Guns Made the State, and the State Made Guns

Industrialist and philanthropist, lobbyist and cultural leader: Samuel Galton Jr. was in 1795 a prominent member of Birmingham’s bourgeoisie. He was also ...

Industrialist and philanthropist, lobbyist and cultural leader: Samuel Galton Jr. was in 1795 a prominent member of Birmingham’s bourgeoisie. He was also a pacifist Quaker, from a family that had long been prominent in the Society of Friends, and likely the leading gun manufacturer for Britain’s massive war machine.

In 1795 the Society of Friends Meeting in Birmingham finally called Galton’s gun manufacturing into question and ultimately expelled him. But Galton rejected the arguments of his inquisitors. He defended himself by insisting that it was arbitrary to single out a weapons manufacturer. All merchants and industrialists, he suggested, fed the enormous appetite of the British war-making state. Bankers and merchants floated loans, and British capital markets grew primarily to finance the ceaseless wars of the 18th century. Not just gun makers but also iron, leather, textile, and food manufacturers all grew and profited through lucrative, large-scale contracting with the war-making state. The whole economy was a war economy, Galton concluded, and it was arbitrary to narrowly condemn his business.

Galton’s defense of his pacifist faith and bellicose occupation is the hook for Priya Satia’s Empire of Guns. From local Quaker mercantile and financial networks in Birmingham to global demand for guns and gun making in Britain’s empire, we see the origins of capitalism soaked in the bloody circuits of the gun trade and warfare.

The war-making state of the 18th century provided industrialists with a unique kind of demand. It purchased food, uniforms, weapons, and other supplies on a scale that made mass production attractive and necessary. Empire of Guns offers a history of the 18th-century economy that validates Galton’s belief that military contracting and demand permeated virtually every aspect of production, exchange, and finance. This history of guns underlines a deeper affinity among the state, violence, and capitalism. The rise of capitalism was marked not by the retreat of a rule-bound liberal state but by the expansion of a massive fiscal and military apparatus that extracted revenue, swept up production, shaped demand, and projected power across empires.

Satia offers an account of the flows of resources and influences that stitched together guns, empire, and industrial capitalism. Eighteenth-century Britain was a “military-industrial society,” built out of diffuse and overlapping networks among arms-making contractors, the Board of Ordnance, and imperial chartered companies such as the East India Company. The line between public and private, government work and private enterprise was not yet formalized in this world of gentlemen’s agreements.

Satia’s networked conception of a military-industrial society contrasts with the formalized, concentrated, and bureaucratic apparatus of the military-industrial complex of the 20th century. In both, the state was central, but the networks of trust, credit, and finance of the 18th century were very different from the integrated research bureaucracies that bridged the academy, the military, and Fordist firms in the 20th.

This entangled network of relationships among the Board of Ordnance, arms-making contractors, and semi-state, semi-corporate chartered companies (foremost the East India Company) channeled flows of resources into the gun-making industry, and, for Satia, created a structure of demand that was central to the industrial revolution itself.

By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, although the specific processes of gun making remained in the hands of artisanal ironworkers, government officials commanded proofhouses and planned gun production, so that the state ran “a kind of virtual factory: a highly subdivided and efficient system of mass production, but too inclusive to house under a single roof.” Satia makes a compelling case that “state institutions drove Britain’s industrial revolution,” and she highlights the centrality of empire in British state capacity.

The East India Company, a major purchaser of arms, provided crucial guidance on weapon designs that “an expanded and reorganized military-industrial society could produce in mass quantities on a new order of magnitude.” The company also stifled arms manufacture in its colonial territory, despite expert inspectors finding the guns made in India to be superior in some cases. East India Company demand for weapons from England was critical in driving gun-making innovation, while at the same time the company carefully reoriented Indian economic development to serve the colonizers’ interests.

What if expansive state power should come first in our understanding of what is distinctive about capitalism?

Thus it was the state, and its semi-state imperial vanguard, the East India Company, that brought “revolution … to the gun industry.” State-led experiments with machinery, coordination through a contractors’ cartel, new apprenticeship regulations, and bounties transformed the “internal structures of the artisanal system so that it could produce on a mass scale,” boosting production from 3,000 guns per week in 1790 to 14,000 per week after 1803.

Deeply rooted in the archives of the mercantile families of Birmingham, the craft workshops of the gun trade, and the intricacies of the imperial state’s contracting system, Empire of Guns offers a sweeping revision of the history of the origins of the industrial revolution and the nature of capitalism itself.

Satia forces us to reconsider some of our foundational assumptions about political economy. Much like Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, Satia’s Empire of Guns puts state power and violence at the center of the emergence and growth of capitalism. Her account shares important interpretative terrain with Beckert’s book, which argued for “war capitalism”—a historically specific conjuncture of state power, merchants, and violence as the foundation for the first industrial revolution, in cotton textiles.

This move to center state power marks a departure in recent histories of capitalism. Certainly, outstanding recent work on securities, public debt, and financial risk has been closely attuned to politics and public policy. In addition, since Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol issued their call to “bring the state back in,” many scholars in the fields of American political development, legal history, and political economy have focused on the role of public policy in constituting, shaping, and directing capitalism. But if this work has successfully chipped away at the liberal core underpinning most conceptions of political economy (even Marxist ones), a liberal pillar still stands that sees politics and state power as reacting to and regulating the primary drivers of the capitalist economy. Satia pushes us toward a more radical recasting of our understanding of the state in the history of capitalism.

What if we need to flip the script? What if expansive state power should come first in our understanding of what is distinctive about capitalism? Satia suggests that it was uniquely powerful states with extensive infrastructural, fiscal, and war-making capacity that created the foundation for modern capitalism. Indeed, it seems that compared to all other political economies throughout history, capitalist political economies have been uniquely characterized by ever more powerful states.

A sign of an enduring liberal dichotomy of state and economy is a preoccupation with regulation (state vs. markets) as a measure of state capacity. Satia’s work stresses instead the flows of resources that integrate the state into the heart of the political economy through extraction (taxation) and, in Empire of Guns, allocation (spending). Because governments require resources to make war, purchase guns, and, after the 18th century, finance infrastructure, fund schools, provide social insurance, and incarcerate the poor, the share of the economy that governments capture through taxation is an essential indicator of the scale of state capacity over time.

Fiscal history is decidedly unsexy, but taxes, budgets, and spending are the sinews of state power. And taxes just keep going up. During the imperial climacteric at the end of the 18th century, Britain, as one of the most successful fiscal-military states in Europe, was able to extract 10 to 15 percent of GDP in taxation, tripling the single-digit rates for early modern states and more than doubling the state capacity of the Roman Empire at its height.1

Despite Third Way pronouncements from centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair that the “era of big government is over,” governments have never been larger. From 1965 to 2015, the OECD average for total taxation as a percentage of GDP rose from 25 percent to nearly 35 percent. Thatcher and Reagan prevailed on the terrain of ideology but failed to slow the growth of the state.

In an era of neoliberal political hegemony, it’s not surprising that the durable growth of state power across the history of capitalism has been largely invisible. From guns in the 18th century to pensions and prisons in the 21st century, the state has continued to expand. Ignored by most but a small niche of econometricians, this durable trajectory carries the tag “Wagner’s Law,” named after the German economist who first observed the statist tendency of capitalism in the late 19th century.

Liberalism has been a powerful political project for capitalist elites, providing a universalistic language with which to first denounce aristocratic privilege and later reject the redistributive claims of working-class parties. But liberal conceptions of political economy have never offered an accurate guide to understanding the movements of capitalism itself.

“Empire of Guns” calls on us to recast our understanding of capitalist political economies, foregrounding the violent and state-led origins of capitalism.

Satia might have helped her account by not overstating the novelty of her approach. While it may be that “the myth of pacific British industrialism” still dominates many textbooks, it is not quite fair to introduce the project by claiming that “no one has explained how constant war impinged on the grand economic narrative of the time, the industrial revolution.”

Charles Tilly, for instance, devoted much of his prolific scholarship to the intertwined development of states, war making, and modern capitalism. Researchers across the social sciences continue to engage with and expand on Tilly’s “bellicist” tradition of historical sociology. Within the field of British and global economic history, Patrick K. O’Brien has also written extensively on how British empire and war making proved crucial for driving forward the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless, Satia’s work does mark a new moment of clarity in a long tradition. Empire of Guns calls on us to recast our understanding of capitalist political economies, foregrounding the violent and state-led origins of capitalism. Satia urges us to put the “political” back into “political economy,” with a full view of the imperial, coercive, coordinating, and contracting capacity of the state.

But there is also need for caution and reflection. Economic historians have approached recent histories of capitalism with considerable skepticism.2 A rapprochement between the rigidly quantitative approaches of economic history and the more institutionalist, cultural, and political approach of historians might be welcome, but Satia closes the door on such an engagement at the outset, stating that any “quantitative assessment of the state’s role in the industrial revolution is both methodologically impossible and inappropriate.”

Even the best, most eclectic, and wide-ranging economic historians have astonishingly thin conceptions of politics, cultural power, and the social history of collective action. Historians, on the other hand, have developed a debilitating refusal (and in many cases inability) to engage with quantitative approaches and remain more comfortable studying the policies and procedures of regulation. But if we want to trace the historical development of fiscal flows through taxation, budgets, and spending, quantitative assessment of the scope and scale of these tides, not just narrative descriptions of their embankments, seems essential.


Our Drones, Ourselves

By Jason Pearl

Engaging with quantitative arguments and approaches does not necessarily mean getting trapped in the flattening assumptions of liberalism and methodological individualism. To rewrite the history of capitalism with state power at the center, cultural, institutional, and quantitative approaches will all be necessary. Quantification seems essential if we aim to study the state not simply as an apparatus of regulation but as a coercive site for the extraction and allocation of resources, whether that spending is on guns, canals, pensions, or prisons.

Classical liberalism and its 20th-century rebirth in functionalist modernization theory have provided the central pillar around which even critical political economies have circled. Satia shows us an opening toward rebuilding the study of capitalism as political economy. Reconstructing the relationships and flows of resources that tied the Birmingham gun district to the imperial state, she situates Britain’s war capitalism within an 18th-century “military-industrial society” that transcended entrenched boundaries between nation and empire, firms and bureaucrats, and economy and state.

To confront capitalism today, to reckon with its potential and limits, we must also fundamentally confront the state in its full coercive, extractive, and (potentially) redistributive capacity. From the 18th century to the present, ever-expanding state power has never been exterior or ancillary, but constitutive of capitalist political economy itself.


This article was commissioned by Destin Jenkins. icon

  1. Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 99 (November 2009).
  2. Eric Hilt, “Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the ‘New History of Capitalism,’” Journal of Economic History, vol. 77, no. 2 (June 2017).
Featured image: William Sadler, The Battle of Waterloo. Wikimedia Commons