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66 Working Paper

"Civil Society, Commerce, and the 'Citizen-Consumer': Popular Meanings of Free Trade in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century Britain"



This essay explores the changing popular understanding of the relationship among civil SOciety, economy, and state in the debate about Free Trade. It unravels the rich social, political, and cultural meanings of Free Trade to cooperative societies, women's groups, radicals and labour. Before the First World War, Free Trade was understood less as a handmaiden of market capitalism than as an agent of civil society nurturing its constitutive elements: associational life, reciprocity, and civic responsibility. The "new liberalism" contributed the ideal of the "citizen-consumer," a vision which is compared to productivist utopias on the continent. The First World War and the 19205, it is argued, witnessed the end of a chapter in the history of civil society: freedom of trade became dissociated from a belief in the relative autonomy of civil society from state and economy. New ideas of associative democracy emerged. bUilding bridges between civil society and the state. By reconceptualizing political economy as a discourse about the normative order of civil society, this paper sheds new light on the social and democratic development of modern Britain.