The Political Economy of Virtue
Luxury, Patriotism, and the Origins of the French Revolution
Political economy, John Shovlin asserts, can illuminate the social and economic contexts out of which a revolutionary impulse developed in France. Beyond the role of political economy in political life, massive public engagement with problems of economic order mediated an enduring cultural transformation. Economic activity was reimagined as a patriotic pursuit, and economic agents—farmers, merchants, and manufacturers—came to be viewed as potential citizens.
Drawing on hundreds of political economic tracts published in France between the 1740s and the early nineteenth century, Shovlin shows how mid-level French elites (magistrates, clerics, lawyers, soldiers, landed gentlemen) sought to balance their interests and values with the need to regenerate a nation that had seemingly entered a period of decline. In their view, France's moral, political, and economic power depended not simply on expanding the national wealth but also on reviving civic spirit. The "political economy of virtue" held that luxury was the cause of the nation's economic and moral degeneration. When the monarchy failed to reform its political economic structures in the 1760s and 1770s, mid-level elites sought to eliminate the stranglehold of the plutocracy.
Shovlin argues that the Revolution grew out of a debate on how to establish a commercial society capable of fostering both wealth and virtue, and the revolutionaries sought to create such a society by destroying the institutions that channeled modern wealth into the hands of courtiers and financiers.