U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Resounding Clashes: Gender and the New History of Capitalism

Courtesy Cambridge University Press

A history-related event we at the blog ought to have noted is the debut of Modern American History, which published its third issue in November. MAH “showcases top-quality, emerging research on the history of the United States since the 1890s. Aiming to stimulate debate and make meaningful connections between the subfields of this vibrant and expansive field, the journal publishes compelling peer-reviewed articles as well as substantial review essays, forums, and other special features.” Edited by Brooke L. Blower and Sarah T. Phillips out of Boston University, it is an incredibly creative journal, especially in those forums and special features.

One of those special features is “The Soapbox,” in which a scholar is given the latitude to challenge or re-imagine the operating terms of a subfield or intervene in a particular historiographic quarrel. MAH just published a Soapbox piece by Nan Enstad that I assume is going to be published in Issue 4: “The ‘Sonorous Summons’ of the New History of Capitalism, Or, What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Economy?

Enstad’s critique of the “New History of Capitalism” is a strong one. She argues, in plain terms, that many historians of capitalism have been nodding their heads that gender and race are important while promoting their field as one that digs below the superficial politics of “identity” and reaches into the bedrock of “the economy.” Citing a number of historiographic manifestos—by Kenneth Lipartito, Louis Hyman, and Sven Beckert, among others—Enstad reconstructs the field’s founding myth, what she refers to as the “NHOC jeremiad.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, historians investigated the economy. They were serious and politically relevant. But then the discipline fell to the beguiling ways of cultural and social history. Fractured and fragmented, scholars wandered off like cats into various alleyways, pawed at incomprehensible theories, and lost track of the common reader. There is hope, however, because in the past decade or so a new movement has arisen to lead historians out of the obscure alleyways and back to the main path: the economy, so long neglected.

Enstad takes the founding myth apart from both ends. “Social and cultural history,” she shows, is in important ways a historiographic category error: the development of the former into the latter was an uneven, highly contentious, and often incomplete process. “Social and cultural history” smashes together techniques, bodies of scholarship, intellectual dispositions, and even political commitments that—through the 80s and 90s—were not always well aligned.[1]

Even more importantly, however, Enstad turns to Raymond Williams to make the point that hiving off “social and cultural” from “the economy” erases the intellectual history of how these concepts actually developed. In Culture and Society as well as in Marxism and Literature (from which she quotes), Williams argued that the meanings and uses of ‘economy,’ ‘culture,’ and ‘society’ each transformed separately but under the same historical pressures—that is, at the same time and in the same place and in response to the same events, ideas, and forces. What’s more, they interacted. Williams writes, “In their modern development the three concepts did not move in step, but each, at a critical point, was affected by the movement of the others.”[2] This interaction has continued to the present, and any approach that tries to extract one element and subordinate the other two will only create a distorted understanding of its intended object of study.

Enstad believes that this act of extraction—pulling “the economy” away from “social and cultural history”—is the intention of the New History of Capitalism.

the ill-defined term “social and cultural history” juxtaposed with “economic history” or “the history of political economy” invites us to believe, first, that it is possible to separate these categories and, second, that they refer to discrete and diametrically opposed aspects of life. The [NHOC] jeremiad suggests that historians of the 1980s and 1990s (the time frame is vague and variable) studied social and cultural areas of life and neglected another distinct and separable area, economy. This is a significant mistake that has prevented a rigorous critique of prior scholarship. Social and cultural history were analytical approaches to studying a myriad of topics, including formal and informal politics, business, labor, imperialism, welfare, marriage, immigration, slavery, and so on. Historians using these approaches did not study only social and cultural events or themes, as though those could be isolated as such.

If you have been following my series on the new history of capitalism, you will likely guess my deep sympathy with Enstad’s argument. I also have been arguing that we need a serious examination of what has been shorthanded as “social and cultural history” as a source rather than an antagonist of the new history of capitalism. Much of the groundwork for, many of the intellectual influences active within the new history of capitalism can be found in the groundbreaking work of the 1980s and 1990s, not in some fabled heyday of a pre-linguistic turn, pre-identity politics history. Most of the work that is the new history of capitalism owes far, far more to cultural history than it does to cliometrics.

Does that then mean that Enstad’s critique is empty—that she has misdiagnosed the problem? If the new history of capitalism really has a quite close relationship with cultural history, is there any reason to complain about its founding myths? If some people want to imagine the field as distinct from (what they call) “social and cultural history,” what is the harm?

Well, quite a bit. Enstad identifies a few issues in the following passage, and I’ll try to expand on each of them a bit. She writes,

How is this narrative [the NHOC jeremiad] organizing our intellectual and monetary resources? How does it highlight some voices and perspectives over others? Most critically, when historians talk of ‘economy,’ are we all speaking about the same thing? I believe we are not, and this is a problem worth attending to.

First, the question of how the field’s increasing prominence has elevated certain perspectives and directed our “intellectual and monetary resources” in certain directions. Enstad certainly has a point, but to some extent, I would say that her own critique reinstantiates a certain understanding of what the field is and who its gatekeepers are. In other words, her choice of targets for critique also implicitly repeats the idea that the field is in practice defined by those very people—Louis Hyman and Sven Beckert especially.

For both institutional reasons and on the merits of their own work, Beckert and Hyman’s prominence is incontestable, but it is also not exclusive. Enstad, by focusing her critique on a handful of statements by two or three scholars, accedes to the notion that the field really is defined by what those scholars think and do. That seems to me both incorrect—the field is more polycentric or at least more diffuse than that—and self-undermining. Enstad herself is a well-established scholar at an excellent school (UW-Madison)—rather than protest the definitions of the field that Hyman and Beckert have given, why not gather likeminded scholars and present an alternative? Or, in the absence of that, why not elevate more of the scholarship that—like her old and her new work—brilliantly foregrounds the entanglements of the economic, the cultural, and the social?

Easier said than done, certainly, and quite possibly I am mistaking Enstad’s purpose. Perhaps her point is not to counter the Beckert/Hyman position but rather to draw them (and likeminded scholars) into a more forthright conversation. As Enstad says,

I urge historians to stop deflecting underlying disagreement with statements of inclusion and discuss what we mean by “economy” and the particular hazards that attend to taking up that concept. Such a debate may not lead to consensus but it could make us all smarter.

Enstad writes that “without exception, everyone I cite who has spoken for the new history of capitalism agrees that gender and race are important to the field—and I believe that this agreement is genuine—but why and how they are important is neither clear nor much discussed in field-defining essays.” Statements of inclusive intentions are not followed by either actual inclusion (Enstad reviews the composition of a few different collections published under the history of capitalism rubric that are embarrassingly light on race and gender) or the kind of rethinking that might demonstrate genuine conceptual inclusion. As long as “the economy” can still be sundered from “culture and society” as an independent object of study, scholars are not really thinking about gender and race as constitutive parts of their work.

There is a lovely passage in J. W. Burrow’s Evolution and Society (1966) that this problem calls to mind. Burrow wrote:

Clearly some distinction is needed between a man’s theories and his views. He may recognize limitations to the scope of his theory, may insert qualifications which he is yet unable to integrate into the theory itself. Thus he may, as an individual, if he is cautious enough… escape charges of superficiality or oversimplification which nevertheless continue to lie against his theory. It is no defence, for example, of a sociological theory which lies under the imputation of being unable to account for social change, that its author is aware of the problem.

I think that what Enstad is saying is something along the same lines: in the face of a critique that gender and race are missing from the definitions that certain historians of capitalism have given to the field, they cannot merely say that they are aware of the problem or that they agree that those are important categories and ought to be included. Those are views, not theories. What is needed is a more forthright theoretical discussion of the place of gender and race, of culture and society in the history of capitalism.

Notes

[1] Enstad cites Geoff Eley, William Sewell, and James W. Cook as excellent resources for understanding what actually happened as cultural history emerged within and against social history.

[2] Williams, Marxism and Literature, 11.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Concur that the origins stories we tell about the history of capitalism are curious– and as I’ve done in comments to earlier posts, I acknowledge my role in all this. That said, I would be grateful if more of these critical discussions could spend time with the actual books that scholars have written. It always strikes me as odd that the “What’s Wrong with History of Capitalism” discussions so rarely cite Julia Ott’s _When Wall Street Met Main Street_, or Michael Zakim’s _Accounting for Capitalism_ and _Ready-Made Democracy_, or dare I say, my own _Scraping By_. Maybe there is a disjuncture between programmatic statements and published books (and that would be an interesting conversation), but when the rubber hits the road (in the book-length, archive-based projects), it becomes harder to claim that culture (or gender and race) are marginalized in order to fetishize some pure notion of “economy.”

    • Seth,
      I completely agree, and for what it’s worth, I think Enstad gestures in that direction–she actually quotes you and Ott as people speaking up against the idea that “social and cultural history” is being left behind.

      But that was the point I was making–probably too obliquely–when I wrote above about the polycentric nature of the new history of capitalism. Enstad is really not addressing the whole field: she’s addressing a specific set of field-defining essays (and their authors). But she does speak as if those essays really are the marching orders of everyone who has contributed to the field, and I think (as I said above) that is a mistake.

    • Totally agree, Seth! Also Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart, Mihm’s Nation of Counterfeiters and Levy’s Freaks of Fortune … and that’s just the scholars cited in the infamous NYT article. Or take a look at the books coming out in the Columbia series …

    • Seth, Julia, Andy:
      Seth and Julia’s reminder to read the actual work they mention is well taken, but I am grateful to Nan Enstad too–and to Andy for highlighting the piece here–because it does much of the work that has needed doing over the past several years to show how the “NHOC” (sorry, it’s easy to use shorthand) can’t exist without the cultural history a significant number of its origin stories seek to dismiss, ignore, or disparage.

      Her reading of Raymond Williams in the piece–and the way she uses him to show how “culture,” “economy,” and “society,” could not exist without one another, *in history*–is a useful reminder that when we look to the NHOC for accounts of how capitalism was not a natural force but “embedded” in social relations, we should recognize that this insight was EXACTLY what cultural history (especially those inspired by Williams and Stuart Hall) delivered over and over again for years in quite subtle ways.

      The NHOC has shifted the contents and emphases of this kind of analysis in useful ways too, opening up new kinds of questions (often about old subjects), but the reductive story about getting back to the “economy”, as Enstad notes, tends to make the field look small-minded, not the least because it is otherwise premised on doing exactly the opposite. The result has been–or at least appears to be, for many of us–a field that has tried to kill its predecessors and their legacies even as it carries on their work under its own banner.

      So, yes, by all means read Moreton, Zakim, Levy, Ott, and Rockman, but read this Enstad piece too (and related work by Jay Cook [“The Kids are Alright”] and Rosanne Currarino [“Toward a History of Cultural Economy”] ) because it suggests a way to go forward without cheap relegation gambits about “identity” and “jargon,” and a way to see histories of capitalism as necessarily cultural histories of transformation in the realms of meaning and experience, the realms where the economy is lived and understood.

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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.