U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Commodity Histories, Complicity, and the New History of Capitalism

Toward the end of the last post in this series on the new history of capitalism, I wrote that what distinguishes the new history of capitalism from the old is a “basic reorientation away from subject formation toward object formation as the primary explanandum… Another way of saying this might be that, for the new history of capitalism, the most important relations are not exclusively between people.”

Now, I left the meaning of that rather dark or cryptic, but I hope you’ll forgive a bit of opacity for the sake of suspense.

My argument in some more detail is this: where older histories of capitalism—influenced either by Marxism or by a more mainstream liberal consensus—tended to anthropomorphize nonhuman things by elevating them and bestowing them with intentionality, newer histories of capitalism have tended to ecologize humans, embedding them within a web of heterogeneous things (institutions and social conventions, machines, animals, topographical or geological features). Inside this web, intentionality is distributed among those heterogeneous items, and if it is seldom distributed evenly, it is not a foregone conclusion that the humans in the web have the most intentionality: quite often they take the narrative role of objects reacting or absorbing forces generated elsewhere.

We can see the former disposition in two of the most powerful metaphors of classical political economy—Smith’s invisible hand and Marx’s commodity fetishism. The latter is harder to see, but one easy place to view it is in the commodity histories written for popular audiences, the most famous of which is probably Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World (1997).

Bruce Robbins mocked what he called the commodity history genre’s “flagrant after-the-colon excesses” in a 2005 PMLA article, citing (in addition to Kurlansky) “Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance (Warman), Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (Gately), The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (Zuckerman), The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug (Weinberg and Bealer)… and Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World (Garfield).”

The best analogue for this genre, he goes on to argue, are those “great man” biographies which celebrated the genius and the drive of industrial or financial titans and founders, conquering worlds and mastering markets. “In the rites of capitalist celebration, individual commodities have certainly not replaced great individuals,” he allows. “But the commodities now seem to be doing some of the same narrative work and indeed have taken over some of the impetuous, all-conquering character type once attributed to tycoons and discoverers.”

Robbins reads this displacement as an attempt to let capitalism off the hook (“It’s harder to blame a commodity” for social inequality or exploitation, he notes) by extending its favored narratives into the world of goods. The genre’s two dominant plots, he argues, are democratization and the irresistibleness of demand, with goods themselves doing the liberating rather than (as before) the bourgeoisie.

These books do not merely take the existence of global capitalism for granted. They also tend to make a forceful argument on capitalism’s behalf. One central story line might be described as commodity democratization. You begin with a commodity like chocolate or coffee or tobacco that when first imported into Europe was restricted to courtly or aristocratic circles by its price and scarcity or because its circulation was blocked by other antiquated and elitist vestiges of traditional society. Then you tell the story of how this protagonist, usually an underdog, though touched with a mysterious hint of natural distinction, spread across the social spectrum, dropping dramatically in price as taxes and prohibitions were lifted and becoming triumphantly accessible to the eager masses… The villains of this narrative, numerous and colorful though also bumbling and ineffectual, are the kings, priests, moralists, and would-be experts who declaimed quaintly against the new products, whether in the name of national tradition (beer or wine against coffee or tea), out of fiscal greed, or in fear of the dire effects on public health and moral apocalypse sure to follow. With rare national exceptions, these enemies of the consumer are always vanquished. The commodity always arrives at its proper, mass destination.

What all this comes to, Robbins concludes, is writing that teeters about on the edge of promotion or advertisement and keeps its distance from actual analysis. As an example, he quotes from a history of coffee: “For five hundred years coffee has been grown in tropical countries for consumption in temperate regions, linking peoples of different lands and continents by trade, investment, immigration, conquest, and cultural and religious diffusion. There is a world of history in your cup.”

“A world of history in your cup”—it sounds like a Starbucks jingle, he sneers.

But in doing so, I think Robbins misses the larger point, made both by the explicit content of that phrase and by its resemblance to advertising copy. The point is also effectively by the first sentence I quoted in the long blockquote above: “These books do not merely take the existence of global capitalism for granted.” For Robbins, the most important word here is capitalism—these books don’t challenge capitalism. But Robbins himself takes the word global for granted: for him, it is just a natural tag for capitalism’s intrinsically expansionist tendencies.

Yet what is the real plot of these commodity histories but globalization? Certainly Robbins is right to see democratization as a key narrative—a point I want to return to later—but the sudden vogue for commodity histories beginning in the mid-to-late 1990s is really only imaginable as a response to a particular moment in capitalism: that moment when systematic alternatives to capitalism were swept from the map, leaving capitalism as not just a globe-spanning but now as a globe-engulfing and—more importantly—a globe-shrinking system. Actually existing communism had given the globe a kind of dimensionality, two poles, keeping their distance. A unipolar world—a uniformly capitalist world—did not so much flatten as collapse in on itself like a black hole, with cores and peripheries no longer held apart by the Cold War’s tensile geopolitical tug-of-war.

It was thus only too natural in this moment to grab at a kind of economic history that eschewed struggles between economic competitors over scarce resources and instead found meaning in previous periods of growing interconnection between distant parts of the world. Commodity histories did not sell capitalism so much as they sold global capitalism. Capitalism’s promise, it suggested, lay not so much in the efficiency of markets as in the density of connections they created: ramifying, extended, redundant, centripetal connections. These commodities changed the world because they traveled, and because people traveled to get them. What a fable for the new world order!

So far so good: commodity histories were responses to globalization. But what kind of responses? Robbins suggests they are apologies and compares them to the older great man biographies of capitalist magnates like Rockefeller or Morgan. It is a good comparison: if commodity histories make it seem as if the globe is the only logical scale for capitalism, those biographies naturalized the nation as the only adequate platform for the vaulting ambitions of those men’s relentless energies.

But again there is a deeper layer to these commodity histories than Robbins acknowledges—and a deeper layer to the great men biographies. Stories of capitalist heroes were inevitably structured—from Benjamin Franklin onward—in such a way as to invite the reader both to compare and to emulate, constantly to think of the ways they were like or unlike the great capitalist. But there is no real way to pull the same trick with a commodity history: no reader is going to spend a half-second wondering if they are like or unlike a cod or a diamond or a barrel of oil.

Instead, what commodity histories invite the reader to do and teach them how to do better is to imagine themselves immersed in a web of exchanges, stationed at some node within an epic, beautiful network of commodity flows, supply chains, and voluntary transactions. It teaches readers to think of capitalism ecologically, and to consider humans’ place within an ecology that includes all kinds of animate and inanimate objects, each holding down a corner of the web.

This was a perspective that can shade into techno-utopianism—where the web becomes the Web—but it can also sharpen into an environmentalist critique, where those supply chains become streams of pollution and commodity flows become vacuums of extraction and despoliation. What all three—ecological, technoutopian, and environmental—have in common is a certainty that, if people could only be made more aware of the degree of interconnectedness that exists within capitalism, positive changes in behavior on an individual level would ultimately be brought about. Knowledge about sources, relay points, switches, and routes would become a new kind of self-knowledge, as one could detach oneself from bad connections and find better ones.

But if one was—as I imagine many historians of capitalism were—alive to the debates about ethical forms of consumption in the 1990s and early 2000s, it quickly became frustratingly obvious how impossible it was to disconnect from bad connections: to unplug, to buy only ethically sourced goods, to unwind oneself from the skein of exploitation. One was always already complicit in exploitation and if not in exploitation than in environmental desolation. There were limits to how much one could reduce one’s footprint—carbon or otherwise.

Moreover, as Starbucks and other corporations quickly proved, the very desire for ethical consumption could be commodified: earnest living could be packaged as a lifestyle and anxiety about the ramifications of one’s consumer decisions could function as a kind of market segmentation.

On the other hand, this sense of deep entanglement was quite different from a deep sense of responsibility, and I think it is reasonable to assume that the longer one lives with the frustrations of being unable to escape that entanglement, the more one is apt to feel something different from acute, direct, poignant responsibility. One instead develops a more chronic, more diffuse sense of complicity.

Complicity is an interesting category of ethical connection, especially if we think about it in dialogue with the “long chains of will” that Thomas Haskell posited were the basis of the abolitionist and reformist sensibility of the early 19th century (as elaborated in his two famous articles on capitalism and humanitarianism). Haskell argued that various changes in moral perception occurred such that Europeans and Americans could more easily understand their willful decisions acting at a distance, connecting them in a direct and morally troubling way with forms of exploitation which they therefore had the duty to try to ameliorate or terminate.

The proper metaphor for complicity is instead not a chain but a field or a web, and it pulverizes will into a fine powder of mere being: life itself is saturated with a kind of ambient quasi-guilt. Complicity, to paraphrase Shakespeare, doth make convicts of us all—complicity weighs on conscience but also to some extent displaces it, eroding the sharper edge of clear responsibility and clear action and even of clear agency.

The imperial turn in scholarship seems to me in retrospect one response to this kind of mentality. Clearly it was a more immediate response to geopolitical events, but it was also, to some degree, a reaction to the conundrums of complicity as lived out in one’s daily existence. What exactly was one’s duty living in the world’s only superpower, or in another wealthy nation with a long history of colonization?

The ecological mode of envisioning capitalism that we find in commodity histories has, I think, a clear homology with these conundrums. Both seem to necessitate a rethinking of questions of agency, responsibility, even animacy and intentionality; both appear to require an abandonment of purely linear constructions of those categories in favor of either a field or a web, with responsibility (etc.) redistributed—smeared even—over a more heterogeneous set of quasi-actors/quasi-objects.

Well, that is quite enough for today—I’ll try to pick up with some more reflections on other possible influences that amplified this field/web dynamic next week.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I am having a conceptual problem with this, mostly because of the categorization of cod, sugar, coffee, etc., as mere commodities in a capitalist system.
    I don’t deny that they are, economically, commodities, and perhaps if your primary interest is an abstract history of capitalism, that is the proper way to understand them.
    But they are food – the list doesn’t include oil, or concrete, or shipping containers, or personal automobiles, or t-shirts – and that means that they have a particular relationship with consumers (literal consumers), and social norms, etc. that really functions differently than other commodities.
    Sidney Mintz explained the connection between sugar production, capitalism, and imperialism decades ago, and food historians have used their studies to illuminate and complicate the history of capitalism and culture (because capitalism, whatever it is, is a cultural phenomenon as much as anything).

    • Hi Jonathan,
      I’m not completely following what you are asking. Are you saying that foods are not to be considered commodities, or that they need to be considered separately from all non-food commodities?

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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.