- What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?
Capitalism, Economics, Early America, Slavery, Markets, History of capitalism
Capitalism may be in crisis as an economic system, but it is thriving as a subject within the historical profession. The "history of capitalism" now organizes a book series at Columbia University Press, a seminar program at the Newberry Library, a MOOC at Cornell University, a graduate field at University of Georgia, and a tenure line at Brown University. Undergraduate courses on American capitalism are filling lecture halls at Princeton, Florida, and Loyola University Chicago, while the New School for Social Research has launched its new Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies. The topic has provided thematic unity to recent annual meetings of the Social Science History Association and the Organization of American Historians. In the American Historical Association’s state-of-the-field volume American History Now, the history of capitalism stands alongside established subfields like women’s history and cultural history. A front-page article last year in the New York Times carried the headline, "In History Class, Capitalism Sees Its Stock Soar."1 [End Page 439]
"This is news?" one could hear many early republic historians ask with incredulity. The study of capitalism has long been a central concern of our field. Forty years ago, the "new labor history" began recovering the experiences of the first generation of American wage laborers in communities like Paterson, Rockdale, and Lowell. Very soon, artisans of every trade had a historian to recount their declining economic power in the face of capitalism’s rise. Graduate students in the 1980s cut their teeth on farmers’ account books and rural mentalités, and few qualifying exam lists lacked a section on "the transition to capitalism" debate. The generation coming of age in the 1990s had "the market revolution" looming over its head, and in the wake of a Journal of the Early Republic special issue on capitalism in 1996, social historians continued to argue with Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby over the compatibility of capitalism and democracy. Over the last decade, SHEAR conferences have featured sessions on capitalism as a force of liberation or destruction, as a top-down or bottom-up phenomenon, and as ideology or a structure. As often as not, experienced commentators have alerted younger presenters to the classic works of Samuel Rezneck, Oscar and Mary Handlin, or George Rogers Taylor, extending the field’s historiographical genealogy ever deeper into the past. If academic generations define themselves against their immediate predecessors, how many "revisionist" [End Page 440] historians have humbly discovered that their scholarly grandparents had in fact been exploring the same questions half a lifetime earlier? This "new" history of capitalism might be a testament to good branding (appropriately) rather than original insight, less a new field than a fad.
Scholars identifying themselves with the "new" history of capitalism—and I count myself in these ranks—make no pretense of having discovered a new field. Many historians working under this rubric are quick to credit their undergraduate teachers and graduate advisors: Elizabeth Blackmar, Barbara Fields, and Eric Foner at Columbia, or Jean-Christophe Agnew and Michael Denning at Yale, to name only two clusters of influential faculty who have been talking about capitalism for decades. For those interested in parlor games, younger historians of capitalism can reach Agnew or Blackmar in about half the steps required to get to Kevin Bacon. Columbia- and Yale-trained students have been at the forefront of institutionalizing the history of capitalism elsewhere; none with more success than Sven Beckert, whose Program on the Study of Capitalism at Harvard has placed recent graduates into faculty positions at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, UC–Berkeley, Cornell University, and University of Pennsylvania. Yet, not all roads lead back to Cambridge, let alone New Haven and Morningside Heights, with the field’s institutional genealogy looking less like a family tree than an overgrown forest of departments, centers, and programs. Consider the range of affiliations...