Civic Integration through Economic Networks
Competing elites may rely on formal organizations to voice their interests, support collective action, and mobilize supporters. Political parties come to mind in present-day settings. But what are alternative platforms for collective action when political parties and similar formal organizations are either not available or not accessible? We consider to what extent economic networks may provide such alternative organizational platforms.
The project brings this question to bear on two historical research sites. The first concerns the abolition of the slave trade. Focusing on the outport of Bristol as a case in point, our study shows that slave traders lacked an organizational basis to translate their economic interests into political influence. Supporting evidence from merchant networks over the 1698-1807 period shows that the Society of Merchant Venturers offered such an organizational site for collective political action. However, the Society represented the interests of a closed elite. High barriers to entry prevented the slave traders from using the Society as a vehicle for political mobilization. Further, cohesion among slave traders outside of this chartered company hinged on centrally positioned brokers. Yet the broker positions were held by the few merchants who became members of the Society, and who eventually ceased their engagement in slave trading. The result was a fragmented network that undermined the slave traders’ concerted efforts to mobilize against the political pressure of the abolitionist movement.
The second case study examines how joint enterprises bring together members of very different elite factions and thus help to bridge divisions between these factions. We employ a quantitative historical network study of the merchant elite in Saint-Malo, one of France’s most important ports during the Age of Mercantilism. During wartime, these merchants turned Saint-Malo into one of the most vibrant centres of privateering, the raiding of enemy merchant ships, licensed by the French government. We demonstrate that privateering partnerships served as “linchpin organizations” that brought traders from various socio-economic strands together in a joint enterprise. As a possibly unintended consequence, these joint privateering ventures facilitated the integration of otherwise competing elite factions. Supporting quantitative evidence comes from archival registers of more than 3,000 partnership contracts, poll tax records of the entire city of Saint-Malo, as well as kinship networks and political office holding over a period of one hundred years (1681-1791).