What can Joseph Conrad tell us about the political and economic arrangements that make for a flourishing society? I argue in this essay that Conrad presents the England of his time as embodying the institutional and cultural arrangements that make for a peaceful, prosperous, flourishing society. That England was characterized by a small state, the rule of law, relatively free markets, and a people with a "sentimental regard for individual liberty" (The Secret Agent, Conrad  1994, 33). Although he certainly does not see England as Utopia, he clearly views it as a force for good in a globalizing world and a model to be emulated elsewhere, if possible. Unfortunately, as he explains, it is very difficult for some societies to adopt these arrangements.
Conrad's understanding of human nature, politics, economics, and culture was shaped by his biography. He was born in Berdyczow, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire, now part of Ukraine) in 1857 as Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. He lost his mother, Ewa, to tuberculosis when he was seven. His father, Apollo--a poet, playwright, translator, failed estate manager, and revolutionary who was sentenced to internal exile and later allowed to leave Russia--died when Joseph was eleven. Conrad was taken in by his mother's brother, Tadeusz, who became like a second father to him but was in many ways the opposite of Apollo Korzeniowski--a practical man who successfully ran his family's estate and had an impressive career as a government administrator. The experience of growing up as a Pole in the autocratic Russian Empire and the tension between the outlooks of his idealistic father and his pragmatic uncle inform much of Conrad's life and literature.
Conrad left central Europe for a life at sea as a young man. After four years in France and on French ships, he joined the British merchant marine in 1878. He eventually climbed to become a ship captain and began to write fiction, much of it related to his voyages--first under sail, later under steam--to ports around the world, especially the East Indies. This essay focuses on his most widely acclaimed works, published at the height of his career--Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Ever (1911).
Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent
The core of Conrad's thinking on political and economic issues can be seen in the contrasts between the Russia and Russians of Under Western Eyes and the England and English of The Secret Agent. The juxtaposition of the two suggests the political, economic, and cultural arrangements that work best. Western arrangements--exemplified in English (or Swiss) institutions--work well; Eastern arrangements--embodied in Russian institutions--do not. This is obvious, and we don't need to read Conrad's novels to discover this. Simple observation, then and now, shows that a system of individual freedom and responsibility is preferable to one of autocracy and despotism. However, drawing from his experiences in both worlds, Conrad's two novels demonstrate this distinction in unexpected and insightful ways.