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Department of History

Capitalism: shifting the historical narratives

In March 2023, in the midst of the global financial turmoil generated by the sudden collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank, we asked PhD researcher Lucile Boucher to tell us about her research on the history of economic globalisation.

17 April 2023 | Research


In an interview, History researcher Lucile Boucher shares her research on the history of economic globalisation and the work of the "Conversation on New Histories of Capitalism" working group, which she co-coordinates.

Q: The webinars refer to "New Histories of Capitalism." Can you tell us why we need to revisit our understanding of capitalism?

A: Something has changed since the global financial crisis of 2008 and more recently the global COVID-19 pandemic. The scope and the trickle-down dynamic of these crisis revealed in an unprecedented way the complex interdependences implied by global value chains. The dramatic social consequences and the failure of political authorities to protect people's economic wellbeing suggest that we need to better understand capitalism's structures. In addition, rising awareness of climate change as a planetary challenge has focused people's attention on aspects of human life under capitalism that are sometimes underestimated by historical approaches to the economy. These include labour inequalities, human rights, gender and racial dynamics.

Historians need now to contribute to the conversation by revising the story of capitalism starting from these interest areas, rather than deducing its development by projecting on the past beliefs borrowed from economic doctrines – as is often the case.

Q: Your own dissertation deals with global trade in the late 18th century. What can previous eras teach us about the future of the international order and the global economy?

A: Western countries do not assume any more the hegemonic role they played in the world order since the end of the Cold War, especially in the economic realm. Previous ways of looking at the world in terms of centres (for example, 'the West') and peripheries ('the Rest') have become less and less useful in explaining current and past globalisation processes. While capitalism history in the last 250 years is inherently linked to the rise of an industrialised West, historical narratives of capitalism need to let go of their Eurocentric assumptions. Historians of previous eras are able to highlight overlooked extra-European dynamics and denaturalise capitalism by contextualising its ideological tenets. Another important contribution explored by premodern historians is historical contingency, especially by looking at paths not taken.

Q: What have been the most exciting or unexpected results of your work so far?

A: My research deals with the impact of 18th-century globalisation on European political cultures and geopolitical dynamics from the point of view of the pre-modern Italian states, actors long considered retrospectively as ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘backward.’ I found for instance that the opposition of a bilateral international pre-modern world and a multilateral modern one after 1815 does not suffice to explain the early history of globalisation. I intend to show that trade – and in this case the unfolding of globalised commercial exchanges – relied just as much on ideas about competition as it did on practices of transnational cooperation. Competition was not the only lens through which actors perceived the future of the world economy; practices of cooperation did not only belong to the realm of utopias.

Last update: 17 April 2023

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