Andre Wakefield


On his book The Disordered Police State: German Cameralism as Science and Practice

Cover Interview of November 12, 2009


In the eighteenth century, German political economists repeatedly promised that they could harness science to improve the common good.  These claims later reappeared as evidence for the connection between science and economic development during the Enlightenment.  Some contemporary social scientists have even suggested that the cameralists present a “third way” for economic development, an alternative model to both Marxist and neo-liberal approaches.

The sources that historians have used to link Enlightenment science with material progress are not transparent.  Professors and state officials, desperate for employment and keen for promotions, created the fiction of well-ordered police states through their regulations, books and treatises.  They argued that science, properly cultivated, created prosperity for princes and their people.  When these author-administrators tried to put their ideas into practice, however, the results were usually disastrous.

History is only as good as its sources, and the cameral sciences, which pretended to speak publicly about the most secret affairs of state, were deeply dishonest.  We cannot trust them, and we cannot trust narratives built on them.  I hope that my book adds a note of skepticism to current debates about science and economic development.  We don’t know as much as we think we know.

If the history of state building and state finance is about progressive models of development, about the relentless march to us, then it makes little sense to study the petty principalities of early modern Germany, those Galapagos Islands of state building.  But if we suspend our judgment about the inevitable destiny of the world’s political and economic dodos, replacing categories of hierarchy with difference, perhaps we can begin to understand what these forgotten states actually produced instead of how they failed.  Release the past and you release the future.

© 2009 Andre Wakefield