A revolution in economic thought?

Cameralism in Central Europe and the rise of the modern economy

Date: 1 September 2017, 01:30–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 3002



Neither the historical sciences nor mainstream economic theory could claim to have a sound understanding of the vital role played by pre-classical thinking, especially continental Cameralism and mercantilism in the process of modern economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism since 1600. Often identified as “heterodox” and dismissed as a rather exotic toy horse, Cameralist economic thought can be shown to have played a crucial part in three aspects: (1) the evolution of modern economic thought, (2) industrialization as well the “Great Divergence”, and thus, by the same token (3) the rise of modern capitalism and the modern economy.

New research by the present researcher and others (Rössner 2015a, E. Reinert & Rössner 2016, and Rössner ed., Economic Reason of State 2016) offers a series of hypotheses that are bound to challenge an existing commonly-accepted narrative on the evolution of the modern economy: Basic concepts of economic growth had been known in continental European discourse for ages. They were refined, if not perfected, at least a century prior to the rise of Adam Smith, James Steuart and the subsequent “fathers of political economy” including David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus etc. Most of these clues are buried within a discourse usually called “Cameralism”. But contrary to mainstream wisdom Cameralism was neither typically German nor in any sort a theoretical aberration: it represented a shared discourse common across early modern Europe, representing the economic mainstream of its age until late, and the type of thinking on which Europe grew rich whilst others didn't. With its focus on risk and chance, a plannable and manageable future of mankind and possibilities of development this discourse represented a revolution in political and economic thought. But we still lack a reliable picture of its spread and permeation into modern European social, political and economic thought, especially across South-Central Europe and Scandinavia. How did Cameralistic discourses spread and unfold within their different and idiosyncratic contexts in various locations at different times? To what extent were they culturally contingent or cultural specific, tied to the respective means and requirements formulated or defined within each national or regional culture? Did they represent rational solutions to each such time-space-specific requirements?

These and other questions should be addressed by the present panel which takes up the challenge by focusing on Cameralism in Central Europe, especially post-1700 Hungary. By linking new research on European economic discourse with new developments in the history of modern political economy the panel seeks to sketch a new view not only of Hungarian and Central European intellectual history but also contribute to a new history of global economic thought and a revolution in political economy.

Convenor / Chair

Phillipp Robinson Rössner (University of Manchester)


Erik S. Reinert (Tallinn University of Technology)


Phillipp Robinson Rössner (University of Manchester)

Mária Hidvégi (University Konstanz)

Antal Szantay (Corvinus University Budapest)



Philipp Robinson Rössner: Cameralism, The discovery of the future and the rise of modern capitalism (1600-1900 A.D.)

Whilst social scientists have called for an end to growth, acknowledging the ecological limitations and other barriers to contemporary economic growth, the idea that unlimited economic growth would be both desirable as well as in principle possible is still with us. Scholars have linked its rise to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The grand narratives of European economic supremacy have fed on this paradigm. But in fact, the idea of infinite growth was much older and related to a cultural and epistemic landslide change that took place in early modern Europe at the same time when a profoundly new mode of economic thinking took ground around 1600 A.D. This modern, pro-active or New Economic Thinking (NET), sometimes but not always helpfully called “mercantilism” or “Cameralism”, usually held that infinite growth was possible in principle. It gained firm hold in European economic discourse around 1600. This NET was concerned with the rise of modern markets, manufacturing and the pro-active role that the state should and did play in the process of growth and development. The vocabulary employed in the texts addressed fundamental questions of growth, development and proactive resource management, something we don’t find in earlier (medieval) economic texts. Since about the same time we also observe a cultural landslide change in Europe: the ‘Discovery of the Present’ (A. Landwehr). Literary genres of the day drew increasing attention to the human present and its future (rather than the past), suggesting that the future was principally alterable – by human agency and will but, above all, careful management. The present contribution suggests ways of combining this cultural-intellectual revolution with the revolution in continental European economic thought around 1600 A.D., providing a new narrative on Europe’s way towards modern capitalism.

Mária Hidvégi: Land, people and the unused economic potential of Hungary: Knowledge transfer in the context of cameralism and statistics

At the beginning of the 18th century, large territories of the Hungarian Kingdom which had been formerly occupied by the Ottoman Empire or paid tribute to the latter, became part of the Habsburg Empire. Cameralism as an intellectual framework and toolbox played an integral part of the economic integration, unification and centralization of the Habsburg Empire in that century. Cameralist concepts about making better use of the vast resources of the Hungarian Kingdom were presented as serving the economic development of the Empire so that “Austria” may match the French or British Empire. From the 1720s, and especially in the last third of the eighteenth century, comparable plans were presented serving more the integration and economic development of the Hungarian Kingdom itself. The paper will focus on these different goals of the Cameralist (including statistical) literature and on the contribution of 1789 and the British industrial revolution on the emergence of the topic of the colonial state of Hungary within the imperial framework.

Antal Szantay: Cameralism and Hungary in 18th Century Habsburg Monarchy

After the Great Turkish War (1683-1699) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Habsburg Monarchy gained vast territories, new lands, and provinces which had to be incorporated into the Monarchy’s governmental system. Integration, unification, and centralization were on the agenda in Viennese government circles during the 18th century. The paper will examine how 17th- and 18th-century Cameralism served as a theoretical base or background for these aims. In this regard, it is important to clarify whether Cameralism was a coherent system of political, social and economic ideas or whether it was a flexible frame which absorbed diverse strains of 18th century political and economic thought. The paper also aims an overview of the reception of Cameralism in Hungary and the Cameralists’ specific position towards Hungary, as well as Cameralist positions regarding Hungary’s constitution and economic resources. Since the panel and the paper are embedded in the 5th ENIUGH Congress on “Ruptures, Empires, and Revolutions,” the paper will specifically relate Cameralism to the issues of empire formation (here specifically the 18th-century Habsburg Monarchy or, if you like, the Habsburg Empire), and to issues of generating and/or avoiding revolution.

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