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Religion and Political Economy in Early-Nineteenth-Century France

Listed author(s):
  • Gilbert Faccarello
  • Philippe Steiner

There was in early-nineteenth-century France a widespread revival of religious sentiment, after the turmoil of the Revolution and the intellectual onslaught on religion so central to the French Enlightenment. Simultaneously, political economy became more prominent among “publicists”—educated people or theoreticians writing as journalists—and political elites. These two developments influenced those who sought to modernize society and who in their different ways expressed a new approach known as industrialisme. These writers put forward several versions of the links that should exist in industrial society between political economy and religion. A truly a-religious political economy based on self-interested behavior and utilitarianism, such as the one presented in Jean-Baptiste Say's writings, gained acceptance for most people interested in the “new” science. This point of departure is important not only because Say's thought became a major reference for the different conceptions of industrialisme but also because it provided a utilitarian evaluation of religious institutions and feelings. Some other conceptions of industrialisme can be found in the leading members of two distinct schools of thought: the Groupe de Coppet, with Germaine de Staël and Benjamin Constant; and the less homogeneous group formed by Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, the Saint-Simonians, and Auguste Comte. Both approaches presumed that self-interest was incapable of uniting the social body and emphasized religious feelings to explain how societies could function harmoniously. We examine how Staël and Constant dealt with these issues and how, while they accepted the principle of competition in economic activity, their conception of the specific nature of liberty in a modern society led them to a critique of utilitarianism and morals based on interest and also to the idea that the harmonious functioning of industrial society requires a morality based on religion. We then study how industrialisme was modified to fit the views of modern society held by Saint-Simon, the Saint-Simonians, and Comte. Political and civil liberty was not a central matter for these writers. Instead, they favored the creation of organizations capable of regulating a chaotic social order, and in this perspective new forms of religion were given a prominent place, specifically formed to suit the industrial social order and based on philanthropy or altruism. In the conclusion we briefly note that, after all such criticism, some leading liberal economists reacted in defense of political economy and developed their own conceptions of the links between economics and religion: they rejected the idea of the necessity of a new religion and insisted instead on traditional Catholic ideas. As a result, political economy and religion were conceived as two pillars of a conservative order following the rise of socialist ideas.

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Article provided by Duke University Press in its journal History of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 40 (2008)
Issue (Month): 5 (Supplement)
Pages: 26-61

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Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:40:y:2008:i:5:p:26-61
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