When Dr. William Levingston came to town, he arrived wearing a silk hat and peddling a cure for one of his age’s most terrifying ailments: uncontrollable growth. At $25, the cost was steep for the farmers and tradesmen of the rural countryside where Levingston did most of his huckstering. But for those in need, he made a promise that was irresistible. As one of his advertisements declared: “Celebrated Cancer Specialist. Here for One Day Only. All cases of cancer cured unless too far gone and then can be greatly benefited.”
Levingston was a confidence man of the sort that mid-nineteenth-century America bred in abundance. A self-styled “botanic physician,” he practiced without a license or any formal medical training, and by concealing his true name. William—or “Big Bill,” as he was known when he wasn’t trying to dupe gullible strangers—had nicked “Levingston” from his father’s hometown, where he grew up with the much more familiar surname of Rockefeller.
William Rockefeller’s antebellum capers gained national attention decades later, thanks to the fame of his eldest son. John D. Rockefeller’s entrepreneurial zeal resembled his father’s, but he owed his fortune to more banal talents. Like his fellow future magnate Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller started his business career not as a tycoon in embryo, but as an accounting clerk. A mastery of finance’s intricacies was an invaluable asset for both men while they headed enterprises that yoked the pursuit of profit to the historically unprecedented productivity increases that made industrializing America into the planet’s largest economy.
Rockefeller’s success was undeniable: by the 1880s, his company, Standard Oil, had become a global behemoth, and he was well on his way to becoming the richest person in the world. Yet Rockefeller did not portray himself as an icon of cutthroat capitalism, or as the agent of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. For Rockefeller, competition was an obstacle to be overcome, a temporary phase of wasteful turmoil that industries cycled through on their way to a more rational order guided by a handful of monopolies. “Individualism has gone, never to return,” he maintained. “The day of combination is here to stay.”
The Supreme Court undermined Rockefeller’s confident prediction with a 1911 decision that broke apart Standard Oil, fracturing the corporation into more than thirty discrete firms. But Standard Oil, like its founder, cast a long shadow. Eight decades after the Court’s ruling, the company that had begun life as Standard Oil of New Jersey was known as Exxon. In 1994, still reeling from the Exxon-Valdez disaster, the firm requested a $5 billion credit line from J.P. Morgan, then a few years away from a merger with Chase Manhattan. The latter bank had once been led by David Rockefeller, a former student of Friedrich Hayek and the grandchild whom Rockefeller senior thought shared the most in common with himself. Scrambling to meet their client’s demand, Wall Street’s brightest invented a new way to minimize the loan’s cost. They would sell to a third party the risk that Exxon might default, creating a kind of insurance for the transaction. Thus was born a financial instrument that would transform banking yet remain obscure for more than a decade, until the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression made it into a household word: the credit-default swap. Dr. Levingston would have approved.
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Economic crises concentrate the mind wonderfully. Although the 2008 crash and its aftermath have yet to spark an intellectual reformation among economists, it is not for lack of hand-wringing. As the Great Recession unfolded, soul-searching among economists over their discipline’s failures dominated magazine covers (Paul Krugman in The New York Times Magazine asked “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”); a litany of conferences (then–Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke used one to ruminate on the “Implications of the Financial Crisis for Economics”); and countless blog posts (not worth citing). Less noticed, however, was a parallel reckoning taking place in another branch of the academy.
Historians, as a rule, love to complain about economists. There are exceptions, but in a field where self-described economic historians make up less than 3 percent of the total population, they are a decided minority. Yet in 2008, most historians were just as baffled by the financial crisis as economists. In the rush to find the prehistory of a bewildering present, stories of the Rockefellers and their ilk were retold as parables of capitalism overflowing with lessons for the current day: the importance of elites, especially elites with access to massive amounts of capital; the indispensability of finance to more dramatic revolutions in production; the resilience of an economic order that appeared messier than economists allowed, but proved harder to resist than earlier historians had admitted. In a time of recession, nothing stood out more than the stubborn persistence of economic growth—the force that had transformed the son of a small-time charlatan into the commander of powers beyond the imagination of kings a century before. Growth was occasionally checked, but it always revived, and it remade the world along the way.
With memories of the crisis still fresh, a group of academics calling themselves historians of capitalism started to attract increasing attention. Capitalism might seem like a strange topic to require discovery, yet until recently, scholars concerned with the subject tended to style themselves practitioners of economic history, or social history, or labor history, or business history, not the history of capitalism as such. But that is the genius of the label: it names a topic, not a methodology, opening the field to anyone who believes capitalism worth studying.
Mostly young, and mostly specializing in the history of the United States, historians of capitalism are one part of a broader revival in political economy. Yet the success enjoyed by this segment of a larger groundswell remains noteworthy—and surprising. Despite the seeming predictability of the subject’s popularity at a time when economic issues have moved to the forefront of public debate, turning capitalism into the central category of historical analysis requires intellectual sacrifices, pushing some topics into the spotlight and relegating others to the shadows. This has not escaped the capitalism cohort’s peers, many of whom fear that the trend would undo advances made by a generation of cultural historians, while leading to even more scholarship of and by white men. Historians of capitalism vigorously protest those charges, but murmurs of discontent have already begun, and they will grow louder if the field continues to thrive.
Although major intellectual contributions and timely subject matter have boosted capitalism’s newest historians in their ascent, those qualities alone cannot account for their success. They have supplied, as their colleagues in business school would say, a case study in how to shift an intellectual debate. Unlike most case studies, however, tracing the origins of the turn toward capitalism brings into relief a history with profound implications for how we understand the past and the present—and how we envision the future.
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Historians of capitalism hail from departments across the country, but the field’s most prominent enthusiast occupies an ideal perch for academic proselytizing. In 1996, a young German-born historian of the United States named Sven Beckert was hired by Harvard University’s history department. The title of Beckert’s dissertation alone was significant: called “The Making of New York City’s Bourgeoisie, 1850–1886,” it nodded to the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s classic text The Making of the English Working Class (1963), and it highlighted a concept—“bourgeoisie”—shunned by scholars wary of associating themselves with a Marxist vocabulary. Beckert’s methodology was more indebted to the great figures of modern sociology than to Capital, but at the time Marxism of any kind was unfashionable among historians. It remained so five years later when the book quarried from Beckert’s dissertation was published as The Monied Metropolis.
Though the book garnered little attention outside the ranks of specialists upon its release, it has since become a touchstone for historians of capitalism. A study of nineteenth-century America’s version of the 1 percent appeared prophetic in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, but equally important has been Beckert’s own trajectory following his arrival at Harvard. He has proved himself a vigorous academic entrepreneur with a gift for institution-building, not unlike the subjects of his research. In 2005, the now-tenured Beckert launched a graduate seminar with Christine Desan, a colleague from Harvard Law School, on “The Political Economy of Modern Capitalism.” Consisting at first of just a handful of graduate students, the seminar has since expanded considerably, becoming an incubator for a rising cohort of historians and a frequent destination for scholars outside Harvard looking to test-drive new research. Thanks to Beckert, Harvard also became the home of conferences that helped build an intellectual community devoted to the study of capitalism.
That community, which includes a substantial number of Beckert’s former students, is now flourishing. Courses on the history of capitalism have become common, and so are job searches in the field. The latest issue of The Journal of American History devoted more than thirty pages to a symposium on the topic. A canon of scholarship, much of it based on the first books of their respective authors, has begun to form. To hasten that process, three of the field’s brightest stars—Bethany Moreton of the University of Georgia, Julia Ott of the New School, and Louis Hyman of Cornell University’s School of Labor Relations, all of whom earned their doctorates in the last decade—have inaugurated a series for Columbia University Press called “Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism.” It being 2014, historians of capitalism also have a monthly podcast (five episodes in, as of this writing) and an online course co-taught by Hyman, who has also organized a history-of-capitalism boot camp for graduate students and faculty. The movement received high-profile validation in 2013, when The New York Times made it the subject of a trend piece, an honor more often reserved for appraisals of millennial dating habits and other attempts to provoke Twitter.
The number of major figures involved is still small, but those who established themselves early are reaping the rewards of their prescience, and a parade of new books in the field has rolled off the presses this year. Unlike the first wave of publications, many come not from junior faculty but from established scholars. That includes Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism, an exploration of England’s monetary system in the medieval and early modern periods, from Christine Desan, co-convener of Harvard’s capitalism workshop. Another much-discussed entry comes from Edward Baptist, co-instructor with Hyman of the capitalism MOOC, and also of Cornell University. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is a bold attempt to put slavery at the center of nineteenth-century capitalism that has landed on bestseller lists, thanks in part to an unintended publicity boost from The Economist, where a review—soon withdrawn—treated the book as an opportunity to defend the South’s slave owners.
But the most intellectually ambitious effort is from Beckert, whose first book since The Monied Metropolis is coming out this December. Titled Empire of Cotton, it is a masterpiece of the historian’s craft: combining a global scope with concern for the nuances of individual experience, Beckert tracks the fortunes of a single commodity, cotton, across six continents and thousands of years. That sweeping project is driven by the attempt to unravel the causes and consequences of one overarching puzzle: “why, after many millennia of slow economic growth, a few strands of humanity in the late eighteenth century suddenly got much richer.” On the way to his answer, Beckert uncovers a history he claims “provides the key to understanding the modern world.” That thesis, inevitably, goes unproven, as does the contention that modernity could ever possess a single “key.” But the belief that discovering the origins of economic growth might unlock modernity’s secrets raises questions that are even more tantalizing.
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One “would need to be a god to write a truly adequate history of capitalism,” according to a recent reflection on the subject. But that hasn’t stopped the earthly from trying. Though owing their popularity to the 2008 crash, the newest interpretations of capitalism’s past bear the stamp of the era that preceded Lehman’s bankruptcy, the end-of-history moment that began with the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, when capitalism’s triumphant forward march seemed assured. Perhaps unavoidably, Marxism’s intellectual legacy hangs over these histories—offering a model that some contend deserves resurrection, albeit in modified form, and that others dismiss as a failed enterprise, which must be cast aside to allow for fresh inquiry.
That fraught dynamic has intersected with a generational transition in the academy, as the baby boomers retire and their successors carve out a distinctive identity. Desan pinpoints the divide in her new book: for scholars today, she writes, “there is no romantic baseline to the coming of capitalism,” no rosy alternative crying out for recovery by later historians. (Cough—looks at senior colleagues with all those anecdotes about 1968—cough.) The recriminating impulse here is reminiscent of the last decade’s profusion of scholarship on American conservatism, both of them motivated by the concern that while academics busied themselves with inscrutable cultural theory and celebrations of the marginalized, the truly powerful went about crafting a world more to their liking.
Historians of the right corrected for the supposed naïveté of their forerunners by discarding assumptions about the nation’s irresistible march toward modernity—defined as secular, tolerant and liberal—while stressing the enduring significance of those previously dismissed as reactionary aberrations. That project was necessary, but historians of capitalism are pursuing even bigger game. Studies of conservatism were responding in large measure to the triumphalism of Bush-era neoconservatism, and they generally limited their scope to the twentieth-century United States. The revised history of capitalism, as Empire of Cotton makes clear, promises a global history spanning centuries, as seen from a present shaped by neoliberalism.
If the Detroit assembly line once seemed capitalism’s quintessential expression, Wall Street today appears a more logical one. But historians of capitalism emphasize, in one of their most significant contributions, that Wall Street’s contemporary importance should not come as a surprise. Finance, they argue, has long been the lifeblood of capitalism. That was the case during the age of mercantile capitalism that preceded the Industrial Revolution; it remained true during industry’s heyday; and it continues to be so in our financialized era.
While elites have received more attention in this scholarship, the history of the 99 percent—what prior generations would have more readily called labor or social history—has receded in prominence. More striking, though, is a redefinition of labor itself. Instead of focusing on the experiences of wage workers, scholars now dwell on the variety of ways in which labor of all sorts can be commodified and exploited. Plantation slaves and factory workers become different points on a common spectrum, rather than fundamental opposites. Commodified persons and the deft financiers capable of exploiting their commodification provide these narratives with their central figures—new embodiments for the old categories of labor and capital.
In this rendering, capitalism is less a specific entity whose precise contours can be outlined than an infinitely resilient blob capable of absorbing every blow dealt against it and emerging stronger. It is a view that imposes stark limitations on the realm of the politically possible. Hyman is explicit on this point, arguing that “American capitalism is America, and we can choose together to submit to it, or rise to its challenges, making what we will of its possibilities.” Reform might be achievable, but the only revolution on offer is what Beckert, with a sly wink to Leon Trotsky, calls the “permanent revolution” of capitalism itself.
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Here lies one of the most notable gambits of capitalism studies. Where earlier scholars were eager to define capitalism—often, as in the case of Marxists, so they could identify its vulnerabilities and point toward a socialist future—today’s historians combine aggressive insistence on their subject’s centrality with a deep reluctance to provide it with any but the most minimal definition. In Hyman’s words, “The essential problem is not to primly define capitalism like a schoolmarm, but to think about why capitalism, which appears to be so simple, evades easy definitions.”
Instead of identifying a timeless essence of capitalism, many of these historians opt for something more potent: a story, and specifically a story about growth. With a handful of possible exceptions, sustained economic growth had not been a part of human history before the eighteenth century. Temporary spurts quickly expired, with flush times driving population upward, putting too much demand on the food supply and leading to mass starvation. Capitalism upended that status quo, replacing cycles of prosperity and famine with the exponential increase of per capita output. Though bound up with trends that stretched back centuries, the onset of modern economic growth marked a radical departure from previous history. Like a perpetual-motion machine, economic growth appeared to drive its own expansion. Periodic downturns and busts occasionally stopped the machine’s gears from turning, but those momentary interruptions soon gave way to the system’s irresistible advance. Viewed from this perspective, capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results—not by what it is, but by what it does. The variety of ways in which labor can be commodified, the diverse forms that capital can assume, the different institutions that structure relations of production and exchange—all of these are just means subordinated to the larger end of economic growth. A weak definition of capitalism that might seem banal when reduced to its simplest terms—“capitalism’s only constant is change”—supports a historical narrative of remarkable scope.
That narrative, historians of capitalism insist, can both explain the past and perform a valuable service in the present. “Perhaps the best thing about teaching the history of American capitalism,” Beckert has contended, is the opportunity it offers to “go beyond the stale stupidities that characterize so much of the public discussions in the media on capitalism.” Frustrated with the antiseptic depictions of markets populated by rational actors that many economists favor, historians of capitalism dwell on the multiplicity of exceptions to the market’s supposed rules. This approach comes attached to a political agenda. As Beckert puts it, historians of capitalism should draw upon their expertise and seek to “take up some of the intellectual space that economists occupy” in the wider world. “It would,” he adds, “make for better politics.”
Yet the new historians of capitalism have a much more complicated relationship with economists than these easy dismissals suggest. This is nowhere more evident than in the routine conflation of economic growth with capitalism. Though far from the only subject addressed by these historians, economic growth serves a crucial purpose in their accounts, in which capitalism’s ability to satisfy the yearning for more becomes its trump card. An incentive that has stymied would-be revolutionaries for centuries, economic growth unites communities around the pursuit of mutual enrichment, promises social mobility and political stability, and excuses every sacrifice made in its name. Despite its contemporary ubiquity, however, the idea that economic growth is a necessary feature of collective life has a brief history—much briefer than the history of economic growth itself. Not until the middle of the twentieth century was economic growth accepted as a natural and obviously attractive feature of a modern economy, and even then its reign soon came under assault.
Today, confronting the twin pressures of mounting income inequality and escalating concerns about climate change, partisans of economic growth face stronger opposition than at any time in decades. Even if continued growth were desirable, an increasing number of economists are convinced that a decrease from the last century’s norm will be unavoidable in the century ahead. It is a strange tableau: while economists speculate on growth’s decline, a swath of the historical profession, eager to challenge the tyranny of economists, has attempted to make modernity into the story of economic growth—a story that the economists of a prior generation did more than any other group to canonize. Understanding how we arrived at this intellectual crossroads requires a history of its own.
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Though hostile today, economists and historians are more like feuding siblings than rival species. The two fields grew up alongside each other at the end of the nineteenth century, when the modern research university began to emerge. Partisans for each discipline claimed that the divide between them could never be crossed, but that was just one position among many. In Germany, home to more economists than anywhere else in Europe, members of the “historical school” maintained that economics and history were inseparable. Alfred Marshall, the premier British economist of his age, led the charge to establish a specialized economics curriculum at Cambridge, but his understanding of economics was shaped by an early encounter with Hegelian philosophy, and he passed on a concern for historical analysis to his students.
In the United States, already noteworthy for the size of its university system and the speed with which it was developing, the economist E.R.A. Seligman doubled as a significant philosopher of history. Seligman was no radical, but he advocated an “economic interpretation of history” that had strong affinities with Marxism. Thanks to its adoption by Charles Beard, the most influential American historical thinker of his generation, Seligman’s program found a receptive audience among a rising group of so-called Progressive historians. The nation’s first cohort of professional historians, the Progressives aimed to make a science attentive to the needs of reform out of a discipline that had prized narrative and mirrored the prejudices of the country’s elite. Professorial equivalents of the era’s muckraking journalists, Progressive historians cast themselves as clear-eyed speakers of unpleasant truths, combining hopes for political progress with scientific aspirations.
Economists and historians could share a common language in part because many believed they had a duty to respond to problems that could only be overcome if they, along with allies in the other social sciences, forged a cohesive science of society. It was a time of industrialization, urbanization and immigration, all on an unprecedented scale. These changes coincided with, and helped foster, labor disputes of an intensity and magnitude never before witnessed. This was especially true in the United States, which, despite repeated assertions to the contrary, has a long and bloody history of class conflict.
Economists were just as preoccupied with these conflicts as historians. As with history, economics counted a fair number of reactionaries in its ranks, but they were far from dominant. Even those who leaned right could describe themselves, in the words of Yale’s Irving Fisher, as “thoroughly in sympathy with the aims of Socialism.” The field supplied Progressive politicians with some of their most effective shock troops, shaping policy on issues ranging from corporate regulation to unemployment insurance. Economists continued to play that role in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, when figures like Rexford Tugwell and Adolph Berle formed part of FDR’s “Brain Trust.”
Connections between economists and historians were never tighter than at the start of Roosevelt’s presidency, but they had already frayed considerably by his administration’s close. Although a liberal consensus linked much of the academic elite and would continue to do so for decades, economists had begun to recast their profession as the hardest of the social sciences, replacing textual arguments with hyper-sophisticated mathematical models incomprehensible to all but the elect. Both economists and historians served in large numbers during World War II, but when peace arrived the historians returned to the classroom, while economists were invited to take their place as counselors to the powerful, including the president of the United States, thanks to the establishment of the Council of Economic Advisers. That newfound prominence was owed, above all, to the discipline’s authority over a subject that was becoming a global fixation: economic growth.
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Growth’s apotheosis would have many consequences, and one of the least noticed was its deepening of the rift between historians and economists. Economic history had begun to establish itself as a distinct field in the 1920s. As historian William Sewell has observed, in those early days scholarship concentrated on what would now be called microeconomic questions, like the behavior of a single firm or the influence of a specific policy on an industry. No special training as an economist was necessary to produce this work, only the typical historian’s willingness to dig around in archives and come up with a description of what happened in a particular place at a particular time.
All that changed radically in the aftermath of World War II, when investigations of the economy as a whole became the norm. And no issue connected to the economy attracted more commentary than growth. Before 1940, no economics dissertation in the United States included the phrase “economic growth” in its title; a decade later, it was everywhere. But growth could not be studied with the same tools that economic historians had relied upon previously. People accumulate papers, and so do companies—papers that historians can later use to piece together narratives. The economy is an altogether more abstract entity, an object built out of aggregates like productivity and unemployment that can never be seen, even when their consequences are felt. Reconstructing the economy’s history required tables, graphs, models, estimates of national income and output—an entire instrumentarium that historians had little familiarity with, partly because economists had just recently conjured it into existence.
Economic history was transformed into the history of economic growth—the search for examples that preceded its breakthrough in the eighteenth century, along with explanations for why it had taken so long for growth to become routine. In the process, the field became less important to both economists and historians. Historians viewed it as the province of economists, while economists treated it as a testing ground for prefabricated models, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) dismissing it as a refuge for number-crunchers incapable of producing the mathematically avant-garde theoretical work prized by the discipline.
While the methodological divide widened, a political gap had also begun to open up. As academically inclined baby boomers started their march from the streets into the faculty lounge, they took fields across the humanities and the social sciences with them. History was no exception, as was evident at the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association, when a group of radical historians staged what one of their irate opponents described as “an attempted revolution.”
Two years before historians grappled with that rebellion, economists had dealt with their own insurgency. But these dissidents had different objectives, and they were much better positioned to succeed, thanks in part to their leader, Milton Friedman, who took direct aim at his discipline’s status quo in his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association. Retrospectively judged a pivotal moment in the breakdown of postwar Keynesianism, Friedman’s speech denied that policy-makers could reduce unemployment in the long run by accepting greater inflation, undercutting one of the most persuasive rationales for an activist fiscal policy. This technical justification for a constricted state was just one piece of Friedman’s larger project, but it would seem prescient a few years later, when “stagflation” entered the national vocabulary and the failure of Keynesians to secure prosperity became a staple of conservative rhetoric.
Historians and economists might have finagled their methodological differences if mutual political sympathies had fostered sufficient good will. But when combined with trying to bridge the chasm separating radical historians and Friedmanites, the obstacles proved insurmountable, especially after the Vietnam War shattered what remained of an elite liberal consensus. While economists became even more preoccupied with dazzling mathematics, historians took a cultural turn that led them further away from their erstwhile allies. Both sides discarded the grand aspirations for a unified social science that had animated their forebears—a gloomy end for a campaign that once inspired such utopian hopes. By this point, however, few bothered to mourn.
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Throughout all this, economic growth remained a vital concern, both among economists and in the wider world. It has also continued to frame research in economic history. “Modern economic growth” are the first words of the first volume in the just-released Cambridge History of Capitalism, and chapter after chapter brings news of the same discovery, always depicted as a startling challenge to received wisdom. Babylonia, ancient Greece, medieval Europe and the Middle East at the turn of the first millennium are among the sites reported to have possessed more vibrant economies than previous scholarship recognized. Some even managed to escape, temporarily, from the dangers of overpopulation and famine. Those lucky few recorded impressive growth rates for their time—though, inevitably, they fell short of the heights achieved with capitalism’s arrival.
The search for growth’s prehistory has turned up a surprising ancestor: slavery, long regarded as an obstacle to commercial progress, now cast as a potent engine of development. An emphasis on slavery’s productivity has become accepted among scholars of the distant past, and still more so among students of comparatively recent history. Accenting the significance of slavery is not by itself novel. In the nineteenth century, Marx was only one of many who required no persuasion on this point. According to his succinct formulation, “Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.” Yet even those convinced of slavery’s indispensable role in capitalism’s ascent could consider the system a relic of a bygone era that was fated to die out with time.
No group has done more to undermine that reassuring belief than historians of capitalism. Though built on scholarship reaching back decades, a once controversial thesis has become conventional wisdom with remarkable speed. In the last year alone, three of the most impressive works of American history in many years have bolstered this interpretation: Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told; Beckert’s Empire of Cotton; and from Beckert’s Harvard colleague Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams. Divergent in crucial respects, these books all depict slavery in the antebellum South as dynamic, thriving and thoroughly capitalist.
This shift has taken place not because historians unearthed a previously hidden industrial economy, but because the criteria used to define capitalism have changed. Foregrounding abstract categories like economic growth and productivity brings otherwise conflicting social orders into a common analytic frame, minimizing the differences that earlier scholars considered immense. When historians turn to particulars, they are far more likely than in the past to highlight the figures whose livelihoods depended on yoking together Northerners and Southerners, like the merchants who, in Beckert’s words, “made capitalism whole.” While the South lacked the hallmarks of industrialization, more capital was concentrated in its slave population—that is, in its ownership of people—than in all of the nation’s industrial investments combined, including banks, factories and railroads. Slaves commanded high prices because they supplied the labor necessary for the production of cotton, arguably the central commodity of the Industrial Revolution. It was little wonder that the South, bound to international networks of trade and holding gargantuan amounts of capital, went on to develop a financial system of extraordinary sophistication. Taken together, these features make the South an exemplary model of capitalism—different from what was developing in the North, to be sure, but a variation on a common theme.
But recent histories of slavery aim to do more than prove that the institution was growing; they want to show that it was indispensable to the emergence of modern economic growth itself. Baptist provides the crispest exposition of this argument: “the move from arithmetical to geometric economic growth,” he contends, “would have been short-circuited if embryo industries had run out of cotton fiber,” which could have occurred if not for an astonishing rise in productivity among the slaves who labored in the cotton fields of the South. Historians already know that productivity climbed during these years, but Baptist offers a novel explanation for this upswing: torture of the enslaved, a process refined over the decades by planters (or, as Baptist refers to them, “entrepreneurs”) desperate to satisfy the demands of cotton markets and keep ahead of their otherwise crippling levels of debt. This is the ultimate payoff of interweaving slavery and capitalism: a history that puts slavery not just at the center of our understanding of the South, or of the United States, but of global capitalism.
That shared project, however, can accommodate a variety of contradictory impulses. The sharpest example of this divergence comes in the work of two authors whose paychecks issue from the same university. Although both Johnson and Beckert share Marxist sympathies, that is where their intellectual similarities end. For Johnson, the essence of what he labels “slave racial capitalism” appears when typologies are put aside and a particular market is investigated “concretely and specifically.” In part for this reason, Johnson has distanced himself from what he refers to as “the end-of-historiography enthusiasm for the ‘new’ history of capitalism.” According to Johnson, tracing the path of a single bale of cotton reveals more about the antebellum economy’s workings than any number of theories targeting “the grand abstraction” of capitalism.
Where Johnson revels in particularity, Beckert describes himself as “centrally concerned with the unity of the diverse.” Though he has an eye for the telling detail, his passion lies with what his mentor, the sociologist Charles Tilly, called “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons.” In Beckert’s telling, the United States in the nineteenth century provided the site for an epic clash between a “war capitalism” whose “beating heart” was slavery and a more familiar industrial capitalism. Nurtured in its infancy by war capitalism, industrial capitalism was fated to grow beyond the constraints of its parent and partner, even if it took a civil war to effect that separation. While Johnson sets out to demolish the categories that have undergirded histories of slavery and capitalism, Beckert tries to establish the dialectic that will finally get the division right. The difference between these two interpretations is profound, yet not profound enough to prevent both from agreeing that, whatever the descriptors—“slave racial” or “war”—the system was ultimately capitalist.
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The significance of this revised history of slavery to our understanding of the past is obvious, and the scholarship it rests upon extraordinary; but its relevance to the present is murkier, as is its threat to the influence of economists over the public debate so lamented by historians. Baptist, for example, depicts his emphasis on the role of torture in the increase of slavery’s productivity as a rebuke to economists who assume the market’s verdict always yields a just outcome. As he puts it, in one of many swipes at the dismal science, “we don’t usually see torture as a factor of production. Economics teachers don’t put it on the chalkboard as a variable in a graph.” Those polemical jabs, however, don’t preclude him from scattering favorable references to economists—including John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, John Kenneth Galbraith, and recent research in behavioral economics—throughout the book. Despite the fire of Baptist’s rhetoric, his criticism is restrained: a salvo targeted not at economics as a whole, but at one (albeit vocal) section of the field.
Beckert and Johnson both provide pieces of a more comprehensive critique, but they refrain from outlining grand theories of capitalism as such, and with good reason. If Johnson is right to prize specificity, he undercuts the rationale for extracting lessons about capitalism today from the experience of the Mississippi Valley more than a century and a half ago. Though Johnson balances this particularism with a more conventionally Marxist insistence on capital’s tendency to rush into particular industries and stimulate crises of overproduction, the tension between this generalizing theory and his focus elsewhere on careful descriptions of capitalism’s precise forms goes unexplored. Beckert comes closer to proposing a unified theory, suggesting the enduring importance of certain crucial elements in economic life—including violence, coercion and the state—that cruder apologists for capitalism overlook. But Beckert’s emphasis on capitalism’s adaptability weakens his case. If the system is as relentlessly changeable as he maintains, then its defenders can shrug off past crimes as tragic but irrelevant to contemporary practice. What corporate titan doesn’t think that he—or, more rarely, she—would have provided safe passage to fugitives on the Underground Railroad?
To a traditional Marxist, these difficulties would seem a predictable consequence of using slavery’s history to understand capitalism. In Capital, Marx wanted to prove not just that capitalist practices were uglier than the soothing fables its theorists spun (though he made that point too), but that capital’s internal logic drove the system toward collapse. He intended to beat those he dismissed as “bourgeois economists” at their own game, and he could only do that if he had an alternative theory of his own. Dwelling on slavery, or the myriad other sins of actually existing capitalism, made critique too easy. Though Capital drew upon historical examples, history itself was useful only to the extent that it grounded theories that revealed capitalism’s fundamental dynamics.
For much of the twentieth century, even Marxist historians skeptical about that part of Marx’s intellectual project were reluctant to fixate on capitalism. Confident that capitalism was but a passing phase in a larger history, they were more likely to describe their object of inquiry as society—something that predated capitalism and, they believed, would endure after its demise. That revolutionary faith animated, among others, Eugene Genovese, one of slavery’s greatest historians and for most of his life a dedicated Marxist. Genovese devoted his career to arguing that slavery had provided the foundation for a Southern way of life that was, according to a formulation he developed with his wife, the historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “in but not of the capitalist world.”
This commitment was present from the opening pages of Genovese’s first book, The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), where he also described himself as “concerned less with economics or even economic history as generally understood than with the economic aspect of a society in crisis.” The ease with which Genovese took up society as his largest category of analysis was characteristic of his time, and it was echoed later in the 1960s during a blossoming of social history. That so many inheritors of Marxism’s totalizing ambitions find capitalism a suitable label for the totality they’re pursuing reveals much more about our moment than it does about the past.
The analytic costs of this perspective come across most clearly in a geographical slippage common to much recent scholarship. Though Beckert and Baptist make frequent references to the South, they typically mean the cotton-producing states of the Deep South. Johnson skirts this pitfall, but only because he makes explicit his choice to focus on the Mississippi Valley. Concentrating on the Deep South, however, excludes much of the Confederacy, including Virginia, which in 1860 counted more slaves in its population than any other state in the nation. While cotton powered an expanding slave economy in the Mississippi Valley, slave owners a little farther to the north grappled with a system that bore a much closer resemblance to the decaying order depicted by prior historians.
The lumping together of a complex region under the sign of cotton is especially striking, given Virginia’s prominence in many of the first histories to foreground slavery’s importance in American development. For earlier historians, the tangled relationship of slavery and freedom in the home state of half the country’s first ten presidents—including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—supplied a potent symbol for a national problem. That the cotton South has replaced Jefferson’s Virginia as the iconic representative of the nation’s commitment to slavery reflects a present when American democracy—easily dismissed as global capitalism’s bumbling sidekick—no longer seems like a scalp worth taking.
Beckert’s global scope and reach into the twentieth century make the consequences of this marginalization of politics even more vivid. By 1980, the world’s two largest producers of cotton were China and the Soviet Union, yet Beckert devotes only a handful of paragraphs to the history of socialism in these countries. In that brief discussion, the policies of socialist governments appear not as alternatives to capital’s rule but as “a sharpening of the tools and an enhancing of the methods of industrial capitalism.”
That socialist parenthesis is forgotten by Empire of Cotton’s close, where Beckert returns to the subject that dominated its opening pages: growth. Noting estimates that cotton production will quadruple by 2050, he pays tribute to capitalism for having “enabled a growth in the churning out of goods that has never been matched by any other system of production.” His hope for a better future comes not from the belief that capitalism will be transcended, but from the chance that its perpetual flux might, somehow, bring forth a world “that is not only productive, but also just.” If so, that would mark a radical break from Beckert’s history of a system driven by the shifting but remorseless logic of capital, with no agent of transformation in sight. This optimistic conclusion aside, the rest of the book imparts a much grimmer lesson: growth arrived centuries ago dressed as a liberator; today, it is our master.
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But what if growth stalls? That question has increasingly occupied economists, many of whom are convinced that we have reached a new stage in growth’s history. Those parts of the world with the longest experiences of growth—Europe and the United States—face the prospect of a sustained decline in the metric that has come to define prosperity, and the planet as a whole confronts the even more daunting challenge of mitigating the environmental damage that has accompanied economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. The irony is conspicuous. Historians have begun in large numbers to rewrite modernity as the history of growth at precisely the moment when moderns might have to learn to do without their accustomed rates of economic expansion—one last swoop for the Owl of Minerva before climate change ravages its natural habitat.
Predicting an end to growth has become something of a cottage industry among economists. Tyler Cowen of George Mason University advanced the case in 2011 with his book The Great Stagnation, and his prognostication won further support from his colleague Robert Gordon’s work heralding, in the title of one recent paper, “The Demise of U.S. Economic Growth.” Lawrence Summers, former head of President Obama’s National Economic Council, has brought these concerns into the mainstream of liberal debate with repeated warnings of “secular stagnation.” Robert Solow—winner of a Nobel Prize for his research in, appropriately enough, growth economics—has added his voice to the chorus. So has Thomas Piketty, whose forecast of capital’s twenty-first-century prospects includes the assumption that countries at the frontier of technological development cannot long sustain per capita growth rates above about 1 percent. That is still exponential growth, but it is a sharp drop-off from expectations set during the last century.
Yet even if high growth rates could be sustained, the conviction is spreading that declining economic growth might be beneficial, even necessary. Though a departure from the recent past, skepticism of growth is also a return to a historical norm. Political leaders have long sought to ensure the well-being of their subjects, but the conflation of prosperity with a steadily rising national income has a much shorter history. National-income accounts were unavailable for most of the world until the middle of the twentieth century. And once they appeared, their relevance for the general population turned on two factors: the dependence of recently expanded welfare states on revenues linked to national economic performance; and the assumption that economic growth benefited rich and poor—or at least the middle class—alike. The first proposition remains true; the second has collapsed.
This is clearest in the United States, where the thread holding together economic growth and median income has been unraveling for decades. Economists have many explanations for this trend, but the phenomenon itself is undeniable. From the aftermath of World War II through the 1970s, most of the total earnings from economic expansion flowed to the bottom 90 percent of Americans. That came to an abrupt end in the 1980s. Although the Clinton years posted marginally better tallies on this front than the Reagan era, the record since 2001 has been abysmal, and the worst has come under Obama. From 2009 to 2012, the last year with reliable data, incomes for the lower 90 percent have declined, while those for the top 10 percent have increased at a healthy clip, with the greatest gains accruing to the 1 percent and above. The tide still rises, but it only lifts yachts.
While the benefits of economic growth for the average American have become increasingly fuzzy, the costs have snapped into focus. Before the Industrial Revolution, economic growth was held in check by the pace at which animals could labor, crops mature and soil recover from depletion (or unexploited territories be acquired). Shifting to fossil fuels—first coal, then oil—upended that system. Energy previously supplied by immense tracts of land worked over decades now came from lumps of coal formed over millions of years. Thus commenced a revolution of economic time and space, with exponentially rising energy consumption propelling economic growth, a flight from the countryside to towns and cities, and a population explosion. Though restricted in the nineteenth century for the most part to Europe and the United States, that revolution has since spread across the planet. Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s population more than doubled, petroleum consumption more than tripled, and the global economy expanded sevenfold. Meanwhile, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by almost a fifth. That has prepared the way for an as yet undetermined statistic: how far and how fast the earth’s temperature will climb.
A future in which the small amount of economic growth that is eked out accumulates in the bank accounts of the rich and boils the planet bears little resemblance to the bright forecasts of perpetual prosperity conjured by optimists in the mid-twentieth century. This bleak vista has convinced some that capitalism has entered its final days: absent the possibility of unlimited growth, the system will stumble forward until it collapses under the weight of its internal contradictions. Others maintain that the same combination of entrepreneurial vigor and technological resourcefulness that has averted catastrophe in the past, and frustrated the many earlier prophets of capitalism’s downfall, will come to the rescue soon, perhaps via apps. Those of a reformist bent see these challenges as the foundation upon which a new generation of activists can build a politics that does more than mouth slogans borrowed from the past. They have reason to hope, as two of the most vibrant movements on the left are the campaigns against economic inequality and climate change, one symbolized by Occupy Wall Street, the other by the People’s Climate March. Yet both the skeptics and enthusiasts of capitalism’s twenty-first-century career tend to ignore one remarkable fact: before the twentieth century, the prospect of continued economic growth struck most people as an impossibility. And those most likely to declare the concept absurd were economists.
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Dreams of endless plenty have a long history. Over the course of the seventeenth century, the notion that commerce might convert the pursuit of individual gain into advances for the common good gained plausibility among European writers on political economy. Belief in a coming world of abundance also had more exotic sources: alchemy figured prominently in these discussions, as did theology. They laced together in arguments contending that humanity would soon master the natural world, releasing mankind from burdens imposed after its expulsion from Eden.
The Wealth of Nations restricted its attention to more pedestrian matters, but Adam Smith inherited a good deal from his seventeenth-century predecessors—above all, faith that commerce might strengthen the general welfare. Smith, however, balanced equanimity about trade’s benefits with anxiety for the future. Though nations benefited from periods of high profits and rising population—key measures of prosperity in this age before national-income accounting—booms were by their nature fleeting: a “progressive state” led to a “stationary state” and, eventually, a “declining state.” Nations could postpone economic decay through geographic expansion: vampirelike, they would preserve their youth by feeding on fresh territory. Absent these colonial adventures, stagnation was assured. Individuals eager to turn a profit would still find opportunities in the marketplace, but societies as a whole faced a grimmer horizon.
Seventy years later, that framework still endured, though it would be put to very different uses than Smith imagined. With The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels gave a revolutionary spin to the stationary state. In their telling, a bourgeoisie that had sparked an explosion in productive capacity was now caught in perpetual crises of overproduction, a “sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Communism would deliver mankind from the rule of scarcity, but Marx left the details of that new world vague.
Members of the bourgeoisie seeking a tonic for their jangled nerves could find it in John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy. Released the same year as Marx and Engels’s call to the barricades, Mill’s text proposed a more tranquil resolution to the problem of the stationary state. Like his predecessors, Mill accepted the “irresistible necessity that the stream of human industry should finally spread itself out into an apparently stagnant sea.” But he welcomed stagnation. For Mill, the progressive state was analogous to adolescence, a phase passed through on the way to maturity. In the progressive state, money occupied the place in society’s consciousness that sex does in a teenager’s. Upon reaching adulthood, a broader set of concerns would emerge. In Mill’s words, “the art of getting on” would give way to “the Art of Living”—an art that included ameliorating economic inequality and reducing the hours wasted on the “drudgery and imprisonment” of modern labor.
Those indifferent to the abstractions of a stationary state had to grapple with more tangible fears: not too little prosperity but too much, and the exhaustion of the earth’s resources that followed. Perhaps, as Thomas Malthus predicted, restraint would come from limits on a food supply that could not keep pace with an increasing population. Others drew attention to the threat of peak coal, a concern that lingered throughout the nineteenth century, in no small part thanks to cautions from economists. One of those authorities, William Stanley Jevons, would later be remembered as a pioneer in the effort to create a mathematical science of economics. But he first achieved fame for an 1865 treatise warning that depletion of coal would usher in a Malthusian nightmare, with fuel replacing food as the fatal constraint on economic progress.
Optimistic and pessimistic appraisals of stagnation vied with each other well into the twentieth century, sometimes within the same person. In the early days of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes predicted a century of advances that would leave “the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence…between four and eight times as high as it is to-day.” Like Mill before him, Keynes viewed prosperity not as an end in itself but as a means for pursuing other, higher ideals: “do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem,” he stressed, “or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of great and more permanent significance.”
Keynes had adopted a darker perspective a decade earlier, in the book that turned him into an unlikely celebrity. Published in the immediate aftermath of World War I, The Economic Consequences of the Peace began with a portrait of the “economic Eldorado” destroyed after 1914. Keynes’s focus was less on the lost glory of the prewar period than on how unlikely it was that such a “utopia” had come into existence at all. Recalling the “deep-seated melancholy” shared by the pioneers of political economy, Keynes argued that a host of contingent factors had sustained a delicate equilibrium in Europe before the war. For a brief time, the “Devil” of resource exhaustion “was chained up and out of sight. Now, perhaps we have loosed him again.” His former teacher, Alfred Marshall, sounded a similar note shortly thereafter, when he was asked what would be the first question he would want answered, if he could transport himself a hundred years into the future. Marshall’s response condensed centuries of anxiety about looming stagnation into eight words: “how has the exhaustion of coal been met?”
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The Malthusian spirit became increasingly fashionable as the Depression ground on. Almost a decade into the downturn, Alvin Hansen, a Harvard economist and the most important American Keynesian of his age, announced the crossing of “a divide which separates the great era of growth and expansion of the nineteenth century from an era which no man, unwilling to embark on pure conjecture, can as yet characterize with clarity or precision.” That gloomy conviction persisted through World War II, when many treated a return to Depression conditions in peacetime as a near certainty. As Hansen’s student Paul Samuelson remarked in 1944 for The New Republic (beneath the title “Unemployment Ahead: The Coming Economic Crisis”), ”despite a superficial veneer of optimism, a great fear stalks the land.”
Postwar expansion soothed that fear, and led to a bumper crop of grandiloquent assertions that the free world had mastered the art—and, more important, the science—of managing the economy, which became the vessel for much older hopes that humanity might enter an age of abundance. Where Gilded Age tycoons like John D. Rockefeller had envisioned a stagnant industrial world overseen by trusts guarding against the dangers of excess competition, triumphant economists now announced that deft manipulation by government experts would allow for both economic growth and competitive markets. The stationary state, finally, could be forgotten. But scars from the Depression took many years to fade, and beneath the bombast lurked a real dread that prosperity was a collective dream from which the capitalist powers would soon awake.
Apostles of growth always faced doubters. In the United States, much of the early criticism came from conservatives, who saw economic management as tainted by its roots in the New Deal. Frustrated by John Kennedy’s repeated denunciation of the Eisenhower administration’s economic record, Richard Nixon grumbled during the 1960 presidential race that his rival was fostering an unhealthy “growthmanship.” Eight years later, it was Robert Kennedy’s turn to criticize the economists’ myopia. “Gross National Product,” he observed, “counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.” That line was popular enough to make its way, lightly plagiarized, into the campaign of a would-be Democratic congressman in Ohio two years later. “GNP,” he said, “includes smokestacks that pollute, drugs that destroy, and ambulances which clear our highways of human wreckage.” The aspiring public servant—Jerry Springer—lost that election, but he was better suited to a career in television anyway.
When the postwar boom shuddered to a halt in the 1970s, growth’s detractors enjoyed a boost in credibility. They had an ally in the White House during the tenure of Jimmy Carter, who later called “dealing with limits” his administration’s “subliminal theme.” That could not be said of his successor. Ronald Reagan brokered a union between growth’s disciples and partisans of a resurgent right, undoing a suspicion of excessive prosperity that had earlier found a congenial home among conservatives, from Malthusian anxieties about a lascivious underclass in the nineteenth century to George H.W. Bush’s strictures on “voodoo economics.”
Reagan’s synthesis occurred just in time to frame interpretations of what his supporters would deem the Great Communicator’s signal accomplishment: the collapse of the Soviet Union, widely attributed to socialism’s failure to compete with capitalism’s unrivaled capacity for growth. Partisans of economic growth, and of the capitalist system it was now so easily identified with, could rest secure in their triumph. Despite the occasional eruption of dissent from the margins, the primacy of economic growth became a piece of common sense so widely accepted that it shaped even the views of capitalism’s critics, and its historians. The true privilege of victory is not, as is so often claimed, that winners may write their history. No, the greatest reward is being allowed to forget it.
Yet history has a way of reasserting itself. Economic growth has real benefits—right now, in Europe and the United States, especially for the rich, but also for anyone who depends on a sound basis for the welfare state. But the increase of per capita productivity and population captured by the gross domestic product is just one way of measuring prosperity, and a deceptive one at that. Though economic growth’s limitations were easier to see before its canonization in the middle of the twentieth century, they are again coming into sight.
Prophets of an end to economic growth, or of its triumphant resurrection, beg to be made into fools by an unpredictable future. Indictments of contemporary policy, however, don’t hang on forecasts of what is to come. That fact was clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who marched against climate change in September, and to anyone who felt a twinge of recognition after seeing the protesters in Zuccotti Park—or to the 58 percent of Americans who reported in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll that protecting the environment should take precedence over economic growth.
Easy to say for those enjoying a lifestyle that would ensure climatic devastation if extended to the rest of the globe. That is just one of the hurdles to crafting policies that are neither ecologically suicidal nor economically bankrupt. These obstacles are immense, and perhaps insurmountable: threats planetary in scale that must be addressed through the creaky institutions of particular nations, each balancing its own geopolitical imperatives and domestic political challenges, all while facing entrenched opposition from those reaping the benefits of the current order. Strange allies might come along—including Rockefellers, who have announced that their $860 million philanthropy portfolio will divest itself of assets in fossil-fuel companies—but this cannot be a campaign of elites, and a popular movement deserves a bolder agenda than technocratic nudging can supply.
The invention of modern economic growth—capitalism, if you like—reshaped the world. But it was part of an ensemble of larger transformations that we are still grappling to understand, and control. If it was possible, in the midst of the Great Depression, for John Maynard Keynes, an economist who hailed from Britain’s elite, to insist that his nation must not “overestimate the importance of the economic problem,” the rest of us have no excuse. The categories we use to make sense of the world—including such basic concepts as ecology, economy and society—have all changed before. The twenty-first century belongs to whoever changes them next.