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Reviewed by:
  • American Capitalism: New Histories ed. by Sven Beckert and Christine Desan
  • John Lauritz Larson
American Capitalism: New Histories
Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, eds.
New York: Columbia University Press
Columbia Studies in the History of US Capitalism, 2018
x + 432 pp., $38.00 (cloth); $28.00 (paper); $27.99 (e-book)

This collection comprises fourteen fascinating essays focused on different aspects of the history of capitalism. Growing out of a series of workshops on the "Political Economy of Modern Capitalism" conducted at Harvard University by the editors, Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, the volume is offered not as a "manifesto" nor as a "comprehensive interpretation of the history of American capitalism" but rather as a "sampling" of "themes and topics . . . approaches and methods" (5). As such, a descriptive review of the contents will prove useful to readers.

First up is Woody Holton with "The Capitalist Constitution." This essay reprises Holton's treatment of the "miracle at Philadelphia" as a coup by the investing classes to limit democratic threats to property. He concludes: "More than anything else, the U.S. Constitution was a grand effort . . . to mobilize the power of government to fundamentally transform the American economy, primarily by prohibiting state-level tax and debt relief" (46). In a quick review of the consequences, Holton credits the new regime with general tax relief for farmers but also with encouraging financial centralization and market volatility.

The next two chapters highlight the importance of financialization and the decline of social welfare, or democratic politics in twentieth-century America. In "What Was the Great Bull Market," Julia Ott shows how unprecedented numbers of Americans began owning securities. Despite the fact that the market let them down in the 1930s, Americans reconciled after World War II and began to accept as normal the notion that Wall Street and Main Street had everything in common. Kim Phillips-Fein picks up a small piece of that story in "The New York City Fiscal Crisis and the Idea of the State." As the social overhead costs required to keep New York City working rose dramatically, New York's business community recoiled at raising taxes on their property to sustain a welfare net for people they did not see as neighbors and friends. Financial wizards invented tax-free municipal bonds, allowing city governments to borrow money, kicking tax levies down the road while supplying brokers with piles of new securities with which to speculate.

Richard White opens "Utopian Capitalism" with the question: "What is the purpose of an economy?" (119). We may now answer, to distribute goods and services, the more the merrier; but White reminds us that American revolutionary republicanism promised freedom and independence, not just a pile of cheap goods. For much of a century capitalism and democracy appeared to reinforce each other and to support the ideal of political and economic independence. But tracking the evolution of capitalism into the twentieth century, White shows how the later revolutions in production and distribution transformed the promise of independence into a hollow gift of "more." [End Page 108]

Amy Dru Stanley explores the legal foundations beneath the exercise of state power against prostitution and the "white slave trade." One might expect to find the emancipation language of the Thirteenth Amendment, but, perversely, it was the commerce clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that allowed moral reformers to emphasize "trade" rather than "slavery" and avoid any temptation to enlarge women's rights while attacking prostitution.

Seth Rockman's "Negro Cloth" treats one Rhode Island firm's skillful, energetic pursuit of the market, stripping bare the claims of ignorance or innocence by which antebellum "lords of the loom" pretended to distance themselves from the "lords of the lash." The Hazards of Peace Dale developed and sold their products "made expressly" for specific users in different parts of the South (173). Similarly, Christopher Tomlins, in "Revulsions of Capital," concludes that Virginia's final debates about gradual emancipation (1829–32) ultimately turned on the magnitude of capital stock—one-third of the state's total wealth—represented by enslaved Africans. Virginians lived off of black labor "precisely" as they would off the interest paid on bank stock (214).

Mary Poovey looks...


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