Observing how the thirteenth-century Tartar invasion of Europe disrupted North Sea trade, glutting English stores, Edward Gibbon remarked: ‘It is whimsical enough, that the orders of a Mogul Khan, who reigned on the borders of China, should have lowered the price of herrings in the English market.’ Two things could be said to emerge from this. One is the considerable linkage of northern markets in the period, with the English fishery reliant on custom from Swedish traders. When in 1238 they failed to arrive, deterred from leaving port by news of Tartar conquests further east, desperate merchants were obliged to offload forty or fifty fish for a shilling. Hence a second point: the vulnerability of such networks to violent disruption. The harm done was incidental on this occasion, and the relationship between trade and armed force would become tighter—if not constitutive: Marx, after all, saw colonial expropriations as ‘the chief momenta of primitive accumulation’, and coercion as integral to the world economy under capitalism. By 1894, Max Weber could conclude that ‘unavoidable efforts at trade expansion . . . are clearly approaching the point where power alone will decide each nation’s share in the economic control of the earth’.

Such views could not be further from today’s orthodoxy, which has open markets and liberal institutions, not armed might, as the determinants of national prosperity. Alongside hymns to the present-day virtues of deregulation and lowering tariffs, offered by the likes of Jagdish Bhagwati and Martin Wolf, neoliberalism has generated historical paeans to world trade. William Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange (2008), for example, reels off stories about spice traders and European explorers to celebrate Smith’s dictum that man has an innate ‘propensity to truck, barter and exchange’; ‘any effort to stifle it is doomed to failure in the long run’, Bernstein contends. In Power and Plenty, Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke have written a millennial account of world trade that focuses far more on historical violence. It is partly intended to educate their fellow economists—preoccupied with abstract statistics, neglectful of power politics beyond the odd salvo of tariffs—in the coercive origins of the world economy. Yet Findlay and O’Rourke, based at Columbia and Trinity College, Dublin respectively, also assert that contemporary globalization is essentially benign.

Their narrative is structured by ‘three great world-historical events’: the Black Death, which spread along trade routes in Eurasia and ultimately raised living standards and demand for Asian goods; the discovery of the Americas and their commercial integration with the Old World; and the Industrial Revolution, which transformed the scale of global trade. Power and Plenty traces the imprint of the great powers on these integrative processes, all the while scanning for harbingers of latter-day globalization—as measured by international commodity price convergence—in much the same manner as O’Rourke’s earlier book on the nineteenth century, Globalization and History. As they approach the present, state power is eclipsed by peaceable market exchange—rendering their account, crammed though it is with empirical detail, tendentiously selective.

To conceptualize the links between commerce and coercion, Findlay and O’Rourke draw on Jacob Viner’s 1948 World Politics article, ‘Power versus Plenty as Objectives of Foreign Policy in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. This pointed out that mercantile societies saw commercial wealth and national power as perfectly compatible pursuits. Findlay and O’Rourke summarize that ‘Power would be the means to secure Plenty, which in turn would provide Power with its sinews’. Indeed, violence of one form or another has forced a series of advances:

The greatest expansions of world trade have tended to come not from the bloodless tâtonnement of some Walrasian auctioneer but from the barrel of a Maxim gun, the edge of a scimitar, or the ferocity of nomadic horsemen.

They quickly assure us that despite this emphasis on force, they are ‘not Marxists’. On the contrary, ‘like most mainstream economists, we view inventiveness and incentives, rather than sheer accumulation, “primitive” or otherwise, as being at the heart of growth’. Having allayed mainstream fears, they continue:

but this does not imply that European overseas expansion should be written off as irrelevant. Plunder may not have directly fuelled the Industrial Revolution, but mercantilism and imperialism were an important part of the global context within which it originated, expanding markets and ensuring the supply of raw materials. Violence thus undoubtedly mattered in shaping the environment within which the conventional economic forces of supply and demand operated.