[Marxism] In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism

Louis Proyect 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

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 
the economy.

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 
economy, stupid.

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 
understand capitalists.”

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 
Red Ink.”

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 
of Trade.

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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