D. Menning: Politik, Ökonomie und Aktienspekulation

Politik, Ökonomie und Aktienspekulation. "South Sea Bubble" und Co. 1720

Menning, Daniel
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Catherine Davies, Universität Zürich

What was the first global financial or economic crisis? Many years ago, Charles Kindleberger remarked that not only 1929 but the panics of 1873 and 1890, too, were “of particular interest for their international character and because each was followed by deep depression on a global scale.” [1] It was the experience of global depression that prompted Hans Rosenberg, another eminent scholar of historical crises, to embark on his study of the “world economic crisis of 1857–59” in the 1930s. [2] The interconnectedness of earlier crises, before the dawn of the first era of globalization, is less obvious to the historian’s eye, though they certainly have not remained elusive. [3] Daniel Menning’s “Politik, Ökonomie und Aktienspekulation. ‘South Sea Bubble’ und Co. 1720“ is a welcome addition to the historiography of crises. Referencing Michael Werner’s and Bénédicte Zimmermann’s histoire croisée approach [4] (but not engaging with the methodological reflections on global and transnational history that have appeared since), the book analyses joint stock companies and the speculative activity surrounding them from a European perspective. The author is interested in “asymmetries in the perception and use of the company idea” (p. 16), especially with regard to “the meaning of economic persuasions and long-term structures” (p. 16). Relying on an impressively wide range of sources – Menning uses material from sixteen archives in six countries along with printed material in English, German, French and Dutch – the book maps the activity of promoters not only in London and Paris but also in (among others) Dublin, Braunschweig-Wolffenbüttel, Emden, and Lisbon.

A recurring theme throughout is “emulation” – the process by which promoters observed the entrepreneurial activity of others and sought to adapt what they saw in furtherance of their own interests. In relying on “emulation” as key concept, the author’s aim is not to describe the general frenzy of a speculative bubble, where an ever-growing number of promoters and small-time and first-time investors copy the behavior of more established actors, hoping to partake in the sudden and rapid growth of values. Rather, Menning argues that the “emergence of new companies in the whole of Europe was not the result of a coincidence or a blind speculative rage, but a result of the competitive basic structure of the European state system.” (p. 12) European states in the 17th and early 18th century closely observed their rivals’ economic activities, motivated by “jealousy of trade” and the mercantilist belief that greater economic wealth translated into greater military and political might. In this context, “emulation” was a tool, a strategy that allowed governments as well as individuals to harness foreign models of entrepreneurship by adapting them to local circumstances. “Emulation”, then, was always more than a simple copy of the original; rather, it meant that the experiences of competitors and non-intended consequences could be used to gain a strategic advantage, while occasionally also resulting in a heightened competition within states, not always with positive results.

The book’s five main chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with “Winter 1719/20” and ending with “Winter 1720/21”. They are subdivided into smaller parts of two to seven pages containing brief accounts of, mainly, individual companies, detailing how they were established (or, in some cases, their longer histories), the hopes and expectations entrepreneurs and governments attached to them as well as the difficulties they encountered. Descriptions of events in one city are interlaced with quotations from observers in other countries, testifying to the European nature of what is today mostly remembered as a French and English event. The interconnectedness of financial markets also emerges clearly from capital flows between cities and countries, illustrated by several charts. Occasionally, Menning expands his focus to include the labourers, seamen, and artisans without whose toil the high-flung expectations of promoters could not have begun to be realized. That, indeed, is one of the book’s main arguments: more often than not, promoters were convinced that their projects were not purely speculative but would soon create real values.

In terms of cohesiveness, the book’s broad panorama comes at a cost. The author rarely dwells on one place or group of actors for more than a couple of pages, and, despite providing brief summaries and overviews, the narrative appears somewhat disjointed. Although certain themes and motives recur throughout, they are often crowded out by overly detailed descriptions of individual companies and projects. The book’s extensive conclusion, though, provides a concise summary of its main arguments. “Jealousy of trade”, Menning argues, underpinned the activity of many promoters in 1719–21. But this does not mean that state and capital formed a straightforward alliance. While some governments openly or tacitly supported the activities of promoters in their territory, others displayed indifference, or even believed that new joint stock companies would diminish their power and independence. Governments, indeed, were only rarely the driving force behind these projects. Promoters mostly looked to each other, emulation being the key means by which they sought to outdo competitors. The fact that emulative entrepreneurial activity was so widespread in Europe, according to Menning, suggests that scholars have placed too much emphasis on purported differences between cameralism and mercantilism. In practice, there existed a pan-European realm of discourse in which politico-economic ideas were communicated, exchanged and adapted. Here, for a short while, the joint stock company appeared as the most promising form of organization to promoters believing in a prosperous economic future. Promoters and other company advocates, then, were not blinded by a speculative frenzy or trying to deceive guileless investors. Rather, they formed part of a broader discussion of projects that had begun in the previous century, in which the future imagined was wide open. Promoters more often than not truly believed in the viability of their enterprises.

There is little to disagree with in these conclusions, not least because Menning takes great care to credit the scholarship of others where appropriate. All in all, his findings, while not altogether novel, certainly enhance our understanding of the way financial markets and the promotion of joint stock companies in the early eighteenth century were embedded politically and culturally, and of how keenly aware contemporaries were of their European dimension.

[1] Charles Kindleberger, Historical Economics. Art or Science? New York 1990, p. 310.
[2] Hans Rosenberg, Die Weltwirtschaftskrisis von 1857–1859, Stuttgart 1934.
[3] Larry Neal, The Rise of Financial Capitalism. International Capital Markets in the Age of Reason, Cambridge 1990.

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