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

Tristan Sloughter tristan.sloughter at gmail.com
Sun Apr 7 09:25:21 MDT 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

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

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

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

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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