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The “Sonorous Summons” of the New History of Capitalism, Or, What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Economy?

  • Nan Enstad

The tale reads as a classic fall from grace. 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.

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The author would like to thank Finn Enke, Dan Guadagnolo, Brooke Blower, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

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1 I base this rarified story of the New History of Capitalism's jeremiad on the way the field is described in Beckert, Sven, “History of American Capitalism,” in Foner, Eric and McGirr, Lisa, eds., American History Now (Philadelphia, 2011), 314–35; Louis Hyman, “Why Write the History of Capitalism,” Symposium Magazine, July 8, 2013, (accessed Nov. 5, 2018), reprinted as Hyman, “Why Study the History of Capitalism,” in Hyman, Louis and Baptist, Edward E. eds., American Capitalism: A Reader (New York, 2014) xviixxiv; Lipartito, Kenneth, “Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism,” American Historical Review 121, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 101–39; and Scranton, Philip, “The History of Capitalism and the Eclipse of Optimism,” Modern American History 1, no. 1 (Mar. 2018): 107–11. The idea that social and cultural history “fractured” the discipline and that the new history of capitalism offers an opportunity for synthesis is important to the jeremiad; the idea of fracture has its most complete iteration in Rodgers, Daniel T., Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA, 2011). The essays by Beckert and Hyman have been very heavily cited in subsequent literature. For another critique of this narrative, see Kramer, Paul A., “Embedding Capital: Political-Economic History, the United States, and the World,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 15, no. 3 (July 2016): 332–3.

2 Jennifer Schuessler, “In History Departments, It's Up with Capitalism,” New York Times, April 6, 2013, 1.

3 A number of books and articles have grappled with the historiographic legacy of a large, international body of late-twentieth-century history and its engagement with issues of economy. Most of these authors study European history or cultural studies and do not specifically address U.S. history. Eley, Geoff, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor, MI, 2005) and Eley, Geoff and Nield, Keith, The Future of Class in History: What's Left of the Social? (Ann Arbor, MI, 2007) offer the most sophisticated treatment of the subject, focusing primarily on British historians. The French historian Sewell, William H. Jr. addresses these themes in Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago, 2005). These historians all distinguish carefully between social and cultural history, including looking at their relationship and at hybrids, rather than creating a flattened category of “social and cultural history.” For a critical examination of the claims that cultural historians abandoned economics, see Cook, James W., “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (June 2012): 746–71. This essay does not address this historiographic debate. I would welcome careful examinations of how specific earlier scholarship addressed issues of materiality and economy, how it did not, and what new ways are emerging; I do not see this being done in the new history of capitalism.

4 Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad (Madison, WI, 1978).

5 Though this work has emerged in many different locations, particular institutions have taken leadership in defining the contours of the NHOC subfield. Columbia University Press has a book series; the Newberry Library has an ongoing working group; Cornell hosts the “History of Capitalism Summer Camp,” a two-week course for historians on quantitative methods and economic theory; a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Cornell has resulted in an edited volume; Harvard's Program on the Study of Capitalism has sponsored conferences and a workshop that has resulted in an edited volume; Princeton has a Readings in Capitalism and History colloquium; many graduate programs have launched seminars; jobs are beginning to appear in the field.

6 Beckert, “History of American Capitalism,” 315; Beckert, Sven and Desan, Christine, “Introduction” in Becker, Sven and Desan, Christine, eds., American Capitalism: New Histories (New York, 2018), 10; Hyman, “Why Study the History of Capitalism,” xxiii.

7 Scranton, “The History of Capitalism and the End of Optimism,” 108; Lipartito, “Reassembling the Economic,” 104; Beckert, “History of American Capitalism,” 316–7; Hyman, “Why Study the History of Capitalism,” xix, xxii, xxiv.

8 Gramsci's theory of hegemony argued against precisely this view, promoted by Hyman, that social movements are irrelevant except when they win. See the discussion of the difference between a “war of position” and a “war of maneuver” in Antonio Gramsci with Hoare, Quentin and Smith, Geoffrey Nowell, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York, 1971), 238.

9 Stanley, Amy Dru, “Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 343–50; Hartigan-O'Connor, Ellen, “The Personal Is Political Economy,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 335–41; Hudson, Peter James, “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101, no. 2 (Sept. 2014): 503–36; Walter Johnson et al., “Forum: To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism and Justice,” Boston Review, October 26, 2016, (accessed Nov. 5, 2018).

10 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (London, 1977), 11.

11 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 12.

12 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 11.

13 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 75–91. Quotations in order, 88, 79, 90–1, 82, 77–8, 89.

14 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 91, 94. Williams also challenges conventional notions of superstructure on p. 93.

15 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 81, emphasis in the original.

16 Hyman, “Why Study the History of Capitalism,” xx, xxii; Rockman, Seth, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 439–66, here 446; Ott, Julia, “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History 101, no. 2 (Sept. 2014): 503–36.

17 Beckert, “History of American Capitalism,” 315, 317; Beckert and Desan, “Introduction.”

18 Lipartito, “Reassembling the Economic,” 122. This passage cites no secondary work, but Lipartito is likely thinking of work like Howard, Vicki, Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition (Philadelphia, 2008).

19 Lipartito also includes “gender relations” in a laundry list of elements of life that shifted with the rise of capitalism and acknowledges gender discrimination and gendered “aspirations” in the workplace. See 114, 124.

20 Marriage is just one way to show gender's centrality to “economy.” For a sampling of the literature on marriage and its effects, see Cott, Nancy, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge, MA, 2001); Hartog, Hendrik, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA, 2000); Stanley, Amy Dru, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York, 1998); Kessler-Harris, Alice, In Pursuit of Equality: Men, Women and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America (New York, 2001); Gordon, Linda, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890–1935 (New York, 1994); Nelson, Barbara, “The Origins of the Two-Channel Welfare State: Workmen's Compensation and Mother's Aid,” in Gordon, Linda, ed., Women, the State and Welfare (Madison, WI, 1990); Gabin, Nancy F., Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975 (Ithaca, NY, 1990); Glickman, Lawrence, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Boris, Eileen and Klein, Jennifer, Caring for America: Home Health Care Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State (New York, 2012); Romano, Renee, Race Mixing: Black–White Marriage in Postwar America (Gainesville, FL, 2006); Pascoe, Peggy, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Laws and the Making of Race in America (New York, 2009); Rothman, Joshua, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787–1861 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2003); Canaday, Margo, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, NJ, 2009); Coontz, Stephanie, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York, 2006); Hodes, Martha, ed., Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (New York, 1999); Miles, Tiya, Ties that Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley, CA, 2006); Cashin, Sheryll, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy (Boston, 2017); Hunter, Tera, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA, 2017).

21 Hyman and Baptist, eds., American Capitalism; Zakim, Michael and Gary Kornblith, eds., Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago, 2012); Beckert and Desan, eds., American Capitalism: New Histories; Amy Dru Stanley, “Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference”; Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?,” 464.

22 Williams, Marxism and Literature, 13, 14, 18.

23 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York, 1978); Spivak, Gayatri, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Nelson, Cary and Grossberg, Lawrence, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (London, 1988). Some important work was collected or referenced in Ashcroft, Bill, Griffith, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (New York, 1995). See also Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890 to 1940 (Princeton, NJ, 1989).

24 Hall, Stuart, “Cultural Studies and Its Legacies,” in Grossberg, Lawrence et al. , eds., Cultural Studies (London, 1992), 279. Hall had a huge influence on British and U.S. historians, as did his student, Paul Gilroy. See, for example, Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA, 1993). One of the most influential of the U.S. historians to pick up the baton of British cultural studies from Gilroy, Hall, and Williams is Robin D. G. Kelley. See, for example, Kelley, Robin D. G., Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York, 1996).

25 I can only gesture at this vast arena of scholarship in this footnote. Kaplan, Amy, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2002); Kaplan, Amy and Pease, Donald, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, NC, 1993); Stoler, Ann Laura, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, CA, 2002); Stoler, Ann Laura, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham, NC, 2006); Kramer, Paul, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006); Rosenberg, Emily Smith, Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900–1930 (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Newman, Louise Michele, White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York, 1999); Pascoe, Peggy, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874–1939 (New York, 1990); Shah, Nayan, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown (Berkeley, CA, 2001); Jung, Moon-Ho, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore, 2006); Ngai, Mae, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ, 2004); Jones, Will, The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South (Urbana, IL, 2005).

26 Persky, Joseph, “Retrospectives: The Ethology of Homo Economicus,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 9, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 221–31; Mitchell, Timothy, “Fixing the Economy,” Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (1998): 82101; Enstad, Nan, Cigarettes Inc.: An Intimate History of Corporate Imperialism (Chicago, 2018). See also Timothy Shenk, “Inventing the American Economy” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2016); Schabas, Margaret, “Constructing ‘The Economy’,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 319.

27 Frank H. Canaday, Diary, October 31, 1923, Frank H. Canaday Papers, Harvard Yenching Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Ruskola, Teemu, Legal Orientalism: China, the United States and Modern Law (Cambridge, MA, 2013); Enstad, Cigarettes Inc.

28 This article is not intended as a state-of-the-field piece but as a thought piece about how the subfield of the New History of Capitalism is cohering. Likewise, I do not call for a singular historiographical path forward, but for a conversation that I think we should have and values that I would prioritize in that conversation. I therefore resist any temptation to suggest particular work that is promising (or not) in the tradition of the state-of-the-field essay. There are many kinds of work that I find enormously promising.

29 This phrase comes from Tsing, Anna, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ, 2015).

The author would like to thank Finn Enke, Dan Guadagnolo, Brooke Blower, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

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Modern American History
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