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  • Cosmopoleis:Empire and Capitalism
  • Sophus A. Reinert (bio)

The result of a general free trade would not be a universal republic, but, on the contrary, a universal subjection of the less advanced nations… A universal republic can only be realized if a large number of nationalities attain to as nearly the same degree as possible of industry and civilization, political cultivation, and power.

—Friedrich List, 1841

Although scholars have often attributed the sentiment to the first-century Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus, during his exile by Nero to the Cyclades, it was instead the formulation of Baldo degli Ubaldi that resonated loudly and deeply in the commercial law of Renaissance and early modern Europe.1 Addressing the question of whether territorial lords could summarily expel foreign merchants from their lands, the famed fourteenth-century Italian jurist replied: "mundus est omnibus communis patria" [the world is the common fatherland of everyone], and thus merchants cannot be expelled without just cause or what we would call "due process."2 Finding this statement repeated in the Anconitan Benvenuto Stracca's 1553 De mercatura seu mercatore, the earliest treatise covering the entirety of commercial law, the nineteenth-century French jurist and magistrate Gabriel Massé noted, perhaps wistfully, how remarkable it was that the old teaching of the learned lawyers was "beaucoup plus libérale" than the prevailing system of his own day.3 And more liberal, one must add, than most if not all systems anywhere and at any time in history (if we indeed take the deracinated maxim at face value). [End Page 19]

But "the world" was not the only "common fatherland of everyone" found in the premodern legal tradition. The sixteenth-century jurist Girolamo Giganti, in his widely-read treatise on lèse-majesté, for example, declared that Venice too was "omnibus communis patria," as Rome (with its universal jurisdiction) had once been, giving this as one of the reasons that those injuring the Venetian Republic should incur the terrible penalties (summary procedures, death, property confiscation) associated with the Roman law of treason.4 The Venetian Republic guarded this jurisdiction jealously and violently, dispatching assassins and bounty hunters, like pre-modern drone strikes, to kill enemies and outlaws inside and outside the city, until its political demise at the hands of Napoleon; inside and outside mean little to a universal patria, or to an emperor.5 When Bodin translated his Six livres de la Republique into Latin, he used maiestas as the formal equivalent of souveraineté, and, in a sense, modern sovereignty itself emerged like a positive print from the negative of lèse-majesté, the crime of injured maiestas.6 This is the core of imperium, of power and empire, claimed (in more or less legalistic forms) by competing individuals, states, organizations, and corporations alike in the long eighteenth century.7

Universalizing legal fictions like these—linking cosmopoleis of both types (world-as-patria, and patria-as-world) with commerce, and foreign merchants with exile, expulsion, and the highest crimes and the severest punishments—suggests new ways to think about cosmopolitanism, and ultimately about power, sovereignty, empire, and the shifting institutions and mechanisms that find their shelter under the capacious umbrella of global capitalism. Historians have, of course, frequently highlighted the intimate connections linking capitalism and empire before. Rather than surveying their arguments, however, I would like instead to here highlight new ways of conceptualizing their relationship in light of these different cosmopoleis.8

In a remarkably prescient chapter of his 1841 masterpiece Das nationale System der Politischen Oekonomie, the German-American economist Friedrich List draws an acute distinction between "Political Economy" and what he calls "cosmopolitische Oekonomie" [Cosmopolitical Economy]. The former, he says, had long been practiced in Europe by governments and administrators. The latter—proposing a vision of the world where "the merchants of all nations formed one commercial republic," a world-as-patria where universal free trade was the guarantor of perpetual peace—was an invention of François Quesnay and the Physiocrats in the eighteenth century. This "Cosmopolitical Economy" was followed consequentially by Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say, and had become dominant by List's time.9 Indeed, it is hard to ignore the fact...


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