In History Departments: It is Up with Capitalism!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an article today on the rising interest in studying capitalism among historians.   Here is an excerpt:

“A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism.

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.

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. The events of 2008 and their long aftermath have given urgency to the scholarly realization that it really is the economy, stupid.

The financial meltdown also created a serious market opportunity. Columbia University Press recently introduced a new “Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism” book series (“This is not your father’s business history,” the proposal promised), and other top university presses have been snapping up dissertations on 19th-century insurance and early-20th-century stock speculation, with trade publishers and op-ed editors following close behind.

The dominant question in American politics today, scholars say, is the relationship between democracy and the capitalist economy. “And to understand capitalism,” said Jonathan Levy, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America,” “you’ve got to understand capitalists.”

That doesn’t mean just looking in the executive suite and ledger books, scholars are quick to emphasize. The new work marries hardheaded economic analysis with the insights of social and cultural history, integrating the bosses’-eye view with that of the office drones — and consumers — who power the system.

“I like to call it ‘history from below, all the way to the top,’ ” said Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell and the author of “Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink.”

The new history of capitalism is less a movement than what proponents call a “cohort”: a loosely linked group of scholars who came of age after the end of the cold war cleared some ideological ground, inspired by work that came before but unbeholden to the questions — like, why didn’t socialism take root in America? — that animated previous generations of labor historians.

Instead of searching for working-class radicalism, they looked at office clerks and entrepreneurs.”

I am not an historian so I guess I have to ask colleagues such as Steve Brier about this development.



One comment

  1. Yeah, I saw it, Tony. Thanks for reposting it. The article and the people featured in it annoyed me. First of all,
    most social and labor historians, myself included, teach the history of
    capitalism, not just the history of the working class. The idea that this is something new is absurd. There are a few young scholars jumping on a bandwagon
    as a way to bolster history enrollments at a time when it’s harder and harder to get students to take history courses on their own volition at the undergrad level. You will obviously attract business and finance majors if you call your
    course Capitalism rather than social or economic history. Smart marketing, in that case, but I’m not sure how much more it is than that. And the idea of
    dressing up like the 19th century board of trade in Chicago is just nuts! That’s my two cents worth.