Empires, States, Corporations: A Discussion with Historians Philip J. Stern and Quinn Slobodian


Adam Smith wrote that, “Political economy belongs to no nation; it is of no country: it is the science of the rules for the production, the accumulation, the distribution, and the consumption of wealth.”

However Adam Smith regarded the science of political economy, in practical terms, one is quite hard pressed to find a case where governments—be it an empire, republic, or nation—were completely left out of the picture. At least, that is how it’s been historically.

Questions about how people and other types of entities organize and generate capital, AND the role that governments play in all of this, fill libraries. The ramifications of the dynamics and rules surrounding money have proved so consequential—and increasingly so, in our increasingly technologized world—that it is no surprise that historians have devoted much energy to the study of political economy. Political economy, in the broadest terms, is the subject of our conversation today. Today on History Ex we put two recent books that bring important perspectives to these questions in conversation with each other. Today’s books both deal with entrepreneurial endeavors, usually “abroad”, or beyond the Metropole. While Philip Stern’s examination of early modern British corporations explains the myriad ways private initiatives sought government legitimacy and became entangled in the business of governance during the age of empires, Quinn Slobodian trenchantly reveals how some entrepreneurs and ideologues seek to escape governments in the age of nation-states.

In this conversation Philip Stern and Quinn Slobodian discuss:

Empire, Incorporated. The Corporations That Built British Colonialism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 2023), by Philip J. Stern.

Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 2023), by Quinn Slobodian.

The periods of time being studied are centuries apart and marked by much innovation. Our authors find points of convergence as well as divergence in aims, methods, and outcomes of the people at the center of their books. Stern and Slobodian discuss methodologies and chronologies, the ideologies that animated their actors, how memory and history were mobilized in promoting various visions; they probe the historian’s perennial challenges of disentangling ideologies from interest, explain how similar actions in different historical contexts can demand different interpretations; and more.

Philip Stern is an associate professor of History at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. His work focuses on various aspects of the legal, political, intellectual, and business histories that shaped the British Empire. He is also the author of The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (Oxford University Press, 2011) and many other scholarly works.

Quinn Slobodian is a professor of the history at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. He is also the author of the award-winning Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018), which has been translated into six languages, and a frequent contributor to the Guardian, New Statesman, The New York, Times, Foreign Policy, Dissent and the Nation.

Erika Monahan is the author of The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell UP, 2016) and a 2023-2024 Alexander von Humboldt Fellow.

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Erika Monahan

Erika Monahan is the author of The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Cornell UP, 2016) and a 2023-2024 Alexander von Humboldt Fellow

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