We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE


Download PDF

State and Market in Victorian Britain: War, Welfare, and Capitalism (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This book brings together Martin Daunton's previously published essays with a useful introduction. In it, Daunton, a distinguished professor of economic history, argues for the centrality of both the market in the political narratives of Britain's long nineteenth century, and the state in helping to determine the social and cultural values that came to define the nature of laissez-faire capitalism in the period. His essays, based on rich archival research as well as a masterful synthesis of the prodigious scholarly output of the last twenty years, put the history of finance capitalism (and economic history more broadly) back into the story of the Victorian state and the market. Daunton convinces us that the economic transformation and resulting political culture that characterized Britain's long nineteenth century owed much to tax policies, changes in company law, free trade, the gold standard, and the Victorian state's success in balancing the interests of merchants, industrialists, and gentlemanly capitalists alongside those of bankers, brokers, and financiers—not that these groups' relationships to the Victorian imperial state did not vary, for they did, as did their relationships to the market. But if there was a consensus around the market—a Victorian financial equipoise, we might say—then that can be found, he argues, in the innovative solutions to financial challenges and an unshaken belief, still alive at century's end, in the promises of that laissez-faire market despite boom and bust cycles, agricultural depressions, bank and business failures, and increasing competition from European and American counterparts. That financial equipoise came with a heavy price, most notably for working-class people, many women, and those many colonial subjects whose burdens—financial and otherwise—Daunton acknowledges and elaborates on in his discussion and analysis of everything from the taxes they paid for their own colonial keeping to the ultimate cost that so many paid with their lives, volunteering to fight for the British Empire in colonial wars and in World War I.

Daunton enters into debates regarding the nature of modernity: whether or not elites and the middle classes were culturally adverse to science or technology or embraced them; whether or not the state ignored the demands of a rapidly changing industrial infrastructure, the pull and push of local, national, and imperial demands on revenue and legislative innovations. He argues that the state, much like the market, was not a static entity representing the interests of only a certain social group made up of all men, although the state was often imagined in that way. Rather, the imperial state's boundaries were continuously redrawn both at home and abroad; voluntary bodies, local authorities, colonial administrations, mutual aid societies, and even shareholders—both men and women—could potentially shape state policies in important ways that still need investigating.

The liveliness of Daunton's historical research and the curiosity embedded in his economic thinking offer the reader a way into the sometimes daunting task of understanding the economy and the market on its own terms and in relationship to the kind of state, society, and political culture that was forged in the period after Britain's victory over Napoleon. Moreover, Daunton narrates and analyzes this story by placing the British "fiscal regime" within the wider European context. The creation of trust between the state and society in Britain, "trusting Leviathan," as Daunton puts it, stemmed from taxation policies, something he explores at greater length in his earlier book about the politics of taxation in Britain from 1799 to 1914. The liberal state that emerged in the Victorian period, he contends, was "an honest broker between interests, the opponent of monopoly, and liberator of the individual and associational life" (37). Free trade and the gold standard in his accounting did not so much inspire greed and "outright individualism" as the practice of independence and cooperation that never neglected to remind the middle classes and the elites that their interests were always intimately connected (37), not mutually exclusive. While he provides much evidence to substantiate these arguments—and his is a story that makes more complex the practices of free trade and the business connections established among landed elites, merchants, and industrialists—the toll that these...