Carl Wennerlind


On his book Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620-1720

Cover Interview of December 06, 2012


Casualties of Credit is an effort to explore both the positive and negative features of the early modern culture of credit. On the one hand, I point to the impressive achievement of humanity to generate such a complex system based on trust and credit’s incredible productive capacity that the Financial Revolution unleashed, without which modern material marvels would not have been possible. On the other hand, I also highlight the integral role played by authority, violence, and suffering during the early phases of modern financial capitalism. As David Graeber has pointed out in a wider time frame in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years, credit is both a remarkable human accomplishment and a social institution marred in violence and suffering. In exploring this janus-faced quality of credit, I also seek to bring the liberal and radical scholarly traditions into conversation with each other, drawing for example on the writings of both J. G. A. Pocock and Peter Linebaugh.

My book is also a contribution to the recent efforts of historians and anthropologists to regain some of the analytical terrain ceded to economists. While economists have exhaustively explored the economics of finance, a growing number of historians and anthropologists have recently rediscovered that there are many politically and analytically salient features of credit that are simply ignored by economists. To better understand the origins, workings, and future of capitalism, we need both the social sciences and the humanities to contribute to our understanding.

Casualties of Credit also highlights the importance of ideas to the Financial Revolution and to the development of capitalism more broadly. While Joel Mokyr has recently showed in his book The Enlightened Economy that ideas mattered greatly for the English Industrial Revolution, my book suggests that ideological conflicts, intellectual debates, and political schisms played central roles in the development and configuration of the new culture of credit. Moreover, drawing on the work of Mary Poovey on the relationship between the imagination and credit, I offer some analytical consequences of viewing credit as unrestricted in time and space, capable of moving wherever the imagination goes. I show how credit can be used as a valuable lens through which to study capitalism, in that it reveals important connections between seemingly independent and disparate phenomena.