For decades, trends in forest cover loss, land use change, marine ecosystem degradation and declining environmental health, particularly in the Global South, have rung alarm bells [1,2,3]. While questions about material human impacts on the earth are certainly not new , scholars and policy makers increasingly recognize the scale of anthropogenic forces not only as isolated or regional  but also international . These analyses have also been aided by the increased power of remote sensing technology and publicly available satellite imagery. Concurrently, discussion, debate and diagnosis of ecological change or degradation has been read through a framework highlighting “nature” as a provider of a plethora of valuable (even invaluable) ecosystem goods and services (hereafter referred to as ES) vital to human (and non-human) wellbeing. A typology of ES and new methods for categorization and measurement have developed particularly following influential publications in late 1990s and 2000s [7,8,9].
Today, the ES paradigm features prominently in policy, theoretical and activist discussions around environmental protection and critiques of development [10,11], such that the ES concept may constitute a “boundary object” that readily bridges divides between policymakers, scholarly disciplines and laypeople [12,13]. Economic valuations of ES—often relying on neoclassical economics and natural resource accounting methods—have grown increasingly detailed while also gaining political and policy purchase. In particular, the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme, has helped “the real value of natural capital, and the flows of services it provides, to become visible and be mainstreamed in decision making”  (p. 24). Scholars have also produced global-scale economic valuations of ES in recognition of the real loss to landscapes, biodiversity, ecology and “natural capital” [15,16,17]. For example, in a widely cited 2014 estimate—which informs this paper’s analysis—a team of scholars approximated that loss in annual global ES from 1997 to 2011 could be as much as $20 trillion . More recently, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)—an advising and assessment body established by national governments with functions akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—has included ecosystem goods and services within a conceptual framework of nature (human and non-human), drivers of ecosystem change, institutions, governance and well-being (human and non-human) [18,19,20]. While the IPBES framework acknowledges multiple perspectives for understanding human and non-human natures, it also cements the ES paradigm as a key analytic.
Although a prominent frame in the policy-science interface, ES and ES valuation is not without controversy. Critics have argued that explicitly valuing “nature” may pave the way to pricing, marketing and commodification of environmental public goods [21,22]; furthermore, some critics charge that the process is rooted in a kind of environmental pragmatism that gives too much ground to economists  while overlooking methodological problems of measurement and imprecise valuation [24,25]. Benefit transfer, the method used in major global studies as well as this paper, has been critiqued for its limits—particularly its imprecision . In addition, measuring the value of natural goods and functions has not always led to smooth and clear policy mechanisms  and even proponents of ES assessment and valuation admit that policy implementation or integration of ES into landscape planning remains a challenge . Meanwhile, interpretation of remote sensing data—typically classification of land-cover uses or types—has also been criticized as both diverging from local opinions and having the potential to reduce or “fix” dynamic landscapes through reductionist characterizations .
We do not reference these critiques to either categorically defend or condemn ES, though we note that ES scholars themselves have responded to critics on various charges . Consideration of the multiple values derived from ecosystems by humans and non-humans within them (see typology in ) makes clear that ES is hardly the only way to render or understand the functions and structures of ecosystems. We generally agree that monetary valuation in particular is a narrow form of valuing all that might be called “nature”. We readily acknowledge that market prices (real or hypothetical) overlook a range of other values of ES, from their status as a bequest to future generations to the worth that ES have in, of and to themselves. Even those market prices that exist (e.g., the going rate for fish at the market) are likely conservative, when prices suffer from a political economy that discounts ES heavily and frequently does not account for so-called externalized costs to the use (or abuse) of “nature”. This critique of the ES paradigm is sometimes extended to suggest that categorization and valuation flow from or reinforce neoliberal ideology; in this way, the ES paradigm may feed market-based conservation policies or support the creation of natural resource markets (often through appropriation) and the development of “neoliberal natures” [21,22,31,32,33]. This lengthy critique has considerable purchase but it is also not without its own debate [34,35].
“We want to make clear that expressing the value of ecosystem services in monetary units does not mean that they should be treated as private commodities that can be traded in private markets… Even if fish and other provisioning services enter the market as private goods, the ecosystems that produce them (i.e., coastal systems and oceans) are common assets. Their value in monetary units is an estimate of their benefits to society expressed in units that communicate with a broad audience… to inform better, more balanced decisions regarding trade-offs with policies that enhance GDP but damage ecosystem services”.
 (p. 157)
Rather, we see utility in applications of the ES paradigm and valuation as specific forms of politics intended to engage and inform decision-making about “development” as well as guide and enliven debates over sustainability in environmental management. We are sympathetic to political ecology critiques of ES and valuation—as well as conservation governance and sustainable development more broadly—as being exercises in power. Kull, de Sartre and Castro-Larrañaga note that ES and valuation have been imbued with multiple meanings that are context dependent—”simultaneously a technical, pedagogic, heuristic, policy, and political notion”  (p. 131)—and subject to different uses by a range of actors from the high modern state to social resistance movements. In other words, the deployment of the ES paradigm and valuation as a tool is deeply imbricated within political contexts where actors have asymmetric power relations. In addition, we remain cautious about the overzealous application of the ES paradigm and its potential, if applied inappropriately, to reduce complex ecological challenges by forcing all environmental use (and abuse) into oversimplified stock-flow frames . Rather, we argue for the use of the ES paradigm and valuation within specific realms of politics and practice.
Finally, we note that, contemporary to the rise of the ES paradigm in the 1990s and 2000s, environmental management trended toward a focus on local governance, decentralization, participatory and so-called bottom-up approaches. This renewed focus on the local saw strong international articulation in the context of the U.N. Conference on Environmental and Development in Rio as “participation” was enshrined in the resulting international declaration. Meanwhile, scholarship surrounding governance of the environmental commons—including celebrated work by Ostrom —further interlinked the idea of sustainable resource management with local control, subsidiarity and insulation from external pressures. Moreover, both left-leaning critiques of the state  as well as right-leaning neoliberal theory predict that top-down management of conservation and development would be prone to failure; this is particularly to be expected when managers have little downward accountability to resource users who face the brunt of impacts—positive or negative—from environmental regulations and projects. A focus on locally led conservation can also be understood as a response to data-poor contexts where local knowledge could better govern ecologies that were illegible to management from on-high. However, with increasing public availability of remote-sensing imagery—such as is used in this paper—the meaning of data-poor conservation should be interrogated .
This paper steps into the space between the ES paradigm—particularly as it is sometimes rendered an analytic for cataloguing, measuring and ultimately commodifying nature—and environmental management discourse that privileges the local, particularly in the absence of other kinds of ecological data. We see ES mapping and valuation not as an automatic move to commodify but, rather, as a tool having the potential to inform local processes of environmental politics and decision making. First-pass ES analyses may provide a bridge between recognizing dependency on natural resources and sustainably managing those resources . We suggest ES valuation as particularly useful in the specific consideration of “development” that drifts into the ideological terrain of neoclassical growth economics and accounting. We argue for the identification and first-pass valuation of ES on a local scale as a specific form of environmental politics, dialogue and advocacy. We see this as one way to open space for critical evaluation of “development” and discussion of sustainable environmental use. In doing so, we also believe we stay closer to the early aims of scholars developing the ES paradigm and valuation exercises by emphasizing the heuristic and political relevance of valuation exercises in specific contexts.
To demonstrate what we envision, we now present an ecosystem service valuation using a benefit transfer model of a shallow coastal estuarine landscape in southwestern India. We end by returning to a discussion of what we see as the utility of the ES paradigm and ES valuation as a specific kind of environmental political practice; as an example, we discuss specifically how the results can be applied and wielded as part of a larger engagement with local and regional NGOs and activists. First, however, we present social, economic, ecological and political context for the study area.
2. Study Context
India’s pro-growth economic development has taken a mounting toll on environmental health and ES [42,43,44]. Coastal spaces and places—often the commons—in particular are beset by contentious transformations of land use, planning, development, notions of ownership and resource tenure [45,46,47,48]. The combination of environmental degradation in many places—coupled with urban development biases and rural economic stagnation—has also contributed to the wider trend of migration to cities . For example, in coastal areas, rural fishing communities are increasingly depleted of labor, at least seasonally, as individual fishermen seek work in large cities—either in ports as boat and dockhands or in the wider urban economy.
In this paper, we report the ES valuation of the core extent of the Aghanashini River estuary, a relatively undisturbed riparian and wetland ecosystem on India’s west coast in the state of Karnataka (Figure 1). The Aghanashini River estuarine region represents a hyper-diverse, socially critical ecology . More than 14,000 households (approximately 64,000 people) live in villages and hamlets bordering the estuary; the administrative area encompassing the estuary (known as a Kumta Taluk) has a total rural population of more than 117,000 . Though the nearby semi-urban town of Kumta increasingly serves as an employment hub, a large portion of households living near the estuary remain at least partially dependent on estuarine ES for sustenance and livelihoods such as fishing, farming, resource gathering and related secondary employment. Local ecology also provides various other services, including erosion/flood control, water filtration, protection from adverse weather and adjustment of microclimate. Many of these ES are expressly acknowledged in our interviews and other ongoing research with community members .
The estuary is the outlet of the Aghanashini River and its many tributaries that cover a watershed stretching into the biodiverse Western Ghats. The river near Kumta town begins to braid among islands, mangrove patches, floodplains and wetlands before opening into a wide estuary with tidal mudflats. Eleven species of mangroves and more than 30 other mangrove associates extensively cover river and field edges ; their extent is actually increasing due in part to aggressive plantation efforts of government, civil society and some citizens. More than 100 species of birds are recorded in the estuary ; small-scale fishers in the river catch nearly 80 species of fish ; and a vibrant bivalve fishery supports substantial clam, oyster and mussel trade and local consumption .
The estuary also provides a nursery ground for marine species that end up in the nets of open-ocean trawl and purse seine boats that also dock within the estuary. The backwaters are also interconnected to submerged fields and ponds known as gajni land, used traditionally for a mix of fishing, aquaculture and cultivation of salt-tolerant rice. Local unemployment approaches 60% according to some calculations , though many people “work” in subsistence economies and household production outside official employment measurement. Present livelihoods provide standards of living better than much of rural and coastal India. Some fishers within the estuary report that they do not yet face scarcity, and abject poverty is mostly absent. The river also feeds the saline reservoirs of large cooperative and privately owned saltpan operations. Gokarna town, north of the estuary, is known for tourists, temples and beaches, though tourism within the estuary—boating or viewing wildlife around mangroves, for example—is scarce.
While any narrative of pristine nature can be questioned from an environmental history perspective , we describe the estuary as lightly touched. The Aghanashini is one of India’s few remaining undammed rivers and no heavy industry or large cities exist on its banks. Local livelihoods do interact with and change the river, but alterations of an industrial scale are not observed. The level of biodiversity within the estuary, coupled with high ES dependence, has motivated multiple civil society and scholarly proposals for institutional protection under different Indian legal frameworks. However, these proposals have garnered little administrative or political support.
This picture is hardly static. Cyclical ecological variation and long-term climate change will force ecosystem and residential shifts. Interviews also reveal an external political economy and poverty alleviation discourse that drive social, economic and ecological changes [42,57]. Public and private actors increasingly promote new neoliberal development forms and economic activities. For example, substantial tracts of gajni land were converted to permanent shrimp ponds in the 1990s only to be abandoned when the sector collapsed due to unsustainability; today, investors are now repurposing these submerged fields for other forms of high modern aquaculture. Dredging and “mining” the river bottom for shells and sand—used in construction—have also become contentious forms of river use.
The largest source of potential change or disruption in the estuary, however, is a controversial proposed industrial shipping port, zealously backed by the Karnataka state government’s industrial development promotion arm. The proposal calls for landfilling a large portion of estuarine shallows for dock construction, while other portions of the estuary would be dredged from a current depth of less than a meter to 16 or 18 m of depth to accommodate large coal and iron freighters. The project would clear or pollute dozens of hectares of natural mangroves, mangrove plantation, fishing grounds, bivalve mudflats and salt pans. Proponents admit a high likelihood of declines in water quality—including riparian flows that feed farm fields—and potential socio-economic disturbance throughout the region .
This “Interchange” discussion took place online in late September and early October 2013. As with past interchanges, we encouraged participants to engage in a free-flowing discussion focused on our moderator's questions, their own perspectives and conjectures, and each other's comments. What follows is an edited version of the very lively online conversation that resulted. We hope JAH readers find it to be an excellent guide to the debates swirling around the dynamic and rapidly emerging scholarship on capitalism and the history of the United States.
The JAH is indebted to all of the participants for sharing their thoughts on this subject.
Sven Beckert is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. He just published Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014). Readers may contact Beckert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angus Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. His book The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (2012) won the 2013 Merle Curti Award from the Organization of American Historians and the 2013 Joseph Spengler Prize from the History of Economics Society. Readers may contact Burgin at email@example.com.
Peter James Hudson is an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Readers may contact Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Louis Hyman is an assistant professor of history at the ilr School, Cornell University. He is the author of Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (2011) and Borrow: The American Way of Debt (2012).
Naomi Lamoreaux is the Stanley B. Resor Professor of Economics and History, and chair of the Department of History at Yale University. She is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is currently finishing a book with Ruth Bloch entitled “Private Sector/Private Sphere: Organizations and the Right to Privacy in American History.” Readers may contact Lamoreaux at email@example.com.
Scott Marler is an associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, where he teaches southern, American, and Atlantic history. He is a former editor at the Journal of Southern History, and his book The Merchants' Capital: New Orleans and the Political Economy of the Nineteenth-Century South was published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press. Readers may contact Marler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Mihm is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia. He is the author of A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States (2007). He is currently at work on a history of standards and standardization in the United States. Readers may contact Mihm at email@example.com.
Julia Ott is an associate professor in the history of capitalism at The New School, where she co-directs the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies. She is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for and Investors' Democracy (2012), which won the Vincent P. de Santis Prize from the Society for Historians of the Gilded and Progressive Era. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. Readers may contact Ott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip Scranton is the University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University, Camden.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer is an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (2013). She has published two edited volumes as well as several journal articles, historiographic essays, and book chapters. She is currently coediting University of Pennsylvania Press's Business, Politics, and Society series and writing a new monograph entitled “The Business of Education: The Corporate Transformation of America's Public Universities.” Readers may contact Shermer at email@example.com.
JAH: How does the growing interest in the history of capitalism appear to you from your various scholarly vantage points? Where do you see this field coming from, and how does it differ from or relate to fields such as business history, economic history, or the history of consumerism? How should we define the history of capitalism?
Stephen Mihm: This thing we call “the history of capitalism” is new. Its novelty, though, lies in the ways that it combines fields that began growing apart in the 1960s. For example, the great efflorescence of social history—especially labor history—was a kind of history of capitalism, but it told the story largely from the worker's perspective. Business history, by contrast, took the firm as the essential unit of analysis, and while labor might occasionally intrude, actual workers, never mind class struggles, were banished to the margins. Each subfield has described the capitalist elephant from a perspective that, while narrowly accurate, does not grasp the entirety. The history of capitalism attempts to see capitalism from multiple angles using multiple methodologies. That means writing works of history that deliberately erode disciplinary barriers. It means, for example, doing history “from the bottom up, all the way to the top”—and here I'm quoting Louis Hyman.1
Peter Hudson: I mostly agree with Stephen Mihm. Yet I also feel that he is describing what the history of capitalism should be doing. It seems to me that the field is torn by, on the one hand (and as Stephen suggests), a tendency toward cross-disciplinarity, multiple sites, the vertical integration of historical approaches, and, ideally, a similar, horizontal integration of perspectives and “voices.” On the other hand, the arrival of the history of capitalism appears to mark a triumphal defeat of postmodernism, difference, fracture, and the 1990s identity politics that allegedly rebuffed the possibility for a unified (read: white) labor (and, less so, business) history that has for too long been agitated by those other perspectives and voices. Perhaps that's a productive tension. But I'm surprised that neither the rich historiography of black women and slavery nor that of the prison-industrial complex is immediately evoked when discussing the history of capitalism.2
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer: Placing such work under a new history of capitalism is a new(ish) phenomenon. Here, I think of Andrew Wender Cohen's The Racketeer's Progress and Shane Hamilton's Trucking Country, which seemed on the cusp of arriving at the term capitalism not only to describe their efforts to interrogate the bottom, top, and middle but also to unite the questions and methodologies that have shaped policy, social, labor, legal, and business histories.3
I was fortunate enough to attend the second Harvard University History of Capitalism in the United States conference for graduate students in 2008, and I remember a sense of excitement of those interested in the intersections of numerous subfields, especially at a moment when I began publishing and looking for jobs and frequently encountered skepticism that I belonged to any particular field at all. To that end, I think it was the conferences on capitalism that rotated between the New School, Harvard, and the University of Manchester that built momentum behind the term.
But I am also intrigued by Peter Hudson's idea. I would agree that the new work on prisons does not seem to have situated itself in the history of capitalism, perhaps because the two fields were growing simultaneously and works on prisons were pioneered by folks trained in the history of civil rights and labor. But, based on what I have been reading, I think that slavery has dominated the history of capitalism. Much more needs to be done on the twentieth century; so far, this work does not seem to be grappling with the historical conclusions regarding the nineteenth century and how they challenge so much about what historians have presupposed about the Progressive Era, New Deal, Cold War defense-consumer economy, and the 1970s, which may not (based on this recent work done on early eras) represent the kind of monumental transition from factories to finance that many once assumed took place.
I wonder why there has been a surge in this scholarship. I have heard the joke that “Seattle went to grad school,” suggesting that the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in that city foretold a generation of scholars interested in political economy. Yet I have never met anyone who describes the late 1990s as influential in drawing them to the study of capitalism. My interest was sparked because, as an early 2000s undergraduate, I was dissatisfied (if not mystified) by the argument about postwar economic security, stability, and prosperity. Assertions of a postwar liberal consensus also did not make sense, especially regarding economic policy. I had no context to understand the idea that the New Deal had inaugurated supposedly long-standing power-sharing arrangements between business, labor, and the state. I came of age in an era marked by concession bargaining and Republican presidential hostility to labor (and none of my southern relatives had ever been in a union). Likewise, the histories of modern conservatism's origins seemed overly focused on the post-1968 period and uninterested in its economic agenda. Indeed, only recently have historians (notably Kim Phillips-Fein) explored this aspect of the Right, which always seemed to me to be of the utmost importance.4
Julia Ott: To me, “history of capitalism” is first and foremost a rallying cry and a meeting place where all sorts of provocative conversations take place. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer already suggested this, but it bears repeating because it strikes me that whatever falls inside or outside the history of capitalism is a matter of self-identification by the scholar. I do not know of any plot to derail the linguistic turn. In fact, I consider the history of capitalism to be deeply concerned with performativity, with the ways economic theories operate as ideology and shape the reality they purport to describe in a neutral fashion. And I'm perplexed by the suggestion that historians of capitalism have abandoned difference (read: gender and race).
When my graduate cohort was coming up, we perceived that business history, economic history, and the history of consumerism were engaged in inspiring interdisciplinary work. But that work had not yet translated into new intradisciplinary conversations. My cohort came of age in the 1990s and 2000s and experienced mounting inequality, skyrocketing asset prices, soaring debt levels, stagnating standards of living—even as both political parties assured us that capitalist markets would save us all. The topics many of us chose reflected our anxieties. The methods came from social, cultural, political, and intellectual history—whatever seemed most suited to the inquiry. So in that sense there was (and is) novelty regarding new combinations: that is, what is studied and how it is studied.
Folks rallying around “history of capitalism” retained the analytic emphasis on gender, ethnicity, and race. But this work brought class, policy, and (yes!) capital back to the fore. Can we, for example, historicize the valuation of a capital asset—whether a slave, a home, or a bond? Isn't that valuation process as open to social and cultural context as the meanings individuals and groups assign to consumer goods?
The “history of capitalism” identifies capitalism as “the thing,” whose existence needs to be explained. As historians, we embrace agency and contingency. Capitalism cannot be taken for granted as an organic expression of human nature. But we are also attuned to the significance of power relations for structuring economic life, for privileging certain forms of economic knowledge, and for shaping economic outcomes.
Although I believe that transnationalism has been an important commitment of those studying the history of capitalism, the scholars identifying with this emerging subfield trained primarily as Americanists. I would love to know more about how concerns in the history of capitalism subfield link up with other national literatures.
Scott Marler: I, too, am curious why capitalism has become an acceptable term after two-plus decades of loaded but unsatisfactory phrases such as the market revolution. (Ironically, though, Charles Sellers, the progenitor of the market revolution paradigm, was no stranger to the languages of class.) It was last permissible to talk about capitalism back in the heyday of the new social history in the 1970s and 1980s, especially as it was then practiced by labor historians, most of whom proudly wore their radical sympathies on their sleeves. But much of the recent resurgence, it seems to me, reflects the persistence of culturalist approaches from the 1990s, and the result has been a flurry of new works about capitalism that are resolutely apolitical and devoid of much critical content.5
Per Julia Ott's comments on business historians during the late 1990s and early 2000s, it's curious how perceptions can be so different. I was also a graduate student then, and I was disturbed by the excessively posh conditions at business and economic historians' meetings. Moreover, far from being exciting and interdisciplinary, too many of the works presented were either purposely unintelligible to mere mortals or seemed to make implicit concessions to the ideologies of their financial patrons. What remained off limits in such semi-“authorized” histories (and to a large extent, still is) was the third leg of historians' holy triad: class. To this day, it strikes me that even when class appears in capitalist histories, it is too often clothed in the modest, inoffensive garb of cultural studies. Of course, there are exceptions.
Finally, I disagree somewhat with Elizabeth about the dominance of nineteenth-century histories of capitalism. Apart from the ever-simmering slavery-as-capitalism issue, the majority of studies now center on the twentieth century. That represents a switch from the 1970s and 1980s.
Angus Burgin: How we should define the “history of capitalism” raises the question of why the term capitalism has become a focal point for this subfield. While the concept has performed useful work for historians who share a loose cluster of interests, it also carries potential hazards and limitations.
Our discussion has suggested a few reasons for the reemergence of the term. One is multivalence: the history of capitalism “combines fields that began growing apart” (Stephen), gestures toward “vertical” and “horizontal integration” (Peter), and allows us to “interrogate the bottom, top, and middle” (Elizabeth). Sven Beckert's historiographic essay situates this partly as an analytical orientation toward “embeddedness,” or the mutual imbrication of markets and the state. While I largely agree with these observations, I wonder why we don't instead rely on “political economy,” which invokes this dynamism more explicitly without confining its analysis to a specific mode of social organization.6
Sven's essay suggests that this specificity might be the point: the very existence of the term capitalism gestures toward the particularity of a social order and thereby helps us recognize the contingency of its social and ideological underpinnings. Many of the works in the subfield emphasize denaturalization; the current proliferation of interdisciplinary research into the invention of the concept of the “economy” provides a striking example (from scholars including Margaret Schabas, Timothy Mitchell, David Grewal, and Tim Shenk). Although Scott Marler is right that recent work along these lines has largely shed the radical undertones of earlier research into the history of capitalism, much of it is invested with a critical energy that resists any attempt to describe it as “modest” or “apolitical.”7
But historians of all varieties have long sought to denaturalize and demonstrate the contingency of their subjects; this is not unique to the history of capitalism. And at times the term can have the opposite effect, by implicitly positing the existence of an (often vaguely defined) ideal type within societies that remain rich with contrary practices and ideologies. Capitalism, after all, did not enter into common parlance until the closing decades of the nineteenth century. During the interwar years many scholars wondered if it signified a social order that had been superseded. As Howard Brick has powerfully revealed, in the middle decades of the twentieth century a wide range of social theorists argued that we were in the midst of an emerging “postcapitalist” society. Scholars have only recently developed an implicit consensus that “capitalism” connotes a coherent social order that has been predominant in the United States for generations and remains firmly entrenched today. This presumption has allowed historians to construct narratives that are sometimes, as Jeffrey Sklansky wrote, more inclined to represent “capitalism as constituting the entire terrain of social struggle instead of counterposing it to the roads not taken.”8
In that sense, the proliferation of studies that invoke capitalism reflects the idiosyncratic logic of our own moment. Historians find a ready audience of students and readers who feel subject to the caprices of an increasingly (or inexorably) capitalist world and seek to understand its origins and implications. Despite these contemporary resonances, we should remember that the very term our subfield has embraced for its multivalence can itself become totalizing.
Philip Scranton: At the outset I'm curious about what “boundary work” historians of capitalism are undertaking to frame a distinctive field and a bit concerned, at least after reading a dozen syllabi and several (but far too few) articles, about what seems a heavily American emphasis and a discreet silence about theory—economic, social, or cultural/anthropological—in the field.
In relation to the “varieties of capitalism” literature, how many capitalisms are there (likely more than the two—coordinated market economies and liberal market economies—initially posited by Peter A. Hall et al. in 2001) and what difference might it make were capitalism plural? Has global financialization reconfigured producer/consumer capitalism sufficiently that we have entered a new environment/configuration? Do religiously inflected political economies instance yet other forms?9
What is capitalism's relationship to the varieties of modernity, as evoked over recent decades by folks such as Ulrich Beck, focusing on risk and cosmopolitanism, or Zygmunt Bauman, arguing for a twentieth-century shift from solid (not static) modernity to liquid (don't sit still) modernity?10
The 2008 economic smash may have enhanced our concern about and our desire to understand capitalist dynamics—in real and fantasy/speculative economies, in the media, in the production of politics, etc.—but the deeper instabilities exhibited by this mode of social practice are revealed in the slaughter of the Cold War's great industrial corporations and their replacement by new giants. How might the emergent history of capitalism, whose current trajectory may date to the turn of the century, engage cycles of mass institutional wrecking? The current crush may date to the Volcker Recession of the 1980s, but earlier episodes are evident and not necessarily connected to economic depressions.11
How do historians of capitalism wish to deal with the array of great transformations that reach well beyond Karl Polanyi but that resonate with his insights? These changes include the technological and chemical transformation of agriculture, the radical restructuring of extraction (mining, forestry, fisheries), the mediatization of culture and communications, or expanded consumption as an unsustainable entropic vector. If the history of capitalism is to offer something fresh, perhaps framing questions in domains outside our usual neighborhoods might be plausible.12
Schermer: Angus Burgin makes many excellent points about how scholars should be careful about embracing terms; capitalism seems an odd mix—prochronistic, anachronistic, and ahistorical all at once. But still, there is something to using the idea of a history (or histories in considering Philip Scranton's point) of capitalism(s) to bring together scholars across time, field, and place. Capitalism, as scholars are deploying it now, seems more a gateway to an interchange of ideas and methodologies than a scholarly hindrance, as long as we are cautious and aware of caveats. And the history of capitalism, as it is being practiced, also seems to speak to Julia's and Philip's questions about transnational and world histories.
Naomi Lamoreaux: I worry that the “history of capitalism” takes for granted something that should be a question by assuming that economic behavior is fundamentally different in so-called capitalist societies. That assumption is a new, dressed-up version of modernization theory and is difficult to subject to critical scrutiny because no one is clear about what capitalism is. (I should say no one today; Karl Marx was clear.) It's easy to be dazzled by mbbs (mortgage backed securities), cdos (collateralized debt obligations), and cdos squared and think that we are in a new economic environment. But many problems that economic actors face today would have been familiar in their essentials to economic actors a thousand years ago. To give one quick example, the ways eBay confronts the problem of how to deal with fraudulent behavior in an environment where transactors may never deal with each other again is interesting to compare to the solutions devised by overseas traders in the medieval world.
My own preferred approach is to examine how human beings confront similar economic problems in different contexts. Sometimes modern solutions and behaviors are different, but sometimes they are remarkably similar. I'm as intrigued by the similarities as I am by the differences. But it's hard to fit the similarities into “capitalism studies,” unless the word capitalism is going to lose all meaning.
Marler: I would also echo Phil's concern that we avoid discussing capitalism in a relative vacuum, and his belief that we should try to draw on other disciplines, such as historical sociology and economic anthropology, from which capitalism never really disappeared from the radar as it did for most historians. I'd like to address how we see the resurgent history(ies) of capitalism affecting our fields, then use that to discuss a couple of threads developed by participants here.
My field is nineteenth-century southern economic history, which has been changing in two interrelated ways. First, practitioners in the field have shown a tendency toward seeing the antebellum South's economic structures and mentalities as converging with those of the North. What I call “convergence studies” maintain, often through the prism of the “market revolution” thesis, that the South and North were more alike than different prior to the Civil War; the postwar South is even more frequently described as “bourgeois” and “capitalist” almost immediately after emancipation. I am skeptical of these descriptions, which draw to a degree on the second recent trend: regarding southern slavery as of a piece with American and global capitalism. I disagree with this characterization both at the ground level (slave owners displayed a variety of precapitalist and anticapitalist proclivities) and theoretically (if capitalism's essence is free/wage labor, then a slave regime is not capitalist by definition).
To pick up on a couple of threads: first, I strongly endorse Phil's suggestion that we should consider what Peter Hall terms the “varieties of capitalism.” Capitalist development was uneven and protracted, so naturally it yielded a wide range of types. My work focuses on the peculiarities of merchant capitalism, but certainly others exist: among them, consumer, financial, agrarian, corporate, industrial, and proprietary. It's worth noting that some of these were at odds with one another—what Charles Sellers called “rival capitalisms,” or what Marx termed “the division of labor between capitals.”13
The second thread concerns capitalism's transnational dimensions. One might think that the Atlantic world paradigm has contributed to the resurgence of the history of capitalism, but I don't think it has, at least not much. Atlantic world studies that focus on commodities networks and merchants, some of them highly insightful, have been far outnumbered by those predicated on cultural, demographic, or other issues.14
While we probably need to discuss transnational dimensions further, for now, let me say this: it is not invariably true that capitalism can only be studied profitably within a global framework. Indeed, from the perspective of now-neglected but still relevant historians of capitalism in early modern Europe, such as Maurice Dobb or Robert Brenner, the prime movers behind the transition(s) to capitalism were “internal” determinants rather than exogenous ones. In terms of U.S. history, think of the excellent “internalist” studies of early agrarian capitalism by historians such as James Henretta and Allan Kulikoff.15
Hudson: I came to the history of capitalism via a different route, with a different set of normative concerns and a different group of foundational texts. The impact of British cultural studies on American studies is well known, but it also resonated with historians of the United States, especially through Stuart Hall's attempts to demonstrate the interrelations between racial formation and class formation and class identity. Nell Irvin Painter's Standing at Armageddon (1989) also opened up the field to my cohort. It attempted the kind of audacious, synthetic analysis that was daunting precisely because, through its combination of political economy and social history, it succeeded at an analytical task that we were told was pointless to attempt. It's a book that is inexplicably neglected. Robin D. G. Kelley's essay “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’” (1999) offered a portal to writers, historians, and activists who were debating the history of capitalism—alongside that of globalization, imperialism, and colonialism—over the sweep of almost one hundred years. My cohort, because of a dissatisfaction with the work then coming out, reclaimed and reassessed older texts. Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, with its ambitious attempts to tie the origins of global capitalism with the beginnings of global white supremacy—and his development of a historical analysis of “racial capitalism”—also proved an important touchstone. First published in the United Kingdom in 1983 by Zed Books and reissued in the United States by the University of North Carolina Press in 1999, Black Marxism is also a silent interlocutor of Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, with his notion of “slave racial capitalism.” Another was Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972). And of course, before them came Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944), C. L. R. James's, The Black Jacobins (1938), and W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (1935) and The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (1896).16
At the same time—for those of us working on the twentieth century—geography provided the most compelling analysis of capitalism, most notably in the work of David Harvey and Neil Smith, particularly their representation of capitalism as dynamic, contradictory, and uneven. Harvey was useful in thinking through transitions and transformations that Phil alludes to, especially in the emergence of “post-Fordist” regimes of production and accumulation and, of course, they attended to the spatial character of such transitions.17
There is nothing wrong with dissatisfaction with the terms and limits of our analysis and approaches. My graduate seminar read Sylvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch (2004) last week. While most of the students complained that she wasn't a good historian, they were all rocked by her attempts to prioritize gender in the history of the transition to capitalism and in an account of primitive accumulation.18
Mihm: I would like to add my own two cents—or more, adjusted for inflation—on why the “history of capitalism” has taken precedence over different ways of describing this emerging field. I'm reading between the lines, but Naomi Lamoreaux would seem to prefer the broader rubric of economic history; Angus, by contrast, has a fondness for political economy. Both of these terms are more expansive than the “history of capitalism,” which is limited to the modern era and focuses too exclusively on capitalist nations.
Perhaps these other terms will supplant the history of capitalism; I doubt it, though I have mixed feelings. For scholars trained in cultural history, the phrase economic history implies a faith in quantification and “data” that strikes them as naïve. Political economy may be viewed by social historians as either too obsessed with high-level policy making and politics, or insufficiently attentive to questions of agency, much less historical actors other than white men.
The history of capitalism, by contrast, is at once both specific (capitalism!) and yet maddeningly vague about its methods, its focus, and even its politics. But this, perversely, is its strength. It is a blank screen onto which people from a wide range of fields project their interests and ambitions. Consequently, departments may find it easier to build a consensus around hiring a historian of capitalism as opposed to a business historian or an economic historian.
While I understand the skepticism toward the “history of capitalism,” this conceit has served a constructive purpose in moving economic history, business history, and policy history back toward the center. What happens when these fields collide with a generation of scholars trained in social and cultural history will be interesting to watch.
Marler: Stephen is on target when he describes the greater willingness of today's history departments to hire someone to teach the history of capitalism. The American Historical Association recently published data that showed that only 2.3 percent of listed faculty in U.S. history departments in 2005 were self-described economic historians, which represented a drop of over 50 percent since 1975. This continued balkanization of economic historians, which began in the 1970s, is unfortunate. The vast majority of today's economic historians work in business schools or economics departments; a simple glance through the author bios in back issues of the flagship Journal of Economic History is a simple way to confirm this fact. If one considers this to be a problem (although only a handful of economists seem to think so), then “bridges” ought to be (re)built. This well-known disciplinary division originated in the clashes between “cliometricians” and mainstream historians during the 1960s and 1970s, especially as they culminated in the heated controversies over Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974). By the mid-1980s, a few level-headed (if rather condescending) economists sought to begin repairing the breach. For example, Economics and the Historian (1996), by Thomas Rawski et al., which was based on a series of workshops and conferences held in the years 1987–1988, has as its first line: “We aim to broaden and deepen the exchange of ideas between economists and historians.” Sadly, they failed, and things since have only gotten worse. Now, even within economics departments, economic history has become passé. A good example of this is a recent memoir by the distinguished mit economic historian Peter Temin, who describes how, over a period of decades, the denigration of economic history reached a point that “the mit economics department abandoned the graduate requirement of a course in economic history late in the first decade of the twenty-first century.” But there are also institutional factors that inhibit such cross-fertilization. When I once approached a junior-level economic historian about submitting her work to the Journal of Southern History, she told me that the tenure/promotion process within economics departments gives practically no weight to work that appears in our “fuzzy-minded” journals. Ouch.19
Louis Hyman: I came to the history of capitalism as a proto–labor historian around 2000, asking questions about hegemony. I quickly found that I needed to answer larger questions about the operations of capital. Perhaps it was the lingering effects of reading too much volumes 2 and 3 of Karl Marx's Das Capital in college, but what struck me was that labor history seemed dominated by questions of production rather than the circulation of capital.20
Like Peter, a lot of my formative thinking came out of the “transition to capitalism” literature, both in Europe and especially in the work of Eric Williams. For me, Eugene Genovese's whole “in but not of” formulation in Roll, Jordan, Roll as a way to describe how the plantation was “in but not of” capitalism got hung up on social scientific definitions and confused the issue. The problem with capitalism is not defining it, but figuring out why it resists easy definitions. If capitalism is about free labor, then slavery is not a part of it. If it is about investment, then slavery is foundational, since that is where safe money was invested for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tracing the movement of capital, for me, is what makes this history different.21
Sven Beckert: Let me summarize what I see as the crucial points. First, historians have written about capitalism for more than a century, and some of the most important debates in the writing of history have focused on capitalism. These debates have had, all in all, less of an impact on the writing of the history of North America than on the writings on European history, but they have been important.
Second, rich debates have focused on the history of business, labor history, economic history, and social history. Developments in those fields followed slightly different rhythms, but by the 1990s they shared the sense that their vibrant scholarship had moved away from the center of American history. They also increasingly engaged in self-criticism, partly focused on their sense of marginality (business history), or a sense of the lack of exciting new perspectives (labor history), or a sense that the many parts did not result in a greater whole (social history).
Third, within those fields a sense pervaded that one's research needed to be connected to neighboring fields and speak to large, more synthetic questions. Labor historians discovered that they needed to understand more about the history of business; social historians became more interested in questions of economic change; business historians discovered, for example, the importance of women's history; and economic historians began to think much more comprehensively about the history of slavery. These questions propelled the search for a way to frame research—and it was at this moment that the history of American capitalism began to take off. The big question of American capitalism allowed historians who came from different vantage points, with different qualifications and questions, to relate their interests to something much larger. Framing our thinking on American history in terms of capitalism made it clearer, for example, that neither workers, nor industrialists, nor slaves, nor farmers, nor financiers could be understood separately from one another.
I have observed much of that excitement: when I first taught a course on the history of American capitalism at Harvard in 1996, there was huge interest among undergraduates, but few graduate students ventured into the seminars. But this changed quickly. As we brought together business, labor, social, and economic historians, among others, enormously interesting discussions emerged. Students learned from one another and began to broaden the questions they were asking and increasingly also drawing on multiple subfields—heavily quantitative analysis, for example, suddenly appeared next to the careful reading of language. Most impressive was a series of graduate student conferences that we ran starting in 2005. For many, this was their first time encountering other students so interested—and they took with them from these encounters not just new professional networks but also new questions.
Fourth, the history of American capitalism also arose in response to the wish of undergraduate students to understand a history that they perceived to be of great importance. Once faculty members began offering lecture courses in the field, they quickly attracted large enrollments. As many history departments struggled with attracting undergraduate students, hiring historians of American capitalism seemed to be a way to bolster student numbers.
Fifth, and related to the previous points, since the crisis of 2008, the amount of public debate on capitalism has skyrocketed. Historians could not help but notice that the issues being debated in public had a long history themselves, and that this history was often ill-understood by the general public. These historians hoped to speak to these issues.
Sixth, I cannot help but think that the end of the Cold War has opened new spaces of public debate. Debating capitalism was certainly deeply intertwined with the Cold War's ideological struggles. With that conflict now a distant memory for most students, they can approach the history of capitalism with fresh eyes—and, indeed, the research they are producing is providing new vistas onto the American past.
I would also like to offer one quick response to Peter's assertion that the history of capitalism has ignored the question of slavery. This is demonstrably false; just the opposite—slavery has been a core issue of the new history of American capitalism. One of its most important contributions has been to find ways to make the history of slavery more central to the history of American capitalism.
Hudson: To clarify, I wrote that when one thinks of the history of capitalism as an insurgent field one does not immediately think of the work on black women and slavery—and I was thinking of the work of scholars such as Angela Davis, Deborah Gray White, Jacqueline Jones, and Jennifer Morgan. Certainly, this work could fall under the history of capitalism banner, but I don't see them giving keynotes at the conferences.22
Mihm: Another way to understand the “history of capitalism” is to see it as part of a renaissance of fields that were marginalized vis-à-vis social and cultural history. The growing interest in political history, for example, shares many things in common with the history of capitalism. So, too, does the recent growth in scholarship in policy history, diplomatic history, and even military history. It is not that these fields didn't exist for the past forty years. Yes, business historians, political historians, and policy historians had conferences and journals. But these spaces tended to be refuges from a profession that was indifferent or even hostile to their interests.
I see a few commonalities between young historians who are studying topics that have been in historiographical exile for decades. The first is a tendency to move beyond the obsession with historical agency that was a hallmark of social and cultural history. This trend first surfaced in essays by Nell Painter and Walter Johnson, who moved beyond the traditional focus on agency to acknowledge the psychological lives of the enslaved.23
A second point of commonality is renewed interest in the structure and operation of institutions. These can be corporations and trade associations or branches of government, regulatory bodies, and any number of institutions that play powerful but often-invisible roles. Historians of capitalism are interested in how organizations work as well as how they often fail.
Third, this new generation of historians wants to know how things work. That goes hand in hand with a willingness among some to learn things such as economics, corporate accounting, or the inner workings of the federal regulatory process. Many historians of capitalism want to pop the hood and look inside.
Marler: I want to respond to Sven's observation about slavery. Quite a few of us out here are still unconvinced by assertions of southern slavery's capitalist character and affinities. Few would deny that U.S. plantation slavery helped fuel the industrial transformations of the nineteenth century. The problem arises when historians assert that the slave South was “a flexible, highly developed form of capitalism” (as Robert Fogel does). The evidence for such characterizations is thin and usually hinges on questionable interpretations. For example, some will emphasize the careful attention given to profit among that minority of big planter–slave owners, despite the facts that the majority of slaves were held on small units, using roughly five or fewer slaves, and that three-fourths of white households held no slaves on the eve of the Civil War. This is why definitions of capitalism matter. The relationship between master and slave was, at bottom, a nonmarket relationship, redolent of precapitalist relations between lords and serfs—not an economic one, as with the qualitative changes apparent in fast-growing wage-labor societies elsewhere.24
The aggregate data make it clear that the slave South did not industrialize, nor did its elites invest in the infrastructural improvements that might have helped it maintain a regional competitive advantage. Furthermore, the antebellum South not only failed to foster a significant middle class but its lower classes were unable to sustain demand-driven economies for manufactured consumer goods, as well as the multiplier effects that might have accompanied mass production regionally. And wealthy planters and urban merchants failed to demonstrate the class cohesion evident among nascent bourgeois classes elsewhere. Yes, they profitably participated in atomized, inefficient, long-distance markets, but those exchange relations proved insufficient to create much more than defensive, even aggressive, attitudes regarding the propriety of their “peculiar institution.” Market participation does not necessarily equate with quintessentially capitalist behaviors.
Beckert: The debate on slavery and the antebellum South is quite helpful on multiple levels. I agree with Scott that the South was different and that the political economy of slavery is different from that of industrial capitalism. For a start, the world's industrialization in the nineteenth century focused on economies not dominated by slave labor. However, as Scott also noticed, slave economies were exceedingly important to the economic transformations that the advent and spread of industrial capitalism brought about. The one cannot be thought of as separate from the other. Thinking about capitalism broadly makes this relationship a core analytical problem and allows us to see the transformation of the global countryside as important to the rise of industrial capitalism. Therefore, the history of capitalism does not privilege a small number of core countries; indeed, such privileging would make it impossible to explain the economic changes and inequalities of the past three centuries. One reason why the concept of the history of capitalism is so powerful is that it allows for an expansive way of thinking about the problem of economic change, both in spatial terms as well as in terms of the kind of issues that are important. It intersects well with an often-advocated-for global perspective on the American past.
JAH: What do you see as the promise of the history of capitalism for your specific subfield(s)? Does it offer the same potential to a historian of the antebellum South as it does to a historian of the New Deal? What will it or can it do vis-à-vis specific bodies of scholarship? In part, these questions get at the issue of the history of capitalism's definitional elasticity raised by several of your comments. What are the practices, institutions, or values that need to be present before we can situate a place and time within the history of capitalism?
Hyman: Tracing the movement of capital within capitalism makes this historiography distinct. Putting capital at the center of the story stitches together divergent subhistories. Money moves. But it is not the same as financial history, which is concerned with financial markets and institutions. In the history of capitalism field, those markets and institutions are stepping stones to larger questions about everyday lives.
Simply defining capitalism is a bad idea. It is too deductive. We should instead trace its transformations, taking a few sets of qualities (labor, investment) and seeing how they vary over time in importance. Inductive reasoning is the foundation of our discipline.
In terms of the utility of the term, time matters a great deal. When I teach my labor history class, I begin by discussing how capitalism is a radical shift in human experience. For most of human history, excess resources were given away to promote social power. Only in the last few hundred years have people been taking those resources and investing them to produce more resources. The profound oddity of European capitalism was driven home to me when I was doing a graduate field in precolonial African history. As we read about precolonial Africa's encounter with European slave traders (especially in the work of David Northrup and Joseph Calder Miller) it was clear that even if the trade was balanced, the surplus of that trade was used in different ways. Africans used the extra resources to reinforce social power, and Europeans used the resources to expand production. Capitalism is the oddity that needs to be explained, because for most of time, we just gave away our surplus to be popular.25
Williams has been shown to be wrong about primitive accumulation being the source of European industrialization, but he has been shown to be right that slave investment and plantation demand were essential to the British transition. Slavery, as investment and consumption, is at the center of capitalism's origin story. Capitalism made investment possible for the first time. And this investment was in African slaves and then in European machines (and out of both come modern management). Tracing the temporal changes in how investment operates over time is essential to making sense of what is new about capitalism and what is not.26
Lamoreaux: I do not want to reopen the discussion of whether plantation owners were capitalist. It's now generally agreed that slave owners aimed to profit from the labor they commanded, though they varied in the extent to which they pursued profits versus other goals and also in their competence. Caitlin Rosenthal has recently shown that as a group southern planters more assiduously adopted state-of-the-art bookkeeping methods than did contemporary northern manufacturers.27 The interesting questions are exactly the ones that Louis posed. How did plantation owners' pursuit of profit affect others (the enslaved, free blacks, poor whites, artisans, manufacturers, etc.), southern society and its economy, the rest of the nation, and the world? Where we might disagree is how to get good answers to those questions. I do not think it is sufficient to “follow the money”; nor do I think it is sufficient to examine what people were saying at the time, though those are both important. Quantification is also necessary, and economic theory provides tools that can usefully structure quantitative (and even qualitative) inquiry.
Using economic theory (even simple neoclassical theory) does not mean that one has to buy into the so-called neoclassical view that people are rational profit maximizers whose activities lead to optimal outcomes. It is true that Fogel and Engerman offered an essentially neoclassical view of slavery, arguing that slaveholders' rational pursuit of profit led them to treat the humans they held in bondage well (compared to northern employers' treatment of their work forces). But research has moved well beyond that position. Rick Steckel, for example, has been compiling data on heights that suggest that slave children were severely malnourished, and the differential mortality data that we have is consistent with that conclusion. Indeed, it seems that the high mortality of enslaved children explains why the break-even age (that is, the age at which the cumulative earnings the master obtained from an enslaved person first exceeded the cumulative cost of maintaining that slave) was so late. One avenue for follow-up would be to explore what happened after emancipation. Once parents could control what their children were fed, infant and child mortality of blacks in the South relative to whites should have fallen, and that seems to have been the case. Another line of inquiry would be to investigate the malnourishment of children under slavery. Why didn't plantation owners take better care of their property? Steckel poses some possible explanations. One is that feeding enslaved children was not, in fact, cost-effective. Another is that enslaved parents faced terrible allocation choices—if they were not able to keep up their own strength and work productively they faced severe punishments. Steckel has been pursuing the first possibility using quantitative tests, but his work also suggests other ways to explore the issue. Some plantations allocated rations to households, and others had communal kitchens. Did children fare differently depending on how provisioning was organized? It seems unlikely that this question could be looked at quantitatively, but it could be explored systematically using textual sources and paying close attention, for example, to childhood recollections of hunger. The larger point is that we can get somewhere very interesting by using theory (even this kind of basic neoclassical theory) to structure systematic inquiry.28
Now my response to Louis. In his post he writes, “When I teach my labor history class, I begin by discussing how capitalism is a radical shift in human experience. For most of human history, excess resources were given away to promote social power. Only in the last few hundred years have people been taking those resources and investing them to produce more resources.” I don't think this statement is true, but my opinion is not worth any more than Louis's. But I do think this is a good example of the kind of assumption that underpins capitalism studies that needs to be examined. I could falsify Louis's statement by just giving an example from an earlier time (such as Roman history), but that would be too easy and not really add much to our understanding. Doing better is difficult, but one interesting attempt was a MacArthur Foundation–sponsored effort to run simple economic games in societies around the world. The main game was the “ultimatum game.” There are two players (unknown to each other). One is given some amount of money and told that s/he can share it with the other in whatever proportion s/he chooses. The kicker is that the other party can accept or reject the offer. If the offer is accepted, the parties walk away with their respective shares of the money. If the offer is rejected, no one gets anything. Basic neoclassical theory predicts that the first party would offer very little and the second party would accept the little bit offered because something is better than nothing. But when the game was played by students in university labs, the modal offers tended to be 60-40, and less generous offers tended to be rejected. Then Joseph Henrich, at that time a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to run the experiment on a hunter-gatherer population he was studying in the Peruvian Amazon. To everyone's surprise, members of that society conformed to the neoclassical prediction, with the first party offering very little and the second party accepting it. Those results stimulated the MacArthur Foundation study, which basically confirmed the two sets of results. In more market-oriented societies (and also in societies whose main economic activities required organized cooperation), people offered 60-40 or even closer splits. The larger point is that trade requires some element of sharing the surplus. We see that kind of sharing all the time in “capitalist” societies, and it is not at all incompatible with accumulation and reinvestment. Indeed, one could argue just the opposite.29
Shermer: Louis's focus speaks to an alarming trend in the scholarship lumped under the history of capitalism of late. Such a focus on the world of finance actually undermines, as Louis put it, “larger questions about everyday lives,” because not all of those questions are best answered through the world of finance. There were, in fact, a manufacturing economy (and the United States does still build things), transportation sector, retailing component, service sector, knowledge economy, etc., which were (and are) important to understanding everyday life in America (even before its independence).30
As much as Naomi is right to point out how helpful the rigor of economic theory and quantitative inquiry is, there is still much to be said for writing these histories in a way accessible to historians and lay audiences, the latter of which are primed for this kind of work because of the great recession that began in 2007 and still lingers. I think here of the popularity of Richard White's Railroaded (2012).31
The emphasis on quantitative work seems to leave out other rich fields that have been touched by this interest in capitalism. Intellectual history comes to mind, not only Jonathan Levy's and Angus's work but also Jeffrey Sklansky's The Soul's Economy and his new work on “the money question.” And regarding social history—I would hate to lose the sort of work Michael Zakim has done on men's dress. I am eager for someone to question how changes in political economy transform the body; it is now the super-rich that have the physique of the hypermasculine worker seen throughout 1930s labor agitprop. The power of words and ideas must be taken seriously. For example, Andrew Wender Cohen's and David Witwer's work on the idea of racketeering offers an important method to understand how one's “boss” became a union representative, not a manager or chief executive officer.32
I appreciated that we followed up with a query juxtaposing the antebellum South with the New Deal. That speaks to the kind of conversation that many of these new histories across time and place are demanding. Historians must begin reconciling the rich history done on risk, insurance, financial underwriting, and bailouts, for example, in the nineteenth century and what occurred across the twentieth century. Right now, a lot of the new histories of nineteenth-century finance end with an epilogue about the 1970s, but that approach skips over a vital period that privileged and protected specific kinds of capital accumulation, organization, and labor regimes/managerial practices. It brings up questions about what the New Dealers faced and what they actually wanted to accomplish.33
Attention to political economy has a lot to offer many subfields in and outside American history. They can be especially helpful in questioning what has been assumed of the postwar economy and examining how hidden the worlds of finance, business hostility to the New Deal order, and capital flight were.
The resistance within subfields to embrace new inquiries is troublesome. But I also want to emphasize that subfields are clearly changing because folks who more closely identify with a specific subfield are asking new questions and reconsidering base assumptions. That certainly made the difference in Scott Nelson's A Nation of Deadbeats and Bryant Simon's Starbucks book, which turned Alfred Chandler's firm inside out. And there's more work on the way that builds on important studies in labor history, which reasserts the importance of old issues to new questions. This trend is particularly welcome since much has seemingly been quickly forgotten in the rush to malign the scholarship of the New Left generation. I am particularly excited by Ron Schatz's new project on labor intellectuals, which takes seriously the power and struggles that federal appointees had trying to manage compromises between labor and management to fight World War II.34
I am hopeful that the questions and ideas that labor historians raise will continue to inflect histories of capitalism. How different late 1970s tax revolts look when one goes back and rereads the Edsalls and rediscovers that Bank of America was one of the biggest backers of efforts to stop Howard Jarvis's anti–property tax initiative in California. Indeed, the best work that takes seriously late twentieth-century taxation and working people's response is Kevin Kruse's White Flight. His story of the rise of Lester Maddox helps align recent work on the white suburban South (and its attendant populism) with histories of political economy.35
The books mentioned above underscore how powerful the questions asked by historians of capitalism are for the field of politics and policy, and not just for the recent renaissance of the history of American conservatism. Robert Johnston's and Charles Postel's works push historians to think about how changes in urban and rural political economies were important to the shaping of petit capitalist and Populist responses to industrial capitalism. I hope that historians begin to reconsider the history of the middle and Left as much as the Right in their responses and considerations of the development of American and global capitalism.36
I cannot think of any greater proof to take region seriously (despite what recent scholarship on the postwar suburban South contends) than the importance of regional differences in political economy. White's Railroaded boldly shows that the West was as much the kindergarten for the American federal government as it was for financiers and investors. White's assertion that the twentieth century would be marked by a flow from west to east (not east to west) is important, though the twentieth-century South was also important to the shaping of policy and large shifts in the American political system and economy (particularly after World War II). The South and West were home to the trend-setting cities, which would be the kind of sprawling sub/urban metropolises whose development differs greatly but was also intimately connected to the trajectory of northeastern and midwestern cities.37
All that is to say that the history of capitalism may be doing as much to create a distinct set of books, graduate programs, and seminars that draw on rich traditions in other subfields as it is opening up new questions in those same subfields.
Burgin: In answering the previous question, Stephen wrote that “the history of capitalism attempts to see capitalism from multiple angles using multiple methodologies.” This suggests the difficulties involved in sorting through the implications of the “history of capitalism” for other, more established subfields. Rather than establishing a discrete methodological program of their own, historians of capitalism tend to be omnivorous, relying on the insights of other historiographies to develop an approach that is ostensibly more multiperspectival, more attentive to systematic connections, or more capable of illuminating dynamic changes over extended periods.