The History of the United States as the History of Capitalism

The History of the United States as the History of Capitalism

Land of Capital

The history of the United States as the history of capitalism.


The great surprise of 2016 was not the rise and election of Donald Trump; that path had been laid out for more than 50 years by Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and the two Bushes. The great surprise was the emergence of Bernie Sanders. A proud, self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders set his political sights on capitalism—especially in its corporate form—which he clearly named and then blamed for the economic inequalities, social injustices, concentrations of power, and neglect of public health that so deeply afflicted the country. Although he identifies as an independent in the Senate, Sanders chose to seek the Democratic

Party’s presidential nomination rather than run on his own or as a third-party candidate. Never before had a socialist done such a thing, and one might have expected a fast exit. Hillary Clinton surely did. But as we well know, Sanders attracted a mass following, especially among the young, demonstrating, it seemed, that socialism was no longer anathema or capitalism sacrosanct. As a result, 2016 proved to be a remarkable moment in American political history and, perhaps, an even more telling one in the history of American capitalism.

Capitalism has had a strange relation to the history of the United States. Whereas most societies of the Euro-Atlantic world have defined their histories at least in part around their transition from feudalism to capitalism or their complex (and often explosive) encounters with the latter, the history of the British North American colonies and then the United States has generally assumed a simultaneity in origins. The historian Carl Degler once wrote that capitalism came to North America “on the first ships,” and as simplistic as that might sound, he captured a wider sense that private property, acquisitiveness, and individualism were the foundations on which this country was built.

Some historians have emphasized the conflicts between different forms of capitalism—commercial, agricultural, industrial, corporate—but save for a couple of decades when social historical writing became prominent, capitalism in the United States has rarely been problematized as a historical phenomenon. Louis Hartz built an entire history of the “liberal tradition” in the United States around the absence of a feudal past, and while this so-called “consensus” view of American history was soon subjected to a withering attack by scholars, the break with European feudalism has generally been accepted. With the rise of neoliberalism and the end of the Cold War, capitalism all but vanished as a subject of interest—somewhat ironically, given the dominance that capitalism appeared to achieve around the world.

The crash of 2008, however, proved to be a scholarly as well as a social and economic wake-up call. The study of American capitalism gained new attention and soon spawned cottage industries around the history of slavery, the advent of financial instruments, and the racist exploitation that American capitalism has long appeared to thrive on. Many pieces—mostly monographic and narrowly construed—of what could be a big new story have come to litter the scholarly field, raising provocative questions that are often disconnected over time and space.

Jonathan Levy’s Ages of Capitalism, one of the first large-scale and synthetic works to pull together much of the new interest and interpretive orientation of this history-of-capitalism field, thereby fills an important intellectual need. It is an ambitious and impressive book, a cut above much of the recent literature not only in its scale but in its determination to construct a historical arc based on clearly articulated concepts. It may also share much more with the older, “consensus” view than Levy or the many other scholars who embrace his perspectives would care to think.

Unlike many who have been writing on the history of American capitalism, Levy explains how capitalism should be defined and identifies its stages of development and geographical variations. Also unlike many of his peers, Levy is not just offering an “economic” history: His book is a study of changing political economies and the attendant cultural manifestations (save for religion). Some of the best pages in the first half of Ages of Capitalism are, in fact, devoted to literature, social thought, and popular culture, to the ways in which Americans grappled with the challenges that capitalist relations and values presented and the ways in which capitalism reshaped the contours of everyday life. Levy has a grasp of economic theory that should satisfy even skeptical readers from the field of economics, together with a rich historical perspective that economists generally lack if not dismiss.

Current scholarly avoidances notwithstanding, capitalism has been understood in a variety of ways: as a form of labor exploitation and surplus extraction; as the privatization of property and the expanding circulation of commodities; as a large and increasingly interconnected web of production and exchange; and as all of these put together in multiple dimensions. Immanuel Wallerstein and, more recently, Sven Beckert have insisted on understanding capitalism as a world system with complex and differentiated parts. Levy does not engage with these interpretations; perhaps for the benefit of general readers, he simply lays out his own. Capitalism, Levy writes, is “capital.” Lest anyone imagine that this is just a tautology, he explains that capital is not a thing but a “process” in which a legal asset is imbued with a pecuniary value in view of its capacity to yield future gain. This is not just the profit motive, which Levy acknowledges has existed from time immemorial; instead, it is a historically specific form of investment in which money, credit, and finance are the crucial components, and the empowerment of capital’s owners (i.e., the capitalists) has been the result.

Levy presents his interpretation—including the salience of different types of liquidity—as three “theses” in the book’s introduction, although one would be hard-pressed to find a general thesis or argument that runs through the rest of the book. He also claims that the United States’ history of capitalism may be divided into four “ages” with steadily narrowing chronological spans. The first is the “Age of Commerce,” which takes us from Britain’s reorganization of its North American colonies to the secession of the slaveholding states: two full centuries. The second is the “Age of Capital,” which begins during the Civil War and extends to the Great Depression: eight decades. The third is the “Age of Control,” which encompasses the tumultuous period from the New Deal through the 1970s: five decades. And the last is the “Age of Chaos,” initiated by Paul Volcker’s interest rate “shock” and the election of Ronald Reagan, and it remains intact, according to Levy, as of this writing: four decades and counting.

Each of these ages, Levy continues, is marked by the prevalence of particular forms of capital, and each emerges as a result of political crises and state interventions. Although he doesn’t tell us how to conceptualize the years from the earliest English colonization until 1660 and gives no role to Native peoples other than as obstacles along the way, Levy suggests that the colonizers effectively brought capitalist commerce with them. Which is to say that his history allows for virtually no time when capitalism was not at work or when it was seriously contested.

The sprawling Age of Commerce presents Levy with some of his greatest synthetic challenges because of its transitional quality. He identifies 1660 as capitalism’s takeoff point owing to the mercantilist empire that England was intent on building once the English Revolution subsided and the monarchy was restored (of course, the English had been colonizing Scotland and Ireland with an iron fist well before the 17th century), but he also acknowledges the unevenness of capitalist development. The Earl of Shaftesbury—a “gentleman capitalist,” as Levy calls him—hoped to create a neofeudal society replete with baronies in South Carolina, one of several proprietary colonies. (John Locke helped him draw up the plans.) Although that idea pretty much failed, the method of land distribution in South Carolina made it the most aristocratic of the American colonies and, later, states. Elsewhere, the household, with its own hierarchy of power and its orientation to subsistence and local trade, proved to be the centerpiece of economic life well into the 19th century. While some have regarded this household economy as a form of precapitalist “petty commodity production,” Levy sees it as the basis of expanding commercial growth chiefly because of the two forms of capital that defined the age: land and slaves.

Land speculation was surely rife from early on, and the pressure for land (Levy calls it lebensraum, invoking the Nazis’ ambitions to Germany’s east) convulsed North American politics—involving both the British government and Native peoples—for many decades. That pressure made for a “politics of property” that swept through Levy’s Age of Commerce. The American Revolution only further empowered white—especially rural—household heads, and in the ensuing struggle between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions of the country’s economic future, the Jeffersonians and their so-called “empire of liberty” won out, feeding a speculative credit cycle of booms and busts. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, transacted on Jefferson’s watch, nearly doubled the size of the United States, moving it toward continental scale and making for a version of the West Indies in the lower Mississippi Valley. (Oddly, given its enormous political, economic, and demographic impact, Levy doesn’t mention that the purchase was made possible by the successful slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue.)

Land and slavery went more or less hand in hand during Levy’s Age of Commerce. Enslaved labor accounted for most of the North American export trade as early as the mid-18th century and helped propel the economic growth of the United States during the first half of the 19th. Indeed, as Levy sees it—following the conceptual logic of many other scholars in the burgeoning slavery-and-capitalism field—enslaved people epitomized the era’s “capital assets”: They were private property with transactional liquidity, riding the volatile credit cycles and steadily boosting their owners’ wealth and power.

Over time, the United States witnessed two capitalisms taking hold, one based on land and enslaved laborers in the South and the other based on a developing industrial society in the North, where production had “sphered” from the home and wage labor had been turned into a “badge of male independence.” These capitalisms were not, Levy tells us, fated to come into conflict. But after 1840, shifting commercial patterns and a divergence between “southern rigidity and northern transformation” made for a crisis in the “geopolitics of commerce” that harked back to the Earl of Shaftesbury’s plan. The slave South seceded, and in the ensuing war, the Age of Commerce came to an end.

Out of the ashes of war and emancipation (or “the political destruction of enslaved capital”) arose what Levy terms the Age of Capital. Better described as an “age of industrial capital”—since by Levy’s definition, every age of capitalism is necessarily an age of capital—this period encompassed America’s industrial revolution and the transformation of the United States into an industrial and increasingly urban society. The production of capital goods came to the fore; a new manufacturing belt developed that stretched from the Northeast through the Midwest; a new class of industrialists and financiers ascended to power; and a major reorganization of the production process—mass production—took place. Some of the greatest fortunes in American history were made in this era, and some of the most violent labor struggles erupted.

Levy places a great deal of emphasis on the “money question,” and for good reason. The Civil War and Reconstruction laid the basis for a new financial system and a new class of financiers who enriched themselves in the war-driven bond market, and one of the great—and ongoing—struggles was over the money supply and whether creditors or debtors would be the beneficiaries. The creditors won on a variety of fronts, and in the new political economy of post–Civil War America, the once-powerful slaveholding planters were relegated to the back bench of policy-making and the formerly enslaved (who made emancipation and the Confederate defeat possible) were left in thrall to sharecropping—in Levy’s words, a less “efficient capitalist economy” than slavery had been. The two figures hovering over Levy’s Age of Capital are Andrew Carnegie, who got his start in the railroad business, made a fortune in wartime finance, and became a pioneer of the steel industry, and Henry Ford, who drew on the wisdom of Taylorism and ushered in mass production and the assembly line.

But the sailing was not smooth. Between the Civil War and the dawn of the 20th century, two serious financial panics, each followed by a deep economic depression (in 1873 and 1893), rocked American capitalism in town and countryside alike. Levy devotes two chapters to the social upheavals that ensued and that put “class conflict” into the political lexicon of the United States. Organizations like the Knights of Labor won a mass following, demanded an eight-hour workday, and denounced the system of “wage slavery.” Bitter strikes took place along the railroads and in factories, only to be crushed, in many cases, by private armies, state militias, the US Army, or court injunctions. In the agricultural districts of the South and the Plains, the Farmers’ Alliance and then the Populists joined in the critique of capitalism and shared both an “anti-monopoly” ideology and a commitment to cooperatives with the Knights. Yet their defeats were, in Levy’s account, virtually preordained. The “politics of property” gave way to the “politics of income,” and the class consciousness of the period was that of the capitalist class rather than the working class (“class consciousness from above”) or the agricultural producers. Progressivism, which gets limited attention here, subsequently turned “anti-monopoly” into “anti-trust” and “free silver” into the Federal Reserve. The corporatism and widespread fascination with social engineering—including racial segregation—that were central to what has been called the “corporate reconstruction” of American capitalism are almost entirely ignored by Levy, save for the example of Henry Ford.

What doomed the Age of Capital was the Great Depression, and what ushered in the Great Depression was the ever-repeating capitalist credit cycle, this time having infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange, which had soared to unprecedented heights—an “orgy of speculation,” some called it—during the 1920s before collapsing in 1929. In the aftermath, the fault lay with the Federal Reserve and the Hoover administration, both of which were committed to the gold standard. Despite an interest in “administrative intelligence” and an “associational state,” Herbert Hoover was ill-equipped either to recognize or to deal with the scale of the crisis, which, as Levy writes, “destroyed the U.S. economy and with it his presidency.”

From the rubble of the 1929 crash, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal brought forth a new capitalist age, which Levy calls the Age of Control for its goals of “de-volatizing” capitalism and using the power of the state to put bread-winning men back to work. We don’t get much of a sense in Levy’s book of the changing political economy of the United States in the 1930s, which involved the growing influence in the Democratic Party of capital-intensive and internationally oriented industries and of newer investment bankers, in part because he effectively passes over the years between 1900 and 1920. But Levy does recognize the corporatist bent of the early New Deal interventions (especially the National Industrial Recovery Act) and the potential for the sort of authoritarian solution evident in Germany and Italy. Mussolini and his Fascist state received very good press in the United States during the 1920s and early ’30s (the head of the National Recovery Administration had a portrait of Mussolini in his office), and even the liberal journalist Walter Lippmann encouraged FDR to assume dictatorial powers.

The muscle-flexing of an increasingly militant labor movement pushed the New Deal leftward at crucial points in 1934 and 1935 and for a time helped ward off the growing opposition of Southern Democrats, the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the quasi-fascist right. The result was the construction of a new liberalism focused on male pay as the chief currency of distributive justice and the maintenance of private control over investment. The New Deal would, therefore, remain a form of capitalism whatever its social democratic features or the complaints of its enemies.

Yet despite a number of significant developments—taking the United States off the gold standard, enabling large-scale capital-intensive corporations to return to profitability, and investing in public works, especially in the West and South (an embrace of Keynesianism)—the New Deal was floundering by the late 1930s, showing some of the features of a “jobless recovery.” It was, as most historians recognize, World War II that turned the tide. What Levy calls a “third” industrialization took shape, this one built around aluminum, hydropower, and electronics and bolstered by “Big Government.” The United States won a “war of the factories,” and abetted by the Bretton Woods monetary agreements, it emerged with unprecedented power in global affairs, with a domestic “broker state” tied to a new national security apparatus. A postwar “hinge” in which labor and capital struggled over the meaning of “industrial democracy” swung in favor of capital, though with important concessions to organized labor in the form of wages, benefits, and cost-of-living adjustments. A “golden age of capitalism” based on home ownership and mass consumption dawned in the United States, while “varieties of capitalism” arose among the country’s allies, fortified by US consumer goods.

The problem, according to Levy, was that postwar liberalism never fashioned a public investment strategy, and by the mid-1960s it was being rocked by social rebellions across the country, a new war in Southeast Asia, and rising competition in the global market. Moreover, unlike during the New Deal years, the Democratic Party failed to maintain an adequate electoral coalition, especially as the Great Society was unveiled. Liberal Democrats began to suffer political defeats, and in the 1970s American capitalism saw a deepening crisis marked by recession and inflation (“stagflation”), declining corporate profit rates, a shift of capital to the Sun Belt, two “oil shocks,” and a growing offensive on the part of capital against the postwar gains of organized labor. The incomes of middle- and working-class men went flat, and a new political conservatism began to blossom among them (though this history is much more complex than Levy allows). Rather than revitalize New Deal Keynesianism, the Democrats, especially under Jimmy Carter, looked to deregulation. Carter termed the policy “de-control,” and in 1979 he appointed the inflation hawk Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve. Volcker’s determination to dramatically boost interest rates helped bury Carter’s presidency and drove the last nail in the coffin of the Age of Control.

Even so, Levy arguably could have placed the end of the Age of Control a decade earlier with the political debacles of 1968 (including the Tet Offensive in Vietnam), the growth of inflation, the first oil shock, Nixon’s scuttling of international gold convertibility, and the rise of Sun Belt capitalism (where real estate became the driving force and conservatism the anchor) at the expense of the manufacturing belt. Either way, a new period of American capitalism that Levy designates the Age of Chaos became ascendant in the 1980s, guided by an increasingly powerful financial sector seeking speculative investments and devising new instruments—leveraged buyouts, subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, financial derivatives—to fuel its rise.

The Reagan administration proved to be a great facilitator, both by accelerating the deregulatory trend begun under Carter and by providing federal aid for capital’s attack on labor, especially in crushing the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ strike in 1981. “Neoliberal” ideas—Levy uses the term hesitantly—regarding markets, globalization, and the role of the government in promoting the mobility of capital came to prominence. Indeed, so influential did they become that in the 1990s the Clinton administration fully embraced them—along with Reagan’s heavy-handed approach to welfare and criminal justice reform—and, in the process, advanced the explosive expansion of the IT sector and the Internet. Not surprisingly, it was Clinton, following the lead of investment banker and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who oversaw the deregulation of some credit instruments, the loosening of home lending rules, and the repeal of the New Deal era’s Glass-Steagall Act, which had mandated the separation of commercial and investment banking. “Flow, fluidity, risk, individual choice, the blurring of boundaries, the collapse of walls, [and] globalization” became the values of Levy’s Age of Chaos (though it’s not entirely clear which age of capitalism was not chaotic).

Both finance capital and the Federal Reserve, now under Alan Greenspan, believed that they had found the keys to profits, transactional liquidity, low inflation, low interest rates, and the benefits of rising consumer debt, especially in terms of housing. The largest investment banks piled into the mortgage-bundling business, imagining an endless source of returns. But as we know, it all went bust in 2008, as home values faltered and defaults skyrocketed. The Great Recession, which ends Levy’s book, followed. With the Obama administration making policy during this great crisis, one might have expected the onset of a new age of capitalism. Yet here Levy sees only more continuity, as Obama assembled a team that harked back to the Clinton years and focused on bailing out the financial sector. What did change were the political dynamics: As Levy presents it, the left dropped the ball and handed the initiative to the right, particularly the new Tea Party movement, which helped to scorch the Democrats in the 2010 midterms and laid the groundwork for the right-wing populism that quickly took charge of most state governments and then enabled Trump’s election in 2016.

Ages of American Capitalism is a big book, one that is clearly the product of wide-ranging research and serious thinking. Anyone interested in the economic history of the United States will find it of genuine value, and at nearly 800 pages, one would hesitate to ask for more subject matter and discussion. But there are odd omissions, oversights, and discontinuities that speak directly to a series of relevant questions: How did American capitalism develop? How did the political economy turn in a certain direction? How can we best understand some of the deepest struggles that erupted in this country? Did American capitalism ever have any important rivals?

Levy begins with the making of the British Empire and the political reorganization of Britain’s North American colonies. He also considers Jefferson’s “empire of liberty.” Yet this is pretty much the last we hear of empire, colonial conquest, the different forms of imperialism, and the extension of American power beyond the country’s borders—at least until we get well into the 20th century. There is barely a mention of Texas’s annexation (driven not only by slavery but also by the effort to control the international cotton market), of the US-Mexican War, of the massive financial investment in northern Mexico after the Civil War (which played a hand in the coming of the Mexican Revolution), of the “Open Door” policy (mentioned in a different connection), of the Spanish-American War (which turned the United States into a different kind of imperial nation), or of the Vietnam War (mentioned as a sidebar to other discussions).

Yet ever since the 1950s, when William Appleman Williams and his many students refashioned American “diplomatic” history by insisting that foreign and domestic politics were inextricably linked, it has been impossible to think about the search for markets, the drive for territorial buffers and bases, the construction of a national security state, and the interventions against socialist and communist movements as not being a fundamental part of the history of American capitalism. At the very least, we need some perspective on whether the development of American capitalism encouraged imperial projects and what these projects meant for it. After all, the American political economy between 1945 and 1989 was to a large extent organized around the growing threat of socialism and communism. How much, then, did the end of the Cold War, particularly the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, contribute not to a brief period of optimism for what Levy calls a “new economy” but to the apparently chaotic character of the entire age—to a new world disorder?

Levy is hardly the first to argue that the labor of enslaved African peoples was crucial to the economic growth of British North America and then of the early United States. Nor is he the first to depict enslavement as a form of capitalism or enslaved people as capital assets. Yet these are arguments that simply ignore the multi-decade debates, beginning with Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and moving through Eugene Genovese’s Political Economy of Slavery (1965) and Barbara Fields’s Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground (1984)—neither of which merit so much as a footnote—that complicated the relationship between slavery and capitalism, owing to the forms of power, labor exploitation, and development that systems of enslavement entailed. They ignore as well the rich literature on dependency and dual-economy theory (meaning the contradictory process of capitalist development) that has focused on Latin America and Africa but has been linked directly to slavery by scholars like Ernesto Laclau.

Those comfortable with understanding slavery as a form of capitalism (perhaps the essence of capitalism) but interested specifically in the concept of “racial capitalism” will be sorely disappointed. Levy not only doesn’t bother to address this—and there are many grounds on which to push back on the concept—but he also pretty much sidesteps the issue of whether American capitalism fed, in fundamental ways, on the exploitation of people of color, both within the United States and elsewhere around the world.

What we call “Jim Crow” was more than a system of segregation and disenfranchisement; it was an entire regime of domination and subordination integral to the Southern road of post-emancipation capitalism, and it was very much a model for the organization of American capital overseas—think of the Panama Canal Zone, Central America, and the Philippines—as well as for South African apartheid.

Regarding capitalism principally as a process of investment has wider implications than merely for the study of slavery and race. It also limits our perspective on how capitalism, in its various forms, works to dispossess, dislocate, cast off, and ruthlessly exploit. What moves in Levy’s book is capital, and the movers are the capitalists. Little attention is given, for example, to migrant labor, in the United States or in global circuits, which went into the making of capitalism as an international system. To what extent does capitalism produce and then thrive on surplus populations as well as surplus value? Likewise, little attention is given to immigrant communities and how they simultaneously stoked the engines of capitalism and devised strategies and institutions designed to protect them from its worst effects. And there is little acknowledgment of American labor’s long history of civil and political exclusions. Save for a brief period in the mid-20th century, the American working class has been composed chiefly of people with precarious civil status and limited political rights: enslaved people, women, and children in the leading sectors before the Civil War; European and Chinese immigrants, many of whom returned home or could not vote, in the second half of the 19th century; people of African descent who fled disenfranchisement and repression in the South only to find new forms of discrimination and oppression in the North and West; and growing streams of undocumented workers, especially in recent decades, who run the constant risk of arrest and deportation.

Although Levy can be attuned to issues of culture, we miss as well an orientation to the collective sensibilities of the capitalists. His suggestion that the Gilded Age witnessed the class consciousness of capital is more or less dropped thereafter, in good part because we lack a clear view of the shifting relations between the different sectors of capital and the political parties and policies that governed the country: the core of political economy.

Donald Trump makes some appearances in the last pages of Ages of American Capitalism; Bernie Sanders makes none. Neither does Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party USA, the Popular Front, or the Progressive Party of 1948. Nor do we meet Thomas Skidmore, William Heighton, William Manning, or Fanny Wright, who in their own ways were critics of the capitalism emerging in the new republic, although we are reminded of the doubts raised by Dickens, Emerson, Melville, and especially Thoreau. Critics of capitalism on the right, from pro-slavery theorists to the Nashville Agrarians, are not to be found either.

Levy is no cheerleader for American capitalism; his book is written with a critical edge throughout. Yet it is also a book born of a neoliberal age when capitalism seemed omnipresent and hegemonic; when capitalists appeared as masters of the universe whose power derived from the invention and manipulation of financial instruments; and when opposition was regarded as insubstantial, misguided, and pointless. Occupy Wall Street is mentioned parenthetically, the anti-globalization movements of the 1990s not at all. The renewed interest in socialism, fed and harvested by Sanders in his two presidential campaigns, is passed over.

Strikingly, Levy concludes with the hope that a “democratic politics of capital” may emerge or that “post-capitalist futures” may be imagined. But there is little in his history that could be excavated for such a politics or such a future.

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