U.S. Intellectual History Blog

When Did the History of Capitalism Become New? Periodizing the Field

Thanks to everyone for their suggestions and encouragement as I embark on this series of posts on the New History of Capitalism. There is clearly enormous excitement about the literature that has been produced and that is in production, but there also appears to be a great eagerness to debate some broad questions about how the field has formed, what research programs and subjects it prioritizes, and how it intersects (or doesn’t) with other fields or subfields. That is what I hope to do in this series, and I hope it clarifies some of those questions and starts some discussions.

In this first post, I want to begin by periodizing the field: basically, asking where we should start. Periodization is not necessarily the sexiest part of historiography (is there a sexy part of historiography?) but it is still necessary.

So let’s start with a primary source—one that was probably many people’s first encounter with the idea of a “new history of capitalism.”

The First Draft

It is not every day that the New York Times runs an enthusiastic profile of young historians and treats their work like a hot trend that has to be spotted and deciphered, like vaping or trap music. It is therefore totally understandable that Jennifer Schuessler’s April 2013 piece “In History Departments, It’s Up with Capitalism” has formed many people’s rough understanding of where the field came from and on what kind of schedule. But if journalists write the first draft of history, it’s probably best that they don’t also write the first draft of historiography as well (no offense to Schuessler).

Schuessler’s piece directs the reader to think about the field through two lenses: generational and event-based. In Schuessler’s telling, the event that shaped the field—that made it come of age—was the financial crisis. 2008 gave “urgency to the scholarly realization that it really is the economy, stupid,” and it “created a serious market opportunity” for scholars looking to find employment and publishers for their manuscripts.

But Schuessler also acknowledges that the birth of the field was not punctual: “Even before the financial crisis, courses in ‘the history of capitalism’ — as the new discipline bills itself — began proliferating on campuses, along with dissertations on once deeply unsexy topics like insurance, banking and regulation.” While she doesn’t explain in so many words that researching and writing books takes a long time—and therefore that these newly published projects were conceived well before 2008—she is obviously aware that 2008 cannot have been the field’s Big Bang.

Her second frame, then, props up the first: it’s about generational turnover and the fresh ideas that come from younger minds. “After decades of ‘history from below,’ focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.” Although Schuessler later notes that the new historians of capitalism haven’t left gender and race behind, the overall tone treats the emergence of the field as an episode of creative destruction—or perhaps of disruption—where the obsolete concerns of the older generation are swept away in favor of topics that will actually prove exciting to students—that will be marketable and in demand.

Alongside the simple generational dynamic, Schuessler also portrays this cohort of scholars as uniquely savvy, able to see and seize an opening in this moment of economic crisis. If you read the piece again, note how Schuessler’s language nudges readers to think about these scholars—folks like Bethany Moreton, Julia Ott, Louis Hyman, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman—as entrepreneurs and the history of capitalism as a kind of start-up. (They even have t-shirts—like all start-ups, they have their own swag!)

There’s a way, then, in which I think this piece cannot be read apart from the extremely severe job market crisis for historians that was—by 2013—clearly not going away, despite assurances from administrators that the financial crisis had simply meant a temporary hiring freeze. Hiring was not going back to “normal” — bleakness was the “new normal” for increasing numbers of new PhDs. So when Schuessler points to the popularity of these historians of capitalism’s courses, or signals their success in terms of the jobs they’ve gotten and the awards they’ve won, there’s a tingling sense that she is comparing them not only to an older generation that has lost touch with “students today,” but also with their peers who are not as good at reading the market and identifying its hidden opportunities.

None of that is the fault of any of the scholars profiled in the piece: it is Schuessler’s interpretation and her framing that pushes us to think about the history of capitalism in this way, as an entrepreneurial disruption, rather than as an outgrowth of scholarly trends and a product of engagement with both older scholars and with adjacent fields. Schuessler’s image of the history of capitalism makes it appear to be an effect or a symptom of capitalism — especially that stage or version we’d call late capitalism or neoliberalism — rather than a response or intervention.

Thus, while it brought enormous positive attention to the field, I think Schuessler’s profile mischaracterized the field in ways that have created a kind of jealousy and even suspicion among many people outside the history of capitalism. By framing historians of capitalism as slick entrepreneurs whose marketing instincts have brought them fame and fortune and by contrasting them with historians who persist in writing history from below, Schuessler injected an inaccurate division both vertically between this “generation” and the scholarship that preceded it and horizontally between this “cohort” and their peers. I think those divisions have obscured many connections that need to be recovered. Part of that work will be spread over a number of posts in the coming weeks, but I’ll try to foreshadow a little of it here.

Opening a Second Draft

One of the most insightful essays about the new history of capitalism is Jeffrey Sklansky’s “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism” (2012) [non-paywalled pdf]. In it he argues that the historical study of capitalism has recently seen a major plot twist: where once the main drama of capitalism was proletarianization, now it is commodification. This shift has brought new attention to the history of finance, while pushing the history of factories, farms, strikes, and unions into the background.

Next week I plan to look more closely at Sklansky’s 2012 essay and at one on the same theme that he wrote in 2014—“Labor, Money, and the Financial Turn in the History of Capitalism” (pdf). They are complex, rich, provocative arguments about and expositions of the field, and they identify many crucial issues for us to consider.

But right now I want to think about what it would mean if we defined our periodization not based on when something called “the history of capitalism” became a common term for an identifiable cluster of scholars and their work, but rather when this shift of focus from proletarianization to commodification occurred.

At a very basic level, it might decenter capitalism as the key explanandum—the point of the field as it emerged was not to define or clarify what “capitalism” is, what its chronological and spatial dimensions are, etc. but to do something wholly different. The critiques which target the nebulousness of HOC’s definition of capitalism—or its lack of apparent intent to debate what the definition should be—may be missing the point.

Shifting the focus to commodification also will mean that to periodize HOC properly, we should be looking not just for works that announce their intentions to say something about capitalism but also for those that attempt to say something about commodities—what are and what are not commodities, how something becomes a commodity, how commodities move across space and to whose benefit or detriment, how people value different kinds of commodities, how people can become commodities or even can commodify themselves. That’s a set of questions that could build a cohesive and powerful research program—but not necessarily one best described as “the history of capitalism.” We may need to adjust our sights (and our cites) accordingly.

Finally, this shift will require a different set of causal explanations for why the field emerged. The question we will be asking is not “why was capitalism on young historians’ minds?” but “why were people wondering about the meaning of commodification?” Certainly, capitalism has been on many young historians’ minds, and the success of HOC has certainly helped that. But at one level, capitalism is just a word—a brand even—and we will be better served by trying to dig down to the questions that really drive this scholarship. And those questions may not in all cases be “what is capitalism and how does it work?”

Next week we will look at Jeffrey Sklansky’s argument for what the driving questions of this body of scholarship are. ‘Til then!

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I like this piece a lot and look forward to the rest of the series. I have two or three thoughts. You write “The critiques which target the nebulousness of HOC’s definition of capitalism—or its lack of apparent intent to debate what the definition should be—may be missing the point” then go one to say that the field itself may be mischaracterizing itself — “that’s a set of questions that could build a cohesive and powerful research program—but not necessarily one best described as “the history of capitalism.”” I like the latter comment better, personally, and I think this implies not so much that critics miss the point but rather that HoC as a field and its critics may sometimes want different things. I wonder if ‘analysis of proletarianization’ vs ‘analysis of financialization and commodification’ captures the differences. I think it does. Both are valid, it seems to me.

    One other thought: If I recall correctly, everyone profiled in the NYT piece was at a very prestigious university. This essay – https://www.lawcha.org/2013/04/08/mainstream-media-thinks-the-study-of-capitalism-is-a-good-thing/ – by Rosemary Feurer in response to the NYT piece notes that Northern Illinois University had history of capitalism decades prior, despite the article’s claims that these were new course. I think your post is really great for reading that aura of novelty in terms of implied ideas about academic entrepreneurialism. In addition, though, those entrepreneurs tended to be relatively placed in that they were at well-funded and prestigious universities (there’s both a political economy and a distribution of prestige bound up with why these entrepreneurs in particular succeeded; they were arguably in touch with the zeitgeist as well, but there may have been others, like Feurer, who were differently in touch with the zeitgeist). That’s not to minimize the skill of those historians, by any means. It’s just to say that the positioning of many of the key players in the new history of capitalism at relatively elite institution is a factor in both its success and some of the tenor of criticisms of the field.

  2. I applaud your effort to examine and periodize the History of Capitalism and offer some perspective on the degree to which it represents a field, a scholarly turn, or clever marketing. (I think it’s some of each.) My thoughts comes from having participated in early “field-building” activities in the Harvard History department between 2003 and 2009.

    On the subject of periodization, I would suggest two trends that help make sense of why HOC gained the name recognition when it did. One comes from within the historical profession; the other from without. Neither are the financial crisis (at least not directly).

    Within the historical profession, the “new history of capitalism” seems to have emerged when two things converged: the decline of the field of labor history, and the self-conscious effort of business history to expand beyond studies of the “the firm.” By the late 1990s, the old “new labor history” was, by its own admission, on the ropes. At the same time, people like Richard John, Pam Laird, and Mark Rose (among others) set about to expand the purview of business history to include people who might otherwise have called themselves labor historians. (Lou Hyman is a walking embodiment of this.) The result, as Kim Philips-Fein argues in the introduction to What’s Good for Business, was scholars looking at *both* labor and *business.*

    Outside the academy, the main trend appears to be the apparent success of market fundamentalism and neoliberalism. HOC’s original goal–to historicize capitalism–was a direct rebuttal not to historians, but legal scholars and economists who suggested that free markets were naturally occurring and simply “the way the world works.” HOC said no, capitalism has a history, which means it wasn’t always this way and doesn’t have to be. That claim, of course, has always existed, but gained new resonance by the late 1990s, when this trend gathered institutional strength at certain elite universities.

  3. I agree with your analysis and Nate’s comment above that it’s difficult to separate the new history of capitalism as a field from the circumstances of its emergence. I would add that it’s not only the idea of academic entrepreneurialism that animates the NYT piece, but also a larger criticism of history’s obsolescence and fracture in the 21st century. That year was not only a dismal one in terms of job openings, but also a poor year in undergraduate enrollments. It likely seemed at the time that these young historians of capitalism were recognizing that history needed to be more responsive to the current structural problems confronting college students (read: white and male students by the sounds of it). In other words, history needed to be less about history itself and more about how history informs the present.

    Regarding the commodification versus proletarianization discussion, it seems to me that there are a few reasons (probably many more!) for that. First, the role of legal history is important here. Rethinking the relationship between people and property (or objects more broadly) unifies much of the literature. Second, whether proletarianization still matters in the 21st century. As I mentioned before, part of what made HoC so attractive was that it resonated loudly with smart young people after the financial crisis. Proletariat lacks this modern connotation, even though the issues remain (I see precariat used more frequently than proletariat in contemporary literature). Finally, race (and blackness in particular) and its relationships to money and violence. It is no coincidence that American historians of slavery have played an important role in the intellectual development of HoC. Both the visibility (through news coverage of the murders of young black men by police and the subsequent protests by NFL players against that violence) and invisibility (for-profit prisons, for example) in the popular imagination has made examining those histories important and of public interest. Commodification explains this knot of race, money, and violence in a way proletarianization cannot (or does not).

    These are just quick riffs, but I think it gets at some of why HoC developed when it did and how it did. I’m very excited to read more of this series. Nice work, Andy!

  4. Thanks to all three of you for these great comments!

    Nate,
    I completely agree with both of the points that you make. I think what Benjamin says in his comment regarding the desire to contradict and correct the ahistoricism about capitalism that pervaded the 90s/early 2000s helps a great deal in explaining why “capitalism” became the keyword for the field, even if it wasn’t necessarily the concept at the center of the field’s research program. And the point you make about the institutional placements of many of the key figures is, I think, an essential one. Thank you.

    Benjamin,
    That perspective on the field’s early development is very helpful, and your point about the way business history sought to move beyond the firm as its default unit of analysis is really helpful. It seems that a lot of disciplines or subfields were, at that time, trying to change their unit of analysis–there is a certain parallel I see with the transnational turn that explicitly had as its object the denaturalization of the nation-state as the default unit of analysis. I’m definitely planning to work in more analysis of some of the essays that might help us make sense of this turn later in this series. And as I noted above in my comment to Nate, your point about historians’ desire to push back against the millennial ahistoricism of Friedman, et al. is very well taken.

    Matt,
    You’ve got my number–the importance of legal history and race to this turn is (I think) one of the key elements, and hopefully I can do justice to that (no pun intended–sheesh!) in my next post. And I agree completely that it was not just the job market but also the declining enrollments of history majors that were in the background for Schuessler. I think she implies that history of capitalism is the key to pulling back some of those sharp undergraduates from the Econ Department.

  5. To someone admittedly unfamiliar with most of the literature of the “new history of capitalism,” it’s a little strange, in a way, to read the suggestion, at the end of the post, that histories of commodification might not necessarily be best described as the history of capitalism. It might be worth reminding (what all readers of this series already know) that Marx opens Capital vol. 1 with a discussion of the commodity and defines a proletarian as someone who, to survive, is forced to sell his/her labor power, which is seen by Marx as a commodity, albeit one with special characteristics.

    The distinction between histories of proletarianization and histories of commodification may be useful in sorting out some or all of the recent literature, but it seems to raise some questions that I hope future posts will address. Some items or ‘things’ arguably have been commodities since the existence of rudimentary markets, which, on some accounts, long predate the existence of capitalism (certainly of industrial capitalism, at any rate). Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (which for some reason I bought a pb copy of even though I suspected, a correct suspicion so far, that I’d never read most of it) starts with a nod to as far back as 5000 BCE (ch. 1, “The Rise of a Global Commodity,” p.7) but the word “capitalism” appears in the table of contents as early as the title of ch.2 (“Building War Capitalism”).

    Anyway, I look forward to the future posts.

    • Louis,
      Certainly, commodification and capitalism are inextricably bound together, even if, as you point out, the commodity form pre-existed capitalism.

      The distinction I was trying to draw wasn’t meant to divide the two into mutually exclusive domains, but rather to identify what seems to be the true center of the field. Many critiques of the new history of capitalism have challenged it as insufficiently interested in the kinds of questions which truly put “capitalism” as a concept under the microscope: What are its irreducible features? what are its chronological boundaries, and what was its immediate precursor? What caused or causes a society to transition from some pre-capitalist state to capitalism? Are there different stages of capitalism, and if so, how do we distinguish one from another? What were its geographic limits at a given moment in time?

      My point was that questions about commodification may lead us to ask and try to answer some of those questions, but not by necessity–we may decide to defer answering those questions about capitalism or we may find other questions more interesting and immediate. So it’s not that studying commodification severs us from a study of capitalism, but that by studying commodification we are adjacent or orthogonal to the direct or classic study of capitalism.

      • Andy,
        Thanks for that further explanation — very helpful. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from this series.

  6. When I was the head teaching fellow for David S. Landes in the 1990s, as he composed The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, I was easily the only history graduate student for a number of years to take a general exam filed in the economics department. I was given to ponder why the field was empty. The central reason, it seemed to me, was the comprehensive economic success that suffused the world economy by the late 1990s (or at least strongly appeared to). There was no way to write a history-of-capitalism story without a final happy ending. Even the standard alternative of bringing to light those who were passed by or stepped on in the general prosperity and good times lost all traction. If you did anything like this at the end of the 1990s, it stood to lack credibility. So the history of capitalism, which is by nature critical and optimistic only in the Marxian sense, took a holiday.

    When the 2008 crisis arrived, it enabled a very different ending to any history of capitalism. Now the ending need not be success, but could be failure or farce. This was fundamental to the rise of the field.

    As for profound thinking that did turn up in the late 1990s about economic history, paradigms of economic thought, and the “crisis of capitalism”—he very much uses the term here—a superb example came in Robert Mundell’s 1999 Nobel Prize address. Some of you are aware that I remain insistent that we have a better stock summary of supply-side economics as a historical and intellectual phenomenon than that of Professor Rodgers in The Age of Fracture, a summary which to my eye is distinguished by its superficiality. Mundell’s Nobel address gives a sense of what kind of evidence is out there about the mentalités of the leaders of the free-market movement, in particular their vision of history.

    https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/economics/1999/mundell/lecture/

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/briandomitrovic/2013/09/17/hockey-sticks-and-progress-the-industrial-revolution-has-lost-its-greatest-historian/#79dbc8e14e6a

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.