Capitalism Gets Its Turn in Academic Spotlight

By Schuessler, Jennifer | International Herald Tribune, April 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Capitalism Gets Its Turn in Academic Spotlight


Schuessler, Jennifer, International Herald Tribune


After decades focused on women, minorities and other marginalized people, scholars are increasingly looking at those who were at risk of being the most marginalized: bosses, bankers and brokers.

CORRECTION APPENDED

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 in New York 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 U.S. 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 in New Jersey and the author of "Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America," "you've got to understand capitalists."

That does not 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 University in New York State 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.

"Earlier, a lot of these topics would've been greeted with a yawn," said Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of "A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States." "But then the crisis hit, and people started asking, 'Oh my God, what has Wall Street been doing for the last 100 years?"'

In 1996, when the Harvard University historian Sven Beckert proposed an undergraduate seminar called "The History of American Capitalism" -- the first of its kind, he believes -- colleagues were skeptical. "They thought no one would be interested," he said.

But the seminar drew nearly 100 applicants for 15 spots and grew into one of the biggest lecture courses at Harvard, which in 2008 created a full-fledged Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism. That initiative led to similar ones on other campuses, as courses and programs at Princeton, Georgia, Brown University in Rhode Island, the New School in New York, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere also began drawing crowds -- sometimes with the help of canny brand management. …

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