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Keywords:

  • trade;
  • knowledge production;
  • liberalism;
  • spatiality

The free trade doctrine, now global common knowledge, has followed a complex spatio-temporal path of knowledge production from its origins in Manchester at the turn of the nineteenth century. While grounded in normative and cognitive claims, its transformation from local self-interest to global doctrine was a result of the scale-jumping tactics of the Anti-Corn Law League, combined with the popularity in Western Europe of private property liberalism and the hegemonic global positionality of early nineteenth-century Britain. Corn Law repeal in 1846 in London was constructed as the point in space–time where doctrine became practice, and Britain's subsequent prosperity was seen as proof of its validity. After 1880, except in Britain until 1914 and the colonies, performance belied the doctrine as progressive liberalism became influential, and import-substituting industrialization an effective catch-up strategy, for other nations. The free trade doctrine was reasserted, however, with the emergence of US hegemony, as a rationale for breaking up non-US colonial preference systems and, more recently, neoliberalism. The free trade doctrine is now performed routinely under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. Nevertheless, it remains a local epistemology, whose truth-like status is kept insulated from rigorous challenge by alternative epistemologies and practices.