Link: Book Review on Colbert, Knowledge, the State

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog

‘The Colbert Report’. David A. Bell on The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System by Jacob Soll, in The New Republic, 7th October, 2009.

Bell discusses one of the great figures of the early modern state, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the most distinguished minister of Louis XIV of Ftance, through his review of what appears to be a very admirable book by Soll.

Colbert had been working for a previous great figure in the emergence of the modern state, Cardinal Mazarin who dominated France while Louis XIV was a child king. France produced three great figures in the administration of the modern state, the other was Louis XIII’s Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu. Despite the work of Richelieu and Mazarin, Colbert encountered a chaotic state of overlapping, and conflicting forms, of royal and local privileges and jurisdictions. Colbert had run Mazarin’s library, itself the core of what is now the national collection, and also inherited from Mazarin a belief in the secrecy of state knowledge. Colbert did massive work in gathering, and archiving, knowledge throughout France and in neighbouring states. Knowledge that was kept secret in the interests of state power, planning war with neighbouring states, and invasions of local privileges. The massive work of Colbert could not transform the essential incoherence of the state administration, which is why it was ready to collapse in 1789. In some ways Colbert contributed to this collapse with a proto-Utilitarian mentality of a state acting on behalf of a centrally defined national interest, rather than in accordance with aristocratic privileges. This encouraged a meritocratic attitude at odds with an aristocratic and monarchical state.

As Bell points out, many of these points seem close to the work of Michel Foucault. I won’t even try to outline the progress of Foucault’s work in this respect, which is somewhat more complex than Bell indicates. I will just mention that in his later work Foucault often sounds as if he is following on from Montesquieu and Tocqueville, and it looks as if Soll also does. Bell points out that Soll does not have much to say about Foucault, because Foucault;’s work is too rigid and schematic to be incorporated into empirical historical work, nevertheless such work can evidently benefit fro m absorbing Foucauldian notions.