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  • Introduction: Political Implications for the New History of Capitalism
  • Hannah Forsyth (bio) and Sophie Loy-Wilson* (bio)

Labour history, long a particular strength of historical studies in Australia, has always sustained a critical stance towards capitalism as a historical phenomenon. In recent years, such histories of capitalism have expanded and interacted with other sub-fields, such as cultural history, environmental history and settler colonial studies.1 In part, this work was prompted by evident global political economic upheaval, represented by the 2008 global financial crisis, a climate crisis felt keenly in the Pacific region and a global race crisis, the explanations for which reside in the “afterlives” of slavery and colonisation.2 In response, this collection considers the history of [End Page 1] capitalism as a distinctly political question. How might historians centre capitalism in our histories, without also naturalising it? How do we think about alternatives to capitalist economies through history and as the global economy changes?

New political challenges have also emerged. As we finalise this collection, a second wave of Covid-19 has spiked at 350,000 cases a day in India, sending the healthcare system into chaos and throwing into sharp relief the unequal distribution of life chances across the world. Echoing the racial politics underpinning Australia’s economic history, the Morrison government, in response, has threatened imprisonment to Australians attempting to return from India. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and injustices associated with global capitalism; the “burden” of the sick or invalid body unable to participate in the labour market, the issue of the “living wage” in the age of Australia’s “jobkeeper,” the inability of local agriculture – local “soils” in Julie McIntyre’s words – to support human life without imports from overseas, the demonisation of racially “other” bodies as carriers of disease, and the elevated risk of Covid-19 to Indigenous Australians. All this has forced new understandings of what Flanagan and Huf here call “economies of worth.” Covid-19 has demanded we rethink what matters and who matters, and examine the logics and structures contributing to this multidimensional crisis. This has, naturally, forced a re-evaluation of capitalism and its histories, with all its ills and promises, strictures and possibilities.

This must be an international project. One would hardly know it reading the international literature, but capitalism is not in fact American. Nor indeed is it British, European or Asian. If we are to historicise capitalism, particularly if we are to make its politics explicit, we have to shift the unhelpful notion that capitalism is intrinsically linked to Euro-American contexts. Interpreting capitalism as a historical event, set of relationships and body of logics primarily from northern hegemonies, is skewing scholarly understanding and limiting our analytical options. We often read, for example, of developments since the 1970s that we know to be global – not least because they also happened in Australia – but which are either attributed with causes grounded in US domestic policy or seen as part of a tussle between two or more dominant, northern economies. How can we understand something that we can only partially see?

In this collection, we expand the optics of the new histories of capitalism to the southern hemisphere. Historicising capitalism from Australia – southern, and yet part of the Global North – complicates the history of capitalism as a global phenomenon and also, we hope, forges political will internationally. This is how we denaturalise capitalism; by exposing its multiple iterations beyond the usual canonical examples favoured by [End Page 2] Euro-American historians.3 This collection thus extends the explicitly political goals that were long embedded in Australian historical practice. Labour History in particular embodies a shared wish to understand labour as process and politics, with an eye to political action.

More than six years ago at the Australian Historical Association we first shared our conversation, conducted mostly as postgraduate students, about the political value of combining the cultural history in which we were trained with the materialist project associated with labour history and settler colonial studies. We were conscious that the economic structures we sought to explore sort of contradicted the agentive and discursive assumptions underpinning cultural history, but we believed – perhaps naively – that the politics of...


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