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Imperial Origins of the 'National Economy'

24 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2013  

Onur Ulas Ince

Singapore Management University

Date Written: 2013


This paper engages the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates over free trade, imperialism, and economic nationalism. Specifically, it focuses on the works of Friedrich List, who is considered to be the ideological forefather of economic nationalism by virtue of his critique of the British “imperialism of free trade” and his plans for building independent economies through protective tariffs. In challenging this conventional perception of economic nationalism as a mode of anti-imperial critique, I forward two interrelated arguments. First, I contend that the opposition between free trade and the national economy as articulated by List disintegrates when viewed from a global-imperial perspective. A careful reading of List’s engagement with classical political economy reveals that his proposed system of national political economy closely adhered to the imperial division of labor between a manufacturing imperial core and agricultural imperial peripheries. The model of the “balanced economy” that List envisioned for France, Germany, and the United States amounted to the construction within their national borders an economic system that had already been established by the British Empire on a global scale. Secondly, the theory of economic development on which List based his policy proposals was heavily laden with categories of race and civilization that were decisively hitched to a secular telos of industrial-commercial progress. Accordingly, List’s formally anti-imperial theory economic nationalism effectively hinged on the internalization of the existing global and imperial economic logics, rather than being an alternative to them. I conclude that the adoption of List’s ideas of economic nationalism by postcolonial developmental states has informed a process of “internal colonization,” in which the civilizational epistemologies of colonial empires were reproduced in developmentalist representations of the countryside as an inherently premodern, backward, and stagnant domain to be forcibly subordinated to rapid national industrialization.

Keywords: Political economy, capitalism, free trade, empire, imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, development, Friedrich List

Suggested Citation

Ince, Onur Ulas, Imperial Origins of the 'National Economy' (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper; American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN:

Onur Ince (Contact Author)

Singapore Management University ( email )

469 Bukit Timah Road
Federal Building #02-05
Singapore, 259756

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