Taming Capitalism before its Triumph: Public Service, Distrust, and 'Projecting' in Early Modern England

ISBN : 9780198739173

Koji Yamamoto
352 Pages
156 x 234 mm
Pub date
Mar 2018


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  • The first study to document a history of numerous visible hands taming incipient capitalism, a story that Adam Smith and his admirers set aside
  • Reveals the remarkable extent to which the culture of improvement in early modern England was not only preoccupied with promises of public service, but also pervaded by a strong public distrust of such promises
  • Places the evolution of ideas about 'projecting' or entrepreneurship within the context of state-formation, mercantilism, and the rise of the fiscal state and the financial revolution
  • Presents case studies of concrete projects drawing on sources conventionally used in political history, local history, parliamentary history, and the history of science
  • Develops a fresh, integrated, account of England's incipient capitalism that has civic, as well as scholarly, implications

This study examines the darker side of England's culture of economic improvement between 1640 and 1720. It is often suggested that England in this period grew strikingly confident of its prospect for unlimited growth. Indeed, merchants, inventors, and others promised to achieve immense profit and abundance. Such flowery promises were then, as now, prone to perversion, however. This volume is concerned with the taming of incipient capitalism — how a society in the past responded when promises of wealth creation went badly wrong. It reveals a history of numerous visible hands taming incipient capitalism, a story that Adam Smith and his admirers have long set aside.
The notion of 'projecting' played a key role in this process. Thriving theatre, literature, and popular culture in the age of Ben Jonson began elaborating on predominantly negative images of entrepreneurs or 'projectors' as people who pursued Crown's and their own profits at the public's expense. This study examines how the ensuing public distrust came to shape the negotiation in the subsequent decades over the nature of embryonic capitalism. The result is a set of fascinating discoveries. By scrutinising greedy 'projectors', the incipient public sphere helped reorient the practices and priorities of entrepreneurs and statesmen away from the most damaging of rent-seeking behaviours. Far from being a recent response to mainstream capitalism, ideas about socially responsible business have long shaped the pursuit of wealth, power, and profit. Taming Capitalism before its Triumph unravels the rich history of broken promises of public service and ensuing public suspicion — a story that throws fresh light on England's 'transition to capitalism', especially the emergence of consumer society and the financial revolution towards the end of the seventeenth century.


Introduction: Projecting and Capitalism: A Reappraisal
1: Contexts and Contours
2: Broken Promises and the Rise of a Stereotype
3: Reformation and Distrust
4: Turning a Project into Reality
5: Memories, Propriety and Emulation
6: Consuming Projects
Conclusion: Visible Hands Taming Capitalism

About the author: 

Koji Yamamoto, Assistant Professor in Business History, University of Tokyo
Koji Yamamoto is a historian of early modern England. He has spent twelve happy years in the UK, taking master's and doctoral degrees in York, and subsequently working at universities in London (King's College London), St Andrews, Edinburgh, and Cambridge. He was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow between 2012 and 2014. From April 2016, he has been an Assistant Professor in Business History at the Faculty of Economics, the University of Tokyo.

"Overall, Yamamoto's project to find a middle way between grand syntheses and specialized case studies is a success. The book combines substantial archival research, attention to detail, and nuance with a capacity to highlight more general patterns in the evolution of projecting. It reconstructs the wide assortment of people and institutions involved in projecting, as well as the troubled and uncertain political environment in which this activity took place." - Nadia Matringe, London School of Economics, Renaissance Quarterly

"[M]edievalists will benefit by thinking with him both about method and theory. He builds his case meticulously, systematically moving between different genres of sources, different archives, different actors, and different moments in time, all the while trying to combine cultural history with institutional, economic, and political history."" - Martha Howell, The Medieval Review

"Yamamoto's superb book ... offers a fascinating account of how the productive capacities of economics initiatives were promoted and its destructive tendencies contained. ... [It] deserves much applause and a readership consisting not only of early modernists, economic historians, cultural historians, and historians of economic thought but also, and perhaps in particular, business historians." - Carl Wennerlind, Business History Review

"Koji Yamamoto's timely and important new book ... offers an important lesson for our own times, that a fully unregulated capitalist market will inevitably tend toward abuse and inequality, promoting private gain over the public good. Only when the free market is tamed can it function properly, and that process is both active and visible." - Eric H. Ash, Journal of Modern History

"Taming Capitalism is, as it sets out to be, a useful corrective to whiggish narratives of English improvement. ... The book is strongest in describing these changes, persuasively moving between closely analysed case studies and a broader picture." - Molly Corlett, Reviews in History

"immensely pleasing and impressive ... Yamamoto's book resembles the bullseye of a huge diagram. Its larger intersecting circles include the history of innovation and regulation; elite and popular literary sources; and legal, political, and social history. In smaller circles there is history of science, religious history, the analysis of memory, sociologist Erving Goffman's work on stigma, and more. The outcome of these intersections is ... a persuasively coherent extension and revision of important prior work on economic innovation by Joel Mokyr and Paul Slack ... This is a magisterial book that should be read not only for its substantive claims but as a methodological model for a deeply nuanced account of seventeenth-century developments." - David Zaret, Journal of British Studies

"[An] ambitious and yet meticulously researched book ... Yamamoto's willingness to tackle head on the grandest of narratives about early modern England signifies the extent of his ambitions. However, this is not at the expense of close contextualised reading of the early modern evidence, resulting in an impressive balance between detailed case studies and striking generalisations. ... Overall this is an impressive and indeed agenda setting work." - Thomas Leng, Seventeenth Century

"Koji Yamamoto's much-awaited book addresses how the impact of economic change upon society can be accommodated. It is a highly challenging work in both senses of the word, taking aim at several established lines of argument by bringing economic, social, political, and cultural approaches together into a wider synthesis. ... it deserves to find a very wide readership." - Aaron Graham, Economic History Review

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