U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Forking Paths: The New History of Capitalism and Economic History

In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable Ts’ui Pen, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in their turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel. – Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”

Today was the first day of class and at one point I found myself trying to make two concepts coalesce for my students. I found it surprisingly difficult: although these two ideas are conceptually quite similar, there is a tension between them that is challenging to resolve.

The two concepts are contingency and substitution. The former is more often used by historians, and the latter by economists. In my course—an economic history course—I try to help my students feel comfortable with both, but I don’t think I have introduced them as a pair before and certainly have not done so on the first day of a semester.

I’ll come back to this conceptual challenge in a moment, but to give some sense of its import, let me shift to a different context. The other day I noticed a discussion about the difference between economic history and the new history of capitalism.

Pseudoerasmus, the economic historian screencapped in this tweet, elsewhere pushed back against the idea that the economic historians’ critique of the new history of capitalism relies on counterfactuals. I don’t want to merely recapitulate twitter arguments, but you can follow some of the back and forth here, and definitely check out Seth Rockman’s excellent thread explaining where some of the intellectual impetus for the new history of capitalism came from here.

The motivation for these discussions was the release of the New York Times’s 1619 project, which prominently featured historical claims about the centrality of slavery to American economic development. These claims are indebted to some of the new histories of capitalism as well as to some older works, such as Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery. Within the project, Matthew Desmond—a sociologist and author of Evicted—wrote a synthetic piece putting many of these pieces together to make an argument that the history of slavery endowed U.S. capitalism with a particular character: “It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless.

But it is really, I think, in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s (beautiful) personal essay about the ways that African Americans have held the United States to keeping its idealistic promises that one statement flashes out and illuminates some of the divisions between the historians of capitalism and economic historians.

Hannah-Jones begins her essay with a story about her father and the U.S. flag he flew in front of their house. Her father was a veteran; he was, like most Black veterans, shamefully excluded from many veterans’ benefits and from the kind of respect and opportunity that military service could bring white men. As a young woman, Hannah-Jones was confused why he would persist, given this mistreatment, in displaying patriotism, but later she realized that “[h]e knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”

There are (at least) two ways of reading “the United States simply would not exist without us,” and to be honest, I think that (at least when it comes to academics) disciplinary training probably determines how someone will read that clause as much as or more than one’s politics.

One way to read Hannah-Jones’s statement is as a claim about substitution, in something like the economic sense of the term. In that reading, what Hannah-Jones is saying is that African Americans—their labor in particular—were indispensable to the political and economic development of the United States, and to the British colonies in North America before the Revolution. Without them, the whole settler colonial project would have failed, or would have been mired in such a low level of development as to constitute a practical failure. Only because of the presence of African Americans was the society we know today as the United States practicable. In other words, there were no possible substitutes for African (and then African American) labor, or none worth seriously considering.

The more fully developed version of this argument would seem to be the one put forward by Sven Beckert regarding the centrality of cotton to US economic development (and the progression of the Industrial Revolution in general) and the salience of the fact that the largest source of cotton was the Slave South. It is at this point that economic historians have focused many of their attacks on the new history of capitalism. How significant was cotton, really, to the Industrial Revolution, to US economic development? And how important was it that enslaved people were the producers of a very large amount of that cotton? Could there have been substitutes or alternatives to cotton and to enslaved labor that would have produced roughly the same economic growth and technological progress?

The historians of capitalism would argue that this line of questioning is missing the point. During a critical period of U.S. economic history, it wasn’t people working for wages who were in the fields; it was enslaved Africans and African Americans. Why fiddle with counterfactuals, with a “‘could have been’ version of American history,” as Joshua D. Rothman put it.

For a lot of historians (though probably not for all), Hannah-Jones’s statement reads differently. Instead of being about substitutes, she is talking about contingency. We might paraphrase “the United States simply would not exist without us” as something like, “a United States without African Americans in its history would be so different in character as to be unrecognizable” or, “we can’t tell the story of the United States accurately without putting African Americans at the heart of our account.”

To be honest, I think there is evidence in Hannah-Jones’s essay for both readings. I think the latter one is more correct and more in the spirit of the project as a whole, however. Hannah-Jones states that “our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible,” and the intro to the project claims that “No aspect of the country that formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”

In both statements, the emphasis is on seeing the mark that African Americans have left on U.S. history—“indelible,” Hannah-Jones calls it. Another way of saying that might be unignorable—any account of U.S. history that disregards or marginalizes African Americans is not seeing clearly, is not representing the image of American history accurately and without distortion. Any properly focused glance at U.S. history will immediately recognize—will instantly see and grasp the significance of—the African American presence in the picture.

I think that emphasis on recognition connects to what historians generally mean when they talk about contingency. What they are often saying is that there are certain moments in the past where the difference between an event occurring or not occurring is so large that the total effects of the alternative that didn’t come to pass would be collectively so different from the history that did happen as to be unrecognizable or even, in a sense, unconceivable. Or maybe just not worth conceiving. Yeah, wage laborers could have picked cotton in 1850s Alabama. So what? That alternative past would be so different from what was actually going on in 1850s Alabama that it’s pointless to sink time into thinking about, say, comparing productivity of those hypothetical wage workers to the actually existing enslaved people working the plantations. Doing so doesn’t help us achieve a more accurate picture—a more recognizable, true to the evidence account—of what actually did happen, and that, ultimately is the point.

As you can see, there’s not really a lot of common ground here. There’s a big difference between seeing if the math for a hypothetical scenario comes out somewhere close to the figures we have for what really happened and trying to produce a recognizably accurate account of the principal characteristics and dynamics of a society as it actually existed. These goals aren’t even necessarily complementary—at times, they may prove to get in one another’s way, as they seem to be doing in the argument over slavery and capitalism. What that means, I think, is that misunderstanding and mutual frustrations are likely to continue; the possibilities for a genuine dialogue are not very strong. When the importance of the disagreement is raised—as they are in discussing a momentous event like the release of the 1619 project—those possibilities grow dimmer still.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. A rich, provocative discussion, as usual. A few questions: How do you see the relation between counterfactual reasoning – the posing of “what if” questions – and the “tension” between the discipline-based concepts of “substitution” and “contingency?” Do they both involve the use of counterfactual reasoning, differing in terms of how great a difference a difference might have made, the one aggregative, the other qualitative? What in the training of historians would imply an affinity for thinking in terms of contingencies? How might this be associated with their focus on the actually existing, rather than the might have been? Finally, if the two concepts are in the end “conceptually quite similar,” why is there so little hope for mutual comprehension and useful dialogue?

    • Bill,
      Thanks for all these great questions! They really push me to pin down some loose parts of this post–hopefully I can do so.

      To answer the last question first, I think the reason why there isn’t much hope for useful dialogue is that, although I think substitution and contingency share a conceptual space (regarding how to think about historical alternatives), they fill different disciplinary functions. Basically, I think economics and history imagine and try to organize historical alternatives for different reasons, and each discipline finds those reasons satisfactorily fulfilled with its own concept. Economics doesn’t really need contingency for its models, and history doesn’t need substitution for its narratives.

      So to some extent, I think the term “counterfactual” is a bit of a distraction. It is true that historians metaphysically prioritize the actually existing in a way that is not (as) true for economists, but I think historians still narrate the actually existing against an implied (and usually tacit) background of what might have been. I think it is practically very difficult to ask questions about change over time without some kind of counterfactual thinking occurring at one point or another. Asking why a change occurred at this particular point in time or in this particular place only fully makes sense if one imagines that this particular change could have occurred before of after that moment or in some other place. Historians focus on explaining why the change did occur at this moment and in this place rather than on organizing and exploring alternatives, and economists are at least more open to doing the latter.

      One reason for this difference is, I think, crucial to the disagreement over the slavery/capitalism question. Economists are much more focused on measurement than historians, and measurement, I think, offers more opportunities for thinking systematically about historical alternatives and directs creative research toward what could have been (would this substitution have made a significant change in productivity? etc.) rather than what actually occurred. So I would say that the disciplinary gap has more to do with the importance of measurement rather than the importance of counterfactual thinking. To focus on the latter puts the cart before the horse, so to speak.

      • Thanks, that’s helpful. One takeaway seems to be that in a capacious view of counterfactual thinking, it’s at least a tacit presence, or potential, in almost any analysis of cause and change, with different expressions in different disciplines. Perhaps measurement allows greater precision of a kind in economics, while the historian’s more robust sense of contingency, along with a closer kinship to, say, literature, implies different sorts of counterfactual and alternate thinking?

        By the way, do you know of good discussions of how “contingency” has been conceptualized in history? What if you took this up in the future?

  2. Andy – liking these posts. I’m not an economic historian but want to grapple with some of these issues for teaching and broader research. I like the distinction you draw here: but I have one question. It seems that the critics of NHC that I read aren’t just talking about counter-factuals, but are suggesting that cotton wasn’t all that important after all. i.e. they are taking the real economic history and saying “nothing to see here”. Cotton did not drive the economy (cows and grain did); or cotton did not drive westward expansion, that was free farmers or whatever. I’m wondering how this “real” history fits with your analysis? As a non-economic historian I find it hard to adjudicate this war of data. (Maybe you’ve written about this elsewhere and I haven’t got there yet….)

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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.