Big-Bang Theory

Empire of Guns BY Priya Satia. Overlook Press. Hardcover, 544 pages. $.

The cover of Empire of Guns

In the wake of February’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the public American conversation about gun control has been animated by a recurrent theme: the idea of a ban on assault weapons. According to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, these guns—most often AR-15-style rifles, civilian versions of the American military’s primary firearm—are “weapons of war” that have no place on “our streets.” But AR-15s are made here in the USA; their manufacturers are subsidized by tax breaks and contracts championed by legislators from both parties. Schumer once called Remington Arms, the oldest American manufacturer of rifles and shotguns, a “proud New York company with a world-class workforce that makes some of the finest firearms produced anywhere in the country.” Reading the praise of gunmakers as all-American job creators alongside denunciations of the weapons they produce, one senses a contradiction at the heart of the American enterprise. As a nation that enshrines universal liberal values, we see assault rifles as weapons of war that have no place on our streets, but as the world’s largest arms exporter and military superpower, we see them as a high-quality product of which we should be proud.

What is the relationship between gun violence and the free market? This question is at the heart of the Stanford historian Priya Satia’s authoritative new account of the development of mass-produced firearms in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. There is a longstanding belief that war, because it is wasteful and regressive, is antithetical to economic liberalism. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith theorized that military conflict might stimulate brief spurts of mercantile activity, but, in the long run, it was inefficient and discouraged growth. The surest way to foster peace was by broadening trade and increasing the interdependence of markets. In Empire of Guns, Satia turns this story on its head. She argues that war—and expansionist imperial violence in particular—is the precondition and generative force of market liberalism: Guns, it turns out, are good business.

The so-called Long Eighteenth Century, the years from 1688 to 1815, during which Britain industrialized, is often seen as an era of remarkable peace. But, as Satia points out, the country was involved in territorial conflicts, wars of succession, or armed trade disputes for the majority of the period. “At any given time, Britain was either at war, making preparations for war, or recovering from war,” she writes. “Even in peacetime, contemporaries assumed war was imminent, or at least that government should act as if it were so.” Some of these conflicts—the Seven Years’ War, the American and French revolutions, the War of 1812—are well known; others, like the wars of Spanish and Austrian succession, the Nine Years’ War, or the War of Jenkins’ Ear, are more obscure. Remembered or not, they all demanded large quantities of British firearms.

As the industry grew, mass-produced British guns flooded the world’s markets. For most of the eighteenth century, the country was by far the single largest producer and exporter of small arms on the planet. They were bought by the British Army proper, by the East India Company and other para-state ventures with military designs, and by Britain’s on-again, off-again enemies like the French. They were carried by colonists, militias, and Native peoples on the frontiers of North America, and unloaded in bulk (frequently broken or in disrepair) onto partners in the African slave trade. When British colonial forces entered various kingdoms and principalities in South Asia, they deliberately sold firearms to rival factions as part of a broader strategy of divide and conquer. The “empire” in Empire of Guns is no exaggeration: Guns made possible a world-spanning British imperial enterprise and were the lifeblood of a new kind of globalized capitalist commerce.

Eadweard Muybridge, A Man Firing a Gun (detail), 1887, collotype, 9 1⁄4 × 12 5⁄8". Wellcome Library/University of Pennsylvania.
Eadweard Muybridge, A Man Firing a Gun (detail), 1887, collotype, 9 1⁄4 × 12 5⁄8″. Wellcome Library/University of Pennsylvania.

Constant war was extraordinarily profitable for British arms dealers. Gunmaking, a small industry in the early eighteenth century, expanded explosively over the course of the Industrial Revolution—fivefold in the period from 1790 to 1803 alone. Factory owners became wealthy and powerful, gaining political influence through government contracts and sophisticated new credit networks. Since liquid cash was hard to come by, many started their own banks and risk-hedging ventures. Several prominent financial institutions still in operation today—Barclays, Lloyds, and the Midland Bank, which is now part of HSBC—were founded by British families whose wealth came either directly from making guns or from being otherwise instrumental in the process. When all else failed, the guns themselves furnished a tangible source of currency: Their metal could be literally melted down to make coins.

There is a widespread myth that the Industrial Revolution was ignited by the contributions of individual scientists and capitalist “innovators.” But, Satia argues, this myth erases the real driver of industrialization: the incipient British state, which built an infrastructure and engineered an entire economy around war. The product at the center of this transformation was not the locomotive or the mechanical loom; it was the firearm. And the industry’s rapid expansion was not the result of any single new scientific breakthrough or a radical management technique, but largely of an increase in production capacity—no genius required.

One of the book’s most remarkable achievements is Satia’s attention to the changing meanings and moral calculi attached to guns. “Culture and technology produce each other,” she writes. “Objects do not merely signify and represent us but enhance our capacity as human beings, creating new kinds of humanity and human agency.” Empire of Guns is, among other things, an investigation of how people have come to navigate the idea of moral complicity while living in industrial society and a meditation on how technology shapes our relations to the state.

What British arms symbolized, and the purposes for which they were deployed, evolved over time. At first, they were primarily exported for use abroad. Though gun ownership rates began to increase in the 1750s, the idea of violence as intimate, emotional, and face-to-face was hard to shake. For a while, murders continued to be committed with knives and clubs. Even when Birmingham workers rioted in a factory that produced small arms, they chose to fight with stones and tools rather than the much more destructive weapons lying close at hand.

Attitudes changed over the next several decades. Large-scale military conscription led more and more British men to have direct personal experience with firearms and battles of almost mechanical, indifferent slaughter. Highwaymen began using them to rob travelers, and the wealthy to defend their persons and homes. Both protectors and symbols of private property, guns created a “physical identification between property owner and place, keeping threats at a polite distance.” As the century drew to a close, Britain began to see spates of random shootings in response to the upheaval of rapid industrialization, and the new weapons became “the disturbed man’s way of meting out justice.”

Since arms manufacturers were involved in the production of countless other goods—from buttons and buckles to kitchenware to carriage parts to snuffboxes—guns were initially thought of as just one product among the rest. But as shootings increased, they increasingly came to be seen as an “inherently bad good.” Gunmakers likewise began to appear morally culpable for the weapons they manufactured. Satia illustrates this change through the story of the family whose fortunes she tracks most closely, the Galtons of Birmingham—who, in a surprising twist, were members of the Quaker Society of Friends. For many years, the contradiction between the family’s line of work and their avowed commitment to pacifism provoked little objection. It was a sign of the shifting moral status of firearms when, in the 1790s, the Birmingham Society of Friends pressed Samuel Galton Jr., the owner of Britain’s biggest firearms factory and a main supplier for both its military supplies and commercial exports, to give up his business or be disowned.

Rather than accede to the Society’s demands, Galton mounted a philosophical defense. How different, really, was his sin from that of his brethren who paid taxes to the Crown, thereby supporting its wars, or who wore cotton or consumed sugar, thereby supporting the violence of slavery? As a manufacturer, his goal was merely, in his words, the “acquisition of Property.” If moral culpability was a matter of absolute principle and not degrees of proximity, “upon this Principle, who would be innocent?”

For Satia, the questions Galton posed, however self-exculpatory his motives, were a challenge to the foundations of market liberalism. Describing the broader implications of the proceedings with devastating precision, she writes:

By insisting on the particular perniciousness of Galton’s trade and evading the questions he raised about collective, societal complicity, the Society fell victim to another kind of false consciousness, which endures today: avoiding the truth that modern life is founded, intrinsically, on militarism and that industrial life has historically depended on it. Galton’s grasp of his circumstances shielded him from any sense of complicity in a social or moral wrong; the Society’s condemnation of him shielded its members from any sense of their own complicity in social and moral wrongs, too.

Galton, in other words, was made into a scapegoat for the crimes of society at large. When his fellow Quakers responded by disowning him, they drew a clear line between what degree of proximity to the bloodshed that enabled their own prosperity was acceptable and what was not. Thus, Satia writes, “at the very moment in which lethal mechanical violence came to pervade modern existence, it became invisible to those responsible for its spread.”

Surveying our world now, in 2018, it is clear that none of this human capacity for denial has faded with time. The United States is today, as Britain was in the late eighteenth century, by far the largest producer and exporter of arms on the planet. And yet our rhetoric of freedom and the liberal marketplace has persisted, undisturbed by cognitive dissonance, despite near-constant wars abroad and increasingly frequent mass shootings at home. Locomotives and steam engines aside, this psychological pliancy may be the single greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution. Satia’s sobering history is a sustained and distressing interrogation of its legacy.

Patrick Blanchfield is a writer and associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.