Book Club

Book Club: Empire of Guns, by Priya Satia

It’s time again for the Concerning History Book Club, where we recreate the experience of the engaging book discussions we’ve had throughout the years in classes and with each other. This month, in a piece long in coming to Concerning History, Bryan and a friend discuss Priya Satia’s examination of firearm manufacturing and culture in early modern England/Great Britain, Empire of Guns. 

Guest: I want to start off by apologizing for picking this one for a book club. When I plucked it off a shelf in an indie bookstore, its design and placement made it seem geared towards a general audience, despite its heft. But the book turned out to be pretty heavily in the weeds. Some bits even read more like journal articles than chapters. I’m confused why this seemed marketed to a general audience and not just an academic one. 

BC: That’s quite alright! It reminded me of many of the kinds of monographs we would read in our Historical Methods courses in undergrad: case studies that delve deeply into the lives of a single town or family in ways that illuminate larger societal or economic trends–though you’re not wrong that it could easily have been just an article. In this particular case, I rather enjoyed learning about the inner workings of an industry so central to British geopolitics & imperialism. My biggest reservations actually concerned Satia’s argument. Her initial hook is arguably one of the best I’ve read in a long time! It is objectively strange from the outside that firearm manufacturing in 18th century Britain was dominated by a pacifist religious sect. In exploring these Quaker gun-makers’ justifications of their actions, however, Satia seemed to me to have bought too much into the defense. Through the writings of Samuel Galton, Jr., a Quaker who was censured by his religious community for owning the largest firearm manufactory in England, Empire of Guns essentially argues for such an interconnected early modern political economy that, in the (modified) parlance of our own era, “There is no ethical production under capitalism” because “empire is the default mode of human statebuilding.” 

Guest: Was she accepting Galton’s argument though? Or was she just deciding to treat his argument seriously to see if there was anything to be teased out of it? She acknowledged that he made a point about the interdependence of the military and industry more broadly, but also seemed critical of his abdication of a special responsibility that arms manufacturers had.

BC: I’m certainly not opposed to exploring arguments in that way, but Satia’s approach seemed a little too uncritical to me to truly fit that paradigm, particularly in the ways that she seemed to undercut her own conclusions, or at least ignore logical objections to the data she presents. Most basically, she never addresses the possibility that Galton is simply using high-flown rhetoric to cover his own ass, nor does she differentiate between his theological arguments, wherein whataboutism is justified to an extent, and historical arguments, where whataboutism falls apart under close scrutiny. She also fails to realize that, after saying that arms manufacturers have been scapegoated as warmongers, she has proven that business was best when war was on–begging the question of whether those arms manufacturers would indeed have incentives to push the state into conflicts they could then supply.

Guest: I actually saw her argument a bit differently. I thought she argued that the decisive force in the development of the arms industry was not actually war, but the boom/bust cycle that created unpredictability in the marketplace. As a consequence, the search for alternative markets relied upon and fed into the imperial fervor overtaking the nation. Though I’m not sure this is argued particularly strongly either. The idea of a military-imperial-industrial complex doesn’t exactly seem novel.

BC: On that we can definitely agree. Satia’s claims to illuminate some kind of hitherto-unrecognized link between the development of the early modern imperial-industrial complex reads very similarly to Linda Colley’s assertions in The Gun, The Ship, and the Pen–and Colley even said it better. It feels like both of these historians attempted to write histories outside of their own specialties, and thus treat everything like breaking new ground even as they essentially parrot other scholars’ previous conclusions. A hesitance to overextend further may even be why Empire of Guns is curiously light on its coverage of other, more damning elements of the arms trade and gun culture like slave policing or piracy in the Americas. This unfamiliarity can even result in massive historical mistakes, like Satia’s assertion that “in ancient Europe, the necessities of war were maintained by the people or their lords; the state itself had few expenses besides the family and household of the sovereign himself.” Whether it’s the confusion of ancient with medieval periodization, the idea that a “state” existed outside of medieval lords, or that a sovereign’s household expenses were not predominantly military, this sentence ranks as perhaps the most unfortunate I’ve ever read by a serious academic.

Guest: I think all this confusion about what exactly her argument was stems from how many different directions the book tried to go, with each chapter doing its own thing and a mix of chronological and thematic chapters. And empire and war pop into and out of the work intermittently. But what it all boils down to is the big question. Is she arguing the arms industry is uniquely bad, worthy of her book’s singular focus, or, as she highlights repeatedly, was it so closely tied to other industrial sectors that no one could claim to have clean hands? I was actually surprised there was so little exploration of the broader society as part of the warfare economy. And so, is she right or wrong, based on her argument, to critique the arguments of gun critics in her final chapter for overlooking the broader culpability of society?

BC: And yet, if we can’t even agree on what Satia’s argument is, how can we begin to answer that question? In a larger sense, should a historian of her caliber be writing a critique of modern political discourse and disguising it as a work of history? The fact that Empire of Guns seems to beg us to look past actually evaluating its historical argument to discuss its ideological one is bad form, and feels uncomfortably close to past efforts at writing activist history that were so concerned with pushing their argument that they misrepresented historical evidence to do so. For these reasons, despite Satia’s engaging narrative of fascinating historical events, I regretfully can’t keep Empire of Guns on my shelf in good conscience. 

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