In memory of Jean Baechler
Jean Baechler passed away a few days ago. I’ve written a short obituary for the Wall Street Journal. I’ve tried to highlight the key insight of his short-but-great 1971 book, The Origins of Capitalism:
Economic growth, Baechler maintained, is the result of millions of “experiments” by people who act and think differently from the mainstream. For growth to happen, such acts of mutinous innovation must be permissible, if not explicitly permitted. Baechler saw capitalism as an offspring of Europe’s peculiar political condition. Despite the attempts of Charlemagne, Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler, Europe never became an empire. A great cultural homogeneity, provided mainly by Christianity, failed to produce a Continent wide political order.
Baechler thought that political anarchy had been key to the development of the market economy in Europe. His book was not so much a work in economic history but rather in the history of political thought, addressing critically Karl Marx and Max Weber on the origin of capitalism.
A few years ago I invited Baechler to give a lecture at Istituto Bruno Leoni in Turin. You can listen to it (in French) here. He was an eclectic scholar, who dealt with a number of different subjects, mostly in sociology, after that old book of his, though he regularly surveyed the status of the historiographical debate on the same matter. For the time we spent together, I can say he was a rather reserved man, with a dry sense of humour and with a prodigious memory. RIP.