[Marxism] In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Apr 7 07:28:20 MDT 2013
(The article's title is not accurate. What's involved is a focus on the
system, not a celebration. For example, the Louis Hyman mentioned in the
article is a very good leftie who I have exchanged email with over my
discussion of his terrific history of consumer credit:
NY Times April 6, 2013
In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of
After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and
other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of
scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the
most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run
Even before the financial crisis, courses in “the history of capitalism”
— as the new discipline bills itself — began proliferating on campuses,
along with dissertations on once deeply unsexy topics like insurance,
banking and regulation. The events of 2008 and their long aftermath have
given urgency to the scholarly realization that it really is the
The financial meltdown also created a serious market opportunity.
Columbia University Press recently introduced a new “Studies in the
History of U.S. Capitalism” book series (“This is not your father’s
business history,” the proposal promised), and other top university
presses have been snapping up dissertations on 19th-century insurance
and early-20th-century stock speculation, with trade publishers and
op-ed editors following close behind.
The dominant question in American politics today, scholars say, is the
relationship between democracy and the capitalist economy. “And to
understand capitalism,” said Jonathan Levy, an assistant professor of
history at Princeton University and the author of “Freaks of Fortune:
The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America,” “you’ve got to
That doesn’t mean just looking in the executive suite and ledger books,
scholars are quick to emphasize. The new work marries hardheaded
economic analysis with the insights of social and cultural history,
integrating the bosses’-eye view with that of the office drones — and
consumers — who power the system.
“I like to call it ‘history from below, all the way to the top,’ ” said
Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law and history
at Cornell and the author of “Debtor Nation: The History of America in
The new history of capitalism is less a movement than what proponents
call a “cohort”: a loosely linked group of scholars who came of age
after the end of the cold war cleared some ideological ground, inspired
by work that came before but unbeholden to the questions — like, why
didn’t socialism take root in America? — that animated previous
generations of labor historians.
Instead of searching for working-class radicalism, they looked at office
clerks and entrepreneurs.
“Earlier, a lot of these topics would’ve been greeted with a yawn,” said
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of
Georgia and the author of “A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con
Men and the Making of the United States.” “But then the crisis hit, and
people started asking, ‘Oh my God, what has Wall Street been doing for
the last 100 years?’ ”
In 1996, when the Harvard historian Sven Beckert proposed an
undergraduate seminar called the History of American Capitalism — the
first of its kind, he believes — colleagues were skeptical. “They
thought no one would be interested,” he said.
But the seminar drew nearly 100 applicants for 15 spots and grew into
one of the biggest lecture courses at Harvard, which in 2008 created a
full-fledged Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism. That initiative
led to similar ones on other campuses, as courses and programs at
Princeton, Brown, Georgia, the New School, the University of Wisconsin
and elsewhere also began drawing crowds — sometimes with the help of
canny brand management.
After Seth Rockman, an associate professor of history at Brown, changed
the name of his course from Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early
America to simply Capitalism, students concentrating in economics and
international relations started showing up alongside the student labor
activists and development studies people.
“It’s become a space where you can bring together segments of the
university that are not always in conversation,” Dr. Rockman said. (Next
fall the course will become Brown’s introductory American history survey.)
While most scholars in the field reject the purely oppositional stance
of earlier Marxist history, they also take a distinctly critical view of
neoclassical economics, with its tidy mathematical models and crisp
axioms about rational actors.
Markets and financial institutions “were created by people making
particular choices at particular historical moments,” said Julia Ott, an
assistant professor in the history of capitalism at the New School (the
first person, several scholars said, to be hired under such a title).
To dramatize that point, Dr. Ott has students in her course Whose
Street? Wall Street! dress up in 19th-century costume and re-enact a
primal scene in financial history: the early days of the Chicago Board
Some of her colleagues take a similarly playful approach. To promote a
two-week history of capitalism “boot camp” to be inaugurated this summer
at Cornell, Dr. Hyman (a former consultant at McKinsey & Company)
designed “history of capitalism” T-shirts.
The camp, he explained, is aimed at getting relatively innumerate
historians up to speed on the kinds of financial data and documents
found in business archives. Understanding capitalism, Dr. Hyman said,
requires “both Foucault and regressions.”
It also, scholars insist, requires keeping race and gender in the picture.
As examples, they point to books like Nathan Connolly’s “World More
Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida,”
coming next year, and Bethany Moreton’s “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The
Making of Christian Free Enterprise” (Harvard, 2009), winner of multiple
prizes, which examines the role of evangelical Christian values in
mobilizing the company’s largely female work force.
The history of capitalism has also benefited from a surge of new,
economically minded scholarship on slavery, with scholars increasingly
arguing that Northern factories and Southern plantations were not
opposing economic systems, as the old narrative has it, but deeply entwined.
And that entwining, some argue, involved people far beyond the
plantations and factories themselves, thanks to financial shenanigans
that resonate in our own time.
In a paper called “Toxic Debt, Liar Loans and Securitized Human Beings:
The Panic of 1837 and the Fate of Slavery,” Edward Baptist, a historian
at Cornell, looked at the way small investors across America and Europe
snapped up exotic financial instruments based on slave holdings, much as
people over the past decade went wild for mortgage-backed securities and
collateralized debt obligations — with a similarly disastrous outcome.
Other scholars track companies and commodities across national borders.
Dr. Beckert’s “Empire of Cotton,” to be published by Alfred A. Knopf,
traces the rise of global capitalism over the past 350 years through one
crop. Nan Enstad’s book in progress, “The Jim Crow Cigarette: Following
Tobacco Road From North Carolina to China and Back,” examines how
Southern tobacco workers, and Southern racial ideology, helped build the
Chinese cigarette industry in the early 20th century.
Whether scrutiny of the history of capitalism represents a genuine
paradigm shift or a case of scholarly tulip mania, one thing is clear.
“The worse things are for the economy,” Dr. Beckert said wryly, “the
better they are for the discipline.”
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