The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of Nations

Neal Ascherson writes:

Most of the institutions around us seem to have infancies – or at least paths of evolution along which they staggered in order to become what they are today. Representative democracy, a civil service, even contemporary war descend to us through strange-looking ancestors: the executioners of kings, the treasurer keeping the royal gold under his bed, the marquis riding with his tenantry into the cannon. But capitalism is different. Like Athena born in armour, it bursts on the scene already mature. The sort of joint-stock venture capitalism that swept over north-western Europe in the 17th century lacked the refinements of a 21st-century public limited company. But its cast of characters, and the manic-depressive psychology of speculative investment, were there from the first day.

(LRB 3 January 2008)