Capitalism’s Alter Ego: The Birth of Reciprocity in Eighteenth-Century France


Charles Walton, “Capitalism’s Alter Ego: The Birth of Reciprocity in Eighteenth-Century France”, in Critical Historical Studies, vol. 5, n°1, 2018, pp. 1-43


This article traces the concept of reciprocity from its emergence in French philosophy during the Enlightenment to its recent growth in the humanities and social sciences. After charting the term’s accelerated use in French and English in the modern period, the article shows how its meaning has continually wavered between exchange equivalence (barter) and generosity and obligation (the gift, the Golden Rule). During the Enlightenment, these meanings converged in efforts to naturalize commerce and justify liberal economic reforms. A free-market society, it was argued, would be fair and bountiful. Upon the failure of such reforms in the early French Revolution, reciprocity and its new synonym “fraternity” became detached from economic liberalism. As capitalism became increasingly associated with wealth inequality in the nineteenth century, reciprocity became the watchword of capitalism’s critics, who tried to conceptualize social bonds in terms other than those offered by Homo economicus.

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