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  • Border Crossing1
  • Marc Flandreau

A new economic history is emerging. It needs a new journal. Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics finds its roots in the resurgence of interest for the economic past that has been a characteristic feature of recent years, accelerating after the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008. The crisis, and the recession that ensued, brought to the forefront the centrality of the capitalist economy as a powerful historical factor. Popular and intellectual perceptions of the instability of the capitalist economy and of the inherent inequality which it may breed, not to mention the corollary of political and social problems that accompanied the subprime crisis, reopened old and important debates. Entrenched assumptions pertaining to the efficiency of the capitalist system came under scrutiny. This perception transcends the value judgment on the system under discussion and, transcending as well political cleavages, history has been called to make sense of the times. At the onset of the crisis, the "precedent" of the interwar economic crisis became the template against which new events were read, and central banks were asked to make sure there would be no repetition of the interwar disasters. The conversation is far from over and it has already succeeded in inspiring the formation of a new school of thought in American history, known as the "New History of Capitalism."2

The impact of the crisis has altered the geography of the field of economic history, previously characterized by sharp delineations between the territories covered by historians and those covered by economists. The renewal of interest for economic issues on the part of the broader [End Page 1] historical community directed research efforts in formerly neglected directions—the understanding of the material and its integration in broader social, political, and cultural processes. Slapped in the face by the invisible hand of the market, some economists also reacted by going back to the minutiae of past financial and monetary systems in the search for clues that would inform a general theory of how financial markets fail.3 The result was that crowds began to gather along previously uncontested borders, and soon after, border skirmishes inevitably erupted. Over the last few years, a lively exchange of perspectives on the new historiographical trends has been conducted both within and between history and economic history. Those exchanges have not only populated academic journals but have also found their way into the general press. Given the intensity of the recent interest, the question remains: Why is it that mainstream historians remained mostly disinterested in these topics for so long?

According to one account, what had happened was that the "cultural turn" which deeply informed humanities and the social sciences from the 1970s led to a neglect of the material economy, no longer fashionable in the age of Foucault and Bourdieu. History of the material fell into the hands of the last positivists standing, the heartless quantitative economic historians. Armed with their regressions, they disavowed agency and derided culture, thus effectively transforming the field into a subfield of the dismal science of economics or worse perhaps, a province of lower order engineering. In fact, the term "agency" has come to mean such different things for historians and economists that readers from the respective fields are likely to have read the meaning of previous sentence quite differently. For historians, agency amounted to the possibility of human choice and action within the constraints of a specific context. For the economists, it referred to the presence or absence of friction, or the presence or absence of vital information, in a nonetheless mechanically rational and profit maximizing world.

Yet this knowledge order was bound to change eventually. Just as the cultural turn entered its midlife crisis, the subprime crisis served as a reminder of the importance of the material economy. Full of second thoughts, historians returned to reclaim the land they had once abandoned. The importance of the quantitative was recognized again, as [End Page 2] shown by the resurgence of a debate on the broad metrics of slavery which has taken a precise political significance recently in the controversy over reparations. As for Edward E. Baptist, asking "how much" slavery mattered for...


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