Retail traders not affected by the shop tax (1787)

Retail traders not affected by the shop tax (1787)

I am currently working on a new book entitled Reimagining Labor: The Politics of Risk and Blame in Early Modern Britain. For this project, I explore debates about labor in Britain from 1688-1815 to follow the development of early modern discourses of risk and blame. By looking closely at multi-faceted discourses of labor, improvement, and moral and material value, I show they were strongly inflected by the anxiety of living in a commercial society saturated in risk. In this monograph, I establish that eighteenth-century British efforts to develop an authoritative, normative account of labor not only influenced projects for improvement and prosperity, but also soothed widespread moral and social worries about risky commerce. I focus especially on how marginal laborers—overlapping groups like the poor, migrants, and prostitutes—were represented, and I argue that efforts to set them apart as particularly risky figures, and to blame them for potentially unwanted consequences of commercial growth, served as feeble consolation for members of a society shot through with risk-taking and its attendant moral and economic challenges.

For this project, I begin with treatments of labor in political and economic treatises, but I also rely on a broader range of sources to open up the theoretical claims of these treatises: legal cases, policy memoranda and debates, and popular literature. These materials reveal three developments. First, even as tools of measurement and probability become available to help people develop more precise risk calculations about profit and loss in commerce, perceptions of risk frequently took their own paths, driven by anxiety about the moral or social costs of economic flux. Second, while all manner of risky financial and commercial ventures characterized the political economy, labor became a special object of scrutiny, contestation, and moralization. Third, studying treatments and representations of groups that were marginal to the political economy reveals attempts to construct and then manage them as especially risky or untrustworthy people. It places labor at the center of trust formation.