one another.’ All this changed when the things extracted or made by the peasant, the fisherman, the miner turned into tradable goods. Expanding capitalism was ‘gradually creating the world in which we live, and, at that early date, prefiguring our world.’ 8

First, a peasant came to the market in the nearest town to sell eggs or a chicken, so that he could pay his rent or buy an iron tip for his plough. He could earn extra doing odd jobs, and he might end up as a chimney sweep. But he could also become a trader, selling goods made by other people. Our peasant could perform these tasks sequentially – for example, he could plough in spring, weave baskets in summer, and trade in winter. Then, however, came the time of specialisation: those who concentrated not just on a one-and-only trade but on a one-and-only operation within this trade were more competitive. Adam Smith says that the experienced country blacksmith could produce a hundred nails in a day, but a trained youth who has done nothing in his life except make nails could produce 2,300 in a day. One person could probably make a couple of pins in a day, but, thanks to the division of labour, ten people could make 48,000 pins in a day. The division of labour led to the adoption of machines which could carry out simple and repetitive operations quicker than people. The simplest woollen coat ‘is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser.’ 9 Someone had to make shears, and Smith produces a new list of all the trades involved in that task. One should also add here the merchants, drivers and seamen – they deliver the products from one group of workers to another by water or overland. But then also the shipbuilders, sail-makers, carpenters and blacksmiths who make the carts, stables, vessels and carriages. ‘What a variety of labour, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen!’ Moreover, this great machine of labour and supply would not work without a financial system – accounts, lines of credit and money. Markets and banks, courts of law and, finally, the goverment are all needed for this purpose. This whole elaborate system is built on the division of labour. In Smith’s version, the political economy constructed a chain from the coarse woollen coat right up to Parliament, with the lord chancellor sitting on the Woolsack – a ladder leading from the division of labour to the separation of powers.

But Smith realised that the division of labour is characteristic more of industry than of agriculture. The carpenter rarely does the work of a locksmith, but on a farm the ploughman is also a shepherd, a builder and a coach driver. This is why, explained Smith, agriculture is not subject to such improvement as industry. For Smith, this is a gigantic difference. Labour without specialisation is unproductive, neglectful, lazy. Switching from one sort of work to another, ‘a man commonly saunters a little … When he first begins the new work … his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for sometime he rather trifles than applies to good purpose.’ 10 This ‘sauntering’ is the secret of the low productivity of the peasant. Only with the division of labour does the worker leap from the vicious circle of rural idleness on to the straight line of improvement. Specialisation is the high road to progress. But the ‘country workman’ (this was Smith’s term for a peasant) remains immune to specialisation. ‘The nature of agriculture, indeed, does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another, as manufactures,’ wrote Smith. ‘It is impossible to separate so entirely the business of the grazier from that of the corn-farmer as the trade of the carpenter is commonly separated from that of the smith.’ The result is that the peasant is always idle, careless, distracted, sauntering. But why doesn’t his work submit to the law of productivity?

The seasonal character of agricultural work is one explanation. Different tasks have to be done at different times of year. As the seasons change, one and the same person works now at sowing, now at cattle herding, now at sheep shearing, now at harvesting. ‘It is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them,’ writes Smith. This is the main, albeit annoying ‘reason why the improvement of the productive powers of labour in this art does not always keep pace with their improvement in manufactures.’ More generally, the reason for the non-division of peasant labour is nature’s indifference to men’s desires: people extract from nature just those few parts that meet their needs, but they are still subject to all other whims of nature. People need pins or bread, not spring or autumn. Making pins in a workshop, they can forget about the seasons, but, working in the fields, they have to respect them.

Not every reader shared Smith’s enthusiasm for the division of labour. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: ‘When an artisan is engaged constantly and uniquely in the manufacture of one thing, … each day he becomes more skilful and less industrious, and one can say that the man in him is degraded as the worker is perfected. What should one expect from a man who has used twenty years of his life in making pinheads?’ 11 For Smith, the division of labour was the source of progress, for Tocqueville, a degradation. With his overwhelming interest in labour, Marx believed that its division dehumanises the worker. But, for all practical purposes, Marx was rather ambivalent. Division of labour is crucial for capitalist development but leads to alienation, the source of evil. In the future, men would overcome the division of labour ‘to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner.’ 12 But Marx was hardly recommending a return to what he called ‘the idiocy of rural life’.

Both Smith and Marx were able to make valuable – if sometimes dubious – generalisations from an important truth: division cannot be applied to peasant labour. Moreover, it is also inapplicable to many other activities connected with the extraction of raw materials – grain and wool, fish and ore, silk and coal. The division of labour increases as commodities move through the processing system: it is at a minimum in the first stages of the extraction of raw materials and at a maximum in the final stages of the production of goods. In Smith’s example we have already seen this difference: the shepherd watches his flock and shears his sheep while also turning his hand to gardening, driving a coach and many other things. But the sheep’s wool is processed by a social machine which already consists of dozens of separate trades.

Nevertheless, many sorts of specialised work did develop in the villages. Millers and smiths led their own distinct lives. Whether tanners and cobblers followed their trade for one day or six days of the week depended solely on the demand for their services. But they probably all had an orchard and a vegetable patch and houses that needed upkeep. Swedish peasants also worked as miners, English farm labourers as spinners, Russian peasants as road builders, Norwegian peasants as fishermen; and everywhere where cities were being built, peasants worked on building sites.

It was not only shepherds and plough boys who had never heard of the division of labour; specialisation was also unknown to many others who worked professionally in the extraction business, even when their activities experienced impressive growth. The fishermen of Norway and New England didn’t build their ships or make their nets and barrels, but they had to repair all these things. Fishing was seasonal, and fishermen never forgot their agricultural work. English miners hacked coal, cleaned it and packed it in crates; they constructed new galleries, reinforced them and sorted out the ventilation; when necessary, they brought first aid and repaired the machines. In many mines the work was seasonal; when the groundwater rose the miners returned to their kitchen gardens and home trades. The only work that was divided was auxiliary; the coal diggers in the mines were as interchangeable as the sailors on a ship. The Industrial Revolution gave birth to hundreds of new trades – for example, in the smelting and forging of metals. But the work of a miner did not lend itself to much specialisation. Even when assisted by machines, it still required creative responses to changing situations. This is true to a large extent even today. Everything that involves direct contact with nature demands the creative work and undivided attention of a human being.

The division of labour secured the highest achievements of capitalism. Proto-industrialisation developed some primary divisions, but weavers and knitters were also milkmaids, housekeepers and gardeners. It was only in the 1840s that European proto-industries ceded their place to capital-intensive factories with actual division of labour – and the ‘spectre of communism’ has haunted Europe since then. But even professional traders specialised only on the lower rungs of their hierarchy: money changers, shopkeepers, peddlers were specialists, but bankers, merchants and industrialists were more likely to be all-rounders. Capitalism is founded on the division of labour, but capitalists paid it scant attention. We remember the early universalism of Jacob Fugger, but many followed in his footsteps. Braudel portrays the late eighteenth-century entrepreneur Antonio Greppi, who owned a bank in Milan, managed state monopolies in tobacco and salt in Lombardy, and delivered mercury via Vienna to the Spanish king. 13 In Moscow in the seventeenth century, ‘everybody traded’ – the tsar, the boyars, the military, ordinary townsfolk and even monks. Moreover, they traded in everything imaginable. The state tried to distribute shops in logical ‘trade rows’ that could be easily inspected; but, nevertheless, shops in the bakery row also sold milk, crockery and hay, and the butchery rows sold herring and linen. 14 The essence of capitalism is such that specialists are needed only in the minor roles, though these roles turn into mass professions; in the wholesale and financial markets, generalists usually win the fight. Contrary to Smith’s theory, those at the very bottom and the very top of the food chain of capitalism – the peasants and the miners, the entrepreneurs and the financiers – were not concerned with the division of labour into its elementary particles.

No division of labour occurred in subsistence farming; it came only with the market and, wrote Smith, depended on the volume of the market. Going further, Polanyi distinguished between three kinds of trade – local, national and long-distance; all three developed independently of one another. In the towns there were trades, and one such trade was trade itself; many towns, in reality, grew up around markets. But long-distance trade was concentrated in a few ports which followed their own path of development. The routes of distant and local trade intersected there, but the authorities kept them separate. Foreign merchants were not allowed to carry out retail; in exchange, the local rules did not apply to their wholesale trade. According to Polanyi’s formula, the town walls not only protected the local markets and warehouses from external threats but also defended the surrounding countryside from market commerce. Various parts of the Hanseatic League had more in common with each other than with their own people, and they ‘deliberately cut off the hinterland from trade’. They functioned as colonial enclaves in a foreign land; some of them, for example in Novgorod, were called ‘colonies’. The imperial cities that functioned as distribution hubs for long-distance trade – Venice, Amsterdam, Marseilles, St Petersburg – were structured differently. Facing the sea, they often had no walls. The port was defended from possible attacks from the sea, the workforce came from afar or was even driven there by force, but relations with the surrounding population were not so important. In the rural backwaters people continued to live from their smallholdings; as Polanyi put it, the trade maps of Europe in this period ‘leave blank the countryside’.

Following Smith, political economy began from individual exchanges and the division of labour, moved to local markets and extended to long-distance trade. Polanyi overturned that logic: ‘In the light of our present knowledge we should almost reverse the sequence of the argument: the true starting point is long-distance trade, a result of the geographical location of goods.’ 15 Exotic, addictive goods arrived from distant markets. New tastes developed, new habits and fashions, and, eventually, a love of novelty for its own sake. Global trade, the international division of labour and the law of comparative advantage had little in common with the specialisation that had impressed Smith in the pin workshop. They followed, rather, from the geographical distribution of resources and delivery routes.

A live monster

Writing his Capital in London, Karl Marx was financially supported by a Dutch relative who imported colonial commodities from overseas and by his German friend who owned a cotton mill in Manchester. The latter, Friedrich Engels, is better known, but the former, Lion Philips, was no less inspiring. A converted Jew, he did not own plantations but established a tobacco factory and coffee distribution in Holland. Processing gave better returns than extraction and accrued lower risks. Philips died a rich and happy man – Marx noted his ‘fine Voltairian irony’. 16 His grandson and heir established Philips, the largest manufacturer of light bulbs in the world, but a little share of that coffee and tobacco was also converted into the text of Capital .

Marx saw trade as something that people carry out but do not understand. Smith believed in its ‘invisible hand’; for Marx, trade was also full of queer secrets and mystical apparitions. ‘To what extent some economists are misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities … is shown, amongst other ways, by the dull and tedious quarrel over the part played by Nature in the formation of exchange value.’ For his part, Marx thought that nature played no bigger role in the creation of value than in fixing the course of currency exchange. For those who disagreed, Marx wrote that people fetishise nature instead of understanding the role of labour.

Any item, for example a coat, combines two elements within it – matter and labour. Marx doesn’t deny the materiality of the coat but accepts it as a dull fact of life, which labour is able to overcome and transcend. Marx tried out and discarded several metaphors to clarify these relationships between natural material and human labour. Labour ‘uses’ or ‘devours’ raw material. Labour ‘comes to fruition’ in the commodity. Raw materials without labour are useless, and even the strongest are perishable: iron rusts, wood rots, cotton spoils. Only labour can save them: ‘living labour must seize upon these things and rouse them from their death-sleep.’ Labour both devours raw matter and resurrects it into new life. ‘Bathed in the fire of labour …, made alive for the performance of their functions in the process’, things are transformed from raw material into valuable products. 17 In this context, Marx uses biological metaphors, such as metabolism, as frequently as religious ones, such as resurrection. 18

In the chapter called ‘The Labour-Process’, Marx takes a new step. Labour creates a third thing which is neither labour nor matter. Seeking a metaphor which will help the reader understand this process, Marx turns to the idea of William Petty, the early English mercantilist. Labour is the father and the earth is the mother of use-value, quotes Marx from Petty. How to define the process of their intercourse without reverting to ‘fetishism’? Looking for still another metaphor, Marx proposes one that transfers agency from the person to the raw material. The function of matter, for example cotton or coal, is to ‘absorb’ (aufsaugen ) human labour. ‘The raw material serves now merely as an absorbent of a definite quantity of work.’ Yarn, for example, is ‘nothing more than a measure of the labour absorbed by the cotton.’ Labour consumes raw material, nature absorbs labour – this produces a kind of symmetry. In their application to matter and labour, metaphors of ingestion – to devour, absorb, feed on – appeal to Marx more than the idea of sexual intercourse which he found in Petty. It takes six hours of manual labour for a spinner to create 10 pounds of yarn: cotton thus absorbs these hours of work in order to become yarn. Then this yarn absorbs still more hours of work to turn into a coat. In the same way a load of coal absorbs a certain number of hours of a miner’s labour. In commerce, goods interact and multiply. This creates capital, which has a life of its own – it invests and devours, destroys and resurrects, and multiplies again. Marx’s final formula is startling in its splendour: ‘… incorporating living labour with … dead substance, the capitalist at the same time converts value, i.e., past, materialised, and dead labour into capital, into value big with value, a live monster who begins to “work” as if he has love in his body.’ *

The live monster, the capitalist Leviathan, sends us back to Hobbes. However, does the ruling monster have ‘love in his body’? Are we to understand Marx’s capital as a live but lonely monster that ‘works’ on himself, as if masturbating? Is this solitary but explosive action the secret of the ‘value big with value’? Marx put ‘work’ in quotation marks, and they add a bit of irony to the picture. * The grotesque image of the monster state pleasuring itself, and thus endlessly creating capital, helped Marx to move away from the sentimental ‘mother-nature, father-labour’ model of his predecessors. That model gave too big a role to natural matter, to dead substance and to the finite universe.

Two pumps

The enlightenment of the lower classes, their sweet refinement, gave that stimulus to mass consumption without which capitalism would have been limited to aristocrats exchanging luxury items (see chapters 4 and 8 ). This internal side of the process was crucial. We know a lot about mercantilism as a system of trade relations between empires and colonies; the question is, how did this high policy translate into relationships inside every village, smallholding and, ultimately, family?

The mercantile system led to a major resource crisis – the shift from grain to wool. Polanyi describes how the English state both initiated and tried to slow down this transformation. The poorest of the rural poor received food subsidies that allowed them to survive. Pioneered in 1795, the Speenhamland system was an early version of agricultural subsidy, with the difference that this relief was given to landless labourers. Local parishes distributed aid among the needy. The profit from overseas colonies was redistributed in favour of the English rural poor. This early recognition of the ‘right to live’ resulted in the formation of a class of paupers – people who were deprived of land and didn’t see any point in work. The brightest minds of the era wrote about them; Malthus and Burke were both against subsidy; Bentham suggested replacing it with panoptical workhouses. A market in land could have helped the paupers, but it didn’t yet exist: if the impoverished smallholder could have sold his land the landlords would not have needed to enclose it, and he would have had some money.

Powered by waterwheels and then steam engines, early factories were more productive than ‘cottage industries’. But the Industrial Revolution coexisted with this proto-industry for many decades. 19 Turning the island metropole into a huge factory which imported raw matter and exported goods was the very essence of mercantilism. The central link in this new system was a dynamic mechanism that I call the mercantile pump . This pump translated the requirements of long-distance trade into transformations inside the peasant family. It pumped the water out of commodities, drying them out so that trade turned from the local circulation of raw and perishable products, which could be consumed only on the spot, into the long-distance trade of dry goods. It sucked land and labour out of subsistence farming and pumped it into the production of goods ready for export. It used addictive colonial goods to incentivise rural workers and pump out their work, which was converted into cash crops and the products of cottage industry. Enclosures had deprived the peasants of the land that fed them, but their villages now had colonial stores in which a day’s wages could be exchanged for dry, sweet (or sometimes salty) foreign foods. The mercantile pump replaced the raw with the dry, the local with the imported, the home-made with the shop-bought. Exposing subsistence farming to internal and global markets, the mercantile pump sucked out labour, replacing it with addiction.

The mercantile pump worked like Robert Boyle’s air pump, one of the great achievements of the Royal Society in London in the mid-seventeenth century (see chapter 6 ). Robert Boyle’s father was Richard Boyle, the lord high treasurer of Ireland, who colonised a big part of the country for England. His own plantation in Munster was a model for other developments, and it made him fabulously rich; appointed to the highest office in Ireland, he lent money to the royal family. British plantations in the recently conquered Ireland were created by the same people who founded the colonies in Virginia. The Irish cattle herders drove huge herds of horned beasts from one pasture to another, a tradition that was not far from the transhumance of sheep in Spain. The English did not need this perishable meat – they wanted to cultivate wheat and experimented with tobacco. The planters forced the Irish to live a settled life, to sow wheat and to convert to Protestantism; they also financed a mass resettlement of Scots and English to Ireland. These plans of commodification would have been successful had they not been sabotaged by the humble potato. Having no trade value of its own, the potato supported the growth of the local population. Escaping the mercantile pump, the Irish peasants appeared lazy and indolent; but they were fruitful and multiplied. The wet, perishable potato helped them to avoid dry, tradable wheat.

Still, Richard Boyle made his fortune by leasing out his land to the newly arrived settlers. He lost everything during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, but his sons recuperated the plantations. Robert Boyle invested his funds – the converted labour of Irish peasants – in the Royal Society and in his own inventions. 20 Later, Thomas Newcomen built on Boyle’s experiment to create his steam machine. The encounter between the air pump and the mercantile pump engendered the Industrial Revolution. But the great question of labour’s relation to nature remained unresolved.

Having lost the war in America, the British Empire kept the jewels in its crown – the sugar islands in the Atlantic. The radicals were horrified by the military defeat and disappointed in the commercial profits from the colonies. 21 Free trade would allow England to receive the same raw materials without having to pay for an army and a navy. But ‘the new colonial system’ hardly differed from the mercantilist tradition. After the Treaty of Paris (1783), imperial interests transferred to India and Canada, although this didn’t prevent the empire acquiring new colonies in Australia and Africa. Then the bad news came: the sovereign states of America purchased Louisiana from France in 1801, allowing Napoleon to finance his preparations for war. The consequences of this development cost the mother country more dearly than all her colonies put together.



1 Knorr, British Colonial Theories , pp. 26–59; see also Wakefield, England and America , pp. 244–65; Glamann, Dutch–Asiatic Trade ; Davis and Huttenback, Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire .2 Quoted from Knorr, British Colonial Theories , p. 84.3 Quoted ibid., p. 106.4 Ibid., p. 103.5 Ross, The Life of Adam Smith .6 Pushkin, Eugene Onegin , stanzas 23–4 (chap. 1); Smith is mentioned in stanza 7.7 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , pp. 182, 192.8 Braudel, Afterthoughts on Material Civilization and Capitalism , pp. 5–6.9 Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations , p. 22.10 Ibid., p. 19.11 Tocqueville, Democracy in America , p. 530.12 Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 , p. xxiv.13 Braudel, The Wheels of Commerce , pp. 248–9, 254–6, 379.14 Kulisher, Istoriya russkoy torgovli , p. 161.15 Polanyi, Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation , p. 61.16 Prinz, ‘New perspectives on Marx as a Jew’.17 Marx, Capital , Vol. 1, pp. 31, 130, 52.18 McNally, Monsters of the Market , pp. 113–47; Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism , pp. 99–140.19 De Vries, The Industrious Revolution ; Ogilvie and Cerman, European Proto-Industrialization .20 Canny, The Upstart Earl ; Shapin and Shaffir, Leviathan and the Air-Pump ; Principe, The Aspiring Adept .21 Knorr, British Colonial Theories , p. 210.


The Resources that Failed

Ideas are intertwined with emotions. Together, they turn intellectual history into a succession of stormy waves in which sublime aspirations collapse into disenchantments. Resource panic occurs when a particular sort of raw material is regarded as the be-all and end-all. When vital resources come to an end, wars and uprisings seem unavoidable. On the other hand, wars and revolutions can be explained with hindsight not by the greed or stupidity of rulers but by the exhaustion of the soil, oil or other vital supplies. In fact, this was the starting point for the social sciences. The rules of the genre are such that disenchantment in resource projects is usually connected with pivotal commodities – food, energy or even land. Resource panics have defined the modern period just as much as images of the end of the world defined the Middle Ages.

Anti-imperial France

Colonial adventures, financial pyramids and resource wars led to the formation of a post-catastrophic movement in political thought. Behind Cantillon’s work stood the bitter experience of the Irish colonial ‘plantations’. Smith’s work was his reply to England’s ‘project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers’, which impoverished Scotland. The teachings of the physiocrats responded to the shock that John Law’s projects had caused in France.

Opposed to the mercantile system and colonial speculations, the physiocrats rediscovered the traditional basis of the national economy – agriculture. In their opinion, only fertile land and peasant labour could generate capital. Everything else – industry, long-distance trade, luxury items and, ultimately, financial operations prey on the people who till the soil. Pioneering the mathematical modelling of economic exchange, François Quesnay’s Economic Table focused on wheat. A commodity unlike others, grain was central for the economy. Trade in grain ought to be free, but the physiocrats wanted to impose high duties on colonial trade and luxury items. Industry does not produce wealth – artisans and merchants belong to the ‘sterile’ class, and only agriculture is productive. Commerce should be limited to local markets which didn’t require custom posts and bureaucrats. An ‘economic sect’ centred in Versailles, the physiocrats laid some of the theoretical grounds for the French Revolution.

Quesnay was Louis XV’s physician, and he treated Madame de Pompadour, the king’s official mistress. It was the moment when the ladies of the beau monde took a great interest in agriculture, particularly in dairy farming. The marquise de Pompadour had several pavilions – hermitages – where well-groomed farmers kept their cows on Italian marble floors and stored cheese in Chinese porcelain. Quesnay prescribed fresh milk and promenades as a cure for the marquise’s fevers, hysteria and frigidity. Together, they held a ‘salon’ for physiocrat economists and enlightened philosophers. Their shared interest in the problems of grain production was akin to the interest that the ladies of the court took in dairies. The philosophers and the favourites discussed agricultural improvements, the rotation of crops, fertilisers and grain prices. 1 Disillusionment with colonial adventures led them to switch their interest from sugar to wheat and from coffee to milk. This was the early Versailles version of going back to one’s roots. But romantic contemplation did not prevent the colonial adventures continuing.

The physiocrats were very familiar with the disaster in the French West Indies. Some of them contributed to Raynal’s History of the Two Indies . The chevalier de Mirabeau, the younger brother of the more famous marquis, served as the governor of Guadeloupe during the Seven Years’ War. Not subject to common law, the French West Indies were ruled directly by the minister for the navy. The exclusif mercantile regime meant that planters could transport their sugar only on French ships and only to France. In the quarter century after the Seven Years’ War the black population of the French West Indies doubled: in 1789 there were as many slaves on these islands as in the whole of the American states. In that revolutionary year the French treasury received an eighth of its revenue from the plantations, a sum comparable to the poll tax paid by all the peasants in France. Created by distant slaves, this income stream reduced the dependence of the king on his peasants – a goal of every autocrat since the time of Gilgamesh. But smuggling and piracy flourished on the islands. The price of sugar was already falling. The planters, many of them Huguenots who had fled from France, were moving to the American continent. Both Mirabeau brothers believed that the root of evil was to be found at Versailles. While the younger Mirabeau was serving as governor in Guadeloupe, the elder one languished in a Paris prison because of his writings. Then the governor returned to France and shared his bitter experiences with the Quesnay circle. 2

The most important institution in the mercantile regime was customs – the direct source of governmental revenue connecting the Treasury with the colonies. It so happened that some of the leading intellectuals of the Enlightenment doubled as customs officials, and this service provided them with material for their critical theories. The father of English philosophy, John Locke, began his career in their majesties’ customs service, as secretary of the board of trade and plantations. Charles Davenant wrote his books on trade, war and colonies while employed over three decades as a senior excise officer. Adam Smith, a propagandist for free trade, served as a member of the Scottish Customs Commission. The father of Russian political thought, Alexander Radishchev, served as the head of customs in St Petersburg. Leaving us an apt summary of the complexity of the job, he wrote: ‘My satisfaction was transformed into indignation such as I feel when in summer time I walk down the customs pier and look at the ships that bring us the surplus of America and its precious products such as sugar, coffee, dyes and other things, not yet dry from the sweat, tears and blood that bathed them in their production.’ 3

Their colleague was Lemercier de La Rivière, the intendant in Martinique, the informal capital of the French West Indies. Fighting smuggling on the islands, de La Rivière relaxed the exclusive regime, permitting ships from neutral countries to unload at Martinique and exchange goods for sugar. Realising that free trade would destroy their monopoly, the planters got de La Rivière recalled to France. A free intellectual, de La Rivière then acted as a consultant to the governments of France, Russia and Poland – mostly without success. After his visit to St Petersburg in 1767, Catherine the Great wrote to Voltaire, ‘De La Rivière thought that we crawled on all fours and took upon himself the great labour of leaving Martinique in order to teach us to walk upright.’ 4 But Voltaire too taught her to walk upright by encouraging her to partition the Ottoman Empire. She would get Constantinople (now Istanbul), resurrect Byzantium as a new colony of the Russian Empire, and leave it to her grandson Constantin. Launching war after war, Catherine captured Crimea but failed to restore Byzantium. The empress, an avid reader of French novels, might have remembered that years earlier Voltaire had also left Constantinople to his Candide. Published in the same year (1759) as François Quesnay’s Economic Table , Voltaire’s Candide ends with the protagonist urging his own little salon to cultivate a garden. But it is in Constantinople, of all places, that Candide, an orphan from Westphalia, makes his garden.

The collapse of the Mississippi Company, the defeat in the Seven Years’ War, the loss of Canada, the crisis in the West Indies, and the missed opportunities on the Bosphorus – all this led the French physiocrats to drink milk, to seek the secrets of life in wheat prices, and to concentrate on the internal workings of the national economy. The state debts were the consequence of colonial wars for the sugar islands, beaver dams, and hazy promises. Tariffs and excises, the poll tax and the salt gabelle led to the uprising in Haiti and the taking of the Bastille. But the anti-imperial ideas of the French physiocrats found fertile ground in another country that had also liberated itself from its imperial masters.

Post-colonial America

For its founding fathers, America was a land of farmers rather than merchants or manufacturers. In Paris, Thomas Jefferson had exchanged ideas with the physiocrats. Upon his return to America, he led the faction of landowners who defended freedom of trade. Political equality would be based on the access to land and general participation in the running of the republic. This new America would be different from old Europe – no exchequer, no aristocracy, no guilds. For Jefferson, the landowners – many of them slave-owners as well – were the nation, and he did not want to see factories and workers in America. The authors of the constitution enshrined this preference for agriculture over industry and farmland over towns. This romantic outlook still defines American electoral laws. Jefferson understood that towns needed builders and villages needed blacksmiths, but he wished to leave large manufactures to Europe. Let the Old World exchange its iron and textile goods for American tobacco, fish and flour. Trade must be free; duties, the symbol of British mercantilism, were the source of evil. Jefferson’s library in Monticello contained books by the physiocrats and Adam Smith. Believing that state debt was an attribute of the mercantile system, Jefferson opposed the creation of a federal bank. The state must not go into debt, burdening future generations. The constitution must be re-examined every nineteen years and arable land must be redistributed with every generation. Jefferson corresponded with Alexander I of Russia and possibly knew about the redistribution of land with every generation which the Russian peasants practised (many romantically inclined thinkers loved this narrative). Thomas Paine was similarly concerned about future generations. ‘Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow.’ The abundance of land and unlimited immigration would create a middle class – a large group of well-to-do farmers, whose harvests and happiness depended solely on God. So wrote Benjamin Franklin, for whom the agrarian economy was linked with a puritan mistrust of luxury. 5

Refuting these Franco-American ideas, Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the American Treasury, in 1791 sent Congress his Report on the Subject of Manufactures . He discussed in detail whether agriculture or industry was more productive and profitable. Productivity depends on the division of labour, the use of machines and efficient time management. All these aspects were more pertinent to manufacture. Agricultural labour is seasonal, while factories can work continuously. Finally, industry widens the demand for the products of agricultural labour. A country without mines and factories will become dependent on other countries which do have them. This report was the first systematic examination of natural resources in intellectual history. Hamilton discussed in detail many resources, from leather to gunpowder, from iron to paper, from hemp to silk, and from cotton to coal. Writing about the new branches of industry that needed government support, he used such expressions as ‘infant industry’ or even ‘embryonic industry’. Later, this approach inspired Friedrich List and other theoreticians of industrial policy. It was Hamilton who came up with the image of the state-as-educator or government-as-gardener, which would create the favourable conditions for the growth of immature, childlike branches of industry.


If Adam Smith was delighted by the new era, arguing that the division of labour and free trade would change the sinful world for the better, Robert Malthus condemned it on behalf of his science. The laws of human nature cannot be changed. The first law is that man must eat. The second is that he has a passion for reproducing. Neither law was new – it was Malthus’s discovery of their incompatibility that was shocking. If there is enough food for everyone, the population will double in twenty-five years, as it did in the American colonies. For this, land must be infinitely available. When there is a limit on land, the growth of the population will always outpace the growth of the productivity of labour.

John Maynard Keynes called Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population ‘a work of youthful genius’: 6 most of this book was not about hunger but about love. God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ in order to populate the earth; for Malthus, this was also the mission of the empire which had colonised the New World. He disagreed with the philosopher William Godwin, who taught, with what was considered a sign of optimism, that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished and that this is the way for improving people and society (ironically, Godwin was the husband of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein ). Ever since original sin, wrote Malthus, ‘towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no observable progress whatever has hitherto been made.’ If it wasn’t for sexual passion and the parental cares arising from it, man would remain ‘inert, sluggish, and averse from labour’. People only till the soil when compelled by sex and concerned about the fruits of that passion. This is a general law – it ‘undoubtedly produces much partial evil, but … produces a great overbalance of good.’ 7

Malthus’s dispute with William Godwin and Adam Smith was based on their different understanding of economic value, but behind this lay a difference in the way they understood people. Smith wrote about the wealth of nations, by which he meant not peoples but states. In contrast, Malthus understood the population as a multitude – a certain number of individuals, rich or poor, carrying out trade and reproducing. In his interest in population statistics, Malthus was ahead of Smith and many nineteenth-century economists. Godwin was a Calvinist minister, Malthus an Anglican priest, and Smith a Presbyterian layman. All three critically observed the British Empire colonising overseas territories which, in some cases, left the empire. While Godwin later switched to book publishing, the other two had careers directly connected to imperial policies: Smith had a lucrative post on the Scottish Customs Committee, while Malthus became a professor of history and political economy at the East India Company College. Neither Smith nor Malthus visited the overseas colonies, but both men knew adjacent colonial possessions very well. For Smith this was his native Scotland, for Malthus Ireland, a subject of scholarly interest. And, for both of them, distant America was an intriguing example of the new imperial economy. Wars were fought over colonies, garrisons were quartered there, flotillas sailed for their sake. Why was all this done? What could justify the expense? From Smith to Bentham and his Manchester followers, liberalism was the critical theory of empire.

News from America was the main source for Malthus’s Essay . He referred to Franklin, the Abbé Raynal, Captain Cook, Humboldt and other explorers and migrants. Most of these travel accounts were remarkable for their belief in progress, censure of slavery, distrust of the Spanish, and admiration for the American colonies. Malthus wrote that the American rate of growth could never be transferred to the British Isles, even in one’s wildest dreams. A proponent of food security, as we would call it now, he calculated that imported grain, brought from America, Russia and the Baltic lands, fed about 2 million Britons, more than 20 per cent of the population. Malthus applauded when in 1813 Parliament passed the first tranche of the Corn Laws, limiting the import of grain. Corn prices soared and grain production increased. Nobody has expressed resource panic better than Malthus. He was terrified by the prospect of a grain deficit just when the British economy was becoming less and less dependent on its grain. Always concerned about grain, Malthus failed to take account of the large supplies of other commodities that Great Britain received from her colonies in the Atlantic. The main imported resource, sugar, guaranteed the British a great quantity of cheap calories. But sugar is not mentioned in the Essay , nor does Malthus mention the slave plantations in the British Atlantic.

However, his connection to the tropical world of slavery and sugar was very strong. His paternal grandfather, Sydenham Malthus, was a director of the South Sea Company; appointed in 1741, well after the notorious bubble, he could have been a treasure house of colourful memories, though he died before Robert was born. But, during Robert’s lifetime, the Malthus family still owned a large plantation in Jamaica. Robert willingly kept in touch with his relatives, the owners of hundreds of slaves, and he inherited wealth derived from the plantation. 8 Jane Austen, who was also dependent on the slave trade of the West Indies, often – and sometimes critically – mentioned news from the sugar plantations in her novels. 9 It is difficult to find such a theme in Malthus.

Malthus’s Essay made him famous; but he continued to teach and write for several decades afterwards, setting out his conclusions in a later book, Principles of Political Economy (1820). Here he was able to build on the works of his friend David Ricardo and the concept of rent. For Malthus, rent represented the most valuable characteristic of land – its ability to feed more people than worked on it. Ricardo’s ‘classical theory’ purged economics of anthropology and demography; Malthus recombined them, as John Maynard Keynes did again a hundred years later. One of the key problems discussed in Political Economy was ‘indolence’. Malthus drew a sad parallel between Mexico and Ireland: where foodstuffs were easily available, ‘indolence and slackness’ flourished. Like Mexican maize, the Irish potato was more productive than cereal crops. As a result, Ireland could support ‘a much greater population than it [could] employ’. For Malthus, this discrepancy is the route to idleness. The flow of capital will hardly remedy the situation; the main problem, he says, lies not in external capital but in internal demand. ‘The tastes and habits … are extremely slow in changing.’ Until they change, the import of capital for the building of factories and similar projects is doomed to failure. 10

The natural resources of Ireland are greater than those of England, wrote Malthus, and with the necessary development Ireland could be ‘beyond comparison richer than England’. This economic growth required ‘such a change in the tastes and habits of the lower classes … as would give [them] a greater will and power to purchase domestic manufactures and foreign commodities.’ 11 A comparative analysis of New Spain and British Ireland leads to a final conclusion: the poverty of fertile countries, writes Malthus, is connected to the lack of culture and civilisation. Only a ‘change in the tastes and habits of the lower classes’ could create an effective demand for manufactured goods. Thus the Enlightenment finally formulated its economic role as the formation of habits and the education of tastes. Consumption follows culture, trade follows consumption, production follows trade. In contrast, a surplus of capital – the import of silver – inhibits growth. Malthus pre-empts the conclusions to which economists would come 150 years later. If the supply of capital (for example, as a result of the export of guano or oil) exceeds internal demand, it is destructive to the country. Out of all the conditions for development, ‘effectual demand’ plays the leading role, and this demand depends on the cultural inclinations of the lower classes. Keynes singled out this idea as the most important of Malthus’s contributions.

Malthus sees the inability of Spanish America and British Ireland to cope with ‘indolence’ as a vicious circle. By the end of the nineteenth century, a similar conflict between ‘indolent smallholdings’ that survived on potatoes and grain trading enterprises arose again in eastern Prussia and western Poland. The German colonisers considered the Slav villages unproductive; disposing of state aid, the settlers exploited or ousted the Polish peasants just as the English had done to the Irish. The young sociologist Max Weber provided the scientific justification for this ‘internal colonisation’ (as this process was called by the Prussians). His early writings contained racist constructions along the lines of Slav indolence. 12

A less gifted writer than Hume or Smith, Malthus had broader historic experience. The further the reader delves into Principles of Political Economy , the more he sees Malthus’s sympathy for the ‘labouring classes’ and his distrust of the rich landowners. The wealth of a nation depends not only on the creation of capital but also on its distribution. ‘A very large proprietor, surrounded by very poor peasants, presents a distribution of property most unfavourable to effectual demand.’ 13 No matter how refined the owner of several estates, he is not going to renovate his castle every year. But if he gives out land to forty farmers, they could create demand by giving work to a great number of artisans and traders. The greatest secret of the wealth of nations stays with the ‘middle classes’; only they are capable of creating effectual demand, paying for goods and services with their own work. Thus Malthus, the prophet of crises and catastrophes, at the end of his life discovered the economic significance of the middle class.

In his appreciation of Malthus, Keynes compared him to Ricardo, whose formal laws of price formation defined the future of economics. With no hesitation, Keynes preferred the ‘vaguer intuitions of Malthus’ to Ricardo’s simplifying analytics: ‘by taking up the tale much nearer its conclusion, [Malthus] had a firmer hold on what may be expected in the real world.’ While Ricardo constrained economics ‘in an artificial groove’, wrote Keynes, Malthus had ‘disclosed a Devil’ of critical thought. Economic theories had practical consequences. ‘If only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be to-day!’ 14


Refuting Malthus’s predictions, the aggregate product of the fields, mines and colonies of the British Empire grew so rapidly that it far outstripped the population’s growth. The main source of this development was coal. When Malthus wrote his Essay , a thousand Newcomen engines were already at work in English mines and James Watt had patented his new engine. Malthus was not interested in coal and had nothing to say about steam; but, in his time, coal was about to play as significant a role in the English economy as grain.

When coal definitively overtook grain, the Malthusian logic of resource panic was promptly transferred to coal. In 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons wrote The Coal Question , in which he warned of the imminent exhaustion of coal supplies in the British Isles. According to Jevons, between 1800 and 1865 the population of England had doubled but the production of coal has increased by a factor of eight. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the population had been growing by 10 per cent every ten years, and the consumption of foodstuffs in England had grown correspondingly. But the urban population was growing much faster – it was doubling every twenty-eight years, almost as rapidly as the population of North America had been growing in the time of Malthus. The amount of coal being extracted was growing even more quickly, wrote Jevons. It was not the increase in grain production but the growth of the coal industry which gave rise to the unprecedented expansion of English towns. Digging deep into the earth to create coal mines was like exploring the American frontier, or even ‘the further shore of our Black Indies’. Or, no less triumphally: ‘We are like settlers spreading in a rich new country of which the boundaries are as yet unknown and unfelt.’ 15 Jevons states that the development of industry and the switch to free trade offers a way out of the Malthusian trap: bread is now exchanged for goods produced with the help of coal. But then Jevons takes a step back. The end of coal is inevitable and imminent. Reserves are finite, and there is a limit to how deep mines can go; every metre deeper made coal more dangerous to extract and more expensive. Neither could the efficiency of coal combustion develop indefinitely. Granted, steam engines – mine pumps, railway engines, river steamers, steam-powered ploughs – became more efficient as time went on: they consumed less coal per unit of work produced. But there were more and more such machines and the country needed more and more coal. At this point Jevons formulated a new paradox: every step that increases the efficiency of a natural resource only increases its consumption.

Comparing coal with grain and his doctrine of exhaustion with Malthus’s, Jevons argued that a coal crisis would be more devastating. The productivity of farmers’ fields could reach a plateau but they would nevertheless continue to yield a harvest. An exhausted mine is a different case altogether. Giving less coal but requiring more labour, it soon becomes unprofitable. At this point, the owner stops maintaining it, and the mine gets flooded or collapses; Jevons knew of such cases. In general, he predicted an imminent halt to economic growth. ‘We cannot indeed always be doubling the length of our railways, the magnitude of our ships, and bridges, and factories.’ 16

If coal runs out, what will replace it? Jevons runs through the alternatives and finds little comfort. He talks about wind power, the power of water and tides, and discusses peat; all these things have their good points, but they are unreliable, limited to specific places, and are no match for coal. He knew about oil and that it had the potential to outperform coal. All the same, for him oil was just a liquid form of coal. If coal runs out, there won’t be oil, thought Jevons. Perhaps people would learn to harvest the sun’s energy by as yet unknown means, or would obtain heat from completely new sources. But he was pessimistic on this point as well: when the sun’s rays replaced coal, England would lose its competitive advantages.


Unlike the French physiocrats, the British political economists – Smith, Malthus, Ricardo – were at work precisely in the era and the country of coal. But, even while using its heat and energy, they preferred to think of themselves as living in an organic, grain-focused society. It was Jevons who saved economics from its ‘artificial groove’ by addressing coal. Keynes wrote about Jevons with unusual warmth and saw him as an important predecessor. He started his memorial essay with the fact that Jevons was born in the year after Malthus’s death; Keynes delicately forbore from mentioning that he himself was born the year after Jevons’s death. 17 All three shared the feeling that the resources used by humankind are limited and close to exhaustion, and that the analysis of these resources, in relation to labour, is the very essence of economic science. In Keynes’s words, this ‘extraordinary continuity of feeling ’ was ‘profoundly in the English tradition of humane science’. 18

It was not only about feeling . A Cambridge professor whose practical experience started with the administration of Indian finances, Keynes saw that his career aligned with this ‘English tradition’. He took part in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when the victorious states met to determine the fate of Europe after the First World War. In his book about the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty, Keynes predicted a Malthusian crisis on a European scale. At the end of the nineteenth century, continental Europe had lost its self-sufficiency in food production in the same way that England had lost it about a century earlier. The population had grown, and Europe, like England, was able to buy increasing amounts of agricultural produce in exchange for its industrial goods. Every decade, a unit of labour invested in industry increased its purchasing power in relation to foodstuffs; here Keynes was reproducing Cantillon’s old idea, which had been recently recovered by Jevons (Prebisch and Singer would in turn reproduce these ideas of Keynes). His American counterparts Richard T. Ely and Thorstein Veblen were close to Keynes in their critical approach to land, resources and progress. But the peaceful end to the nineteenth century, which Keynes called an economic Eldorado, engendered a new, post-utilitarian generation. Nothing was more foreign to Keynes than their formalised optimism. It was the Yale economist Irving Fisher who started this neo-Panglossian canon by formulating still another ‘equilibrium theory’. On 16 October 1929, Fisher wrote in the New York Times that stock prices had ‘reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.’ The stock market collapsed on 24 October – the Great Depression had arrived.

European growth, explained Keynes, was possible only because both America and Russia supplied it with grain. But their own populations were growing even faster, with the result that the great powers to the West and the East of Europe could no longer feed the Old World. A brilliant prognostician, Keynes saw the new war in the making. But his Malthusian forecast for twentieth-century agriculture was wrong. Just as Malthus had failed to see the power of coal, so Keynes failed to see the full power of oil. Not long before the First World War, Fritz Haber, a Polish Jew and German patriot, succeeded in synthesising ammonia. Haber’s process gave rise to the first nitrogen fertilisers and new kinds of explosives. Working on munitions, he invented the first chemical weapons. Haber oversaw the chlorine gas attack at Ypres in 1915 and later invented the cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B, which the Nazis used in the gas chambers. His wife and son both committed suicide, but half of humanity today is fed on products grown with the help of the Haber process. However, growing this food takes a great deal of energy: a kilogram of ammonium nitrate fertiliser consumes an equal amount of petroleum. The joint actions of a fertiliser, produced from air and natural gas, and machines that run on petroleum have liberated humanity from the threat of hunger. The inventions of Fritz Haber and Henry Ford carried the day over the fears of Malthus and Jevons.

Observing events, Keynes asserted that the prices of raw materials were more volatile – changing more abruptly and more frequently – than the prices of manufactured goods, which incorporate the regulated value of labour. In 1938, Keynes analysed the commodity prices over the previous ten years: the price of rubber was notoriously unstable, and every year it fluctuated, on average, by 96 per cent between maximum and minimum; but wheat also fluctuated by 70 per cent every year, and even cotton by 42 per cent. Keynes saw this volatility as a major evil. It could lead to a recession or war and should be averted by international control. For this purpose, in 1942 he proposed to create a new organisation under the auspices of the League of Nations, which he named the Commod Control. Referring to the ancient Chinese concept of the ‘ever-normal granary’, Keynes revealed the historical roots of his idea. The Commod Control would have been much more than a cartel; this organisation would have had its own storage facilities and special executive committees for every commodity – a rubber committee, a wheat committee, etc. These committees would have defined commodity prices, storage levels and national quotas; the price fluctuations would have been locked within 20 per cent, with price corridors reconsidered annually. The rest of the economy would have stayed free of administrative control. Essentially, Keynes was thinking about a bicameral economy, which would have kept a relatively free trade regime for wages (though they would have been controlled by trade unions) and the products of labour but would have established a global government run the primary commodities. Its ‘buffer stocks’ of raw materials would have prevented economic cycles. Responding to criticisms, Keynes agreed that his plan overlapped partially with what the Soviet and even the Nazi authorities proposed to do with the global economy if they had won their wars. 19

The Commod Control was never implemented, but Keynes’s predictions about the disastrous consequences of the Versailles Treaty were fulfilled. Hitler in his early days, while in prison in Munich, started to plan the colonisation of Poland and Ukraine. Deprived of her colonies and hungry for raw materials, Germany would have to acquire new ‘Lebensraum ’ – living space, colonial lands – in Eastern Europe. Hitler was particularly interested in grain. Even coal, also forfeited by Germany under the Versailles Treaty, worried him less than grain. In his early writings he barely mentioned oil, which would later define the course of his war. Hitler imagined himself the successor of Frederick the Great, patron of science and crafts. But he didn’t believe in science and, later, considered nitrogen fertilisers as some nonsense invented by Jews. He didn’t believe in trade either, thinking that this nonsense was invented by the British. ‘Our Mississippi will be the Volga, and not the Niger,’ said Hitler: the American method of acquiring Lebensraum by quick and brutal means was the ideal that was to be reproduced in the expanses of Eurasia. Appropriating the idea of internal colonisation developed under Bismarck, Hitler dreamt of a new frontier that German settlers would create in the centre of the continent. The Jews would be exterminated, while the Slavs in this internal America would be as submissive as the ‘Indians’. Supplying the fatherland with raw materials, German settlers would move the frontier further to the east as needed.

In the interwar period Germany did have resource difficulties that were created by the Versailles Treaty. Creating poverty and unemployment, the loss of the coal basins in the Ruhr, the shortage of metals and the food crisis helped Hitler’s rise to power. But his colonial vision was at odds with his own interests. 20 Even if he confiscated all stocks of Polish and Ukrainian wheat, they could not replace the other resources that were necessary for the German Reich – oil, rubber, cotton and much else. Direct rule over the Soviet expanses would have involved resettling millions of Germans there and supplying them with provisions. Meanwhile, right up to the very beginning of the German–Soviet war, the Soviet Union diligently supplied Germany with every possible sort of raw material – grain, timber, oil, fur, cotton, coking coal, iron ore, rare metals – in exchange for ready-made goods and weapons produced by German industries. Trade was free in the sense that the German and Soviet representatives chose goods, bargained and signed contracts on the basis of world prices. There is no doubt that Stalin provided Hitler with more resources than Hitler could have extracted from occupied territories. Until the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union and deprived themselves of their source of supplies, they had no grounds for a resource panic. Trade is cheaper than war, but dictators never understand that. Their panic is a false but self-fulfilling prophesy.


1 Beer, An Inquiry into Physiocracy ; Kaplan, Bread, Politics and Political Economy ; Martin, Dairy Queens ; Whatmore, Republicanism and the French Revolution .2 Røge, Economistes and the Reinvention of Empire ; Popkin, ‘Saint-Domingue, slavery, and the origins of the French Revolution’.3 Radishchev, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow , p. 157; emphasis added.4 Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe , p. 223; Røge, ‘Legal despotism and enlightened reform in the Îles du Vent’; Herencia, ‘Le séjour du physiocrate Lemercier de La Rivière en Russie’.5 Albertone, National Identity and the Agrarian Republic ; Albertone, ‘Physiocracy in the eighteenth-century America’.6 Keynes, ‘Thomas Robert Malthus’, in Collected Writings , Vol. 10, pp. 71–108, at p. 86.7 Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population , pp. 68, 114.8 Bashford and Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus .9 Said, ‘Jane Austen and empire’.10 Malthus, Principles of Political Economy , pp. 348–9.11 Ibid., 349–50.12 Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa , pp. 101–4.13 Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population , p. 373.14 Keynes, ‘Thomas Robert Malthus’, pp. 86, 88, 100.15 Jevons, The Coal Question , pp. 178–9.16 Ibid., p. 174.17 Keynes, ‘William Stanley Jevons’, in Collected Writings , Vol. 10, pp. 109–60, at p. 109.18 Keynes, ‘Thomas Robert Malthus’, p. 86.19 Keynes, ‘Commodity policy’, in Collected Writings , Vol. 27, pp. 105–200.20 Snyder, Black Earth .



Political economists argued about the relations between labour and capital, about consumption and accumulation, about property rights and the role of the state. They did not prepare us for the paradoxical effect of the resource economy – the vicious circle in which the state monopolises trade, regulates consumption and expands extraction. Ignoring economic theories, a resource-dependent state reinterprets the sphere of political action for its own benefit. What constitutes sovereign politics for this state goes well beyond disciplining its subjects and differentiating between friends and enemies. Its politics is about the relations between natural resources and human capital – shortage and surplus, exhaustion and renewal, nationalisation and sterilisation, geographical variability and platform shifts. Like a medieval king, such a country has two bodies, one corporeal and the other sacred: the first body is made up of its people, the second of commodities taken from nature. Merging and dividing these two bodies at will, the state develops its divine powers .



Human appropriation of energy began with technologies that used the sun for nourishment and the wind for movement. Sailing ships were far superior to ox carts, sleigh routes or camel caravans. Windmills crushed grain, and waterwheels turned the shafts of industrial machines. The renewable energy of water helped to master the Old World, the renewable energy of the wind enabled the discovery of the New World. But then the technologies of Northern Europe – the draining of marshland and the construction of canals – first revealed to the world the decisive significance of fossil energy.

Holland had a rather cold climate. In the celebrated canvases of the Dutch masters we see snowy, frozen canals: this was the Little Ice Age. These same canals brought warmth to the Dutch people. The country was densely populated, and there was no commercial timber left by the middle of the seventeenth century. In the process of draining fields and digging canals, millions of tons of peat were extracted, delivered to houses and factories, and burnt in stoves. This process led to a dramatic transformation of the natural environment.

In the Middle Ages this whole coastal area, extending dozens of kilometres inland from the sea – the Low Countries, as they are still called – was covered in peat bogs. Peat is the first stage of the long process by which coal and oil are created, and peatlands are comparatively recent formations, 5,000 or 10,000 years old. Decomposing in stagnant water, the remains of bog plants rotted above and below the surface, so that layers of peat built up in both directions – a metre above and several metres below sea level. It was a stable ecosystem, resistant to floods and droughts. The Dutch dug drainage channels, cut out the drying peat with spades, heaped it into wooden crates and put it under cover to dry out. Alternatively, boats trawled for peaty slush with nets. The slush was taken ashore and trampled on to squeeze out the water, a process a bit like kneading dough. The heat produced from burning a cubic metre of peat equals that of firewood. The ash from peat is superior to the ash from a wood fire; it contains a lot of phosphorous, and a mixture of peat ashes and manure makes one of the best fertilisers. The building of ports and canals, the deepening of waterways, the digging of ditches to drain the fields – all these activities yielded peat. On the slightly raised shores of the bogs, towns grew up, and narrow barges brought peat to them along these same canals. 1

Peat holds water like a sponge – 90 per cent of its volume is water. As the Dutch drained the water or let it evaporate, burnt the peat and returned the ash to the soil, they lowered the level of the land. Until the building of the canals the coastline was stable. The peat bogs were a habitat that was of little use to people, but their surface was above sea level. Flooding resulted from the draining of the peat bogs, and, the more draining went on, the more effort had to be invested in the prevention of flooding. Dykes to keep out the seawater were as essential as canals were to drain the freshwater. All these defences were built out of local materials: underneath the layer of peat was a stratum of clay, and the deepening of the canals led to the strengthening of the dykes – or the necessity of buttressing the dykes led to the digging of deeper canals. Windmills to pump water from the fields became a regular feature of the landscape from the fifteenth century onwards. But people continued to burn peat, with the result that the average level of the land surface dropped further and further below sea level. Disastrous floods cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Institutions for collective flood defences had already developed by the Middle Ages. Then the state took over these functions. From Rousseau onwards, philosophers used the flood defences in the Dutch countryside as a classic example of the necessity for communal solidarity, the social contract and the state. They were not aware that the reason for the flooding was not Nature’s perfidy but human action and the ‘tragedy of the commons’: if there are no ownership rights over a resource, in this case peat, people will exploit it to extinction – the resource’s and their own. In Holland, flooding was personified as the ‘waterwolf’. Creating and preserving property rights, Leviathan tamed the waterwolf. Taking responsibility for dykes, locks and embankments, the sovereign divided land and water. With its day and night watch, its joint-stock companies and myriad anonymous diggers, this bog civilisation destroyed its environment but created a prosperous society and a great culture.

In total, more than 6 million cubic metres of peat were extracted from the territory of the Netherlands. The scale of work on the land surface grew rapidly. After peat had been extracted, the soil had to be built anew; returning from the city markets, the peat cutters’ barges brought ashes, mixed with night soil. So, at almost no cost, people heated the towns, organised transportation between them, and created new fields. If there had been no peat in Holland, generating the equivalent amount of heat would have required 800,000 hectares of well-run forestry, a quarter of the territory of Holland today. If there had been no canals in Holland, the transportation of this firewood would have required so many horses that growing the oats to feed them would have taken up a third of the country. 2

Holland remained a peat-dependent country for a very long period. The Dutch imported some English coal, but only blacksmiths needed it. Dry peat can spontaneously ignite, and such fires are very difficult to extinguish. In order to store peat, elaborate safety rules, which amounted to a ritual, had to be observed. Dutch cleanliness and punctuality, which amazed foreign travellers, were part of this routine. Ubiquitous and unremarked, the peat industry hardly produced any taxes; in fact, peat extraction was destroying the arable fields that did produce taxation, and the state was alarmed. But grain for the towns was imported on a large scale, and the Dutch state shifted to the revenue from long-distance trade with its colonies and the Baltic lands. This brought about those peaceful, productive relations between the state and society that historians still find impressive today. A diffused, labour-intensive resource that needed no capital investment, peat shaped many features of Dutch culture and politics.

In spring and early summer, for roughly three months of the year, peasants and fishermen cut peat, while the rest of the year they worked at other trades. Cheap fuel enabled the growth of industry, which was based almost entirely on the heat processing of local and imported raw materials. Breweries, factories producing salt, soap and bricks, workshops for pottery, porcelain and glass, bakeries, smokeries and other enterprises were all fuelled by peat. Using the cheap energy of peat, Amsterdam became a centre for refining English sugar. Linen from all over Germany was bleached in Harlem. Dutch peat did not produce a sufficient temperature to replace charcoal in the foundries, but the charcoal was produced using peat. However, peat was not suitable as a fuel for steam engines – or if there had been peat-fuelled versions they would have been very unwieldy.

Regardless of wars and floods, the price of Dutch land rose, and this inspired investors. In the middle of the seventeenth century they financed the draining of several lakes in the north of Holland; the area of arable land in these provinces increased by a quarter. The money investors put into this project exceeded the total capitalisation of the Dutch East India and the Dutch West India companies combined. Internal colonisation required more investment than external – and in this case brought a large return. 3 England and Holland competed for power over the North Sea and the world’s oceans. Despite her huge reserves of coal, England lagged behind for a long time: peat provided the Dutch economy with twice as many kilojoules per head of population as coal provided in England. Preoccupied with self-sufficiency in food supplies, British rulers prevented the export of grain and limited its consumption. The Netherlands, in contrast, bought large consignments of Baltic grain, paying for them with exports which included goods such as pottery, glass and alcohol, all of which needed energy for their production. Combining cheap energy with expensive labour and free trade was the Dutch road to modernity.

Under the Dutch influence, dykes, canals, locks, and windmills became typical of many countries in Central and Northern Europe. Dutch experts drained bogs in Scotland and all across East Anglia. The Norfolk Broads were artificially created by the extraction of peat. The Cambridgeshire fenlands were drained by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden; then 160,000 hectares of land – a territory a little smaller than the whole of Holland – were ‘improved’. The English bogs contained less peat that the Dutch ones, but no other fuel was available for brick factories. In the seventeenth century, land reclamation specialists – mostly Dutch experts – worked all over Europe, from Italy to Muscovy. Dutch emigrants drained the bogs in Prussia, as they did around the Calvinist port of La Rochelle in France. Later, Catholics also carried out this work; money from the papacy paid for the draining of the Pontine Marshes, not far from Rome. Peat bogs extended far upstream in European rivers. Pomerania, Silesia and Courland were mostly marshland; the deltas of the Oder and the Vistula, where flourishing cities now stand, were impassable. Nearly the whole bed of the Rhine was remade to improve navigation and extract peat. The work on the Rhine was massive and transnational – it lasted two centuries and was carried out mostly by Polish workers under the direction of Dutch masters.

In 1730 the young Crown Prince Frederick, the elder son of the Prussian king, decided to escape the boredom of court life by fleeing with his lover, an army lieutenant, Hans Hermann von Katte. Bound for England, they were captured in Küstrin (today western Poland) and imprisoned for desertion. By order of the king, von Katte was beheaded in front of the prince; Frederick spent two months in the dungeon before begging forgiveness from his father. The king ordered his son to audit the local administration and learn ‘agriculture from the ground up’. This was how the future Frederick the Great first developed an interest in draining marshland. One of his first projects was the draining of the Oder’s banks: the main canal was designed by Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician whom Frederick had lured away from St Petersburg. In those decades leading up to the Seven Years’ War, the monarchs of Europe competed for the services of astronomers, statisticians and chemists. But there were few places where the testing of theory by practice had such a dramatic character as in hydraulic work. Only when war broke out was Frederick able to tear himself away from his enthusiasm for bogs. He saw the Dutch art of drainage as a victory of mind over matter, the embodiment of the Enlightenment: the Dutch engineers implemented on the ground what French writers preached on the page. ‘Whoever improves the soil, cultivates land lying waste and drains swamps is making conquests from barbarism,’ wrote Frederick to Voltaire. He settled 300,000 migrants from the east and west of Prussia on the reclaimed land that they had drained. Militant rationalism, which was hard to implement anywhere else, reigned supreme on land won back from water. 4 A regular grid of ditches divided the fields. New systems of crop rotation were introduced there. English sheep and Danish cattle grazed on the reclaimed meadows. The elimination of malaria in Europe and North America was a direct consequence of the draining of the marshland.

Frederick thoroughly documented the work carried out on the Prussian marshland. Soldiers built wooden causeways that allowed people to move about on the marshland; this was the risky part of the work. Dug to connect to the nearest river, a network of ditches and canals drained the land. When the quagmire had partly dried, soldiers removed the top layer of light-coloured peat. Black peat lay underneath; this was sliced, dried and taken to the town market. Schooners brought back sand; mixed with the white peat, it raised the level of the ground. Wheat or buckwheat could be sown into this mixture. In other cases, the half-drained bog was simply set on fire and crops were sown in the ashes. Gradually, villages – ‘bog colonies’, as they were officially called – grew up in these places. In fact, more than a few of the beautiful cities in the world have been built on reclaimed marshland: Venice, Cambridge, St Petersburg, Princeton, Shanghai, New Orleans …

For a long period when people lived off the fruits of the earth, marshland remained a no man’s land which belonged to the sovereign. When he decided to build a university or a capital city, situating it in the marshes was a questionable but politically sound decision. The building of St Petersburg was one of the most significant of these decisions. Despite the abundance of marshland, Russians did not manage the extraction of peat for very long. Scotsmen and Dutchmen drained the land on which St Petersburg stands; they were experts in peat, but there was no demand for it because of the unlimited availability of firewood. In 1759, Mikhail Lomonosov, the founder of Russian natural sciences, made a study of peat. Although he had been brought up in the marshes of the Arkhangelsk region, he wrote about peat as if it was an alien speciality: ‘peat is extracted from bogs with nets … and is used by the Dutch instead of firewood … It has given rise to an amusing proverb about merchants and manufacturers: whoever trades in peat sells his land, his fatherland.’ 5

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Alexander I invited Daniel Wheeler, an English Quaker farmer, to drain the marshland around St Petersburg. During the fifteen years he spent in Russia, Wheeler drained more than 100,000 acres of bog on the royal estates. But the industrial production of peat in the Russian Empire started only in the mid-nineteenth century. It reached a peak in the 1920s when the Bolsheviks were seeking local sources of energy for their electrification programme. Mussolini drained the malarial marshes in Lazio and Stalin drained them in Crimea. Performed by imperial states at the height of their powers, these were Herculean feats of internal colonisation. For some followers of Frederick the Great, the fact that the vast Polesie and Pripet marshes in northern Poland and Belarus were left undrained was evidence of the inability of a local population – Slavs and Jews – to carry out the civilising mission. Eliminating or enslaving this population would open the way to draining the marshes and colonising the land. This project was not entirely successful – there is still a lot of marshland in Europe. And it is likely that many more bogs will develop.

Peat remains the most widely distributed of energy resources: 3 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered in peat today. Moreover, it is a renewable resource, although it regenerates more slowly than forest. But we will no longer dry and burn peat. For each unit of energy, peat emits more carbon dioxide than coal and considerably more than oil. Untouched bogs are an active carbon sink, but once they are destroyed by extraction they emit carbon dioxide. Drained peatlands remain barren for decades, and they present a serious danger of fire. Large peat fires are impossible to extinguish; they burn for months, years and, sometimes, decades and produce tremendous amounts of smog and carbon.

Peat fields near Moscow have mostly been abandoned, but their fires produce noxious smogs that haunt the Russian capital. The most deadly occurred in August 2010 – people did not see the sun for weeks and the number of deaths exceeded the monthly average by a third. The deep-seated fire in the Shatura bog near Moscow, where the Bolsheviks started peat production in 1919 and continued for decades, has now been continuously burning for forty years. Peat fires have been also very damaging in South-East Asia. Globally, smouldering peat fires are responsible for 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, a figure roughly equal to the emissions from all the combustion engines on earth. 6 Peat production continues in Finland, Russia, Canada and some other northern countries, though the outputs are decreasing every year. In 2018 Ireland announced a ban on peat cutting, and the last peat-fuelled power station on the British Isles has switched to biomass.

But peat played its role in history. A pioneer of modernity, Holland could not have made its great leap forward without peat; and, without the Dutch setting the pace, England would not have made its rapid progress either. The founder of the golden age was not a great painter, or a banker, or an explorer but the humble skipper of a peat barge.


1 De Zeeuw, ‘Peat and the Dutch golden age’; Unger, ‘Energy source’; de Vries and de Zeeuw, Barges and Capitalism ; de Vries and van der Woude, The First Modern Economy .2 De Zeeuw, ‘Peat and the Dutch golden age’.3 TeBrake, ‘Taming the waterwolf’; Kaijser, ‘System building from below’; de Vries, The Dutch Rural Economy in the Golden Age .4 Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature , p. 45.5 Kopenkina, ‘Lomonosov o torfe’.6 Stracher et al., ‘Smoldering-peat megafires’.



Per unit of weight, the energy produced from coal is three times greater than from firewood; when a ton of coal – just a large pile – is burnt it produces roughly as much heat as firewood from an acre of forest. Coal is less of a fire hazard than peat, does not absorb water and thus does not need to be kept under cover. The burning of coal creates much higher temperatures, which are crucial for some tasks, but it also releases more impurities than firewood or even peat.

In England, coal had heated houses since Roman times. Dug from exposed seams or near the surface, it was not transported overland any further than quarried stone. In early modern England, it was called ‘sea coal’ – it always came to London by sea. From the pits and mines in northern England, flat-bottomed barges took coal along the River Tyne to Newcastle. Transhipped onto sailing vessels, it went down the east coast to the Thames. From 1550 to 1700, these shipments of coal increased at least twentyfold. The influx of Spanish silver led to dramatic inflation in London, but there was so much coal that its price did not increase: for a while, a peculiar equilibrium was established between the rising uses of silver and coal. The tonnage of English coal shipping exceeded the total tonnage of all the rest of the merchant fleet. The sailors who manned these ships formed the naval reserve in times of war. 1 Godforsaken parts of the country were seeing real money for the first time ever. Begun in open quarries, the extraction switched to mines; the costs grew, but so did the scale of the industry. Coal was compared to gold and the English countryside to Spanish colonies. As an anonymous author wrote in News from Newcastle in 1651:

England’s a perfect World! Has Indies too!

Correct your Maps: Newcastle is Peru! …

Let th’ naughty Spaniard triumph ’til ’tis told

Our sooty mineral purifies his gold. 2

The stability of coal prices was one of the great secrets of the British economy. The government was constantly preoccupied with maintaining grain prices, but coal prices were self-regulating. Coal production responded elastically to demand, and it all happened within the country – no customs were involved. Under pressure from the soaring price of firewood, almost all heat-dependent industries switched to coal – these included the manufacture of bricks, salt and soap, the burning of limestone, the refining of sugar and many other things. But breweries and forges were fuelled with charcoal; coal contained impurities that damaged metals and tainted beer. To produce 1 kilogram of pig iron required 8 kilograms of charcoal, for which 40 kilograms of firewood were needed. In the middle of the eighteenth century, British industry required about a million tons of firewood per year. Its price skyrocketed, and, although England and Scotland had excellent deposits of ore, they had to buy pig iron from Sweden and Russia.

In 1603, the aristocratic poet and naturalist Sir Hugh Platt proposed mixing coal dust and loam ‘according to the manner and making of snowballs’. In the fireplace, these balls looked ‘attractive’ and produced less ‘smoot’. Decades later, breweries in Derbyshire started using coke, which they produced by setting fire to heaps of coal mixed with clay; the new fuel was instrumental in the invention of pale ale and then cast iron. In 1709, Abraham Darby, a Quaker, first used coke for this purpose.

While blast furnaces were built taller and taller, coal mines were dug deeper and deeper. Groundwater had to be pumped out of them. From 1705 onwards, Thomas Newcomen, a Baptist preacher, found a way of pumping water up by burning coal under water-filled boilers. Steam rose, creating a vacuum in the boiler and drawing up the water from the mine. These ‘atmospheric engines’ used a lot of coal, but there was more than enough of that in the mines. In 1763 James Watt, the son of a Scottish shipwright, invented a more efficient engine. Watt created a laboratory at Edinburgh University and Adam Smith helped him in his negotiations with the administration. But there was no funding to develop the prototype. The project was finally realised when the silver manufacturer Matthew Boulton went into a business partnership with Watt. Their engines were very large; each one required a separate building with solid foundations several metres deep because any shift could put the engine out of action. In addition, all these steam pumps depended on a flow of river water to supply the boilers. According to the patent, Watt and his investor would receive a third of the coal which each machine saved. One of the explanations for the success of the Industrial Revolution is that England had established a patent law that enabled inventors to be generously rewarded. Unfortunately, Watt’s life leaves no room for illusions. He died a wealthy man, but, without Boulton and his mint, Watt would not have been able to register his patent. The creator of the first locomotive, George Stephenson, was the son of a fireman who had worked on a steam pump in one of the Northumbrian coal mines. His father was blinded in a mining accident, and probably this experience prompted George to come up with his first invention – a miner’s lamp which could burn without causing an explosion. In 1814 Stephenson mounted on wheels an improved version of the steam pump his father had looked after. All his technical experience was connected with coal mines, and the locomotive’s inaugural task was to transport coal from the mine to the river.

Water power

For heating, coal was irreplaceable; but steam engines powered by coal were in competition with an older source of energy – the waterwheel. Invented in Asia, the waterwheel was used there to raise water and irrigate the fields. The use of water energy in the processing of matter was the greatest difference between the European economy and its oriental rivals – China, India and the Islamic Levant. Joined by a shaft to a waterwheel, wooden mechanisms raised water, milled grain, sawed timber, cut and polished stone. Waterwheels raised ore from the mines, crushed it, powered bellows for smelting furnaces, and hammered metal. Complex machines powered by waterwheels spun and wove fibre. As early as 1086, the Domesday Book, a survey of all the landed property in England, recorded 6,000 waterwheels. These watermills were very expensive structures. The wheel was not particularly complicated – it was the hydraulic technology needed for directing water onto the wheel that was tricky. A weir raised the level of the water and flooded the land upstream. Circumventing the dam, a narrow wooden trough, a ‘mill race’, channelled water onto the wheel. Cogwheels converted the movement of the wheel into the back and forth movements of bellows, saws or hammers. The huge construction creaked, shook and swayed. But the wooden wheels could function for as much as twenty years and were more reliable than the first steam-powered machines. Their disadvantage was their dependence on the water level in the river and therefore on climate, season and the lie of the land.

Many of these mills have survived – they were built to last. Situated on river banks and ponds in the centres of our busy – formerly industrial – towns, most of them have been converted into much loved residences. But, in fact, the majority of watermills were floating. One or two wheels were installed on a barge which was moored by rapids, and a mill of this type could grind wheat or saw planks for a decade. Cheaper than fixed mills, they didn’t need dams and didn’t depend on the water level.

Even a simple mill for grinding grain released fifty to sixty people, principally women, from exhausting manual labour. Transforming the economy, mills, with their dams, ponds, locks and aqueducts, also changed the ecology. One piece of land was flooded, a second drained, a third turned into swamp. New towns sprang up on fields and forests around the factories. Producing dry, tradable commodities with a minimal investment of labour, such mills were centres for the concentration of capital. Prepared to invest large sums and wait for long-term returns, powerful landowners, for example monasteries, turned their lands and rivers into sources of capital. From Strasbourg to Bologna and from Tampere to Luhansk, many inland European towns owed their rapid growth to water-powered factories.

Waterwheels could not be stopped. This was a big advantage of steam engines: they could be stopped and then started again at will. But these steam engines were equally dependent on the river flow, which supplied water for their boilers. During the course of one whole century, factories used steam engines merely to supplement waterwheels: engines maintained the water level in the dry season by pumping water back to the mill pond, while the machines were still driven by waterwheels. Right on the eve of the transition to steam, the Scottish hydraulic engineer Robert Thom created radically new projects which could have increased the power of water-driven factories by an order of magnitude. His designs were intended to hold water in huge reservoirs in the upper reaches of major rivers and channel it by aqueducts to man-made storage ponds; dozens of factories would have been built lower downstream. These dams and aqueducts did not constitute an alternative to coal energy; in fact, they were feasible only thanks to local coal – it could fire an unlimited number of bricks. Thom intended to change the course of the Clyde and planned several other large dams. His projects were discussed in Parliament and in the London newspapers, but there was no appetite for them. These projects presupposed a profound reworking of the property laws. * Reservoirs and aqueducts were conceived as corporate possessions under government control, leasing water and land to private producers. 3

The ‘invisible hand’ which led to the development of capitalism was of another breed. Industrial capitalism was not created for such experiments; on the contrary, it strived to free itself from the control of both nature and the state. The factory owners preferred steam engines. They were expensive and unreliable sources of energy, but they were in private ownership. As happened with other resource shifts, the victory of steam engines over watermills came for political – not economic – reasons. By the middle of the nineteenth century steam engines had displaced obsolete waterwheels in the production of all important commodities, from coal to textile to metals, and the goods made from them.

Ghost acres

By 1700, more than 2 million tons of coal had been extracted in England, Scotland and Wales, and coal provided half of all the energy consumed in the country. By 1850, coal extraction was thirty times higher, and its share in the energy balance reached 90 per cent. This exponential growth was comparable to similar explosions in the consumption of sugar and cotton. Brought from either underground or overseas, these new commodities created millions of ‘ghost acres’, as Pomeranz called these – virtual but vital – land appropriations. The energy output of a mine per square foot of its surface area is hundreds of times greater than the output of the best farm or plantation. With unprecedented efficiency, coal-fired, coke-smelted products of British industry were traded for food, timber, metals and oil, and also for foreign labour and knowledge. In 1865 Jevons wrote: ‘Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country – the universal aid – the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times.’ 4

Coal was the real bedrock of the Industrial Revolution; it could still have happened without coal, but it would have been very different. Coal is a topical resource that required little land but much labour and capital. Thanks to them, a limited number of mines, concentrated in only a few counties, allowed two-thirds of the British Isles to be used for agriculture and the growth of towns. If all the heating energy expended in 1750 had been provided by firewood, it would have used up 4.3 million acres of coppiced woods, or 13 per cent of British territory; in 1850, it would have required firewood from 150 per cent of this territory. 5 It is possible, of course, that some of the firewood could have been brought from across the North Sea. But then England would have been very different. Instead of controlling the price of grain and encouraging manufacture, the efforts of the state would have been focused on the protection of forests, at home and overseas, and probably on nationalising them. The growth of the population and, in particular, the growth of towns would have been checked in just the way Malthus foresaw. Colonial efforts and imperial wars would have been conducted not in the southern seas but in the near north – in Scandinavia, Prussia and Russia. This would have been a different empire – not mercantile but cameral. Protecting the forests from its own and foreign subjects, it would have relied not on the invisible hand of the market but on a police state, similar to the governments in those German princely states which depended mainly on their forests. Coal played an indirect but decisive role both in the deforestation of land and in the emancipation of labour. Coppicing is very laborious: without coal, millions of people would have been busy collecting brushwood and cutting wood, and thousands with guarding or replanting trees. Without coal, the increasing British dependency on imported grain would have been unaffordable.

But there was coal. Extraction was increasing, but the proven reserves were increasing even more rapidly. Jevons, who knew all about coal, got one thing wrong: coal did not run out – in fact, it never will run out. Coal-powered engines changed life on five continents. The railways played the same role for coal as sailing ships played for sugar and tankers play for oil: they were the defining element of a mono-resource economy. All sectors of industry that processed raw material into goods – metal, textiles, pottery, chemicals, food – went over to steam. Powered by coal, new locomotives and ships carried coal and goods that were produced thanks to coal. Machines became increasingly efficient, but they consumed increasing quantities of coal; Jevons’s paradox was working at full strength. The next breakthrough was the production of electricity from coal-fuelled power stations. One of the last victories of man over nature, this liberated his energy from any dependency on location. Another victory was the switch back from deep mines to modern quarries – open cast mining – which made the extraction of coal cheaper and safer for men but even more costly for nature. With coal, capitalism scored some of its biggest wins but also created its most thorny problems, social and ecological.

Coal-powered steam engines brought about a military revolution on the railways and the high seas. Bloody wars in the coal era raged for many reasons, and not necessarily for coalfields themselves; but the preponderance of steam-driven ships was equivalent to possessing superiority of firearms in medieval times. Although bigger and faster, steamships did not have the same autonomy as sailing ships. The British Royal Navy possessed coaling stations for refuelling their steamships everywhere from Ceylon to Florida. This imperial solution created new problems. Coaling stations were vulnerable to attacks from the mainland. Coal deliveries were at risk from protest action in mining towns. The strategic decision to switch the Royal Navy to oil was taken by Winston Churchill when he was first lord of the Admiralty. Oil gave more speed and autonomy to ships but meant they had to rely on oil supplies from Persia, Pennsylvania or Baku. On the eve of the First World War, the Germans were building new destroyers with four engines, two powered by coal and two by oil. The British approach was simply to add oil to coal, mixing the two fuels in the firebox. Either way, it was a tricky balance between exotic oil, supplied by foreign lands, and domestic coal, which was in the hands of the unreliable miners. Neither fuel was guaranteed; but the risks were different, and hedging bets was a winning strategy.


Coal mining fuelled the Industrial Revolution but was less affected by it than many other industries, or even farming. The productivity of miners rose very slowly. In the seventeenth century, an English miner hewed and carried to the surface 200 tons of coal per year. By 1913, when extraction was at its absolute maximum in Great Britain, the average productivity equalled 260 tons per year. The productivity per head of British farmers during this time quadrupled. For all the capital investment and technological ingenuity, miners’ labour did not lend itself to the specialisation which would have guaranteed growth in productivity, measured per person.

The area to the west of Birmingham was known as the Black Country; it was completely smothered in coal dust and soot. Friedrich Engels, who visited English mines in the early 1840s, wrote: ‘The working-man lies on his side and loosens the coal with his pick; … The women and children who have to transport the coal crawl upon their hands and knees, fastened to the tub by a harness and chain (which frequently passes between the legs), while a man behind pushes with hands and head.’ 6 The miners worked in small groups, cut off from communication with the surface. A mistake by a fellow worker could lead to your own death. Though life at sea was no less dangerous, sailors felt more in control of their situation. Fear and co-dependence fostered a feeling of solidarity among workers, which was stronger in the mines than in any other industry. A textile entrepreneur, Engels had more involvement with textile workers, but he admired the collective activities he observed among the English miners. Nevertheless, he found the cradle of the workers’ movement in the Lancashire textile factories rather than in the mines of the Black Country. The Communist Manifesto refers not to mines but to factories, and its authors saw the proletariat as made up of factory workers. But if there was a spectre haunting Europe, it was the spectre of a miner.

Alfred Marshall, the father of economic geography, explained the advantage of the great industrial agglomerations by the economy of scale: the bigger they were, the more efficiently they worked and the cheaper the manufactured goods. The growth of these new towns benefited from a common labour market, the exchange of knowledge and shared delivery routes; but their location was defined largely by the sources of raw materials. By weight, more coal is needed to produce a unit of metal than ore; therefore ore was brought to the coalfields rather than the other way around. The metal-producing complexes in the Ruhr, Silesia, the Donbas, Pennsylvania, the lower Urals grew up next to coal mines. Later, refineries and petrochemical industries grew up in the same coal-based centres rather than moving closer to the oilfields. Without city walls or embankments, these coal-and-metal agglomerations developed differently from old towns. Dominating the industrial world, they never became capital cities. The authorities stayed with their old fiscal-military capitals, avoiding too close a contact with coal and colliers: it was better to keep at a distance from them, dirty and restless as they were.

Every continent had its coal mines, and almost all coal was used domestically. It was delivered from the mines to the factories but was rarely transported over long distances. In this, coal was very different from colonial raw materials, such as sugar and cotton, and from oil and natural gas. The new protectionist economy of the late nineteenth century, in which both wealth and population were enclosed within national borders – the ideal of Friedrich List, Otto Bismarck and Sergei Witte – was based on coal. But the labour-intensive coal industry lent itself to organised political activity in which workers themselves played a leading role – strikes, unions and social-democratic movements. In England the organisation of trade unions in place of the old guilds occurred first among the miners and then among the textile workers; miners spent the greatest number of days per year on strike, followed by metal workers and then textile workers. The geography of coal, distributed throughout the northern hemisphere – at least one or two coalfields in every large country – made the great political societies dependent on mining centres. Their geography localised social relations; while the working class was concentrated in Birmingham, the Ruhr, the Donbas and Pennsylvania, the business and bureaucratic elite widened its influence in London, Berlin, St Petersburg and New York. Never before – neither in the era of sea trade nor in the era of water-powered factories – had the political powers in the capitals been so vulnerable to social activism in the national or colonial peripheries. Concentrated in mining and industrial agglomerations, the organised proletariat acquired a unique source of political power: the strike.

The strike of 1842 in Great Britain was one of the first such occurrences in history – and one of the largest. The action started among the miners and spread to the textile workers. Half a million workers joined in the action – one in every two workers. The strike was broken by force: the authorities used arms against the strikers, and 1,500 of them were arrested. In 1844, 40,000 coal miners again went on strike, leaving Newcastle without coal. These strikes played a pivotal role in the development of the Chartist movement – the organised struggle by miners and industrial workers for democratic rights. In 1908, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain won the right to an eight-hour working day for all underground workers. 7

As mines went deeper, they became more dangerous. In 1896 the roof of the Twin Shaft Colliery in Pittston, Pennsylvania, caved in, with the loss of fifty-eight workers, most of them recent immigrants. The following year the colliers at the Pennsylvania mine of Lattimer, also migrants from Eastern Europe, went on strike. The local sheriff gave the order to open fire and nineteen miners were killed. These events strengthened the United Mine Workers, the most important organisation of its kind in America. In 1902, American miners went on strike for six months. In 1905, miners’ strikes stopped production in the Ruhr Basin in the German Empire and the Donetsk Basin in the Russian Empire. In 1906, there was a disaster in the Courrières coal mine in France, when more than a thousand miners died in an explosion; a general strike followed in Paris. The greatest disaster of all happened in 1942 in the Benxihu mine in China, which killed 1,500 people.

The Mitchell thesis

The political scientist Timothy Mitchell sees the industrial reliance on coal as the key to understanding the social-democratic movement which defined the politics of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. There were four factors involved in the miners’ active role in the class struggle, and these arose from the natural characteristics of coal. 8 Seams of coal are found near the surface only in a small number of coalfields. The labour-intensive task of extraction concentrates the workers round the mine. The difficulty of transporting coal brings ancillary trades close to the mines, thus increasing the concentration of the proletariat. The nature of the work in the mines fosters a sense of solidarity and autonomy among the workers. In his remarkable book Carbon Democracy , Mitchell asserts that the different forms of fossil fuel have different political characteristics. The energy switch from coal to oil determined the political switch from social democracy to neoliberalism. Mitchell’s empirical examples are limited to Great Britain and the Middle East; his conclusions need to be tested in Eastern Europe, Russia and China and on a broader range of different kinds of carbon fuel – coal, oil, gas and shale.

Miners were the first to call national strikes, but revolutions happened far away from them, in the capital cities. Still, the miners’ power to block coal supplies brought to a halt railways, power stations and arms factories. In 1926, the British Trades Union Congress called a general strike in which 1 million miners stopped work. Nevertheless, coal prices were falling, leading to redundancies and unemployment. The Second World War increased the demand for all kinds of raw material; then there was a new slump. One of the reasons for both world wars was the conflict over the Ruhr Basin – a gigantic cluster of coal mines and industrial towns in the border region between France and Germany. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the Ruhr was put under international control, but in 1923 it was again occupied by French troops. Without raw materials German industry ground to a halt; the country was afflicted with hyperinflation. In 1936, Nazi troops occupied part of the Ruhr: thus the new war began. At the end of the war France nationalised its coal industry, including the occupied Ruhr. In 1951, thanks to an initiative by Jean Monnet, the éminence grise of European integration, the French government proposed to create a European Coal and Steel Community. In order to make war ‘not merely unthinkable but materially impossible’, the new body took direct control over the Ruhr. Realising Keynes’s old ideas in the long-suffering centre of European industry, this transnational organisation took responsibility for raw materials, leaving ready-made goods to private or national players. The Coal and Steel Community originally had six member countries; then it turned into the Common Market and then into the European Union. The Ruhr Basin was the cradle of new post-war Europe, and joint control over raw materials became the primary purpose and justification of the Union. 9 The age of oil has changed this perspective.

In 1946 the new Labour government nationalised the British coal industry. The new state monopoly was vast – it included almost a thousand mines, employing 800,000 men. The planned economy increased output, but the demand for coal was falling because of competition from oil. Run by electricity, new mining machines increased the productivity of each worker, and at the beginning of the 1970s the number of miners fell threefold. Between 1984 and 1985 many pits downed tools in protest against colliery closures, leading to the longest miners’ strike in Britain’s history. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the miners ‘the enemy within’; her allies were oil and gas, which had been discovered off the North Sea coast. The ‘Dutch disease’ would soon follow, but meanwhile the sun set on the social-democratic age of coal, and the neoliberal age of oil dawned.

The resource switch turned out to be difficult, but those who had dreamt of ridding themselves of coal and miners were lucky with oil and oilmen. From 1981 onwards, Great Britain exported more oil than it imported. Oil and gas improved the balance of trade, reviving long-forgotten mercantile ideas. Unlike the coal industry, with its ever-present unions and long-term contracts, the oil industry thrived on free trade. As ships switched to diesel fuel and power stations to gas, mines were privatised or closed; the last deep mine in England closed in 2015. The mining towns of Great Britain have become some of the poorest places in Europe.

The mines and miners played a leading role in the liberation movement in Eastern Europe. The key moment in Solidarity’s struggle in Poland was the 1981 strike in the Silesian mine of Wujek, which ended with the shooting of demonstrators – nine miners were killed. The first legal strike in Soviet history occurred in 1989 among miners in the Kuznetsk Basin in Siberia. When ‘reforms’ failed, miners were more active and cohesive than other workers. But no strike can prevent an economic slump. Having oil and gas as alternatives, the government could ignore the threats of the miners and, moreover, squeeze their whole industry until their power was undermined and forgotten.

Nowadays, coal is extracted mostly from open pits; working on the surface is less labour-intensive and less dangerous but causes more damage to the environment. Open pits have changed the tradition of mining collectives: no danger underground, no solidarity on the surface; no solidarity, no strikes; no strikes, no power. In the 2010s, coal produced about a third of the energy harnessed by humankind, but it is responsible for fully half of carbon emissions. Per unit of energy, coal emits much more carbon than does oil or gas. Mines and coal power plants also produce more pollution than almost any other industry, and this pollution is connected to the aerosol spread of viruses; in 2020, mining areas of Poland, for example, suffered much more severely from COVID than other regions. Produced largely by coal, our ecological crisis continues the miners’ strikes by other means, and of course the earth’s strike will be more effective. By 2015 the coal sector of the American economy had already lost three-quarters of its capitalisation. Eurasia still depends on coal, but things are changing. Great Britain has pledged to close all its coal-fired power stations by 2025, and Germany, by 2038. It has been calculated that, in order to keep global warming within its internationally agreed limits, 92 per cent of the known deposits of coal will never be extracted or burnt.



1 Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution .2 Nef, ‘An early energy crisis and its consequences’.3 Malm, Fossil Capital ; Reynolds, Stronger than a Hundred Men .4 Jevons, The Coal Question , p. vii.5 Pomeranz, The Great Divergence ; Jones, Agriculture and the Industrial Revolution ; de Vries, European Urbanization .6 Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 , p. 248.7 Gregory, The Miners and British Politics .8 Mitchell, Carbon Democracy .9 Gillingham, Coal, Steel, and the Rebirth of Europe ; Milward, The Reconstruction of Western Europe .



Oil’s main difference from coal is that it is a liquid. Trade is movement, the overcoming of friction, and the resistance of liquids is less than the friction of solid bodies. This is why a calorie of oil energy takes less human labour to produce than a calorie of coal energy. Hundreds or even thousands of people worked in a coal mine – an oilfield needs only dozens or hundreds at most. Thanks to the liquid state of oil, workers stay on the surface to pump it. The oilman’s job is not necessarily less dangerous than the miner’s, but he is more subject to control, more visible, less autonomous. Unlike miners, oilmen rarely go on strike. Working in small teams in remote places, they can easily be replaced.

Petroleum doesn’t absorb moisture or putrefy and can be stored for decades. But it is highly inflammable, and there is always a risk of leaks, spills and fires. Safeguarding the oilfields, pipelines, storage reservoirs and refining factories is of the utmost importance. The price of oil depends not on its production cost but on its protection cost, which includes securing its extraction, transportation and distribution. Whereas in the coal economy the main player was the miner and the main threat was a strike, in the oil and gas economy the main player is the security guard and the main threat is a terrorist attack.

A third feature of oil is that it has always been found far from centres of population – in mountains or deserts, in marshlands or under the sea. This is very different from widely distributed coal, which lent itself to competitive markets that could not be monopolised. By contrast, the extremely uneven distribution of petroleum round the globe favours corporate monopolies, international cartels and, ultimately, entire states which specialise in oil production. The twentieth century was the century of oil, and it translated the geographical unevenness of oil into financial concentration and economic inequality. As the ever-growing flows of petroleum converged with ever-increasing streams of money, the states and banks of the world were more and more dependent on the state and banks of the powerful rivers of capital that had their sources in the oil wells. The abundance of oil, its uneven distribution and the addictive character of its consumption created the optimal conditions for steady economic growth – an ideal combination of the growing production and the growing prices of the chosen commodity. Oil shaped a group of ultra-rich entrepreneurs whom I call oiligarchs . Economic developments on this scale needed and supported the transformation of oil-bearing territories into petrostates . 1 I wish to emphasise this radical transformation of statehood into an oil-pumping Leviathan – a live monster which, as Marx said, converts ‘living labour with dead substance … into value big with value’.

Fountains and pipes

Every country in the world consumes oil, but very few countries extract it. Therefore most oil, unlike coal, has always been exported. Since 1859, when the first borehole was drilled, tens of thousands of oilfields have been found around the world. Few of them are commercially viable, and these productive deposits are nearly all found on the distant peripheries of the world’s empires, which shaped their borders much earlier while pursuing other resources.

Oil gives to mankind with one hand and takes away with the other. Across the countries of the planet, the correlation between consumption of oil per capita and various indicators of human development (education, life expectancy, etc.) is very high. But the correlation between the level of oil extraction and human development is negligible or negative. On average, the citizen of a ‘developed’ country consumes ten times more oil than the inhabitant of a ‘developing’ country. Much oil extraction, however, occurs in ‘developing’ countries, which supply oil to their ‘developed’ partners. This trade is huge: counted in dollars, the volume of the oil trade is ten times larger than the volume of the gold trade and much larger than the trade in any other single commodity. Globally, the presence of oil in a country doubles the likelihood of civil war and increases the likelihood of an authoritarian regime. 2

The First World War did not start because of oil, but supplies of petroleum brought about its end. In the Second World War, oil was one of the chief spoils. The Cold War redistributed oil rent from private producers to state ownership, and the big oil-producing regions in the Middle East, Africa and South America turned into trouble spots. Nowadays, most oil is extracted from deposits in state ownership: ‘conventional oil’ is mostly state oil. Paradoxically, the biggest trade on the global capitalist market has been executed not by private entrepreneurs but by states. The formation of OPEC, the cartel which owns four-fifths of the world’s oil reserves, offered a unique opportunity for creating a global trade monopoly. A combination of a monopoly on violence – a constituent feature of the modern state – with a monopoly on energy has given the members of OPEC an unprecedented power in world affairs. 3 Only their internal and mutual disagreements – the imperfect character of both monopolies – have diminished this power.

Oil is used mostly as a source of energy, and oil-fuelled vehicles have massively improved the efficiency of many human activities, from war to work to play. But oil is also the raw material for making plastic, synthetic fibre, fertiliser and much else. Out of every fifteen barrels of crude oil, one is used in the chemical industry and the rest is consumed as fuel. But finding oil, extracting it and delivering it to the consumer itself requires energy, a proportion of what is extracted. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, that proportion has risen from 1 per cent to 20 per cent. Moreover, all stages of the process give off carbon dioxide. The useful work achieved per unit of emissions has fallen by a factor of twenty. Like the production of other raw materials, oil extraction is subject to the law of diminishing returns. When oil fountains shut down, petroleum had to be pumped up from deeper and deeper wells. When the wells were exhausted, the remaining fuel had to be pressed out from its deposits by tremendously complex techniques. Then, ‘non-conventional’ sources were found such as shale and oil sand. As the quality of petroleum went down, it underwent ever more complex procedures of refining. But, as long as the prices of fuel were going up, the oil industry continued to expand.

Oil is linked to natural gas, with the huge difference that oil is liquid and gas is a gas. It is difficult to store, much more so than oil. For this reason, gas used to be traded just as if it were a perishable product. Impossible to transport by sea, gas remained an inland commodity. Traded via a fixed network of pipelines, it was sold on the basis of long-term, guaranteed contracts. This made natural gas ideal for a planned economy. Free markets preferred oil. Gas was the right fit for socialism just as oil was for capitalism. The new technologies for liquefying gas have changed these conditions, and gas has changed its political characteristics. Since liquid gas can now be stored, it can be traded as required, its price can be defined ‘on the spot’, and it is a market commodity just like coal or oil. Liquid gas is more expensive than oil but less harmful – it releases fewer emissions when burnt. This makes their futures different: the consumption of gas will rise while the consumption of oil will fall.

Farflung corners

Playing with fire, people have always been fascinated by exotic places where inflammable oil flowed out of the earth, or where they found a hissing jet of natural gas. The first oil-processing works started in a remote corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – in eastern Galicia. In 1854, the pharmacist Ignatius Lukashevich discovered how to use oil instead of whale blubber for lamps. Local oil was abundant – he just needed wells, but his refining workshops were quite sophisticated. However, Galicia was as remote from the consumer as Arabia or Siberia. Until the authorities brought the railway there, kerosene had nowhere to go. But labour was so cheap that even lighting local villages earned profits. Lukashevich used these profits to help finance the Polish uprising of 1863 against the Russian Empire. In 1880, Emperor Franz Joseph visited Galicia. He was probably surprised to see a problem which has plagued the oil industry ever since then: overproduction.

Accustomed to dark nights, the world enjoyed using kerosene illumination after the bloody wars of the mid-nineteenth century. The first oilmen were radical utopians. In Trinidad, there was a lake of bitumen which pirates used to caulk their ships. In the 1850s, Conrad Stollmeyer, a German from Ulm, thought up a way of producing kerosene from this bitumen. He used kerosene as lamp fuel and also burnt it, in combination with cane waste, to boil sugar sap. Stollmeyer dreamed of liberating the black workers from their toil on the plantations but succeeded only in helping the plantation owners become even richer. They lost their battles, Stollmeyer and Lukashevich, and failed to liberate toiling people. However, their inventions did save thousands of whales. 4

In 1858 an oil boom began in Pennsylvania. Benjamin Silliman, a professor of chemistry from Yale, successfully adapted coal-fuelled engines, which had previously been used for salt brine, to pump oil. Lit with smokeless lamps, American cities devoured kerosene. With extraction booming, everyone expected that the supply would run out. But there was oil aplenty, so much so that the bubble burst and prices fell. Hundreds of entrepreneurs offloaded their oilrigs, which were nearly all bought by John D. Rockefeller. By 1890 his Standard Oil Company controlled 91 per cent of American output. The journalist Ida Tarbell, whose father had been ruined by the new monopoly, took the oil baron to court. Theodore Roosevelt called her a ‘muckraker’, a label which stuck to a generation of radical journalists. Woodrow Wilson supported her – he did not like monopolies. In 1911 the Supreme Court broke Standard Oil up into thirty-four independent entities. 5

The refining of oil into lamp fuel also started on the Absheron peninsula, where the city of Baku now stands. Oil had been always collected from wells and burnt in clay lamps there. In the 1860s Vasily Kokorev, another talented entrepreneur from the Pomor community of Old Believers, took an interest in the oil of Baku. With his experience of salt production, he was the first man to use drilling technology there. In 1873 he drilled his first ‘spouter’, which reached a height of 60 metres. Working with the young chemist Dmitry Mendeleev, the future creator of the Periodic Table of Elements, Kokorev mastered the process of distilling kerosene from oil. The distilling tanks were heated over oil flames and were situated right next to the oil spouters. Every four buckets of oil produced one bucket of kerosene; the residue was poured into the sea. Fires were frequent and impossible to extinguish. Kokorev felt that the expansion of his business was limited by the system of ‘farming out’ – long-term leases on parcels of oil land. By handing out bribes in the capital, Kokorev was able to change the regulations, and Baku moved to sales by auction. The workers’ conditions remained atrocious but wages were high. Three-quarters of the workforce were migrants. In 1888 Alexander III came to Baku, following the example of Franz Joseph in Galicia. In a decade, more than half of world oil would come from Baku, but the imperial government in St Petersburg was strangely inactive. The historian Alexander Fursenko has demonstrated that the Ministry of Finance in distant St Petersburg was interested less in the proceeds from Baku oil than in state loans. 6 The competing oil barons of England and America were behind these loans as well, and the game was complex.

This corner of the empire was too remote. Transporting kerosene from Baku to St Petersburg cost twice as much as transporting it from Pennsylvania. Imposing a high tariff on American kerosene, the Russian Customs Law of 1876 evened out the price difference. Still, on their way from Baku to the capital, oak barrels of kerosene had to be carried over the mountains by oxen, then across the sea by ship, then along the Volga by barge, and then follow the way of grain across the old imperial canals (see chapter 2 ). Mendeleev lobbied for the Baku–Batumi oil pipeline, which would transfer oil refining to densely populated southern Russia, but the government preferred to build a railway, which would also have military use. The ensuing debate between oilmen and officials delayed the pipeline for decades. 7 Everyone who was anyone in oil came to Baku, and the companies of Rothschild and Rockefeller competed with the locals for access to oil. Buying up shares and parcels, giving bribes and playing politics, most of them spent decades growing the same rapacious business – the exporting of kerosene and the pouring away of the oil residue.

A family of Russian entrepreneurs of Swedish origin, the Nobels, established their first refinery in Baku in 1876. The father had been making equipment for the Russian Navy for decades, and three sons inherited his business in St Petersburg. In 1873, Robert Nobel went to the Caucasus to purchase walnut timber for a new model of rifle but spent his funds instead on buying oil parcels. By 1916, the Nobel Brothers company, Branobel, controlled a third of Russian oil and the largest private fleet in the world. They transported kerosene across the Caspian Sea on tankers – the first was named Zoroaster – and then up the Volga. 8 Working for the Nobels, the brilliant Russian engineer Vasily Shukhov was the first to use the residue left after the production of kerosene. After a trip to the International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures in Philadelphia in 1876, he invented an injection nozzle that allowed steam engines to run on oil fuel. Thanks to his inventions, ships and locomotives in southern Russia used oil instead of coal. This was a sign of progress: nowhere else was oil used so widely.

The population of Baku – the Caucasian Eldorado – swelled thanks to the influx of people, who lived cheek by jowl and ran their ethnic businesses. The Russians and Germans operated oil derricks, the Armenians and various Europeans controlled trade, and the Muslim Azerbaijanis worked as unskilled labourers. The Russian administration, led by a Georgian governor, reined in over-energetic Armenians. Social-democratic propaganda circulated in the oilfields. A young Georgian, who went by the undercover name of Stalin, led the agitation. In December 1904, he took part in a successful strike by oil workers: dozens of rigs on Nobel’s oilfields were set on fire, and the employers agreed to a nine-hour working day. Stalin later wrote, tongue-in-cheek: ‘Thanks to the strike, a certain order was established, a certain “constitution”.’

In 1888 the young Calouste Gulbenkian, a graduate of King’s College London, arrived in Baku. He was hired by Alexander Mantashev – a flamboyant Armenian millionaire who toured his oilfields on horseback and distributed cash without dismounting; he was also celebrated for the orgies which he held all over Europe. A refugee from the Armenian massacres, Gulbenkian went on to start up his own oil companies and sell them on. Each time he founded a company – Shell, Total and others – he retained 5 per cent ownership. ‘Better to have a little piece of a big pie than a big piece of a little pie,’ he used to say. Acting as middleman, he was able to create an oil empire of his own. The title of his recent biography, like that of Jakob Fugger, includes the phrase the World’s Richest Man . 9

With the demand for oil increasing every year, Baku was booming. But in 1905 bloody conflicts broke out between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Hundreds of people died every day in street fighting, the governor was killed, and thousands of families fled from the town. The events in Baku coincided with strikes by factory workers in St Petersburg – they laid the ground for the first Russian revolution. In August 1905, a spectacular fire broke out in Baku, and most of the oilfields and refineries went up in flames. The export of kerosene from Russia halved, tax receipts dwindled, and even the bread supply to the Russian capital was under threat. The pipeline to the Black Sea finally opened in 1906 – its sponsor was Alexander Mantashev, the kerosene king. The Rothschilds’ Caspian company also extended its railway to the Black Sea. It so happened that the delivery routes opened at exactly the moment when production fell dramatically – the oilfields had been largely destroyed by fire or sabotage.

The unrest in Baku continued. The oil colony was turning into the empire’s gravedigger. The Donets coal basin also saw a powerful strike that turned into an armed uprising. Sprawling, overpopulated Baku was like the mining towns of the Donbas, but the bloody chaos there was different. The miners took part in the general strike and revolution of 1905 that led to the creation of the Russian Parliament. Destructive and isolated, the Baku events were provoked largely by ethnic conflicts, local propaganda and the vicious circle of violence. But it was actually Baku rather than Moscow or the Donbas that was the cradle of Soviet power.

In 1910, Stalin escaped from northern exile and returned to Baku. A fellow Georgian, Lavrenty Beria, started a clandestine organisation in the Nobel brothers’ factory; later, Beria visited Baku many times before he became the organiser of the Soviet terror in the 1930s. The Baku riots and fires continued for years. The extraction of oil fell by a factor of four at exactly the moment when it was most needed – during the First World War. When the war ended, thousands of Armenian soldiers returned to Baku with stories of the 1915 genocide fresh in their minds. The leader of the revolution in the Caucasus was Stepan Shaumian, an Armenian who had graduated in philosophy from the University of Berlin thanks to a grant from Mantashev, and who was briefly engaged to his daughter. In June 1918, as head of the Baku Commune, Shaumian nationalised oil, distributed land to the peasants and introduced an eight-hour working day. But now Turkish troops were approaching Baku. New pogroms ensued and, outvoting Shaumian, the town council invited British troops in. They came, but soon left Baku again: the British needed oil but did not wish to quench the fires and pogroms. The Islamic army of the Caucasus occupied the town and destroyed the Armenians. Shaumian and other commissars fled but were killed on the road. 10

Meanwhile international oil prices rose. The world war turned out to be a motorised battle, and the era of cheap oil came to a definitive end. The Red Army entered Baku; among its officers were Sergey Kirov and Anastas Mikoyan, two future leaders of Soviet industrialisation. In April 1920 the Bolsheviks nationalised Baku oil. Henri Deterding, a clerk in the Dutch East India Company who became the chairman of Shell, bought up the devalued leases on the Baku oilfields: he was betting on the rapid demise of Soviet power. In the upshot he lost millions and changed tactics. In 1924, he financed a plot of Georgian nationalists to capture Baku – he even printed fake Russian roubles. When this conspiracy failed he gave millions of real money to the German Nazi Party. His rival, Gulbenkian, made better use of his capital: in 1928 he bought dozens of classical paintings from the state-owned Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Later Andrew Mellon, another oil baron, followed suit in these massive purchases, which subsidised Soviet industrialisation by plundering the old imperial collection. 11 The best use of the Baku profits took place far away in Stockholm. In 1895, one of the Nobel brothers, Alfred, the inventor of dynamite and co-owner of the Baku oilfields, set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes. The last owner of the Nobel company, the young Emmanuel, fled Russia in 1918 and lost his assets. 12 In the meantime, another engineer who got his formative experience in Baku, Leonid Krasin, became the people’s commissar of foreign trade for the new Bolshevik government. While negotiating in the European capitals, he outplayed Rockefeller by signing a trade agreement for supplying Baku kerosene to his American competitors at a fixed price. The characters and legacies of these oil barons were very different, but many of them made terrible mistakes. Their successes depended on scientists such as Mendeleev, engineers such as Shukhov or politicians such as Krasin; their failures were their own. Still, they earned incomparably more than their hired hands. Nobody, not even the Bolsheviks, could change this – though many tried.

Germany had a lot of coal but little oil. Benefiting from the work of the chemists of the previous decade, Nazi Germany created a synthetic fuel industry. During the Second World War, it consumed as much of this coal-based fuel as oil; almost all German planes were fuelled with synthetic petrol. But it was in short supply, and petrol plants were tall and conspicuous, easy targets for enemy bombers. In the war with the Soviets, Hitler’s priority was not Moscow; as the first step, he ordered the occupation of the Donbas and the Caucasus. But his troops never reached Baku. The strange feature of oil deposits – their location on the far periphery of world empires – made it difficult to capture them by force.

For the Soviet Union, remote Baku was central. Some of the most important leaders of the country – Stalin, Beria, Krasin, Kirov, Mikoyan, and also Kamenev, Litvinov, Ordzhonikidze, Vyshinsky – cut their teeth in the chaos of Baku. One of the lessons they learnt was how to make huge profits from a piece of land not much bigger than a lottery ticket; it was quite an experience for these sons of peasants and artisans. Using their usual methods of terror and surveillance, the Soviet authorities pacified Baku. But as soon as they relaxed their grip, anti-Armenian pogroms started up again. As in 1905, ethnic riots in Baku in 1990 again preceded the attempted coup in the capital – now Moscow – in 1991.

The blood of nations

Competing with the British Royal Navy, the American Fleet made an early transition from steam power to diesel. In the First World War, the Americans supplied the allies with 80 per cent of their oil products. In the 1920s, petrol-driven cars were already replacing both the horse-drawn vehicles which had thronged American cities and the trams that ran on electricity produced from coal. At the beginning of the Second World War, oil provided a third of the energy consumed in the USA – much more than in Western Europe, the USSR or Japan. Now oil was king. Without oil there would have been no fertilisers, no tractors to cultivate wheat, and no lorries to bring it to the markets. Without oil there would have been none of the houses, cars and lawns that defined the American dream. Every new generation of weapons, with the exception of nuclear missiles, required more oil than the previous one. Up to the present day, the same holds true for each new generation of people.

In the mid-twentieth century, the USA and the USSR were the only powers that had enough oil within their borders to meet their needs. Great Britain and France had concessions in the Middle East. Germany and Japan had no access to oil, although in peacetime they could buy unlimited supplies. The end of the war brought about an energy crisis in Europe. The coal mines in the Ruhr had been destroyed. Polish coal and nearly all the European oilfields were under Soviet control. Ten per cent of the American aid provided by the Marshall Plan was oil, brought to Europe from the Middle East by American companies. Thanks to local revolutions or the global Cold War, transnational companies stepped away, reducing their share of profits. In Venezuela and the Middle East, the USA agreed to share production with the local authorities on a 50/50 basis. Coups in Mexico, Iran and Egypt led to the nationalisation of oil and a fall in extraction. But the market continued to grow, as did prices. Between 1945 and 1973 the per capita consumption of oil in the USA doubled and the number of vehicles quadrupled. The developed countries prospected for new oilfields in the North Sea and Alaska.

The Soviet dependence on oil was comparable to America’s, though the uses of oil were vastly different. Following the Baku model, the Bolshevik government understood oil as its strategic resource. It had to be split between domestic use – mainly for military-industrial purposes – and foreign trade, which could supply foreign arms, goods and services in exchange for oil. Keeping a balance between these two functions was tricky because the leading Russian and then Soviet trade partner was Germany, the enemy in both world wars. Even in 1940, right before the Nazi invasion, the USSR supplied Germany with a third of the oil that it needed. On the other hand, the domestic consumption of oil products was kept in check, though the massive industrialisation of the 1930s consumed a great deal of oil. In exchange for raw materials, German and American corporations eagerly supplied the Soviet Union with cars, lorries, tractors and whole vehicle-manufacturing plants. But, in contrast to the American practice of boosting domestic consumption by car- and home-owners, the USSR directed its supplies to wasteful, state-controlled enterprises. Public transportation was predominant, and the number of cars in private ownership minuscule. But the enthusiasm for oil was unlimited. A famous poet, Nikolai Aseev, wrote in 1935:

We are delivering oil everywhere,

Inflammable and thick …

It’s more vital to us than plants and water

In all the remote corners …

We keep on drilling, drilling, drilling

Doggedly and unflaggingly.

Motor oil, diesel fuel,

It’s like our life-blood.

It enlivens our land from its pores to its innards.

With time, we will refine oil into perfumes …

Are the oilmen not our giants,

Our true heroes? 13

The oil in Baku was running out, but the Soviet Union opened new oilfields. Remembering their early experiences, the authorities referred to these regions in Tatarstan and the Urals as ‘a second Baku’ and those in western Siberia as ‘a third Baku’. After the discovery of oil and gas in Siberia at the beginning of the 1960s, the rate of extraction increased so quickly that the supply seemed inexhaustible. As the oil historian Maria Slavkina suggests, the unexpected windfall of Siberian oil allowed the Soviet leadership first to postpone and then to bury the plans they had made for economic reform. But the law of diminishing returns applied even to a socialist country. Between 1975 and 1990, supplies of Siberian oil hardly increased, but capital investment increased fourfold and the number of oilfields tenfold. 14 But the productivity of collective farms declined even faster than that of the oilfields. In 1982, the country embarked on the Food Programme (see chapter 2 ). A massive plan to exchange oil for food made the USSR completely dependent on its Cold War opponents. New pipelines delivered oil and gas from western Siberia to Western Europe, but their crucial elements were manufactured in Germany or the USA. In the booming oilfields of Siberia, everything was in short supply – labour, equipment and provisions. Ignoring its self-imposed restrictions, Moscow brought to Siberia thousands of workers from Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Tatarstan – the former oil-rich parts of the Soviet Union – and paid them much more than they would have earned at home. Throughout the 1980s, dozens of daily charter flights brought thousands of volunteers from western Ukraine to work two-week long shifts in western Siberia, and then flew them back home for two weeks’ rest. 15 Then the oil price began to fall. By the historical standards of resource empires, the drop in price was rapid but not very steep. Many other oil-producing countries, from Norway to Venezuela, weathered the crisis. Only the USSR collapsed.

Privatisation, imported equipment and foreign expertise solved many problems with which the Soviet State Planning Committee had been wrestling for decades. But while it sold its oilfields, the new Russian state kept the entire network of pipelines in its own hands. Ironically, this decision confirmed Adam Smith’s conclusion from long ago: the most important monopoly belongs not to the producers but to the transporters. It is the carriers that are the principal obstacle to free trade. Oiligarchs realised that technology, expertise and trained personnel don’t have to be produced locally – they can be bought for a small fraction of the revenue. The great knowledge machine of the Soviet era – the Academy of Sciences, schools and universities – now turned out to be surplus to requirements. In 2004, the top leadership in the Kremlin renationalised Yukos – the biggest oil company in western Siberia.

The petrostate

Throughout the twentieth century, geologists found more and more oil and gas on the planet, identifying new reserves before the old sites ran out. Some discoveries were kept secret; others turned into symbols of corporate or national pride. The industry’s main problem was a surplus of oil, which could harm prices. 16 In 1930, a colossal oil deposit was discovered in eastern Texas; oil prices fell sharply and contributed to the Great Depression. By buying concessions all over the world, from Venezuela to Kuwait, oil companies aimed not to increase production but to limit it. In the ideal world which the oil companies were constructing for themselves, the growth in world consumption would outstrip the volume of extraction. In fact, oil prices grew more slowly than inflation. Consumption turned out to be the bottleneck in the system, and it had to grow. American culture exhibited to Europe and the world the glamour of Fordism, Hollywood, gas-guzzling automobiles, changing fashions, freeways and the charms of the suburbs. 17 Private cars supplanted public transport. Engines were ever more powerful. Everybody drove – gender equality claimed a rare victory. The commutes between home and work, home and school, work and leisure, became ever longer. Equated with modernity, the new cult of speed followed the same logic as British sugar producers of an earlier age: rebranding addictive pleasures from the arena of aristocratic consumption into enjoyment for the masses, the producers lost out on price but won on volume of trade.

In the post-war period, the countries of Western Europe competed in their American-style modernisation, which necessarily meant increasing their consumption of oil. Provided in dollars or in kind, funds from the Marshall Plan helped Europe both to buy oil from the Middle East and to purchase the American assembly lines from which finished cars would roll off to go and fill their tanks at the petrol station. All the same, the European consumption of petrol did not reach the American levels. The tax on petrol in Western Europe is about three times higher than in America and provides about 10 per cent of the revenue of Western European states. The European way of life is based on public – increasingly electric – transport; on small, fuel-efficient cars; on pedestrian zones in town centres and parks on the outskirts; and now on bicycles and electric scooters. None of this would work in most American towns, which are built for cars.

Oil gave super profits, but its production cost remained a mystery. The remoteness of the sites and the regime of secrecy engendered income streams on an unparalleled scale. All this was new: in the coal and manufacturing industries, the production costs included wages, and they were controlled by the trade unions. In 1972, the economist Maurice Edelman calculated that the cost of extracting each barrel of oil in the Middle East was less than 10 cents, and the profit was around a dollar a barrel. Since then, the figures have increased but the ratio has hardly changed. Only a monopoly or its interstate equivalent – a cartel – was capable of maintaining high prices in a growing market. Controlling about half of global supplies, OPEC coordinated both the volume of extraction and oil prices; its influence only increased after the crisis of 1973, when the price of a barrel rose fourfold.

The oil curse means that the extraction of fossil fuel puts a brake on political and economic development in a country: paradoxically, oil-rich countries are poorer and unhappier than their neighbours that do not have oil. Where does all that oily income go? Why does it not accelerate development? Why doesn’t this particular wealth bring happiness? In his research on Venezuela – the textbook example of a country ruined by oil – the anthropologist Fernando Coronil introduced the concept of the petrostate. Before the discovery of oil, the weak Venezuelan state got its rent from coffee. With oil, it found a new role as a middleman between the nation – the people and nature in their territorial unity – and foreign corporations. The latter received super profits, and Venezuela became the biggest exporter of oil in the world. The state received profits without lifting a finger. American corporations drilled for oil and exported it, Arab partners in OPEC set the rules of the game, and Cuba provided help with medical services and education – in exchange for oil. Anticipating future profits, the state borrowed still more money, which increased its revenue and exacerbated the looming crisis. The petrostate promised to transform the country – modernise it, make it rich, build factories and hospitals, create universities. None of this happened: buildings were left unfinished; diplomas were a figment of the imagination. State expenditure grew at an extraordinary rate, but the elite turned out to be incapable of managing the country. Industries rarely move closer to oilfields; in contrast to coal, it is much cheaper to send oil to the industries. The economic experiments of the Venezuelan government led to a fall in extraction, hyperinflation and economic collapse; a similar thing had happened in another socialist petrostate – the Soviet Union. Despite having the richest reserves of oil, Venezuela is importing petrol.

While nature remains the source of wealth, the state claims to be the source of progress; and of course it is the state, not nature, that expects thanks from the people. One general after another promised Venezuela peace and justice. Coups changed individual leaders, but they were not the problem. The problem was oil. Amplified by foreign debts, natural wealth turned politicians into magicians who produce ‘progress’ as the star trick of their show. On a wave of success, the state turns into a fetish object; when it fails, it becomes a curse. In oil-dependent countries, the people don’t earn money through their labour, but the state gains income from nature and shares it with the people. Haunting such states, oil is their second, sacred body, more permanent and relevant than the disposable population. 18

The Soviet Union and Venezuela are examples of the deep affinity between oil wealth and socialist teachings. Historically, these teachings were not about earning money but about its redistribution, and their practical success depended on a ready, disposable source of national income such as oil. However, socialism was born in the era of coal; fed by proletarian discipline, it reflected the life of large working collectives. Social welfare states – Weimar Germany, the America of the New Deal, some Nordic and Western European countries – were all formed in post-war periods. Their ideologies have not survived the era of oil. Again, an instructive example is the transformation of the Soviet Union, a country ruled by the party of the utopian left, into the Russian Federation, with its neoliberal economics and social conservatism. Ideologically, they are polar opposites, but most observers agree that their social and economic systems are surprisingly similar. It is the reliance on oil that secures the continuity of the petrostate. Its vital task – accumulating reserves by restraining the consumption of its own population – builds not on a socialist, neoliberal or authoritarian model but on the model of a mercantilist state of the imperial era. In this turbocharged field, ideological distinctions explain less than empirical ones, which focus on natural resources and their political qualities.

The science of curses

In contrast to the narrative world of a historian, political science is rigorous. But once they have counted up correlations and regressions, political scientists resort to metaphors, again taken from primitive religion. This is why political scientists talk about ‘the oil curse’ or – this is a minority opinion – ‘resource blessing’. What you get out of statistics depends on what you put in. In his groundbreaking article of 2001, the political scientist Michael Ross examined the data from fifty countries, from Kuwait to Kyrgyzstan, whose dependence on the export of oil and minerals made them vulnerable to the ‘rentier effect’ and the ‘resource curse’. Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union was included in these statistics. However, a book by Ross in the following decade, The Oil Curse (2012), includes a long and original chapter on Russia. 19

Globally, Ross enumerates four particular features of oil rent. It is large – the governments of petrostates are twice as big as the governments of neighbouring countries that don’t have oil. It is direct – the treasury depends mainly on income from state property and not on taxes from the citizenry. It is unstable because it depends on global oil prices that are beyond the control of any single state. And, finally, it is opaque and secretive, because it comes from the direct relationship between the state and nature, without much participation from the citizens. All this turns oil rent into the optimal means of enriching the elite. Since its main source of income, oil extraction, is not labour-intensive, the petrostate does not depend on its population. The elite justify their existence by their superb skills, magic tricks and lofty promises. The petrostate redistributes a part of its profits for the benefit of the population by building hospitals, buying food or supporting the currency. But, in as far as the beneficiaries of these blessings cannot influence them, the expenditure remains unproductive. The normative principle of democracy – no taxation without representation – doesn’t function in petrostates, because they don’t depend on taxes. Petrostates preach and practise another principle, empirical rather than normative: no representation without taxation . 20 Only oil is capable of generating income streams large enough to replace the taxation of the whole population. Earlier forms of resource dependency – silver, sugar, hemp, cotton – were partial. Pursuing its profit, the elite enslaved a part of the population, but another part remained free. With oil, the whole population is dependent on a petrostate.

Intercountry statistics show that a country’s export of oil and gas hinders its democratic development, prevents the growth of human capital, and destroys other sources of national income. Each 1 per cent increase in hydrocarbon revenue is associated with a 0.2 per cent decrease in other revenues. 21 But there are countries that have dealt with their oil more successfully than others. The main conclusion from the literature about the resource curse is that it is not necessarily fatal. Serious and concentrated effort, based on knowledge of the danger, can overcome it. The resource dependency can be seen not as a curse or predestination but, rather, as a free choice, a manifestation of political will. But this will depends on the changing conditions, prices, and much else. The higher the price of oil and the less productive the remaining part of the national economy, the more tempting is the trap of oiligarchy .

Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s deputy prime minister and minister of finances in the early 1990s, explained the very collapse of the Soviet Union by the instability of oil prices and the failure of diversification. 22 Nigeria, Iran, Libya and Venezuela are other historic examples of the oil curse. The figures speak of the flight of capital, the growth of inequality, patriarchy and inefficiency – typical features of petrostates.

Carbon and gender

Oil provides fuel and fuel gives speed – one of the core values of modern patriarchy. Ever since the invention of the assembly line, the car has been an exemplary object of male consumption. More and more workers are involved in their production, more and more cars roll off the assembly line, more and more workers buy them, they make more and more cars – and the cars burn more and more petrol.

Comparing the position of women in different Arab countries, Michael Ross has shown that women have more years of education and are more likely to have a job in countries without oil. The reason is that such countries develop other production industries – often textiles. While textile manufacturing produces less rent than oil, it allows for greater gender and class equality. All these countries are Muslim, but the difference is very significant: in some countries women make up a quarter of the workforce, in others they are less than 5 per cent. 23 According to United Nations statistics, throughout the world the extraction of mineral resources is a sector of the economy which, like the military-industrial complex, is characterised by extreme gender inequality. 24

It would be interesting to apply Ross’s comparative method to Russia vs. Ukraine, Azerbaijan vs. Armenia, or Kazakhstan vs. Kyrgyzstan. In Russia, only 1 per cent of the population is employed in the gas and oil industries, and they are mostly men. One should add the 5 per cent of the population who are employed in the security trade – guarding pipelines, protecting revenue streams and taking care of the oiligarchs and their assets. All these soldiers, watchmen and bodyguards are also men. There is also a large group of lawyers (in Russia, making up approximately 1 per cent of the population – much higher than in Germany), who are employed in resolving conflicts. Just as protection from pirates was one of the key tasks in the tobacco and sugar trade, so the work of security personnel ranks highly in oil-dependent economies. The weak point is not extraction but transportation, and especially its security. For this reason, people from the oil industry rarely become leaders in oil-extracting countries; time after time, their leaders turn out to be generals or former secret service agents – specialists in security. Since they serve the most – or even the only – viable part of the national economy, these men have the most attractive salaries and benefits. Whoever guards something, owns it. Protego ergo obligo – I protect, therefore I obligate – is how Carl Schmitt formulated this fundamental truth of political philosophy, the extractive counterpart of Cogito ergo sum . 25

Oil business traditions and security requirements create that extreme gender inequality which many observers of Russia notice there. To reflect the economic, gender and psychological traits of this human type, I call him petromacho . These men – the roughly 7 per cent of the population who extract, transport and protect oil and gas – secure more than half of the Russian Federation’s budget. Two classes of citizen emerge – the privileged all-male minority which extracts, protects and trades a valuable resource and all the rest who depend on the redistribution of income from this trade. In its ideal form, such a country would turn into a gas and oil corporation, which bears responsibility only for the trade of fossil fuel. However, the presence of a population complicates this scheme. For a state living off the export of oil, its own population is superfluous to its purposes. But two-thirds of the gas and a quarter of the oil extracted in Russia are used for domestic consumption; diverting a valuable resource from the foreign market, this is a burden that the government is trying to reduce. The fact that the population is superfluous doesn’t mean that people must suffer or die. The state will take care of them but only in a way that suits the government. Instead of being a source of national wealth, the population turns into an object of state charity.

Addictive monopolies lead to inequality. Sustaining these levels of inequality is more difficult for petrostates with a large population, such as Russia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Venezuela and, until recently, Mexico. Again, Russia is typical: according to the statistics for 2018, the 1 per cent of the population who are employed in oil and gas extraction provided about half of the state budget, though the actual numbers are even higher. Income from oil is enormous, but it is not enough for the twin tasks of meeting the demands of the elite and supporting the population. The aim of authoritarian regimes is to balance these tasks, which is easy during a time of growth and difficult in a slump. Dependency on oil is often compared with addiction, making an analogy between a sluggish economy which causes millions to suffer and an individual pathology. In 2006, President George W. Bush said: ‘America is addicted to oil.’ In Russia, critics talk of the ‘oil needle’ on which the country is mainlining. The governments of post-Soviet Russia have repeatedly announced programmes for diversification and modernisation. But this large country with weak democratic traditions has found it impossible to self-medicate.

In the petrostate, men and women depend not on their labour but on the charity dispensed by the elite. Both sides rely on external forces, and they bargain not among themselves but with someone else. God, nature, chance, or some other power arranged things so that oil is connected with religion. The Islamic countries own 62 per cent of the world’s oil reserves and export more than half of global oil. Another 5 per cent of reserves belong to countries with an Orthodox Christian population. 26 There is also a link with ideology: a quarter of extracted oil is concentrated in three post-socialist countries – Russia, Venezuela and Kazakhstan. Only a religious or nationalist language can explain the fateful chance that endowed some countries with an abundance of resources and gave none at all to others. Unable to understand the source of their blessing but feeling that they are exceptional, the oil-rich elites have reworked the ideology of the chosen people, combining mysticism and nationalism, arrogance and cupidity. Resource nationalism helps an elite to distinguish between its own people who receive the state’s charity and aliens who must not receive it. For the elite, their charity confirms their self-awareness as chosen people. For the population, it turns citizens into paupers and migrants into nonentities. This is a vicious circle of evil.

The oil standard

Defying the long-term trend, the price of oil and almost all other natural resources significantly increased at the start of this century. When these prices peaked in 2014, the total value of shares included in the energy sector on the New York Stock Exchange (nearly $2 trillion) approached the total value of shares in the financial sector (just over $2 trillion). Since then much has changed, but the world still obtains almost all its energy by burning fuel and polluting the atmosphere. Lying in the ground like assets in the bank, fossil carbon defines the value of national currencies and the size of state budgets. Petrodollars, gas roubles, coal zloties and other carbon currencies circulate in the global market, setting prices of labour, education, health care and life itself. The price of a barrel of oil is the main index of the world economy – a more important indicator than the price of gold, which obediently tracks the price of oil. The gold standard was abolished decades ago – perhaps it would make sense nowadays to talk about the ‘oil standard’?

As Karl Polanyi showed, the gold standard was a key to the fabled stability of Europe in the nineteenth century. ‘Where Ricardo and Marx were at one, the nineteenth century knew not doubt,’ he wrote. 27 But Germany abandoned the gold standard during the First World War, and Great Britain and the USA left it during the Great Depression. In 1944, the Bretton Woods Agreement established fixed exchange rates between the dollar and the other currencies of the allied nations. Marketed almost completely in dollars, oil had already become the most important commodity in international trade. The dollar would remain fixed to gold, but the price of oil – the exchange rate of a barrel of oil against an ounce of gold – was floating. The USSR was a signatory to this agreement; the preservation of the gold standard was advantageous for a state that extracted gold and oil. The Bretton Woods Agreement had been worked out in discussion between the British representative, John Maynard Keynes, and a senior US Treasury official, Harry Dexter White, who, it emerged later, was a Soviet agent. Together, they proposed to create, along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, a third global organisation which would answer for the world supply of strategic resources – oil, rubber, metals, etc. This interstate corporation would have stored raw materials in depots, smoothing price hikes and supplying raw materials according to national quotas. Clearly, this system would be beneficial for the resource producers – this project was like something dreamt up by the Soviet State Planning Committee. However, even the founders of the neoliberal movement approved of it. Friedrich Hayek, for one, proposed changing the gold standard to an ‘international commodity reserve currency’. 28 National currencies would have been pegged to a basket of ‘standard storable raw materials’, including petroleum. Sketches of a similar index have been preserved in Keynes’s papers. 29 When Keynes and Hayek were at one, the twentieth century ‘knew not doubt’. In August 1944, the USA and Great Britain agreed to found an international oil council – an early, broad and more powerful version of OPEC. Judging by the proactive position taken by White, his Soviet masters were also keen on this project.

The idea did not have legs, and it is important to understand why. The price of a barrel in dollars signifies the amount of goods and services which can be exchanged for it: the higher the price of oil, the cheaper labour and labour-intensive goods. Essentially, the price of a barrel is the ratio between oil and the economy. Oil fluctuates but wages are relatively stable, and this is why the long-term chart of oil prices looks as jagged as a broken saw. Pegging the dollar to a barrel would lead to instability of wages. If the gold standard were to be replaced by the oil standard and national currencies were to be backed by barrels of oil, prices of labour, services and real estate would fluctuate wildly.

In 1971, President Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar to gold. If he had not done this, the fourfold increase in the price of oil in 1973 would have led to a banking crisis: there was simply not enough gold to match such a growth in the money supply. Since then the dollar has floated in relation to other currencies. If general inflation is taken into account, the price of gold has increased more than the price of oil because the supply of gold has grown more slowly than the supply of oil. But the price of oil is more volatile than the price of gold. In peacetime these prices fluctuate in tandem; in times of war or crisis they diverge. The neoliberal economy, which reigned supreme thanks to the victory of oil over coal, thrived only when oil prices grew smoothly. Perhaps an oil standard would work as a regulated process of predictable growth rather than as a price equivalent like the gold standard. ‘Stabilisation of the markets’ was the official goal of OPEC.

Founded in 1960 by Arab nations, Iran and Venezuela, this cartel now includes fifteen countries, which control 44 per cent of global oil extraction. A few other countries such as Russia and Norway attend OPEC meetings as observers. The USA is an unofficial but influential observer. Paradoxically, the price of the most traded commodity of global capitalism is not set by the market but depends on agreements among the members of OPEC. The American disposition towards free trade did not prevent it from approving the formation of OPEC. John F. Kennedy’s administration hoped that making an agreement with a state cartel would be easier than with transnational corporations. But during the Arab–Israeli war in October 1973, OPEC announced an embargo on supplying oil to the USA, and prices soared. Like Rockefeller a century before, OPEC did not deliver the stability of oil prices that justified its monopoly. In June 1974 the secretary of the US Treasury, William Simon, signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia: the Americans agreed to a new price level on condition that the Saudis would invest petrodollars in American Treasury bonds. 30 OPEC established the price of a barrel an order of magnitude higher than its production cost; this defined the price of fuel in petrol stations all over the world; consumers paid this price because they had no alternative; the profits were shared between the owners of the petrol stations and the exporters of oil; and the latter bought US Treasury bonds, which lowered bank rates, gave relief to business and created bubbles on the property market. Sucking money out of domestic economies, including that of the USA, and directing it into the biggest treasury on earth, this was a mercantile pump of the highest level.

The banks and stock markets need a globally shared fiction, an analogue for the gold standard. The price of a barrel is as fluid as oil itself, but it has strong backing. Geologists took care of the fact that, for every barrel of oil consumed, another two were added to the ‘proven reserves’ of the planet. The replacement of solid, limited gold with flowing, growing oil added a shot of dynamism to the neoliberal world view. But oil prices fluctuated wildly, as Keynes had predicted they would. Post-war governments limited this volatility either by establishing ‘price corridors’ or by creating national reserves. The first method usually failed to work; the second led, for example, to the creation of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, giant oil-storage facilities in salt mines in Louisiana and Texas. Oil has been stored there since 1975; now this reserve has so much oil that it would take six months to take it all out if ever the need arose. The creation of this giant storage system coincided with the widely circulated idea of ‘peak oil’. A sort of resource panic, it was articulated by the American geologist Marion King Hubbert. Repeating Jevons’s fallacy, Hubbert wrote in 1948 that oil would soon run out; his forecast was that oil extraction would reach its peak in 1970 and then fall because of depletion, rising costs and diminishing returns. People discussed this prediction in 1973, when the price of oil rocketed for quite different reasons. 31 In response to the American oil reserve, the Soviet Union created massive underground storage facilities for natural gas; ironically, they all happened to be on the territory of Ukraine and now belong to Russia’s rival.

Since the 1970s, there has been no decade that has not seen the price of oil changing by a factor of two, or even five in some decades. No ‘stabilisation of the markets’ was achieved. Instead, we have been moving from one crisis to another – military, financial, political, ecological and epidemiological. If the gold standard was a successful but temporary measure, the oil standard was a non-starter. The majority of fossil resources will never be used. In 2015, British Petroleum released a forecast according to which only a third of proven stocks of oil, gas and coal will ever be extracted and used. If more carbon is burnt it will lead to a rise in average temperature of more than 2º Celsius, and this will be fatal for civilisation as we know it. Since then, the growth of proven energy reserves and the decline of realistic energy needs have decoupled still further. As long as the capitalisation of oil majors depends on their reserves, this decoupling means huge financial losses. American shale has added new volumes of oil, and this oil has a different, non-conventional dynamic: more resilient to price changes, shale oil acts as a shock absorber for the oil market. 32 But for any absorber there is a shock that it cannot withstand. The year 2020 saw the collapse of oil consumption and the inability of the Russian and Saudi producers to agree on supporting the oil price. It also saw a renewed commitment from the European countries to the ‘green recovery’. The consequences of the pandemic have meant that the price of oil has lost its informative value. Decoupled from the global economy, the price of a barrel will continue fluctuating, but its unpredictable moves will make decreasing impacts on the markets. In 2020, Germany was already producing the major part of its energy from renewable sources. Many other European countries have also set the dates for their ‘carbon neutrality’, which largely means a ban on burning coal and oil.

The English and the German language both use the idiom ‘so-and-so is stinking rich’. Taking an example from folklore, Sigmund Freud wrote: ‘The gold which the devil gives his paramours turns into excrement after his departure.’ 33 The kinship of wealth and shit becomes more evident with every shift of the resource platform.

The Russian disease

In 1977, The Economist coined the expression ‘Dutch disease’ to describe the unexpected events which ensued in the Netherlands after a large natural gas field was discovered in the North Sea, off the coast of Groningen. The strengthening of the national currency led to unemployment, inflation and emigration. As had happened many times in the past, profits from a raw material devalued workers’ wages. But Holland, Norway and some other ‘developed’ countries found a way to deal with the resource curse. A popular remedy is ‘sovereign funds’ – state-owned financial institutions which have the task of ‘sterilising’ petrodollars, removing them from circulation and accumulating money ‘for future generations’. In contrast to the utilitarian economics of the ‘welfare state’, which encouraged consumption, ‘sterilising funds’ have the mercantile goal of restraining domestic spending. Like the gold reserves of the past, these funds save petrodollars for the unspecified future. The difference is that the autocratic ruler had complete control over his treasury, while the spending of sovereign funds is conditional on a host of rules and procedures. To meet them, countries need ‘good institutions’ – a powerful parliament, an independent judiciary, a free press. This formulation, ‘good institutions’, belongs to economists – a historian would not dare to use it.

Norway has trillions of dollars in its Sovereign Fund, and they all came from oil and gas. The government can spend no more than 3 per cent of the fund’s annual returns on pensions and other needs; any other expenditure must be approved by a full vote of Parliament. The fund sold all its shares in tobacco companies, recently got rid of coal companies, and has promised to sell its oil shares. But Norwegian corporations are working flat out, pumping fuel from the seabed, selling it, expanding production and paying wages to its workers. Most of the energy that Norway uses domestically comes from its hydroelectric plants. The overall result is that foreign consumers burn Norwegian oil and gas, polluting our common atmosphere and bringing no benefits to the country’s citizens. But since the nation locks up its resource income, the citizens rely only on their labour – and they are doing well. Norway’s previous experience as a resource economy helped it to reach this unorthodox solution. Two hundred years ago, Norway was a poor country and dependent colony; the sources of its income – fish, timber, grain – were diffused and not susceptible to monopoly. Is the decisive role in development played by pre-existing resources rather than by pre-existing institutions, as political commentators think? And would it not be better if oil simply remained in the earth rather than polluting the planet, and then keeping people busy ‘sterilising’ its profits?

The history of economic thought did not foresee anything like the ‘sterilisation’ of huge streams of income, which are comparable in value with national revenue. The classical economists could never have imagined that the crucial question of the new era would be exactly the opposite of theirs: how to take wealth out of the economy? Since this extra wealth has already been created, would not it be better to share it out equally among all citizens? This is how a similar fund in Alaska works – it pays out an annual dividend to all Alaska residents. Calculated through a transparent formula, the amount fluctuates between $1,000 and $2,000 a year. Created in 1977, the fund has a lot of experience and little bureaucracy. In Russia, the Stabilisation Fund was created in 2004 following the Norwegian model. Its aims were similar – the sterilisation of the income from gas and oil. However, the Russian fund lacked stability, and sterility too. The fund was divided up, merged and restructured several times; no institution in the Russian Federation has been renamed so often. It pays out money under the supervision of the president and the government; calculated in dollars, the fund has seriously shrunk in recent years. There are similar funds in other oil-extracting countries, from the Arab Emirates to Venezuela.

As economists say, it all depends on the institutions, though, I would add, in radically different ways. In the countries with ‘bad institutions’ – in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, Libya – we see the vicious circle of resource dependency. Extracting raw materials and failing to sterilise their rents, these societies are devaluing their human capital. Undermining their institutions, they depend still more on their resources. Going from one crisis to another, such societies pollute the natural and the human environment. The result is demodernisation – the loss of previously attained levels of education and equality, a creeping paralysis of society, and arbitrary activity by the state. 34 With its resource wealth, uncertain property rights, political authoritarianism and record levels of inequality, Russia is the model of ‘bad institutions’. If the combination of resource dependency with good (or just about acceptable) institutions is called the Dutch disease, let’s agree to call resource dependency in combination with bad institutions the Russian disease.

Following the price of a barrel, the role of gas and oil in the Russian economy changes every year. In 2013, the extraction of oil and gas made up 11 per cent of the GDP of the Russian Federation, while their sales abroad made up two-thirds of export revenue and half of the state budget. But these are only the direct receipts from foreign trade; a large share of the oil and gas is consumed within the country, often at subsidised prices. To estimate the rent that the state receives from the sale of energy, one needs to multiply the volumes of gas and oil sold inside the country by world prices. Such a calculation gives a figure in the order of a third of GDP. This income increases still more due to internal expenses and subsidies: for example, when the state uses the money made on oil to pay wages or supply fuel to agricultural enterprises, it then skims off a portion from them which returns to the exchequer in the form of taxes. But these taxes are laundered oil revenue. Heavy and military industries, metal factories and railways all get electricity (or gas that is burnt to produce electricity) at subsidised prices. These subsidies alone make up 5 per cent of GDP. Agriculture receives fuel at discounted prices and exports grain at global prices: this is how oil income proliferates. Even more important is the fact that the Russian currency, the rouble, is relatively stable only on account of the export of oil and gas; it is just impossible to imagine a convertible rouble without this export. 35 A stable currency is a public good, and the state has taken responsibility for it. Billions of the dollars and euros received from the sale of oil and gas are spent on this task. But in 2020 the Russian rouble fell by more than a fifth against the euro. The Marxist historian Mikhail Pokrovsky, working in the 1920s, noted that, the higher the global grain prices were, the more aggressive the politics of the Russian Empire. The rise in the export of wheat paved the way for the Crimean War. 36 The same logic was repeated in the twenty-first century, again in connection with Crimea. The higher the price of oil, the more aggressive the words and deeds of the Russian authorities. And, conversely, when prices fall, the authorities relax.

Discussing the Russian economy, the American academics Clifford Gaddy and Barry Ickes compare the petrostate to an inverted funnel. 37 Energy and capital enter it through the narrow neck; as the funnel widens, industries use them to manufacture arms, pipes, tractors or railways; the workers in these sectors receive wages, which they spend on services and consumer goods that form the widest part of the funnel. Taxes from these transactions finance the security services: energy streams have to be defended, conflicts resolved, property protected. The leftovers go into ‘the social sphere’ – schools, hospitals, pensions. Inefficiency, corruption and tax evasion divert a portion of these revenue streams into a subsidy for the elite. The funnel is a resonant image, but I would rather compare the resource state to the human body, with its two distinctive loops of circulation – the pulmonary circuit that oxygenates the blood and the large systemic circuit that feeds the rest of the body. In the smaller circuit, which passes through a network of boreholes, pipelines and export operations, arterial blood gets charged with fresh and convertible capital. Through the large circuit, this oxygen reaches all other organs and limbs, stagnating in the capillaries, clogging veins, settling in the walls of moribund vessels. The two circuits meet in the heart, and its valves determine how much will be delivered to the humble periphery of the system.

The carbon standard

From the ecological perspective, the oil price must be high – it restrains the consumption of fuel, cuts down emissions and allows for the development of alternative sources of energy. From the political perspective, however, the high price of a barrel finances the authoritarian petrostates, providing them with new opportunities to kindle wars, spread inequality and increase emissions. Ecology, politics and economics always disagree, but now is the moment to call them to order, and this new order will be clearly dominated by ecology. It is helpful to remember that ecology and economics both come from the same Greek root that means ‘household’.

On the global scale, the era of high prices led to the diversification of supply. New sources of energy are always more expensive than the old ones, but people prefer them for non-economic reasons. Solar panels and wind farms produce electricity increasingly cheaply, but the distribution and storage of this energy require rare and expensive metals and other materials. Bituminous sand remains expensive and its processing is harmful to the environment. Shale oil has better prospects: regardless of automation, its extraction is labour-intensive and requires local knowledge. Unlike boreholes, which are as difficult to cap as it was hard to stop a waterwheel, hydraulic fracturing works on demand. Extraction is diffused – maps of shale oil extraction look more like the widely spaced clusters in which coal mines were grouped than the topical structures characteristic of oilfields. And, finally, American sites of shale oil remain in private hands. The extraction of coal from open pit mines makes it similar to traditional oil; the extraction of energy from shale marks a return, on a new technological level, to the political economy of the coal mines. Liquefying gas emancipates its trading from the pipelines which were so attractive to planned economies. Do these new technologies revise or even reverse the Mitchell thesis?

In different eras of history, land, gold and oil played the roles of the universal equivalents of exchange value. This role will soon be played by carbon. The air belongs to everyone; those who are the biggest polluters should pay the highest prices, and only the state can collect these payments. As climate catastrophe approaches, energy policy – prices, taxes, subsidies, phases and goals – will become an increasingly important mechanism for regulating emissions. So far, carbon emissions have grown in tandem with the production and consumption of energy; but it is the emissions, rather than demand or supply, that should be limited in the first place. This approach makes emissions a major factor of regulation. Ricardo’s classical economics posits three factors of production – land, labour and capital (it assumes that every raw material is connected with land). Carbon emissions make up a fourth factor, independent of the three classic ones. Labour is inexhaustible, capital is relational, and only land is finite; but now we realise that the atmosphere will expire first. Any business plan should take emissions into account and pay for them in the same way that businesses pay for using land, labour and capital. As people switch from ancient accounting traditions, based on the value of fertile land, to new practices which add in the cost of clear skies, the relations between the rich and the poor will also change. The first step is to eliminate the tax privileges that the producers of fossil fuels – and thus of carbon emissions – still enjoy today; in the USA alone this will yield $1.5 trillion, which can be spent on the Green New Deal. A carbon standard would be a more radical measure: the price of any goods or services would be defined by the emissions which their production creates. A distant heir of the gold standard, the carbon standard would not change the market economy too radically: the consumer price of our goods and services already correlates with their energy cost. All the same, introducing a single principle which will link any act of economic exchange with its contribution to the salvation or the destruction of the planet would be pivotal. Every act of work or exchange would find the meaning and justification which they have lost since the dawn of time.

Oil into food

As we saw, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the population growth in America and Russia would prevent grain supplies to Europe, threatening the old continent with hunger. 38 This didn’t happen. Innovations made by chemists, engineers and plant breeders have resulted in grain that is no longer a product of earth, sun and labour, as it was in the time of Malthus: barrels of fossil fuel go into the production of every ton of grain. Arable farming and cattle breeding have become branches of petrofarming – the conversion of oil into food with a little help from earth, sun and labour.

Petrofarming uses two methods of oil conversion, physical and financial. Fertilisers are made from natural gas. Machinery runs on oil products. Together, they have substantially increased agricultural productivity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in England, it took one calorie of energy to produce a dozen food calories. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, for every food calorie produced, two fuel calories were expended. But the financial conversion is happening on an even larger scale. Using agricultural subsidies, nations of the northern hemisphere redistribute capital between industry and agriculture, between the south and the north and, ultimately, between oil and food. Agricultural subsidy is one of the leading budget expenditures of individual countries and also of the EU. On top of that, various member countries subsidise the purchase price of grain and other staples. All this aid comes to over €100 billion. Other developed countries and China also spend enormous sums, comparable to their defence budgets, on agricultural subsidies. In every country, a big part of this financial flow comes from taxes on oil companies, fuel stations and car drivers, as well as from value-added tax on energy-intensive goods and services. Altogether, this is a much larger, and less clearly defined, area of taxation than would be the case with a straightforward emissions tax. In the current price system, grain and food products are globally underpriced, while oil and fuel products are globally overpriced. The explanation for this disbalance is the ability of the owners of topical resources, such as oil, to dictate monopolist or cartel prices on their production, together with the competition between dispersed food producers, who set their prices much closer to production costs. Land, grain and related products, such as meat, are some of the most widespread of natural resources. There is fierce competition in this diffused market, the opportunities for monopolies are minimal and the prices for these products are close to market prices. Unable to correct such distortions by market mechanisms, the states redistribute the revenue from the monopoly sectors to the competitive markets – from oil to food.

Malthus wrote that the exchange between town and country was the largest market in history as it was known then. Now this exchange has become the source of the largest distortions in the market. With all the new chemical, genetic and financial technologies, land, labour and even capital have ceased to be limiting factors of production. The limits are set by methane and carbon emissions; global agriculture makes a massive contribution to them – up to a quarter, globally. This figure exceeds the carbon emissions from transportation or any single industry. Still another factor is agriculture’s role in the deforestation of the planet, which also contributes to global warming: fields and pastures produce less oxygen than forests and capture less carbon. Carbon emissions echo the classical ‘tragedy of the commons’. No individual looks after what is commonly owned, and we still regard the earth’s atmosphere in the way that Stone Age man regarded land – as an infinite resource. But the solution found then – the privatisation of land, starting with all the best bits – won’t work for the atmosphere.

Much has changed since the ‘sect’ of physiocrats defined the fashions in Versailles. President Macron’s project of raising ‘eco-taxes’ in 2018 led to mass protests, and the government was forced to abandon this measure. The problem was a lack of trust. If the revenue collected from the new tax had honestly been spent on environmental projects, the result might have been different. The agricultural sector of the world economy has received surprisingly little critical attention – less than defence or oil, which are similar in size. Globally, subsidies go mainly to the large-scale and energy-intensive staples – wheat, soya beans, cotton; in Europe, they also support small-scale and traditional forms of agriculture. Everywhere, disproportionate amounts of subsidy go to cattle farming; in the USA the proportion is estimated at 63 per cent. The official goal of the gigantic Chinese subsidies is to shift the balance of agricultural production from grain to soya, which is used mainly as cattle fodder. The benefits of subsidies are not at all clear; the harm they cause is all too obvious. They distort prices, increase emissions, and exacerbate all kinds of inequality. By artificially lowering the price of food, subsidies deprive poor countries of their revenue. They support big farms and impede urbanisation, but their function is not to make farmers more equal. Subsidies selectively encourage those sectors of agriculture which are the most harmful for the environment, especially cattle farming. Repeating the failure of the Soviet Union (see chapter 2 ), this is the food programme on a world scale.

Destroying society

Because of oil and gas, a positive trade balance has been characteristic of the post-Soviet period. Every year, the country has exported an average of 10 per cent more than it has imported, and over eighteen years that gives more than 200 per cent of cumulative growth. But, strangely, domestic assets – state-owned and private – have hardly grown. The reason is the flight of capital. 39 The offshore wealth of Russian officials, oiligarchs and their entourage is close to $1 trillion. Placed abroad, this wealth equals all the financial assets kept within Russia’s borders. In other words, all its economically active agents – the government, corporations and citizens – keep half of their capital abroad and half inside the country. According to the total estimate given by Thomas Piketty, 1 per cent of Russians control a quarter of the national income. This means that inequality in Russia is the same as in the USA, higher than in France and almost double that in China. Russia has more billionaires relative to the size of its economy than any other large country. Year after year, the richest British subjects turn out to be Russian. Furthermore, regional inequalities within the Russian Federation are much higher than in the United States or any European country. 40

Why did the ‘liberal’ governments of the 1990s and 2000s do so little to redistribute the income from oil and gas to benefit the population and the environment of their country? Their logic reproduced not the liberal but the mercantilist tradition. The export of raw materials, the restraint on domestic consumption, the growth of gold reserves and the enrichment of the trusted elite – these are mercantilist policies. Their theoretical grounds can be found in Britain’s ‘old colonial theory’ of the eighteenth century. The speeches of the most influential of post-Soviet economists, Yegor Gaidar, articulated his deep mistrust of the Russian population – unqualified, unproductive and, in a word, indolent. In contrast, he hoped that investing in the elite – boosting the salaries of bureaucrats and judges or letting new oligarchs grow their capital – would stop corruption and improve the quality of management. In this world view, the people weren’t ready for reform but the elite was, and petrodollars were distributed according to readiness.

When the price of oil increases, the value of labour decreases. Discontent grows, but the oilmen don’t strike; the political ideas from the era of coal do not work in the era of oil. The rich become richer, the poor poorer, the elite dumber. New social theories compare modern life to a fossil resource but do not suggest how to change it. Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of ‘liquid modernity’ plays with the oily idea of liquidity. The actor-network theory of Bruno Latour results in diagrams that resemble gas pipelines. Having stabilised and subsidised neoliberal states throughout the world, oil has, eventually, been excluded from their privatisation policies: selling other businesses, they have not touched the oil sector. On the contrary, in the 2000s a new wave of nationalisation swept through Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Russia, bringing oil-extracting companies under state control. Huge price fluctuations enriched some speculators, impoverished others and boosted the financialisation of the market. Inequality of all sorts – between countries, classes, genders and cohorts – increased even further.

What is the moral justification for inequality? A good worker should live well, so that he’ll work even harder. But the problem is deeper. Adam Smith hoped that, although any individual’s action could lead to evil, myriads of their transactions would bring good. John Maynard Keynes believed that the concentration of wealth enables massive investment in ‘fixed capital’, or infrastructure. The railways would not have been built, wrote Keynes, if capital had been equally distributed. 41 In 1971, the Harvard philosopher John Rawls formulated two principles of justice. It is fine if the rich become even richer, in accordance with Rawls’s first principle, only if the poor become less poor in accordance with his second. Since the era of Rawls and Reagan, the total effect has been known as the trickle-down economy. 42 Working with the World Bank, Branko Milanović has demonstrated that the differences between countries, and not the differences within a country, are the main culprit in global inequality. 43 Different nations redistribute capital by subsidising farms, financing health services and encouraging the trickle-down; but redistributing capital among states would require a world government. Monopoly is another issue for moral philosophy. If entrepreneurs want a moral justification, their business should not be founded on stolen property or monopoly trade. We saw that Jakob Fugger, for example, extracted untold wealth thanks to resource monopolies. Luther gave his blessings to merchants and even bankers, but threatened Fugger with hellfire. Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ also left monopolies and cartels behind. Bentham cursed them as a road to slavery. But resource monopolies are still a big part of modern capitalism.

Rawls’s former student Leif Wenar draws a parallel between the oil trade and the buying up of stolen goods. 44 Almost every country in the world, says Wenar, has a constitutional norm according to which the underground resources belong to the people. Voltaire made fun of this idea: it was Pangloss who taught Candide that ‘the goods of this world are common to all men, and that everyone has an equal right to the enjoyment of them.’ In fact, more than half of global oil has been extracted by authoritarian countries which do not ask their people’s consent to this extraction. Such oil is stolen, says Wenar, and all the norms relating to the trade in stolen goods are applicable to the case. Wenar sees in the oil trade an analogy with the slave trade: that struggle was long, but the abolitionists won it. He proposes that global organisations should stop buying oil from any government that does not conform to the minimum criteria of democratic accountability to its own people. It is easy to compile a black list of these countries – what is more difficult is to imagine an international institution which could implement such a law. The power of the consumer is well tested by civil associations such as Fairtrade. But while consumer pressure brought about change in coffee and banana plantations, establishing a similar control over petrostates has yet to be achieved. The difference comes from the way in which the outputs of different farms are mixed in the final product: an addicted consumer can easily reject a particular brand in favour of another one, but if all brands are mixed up he has to reject the commodity as a whole. This is the difference between branded commodities, such as fruits, tobacco and coffee, and sorted commodities, such as sugar, cotton and oil. Decisive for the former, the power of the consumer does not spread to the latter.

Capital gives better returns than labour. The value of inherited wealth grows quicker than the level of pay. The owners of processing industries get rich quicker than landowners or the best of hired workers. These are all reasons for growing inequality. Sacrificing millions of people, wars and revolutions are the most powerful factors enabling equality, while oil-based capitalism boosts inequality. Let’s look at a trade between two states, one resource-dependent and the other labour-dependent. This is a typical situation in the field of international relations – a game for two players, one of whom sells a precious resource which the other buys, exchanging it for goods produced by the labour of its people. The labour-dependent state encourages internal competition, protects property rights, secures technical progress, and promotes public goods and services. None of this occurs in a resource-dependent state and its monopolies. In such a country, institutions don’t develop, nature is degraded, and the people fail to thrive. All this is a curse for a resource-dependent country but a blessing for its partner. Since the rulers of resource states do not guarantee property rights in their countries, they cannot rely on their own capital or hand it down to their children. Along with their subjects, the rulers also suffer from the absence of public goods such as fair justice or clean air. Their spouses need private goods which only labour-dependent states are capable of offering. Children need the high-quality education which is available only on the other side of the border. Parents need good doctors and hospitals. But while textiles or gadgets come from abroad, safe parks, clean beaches, or good schools and clinics are not available to import. So the next step ensues: the elite from a resource-dependent state keeps bank deposits in a labour-dependent state. This is where the elite settles its disputes, buys houses, establishes its families. Exported capital – a converted form of oil and gas – turns into a bank account in Switzerland, a château in France, a business in Germany, or shares in American corporations. This capital, significant by any standards, is profitable to the recipient. The Swiss bank gets a percentage, London property prices rocket, new businesses pay taxes in the host countries. This wealth trickles down, but those who benefit from it are very far away from the places where it was pumped or mined. Paradoxically, the resource-holding elite invests in the same institutions abroad that it ignores, or even destroys, at home: the judiciary, universities, parks. In a dual economy of the post-Soviet type, Rawls’s first principle is realised at one end of the earth, but his second at another. The wealth is created in one country and trickles down in a different country. The blessings for some do not balance the curses for many others: the sum of happiness declines and inequality grows.

This many-layered dynamic is wittily captured in the music video ‘I love oil’ by the Russian rock group Smash and Vengerov (2013). In the opening scene a Russian oiligarch clumps into a glitzy bedroom carrying a barrel of oil, which he presents to his delighted wife and kids. Cut to a fashionable Italian shoe shop, and we see the same woman buying a new pair of high heels. To pay for her purchase, she tips up her handbag, and viscous black oil gushes out into the grateful hands of the shop assistant. ‘While there’s oil in Russia, I’ll be in Milan,’ sings the young woman. Her glamorous social set parties in oil, swims in oil and drinks oil, while a gang of pantomime villains steals sacks of oil in a bank heist. ‘I love Russia, I love oil,’ sings the girl. ‘I am this oil, I am this gas,’ her partner sings back to her. Addicted to oil, carrying this fetish in their handbags and worshipping it in their bedrooms, these people still need the products of labour – houses, cars, clothes, and also just laws and clean air – which they prefer to obtain in Italy. In the final and prophetic scene, the former oiligarch , now a homeless beggar, pours a hatful of useless oil over his head.


1 Coronil, The Magical State ; Ross, The Oil Curse ; Gaidar, Gibel’ imperii ; Di Muzio, Carbon Capitalism ; Badia-Miró et al., Natural Resources and Economic Growth ; Mitchell, Carbon Democracy ; Bridge and Le Billon, Oil ; Kallis and Sager, ‘Oil and the economy’.2 Mitchell, Carbon Democracy ; Bridge and Le Billon, Oil ; Backus and Crucini, Oil Prices and the Terms of Trade ; Kallis and Sager, ‘Oil and the economy’.3 Claes and Garavini, Handbook of OPEC and the Global Energy Order .4 Frank, Oil Empire ; Hughes, Energy without Conscience .5 Brady, Ida Tarbell .6 Fursenko, Neftianye voijny .7 McKay, ‘Baku oil and Transcaucasian pipelines’; Barry, Material Politics ; Blau and Rupnik, Baku .8 Tolf, The Russian Rockefellers .9 Conlin, Mr Five Per Cent .10 Gokay, ‘The battle for Baku’; Suny, The Baku Commune .11 Odom and Salmond, Treasures into Tractors ; Heymann, ‘Oil in Soviet-Western relations in the interwar years’.12 Tolf, The Russian Rockefellers .13 Aseev, ‘Pesnia o nefti’.14 Slavkina, Rossiiskaia dobycha .15 Etkind et al., ‘Ukrainian labour and Siberian oil in the late Soviet Empire’.16 Mitchell, Carbon Democracy .17 Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies .18 Coronil, The Magical State .19 Ross, ‘Does oil hinder democracy?’; Ross, The Oil Curse .20 Herb, ‘No representation without taxation?’.21 Bornhorst et al., ‘Natural resource endowments and the domestic revenue effort’.22 Gaidar, Gibel’ imperii .23 Ross, The Oil Curse .24 Perks and Schulz, ‘Gender in oil, gas and mining’; Daggett, ‘Petro-masculinity’; Etkind, ‘Petromacho, or mechanisms of de-modernization in a resource state’.25 Schmitt, Political Theology .26 Ross, The Oil Curse .27 Polanyi, Origins of Our Time: The Great Transformation , p. 26.28 Hayek, ‘A commodity reserve currency’; Steil, The Battle of Bretton Woods ; Mitchell, Carbon Democracy .29 Keynes, Collected Writings , Vol. 21, p. 27.30 Wong, ‘The untold story behind Saudi Arabia’s 41-year U.S. debt secret’.31 McNally, Crude Volatility ; Clayton, Market Madness ; Schneider-Mayerson, ‘From politics to prophecy’.32 Spenser, New Economics of Oil .33 Freud, ‘Character and anal eroticism’.34 Etkind and Minakov, ‘Post-Soviet transit and demodernization’.35 Gustafson, Wheel of Fortune ; Etkind, ‘Putin’s Russia: an exemplary case of hyper-extractive state’; Rogers, The Depths of Russia .36 Pokrovskij, Russkaia istorija s drevnejshikh vremen .37 Gaddy and Ickes, ‘Russia’s dependence on resources’.38 Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace , in Collected Writings , Vol. 2, p. 15.39 Novokmet et al., From Soviets to Oligarchs .40 Russel, ‘Socioeconomic inequality in Russia’.41 Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace , Vol. 2, p. 11.42 Rawls, A Theory of Justice .43 Milanović, Global Inequality .44 Wenar, Blood Oil .

Conclusion: Leviathan or Gaia

Steam and electricity liberated productive labour from its age-old dependence on a particular fixed spot that provided energy – a stable, a waterwheel or a windmill. This new-found liberty led to an unprecedented growth in industry and trade, in the consumption of resources and in the pollution of the environment. 1 Thanks to fossil fuel, production has ‘slipped the bonds of surly earth’. But extraction is still chained to those spots where natural resources and human labour meet. More and more of us carry around our daily toil in portable gadgets as we work from home or roam round our cities. But we are still dependent on a Gilgamesh who has occupied a cedar forest on the hill.

Armed with industrial technologies, we are now reverting from fossil fuel to the power of wind, water and the sun. This switch will be difficult. 2 Renewable energy will not be able to meet today’s agriculture and transport needs. A radical reduction in energy consumption is essential, but this requires billions of people to change their way of life. I am writing this in 2020, and it looks as if humankind, unable to accomplish this task, has outsourced it to the virus. We no longer travel and eat out, but our emissions are still unacceptably high. Switching to wind farms, solar panels and sophisticated batteries radically increases the need for old and new sorts of raw material, from sand to rare metals. The growth of renewable energy in the twenty-first century is slower than that of steam power in the nineteenth century. The fourth energy transition is achievable, but it will be a long-drawn-out and very difficult process. Buoyed up by enthusiasm, ‘green’ politicians underestimate these difficulties; scientists should share their knowledge with the public.

The Gaia hypothesis

About fifty years ago, the doctor and climatologist James Lovelock formulated the Gaia hypothesis. 3 The earth is a living organism, made up of human beings and other organisms, as well as the oceans, the atmosphere and the earth’s crust. The living planet, named in honour of the ancient goddess Gaia, can adapt, develop and overcome difficulties. But, as with any other organism, Gaia’s potential for self-regulation has its limits. Some injuries heal, others may become malignant. Lovelock considers humankind as part of this process. When human beings destabilise Gaia, she will sacrifice them if that’s what it takes to keep the planet healthy. According to the ancient myth, Gaia was the wife of Uranos, and she incited their son, Kronos, to castrate his father. Splashes of semen scattered around the world, giving birth to the Titans. In the Palazzo Vecchio at Florence there is a famous portrayal of this act, painted by Giorgio Vasari. Gaia is guiding the arm of Kronos as he strikes the fatal blow against the creator of the universe.

Bruno Latour took Lovelock’s ideas even further. Latour makes mighty, horrifying Gaia a symbol of nature which rises up against humankind. The philosopher insists on Gaia’s singularity and physicality but rejects the anthropomorphic idea that she has a soul or a plan. Made up of people and nature, Gaia is a single entity encompassing contradictory elements. She is both nurturing mother and castrator. She used to be both alluring and scary, but nowadays she shows us only her terrible aspect. The catastrophe that threatens us on a global scale is not a war of all against all, of people against people, but a hybrid battle of many natural forces, including human ones, for their very existence. Such a battle cannot be stopped by local Leviathans, no matter how terrible they might be. Faced with global Gaia, these giants look like midgets. The new image of power is not male but female, not political but ecological, not national but universal – but, as before, it is sublime and terrifying. Monstrous Gaia, the mother of Time, is threatening the panic-stricken world with castration – this is the philosopher’s warning to our archaic era.

Latour makes frequent and critical references to Hobbes. 4 What he is seeking is a suitable replacement for Leviathan, and he finds it in the image of Gaia. Leviathan was the idea of coercive power in the mercantile state. Dramatic but calculating, this male monster stops the war of all against all, but only on the land he has already occupied. Hobbes lived in a century of war and revolution, and he knew that, while domestic peace was possible and highly desirable, the war of all against all – a state of nature – would endure between countries. His only hope was that the sovereign could call a halt to civil war on a self-contained island. Composed of the people, Leviathan can prevent violence only within himself – within the state – but he cannot solve global problems. In the world war with nature, every state has its own interest, which usually consists of continuing the war. No single state is capable of preventing climate catastrophe or a pandemic. This can only be achieved by a new monster, the size of the planet and female. She terrifies the sovereigns just as they terrify the individual members of their societies. Gaia is needed to end the battle of them all, sovereigns and their subjects, against nature.

This is Latour’s myth, and I think there is some truth in it, and some falsehood as well. Gaia is real but not entire. She is as multitudinous as humanity, as pluralist as society. The natural history of evil has been endlessly various. Resources are all different because each and every one of them involved a particular interaction between people and nature. Each natural resource has its own political characteristics. Along with people who extract, process and trade it, each resource is a social institution which works according to the rules set by nature. To unite people and nature would entail granting rights of citizenship to natural phenomena and integrating their tales along with human voices in a comprehensive plebiscite. This is a distant utopia, but we will get there, if we survive. In the meantime we are travelling in the opposite direction, down a blind alley.

In 1974 William Nordhaus predicted the transition from a ‘cowboy economy’ to a ‘spaceship economy’. Cowboys consume as much as they like, regardless of the waste produced, because they see nature as obedient and infinite. Astronauts focus on the limited resources available to support their life, and they recycle what they have consumed. An epoch later, in 2018, Nordhaus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics for this work, but his prediction hasn’t come true. Humankind is behaving more like cowboys who find themselves in a spaceship than like astronauts who have landed on the prairie. Multiplying and fruitful, humankind is approaching the year that Nordhaus predicted for climate catastrophe – 2030. The glaciers are melting, and temperatures fluctuate widely. The summers are intolerably hot. Fires are destroying those forests that survived the axe. Fertile lands are turning into desert. Permafrost looks like marshland, and strange bubbles burst under the surface. The frontier between culture and nature is still moving, nature’s territory is shrinking, and viruses are coming out of left field. 5

During the twentieth century, the total consumption of material resources, calculated in tons, increased by a factor of eight. The world population also grew, but the extraction of material resources per head doubled in the course of the century. In 2008 the total consumption of natural resources (excluding water) consisted of 62 billion metric tonnes of raw material; in 2020 this reached 100 billion. If water is included in these calculations, the result is tripled by weight: the world uses about 100 billion tonnes of fresh water per year, most of it in agriculture. The richer the country, the more matter its citizens consume. In 2011 in India, per capita consumption of natural resources was 4 tonnes, in Canada more than 25 tonnes; an American uses thirty times as much energy as an Indian. The difference in the consumption of resources depends on the population density. Countries with sparse populations consume more raw materials and energy per capita. Towns require fewer raw materials and less energy than agricultural areas. Urbanisation saves energy and frees up land for growing forests which absorb carbon dioxide. But towns need jobs; any service – information, finances, transportation, entertainment – requires significant amounts of energy; and most energy in this world comes from fossil fuel. Modern goods undergo ‘dematerialisation’: computers are ever smaller; one smartphone now does the jobs of several bigger devices. But the total volume of raw materials consumed by humanity increases every year, both in absolute figures and as a per capita figure. Unfortunately, the saving on material is achieved because of a greater expenditure of energy.

Emissions reliably track economic growth. Between 2014 and 2020, worldwide gross product – the total of all goods and bads produced, bought and sold in the world – was growing annually by 3 to 4 per cent, and global emissions of carbon were growing by 2 to 3 per cent. Discussed by economists and promised by bureaucrats, the decoupling of these two processes has not happened. In the series of international conferences, culminating in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, governments signed up to good intentions. However, not a single developed country has met the obligations it undertook as part of the Paris Agreement. The agreed goal was to limit the increase in average global temperature to 1.5 degrees above the temperature of the planet in 1880. In fact, a rise of 2, or even 3, degrees is predicted by 2050.

Oil remains the engine of the world economy. The mining and burning of coal, the most polluting fuel, continues. Economic growth continues to be the desired goal of all the governments on earth. The use of renewable energy is growing more quickly than expected, but this trickle of good news does not make up for the torrent of bad news. The Trump administration abolished even those tentative measures to limit emissions which the Obama administration introduced. In 2018, at the summit in Katowice – the traditional centre of the Polish coal industry – United Nations experts agreed there were only ten years left for humanity to take the necessary measures to lower emissions by a factor of two – only by doing this can we reach the old goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees by 2050. But these were not the official conclusions. The four oil superpowers – the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – vetoed their adoption.

The climate has already become as warm as it was before the Ice Age, but the sea level was 30 metres higher then. Further warming will lead to the destruction of coral reefs, the flooding of island states and sea ports, a worldwide crisis in production, and the migration of populations on a massive scale. Dozens of countries – small, medium and large – will declare a state of emergency. The future fall in global output as a result of climate change is estimated at 10 to 25 per cent. Some of these predictions have already materialised. Since 1950, the number of floods has increased fifteenfold, the number of wildfires sevenfold. The first victims are those who share the earth with us but, unlike us, have no clothes, houses or air conditioners to protect them. During the last fifty years, the population of vertebrates has fallen by 60 per cent. Scientists are concerned at the disappearance of insects. Their collective biomass is diminishing at a rate of 2.5 per cent per year, and, unless something is done, by the end of the century there simply won’t be any more insects. More than half of the bee population in the USA has already died out. Pollinating countless plants, insects are a source of food for fish and birds. Thousands of their species will disappear too.

Predictions of catastrophe exert their own fascination. But the greatest disasters will be unexpected. For example, myriads of towns, railways and gas pipelines are constructed on the permafrost. As the climate warms, the permafrost will melt everywhere, but millions of people and billions of dollars depend on the chance place where the surface caves in. Forecasts extrapolate from observations that have been made in the past, but changes in the climate create a feedback loop. Living marshlands are as good as forests at absorbing carbon dioxide, but when the temperature rises the marshes perish, giving off methane. It is a vicious circle. Gradual changes alternate with explosive bursts, and they are unpredictable. That is the nature of evil.

Governments will continue to battle with the same problems with which they have always battled, such as migration. They don’t know how to cope with floods, sink holes, and the destruction of cities. Like everything to do with geography, events will occur unevenly. The coastal states of South-East Asia will come off worst. But the port cities of the Atlantic which developed for global trade will also experience their share of suffering: from Venice to Amsterdam, and from New Orleans to St Petersburg, these classical megapolises will be submerged. And, unlike the Lisbon earthquake, which could not be blamed on the sins of human beings who were simply punished for nothing, the climate catastrophe will be our fault.

Jevons’s predictions have only partly come true – coal has not even begun to run out, and oil isn’t running out either. But Jevons’s paradox is being proved with a vengeance: the more efficient the use of any sort of raw material, the more of it is consumed. So far, the only raw material of which mankind is using less, thanks to technological progress, is paper. Forests are no longer felled for the sake of bureaucratic correspondence; now they are cut down for other purposes. Even if the dreams of the Internet of Things come to pass and every home is furnished with a 3D printer which can manufacture things on the spot, this will cut out the need for transportation but will not save as much raw material and energy as was the case with paper. At the Katowice summit of 2018, experts called for a 20 per cent reduction of oil and gas production by 2030 and a 55 per cent reduction by 2050. Their plea did not fall entirely on deaf ears. The powerful American investor Warren Buffet has invested $30 billion in ‘green’ electricity generation. Another billionaire-activist, Elon Musk, plans to fill the roads with electric vehicles. Some global funds, controlling trillions of dollars, have divested from oil investments. In the face of the pandemic, the European Union has accepted an ambitious plan for a ‘green recovery’.

The parasitic state

In 1740, a Prussian prince wrote a short book entitled Anti-Machiavel . He explained that the task of the sovereign is not to seek glory or fill the treasury but to create a common good – the flourishing of his people. But when this author became Frederick the Great, he encountered various difficulties. The sovereign wants the common good, the elite is fixated on wealth, the people aspire to survive. The forms of redistribution, however, depend on the available resources. It is easier to tax grain than potatoes, bank accounts than gold. In 1917, the revolution in Russia abolished the old currency, but there was still grain stored in barns and gold in money boxes; the new state wished to confiscate them – naturally, in the name of the common good. Requisitions of grain were made by armed units, but gold and jewellery were easier to conceal from them, and a more creative strategy was practised. The government launched the chain of state-owned pawn shops known as Torgsin and invited the citizens to exchange gold for bread. The same intelligence officers who in the 1920s had engaged in the export of hemp and furs (see chapter 3 ) switched to extracting gold from the population. During the famine, these pawn shops made handsome profits. In desperation, people in the provinces had to buy food at the unheard-of prices that were fixed by officials in Moscow. The people’s gold was used to buy factories and technology – Torgsin paid for a third of the imports which were necessary for Stalin’s industrialisation. 6 Hunger created profit for the treasury and was used for the ‘development’ of the country. This is an extreme example of the mercantile pump, in which the interest of the sovereign was directly opposite to the prosperity of the people. But states have always and everywhere spread the fiction that their interests were as one with the common good.

The world in which capitalism flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was not very different from the world of Herodotus. Distant colonies supplied the imperial centres with their exotic materials, while the ruling nations created wealth from labour and knowledge. But the mass society also created something genuinely new: the enrichment of the masses was a condition for the success of the state. Neither Xerxes nor the imperial mercantilists knew such things. Although the growth of the imperial trade in sugar, cotton or opium depended on the trickling down of these former luxuries to the egalitarian masses, classical debates overlooked mass consumption as the engine of growth. The second Industrial Revolution revealed a deep paradox of the new economy: wealth rushes towards conspicuous consumption but is formed by the mass market. 7 Luxury items – for example cars – bring about economic growth only when they become cheap enough to be affordable by the majority. For the Founding Fathers, the measure of the American dream was the number of acres per household; for the Fordists, it was the number of cars on the drive.

Optimists took the new correspondence between the interests of the people and the interests of the state as a universal law of the new era; in fact, it was a temporary blip which did not survive beyond the middle of the twentieth century. Simon Kuznets, the American economist of Belarusian origin, believed that, with economic growth, income inequality first increases and then decreases. 8 In 1971, he received the Nobel Prize for Economics, and ‘the Kuznets curve’ – an arc showing the relation between the growth of national economics and the inequality of citizen’s incomes – has graced many textbooks. But all of us – global citizens and particles of Gaia – are still waiting for the downward turn of this curve. Refuting Keynes’s belief that inequality leads to fixed capital investment, inequality is greater but the investment in infrastructure is less in the early twenty-first century than it was in the second half of the twentieth century. Every year, national elites consume ever larger shares of material resources, energy and air. Globally, inequality is growing even faster than warming, and contributes to it. Soviet socialism is a thing of the past, but so is American Fordism. The post-Cold War elites have stopped investing in the illusion of their usefulness; the age of cynical reason has begun. Tired of creating myths, the most powerful people on the planet have rejected reality.

In a labour-intensive economy there are limits to inequality; in a resource-dependent economy, monopolies grow without limit, and so does inequality. A state which is a monopoly producer of raw material, or is part of a cartel of such producers, has no reason to support justice, competition and the rule of law. Such a state does not depend on taxes and thus does not depend on the population. On the contrary, the population depends on the state. Its bureaucracy redistributes wealth, reserving a generous helping for itself. Political commentators have tried out different names for this type of state: the rentier state, the neopatrimonial state, the Mafia state, the kleptocratic state, the super-extractive state … In this competition to find a fitting name for disaster, my choice is ‘the parasitic state’. The original Greek meaning of the word ‘parasite’, today familiar from its use in medicine, was a ‘hanger-on’; it is time to return this useful word to the social sciences. * The parasitic state is a political community which maintains the attributes of a state but fails to fulfil its functions. In my view, parasitism is the extreme version of mercantilism. The parasitic state retains many of the traits of the mercantile state, and in particular its focus on the growth of gold reserves thanks to the export of raw materials and the restraint on mass consumption. But unlike mercantile empires, which in their best moments realised the functions of the state within their metropolitan lands (but of course not in the colonies), the parasitic state fails to meet these functions even for its own population. Public goods are unavailable or a fiction, social capital deteriorates, people and money flee the country. Instead of the old imperial ‘progress’ we see the triumph of archaic beliefs, demodernisation and decay.

Depending on the chosen resource, the parasitic state forms under specific conditions. First, such a state relies on a primary commodity, which liberates it from dependence on labour and people. Second, this commodity must be topical, not diffused, thus providing this state with the opportunity for a monopoly price formation, alone or with a cartel of its peers. Third, the commodity must be addictive, thus promising an unlimited growth in demand. In such a state, the population is superfluous, as Hannah Arendt put it in her study of colonial and totalitarian societies. 9 Such a society cannot say to its government, ‘no taxation without representation’. Once the key enterprises require relatively little labour, the workers cannot go on strike. If the wealth of the nation doesn’t depend on the labour and knowledge of the people, health services and education become irrelevant for the national economy. Instead of being a source of national wealth, the people become recipients of state charity. In this parasitic biopolitics the population wastes away or fails to thrive, not because of a policy of deliberate extermination but due to endemic neglect. The more the state relies on natural resources, the less it invests in human capital; the lower the level of human capital, the more such a state depends on its resource extraction. The circle is vicious.

Progress and the katechon

The decades after the Second World War were the period of the ‘Great Acceleration’: the world population grew exponentially, and the consumption of raw materials grew even faster. 10 Held back by the Cold War, the growth of global inequality temporarily ceased, but the collapse of the Soviet Empire lifted self-restraint. During the last thirty years, economic inequality – a source of political evil – has grown more quickly than it ever did before, except when a victorious empire captured fresh colonies. The oiligarchs and officials of the former Soviet states have joined in this feast along with the rich of West and East, those who inherited old money and those who have made their wealth online. Puzzled, the moralists of the future will be looking for explanations as to why the people of the Anthropocene have unleashed the instincts which some of the previous epochs restrained or redirected more successfully. Latour believes that these are the last convulsions, the results of a subterranean awareness of the approaching climate catastrophe. 11 From the times of Herodotus, history has been imagined as a movement from the knowable past to the uncertain future. But the idea of social progress – history as growth – can hardly be detected even in Machiavelli; it appears in the era of great empires. The first person to use the word ‘progress’ was Francis Bacon, who oversaw England’s most successful expansion. The Age of the Enlightenment was the age of agricultural ‘improvements’ and industrial ‘growth’. Developed in the age of sugar, the tradition of Hume and Smith asserted the idea of insatiable desire. Combined with individual enrichment, service to progress became an addiction itself. Adventure and invention brought wealth which improved the lives of Europeans, while those who toiled in the mines and on the plantations could be ignored. Mass disillusionment began in the twentieth century and reached its peak after 1968. Professors’ expectations that their students would become better proletarians than the proletariat were not borne out; this led to the rejection of progressive politics and of belief in progress itself. Growth continued, but moral progress remained as mythical as the phlogiston sought by medieval alchemists.

In 1968, the industrialist and anti-fascist activist Aurelio Peccei and the chemist Alexander King declared that the end of economic growth was inevitable. If we cannot get growth with zero emissions, we will have to live in a world without growth. Having founded the Club of Rome, they succeeded in turning the idea of limited growth into a respectable project. In 2000, Al Gore, who had the greenest programme in the history of American elections, lost to George Bush, an oilman from Texas. In 2005 the Kyoto Agreement, which called for limits on emissions, was meant to come into force; the USA did not ratify it, and the treaty is ineffective. In 2009 a controversy erupted: hackers stole thousands of documents from leading climatologists. Their selective editing distorted scholarly debate to make it appear that man-made climate change was a scientific conspiracy. During the presidential campaign of 2016, a similar ‘leak’ of Democratic Party documents was very helpful to Donald Trump in his denial of global warming. In 2018, however, even the media climate changed; for example, the BBC overturned a previous ruling that discussions on climate change had to present both sides of the argument. In 2020 we see much more clearly than our predecessors in 1968 that industrial expansion must stop, not because it exhausts resources but because it pollutes the atmosphere. Coal and oil will never run out because our air will have run out long before that.

Current history feels like a movement towards foreclosure – the katechon rather than progress. 12 Envisioned by mystics and magi, the idea that the mission of humanity is to resist or defer the coming End – the idea of katechon – is a powerful explanation for the extraordinary events that we have seen between 2008 and 2020. Those who believed in progress knew that it had its friends and enemies – those who pushed it forward and those who blocked or tried to reverse it. The same goes for katechon. A feast in the time of plague was always a popular fantasy, but the politics of the twenty-first century is closer to the last battle. The rich, the smart and the powerful are quicker to panic – maybe they see the signs of disaster earlier than others, or they just have more to lose. Disenchanted with progress, the rich disinvest from the future. Instead of brokering a truce, the powerful are using the last chance to settle old scores. Scared of the present, the privileged talk ceaselessly about the past. Instead of seeing a multitude of chances and challenges, the elites foreclose on them. By denying changes and boycotting actions, they have turned themselves into Gaia’s errand boys.

The Great Acceleration ended with a global political crisis in anticipation of the catastrophe. With the arrival of COVID-19, a new clinical ecology has melded with the old political economy, but this has not necessitated radical changes. We know that the virus came from a wet market, but these gruesome institutions continue their trade. We know that, to avert the climate crisis, giving up meat is even more important than giving up petrol. But no government that depends on the popular vote will intervene so drastically in people’s behaviour: this demand is no less radical than what the early Christians did or what the Russian Bolsheviks wanted. During the pandemic of 2020, people’s ability to change their behaviour by their own will has been demonstrably lacking, and states have introduced lockdowns. The climate challenge is much tougher. The state or the system of states will have to re-educate people, recondition their ways of life and, if necessary, implement rationing. Leviathan must turn green, or implode. The rest is up to Gaia.

We are talking about deeply unpopular measures. The state remains the only power that stands between the greed of the energy barons and the tragedy of drowned cities. Adequate measures must be long-term, universal and coordinated: this is why we need the state. The climate catastrophe will happen later, but we must rein ourselves in now; people are not wise enough to do this voluntarily. Floods will begin in Holland, but it is also necessary to abstain from meat and petrol in Switzerland; people are not good enough to do this without being reminded. Having survived holy empires and world wars, humanity has never needed a social compact more than today. This must be not a contract between individual citizens but a peace treaty between people and nature. Such a treaty will hardly be concluded without sacrifices on both sides. If democratic politics does not help, then decisions will be taken under a state of emergency. The state of exception, a latter-day version of the Russian oprichnina , will discontinue the rule of law. National efforts will not be enough to cope with ecological crisis. Here we have the free-rider problem, another aspect of the tragedy of the commons: if there is no mechanism of control and compulsion, common efforts will be sabotaged by one of the players, and ultimately by all of them. Nordhaus’s plan would have prevented warming if it had been implemented in the 1990s on a global scale. However, there’s a trap: the American economist did hope to persuade his fellow countrymen to spend more and pollute less. But, for cultural rather than economic reasons, he would have had no chance in other states around the globe, from Mexico to China; and if other states continued to pollute the world, there would be no motive to stop doing it in America. International relations are considered different from internal affairs because individual states have no common interests. If common interests do emerge – for example, protection against pirates or the establishment of the gold standard – then political alliances also develop. The threat of climate catastrophe is the first genuinely common interest – a global goal which cannot be divided into parts. The sociologist Ulrich Beck said in his last book that only global warming could save us. But many – and the doctors of the Christian Church knew this all too well – simply don’t want to be saved.

Four justices

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled many governments of the world to formulate programmes of action which entail reaching carbon neutrality, removing notorious subsidies from oil producers, subsidising renewable energy and assisting the sick and the underprivileged. But again because of the pandemic, most of these ideas remain on paper. In the USA, the name of the project that is waiting for realisation, the Green New Deal, alludes to the policy which brought relief from the Great Depression. That New Deal was also green – Roosevelt’s administration founded the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 250,000 people, and was also known as ‘Roosevelt’s Forest Army’. Between 1933 and 1942, the corps planted 3 billion trees, bringing an end to the dust storms in several states. 13 Hopefully, the New Green Deal will do even more. In Europe, the ambitious but underfinanced project of green recovery has been accepted under the pressure of COVID.

The green recovery subordinates economics to politics and politics to ecology. A new programme of recognition and redistribution , it is much more inclusive than the reconstruction and welfare programmes that we saw in the past. The American philosopher Nancy Fraser has developed the concepts of recognition and redistribution in her critical analysis of justice in contemporary societies. 14 In my view, these helpful concepts should be broadened to include not only human but also non-human agents. If various elements of nature, from insects to permafrost, are recognised as critically important for the continuation of life, then multiple resources – also extracted from nature but with the added value of human labour and knowledge – should be redistributed in their favour. This will include a partial decommodification of nature: many forests will be restored, livestock farms closed, and growth discontinued. Calculated in monetary terms, gross product is the measure of the commodification of nature and labour. If different natural resources have different political characteristics, then adding them all up with goods and services is pointless. As long as national governments continue to exist, their milestones will be the gigatons of carbon released into the atmosphere; and, if we are all to survive, countries will compete not for the growth of domestic product but for the reduction of national emissions. This would be the equivalent of implementing a ‘carbon standard’, with the carbon footprint replacing gold as the general equivalent. At the moment this sounds like a utopian idea, though from the economic perspective it is quite realistic; all the obstacles are political (see chapter 13 ).

It is hard to give up the idea of unlimited growth, but we have already had to renounce many of our cherished ideas – for example, progress: our mothers and grandfathers lived worse than us, our daughters and grandsons will live better, and this assumption accords with the emotional patterns of love and pride. But, in rich countries, the under-thirties are the first generation for centuries to be worse off than their parents or grandparents. Life will be even less comfortable in a world that will be 1 or 2 degrees warmer than it is today. Floods and fires will absorb trillions of dollars, which will damage the labour market still further. Pandemics and wars will reduce life expectancy and lead to mass migrations, which will cause a further deterioration in the political climate. Most probably, the routine blessings of a modest life – a house, a car, tourist travel, holidays in the countryside and, ultimately, ‘nature’ herself – will become luxuries.

Looking back at the last hundred years, we can see that class inequality has hardly changed in the modern world – even wars and revolutions reduced it only for a short while. Gender inequality has gradually diminished thanks to women’s entry into the full-time labour market, but great differences remain. The inequality between different countries reflects the variability of nature and history – global warming will only accentuate these differences. Inequality among different age cohorts is a relatively new topic for the social sciences – but not, of course, for the moral thinkers who have repeatedly called for fathers to do the best for their children. In our pre-apocalyptic world, the ideal of cohort equality is critically important. Can we prevent the sufferings of future generations by our efforts?

Society does not live outside nature, and economic life is not separate from its ecological consequences. Every act of individual consumption causes another release of carbon into the atmosphere which we all breathe – plants, animals, people. Ecological reforms depend on behavioural changes which will amount to a revolution, and they will be impossible without equally radical changes in international relations. Only a global community can avert catastrophe, and once again revolution can succeed only if it is worldwide. The New Deal worked in one individual country, but the Green New Deal will work only on a planet-wide scale. The scale of the impending catastrophe is tantamount to the establishment of global sovereignty: the terror will come not from Leviathan but from Gaia.

If he happened to turn up in our too sunny world, Candide would recognise familiar themes. The pandemic would not surprise him – he had heard of plagues that were even more horrible. He would rejoice for Pangloss, who would be cured of his venereal disease, and would be amazed by all the gadgets in our technological Eldorado. But he would be still more astonished to hear taxi drivers banging on about prices and oligarchs, traffic jams and wildfires. He would think how simple and comprehensible the Lisbon earthquake was. It killed people but didn’t discredit humanity. Victims were counted in thousands, but there were no perpetrators. Man-made horror is a different thing altogether: it humiliates and devalues. There’s nothing worse than feeling guilty, Candide would think, observing the mess we have made of our world. For centuries people have been inflicting suffering on one another, all the while repeating sermons about goodness and peace. The reasons were and are the same – the greed of some and the stupidity of others. Greed and stupidity eat away at the foundations of solidarity which nature instilled in us. Because of them, humankind grows on nature’s beautiful body like a malignant tumour, gobbling up some of her juices and poisoning others.

‘Excellently observed,’ Candide would say; ‘but let us cultivate our garden.’ 15



1 Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene .2 Smil, Energy Transitions ; Smil, Making the Modern World .3 Lovelock, Gaia .4 Latour, Facing Gaia .5 Nordhaus, ‘Reflections on the economics of climate change’; Beck, The Metamorphosis of the World .6 Osokina, Zoloto dlya industrializatsii .7 Mokyr, The Lever of Riches ; Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul .8 Kuznets, Toward a Theory of Economic Growth .9 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism .10 Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene .11 Latour, ‘Europe as a refuge’.12 Agamben, The Time that Remains .13 Deaton, ‘How FDR fought climate change’.14 Fraser, ‘From redistribution to recognition?’; Fraser, ‘Behind Marx’s hidden abode’.15 Voltaire, Candide , p. 97.

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abolitionism 84 , 199 , 284

Clapham sect 84

Achard, Franz Karl 75

addiction 68 –84, 212 , 269

addictive vs. non-addictive commodities 68 –71

definition 62 –4

and energy 63

and fair trade 284

and fashion 171

and mercantile pump 117 , 171 , 208 , 212

and monopolies 63 , 82 , 269 , 295

and progress 263 , 296

and utilitarianism 176

Africa 6 , 11 , 21 , 24 , 57 , 67 , 77 , 106 , 114 , 128 , 131 , 137 –8, 180 , 185 , 190 –1, 213 , 253

agency 5 , 9

economic agents 189 , 282

human vs. non-human 9 , 146 , 210 , 300

Agricola, Georgius 135

agriculture 16 , 22 –38, 43 , 54 , 110 , 125 , 131 ,133 , 146 , 204 –5, 214 –15, 217 –18, 226 , 235 , 243 , 277 , 280 –1, 287 –90

air 2 , 5 , 36 , 155 , 161 –2, 177 , 226 , 279 , 286

air pump 149 –51, 212 –13

and Industrial Revolution 213

Alaska 50 , 55 –60, 261 , 275

alchemy 75 , 78 , 97 , 134 –6, 143 , 147 –55, 297

alcohol 28 , 39 , 43 , 49 , 52 , 55 , 62 , 74 , 80 , 82 –3, 139

Aleutians 50 , 55 , 58 –61

Alexander I, emperor of Russia 218 , 236

Alexander III, emperor of Russia 255

Alexander of Macedonia 47 , 129

Allen, David 37

Allen, Robert 122 , 177

almshouses 68 , 122

Alps 12 , 16 , 25 , 66 , 91 –2, 132 , 134 –9, 143 , 147

Altai 156

amanat 50

ammonia 226

Amsterdam 15 , 28 , 53 , 149 , 188 , 192 , 208 , 233 , 292

Anatolia 128 , 130 , 132

Anthropocene 5 , 296

Antichrist 142 , 157 –8

Arendt, Hannah 163 , 180 , 295

Argentina 41 , 179

Argüello, Conchita 59

Aristotle 168

Arkhangelsk 25 , 32 , 53 , 58 , 99 , 102 –4, 236

Arkwright, Richard 119 –20

Armada 17 , 144 –5

Armenians 257 –8

asceticism 80 , 89 , 172 , 174

Aseev, Nikolai 261

Asia 32 , 40 –1, 48 , 51 , 65 , 77 –8, 80 –1, 88 –90, 92 , 114 , 122 –4, 129 , 170 –1, 237 , 240 , 292

Astor, John Jacob 53

August II the Strong, elector of Saxony 149

Austen, Jane 221

Austro-Hungarian Empire 39 , 254

Axial Age 131

Azerbaijan 257 , 262 , 268

Bacon, Francis 296

Baku 244 , 255 –62

balance of trade 62 , 78 , 80 , 105 , 118 , 182 , 197 , 249 , 282

Balkans 130

Baltic Sea 16 –18, 26 , 47 , 61 , 99 , 104 –5, 141 , 149 , 152 –3

trade 17 –18, 24 , 31 –2, 95 , 101 , 111 , 146 , 198 –201, 220 , 233 –4

banks 1 , 4 , 65 , 82 , 108 , 116 , 124 , 135 –6, 139 –40, 145 , 153 , 160 , 193 , 200 , 204 , 207 , 251 , 271 , 273 , 285

central banks 181 , 183 –4, 188 –91, 218

Banks, Joseph 109

Barbados 68

Barnaul (Siberia) 159

baroque 69 , 112 , 171

barter 52 , 54 , 56 , 58 , 104 , 108

Bauman, Zygmunt 283

beaver 48 –61, 187 , 191 , 217

Beck, Ulrich 299

Beckford, William 72 –3

beet sugar 75 –6, 83 , 124 , 170

Behaim, Martin 138

Belarus 176 , 237 , 294

Benjamin, Walter 6 –7, 163 , 211

Bentham, Jeremy 55 , 113 , 120 , 175 –6, 178 , 182 , 202 , 211 , 220 , 284

Bentham, Samuel 55 –6

Berg College (Russia) 158

Bergen 25 , 141

Bergregal 153

Beria, Lavrenty 258 –9

Birmingham 115 , 245 –6

Bismarck, Otto von 228 , 246

bitumen 254

Blüher, Johann Friedrich von 157 –8

Bohemia 105 , 112 , 134 , 137 , 139 , 146 , 149

Bolotov, Andrey 27 –8

Bolsheviks 60 , 124 , 181 , 236 –7, 258 –9, 261 , 198

boreholes 3 –4, 155 , 277 –8

Bosse, Abraham 112

Böttger, Johann Friedrich 149

Boulton, Matthew 239 –40

Boyle, Richard 34 , 212 –13

Boyle, Robert 147 –50, 212 –13

Braudel, Fernand 18 , 86 , 203 , 207

Brenner, Robert 29

Bretton Woods agreement 270 –1

Bruegel, Pieter the Elder 115

bricks 11 , 15 , 127 , 129 , 132 , 233 –4, 239 , 242

Britain see Great Britain

bronze 11 , 15 , 126 –35, 137 –8, 146 , 152

Bronze Age 127 –32

Bruce, James (Jacob) 158

Bruges 108

Budnitsky, Oleg 181

Bureau of Mines (Sweden) 147 , 150 –2, 158

Burke, Edmund 77 , 215

Cabot, Sebastian 57 , 97

calico 36 , 101 , 114 –18, 120 , 122 , 125 , 172 –3, 178

California 56 , 58 –9, 61

Caligula 1

cameralism 110 , 150 –5, 243

and mercantilism 151 , 243

and physiocrats 152

Campomanes, Pedro 108 –9

Canada 46 , 52 –4, 61 , 73 , 177 , 187 , 191 , 213 , 217 , 237 , 290

canals 3 , 19 , 28 , 40 , 54 , 104 , 191 , 143 , 158 , 202

in France 19 , 31 –2

in the German lands 143 –5

in Louisiana 116

in Mesopotamia 24

in the Netherlands 35 , 145 , 231 –6

in Russia 32 –5, 158 –9, 256

in Venice 65

Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire) 7 , 53 , 76 , 188 , 193 , 196 , 217 , 284 , 301 –2

cane sugar

and Bentham, 175 –6

and the family 82 –3

geography 67 –9, 118

and Hume 172 –5, 296

institutions 69 –76

and Malthus 219 –21

natural history 62 –4, 66 –7, 70 –1, 75 –6, 116 , 187 , 191 , 254

and physiocrats 214 –17

politics of 72 –6, 170

prices 60 , 74 –6, 198 , 216 –17

and trickling down 71 –5, 293

see also addiction; mercantile pump

Cantillon, Richard 161 , 193 –5, 203 , 214 , 225

Canton (Guangzhou) 56 , 58 , 71 , 81 , 172

capital, 2 , 63 , 116 , 122 , 127 , 153 , 162 , 169 , 179

in Marx 60 , 166 , 177 , 209 –11, 221 –2, 241 , 252 , 283

and mono-resource 177 , 274 , 277 –9, 285

carbon dioxide 146 , 237 , 253 , 290 , 292

Carneiro, Roberto 23

Carpathians 130 , 134 , 137 , 140

cartels 178 , 251 , 284

Cartier, Jacques 51

Castile 107 –8, 137 , 144 , 146

Catherine the Great, empress of Russia 50 , 54 –6, 61 , 105 , 216 –17

Caucasus 13 , 134 , 192 , 256 , 258 –9

cereals 13 , 21 , 23 , 26 , 34 , 36 , 81 , 147 , 221

Chancellor, Richard 97 –8

charcoal 15 , 17 , 19 , 128 , 130 , 132 , 154 , 157 , 234 , 239

Charles I, king of Spain (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor) 108 , 140 –1, 143 –4

Charles XII, king of Sweden 150 –1

Chartist movement (Great Britain) 247

Chayanov, Alexander 30 –1, 82 , 124 , 174

Chernykh, Yakov 60

Chichagov, Vasily 54

Childe, V. Gordon 131

China 6 , 21 , 24 , 40 , 51 , 53 –6, 77 –81, 88 , 90 , 96 –101, 105 , 114 , 129 , 133 –4, 149 , 171 –2, 179 , 181 , 184 , 186 , 120 , 247 –8, 282 , 299

chocolate see cocoa/chocolate

Christiany, Johann Samuel 159

Churchill, Winston 244

cities 69 , 121 , 125 , 145 , 169 , 200 , 208 , 281

capital cities 15 , 19 , 31 –3, 49 , 72 , 112 , 124 , 246 ;

industrial cities (agglomerations) 36 , 119 , 124 , 241 , 245 –8, 258 –9

market cities 28 , 35 –6, 40 , 47 , 83 , 91 , 169 , 208

port cities 24 , 33 , 45 , 54 , 56 , 64 , 77 –81, 95 , 100 , 104 –6, 117 –18, 145 , 169 , 198 , 200 , 208 , 232 , 291

town and country 31 , 34 , 82 , 166 , 281

civilising mission 190 , 237

clay 15 –17, 19 , 22 –3, 127 , 129 , 232 , 239 , 255

climate catastrophe 5 –6, 279 , 289 , 291 –2, 196 , 298 –9

climate change 5 –6, 11 –14, 145 –6, 162 , 231 , 279 , 289 –92, 296 –300

Club of Rome 297

Clyde river 242


and climate 291 –2, 297

extraction 15 , 116 , 238 –40, 250

geography 121 , 133 , 159 , 195 , 202 –3, 234 , 243 , 246

institutions 206 –7, 218 , 223 –4, 239 –40, 245 –8, 278

natural history 231 , 238

(Video) Они сражались за Родину (военный, реж. Сергей Бондарчук, 1975 г.)

and oil 264 –74

and peat 231 –40

politics of 223 –5, 227 –8, 243 –9

processing 178 , 239

see also Industrial Revolution

Cobden, Richard 36 –7, 80

Cocchi, Antonio 42

Cockayne, William (alderman) 111 , 118

cocoa/chocolate 62 –3, 68 –71, 83 , 169

chocolate clubs 74 , 79

cod 1 , 44 –5, 48 , 145 , 170

coffee 62 –3, 69 , 71 , 74 –5, 82 –4, 169 , 187 –8, 209 , 215 –16, 264 , 284

coffeehouses 75 , 79 , 188 , 200

Cold War 171 , 252 , 260 , 262 , 294 , 296

collectivisation, collective farms (Soviet Union) 35 , 37 , 125 , 262

colonial stores (épicerie , Kolonialhandlung ) 169 , 212

colonies 7 , 15 , 32 , 55 , 57 –9, 81 , 99 , 176 , 185 –7, 198 –9, 217 , 258 , 275

overseas vs. European 18 –19, 33 –4, 99 –104, 154 , 165 , 170 , 176 , 187 , 220 , 227 –8, 234 –6

colonisation 3 , 18 , 49 –50, 56 , 68 , 97 , 129

external vs. internal 6 , 99 –100, 222 , 227 , 234 , 236

commodification 1 , 169 –70, 212

commodities 1 –9, 51 , 84 , 87 , 119 , 126 , 165 , 168 –70, 175 , 177 –8, 214 , 241 –2, 271

addictive vs. satiable 62 –4, 69 , 82 –3, 117 , 173

branded vs. sorted 71 , 284

and colonies 198 –9

and finished goods 5 , 91 , 163 , 169 , 194 , 209

and institutions 5 , 9 , 70 , 275 –6, 285 , 289

and mercantile pump 211 –13

and monopolies 139 –42, 178 , 200 –2, 253 , 269

and natural resources 168 –70

and parasitic state 295

and prices 33 , 194 , 226 –7, 272 –3

raw vs. dry 168 –9, 212

common good 7 , 44 , 145 , 172 , 293


Company of Merchant Adventurers 109

Company of Merchants of the Staple 110

Darien Company 186 –7

Dutch East India Company 51 –3, 84 , 105 , 115 , 234 , 258

Dutch West India Company 234

Eastland Company 11 , 149

English (British) East India Company 74 , 77 –8, 94 , 147 , 172 , 193

Hudson Bay Company, 52 –3, 57

joint stock companies 115 , 202 , 232

Mississippi Company 190 –2, 195 , 217

Muscovy Company of England 51 , 57 , 97 –8, 101 –3, 111

Russian-American Company 57 –9

South Sea Company 184 –5, 221

Transcaucasian company (a project) 192 –3

Confucianism 79 , 81 , 133

Congo 84

Conrad, Joseph 84

consumption 12 , 15 , 43 , 167 , 170 , 178 , 224 , 234 , 242 , 260 –3

and demand-side modernisation 175 , 263

and ‘effectual demand’ (Malthus) 221 –2

elite vs. mass consumption 35 , 39 , 41 –3, 47 –8, 68 –73, 76 , 110 –12, 124 , 267 , 294

and emissions 278 –9, 287

etymology 63

and gender 82 –3, 117

and mercantile pump 211 –13

and production 62 –4, 174 , 252

and ‘refinement of taste’ (Hume) 172 –5, 211

Continental System 36 , 105 –6

Cook, James (captain) 55 , 220

coolies 79 , 85

copper 1 , 127 –55, 159 , 172 , 180

Corn Laws 36 –7, 220

Coronil, Fernando 4 , 264

corruption 77 , 134 , 180 , 277 , 282

Cossacks 49 –50, 56

costs 4 , 41 , 46 , 57 , 68 , 70 , 110 , 122 , 124 , 126 , 128 , 251 , 273 , 279 –80

extraction costs 91 , 115 , 178 , 251 , 264 , 272 , 279 –80

labour costs 110 , 122 , 194 , 264

protection/security costs 68 , 251 , 268 , 277

transportation costs 17 –19, 26 , 32 –3, 35 –6, 41 , 46 –7, 57 , 82 , 87 , 108 , 162 , 177 , 194 , 256

cottage industry (proto-industry) 26 , 82 , 101 , 110 –13, 117 –18, 121 –2, 207 , 212


extraction 116

geography 114 –16, 122

natural history 87 , 93 , 113 –15, 167 , 284

politics of 36 –7, 120 , 124 , 178 , 218 , 228 , 242 , 267

processing 117 –21, 170

and slavery 67 –8, 93 , 115 –16

COVID-19 pandemic 61 , 250 , 298 –9

Crimean War 104 , 122 –3, 277

critical theory 5 , 162 –3, 220

crop rotation 4 , 24 –9, 34 –5, 215 , 235

Crosby, Alfred 94 , 98

cultural reflections 3 , 7 , 22 , 42 , 48 , 59 , 69 , 84 , 105 , 110 , 112 –13, 115 , 127 , 138 , 165 , 171 , 183 –5, 187 –9, 195 –6, 201 –2, 216 –17, 263 , 286 , 288 , 301 –2

curators (of commodity trade) 91 –2, 102 , 108 , 117 , 134 –5

customs officials 84 , 98 , 112 , 216 , 220

da Gama, Gaspar 138

da Gama, Vasco 137

Danzig 18 , 25 , 31 , 135 , 141

Darby, Abraham 158 , 239

Davenant, Charles 112 –13, 199 , 216

Davenant, William 112

De Geer, Louis 146

de La Rivière, Lemercier 216

de Toledo, Francisco 143

de Vries, Jan 35 , 170

Decembrist Revolt 59

decolonisation 45 , 75 , 84 –5, 199 , 260

and post-catastrophic 195 , 214 , 301

and post-colonial 6 , 166 , 196 , 217 –18

and post-socialist 6 , 166 , 270 , 282

Dee, John 57 , 97

Defoe, Daniel 183 –6, 193

deforestation 17 –20, 25 , 116 , 234 , 281

Demidov family 155 –60

Akinfy 159

Nikita 158 –9

Nikolay 160

Prokofiy 160

demodernisation 276 , 295

Derzhavin, Gavriil 56

Deterding, Henri 258 –9

DeWolf, John 58

diamonds 161 , 178

diets 12 , 22 , 29 , 39 –43, 62 , 74 , 79 , 83 , 172

division of labour (specialisation) 69 –70, 93 , 107 , 124 , 143 , 201 , 218 –19

and agriculture 203 –6, 218

and extraction 206 –8

and mining 245

Domesday Book 240

Donbas 246 , 258 –9


etymology 168

soft drugs 63 –4, 66 -–86, 175

Dürer, Albrecht 137

Dutch disease 177 , 195 , 249 , 274 –6

Dutch Republic 17 , 28 , 31 , 35 , 145 –6, 199 , 231 –7

dyes 87 , 93 , 111 , 113 , 118 , 144 , 168 , 198 , 216

dykes 232 , 234

economic growth 27 , 37 , 116 , 122 , 171 , 174 , 176 , 221 , 226 , 242 , 252 , 272 , 287 , 300

and addiction 62 –4, 252

and emissions 290 –1, 297

and inequality 267 , 294 –6

limits to growth 124 , 162 , 279 , 297

economy of scale 5 , 37 , 70 , 115 , 119 , 245 , 281

Edelman, Maurice 264

Edward VI, king of England 97 , 162

Eldorado 4 , 7 , 34 , 142 –3, 226 , 256 , 301

Elizabeth I, queen of England and Ireland 17 , 34 , 68 , 94 , 97 , 100 , 102 , 141 , 160

emissions 41 , 43 , 237 , 250 , 253 –4, 278 –81, 287 –91, 297 , 300

empires 3 , 6 , 16 , 170 , 176 , 180 , 183 , 196 , 216 –17, 298

and natural resources 32 , 37 , 50 , 56 –60, 63 , 69 , 74 , 77 –85, 97 , 104 –9, 123 , 132 , 141 , 144 –6, 149 , 161 , 169 , 198 –9, 211 –13, 243 , 252

overseas vs. terrestrial 25 , 153 –4, 165 , 187 , 191 , 220 , 242 –3

see also mercantilism

employment 26 , 30 , 90 , 169 , 228 , 248 , 268 , 274

enclosures 37 , 109 –10, 125 , 211 –12

energy 3 , 5 , 12 –15, 63 , 74 –6, 119 , 159 , 226 , 231 –87

Engels, Friedrich 209 –10, 245

Enlightenment 7 , 79 , 84 , 108 , 195 –6, 203 , 216 , 222 , 235 , 296

and consumption 71 , 161 –2, 170 –1, 211 , 222

entrepreneurs 32 , 46 , 80 , 91 , 119 , 134 , 148 , 156 , 182 , 195 , 207 , 252 , 255 –6, 283

see also curators

environment 13 , 93 –4, 102 , 114 , 154 , 231 , 233 , 241 , 249 –50, 276 , 278 , 281 –2, 287 –8, 298 –9

epidemic (pandemic) 2 , 22 , 58 , 76 –8, 92 , 134 , 146 , 273 –4, 289 , 292 , 300 –1

COVID-19 pandemic 61 , 250 , 298 –9

Epiphany Premudry 49

equilibrium theory 178 , 226

Ercker, Lazarus 149

Euler, Leonhard 235

Eurasia 6 , 12 –13, 24 , 47 , 51 , 88 , 123 , 131 , 227 , 250

Europe 6 , 12 , 17 , 19 , 25 , 28 , 31 , 34 –5, 37 , 67 –8, 70 , 78 , 121 , 134 , 145 –6, 200 , 225 , 240 , 248 , 260

Northern vs. Southern 16 –18, 24 –5, 44 , 52 , 82 , 95 , 148 , 152 –3, 231

Western vs. Eastern 20 , 26 , 29 , 40 , 83 , 111 , 156 , 170 –1, 194 , 227 , 234 , 248

European Coal and Steel Community 248

European Union 248 , 274 , 292 , 299

exchange standards 177 , 194

carbon standard 278 –9, 300

gold standard 179 –82

oil standard 270 –4

exclusif in French colonies 215

exotic, exoticization 71 , 118 , 135 , 156 , 165 , 170 , 208 , 293

extraction 4 , 84 , 91 , 118 , 134 , 154 , 202 , 206 , 230 , 243 –5, 252 –3, 264 , 268 , 278 , 290 , 296

and division of labour 205 –7

vs. processing 84 , 165 , 287

factories 29 , 36 , 41 , 69 –70, 98 –9, 117 , 119 , 138 , 149 , 156 –8, 184 , 209 , 212 , 242 , 245 , 258

factors of production 41 , 162 , 279 , 281

Fair Trade 84 , 284

fallow fields 25 , 27 –8, 34

Falun (Sweden) 150

famines 2 , 22 , 35 , 37 –8, 81 , 293

see also hunger

farms 26 –8, 32 , 35 –6, 117 , 169 , 205

arable farms 25 , 29 , 35 –9, 41 , 70 , 131 , 169 , 218 , 280

cattle farms 25 , 29 , 40 , 43 , 235 , 281

farm subsidies 36 , 43 , 277 , 280 –1

see also subsistence farming

fashion 53 –4, 61 , 63 –4, 89 , 110 , 117 , 167 , 171 –3, 183 , 188 , 201 –2, 208 , 263 , 281 , 286

fasts, fasting 40 , 44

fenlands 234

fertilisers 25 , 35 , 41 , 88 , 125 , 176 –7, 215 , 226 –7, 232 , 253 , 260 , 280

fetish, fetishism 3 , 64 , 177 , 265 , 286

in Marx 4 , 166 , 209 –11

and mono-resource platforms 3 , 64 , 110 , 145 , 176 –9

and staple thesis (Innis) 4 , 54 , 177

feudalism 5 , 72 , 100 , 140

fibres 25 , 31 , 86 –127, 132 , 135 , 167 , 240 , 253

and fiscal-military state 86

institutions 31 , 91 , 97 –103, 106 –7, 115

natural history 87 –90, 92 –3, 113 –14

processing 87 , 95 , 110 , 116 –18

Filippov, Alexander 98

fire 11 –19, 22 , 25 , 37 , 46 , 59 , 64 , 90 , 136 , 147 , 150 –1, 193 , 232 –3, 236 –40, 242 –3, 247 , 251 , 254 –5, 289 , 300

firearms 52 , 58 , 244

firewood 31 –3, 36 , 66 , 132 , 143 , 169 , 203 , 232 –3, 236 , 238 –40, 243

First World War 19 , 39 , 181 , 225 –6, 244 , 252 , 258 , 260


extraction 4 , 44

geography 44 , 54 , 58 , 102 , 275

institutions 44 –6, 54 , 71 206

natural history 44 , 168

politics of 45 , 61 , 198 –9

processing 44 –6, 48

Fisher, Irving 226

Flanders 92 , 108 –9, 185 , 194 –5

flint 1 , 11 –12, 161 , 170

Flodorf, Adrian von 102

floods 21 , 23 , 42 , 65 , 134 , 138 , 200 , 224 , 232 , 234 , 240 –1, 291 –2, 298 , 300

Florence 42 , 48 , 91 , 160 , 288

food 1 , 24 , 41 , 43 –4

consumption 11 –13, 69 , 174

and emissions 43 , 280 –1

exchange for other resources 13 , 41 , 71 , 100 , 125 , 181 –2, 194 , 212 , 223 –6, 279 –82, 293

food security 37 , 211 , 219 –22, 234 , 242 , 262

production 36 –41, 44 , 113

Food Programme 38 , 262 , 282

Ford, Henry 226

Fordism 263 , 294

forests 4 , 11 –20, 23 –5, 36 , 46 –7, 55 , 68 , 88 , 100 , 116 , 128 , 134 , 139 , 146 , 150 , 152 –3, 156 , 237 –8, 241 , 243 , 281 , 287 , 289 –90, 292 , 300

see also timber

Forster, George 55

fossil fuels 12 , 19 , 61 , 86 , 238 –87, 290

France 19 , 29 , 31 , 34 , 51 –3, 64 , 66 , 68 , 73 , 75 , 105 –6, 109 , 115 , 138 , 145 , 158 , 169 , 187 , 190 , 193 –6, 213 –16, 234 , 247 –8, 260 , 282 , 285

Franklin, Benjamin 218 , 220

Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria-Hungary 254 –5

Fraser, Nancy 300

Frederick the Great, king of Prussia 34 , 52 , 75 , 153 –5, 227 , 235 , 237 , 293

free-rider problem 298

free trade 36 –7, 76 , 79 –81, 98 , 102 , 113 , 199 , 201 –2, 213 , 216 –19, 224 , 227 –8, 234 , 249 , 262 , 272

French West Indies 68 , 215 –17

Freud, Sigmund 274

frontier 11 , 16 , 60 , 134 , 169 , 224 , 228 , 290

Fugger, Jakob 108 , 135 –44, 207 , 257 , 283


extraction 47 –61

geography 46 –8, 54 , 56 –61

institutions 48 , 53 , 56 –60, 177 , 293

natural history 14 , 46 –7

politics of 48 –61, 101

processing 47 –53

furnaces 19 , 127 –30, 132 , 134 –5, 137 , 139 –40, 143 , 147 –8, 155 , 157 , 159 , 239 –40

Fursenko, Alexander 255

fustian 115 , 135

Gaddy, Clifford 277

Gaia 287 –9, 294 , 298 , 301

Gaidar, Yegor 267 , 282

Galicia 16 , 254 –5

Gandhi, Mahatma 42 , 66

gender 82 , 117 , 263 –4, 267 –8, 283 , 301

see also petromacho ; women

generations 12 , 36 , 68 , 120 , 132 , 151 , 174 , 182 , 202 , 218 , 225 , 255 , 260 , 274 , 292 , 300

Georgians 257 , 258

Germany (German lands) 15 , 40 , 47 , 53 , 61 , 135 , 141 , 145 , 148 , 151 –4, 169 , 226 –8, 233 , 250 , 259 –62, 265 , 268 , 270 , 274 , 285

ghost acres 28 , 35 , 69 , 118 , 195 , 242

Gilgamesh 23 –4, 153 , 216 , 287

Gladstone, Helen 80

Gladstone, John 72

Gladstone, William 80

Glasgow 200 –3

Global North 6 , 43

Godwin, William 219 –20

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 154 , 210

gold 4 –5, 270

Arendt on 180

Freud on 274

institutions 144 –6, 179 –82, 197 –8, 282 , 295

politics of 1 –2, 145 , 180 –2, 295

seeking gold 15 , 20 , 34 , 128 , 136 , 147 –50

Goody, Jack 129

Gore, Al 297


granaries 18 , 22 –4, 31 , 128 , 169 , 227

natural history 23 –4

prices 18 , 32 , 36 –7, 83 , 102 , 109 , 194 , 203 , 220 , 226 , 239 , 243 , 277 , 280 –1

productivity 25 , 177 , 226 , 280

serfdom and 18 , 35 , 96

trade 18 , 25 –6, 28 , 33 , 37 , 83 , 104 , 169 , 214 , 227 –8, 233 –4

Great Acceleration 296 , 298

Great Britain 15 , 37 , 81 –2, 105 –6, 181 , 220 , 245 , 247 –50, 260 , 270 –1, 292

Great Depression 226 , 263 , 270 , 299

Great Northern War 150

Great Silk Road 56 , 86 , 89

Green New Deal 279 , 299 , 301

green recovery 274 , 292 , 299

Greppi, Antonio 207

Griboyedov, Alexander 192 –3

guano 176 –7, 222

guilds 92 , 139 , 144 , 217 , 246

see also Mesta

Guizot, François 75 –6

gulag (Soviet labour camp) 181

Gulbenkian, Calouste 257 , 259

gunpowder 7 , 17 , 45 , 56 , 149 , 169 , 218

Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden 146

Haber, Fritz 74 , 177 , 226

Habermas, Jürgen 74

Habsburgs 107 , 136 –7, 145 , 153 , 199

Hamilton, Alexander 118 , 123 , 218

Hanseatic League (Hansa) 25 , 44 , 47 –8, 111 , 140 –1, 208

Harley, Robert 184

Hastings, Warren 77

Hayek, Friedrich 271

Heathcote, Gilbert 198

Heckscher, Eli 41

Hegel, G. W. F. 75

hemp 1 , 5 , 9

geography 92 , 97 –9

institutions 57 , 86 , 94 , 101 –3

narcotic qualities 96 –8

natural history 92 –3, 97

politics of 104 –6, 121

processing 95

trade 24 –5, 32 , 51 , 57 , 72 , 86 , 101 –6, 149 , 153 , 199 , 218 , 267 , 293

Herodotus 96 , 165 , 166 , 293 , 296

herring 44 , 48 , 141 , 170 , 207

Herzen, Alexander 105

Hitler, Adolf 42 , 227 –8, 259

Hittites 130 , 132

Hjärne, Urban 147

Hobbes, Thomas 112 –13, 152 , 202 , 210 , 288

Leviathan 112

Hobsbawm, Eric 82

Holbein, Hans (the Younger) 138

Hollar, Wenzel 112

Holwell, John 42

Holy Roman Empire 108 , 136 , 141 , 152 , 161

Hong Kong 79 , 81

Hong Xiuquan 80

Hoover, Herbert 136

Hoover, Lou 136

Hubbert, Marion King 273

Hudson, Henry 51 , 191

Huguenots 75 , 158 , 216

human capital 180 , 229 , 267 , 276

Humboldt, Alexander 154 , 176 –7, 220

Hume, David 74 , 172 , 186

hunger 48 , 78 , 80 –1, 134 , 171 , 219 , 226 , 279

see also famines

Hurons 52 , 101

Hutten, Ulrich von 142

hydraulic works 235 , 242 , 278

hydroelectric plants 275

Ickes, Barry 277

Ignatieff, Nikolay 80

imitation 42 , 71 , 83 , 148 –9, 170 –3

and import substitution 75 –6, 83 , 94 , 124 , 170 , 173 , 193 , 198

and progress 174

Incas 34 , 176

India 4 , 17 , 42 , 51 , 66 , 74 , 77 –81, 84 , 94 , 98 , 105 , 111 , 114 –15, 118 , 137 , 165 , 170 , 225 , 290

indirect rule 51 , 123

Industrial Revolution 118 –21, 160 , 207 , 213

and coal 203 , 243 –5

and patents 116 , 120 , 240

and proto-industry 212

and slavery 85

and watermills 240 –2

industrialisation 124 , 133 , 207 , 258 –9, 261 , 293

inequality 5 , 294 , 300 –1

criticisms of 33 , 42 , 84 , 178

and geography 77 , 121 251

and metals 127 , 129 , 195

and oil 251 , 267 –9, 276 , 278 , 281 –5

and political evil 5 , 42 , 68 , 79

inflation 4 , 83 , 145 , 182 , 238 , 248 , 263 , 265 , 272 , 274

infrastructure 23 , 161 , 283 , 294

see also transportation

Innis, Harold 4 , 53 –4, 177

insects 88 –9, 92 , 114 , 167 , 291 , 300

institutions 5 , 9 , 70 , 86 , 179 , 232 , 246

and resources 5 , 9 , 274 –6, 285

insurance 45 , 200

Ireland 34 , 37 , 95 , 100 , 102 , 113 , 199 , 212 , 220 –2, 237

iron 127 , 130 –4, 152 , 218

bog iron (limonite) 130 –3, 155 –6

Iron Age 130 –2

iron goods 18 , 25 , 27 , 47 , 51 , 101 , 104 , 133 , 201

see also metallurgic processes

Iroquois 51 –3

Istanbul (Tsargrad, Constantinople) 49 , 217

Italy 17 , 25 , 44 , 90 –2, 117 –18, 129 , 143 , 160 , 193 , 234 , 286

Ivan III, grand prince of Moscow 141

Ivan the Terrible, tsar of Russia 97 –103, 162

Ivanovo (central Russia) 122

Jamaica 45 , 68 –9, 72 –3, 84 , 221

James I, king of England and Ireland (James VI of Scotland) 102 –3, 111

Japan 56 , 71 , 81 , 88 , 90 , 92 , 260

Jefferson, Thomas 59 , 109 , 217 –18

Jenkinson, Anthony 98

Jesus 1 , 42

Jevons, William Stanley 64 , 193 , 223 –6, 243 –4, 273 , 292

Jevons paradox 64 , 292

Jews 41 , 127 , 227 –8, 237

Justi, Johann von 54 –5, 159

Kant, Immanuel 167

kaolin 149

katechon 296 –7

Katowice 291 –2

Katte, Hans Hermann von 235

Kaufmann, Konstantin 124

Keats, John 187

kerosene 254 –7, 259

Kett, Robert, rebellion 110

Keynes, John Maynard 5 , 219 , 221 –3, 225 –7, 248 , 271 , 273 , 279 , 283 , 294

Commod Control 227 , 248

Khlysts (Russian sect) 42

Khodorkovsky, Mikhail 155

Kirkcaldy 186

Kirov, Sergey 258 –9

Knorr, Klaus 198

Kodiak island 55 , 58

Kokorev, Vasily 255

Kolchak, Alexander 181

Königsberg 18

Krasin, Leonid 259

Krusenstern, Ivan 57

Küstrin 235

Kuznets, Simon 294

Kyakhta 56 , 105

Kyoto Agreement 290 , 297

La Salle, Robert Cavelier de 187

labour 2 –5, 9 , 14 , 29 , 41 , 45 –6, 51 , 54 –5, 60 –1, 67 –70, 82 –3, 85 –6, 88 –9, 93 , 95 , 101 –7, 110 , 113 , 115 –18, 121 –2, 124 –6, 128 , 152 , 156 , 157 , 165 –8, 172 , 174 –5, 177 –81, 185 , 188 , 193 –5, 201 –14, 216 , 218 –19, 222 , 224 –7, 229 , 233 –4, 241 –3, 245 –7, 249 , 251 –2, 254 , 257 , 262 , 265 –6, 269 –71, 275 , 278 –81, 283 –7, 293 –5, 300 –1

forced labour 18 , 26 , 60 , 67 , 75 –6, 85 , 93 , 170

labour-dependent countries 177 –9, 285 –6

labour-intensive commodities 2 , 18 , 39 , 67 , 157 , 233 , 247 –9, 266 , 271 , 278 , 294

labour theory of value 162 –3, 201 , 209 –11

landowners 1 –2, 18 , 26 –31, 34 –6, 101 , 105 , 107 , 109 , 115 , 121 , 134 , 139 , 149 , 153 , 173 , 194 –5, 217 , 222 , 241 , 284

Langsdorf, Georg 57

Lasky, Jan 51

Latour, Bruno 4 , 283 , 288 –9, 296

laudanum 78

Law, John 186 , 189 –94, 214

law of comparative advantage 3 , 178 –9, 194 , 208 , 225

law of diminishing returns 4 , 25 , 65 , 253 , 262

laziness, indolence, idleness 28 , 30 , 34 , 82 , 116 , 171 , 173 –5, 221 –2

and natives 221 –2

and peasants 30 , 82 , 114 , 170 –4, 205

statistical use of the three words 173

see also mercantile pump

lead (metal) 64 , 136 –7, 143 , 147 –8, 150 , 152

League of Nations 227

Lebensraum 227

Ledyard, John 55

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 77 , 154

Lenin, Vladimir 117

Leviathan 112 –13, 124 , 202 , 210 , 232 , 252 , 287 –9, 298 , 301

Liebig, Justus von 41

linen (and flax) 16 , 25 , 30 , 83 , 86 , 92 –6, 100 , 102 , 104 , 114 –20, 122 , 135 , 152 , 194 , 207 , 233

Linnaeus, Carl 151

Lisbon earthquake 7 , 195 , 292 , 301

List, Friedrich 218 , 246

Little Ice Age 146 , 231

Liverpool 72 , 116

Locke, John 163 , 216

Lomonosov, Mikhail 236

London 15 , 19 , 28 , 31 , 33 , 36 –7, 42 , 45 , 48 , 72 , 74 , 94 , 98 , 106 , 111 –12, 116 , 141 , 147 , 149 , 151 , 172 , 186 , 188 –9, 193 , 201 –2, 209 , 212 , 238 , 242 , 246 , 257 , 285

Louis XIV, king of France 66 , 73 , 187 –8

Louisiana 59 , 71 , 106 , 116 , 187 , 190 –1, 195 , 213 , 273

Lovelock, James 287 –8

Luhansk 241

Lukashevich, Ignatius 254

Luther, Hans 139

Luther, Martin 6 , 139 –40, 142 , 147 , 153 , 283

luxury 40 , 48 , 68 , 73 , 88 –9, 100 , 198 , 214 –15, 218 , 294

debate on 42 , 18 , 171 –4, 293 –4

and temptation 173 –5

top-down movement 92 , 170 –1, 211

see also imitation; mercantile pump

Macauley, Zachary 84

Machiavelli, Niccolò 152 , 296

Macron, Emmanuel 281

Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson) 215

Maestro Lorenzo 144

Magellan, Ferdinand 138

Magnus, Olaus 136

malaria 186 , 190 , 235 –6

Malthus, Robert 30 , 40 , 166 , 170 , 211 , 219 –26, 243 , 280 –1

Manchester 36 , 42 , 80 , 87 , 119 , 121 , 209 , 220

Mandeville, Bernard 171 –2

Mandeville, John 114

Mansfeld (Saxony) 139 –40

Mantashev, Alexander 257 –8

Manuel I, king of Portugal 138

manure 25 , 27 –8, 149 , 172 , 232

Marggraf, Andreas Sigismund 75

Marshall, John 178

Marshall Plan 260 , 263

Martens, Adolph 132

martensite (metal) 132

Martinique 68 , 188 , 216

Marx, Karl 4 , 6 , 30 , 37 , 60 , 163 , 166 , 170 , 180 , 205 –6, 252 , 270

and nature 209 –11

Mary I, queen of England 98

mass consumption 15 , 39 , 41 , 47 –8, 69 , 71 , 73 , 117 , 170 , 175 , 211 , 267 , 294 , 295

material turn (materiality) 5 –6, 161 , 180 , 209

Matthew (Apostle) 1

meat 12

abstaining from 42 –3, 61 , 298

consumption 40 , 73

and emissions 43 , 61 , 279 –80

preservation 40 –1, 46 , 169 –70

production 12 , 109

trade 32 , 35 , 169

see also vegetarianism

Mediterranean 17 , 24 , 31 , 65 , 114 , 128 , 145

melancholy 5 , 78

Mellon, Andrew 259

Melville, Herman 59

Mendeleev, Dmitry 255 –6, 259

mercantile pump 197 , 212 –13, 273 , 293

mercantilism 5 , 17 , 37 , 65 , 72 , 91 , 95 , 113 , 123 , 151 , 166 , 175 , 182 , 185 , 198 –9, 211 –12, 249 , 275

and empires 86 , 95 , 180 , 112 , 182 , 202 , 288 , 295

mercantile vs. mercantilist 72

and population 153 , 175 , 197

post-Soviet Russia as a mercantile state 182 , 266 , 282 , 295

mercenaries 48 , 50 , 102 , 105 , 137 , 142 , 183

merchant-carriers 77 , 88 , 198 , 262

mercury 52 , 135 , 141 , 143 –4, 147 –8, 152 , 207

(Video) Служебный роман, 1 серия (FullHD, комедия, реж. Эльдар Рязанов, 1977 г.)

Mesopotamia 21 , 23 –4, 26 , 31 , 128

Mesta 106 , 108 –9

metallurgic processes 17 , 52 , 128 –36, 143 , 146 , 150 , 155 –6

cupellation 128 , 132 , 143

forging 17 , 130 , 132 –3, 136 , 148 , 156 , 207

liquation 135 , 137 , 143

patio process 144

smelting 15 , 17 , 19 , 126 , 128 –30, 132 –4, 139 , 143 , 146 , 148 , 155 –6, 207 , 240

tempering 132 , 148 , 154

metals 1 –3, 48 , 228 , 278 , 287

and capital 126 –7, 180 , 203

extraction 18 –19, 125 –34, 138 –40

geography 123 , 127 , 134 , 145 , 162

institutions 31 , 37 , 131 –3, 137 –8, 141 , 151 –5, 158 –9

and knowledge 75 , 135 –7, 147 –51

and miners 130 , 139

and the natives 143 –4, 156 –7

processing 128 –30, 133

see also rare metals

metropole 73 , 87 , 162 , 166 , 170 , 198 , 212

see also mother country

Mexico 68 , 90 , 179 , 221 , 260 , 269 , 299

Meyrick, John 103 , 111

Michelet, Jules 188

middle class 42 , 83 , 115 , 174 , 218 , 221 –3

Middle East 39 , 66 , 96 , 128 , 131 , 248 , 253 , 260 , 263 –4

migration see population

Mikoyan, Anastas 258 –9

Milanović, Branko 283

milk 32 , 35 , 39 , 43 , 74 , 76 , 169 , 207 , 215 , 217

mines 1 –4, 12 , 15 , 19 , 34 , 55 , 64 , 66 –7, 90 , 120 , 125 , 127 –9, 132 –58, 160 , 175 , 177 –8, 180 , 184 , 187 , 191 , 195 , 202 –3, 207 , 218 , 223 –4, 238 –40, 243 –60, 273 , 278 , 296

and miners 79 , 132 , 136 , 139 –40, 142 , 147 –8, 150 , 153 –4, 158 , 165 , 206 –7, 244 –51, 258

Minin, Kuzma 51

Mintz, Sydney 69 , 73

Mirabeau, Jean-Antoine 215

Mirabeau, Victor 216

Mirkin, Yakov 180

mita 143 , 157

Mitchell, Timothy 247 –8

Mitchell thesis 247

Mitchell thesis reversal 278

modernity 35 , 69 –70, 148 , 234 , 237 , 263 , 283

cult of speed 263 , 267

molasses 45 , 67 , 71

Moluccas 138

money 1 –2, 60 , 83 , 127 , 145 , 152 , 168 , 177 , 189 , 265 , 274

mono-resources as money 58 , 145 , 177 , 185 , 190 , 251

paper money 65 , 134 , 136 , 145 , 189 –91

mono-resource 3 –4, 64 , 110 , 133 , 145 , 176 –7, 244

monopoly 63 , 66 , 139 –42, 144 , 176 –8, 253 , 262 –4, 283 –4

and addiction 63 –4, 77 –8, 269

and geography 63 , 88 , 91 –2, 98 –104, 200 –3, 251

and knowledge 115 , 200 –3

and prices 47 , 73 , 272

and the state 51 , 53 –6, 60 –1, 65 , 77 , 104 –5, 107 , 109 , 133 , 135 , 229 , 249 , 294

monotheism 131 , 142 , 148

Montesquieu, Charles-Louis 72 , 175 , 195

moral economy 30 , 82 –3, 102 , 124

moral philosophy 176 , 200 , 283

More, Thomas 110

Morris, Ian 14

mother country 28 , 166 , 185 , 197 –8, 213 , 145

vs. daughter colonies 166

mulberry 87 –92

Mulovsky, Grigory 55

Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) 84

Munster plantation 212

Murphy, Antoin E. 193

Muscovy 32 , 28 , 50 –1, 97 , 99 , 101 , 141 , 234

Napoleon 52 , 59 , 66 , 75 , 96 , 104 –6, 160 , 191 , 213

Native Americans 146

Natura naturans/Natura naturata /Natura vastata 167

natural gas 3 , 61 , 181 , 226 , 246 –54, 262 –3, 268 –4, 280 –6, 292

liquefaction 253 –4

natural magic 136 , 147 , 150

natural resources

diffused resources 2 , 18 , 23 , 91 , 110 , 118 , 152 , 156 , 202 , 233 , 275 , 278 , 280 , 295

etymology 2

geography, 19 , 24 , 54

resource curse 134 , 158 , 264 –7, 274 , 285

resource-dependent countries 6 , 48 , 54 , 229 , 285 –6, 294

topical resources 2 , 18 , 23 , 29 , 118 , 126 , 177 –8, 243 , 278 , 280 , 295

see also commodities

Navigation Acts 45 , 65 , 72 , 76 , 185 , 198 –9

Neanderthals 13 –14

neoliberalism 5 , 248 –9, 265 –6, 271 –3, 283

Netherlands 28 , 35 , 190 , 233 –4, 274

Neva river 31 , 47 , 192

New Harmony community 120

New Lanark 120

New Orleans 190 –1, 236 , 292

Newcastle 238 , 247

Newcomen, Thomas 213 , 223 , 239

Newfoundland 25 , 44 –5, 51

newspapers 74 , 83 , 189 –91, 242

Nigeria 267 , 296 , 276

Nobel, Alfred 259

Nobel, Robert 256

noble savage 169

nomads 21 –2, 128

Nordhaus, William 289 , 299

Norfolk Broads 234

North Sea 17 , 24 , 82 , 141 , 146 , 234 , 243 , 149 , 261 , 274

northern route to China 97 , 101

Norway 17 , 182 , 206 , 262 , 272 , 274 –5

nostalgia 20 , 191

Novalis 154

novels 6 , 7 , 33 , 84 , 183 –5, 188 , 193 –6, 201 , 217 , 221 , 284 , 301 –2

Novgorod 46 –8, 99 , 102 , 123 , 141 , 156 , 208

nuclear energy 12 , 260

oak 16 –17, 19 , 89 –90, 93 , 95 , 105 , 153 , 256

oats 25 , 32 , 71 , 233

obsidian 14 , 46

Oder river 154 , 235

oil 1 –7, 9 , 15

conventional oil 263 , 274

and gender 267 –8

geography 246 , 254 –60

institutions 253 –4, 263 –6, 274 –8

natural history 231 , 250 –4, 297

oil curse 264 –7, 274 –8

oil prices 161 –2, 179 –82, 267 , 270 –4

peak oil 5 , 273

politics of 38 , 261 –2, 248 , 274 , 280 –1

processing 251 , 253 –6

and religion 269 –70

shale oil 253 , 274 , 278

and stolen goods 284

vs. coal 247 –9, 251 –2

oil corporations/companies, 260

Branobel 256 –9

Shell 258 –9, 263

Standard Oil Company 255

Total 258

Yukos 263

oilmen 249 , 251 , 254 , 256 , 261 , 283

Old Belief 32 , 157 , 160

oligarchs, oiligarchs 252 , 262 , 268 , 282 , 296 , 301

Olonets (northern Russia) 55 , 156 –7

Omsk (Siberia) 181

OPEC 178 , 253 , 264 , 271 –2

open cast mining 244

opium 43 , 53 , 57 , 60 , 62 –3, 71 , 76 –82, 177 , 293

Oprichnina 97 –101, 298

optimism 163 , 195 , 219 , 226

Orientalism 42 , 81 , 171

Ottoman Empire 17 , 216

Owen, Robert 120

Paine, Thomas 218

Palmerston, Henry 80

and extraction 206 –8

pandemic see epidemic

Panopticon 113 , 176

paper 54 , 56 , 83 , 118 , 134 , 137 , 141 , 157 , 180 –1, 189 –90, 193 , 218 , 292 , 299

Paracelsus 147

parasitic state 145 , 293 , 295 –6

definition 295

Paris 19 , 31 , 33 , 40 , 45 , 48 , 66 , 147 , 188 –92, 194 –5, 213 , 216 –17, 225 , 247 , 290

Paris Agreement 290

patents 91 , 116 , 120 , 223 , 240

Paterson, William 183 –4, 186

Paul (Apostle) 41

Paul I, emperor of Russia 56 , 105

paupers 89 , 120 –1, 270

Paykull, Otto Arnold von 150

peasants 3 , 15 , 64 , 75 , 218 , 222

and coercion 18 –19, 26 , 37 , 46 –7, 56 , 78 –82, 88 , 125 , 158

and consumption 35 , 74 , 117 , 124 , 171 –4

and diversity of work 22 –3, 25 –35, 69 , 90 , 93 , 102 , 107 , 114 , 116 , 122 –4, 128 , 133 , 147 –8, 206 , 233

and resistance 30 , 110 , 120 , 142

and trade 34 , 174 , 203 –7, 212 –15

see also mercantile pump; subsistence farming

peat 1 , 15 , 19 , 21 –2, 130 , 155 –6, 170 , 224

institutions 233 –8

natural history 231 –3

Peel, Robert 36 –7, 120

Pennsylvania 94 , 244 , 246 –7, 255 –6

pepper 63 , 92 , 135 , 138 ,142

perishable products 22 , 26 , 40 , 163 , 168 –9, 209 , 212

permafrost 289 , 291 –2, 300

Persia 14 , 66 –7, 88 , 90 –1, 98 –9, 101 , 114 , 165 , 192 , 244

Peru 143 , 147 , 161 , 176 –7, 287 , 191 , 238

Peter I, emperor of Russia 17 , 32 , 104 –5, 157 –9, 188 , 192

Peterloo 121

petrofarming 21 , 38 , 280

petroleum 63 , 69 , 84 , 116 , 226 , 251 –3, 271 , 173

petromacho 268

petrostate 252 , 263 –7, 269 , 277 –8, 284

and blood circulation 277 –8

and inverted funnel 277

and king’s two bodies 4 , 229

and mercantile state, 73 , 180 –2, 249 , 275 , 295

Petty, William 199 , 210

Philippe, duke of Orléans 187 –9

Philips, Lion 209

phlogiston 155 , 297

physiocrats 152 , 214 –15, 217 –18, 225 , 281

Piketty, Thomas 282

pipelines 251 , 253 , 268 , 277 –8, 283 , 291

pirates 72 , 108 , 131 , 144 , 197 , 254 , 286 , 299

Pitt, William the elder 73

plague 29 , 40 , 106 , 145 , 254 , 297 , 301

planned economy 137 , 249 , 254 , 278

plantations 7 , 19 , 30 , 34 , 35 , 62 , 67 –70, 72 –3, 75 –6, 84 , 92 , 100 , 103 , 114 –16, 118 , 182 , 184 –5, 188 , 191 , 199 –200, 209 , 212 –13, 215 –16, 220 –1, 242 , 254 , 284

see also slavery

Platt, Hugh 239

pleasure 76 , 82 , 84 , 175 –6, 188 , 191 , 263

see also addiction

plough 12 , 16 , 22 –3, 25 , 27 , 125 , 128 –9, 131 , 133 , 147 –8, 156 , 204 , 206 , 224

Pocock, J. G. A. 161

Pokrovsky, Mikhail 277

Poland 12 , 20 , 26 , 35 , 53 , 105 , 111 , 122 , 124 , 153 , 203 , 216 , 222 , 227 , 235 , 237 , 249 –50

Polanyi, Karl 119 , 162 , 168 , 170 , 180 , 208 , 211 , 270

political economy 4 –6, 42 , 60 , 137 , 152 , 182 –3, 193

alternative traditions 30 , 137 , 161 , 170 –5, 177 –8, 196 , 208 , 214 –16, 229 , 246 , 268 , 278 , 294 , 300

classical 5 , 36 , 73 , 116 –62, 166 , 201 –3, 221 , 225 , 275 , 279

and post-catastrophic thought 186 –7, 196 , 214 –17

political evil 6 , 68 , 77 , 187 , 296

see also corruption; inequality

pollution 41 , 43 , 61 , 250 , 287

Polzunov, Ivan 159

Pomeranz, Kenneth 82 , 242

Pomors 53 , 97 , 101 –2, 104 , 157

poppy 76 –8, 81 , 167

population 16 , 21 , 26 , 28 , 40 , 54 , 153 , 219 –23, 265 , 268 –70, 290 , 294

decline 55 , 58 –60, 79 , 108 , 121 , 134 , 145 , 146 , 153 , 237 , 266 , 295 –6

growth 13 , 18 , 32 –4, 37 , 43 , 199 , 213 , 215 , 219 , 223 –6, 279

migration 11 , 24 , 120 , 123 , 131 , 157 , 197 –8, 274 , 291 –2, 30

porcelain 71 , 74 , 149 , 170 –1, 215 , 233

Portugal 17 , 25 , 137 –8

Postlethwayt, Malachy 199

potash 18 , 104 , 153 , 198

potato 30 , 33 –5, 37 , 58 , 76 , 169 , 212 –13, 221 –2, 293

Potemkin, Grigory (Prince) 55 –6, 176

Potosí 34 , 141 , 143 –4, 158 , 178

Pozharsky, Dmitry 102

Prague 25 , 112 , 145 , 148

Prebisch–Singer hypothesis 179 , 225

Prévost, Abbé Antoine François 195

Priestly, Joseph 115

primitive accumulation 6 , 60 , 170

probability theory 189

processing 9 , 46 , 86 , 110 , 113 –14, 126 , 132 , 165 –7, 206 , 209 , 240 , 284

drying (dehydration) as processing 169 –70

primary 67 , 70 –2, 93 –6, 118 , 169 , 176

secondary 86 –7, 91 , 117 –19, 122 , 169 , 200

progress 64 , 68 , 83 –4, 131 , 169 , 220 , 265 , 292 , 295 –7, 300

in Bentham 176

in Hume 170 –5

in Lenin 117

in Smith 205

proletariat 69 , 120 , 125 , 163 , 245 –7, 297

Prometheus 11 , 90

property rights 2 , 12 , 17 , 37 , 99 , 131 , 139 , 143 , 182 , 191 , 228 , 232 , 276 , 278 , 285

state property 33 , 54 , 99 , 110 , 133 , 229 , 248 , 253 , 266 , 283

protectionism 36 –7, 123 , 246

protein 43 –4,69 , 74

Prussia 18 , 20 , 26 –8, 34 , 57 , 105 , 109 , 111 , 115 , 153 –4, 158 , 234 , 243

Pufendorf, Samuel 152

Pushkin, Alexander 188 –9, 201 –2

Quakers 52 , 116 , 158 , 236 , 239

Quesnay, François 214 –17

racism 75 , 180 , 222

Radishchev, Alexander 84 , 188 , 216

Raleigh, Walter 34

rare metals 129 –30, 155 , 159 , 161 , 228 , 278 , 287

raw materials 1 –3, 6 , 9 , 15 , 25 , 28 , 37 , 48 , 54 , 60 , 72 –3, 87 , 91 , 100 , 104 –6, 114 –15, 118 , 143 , 145 –6, 155 , 161 , 165 –6, 178 , 180 , 185 , 194 , 197 –9, 202 , 206 , 209 , 213 , 226 –8, 233 , 246 , 248 , 253 , 261 , 271 , 276 , 282 , 290 , 295 –6

and empires 96 , 198 –9

and finished goods 31 , 73 , 91 , 168

and ‘history from below 10

and perishability 20 , 26 , 41 , 163 , 168 –9

see also commodities; natural resources

Rawls, John 283 –5

Raynal, Abbé Guillaume-Thomas François 84 , 105 , 215 , 220

redistribution 2 , 211 , 218 , 252 , 265 –6, 269 , 280 , 282 –3, 294

and recognition 299 –300

Reformation, Protestant 24 , 140 , 142 , 148

Renaissance 3 , 42 , 89 –90, 235 , 148 , 156 , 179

rent 18 , 28 –9, 36 , 46 , 139 , 142 , 203 , 221 , 252 , 264 , 266 , 268 , 276

resource panic 214 , 220 , 223 , 228 , 273 , 297

resource platforms 8 , 130 –1, 161 , 176 , 274

shifts 178 , 211 , 229 , 242 , 274

Rezanov, Nikolay 56 –9

Rhine river 17 , 235

Ribeiro, Diogo 138

Ricardo, David 36 , 180 , 221 , 223 , 225 , 270 , 279

rice 21 , 24 , 79 –80

Riga 18 , 141

rigging 94 –5, 103 , 105 –6, 198

riverine system 26

Rockefeller, John D. 255 –6, 259 , 272

Rome 12 , 14 –15, 19 , 25 , 31 , 64 , 89 , 129 , 132 , 136 , 141 –2, 234 , 297

Ross, Michael 266 –7

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 105 , 232

Royal Navy 68 , 72 , 94 –5, 105 –6, 197 , 240 , 260

Royal Society 24 , 109 , 147 , 149 , 151 , 199 , 212 –13

Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor 148 –9

Ruhr basin 228 , 246 –8, 260

rum 7 , 40 , 45 , 58 , 67 –8, 71 , 73 , 83 , 117

Russia 6 , 17 –18, 20 , 30 , 31 , 46 –9

principality of Moscow 97 –104, 111 , 145 , 155 –8

Russian Empire 33 , 34 , 37 , 42 , 50 , 53 –61, 66 , 72 , 94 –6, 105 –6, 121 –5, 150 , 168 , 176 , 184 , 188 , 192 , 198 , 206 , 217 –18, 220 , 226 , 239 , 243 , 247 –8, 254 , 256 , 259 , 265 –70, 272 –4, 276 , 277 , 279

Russian Federation 38 , 180 , 265 , 268 , 276 , 282

see also Soviet Union

Russian disease 274 –6

sable 48 –54, 59 , 61

Sahlins, Marshall 63

Saint-Domingue (Haiti) 45 , 67 –8, 73 –5, 191

St Jerome 42

St Petersburg 19 , 31 –3, 55 , 58 –9, 84 , 104 –5, 123 , 135 , 159 –60, 201 , 208 , 216 , 235 –6, 246 , 255 –7, 292

Sakhalin island 59

salt 11 , 40 , 45 , 255 , 273

institutions 65

natural history, 64 –6, 99

taxation 66 , 217

trade 51 , 64

vs. sugar 62 , 64 –6, 178

saltpetre 24 , 149

salvation 141 –2, 154 , 279

Saxony 97 , 134 –5, 137 , 139 , 148 –50, 153 –4, 157 –9

Schmitt, Carl 98 , 268

Schwaz 135 –6, 148

Scotland 72 , 95 , 102 , 113 , 145 , 174 , 184 –6, 189 , 200 , 202 , 214 , 220 , 234 , 239 , 242

Scott, James C. 23 , 23 , 30

scurvy 40 , 42 , 58

sea otter 54 –61

seal 57 , 59

seasonal work 31 , 124 , 205 –7, 218

second body 4 , 110 , 229 , 265

Second World War 85 , 134 , 248 , 252 , 259 –60, 296

self-immolation 157 –8

Seneca 89

Serdyukov, Mikhail 32

serfdom 18 , 35 , 84 , 96 , 101 –2, 170

sericulture 90 –2

Serpentine Mountain (Altai) 159

Seven Years’ War 28 , 45 , 53 –4, 73 , 77 , 153 –4, 191 , 215 , 217 , 235

Seville 143 –6

Sextus Marius 1 , 129 , 155

Shakers 42

Shamans 49 , 96 , 135 , 143 , 157

Shatura bog (near Moscow) 237

Shaumian, Stepan 158

Shchapov, Afanasy 60

sheep 12 –14, 22 , 39 , 46 , 71 , 106 –15, 118 , 121 , 133 , 146 , 165 , 167 , 194 , 205 –6, 212 , 235

Churra 106 –8

Merino 106 –9

Shelikhov, Grigory 55 –6

shipbuilding 15 , 194

Shipman, Pat 13

Shukhov, Vasily 256 , 159

Siberia 6 , 20 , 32 , 49 , 50 , 52 –61, 84 , 99 , 156 –7, 159 , 179 , 181 , 249 , 254 , 262 –3

Silesia 153

silk 3 , 5 , 7 , 24 , 53 , 86

and cotton 92 –3, 113 , 115 , 119 , 170

fur and silk 89

geography 56 , 67 , 90 –2, 101 , 192

institutions 89 –92

natural history 86 –9, 113 , 166 –7

silkworms 88 –92

Silliman, Benjamin 255

silver 1 –3, 5 , 15 , 18 , 34 , 48 , 50 , 60 , 66 , 78 –9, 89 –90, 104 , 106 , 108 , 114 , 117 , 127 –9, 134 –7, 139 –46, 148 , 152 , 154 , 159 , 161 , 168 , 177 –80, 182 , 184 –5, 187 , 189 , 191 –2, 194 –5, 198 , 203 , 222 , 238 , 267

Simon, William 272

Singer, Peter 176

slavery 69 , 75 –6, 84 , 85 , 145 , 170 , 174 , 182 , 220 –1, 284

sledge 33 , 47 , 49 , 55 , 61

smallholdings 70 , 75 , 102 , 125 , 156 , 208 , 211 , 222

Smith, Adam 30 , 36 , 55 , 69 , 109 , 113 , 161 , 163 , 174 , 182 , 186 , 193 , 198 , 200 –1, 204 , 216 , 218 –19, 239 , 283

smuggling 45 , 53 , 109 , 200 , 216

socialism 254 , 265 , 294

solar energy 12 , 278 , 287

solidarity 139 , 232 , 245 , 248 –50, 302

Solovetsky monastery 103 , 157

Solovyev, Ivan 60

Sombart, Werner 82

sovereign 3 –4, 9 , 99 , 110 , 112 , 137 , 145 , 152 –3, 182 , 198 , 213 , 229 , 232 , 236 , 274 –5, 289 , 293 , 301

sovereign funds 182 , 274 –5

Soviet Union 35 , 37 –8, 60 –1, 92 , 122 , 125 , 179 –82, 227 –8, 249 , 258 –69, 271 –3, 282 , 285 , 294 –6

see also Russia

Spanish Empire 97 , 108 , 137 , 141 , 144 –6, 166 , 185 , 191 , 203

specialisation 3 , 30 , 68 , 70 , 204 –8, 24

see also division of labour

Spinoza, Baruch 167

spirits 147 , 151

squirrel 46 –9, 54 , 61

Stalin, Josef 124 –5, 228 , 257 –9, 293

staple theory 4 , 54

Stashevsky, Artur 60

steam engines 3 , 44 , 114 , 116 , 119 , 159 –60, 203 , 212 , 223 –4, 234 , 239 –42, 244 , 256

steamships 37 , 54 , 79 , 244

Steller’s sea cow 57

Stephenson, George 240

Stollmeyer, Conrad 254

strikes 139 , 245 –8, 250 , 257 , 288

subsidies 38 , 43 , 65 –6, 75 , 94 , 100 , 211 , 259 , 276 –7, 279 –81, 283 , 299

subsistence farming 14 , 18 , 26 , 30 –1, 50 , 83 , 99 , 118 , 134 , 145 , 168 , 174 , 183 –4, 203 , 208 , 212

sugar 5 , 7 , 11 , 24 –5, 37

see also beet sugar; cane sugar

Surinam 7 , 193

Sweden 17 , 27 , 55 , 109 , 136 , 141 , 146 –7, 150 –1, 154 , 158 , 189 , 201 , 239

Swedenborg, Emanuel 150

Tacitus 1

Taiping Rebellion 79 –80

Tambor volcano 36

tar 16 , 18 , 24 , 95 , 101 , 104 , 156

Tarbell, Ida 255

tariffs 37 , 104 –5, 122 , 124 , 182 , 184 , 192 , 197 , 217 , 256

Tatarstan 262

Tatishchev, Vasily 27

taxation 23 –4, 45 , 63 , 157 , 233 , 266 –7, 280

and representation 267 , 295

tea 25 , 43 , 45 , 56 –7, 62 –3, 68 –9, 71 , 74 , 78 , 80 –3, 117 , 168 –9, 171 –3

textiles 3 , 32 , 36 –7, 48 , 69 , 72 , 82 , 86 , 114 –15, 117 –26, 134 –5, 144 , 175 , 217 , 242 , 244 –7, 268 , 285

thermodynamics 174

Thirty Years’ War 24 , 51 , 145

Thom, Robert 241

Thomas, Dalby 69 , 71

Thomas, Keith 18

Thoreau, Henry 42

Thucydides 129

Thünen, Johann Heinrich von 35 –6

Tiberius 1 –2, 129

timber 13 –19, 22 –3, 25 , 31 , 48 , 54 , 57 , 59 , 100 , 102 , 114 , 141 , 143 , 152 –4, 156 , 177 , 195 , 199 –200, 228 , 231 , 240 , 242 , 256 , 275

and mines 15 , 19 , 143

and ships 15 –17

Time of Trouble(s)

historical 51 , 102 , 145 , 157

metaphorical 131 , 178

Tlingits 58

tobacco 34 , 43 , 49 , 58 , 62 –3, 78 , 82 –3, 91 , 93 –4, 97 , 105 , 117 , 144 , 169 , 174 , 177 , 188 , 191 , 198 , 200 , 202 , 207 , 209 , 212 , 217 , 268 , 275 , 284

and sugar 68 –71, 83 , 115 , 185

Tocqueville, Alexis de 205

Tolstoy, Lev 42

Tomsk (Siberia) 258

Tordesillas meridian 137 –8

Torgsin (Soviet pawn shops) 60 , 181 , 293

Torriano, Nathaniel 172

toxicity 63 , 69 , 79

vs. elasticity 63

see also addiction

trade 3 , 6 , 12 , 18 , 28 , 51 , 72 , 77 –82, 88 –90, 123 –4, 138 , 141 , 166 , 172 –4, 178 , 194 , 207 –9, 251 –4, 272 , 284 –5

free trade 36 –7, 55 , 76 , 113 , 182 , 200 –3, 216 , 228 , 234 , 262

local vs. long-distance 14 , 24 –6, 35 , 40 , 47 –8, 57 , 62 –6, 98 –107, 111 –15, 162 , 165 , 169 –71,192 , 208 , 212 –13, 215 , 233 , 236

and perishability 40 –1, 46 , 126 , 163 , 168 –70

and state formation 46 , 52 –4, 59 –61, 197 –9

and subsistence 30 –3, 83 , 109 , 117 , 212

and taxation 22 , 49 –50, 56 , 73 , 109

triangular trade 44 –5, 67 –70

trade unions 227 , 246 , 248 –9, 264

tragedy of the commons 4 , 232 , 281 , 298

transhumance 107 –8, 212

transportation 17 –19, 26 , 32 –5, 40 –1, 44 , 52 , 54 , 68 , 72 , 82 , 86 –7, 108 , 123 , 169 , 177 , 194 , 198 , 232 , 251 –3, 256 , 262 , 268

see also costs

Treaty of Paris 45 , 213

Treaty of Utrecht 184

Treaty of Versailles 225 , 227 –8, 248

Trinidad 85 , 154

Trotsky, Leon 60 –1

Tula (central Russia) 156

Turkestan 123 –4

Turtzo, Johann 137

Ukraine 33 , 35 , 146 , 227 , 262 , 268 , 273

Ulster plantation 100 , 103

United States 43 , 54 , 60 , 260 –2, 270 –3, 279 , 281 –2, 297 , 299

Urals 32 , 46 –7, 121 , 156 , 158 –9, 246 , 262 , 328

urbanisation 34 , 69 , 121 , 125 , 281 , 290

Uruguay 41

USSR see Soviet Union

utilitarianism 175 -6, 182 , 226 , 274

Uzbekistan, Uzbeks 92 , 98 , 122 –4

Vasari, Giorgio 288

vegetarianism, veganism 40 –3, 61

Venezuela 4 , 182 , 260 , 262 –5, 267 , 269 –70, 272 , 276 , 283

Venice 17 , 31 , 40 , 64 –5, 67 , 90 –1, 94 , 114 , 134 –7, 146 , 166 , 192 , 208 , 236 , 292

Venyaminov, Innokenty 60

Vermuyden, Cornelius 234

Versailles 150 , 188 , 215 –16, 225 , 227 –8, 248 , 281

Vespasian 1

Vikings 16 , 46 , 49 , 133 , 150 , 155 –6

Vinius, Andrey 156

Virginia 34 , 70 , 87 , 94 , 102 –3, 105 , 195 , 212

viruses 61 , 250 , 287 , 190 , 198

Vishny Volochok canal 32

vitrification 149 , 154 , 233

Volga river 33 , 51 , 99 –101, 103 , 123 , 181 , 227 , 256

Vologda (northern Russia) 99

Voltaire 61 , 105 , 160 , 184 , 187 –8, 195 –6, 216 –17, 235

Vyg river 157

Wallerstein, Immanuel 161

Walpole, Robert 113 , 185

War of the Spanish Succession 187

water 5 , 21 , 36 , 43 , 45 , 64 –6, 86 , 95 –6, 169

and transportation 11 –12, 32 –3, 35 –6, 40 , 54 , 169 , 204

and consumption 43 , 290

and drainage 21 , 231 –7

watermills 24 , 119 –22, 133 , 136 –7, 143 , 150 , 159 , 200 , 212 , 231 , 240 –2, 246 , 278 , 287

floating, 241

Watt, James 116 , 203 , 223 , 239 –40

Weber, Max 222

welfare state 265 , 274 , 299

West Indies 45 , 68 –73, 116 , 170 , 176 , 184 , 215 –17, 221

wetlands (marshes, bogs) 8 , 11 , 21 –2, 24 , 54 , 64 , 116 , 130 , 143 , 155 –6, 200 , 231 –7, 290 , 292

whales 59 , 101 , 135 , 254

wheat 3 , 5 , 9 , 23 –37, 51 , 59 , 76 , 109 , 135 , 152 , 212 –17, 226 –8, 241 , 260 , 277 , 281

Wheeler, Daniel 236

White Sea 31 –2, 97 , 98 –104, 117 , 157

White, Harry Dexter 271

White, Leslie 12

Whitney, Eli 116

Williams, Eric 84

windmills 64 , 231 –4, 187

Witte, Sergey 37 , 146


in production 26 –7, 47 , 65 , 86 , 90 , 95 , 110 , 114 , 117 , 126 , 241 , 245

in consumption, 68 , 74 , 82 –3

captive women 50 , 59

as smugglers 66

inequality 267 –9, 301

wool 16 , 25 , 30 , 40 , 42 , 44 , 48 , 52 , 78 , 89 , 92 –4, 96

natural history 106 –7

geography 107 –9

processing 109 –11

institutions 86 , 108 –9, 113

Woolsack (British Parliament) 3 , 109 , 113 , 204

Yadrintsev, Nikolay 50

yasak 49 –50

Yermak Timofeyevich 49

Yugra 47 –9

Zoroaster 14


Go to www.politybooks.com/eula to access Polity's ebook EULA.

(Video) Самая обаятельная и привлекательная (FullHD, комедия, реж. Геральд Бежанов, 1985 г.)


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