Smith on the Republicanism and Colonialism of the Moderns compared with that of the Ancients

My proposal for a paper to be presented at the conference ‘Scotland, Europe and Empire in the Age of Adam Smith and Beyond’ has just been accepted. The conference is between the 4th and 6th June at the ‘Sorbonne’ (i.e. University of Paris IV-Sorbonne). This overlaps with the beginning of a conference in Istanbul where I will give a plenary paper (see post of 8th January), and organise a panel on Adam Smith and Distributive Justice. My paper in Paris is scheduled for a session on the 4th, so I’ll be able to combine the events, if with more rush than I would like. Hopefully there will be some creative benefits from doing the two Adam Smith things consecutively at different ends of Europe.

My proposal for Paris is below, the word limit was longer than normal so it is something like an early sketch of paper, rather than just an abstract.

Smith’s discussion of colonialism in Wealth of Nations, begins with a discussion of Greek and then Roman colonialism, before moving onto a more detailed discussion of of early modern European colonialism.  The discussion of antique colonialism itself distinguishes between Greek and Roman examples, so belongs with a discussion of the differences between Greece and Rome in Enlightenment literature which includes Vico and Hegel. Greek colonialism is presented as the institution of overseas off shoots of mother cities, which are tied by sentiment not by the sovereignty of the founder state over the colony.  The possibility of colonies becoming greater than the mother city is discussed, with regard to Greek colonies in western Anatolia and southern Italy.  The Roman colonies, by contrast, extend the sovereignty of Rome.  Like the Greek colonies they are a way of dealing with apparently surplus population, but unlike the Greek forerunners, they extend the sovereignty of the mother city.  The colonisation carried out by Rome is therefore a way of structuring internal sovereignty, rather than a way of founding new separate sovereign entities.  That internal structuring of sovereignty becomes pat of inter political conflicts as happened during the Social Wars of the Roman Republic, where the issue became one of offering citizenship to colonial cities in Italy.  The expansion of citizenship to pacify Italy, itself undermines the Republic, as now all Italians can present themselves in Rome as citizens with voting rights.  Smith joins Montesquieu as a theorist of the fall of the Roman Republic.  Smith’s account of the fall of Republicanism in Rome in some ways anticipates Constant’s distinction between ancient and modern liberty.  The Roman republic falls  because the ancient system of republicanism based on participation cannot cope with large political units where it is not possible for all, or eve nearly all, citizens to be present in one place to make decisions.  The ancient world did not have representative political institutions, so was unable to find a republican resolution.  Smith’s account of modern colonialism has a lot to say about the resistance of the 13 North American colonies to British role, which culminated in the Declaration of Independence in the year that Wealth of Nations was published.  The discussion of modern colonialism is focused on its negative economic effects, which are tied up with negative political effects.  The negative effects include the disaster visited upon native peoples, and the irrational pursuit of gold, but in the most sustained aspect deal with monopoly.  The award of monopolies by the colonial centre to trading companies operating in colonies raises prices for colonists of imports, and reduces the prices they receive for exports.  The economy of the colonial centre is distorted since capital is attracted to the monopoly instead of other more productive areas of the economy.  The north American colonies have largely escaped from political subordination through representative republican institutions under the Crown, but still suffer from subordination to political institutions in the centre.  Even where the colonies have shared interests with parts of Britain and might therefore be considered to have virtual political representation, their concerns cannot receive the weight that equal representation would allow.  Though equal representation is just, it shifts the centre of power and cannot be tolerated by any country.  This is essentially an argument for the inevitability of the separation of the America colonies and an explanation of modern republicanism, in which representative institutions allow larger republics than participatory institutions, but still do not allow union between geographically distant regions.  So ‘natural liberty’ which is harmed by the political economy of colonial monopolies leads to republicanism and resists colonialism.  This could be extended to analysis of the United Kingdom itself, where the Highland areas of Scotland and the whole of Ireland, could be regarded as colonies under the cover of political equality.  Ireland did not have equality of ‘natural liberty’ with England, that is terms of trade where extremely biased against Ireland.  The Scottish Highlanders had recently suffered martial law and repression of culture as they were forcibly incorporated into the Hanoverian polity after the 1745 Jacobite Revolt. Questions of the political rights and natural liberty of the Irish and Scots, particularly those who were Catholic, did not speak English, and might be categorised as ‘barbarian’ are at the edges of Smith’s argument.


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