Kendrick Brinson for The New York 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 capitalism.
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 ...
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).
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.”