A commodity is introduced, global demand grows, legal access is restricted, a lawless black market thrives. This familiar cycle, a darker side of capitalism, is the subject of Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground, in which historian Michael Kwass locates the rise of the modern fiscal state and penal apparatus in 18th-century France. It’s a tale of smugglers, hedonism, and violence during an early stage of globalization but, as Kwass shows below, plus ça change…
A high-ranking customs agent stationed in a remote border town agrees to meet a trafficker from across the border. The smuggler, who runs an illegal psychoactive substance from his impoverished country into one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world, seems ready to cut a deal: in exchange for a new life and clean conscience, he will betray his boss, a notorious gang leader the police have been tracking for months. The agent sets up an evening rendezvous on the banks of a river tracing the border between the two countries. But, as he walks toward the stream, gang members ruthlessly gun him down. Rumor has it that the man behind the assassination was the smuggler’s boss, kingpin Louis Mandrin, later captured in a pre-dawn military raid and executed by a draconian penal system.
This is a disturbingly familiar story. A global drug ring feeds a wealthy nation of consumers. Police battle armed traffickers in a conflict that onlookers do not hesitate to call a “war.” Although intellectuals deplore the violence and demand decriminalization, courts continue to dispatch petty dealers to an ever-expanding prison system. All the while, the flow of illicit substances continues unabated, driven by intense consumer demand.
This killing did not take place in twenty-first century Juárez but in the middle of the eighteenth century on the outskirts of a small French border town. Indeed, when we consider the peculiar historical circumstances that conspired to produce the cold-blooded assassination, much of what seemed familiar becomes strange. The customs agent was not a public official but an employee of “the Farm,” a private financial company that collected Louis XV’s taxes. The river was not the Rio Grande but the Guyers, which divided the mighty kingdom of France from the foreign province of Savoy, a mountainous haven for traffickers. The smuggler who set up the rendezvous was one of the scores of border-hopping Savoyards who served in Mandrin’s gang. Strangest of all, the substance that Mandrin and his band smuggled—and over which the customs agent was killed—was not marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, but tobacco, a new drug from America.
Such episodes highlight the striking parallels and strange divergences between the modern American “war on drugs” and the violent conflict that erupted in France in the decades before the French Revolution. In the dramatic life of legendary French smuggler Louis Mandrin, a Gallic Robin Hood who flouted the law to become a celebrity in the war on contraband, I see the destabilizing impact of world trade on national and local politics, the dark side of early modern globalization. One of countless traffickers who delivered exotic American and Asian goods to consumers in the heart of France, Mandrin engaged in a conspicuous form of armed trading that openly challenged the authority of the royal state.
Although Mandrin was captured and executed in a brutal spectacle of royal power, his demise only cemented his status as a folk hero in an age of mounting discontent. Amid violent cycles of contraband rebellion and penal repression, the memory of Mandrin inspired ordinary subjects and Enlightenment philosophers alike to challenge royal power and forge a movement for political change. In 1789, ideas from the new Enlightenment “science” of economics converged with contraband revolt from below to help topple the old regime. Indeed, I argue that the French Revolution began not with the storming of the Bastille, as is commonly thought, but with the burning of Paris customs gates two days earlier.
Examining lives like Mandrin’s provides much-needed historical perspective on the political implications of globalization. In common parlance, globalization alludes to a process by which world markets inexorably integrate and nation-states inevitably decline. Yet, despite neoliberal dreams of a peaceful, prosperous, and unified world market, contemporary globalization has not been able to transcend war, border conflicts, trade disputes, organized crime, and state repression. An awareness of this strife unleashed by world trade helps to illuminate the origins of a global capitalism that divides as much as it unifies. For the growth of world trade in the eighteenth century did not merely bring together distant markets. It also prompted a dramatic restructuring of European fiscal and penal institutions, which in turn stimulated illicit trade, popular rebellion, and reformist debate. Globalization was a fractious process from the outset.
Like many in the eighteenth century, Mandrin exploited the dynamic forces of global capitalism that penetrated his landlocked province. Despite his brief and dazzling success, he was finally crushed by the powerful institutions that regulated those same forces on behalf of the king. That his memory would be invoked in future struggles for social justice is testimony to the enduring appeal of his rebellious career.