Commercial Republic Project (2014-16)

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The Commercial Republic Project

The Commercial Republic Project studies the intellectual history, political economy, and ethical architecture of commercial society as it took shape through the eighteenth century in Europe and America.




The Commercial Republic Project at UCLA

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Much of the political and cultural sociology of eighteenth century Enlightenment thought revolved around explaining how the bourgeoning commercial and industrial practices of the age were transforming the mores of peoples in ways both subtle and profound. Adam Smith and David Hume, Montesquieu and Voltaire, to name only a few of the leading lights, wrote extensively about the effects of commerce on culture and character. This tradition of thought runs, in turn, through the grand sociology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the works of Tocqueville, Marx, Mill, Weber, and Durkheim, and to the more recent writings of A.O. Hirschman, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Polanyi, C.B. Macpherson and a wide range of outstanding contemporary scholarship.

The Commercial Republic Project, housed in the Center for the Liberal Arts and Free Institutions (CLAFI) at UCLA, aims to continue this tradition of exploring the intellectual history, political economy, and ethical architecture of commercial society. Running through the three academic years beginning in Fall 2013, the Project will study the development of the idea of capitalism in Western thought and examine related changes in the economic, legal, and political institutions, as well as the religious, cultural, and moral dimensions, of modern market-oriented society. From a multidisciplinary perspective we focus on the revolutions in belief and practice surrounding the rise, and subsequent critique, of the commercial republic that took place through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in Europe and America.

Themes and Questions

At least since Plato’s appraisal of the oligarchic regime and the associated human type, critics have questioned the way of life based upon money-making, the pursuit of private property and luxury, and contractual social relations. Plato, of course, was not kind to the oligarchic principle, arguing that it led to the sacrifice of the public good to private “interests” (as we would say today), and of the goods of the mind and the spirit to the desires of the body. Human flourishing was reduced to profit and happiness became synonymous with pleasure. Freedom was degraded to licentiousness and factionalism (class-warfare) was introduced into the city. The best that could be said of oligarchic man was that, while devoid of virtue, he at least acted as if he were virtuous so that others would sign contracts and do business with him. Two thousand years before Ben Franklin wrote, his advice for how to get by in society was apparently already in circulation.

By the seventeenth century a radical revolution in thought was under way wherein the commercial spirit was gaining social status. No longer just a matter of base appetite (or sinful avarice), money-making was coming to be seen as a socially beneficial ambition, a motive or “incentive” to productive labor. The paradoxical maxim that one best served others by serving oneself was taking shape. No longer just the solvent of community and the civic virtues, private property (along with the concomitant liberty of conscience) was reconceived as the foundation of the rights of man. Factionalism was considered not only ineradicable, but also a matter of self-perfecting and society-advancing competition. No longer just corrupting, luxury translated to personal success, wealth creation, and general prosperity. And the contract became the symbol of a society of independent, free and equal individuals.

At least since Locke, commerce and money-making – and above all the act of labor, of productive action – have been deemed not only useful, but also honorable. The idea of virtue was not lost to the modern mind. Rather, in the social state of moral equality and personal freedom, virtue adhered to work, and so to the new middle class.

This revolution coincided with the concurrent rise of liberal democracy and modern science. Indeed, the commercial, democratic, and scientific revolutions seem so complementary that they are often conflated into a single, unidirectional, perhaps providential, movement (even as this obscures the deep tensions and cross-currents between the three revolutions).

The contract grounded a liberal democratic notion of legitimate authority among citizens, one based upon consent rather than natural hierarchy or inheritance. Moreover, the rise of a free-market spontaneous order promised to minimize the need for political authority as such, and so to frame a free society. In place of a long train of custom and privilege, civil society would cohere via an invisible hand and around the division of labor. Where material and spiritual life once seemed in opposition, liberty of conscience and free enterprise came to be seen as co-constitutive elements of personal freedom.

Modern science no less than modern economics took shape around a mechanistic and materialistic view of, and an instrumentalist approach to, nature. Technological innovation and economic development gave rise to a progressive view of history. And empiricism and the scientific method aligned perfectly with the pragmatic business practices of prudent fact finding and rational calculation.

Ultimately, commerce would serve as the material engine for the Enlightenment ideal of cosmopolitanism. Tolerance, civility, and the softening of mores would follow from economic prosperity supplanting religious salvation and aristocratic honor at the core of public life. The spread of commerce in turn promised an end to war as well as oppression. The outcome of this movement would be a progressive empire of reason, peace, and liberty – to expand on JS Mill’s resonant metaphor, a world marketplace of interests and ideas.

The eighteenth century rise of the commercial republic thus followed from and contributed to new, characteristically modern views of freedom and equality, history and nature, human nature and the human condition. In a significant sense we can say that the idea of the individual was invented – the human being reconceived as the narrowly self-interested but autonomous bearer of universal rights, competitive but compassionate, the building-block of the open society, and of mass society.

Program and Objectives

Taking up these themes and questions, the Commercial Republic Project aims to advance the study of the history, constitution, and ethos of commercial society. Few questions are as contested, complex, and of vital contemporary significance as the causes and consequences of the rise of capitalism and market society. How are we to understand and assess the radical shift in worldview – in the modern window unto questions of the good, the true, and the beautiful – that surrounded the commercial and industrial revolutions? Which aspirations of the Enlightenment proponents of the commercial spirit, and which fears of the critics of commercialism, have been realized? Are the commercial way of life and the spirit of republican self-government mutually reinforcing, or mutually exclusive? Are we currently witnessing the decline and fall of the commercial republic or its expansion into global empire? The mission of the Project is to pursue such questions by promoting inquiry into deep sources and profound impact of the rise of capitalism. We follow these questions across the spheres of human thought and activity, from politics and international relations, business and law, and philosophy and religion, to the natural and social sciences, art, literature, and architecture. We do so primarily through curricular offerings, collaborative undertakings within and beyond UCLA, and sponsorship of varied public events, including conferences, lectures, and seminars.

In the first year the Project will sponsor three undergraduate courses – Rights, Representation, and Revolution: The Making of Liberal Democracy in European Thought; Nature, Culture, and the Individual: The Making of Capitalism in European Thought; and Founding a New World: American Thought from Puritanism to Transcendentalism. Drawing on careful readings of the texts of Locke, Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and others, this sequence traces the currents of Enlightenment thought regarding human nature, value, and action as they converged on new norms of politics, law, and economics, and as they influenced the making of the American republic. Through these courses the Project aims to advance CLAFI’s commitment to providing a forum for liberal arts learning wherein students have an opportunity to engage in enduring debates about the fundamental human questions in conversation with some of the great works of human history. Students work to develop not only the skills of critical reasoning and cogent writing, but also the civic and cultural literacy required of good citizenship in a free society.

We are currently organizing a faculty advisory group that will bridge standard disciplinary boundaries, and which will include scholars from other colleges and universities in the area. Our goal is to make CLAFI’s Commercial Republic Project a regional hub for the study of the history and philosophy of capitalism and market society. The Project also benefits from collaboration with UCLA’s Clark Library, with its strengths in English literature and history (1641-1800). And under the rubric of “Science, Enterprise, and Law in the Making of the American Commercial Republic,” the Project works in partnership with parallel projects at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin.

The Project also sponsors a post-doctoral fellowship, an annual speaker series, and colloquia and conferences for the university and general public.

The Commercial Republic Project is made possible in partnership with the Jack Miller Center and through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.




Project Staff

Daniel Lowenstein

Director, CLAFI and Commercial Republic Project

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Steve Bilakovics

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Commercial Republic Project

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Craig Yirush

Associate Director, CLAFI

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Julian Fischer

Executive Secretary, CLAFI

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[wptabtitle]Past Events[/wptabtitle]


Past Commercial Republic Project Events

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Course Offerings

HNRS 173A-1: The Politics and Culture of Liberal Democracy (Fall 2015)

This seminar enters into the debate over the practical and ethical dilemmas of liberal democracy by turning to three seminal writers – John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Stuart Mill – who wrestled with the rise of liberal democracy, with all of its benefits and dangers. We will consider the political elements of liberal democracy (constitutionalism and the rule of law; representation and the separation of powers; popular sovereignty, consent, and rightful revolution; the separation of church, state, and civil society) along with its fundamental socio-political norms (privacy and the toleration of diversity; liberty of conscience, expression, and association; commercial and contractual relations in a “market society”). And from a broader perspective, we will explore the deeper cultural and character-formative effects of the democratic way of life. How does our belief in self-evident equality and our embrace of personal freedom as the highest value shape our views on human nature and human flourishing, the good life and the good society?

HNRS 173B: The Rise of Capitalism in European Thought (Winter 2016)

This seminar explores the intellectual, philosophical, ethical, and political causes and consequences of the rise of capitalism. It is not primarily a course on economics. Rather, by readings a range of capitalism’s classic formulations and critiques, we will interpret and assess the key concepts of capitalism: competition and consumerism; private property and the free market; self-interest and choice; material progress and general prosperity; spontaneous versus planned order. And we will reflect upon and evaluate the relationship between capitalism and human nature, human association, and human flourishing. Which notions of freedom and equality does capitalism advance, and which does it undermine? What are its effects upon culture and community and virtue? What is the relationship between capitalism and liberal democratic politics? What influence does capitalism have upon our spiritual lives? Does capitalism promote social order or instability, peace or conflict, individuality and diversity or conformity? Where do power and authority concentrate under conditions of capitalism?

HNRS 173: American Political Thought: From Revolution to Constitution (Spring 2016)

In 1787, during the lead up to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, James Madison wrote a pamphlet detailing the fundamental flaws and shortcomings of the existing American Constitution, the Articles of Confederation. In “The Vices of the Political System of the United States” Madison argued that the existing constitution was irreparably dysfunctional and needed to be replaced. This course asks whether we should follow in the footsteps of Madison and call for a constitutional convention for the 21st century to rewrite our governing document. Given the widely decried vices of the contemporary political system of the United States, do we now need a third constitution? Our central question is, given the challenges that face America and the world today, and in light of what we believe constitutes a just and good society, what sort of political system would we now seek to implement. To orient our reflection on this intersection of principles and institutions, we will study American political thought from the American Revolution to the ratification debate surrounding the Constitution. What philosophies and principles framed the visions of society and politics of this “founding” period? How was government designed under the American Constitution to put these principles into practice, and why did so many at the time argue against its ratification? What of these principles and institutions should we maintain today, and what should we revise?




The Commercial Republic Project was made possible in partnership with the Jack Miller Center and through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.