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!