U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Asking New Questions of the New History of Capitalism

With this post I want to begin a series where I will discuss several of the (always proliferating) methodological or historiographical essays that have been written on the new history of capitalism. Earlier this year, I wrote about Karl Polanyi and that other Karl, and promised in the latter post to try to “tie the two posts together.” I hope to make my way back to that after—or as I progress through—this series.[1]

In this preliminary post, though, I just want briefly to lay out a few themes or lines of questions. First, what are the questions that have been asked already?

The debate over the validity of the insights of the new history of capitalism—especially into the relation between slavery and capitalism—has been intense and interminable. I do plan on writing about Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode’s piece from earlier this year, “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” [not paywalled pdf], which is an important intervention in this debate, but my objective is not to adjudicate the matter but to think more about its framing, and about some of the boundary policing between economic history and the history of capitalism that we can see there.

Aside from the new history of capitalism’s validity, historians (and sometimes journalists) have focused on two “what” questions—“what is new about the new history of capitalism?” and “what is ‘capitalism’ in the new history of capitalism?”—i.e., how do the historians in this field define capitalism, implicitly or explicitly?

Finally, historians have gravitated to the “why now?” question—or as Seth Rockman put it, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” [pdf, paywalled] That question partially overlaps with “what is new?” but looks beyond intradisciplinary trends or features to the political and economic context that has lent the field a sense of immediacy and purpose.

I hope to build on but also push further than these questions in my reading of essays like Rockman’s. One of the first questions I wish to ask is, “Is there an ‘old’ history of capitalism?” The new history of capitalism has gestured broadly at its predecessors, but I think we can bulk up our sense of how the prior historiography of U.S. capitalism fit together—who wrote it, why, and what they wrote about. As with most questions connected with the new history of capitalism, there has been a tendency to focus on the historiography of antebellum cotton-based slavery to the exclusion of other periods or sectors.

I would also like to think not just about the definition of capitalism in the new history of capitalism, but also about some other definitional questions we might put to the field, such as, what is a commodity? what is a price? and what is a market? I am not so much trying to derive a textbook definition as I am trying to explore the way that historians of capitalism have couched these concepts—what are the subtexts or connotations that surround them within the literature?

Third, I’d like to consider more intently than I think is usual across these historiographical/methodological essays the relationship between two dimensions of the field: materiality and what I’d like to call character structure. Much of the literature of the new history of capitalism is intensely materialist or, in the language that is often preferred, embodied—it takes place within or across bodies. Edward Baptist’s unifying metaphor of the enslaved person’s body in The Half Has Never Been Told is merely the most explicit and most encompassing instance of this insistence upon embodiment, but there is also another side of the field which in some ways hearkens back to a very different tradition that we could trace, perhaps, to Max Weber. This tradition asks, what kind of personalities or character structures are created by capitalism, or which kind of personalities flourish under capitalism? One might break this down further—what kinds of personalities emerge or flourish under different stages or varieties of capitalism (managerial capitalism, “late capitalism,” etc.)?—but the essential point is that this drama of capitalism takes place on some other, more intellectual, moral, or ideological plane.

Finally, I plan to consider the history of capitalism’s relation to intellectual history—how the two fields overlap, how one might shape or influence the other, and how we might sort out some of the works published so far that are clearly instances of both.

Clearly that is going to be a lot of work, but there are quite a few of these essays about the ‘NHC’ out there (as you can see below). I plan on being a bit selective, but I also intend both to make clear where the points of repetition and of difference lie, and also to give solid overviews of some of the more influential or substantial essays that have come out so far. Please leave any suggestions of pieces I may not have come across in the comments.

And a second request: if this series gets dull or repetitive, please let me know. I think there is plenty to say on this topic, but you may not feel the same, or you may feel that I’m not saying very much of it—or very much that is interesting. Cut me off whenever you’d like!

A Preliminary List of Historiographical/Methodological Essays on the New History of Capitalism:

  • Jeremy Adelman and Jonathan Levy, “The Fall and Rise of Economic History,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2014)
  • Joyce Appleby, “The Vexed Story of Capitalism Told by American Historians,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2001)
  • Matthew Axtell, “Toward a New Legal History of Capitalism and Unfree Labor,” in Law and Social Inquiry (2015)
  • Nicolas Barreyre and Alexia Blin, “À la redécouverte du capitalisme américain,” in Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle (2017)
  • Sven Beckert, “History of American Capitalism,” in American History Now (2011)
  • Francesco Boldizzoni, “Capitalism’s Futures Past: Expectations in History and Theory,” in Critical Historical Studies (2017)
  • John Clegg, “Capitalism and Slavery,” in Critical Historical Studies (2015)
  • Peter Coclanis, “Slavery, Capitalism, and the Problem of Misprision,” in Journal of American Studies (2018)
  • Rosanne Currarino, “Toward a History of Cultural Economy,” in Journal of the Civil War Era (2012)
  • Rosanne Currarino, “Transition Questions,” in Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2016)
  • Tom Cutterham, “Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?” in The Junto (2014)
  • Michael Dawson and Megan Ming Francis, “Reading Racial Conflict,” in SSRC Insights
    • With contributions by Michael Dawson, J. Phillip Thompson, Tianna Paschel, Megan Ming Francis, Adom Getachew, N. D. B. Connolly, Ella Myers, Nikhil Pal Singh, Leah Wright Rigueur, and Dan Berger
  • Walter Friedman, “Recent Trends in Business History Research: Capitalism, Democracy, and Innovation,” in Enterprise and Society (2017)
  • Greg Grandin, “Capitalism and Slavery,” in The Nation (2015)
  • Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, “Gender’s Value in the History of Capitalism,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2016)
  • Eric Hilt, “Economic History, Historical Analysis, and the “New History of Capitalism,” in Journal of Economic History (2017)
  • James L. Huston, “Economic Landscapes Yet to Be Discovered: The Early American Republic and Historians’ Unsubtle Adoption of Political Economy,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2004)
  • Louis Hyman, “Why Write the History of Capitalism,” in Symposium (2013)
  • Aaron Jakes and Ahmad Shokr, “Finding Value in Empire of Cotton,” in Critical Historical Studies (2017)
  • Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” in Journal of Social History (2003)
  • Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2004)
  • Jürgen Kocka, “Writing the History of Capitalism,” in Bulletin of the GHI (2010)
  • Paul Kramer, “Embedding Capital: Political-Economic History, the United States, and the World,” in Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2016)
  • Greta Krippner, “Polanyi for the Age of Trump,” in Critical Historical Studies (2017)
  • Leigh Claire La Berge, “Decommodified Labor: Conceptualizing Work after the Wage,” in Lateral (2018)
  • Naomi Lamoreaux, “Beyond Markets and Hierarchies: Toward a New Synthesis of American Business History,” in American Historical Review (2003)
  • Jonathan Levy, “Accounting for Profit and the History of Capital,” in Critical Historical Studies (2014)
  • Jonathan Levy, “Appreciating Assets: New Directions in the History of Political Economy,” in American Historical Review (2017)
  • Jonathan Levy, “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism,” in Business History Review (2017)
  • Kenneth Lipartito, “Connecting the Cultural and the Material in Business History,” in Enterprise and Society (2013)
  • Kenneth Lipartito, “Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism,” in American Historical Review (2016)
  • Stephen Macekura, et al., “The Relationship of Morals and Markets Today: A Review of Recent Scholarship on the Culture of Economic Life,” in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal (2016)
  • Robert A. Margo, “The Integration of Economic History into Economics,” in Cliometrica (2018)
  • Ajay Mehrotra, “A Bridge Between: Law and the New Intellectual Histories of Capitalism,” in Buffalo Law Review (2016)
  • Scott Reynolds Nelson, “Who Put Their Capitalism in My Slavery?” in Journal of the Civil War Era (2015)
  • Dael Norwood, “What Counts? Political Economy, or Ways to Make Early America Add Up,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2016)
  • James Oakes, “Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War,” in International Labor and Working-Class History (2016)
  • Dara Orenstein and Aaron Carico, “Editors’ Introduction: The Fictions of Finance,” in Radical History Review (2014)
  • Charles Post, “Slavery and the New History of Capitalism,” in Catalyst (2017)
  • Stuart Schrader, “Reading Eugene Genovese in the Age of Occupy,” in Brooklyn Rail (2012)
  • Jennifer Schuessler, “In History Departments, It’s Up with Capitalism,” in New York Times (2013)
  • Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism,” in Explorations in Economic History (2018)
  • Julia C. Ott and William Milberg, “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto,” in Public Seminar (2014)
  • Bruce Robbins, “Commodity Histories,” in PMLA (2005)
  • Seth Rockman, “The Future of Civil War Studies: Slavery and Capitalism,” in Journal of the Civil War Era (2012)
  • Seth Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” in Journal of the Early Republic (2014)
  • Seth Rockman, “Introduction to Forum: The Paper Technologies of Capitalism,” in Technology and Culture (2017)
  • Christine Meisner Rosen, “What Is Business History?” in Enterprise and Society (2013)
  • Tim Shenk, “Apostles of Growth,” in The Nation (2014)
  • Tim Shenk, “Booked: The End of an Illusion,” in Dissent (2018)
  • Jeffrey Sklansky, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” in Modern Intellectual History (2012)
  • Jeffrey Sklansky, “Labor, Money, and the Financial Turn in the History of Capitalism,” in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas (2014)
  • Kate Smith, “Amidst Things: New Histories of Commodities, Capital, and Consumption,” in The Historical Journal (2018)
  • Amy Dru Stanley, “Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2016)
  • Richard Teichgraeber, “Capitalism and Intellectual History,” in Modern Intellectual History (2004)
  • Various, “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” in Journal of American History (2014)
  • David Waldstreicher, “The Vexed Story of Human Commodification Told by Benjamin Franklin and Venture Smith,” in Journal of the Early Republic (2004)
  • York Centre for the Americas, “Revising the Geography of Modern World Histories
  • Michael Zakim, “Bringing the Economy Back In,” in Reviews in American History (2014)
  • Michael Zakim and Gary Kornblith, Introduction to Capitalism Takes Command (2011)

Edit: added the two Walter Johnson essays (8.20.18 22:41)

Edit 2: I will continue to add essays as suggestions come in (8.21.18 18:32)


[1] I’ll also slip in a follow-up to the fantasy football post… somewhere.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’m very excited for this series, since HoC is a topic I am very interested in and your posts always make me think about subjects in new ways.

    And S-USIH would never cut you off! I expect at least a 100 post series!

  2. In case you don’t know it, I think John Clegg’s article in Critical Historical Studies is quite good. It got some attention at The Junto regarding disagreement between Clegg and Baptist, but the heart of the piece was an argument that historians of capitalism would benefit from theoretical clarification of what people mean by ‘capitalism.’ It also advocated (convincingly, in my opinion) that Robert Brenner’s definition of capitalism is particularly useful.

  3. A few suggestions:
    Sven Beckert’s historiography essay in the Foner and McGirr American History Now volume
    John Clegg’s essay Capitalism and Slavery in Critical Historical Studies
    Aaron Jakes and Ahmad Shokr’s review of Beckert’s book in Critical Historical Studies
    And, to be self-indulgent and because I was thinking about the “why now?” question, my obit-like essay on Genovese in Brooklyn Rail: https://brooklynrail.org/2012/12/express/reading-eugene-genovese-in-the-age-of-occupy

  4. A third tick for John Clegg’s essay in Critical Historical Studies. Still the best thing I think I’ve read on the whole debate and does a good deal of work (at least in terms of slavery) toward trying to figure out what the old history of capitalism was and how it compares with the new. Jakes and Shokr’s essay was hot too, though at times over my head. The distinction they draw between histories of the commodity and histories of value brings to mind a good article by Bruce Robbins on commodity histories in the PMLA, though it’s probably beyond the purview of this series.

  5. Thanks to all of you! I’ve added your suggestions and a few others from Twitter. Please keep them coming!

  6. Just to round things out a bit, you may want to include this series of pieces from the SSRC Items blog that came out of the Race and Capitalism working group organized by Megan Ming Francis and Michael Dawson. It covers a small library of works on capitalism and racism. In so doing, it serves as a crucial historiographical and methodological resource, and, not incidentally, desegregates the group of the authors under consideration here.


    • Thanks! That’s a great resource–I had not run into this series before!

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