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1Steven L. Kaplan is one of the most important historians of his generation. His research on eighteenth-century and contemporary France is characterized by great thematic unity, as nearly all of his many publications are on the same two subjects: trading in grain and derived products (bread), and the world of work and corporations. In this book, a companion to the second edition of his celebrated 1976 work, Bread, Politics and Political Economy, he explains the genesis of that book and his initial aims in writing it and engages in a kind of a retrospective historiographical assessment. Reading his introduction to The Stakes of Regulation, we readily perceive its originality; it does not fit into any existing category. Though Kaplan describes his intellectual sources in detail as well as particular moments in the development of his thinking, this is in no way an ego-histoire. Nor has he merely actualized Bread, Politics and Political Economy. The book is rather a highly personal discussion of seven subjects that he says were at the core of his undertaking: “This companion volume is conceived as a commentary on and dialogue with Bread, Politics and with fellow researchers who have written in and around the concerns of that book” (p. xxxviii).

2The exercise was a perilous one, as it could have been used primarily to express self-satisfaction given the immense impact of the 1976 work, which greatly exceeded the chronological and disciplinary frame of the history of Old Regime France. Among many others, Michel Foucault (see the Collège de France lectures, 1977-1978), the American critical theorist Bernard Harcourt (The Illusion of Free Markets, 2011) and, more modestly, myself have all found considerable food for our own thought in Kaplan’s work. [1] But the danger is skilfully skirted, and the introduction, in which he sketches out his intellectual autobiography in order to resituate Bread, Politics in the context of his overall research project, is immediately reassuring on this count. In thirty or so pages, he presents with great clear-sightedness the path that led him, via the Annales school and particularly the work of Braudel, to conceive a project around a total history of bread and the grain market. The first part of this ambitious programme was Bread, Politics, which analyses the deregulation of that market in the early 1760s and its drastic economic, social and political effects.

3In the first of the seven chapters, Kaplan analyses several books that have discussed the issue of regulating the grain market in the Enlightenment eighteenth century and early in the twentieth. In the second, he does the same with recent studies on eighteenth-century economic developments in French agriculture. The third is longer and more complex; it “discusses some of the debates generated by attempts to account for the behavior of that abyssal entity known (or unknown) as ‘the people’” (p. 96), namely in the case of scarcity, either real or presumed. In Chapter 4, he discusses studies of “Parlements in the Age of Economic Enlightenment”, while Chapter 5 focuses on the opposite camp: the king’s government. Chapter 6 explores recent developments in the historiography of French political economy during the Enlightenment. The last chapter is on recent analyses of famine.

4It would make no sense here to present the chapter content in detail; the chapters are structured as a set of more or less extensive reviews of recent works (3-15 pages), at times interspersed with original thoughts. I would just mention here a fascinating discussion of about ten pages on Necker and his idea of “the people” (pp. 136-146) and another commentary (pp. 250-263) on a conflict between the local government of Dijon and the state controller-general on how to respond to a sharp rise in grain prices. Kaplan’s various asides are all addenda to his original work.

5Above and beyond the specific reviews, it seems to me that this work is “haunted” by three recurrent themes, the first of which is “public opinion”, a theme imposed by historians of Old Regime France such as Keith Michael Baker and Mona Ozouf. Their methodological options were directly opposed to Kaplan’s; it is therefore not surprising that he should explain, wherever the opportunity presents itself, what he sees as the difficulties involved in a concept too vague to be relevant in historical study. The criticism is justified, as public opinion is a notoriously elusive concept socially: it is extremely hard to determine, for example, what social categories it was composed of.

6The second notion that Kaplan returns to several times is “the people”. Here he acknowledges with great intellectual honesty (as suggested by the above quotation) that he cannot really decide which of the many uses and social realities the term refers to are most relevant. Contrary to his criticism of “public opinion”, this relative failure does not seem to him to preclude further discussion; on the contrary, the term’s ambiguity is an invitation to investigate and theorize – an essential heuristic device.

7The third recurrent notion is liberalism. It provides Kaplan with a thematic link between his research on the eighteenth century and his more recent studies of post-World War II France. He is less interested in liberalism as a technology of power, a point developed by Foucault and researchers after him, including Harcourt and Skornicki, than for the economic deregulation it may imply and the destructuring effect that deregulation has on social space. We cannot but notice Kaplan’s profound scepticism with regard to the possibility of liberalism being applied in a historical society without creating the conditions for its own failure.

8The Stakes of Regulation is an indispensable work for anyone interested in the economy of Old Regime France, the role of subsistence in the economy over the long period, and interactions between the social and the economic.


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    To measure the impact the work had on historians of Old Regime French society and economy in the decades following its publication, we have only to reread Daniel Roche’s in-depth analysis in Annales. Économies, sociétés, civilisations 35(6), 1980, pp. 1290-1296.
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