- Can American Studies Do Economics?
The international financial crisis that surfaced in August 2007 has done the impossible—convinced large portions of the U.S. public and the media that U.S. economic policy has major flaws. It is now a little easier than it was in 2006 or 1996 to find mainstream criticism of Wall Street’s impact on the economy, of wage stagnation and job insecurity, of very high levels of economic inequality, and of glaring racial disparities in measures such as family assets and mortgage defaults.
At the same time, the critics do not generally believe that flawed U.S. economic policies indicate a flawed U.S. economic model. Most of them attribute various crises to excessive Bush II pandering to its favored special interests—big pharmaceutical companies, military contractors, oil corporations, the wealthiest 1 percent, among others. Tax cuts for the rich, installment of the Medicare prescription plan, inadequate support for renewable energy research—these are discrete policy mistakes that could, in most accounts, be redressed by Democratic-party-style reforms on topics where polls indicate that solid majorities are fed up with Republican positions. Little of the commentary is suggesting the need for a structural redesign of American capitalism, or is criticizing capitalism as such. Even Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, the most widely circulated recent left-wing critique of U.S. economic policy, attacks extreme capitalism rather than capitalism itself. [End Page 1125]
The economy needs analyses of greater depth, but it will for now be up to academics to provide them. Are the three books under review examples of this kind of much-needed insight about the real social and cultural impacts of the U.S. economic system?
All three were written before the advent of the financial crisis, but all analyze issues that the crisis brought to light. They share a dominant theme: culture and economics need to be scrutinized together through systematic exploration of their interconnections. Hong opposes the reduction of the sociocultural registers of race and gender to class, Smith opposes the reduction of capitalist logics to culture, and Zaloom rejects the separation of financial analysis from the social analysis of economic activity.
The authors are entirely right on these points. I will describe their arguments while discussing two other features these books share. None of these books about the tie between culture and economics analyzes economics in enough detail to explain its impact on culture or vice versa. And none of the authors suggests an alternative program for resolving the problems that they decry, though I will end by noting the basic ingredients for an alternative that their analyses imply.
Grace Kyungwon Hong’s book, The Ruptures of American Capital, is especially welcome in the current context, for it explains at length why we must see that American capitalism is a racial system as well as an economic one. Hong uses close readings of mostly canonical literature by women of color to discuss their analyses of the often destructive impact of American capitalism on communities of color and racialized immigrants. The problem that links all the chapters is class reductionism, and she is at pains to show how thoroughly racial and gender difference inflect various forms of economic deprivation and suffering.
Hong is certainly correct that analyses of U.S. economic history and policy don’t make sense unless race and gender are placed at their center. The American economic system has depended on various kinds of indentured, captive, subordinated, and “alien” labor from its inception. There is no era in which some significant economic sector did not depend on very low cost labor from populations that, through variable interactions of race and gender and other factors, could not level the playing field...