Writing the History of Capitalism with Class
But every economy is shaped by politics.
—Judith Stein, Pivotal Decade
Over the last decade, probably no subfield of analysis has seen as much growth and been as voguish in American historiography as the self-proclaimed “new history of capitalism.”1 With institutional homes at Harvard and the New School, a book series at Columbia, and burgeoning numbers of conferences and special journal issues devoted to the subfield, to quote a New York Times headline, “in history departments, it’s up with capitalism.”2 Some of the work done under the moniker has been salutary, though on the whole perhaps not revolutionary or even particularly new in its broader historiographical and interpretive implications. Certainly in my graduate cohort in the early and mid 2000s many of us understood we were studying capitalism historically, though if asked to define ourselves we might have used methodological designations like intellectual, cultural, or social; or subject designations such as labor, political economy, African-American, legal, gender or urban to modify our respective research interests. Nevertheless—and I do not think we were unique in this regard—while we saw ourselves as grappling with the question of change and continuity in political economy or historicized capitalist social relations we did not see ourselves as making any substantive departure from generations of scholars who came before us. On the contrary, I suspect we saw our interest in the relationship between political economy and our other concerns as in line with those of our advisors and the historians as well as humanistic social scientists we most admired. Indeed, one of the most puzzling things about the history-of-capitalism phenomenon has been its assertion that the only options for historical and critical attention between roughly the end of the Cold War and the Global Financial Crisis were neoclassical-derived rational-actor models and the cultural turn, with not a locale save the former that would allow attention to economic issues.3
Thus, I had always thought the notion of a “new history of capitalism” as above all a marketing trick. And, as marketing tricks go, it has probably been successful, at least on its own terms. I have certainly not been immune to its charms when naming classes to attract students in an enrollment economy of scarcity or in self-descriptions for employers or grant providers who may find it sexy because the New York Times wrote about it and it’s institutionalized now at Harvard. Deans and provosts in particular find it appealing. Unlike more politically charged terms like labor and political economy, the history of capitalism holds out a promise to administrators—if perhaps unfulfilled—of attracting students and funding normally directed toward business schools or economics departments. And if, as marketing trick, it leads to more student interest in historicizing political economy and capitalist social relations—something I am not certain has actually occurred—then that’s a feedback loop I could get behind.
Analytically though, after more than a decade of breathless boosterism and highly contestable claims of revolutionary interpretive shifts, the “new history of capitalism” has finally come in for some much needed analytical critique.4 Critical essays and comments by scholars like Rosemary Feurer, Paul Kramer, Jonathan Levy, Scott Marler, Charles Post, and Amy Dru Stanley have collectively pointed out some of the diverse contradictions and deficiencies of the fad while pushing those who see themselves working in this vein into more productive and analytic directions. In this essay I highlight the importance of these critiques while suggesting that the remedies for many of the analytic deficiencies of the “new history of capitalism” have been hiding in plain sight as it were in the work of Judith Stein—and particularly, in her last two books, Running Steel, Running America and Pivotal Decade. Despite writing two of the most important studies of United States political economy since World War II—studies that, taken together, do more to explain the actual functioning of American capitalism during this period than the oeuvre of any other historian—Stein is puzzlingly never cited as a forebear of this scholarship. This is especially ironic given that in 2000—in the dark days when Foucault-infected historians cared nothing for the economy—Stein wrote that “the problem of social history may not be its alleged privileging of the working class but its disinterest in the history of capitalism.”5 The reason for this oversight is not scholarly bad manners I suggest, though it might be that too. Rather, something in Stein’s work and interpretive framework—namely a refusal to name capitalism as a causative agent of any sort combined with a deep attention to the social and political relations that make capitalist practices possible—has made her work anathema to the new history of capitalism and sheds light on some of its erroneous and ahistorical assumptions.
It should not come as a surprise that one of the first critiques of the trend toward the putatively new history of capitalism came from a labor historian. To those of us who self-consciously identify with the field, the notion that we were not studying capitalism before this historical or historiographical moment certainly came as a bit of a shock. Thus, in 2013, Rosemary Feurer published a critique of the history of capitalism, which seems to have been a largely unnoticed, in the Labor and Working Class History Association’s online opinion journal LaborOnline.6 In a brief accounting of Time Magazine and the New York Times’ attention to the new subfield, Feurer rightfully and with annoyance points out that Northern Illinois University, likely amongst others, preceded Harvard’s “first of its kind” courses on the history of capitalism by decades. She justifiably goes on to suggest that, “for some of us, political economy was always a core way of understanding labor history, so it’s good to know that everything old is new again, and we can call it a trend” (“Mainstream Media”). Despite Feurer’s clear and welcome sarcasm here, she was generally complimentary to the historiography, objecting most forcefully to the elitist invocation of its newness (one imagines the ensuing comedy if a scholar from Northern Illinois University proclaimed in the New York Times that they were the first to do something that Harvard had been doing for years). Still, she was on to more than she perhaps realized or at least cared to express at the time when, quoting the New York Times, she wrote:
“Instead of searching for working-class radicalism they looked at office clerks and entrepreneurs,” the article assures readers, as though these scholars are doing sensible things instead of holding out faith in worker’s movements. (“Mainstream Media”)
This insight is important and represents one of the central reasons some of us have been suspicious of the fad from the beginning: the “new history of capitalism” is a trend precisely because it does not suggest labor struggle has played much of a role in shaping the past—and by implication the present and future—of capitalism.. More recently, Paul Kramer made a similar point at a broader level, suggesting that the essential promise of the “new history of capitalism” as an “effective brand” was its ability to “insulate itself—perhaps better put, to disembed itself—from expressly political questions” thus allowing it to appeal to people “that embraced capitalist power relations and sought managerial how-to answers, as well as those that brought critical perspectives to bear.”7
At a more analytical level, Scott Marler suggested this same line of critique, which was largely ignored by his fellow contributors to the Journal of American History’s 2014 feature “Interchange: The History of Capitalism.”8 In nearly thirty pages of exchange, Marler is the only scholar who uses class as an analytic category in any meaningful way at all. In broad terms, he suggested that “when class appears in capitalist histories, it is too often clothed in the modest, inoffensive garb of cultural studies.”9 More specifically, he also registers what in mainstream intellectual discourse—if not in the specialized historiographical fields of slavery, the South, and the Atlantic world—has been increasingly unspeakable; namely, that southern slavery, though immensely profitable in its own right and intimately connected to historical commodity production and capital investment, was not capitalist for, amongst other reasons, the fact that “wealthy planters and urban merchants failed to demonstrate class cohesion.”10 If in Feurer’s suggestive critique the new history of capitalism seems to be sidelining labor struggles as a determinant of how the social and political relations that produce capitalism actually work and operate in real historical time, then Marler’s critique presents the opposite side of the coin. Namely the emergent historiography seems also to be sidelining the important role of bourgeois class cohesion in producing the scaffolding of capitalist economies. We are left, then, with a capitalism that seems to have little to do with class and by implication radically decontextualized social and political relations.
The question of slavery and capitalism is something of a microcosm of the broader issues brought about by these new histories. There is no question, nor has there been a question—at least since the publication of Kenneth Stampp’s Peculiar Institution in 1956—that slavery in the U.S. South was connected in some manner with both Northern American capitalist social relations and those of the broader world. Mississippi cotton found its way to Manchester factories. Shoes made in were worn by slaves on Louisiana sugar plantations. And time-motion studies developed in Georgia fields were amongst the genealogies for Frederick Winslow Taylor’s deskilling innovations in the steel industry. The last time I was in Cuba I rode in a brand new Peugot, watched a queue of Maersk container ships in the Port of Havana, and made a private bet to myself about how long it would take CIMAVax EGF to be slightly modified and sold at a massive mark-up by Merck or Pfizer. At any interpretive level, exchange, contemporaneousness, and even deep interconnection do not imply coequality of social relations let alone causation.
As James Oakes pithily noted in his compelling 2017 reflection on Judith Stein’s work, the one thing that new historians of capitalism claim not to be able to explain is the Civil War.11 In a broader critique of this literature later that year, Charles Post expanded on this argument, pointing out the new history of capitalism’s elision of the difference between labor power and laborer and the compulsion of the whip and the compulsion of the contract.12 In agreement with traditional economic historians, Post suggests there are deep evidentiary problems with a literature that sees in plantation slavery’s interconnection with global capitalist social relations evidence of their identical character. He goes onto argue that the capitalism and slavery historiography fails to account for “the social basis for the polarization of American politics over the future of the Western territories (“free soil” versus “slave soil”) that led to the U.S. Civil War.”13 Thus, furthering Marler’s point, whether internal to the slave-based production of the American South, found in the deep lack of meaningful political cohesion amongst planters and northern capitalists at least by the 1840s, or in the broader social political history in which their interests and actions diverged over the character of Western Territories, the proclamation of slavery’s capitalism completely negates class as a meaningful social category. Finally, consciously or not, collapsing the distinction between slavery and capitalism has the effect of aiding and abetting the growing historiographical trope that sees little discontinuity between slavery and Jim Crow segregation because of unchanging and decontextualized white supremacy.
In a different vein, Amy Dru Stanley has recently asked, “why is the emergent grand narrative of a ‘new’ history of capitalism so blind to sex difference?” As she notes, “in current scholarship, however, the dynamic of capitalism is summed up by market expansion—not specifically by wage labor or by class relations—and problems of gender seem to have disappeared from accounts of political economy in which finance takes center stage.”14 She asks why multiple generations of feminist scholarship that grounded historical iterations of capitalist social relations in family economies and the commodification of men’s and women’s labor power in particular and distinctive historical ways are nowhere to be found in the new history of capitalism? In perhaps suggesting an answer to her question, she rightly points out, the feminist historical project “was inseparable from exploring the history of capitalism, at a moment when the study of capitalism’s history was all about class” (“Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference,” 346). A history of capitalist social relations—grounded in expanding markets and novel financial instruments while devoid of class as an analytic category—will naturally fail to account for both women’s historical experience as both waged and unwaged workers and the historical production of gender ideologies. Generations of feminist scholarship brilliantly showed how both the experiences and the categories of woman/women shaped and were shaped by social relations in which capitalism and capitalists flourished—in particular the political, cultural and social relationships between classes—in different times and places.15 As such these relationships formed the broader context that allowed or disallowed all sorts of capitalist practices. Removing class as an analytic category thus effectively removes women and gender as well except insofar as they behave as capitalists themselves or are illiberally denied access to markets.
Jonathan Levy’s recent article “Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism,” represents perhaps the broadest critique of this historiography—and its most thorough attempt at salvation. Following Lamoreaux, Levy is critical of the literature’s failure to define capitalism. As a basis for fixing this absence, he proposes an understanding of “capital as process,” or the contingent manner in which people, businesses, corporations, and other institutions are near constantly converting legal wealth and property into capital. Following from this, “an economy in which capitalization has risen to principal economic status may be said to be capitalist.”16 For Levy, understanding capital as process necessarily means foregrounding the radical uncertainty of its future orientation as well as its historical production (“Capital as Process,” 500). With no intrinsic value to capital,
the question becomes, as Veblen put it, “Whose formation of value is to be accepted.” There is no such thing as capital—property assigned a pecuniary value in expectation of future pecuniary income—without capitalists . . . Capital is a matter of power and of politics, of determining which assets get capitalized, under what terms, and for the benefit of whom. These issues begin to raise the question of capitalism. (“Capital as Process,” 502-03)
To which I would reply, precisely. Levy suggests a series of manners in which historians of capitalism might sketch out what he usefully labels as “prospective” and “retrospective” histories of capital as well as an especially important discussion of devaluation as an intrinsic aspect of capitalization.17 Somewhat curiously though, what I would argue are the key scaffolding clauses in the above quoted passage, “of power and of politics,” and “under what terms, and for the benefit of whom,” get short shrift in these sketches. He concludes his essay with a brief note on the political implications of his formulations, writing, “intrinsic to capitalism is a vulnerability to collective efforts to imagine and achieve economic futures different from the past. Might the history of capitalism contribute to that?” (“Capital as Process,” 510). Capital needs capitalists. Creating the conditions under which they are able to create capital for their benefit (and not others’) means capitalists need to exercise political power. This power is contingent on the ability, or lack thereof, of collective efforts to produce different outcomes. If the history of capitalism is going to contribute to such a future it certainly needs, as a first order priority, to understand how capitalists have attained and exercised such power and how they have occasionally been thwarted or at least detoured. That is, it must be deeply structured in and by the history of class.
Thankfully, there was a historian whose work exemplified just such a nuanced history and who can serve as a model for those of us who want to understand capital as process, the historical ways in which capitalists have exercised power in their interests as capitalists, and how this power has been curtailed in various ways at particular moments through collective, i.e. class, politics. In the remainder of this essay I briefly sketch Judith Stein’s interpretation of postwar American capitalist social and political relations in her books Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (1998) and Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s (2010). There are multiple compelling interpretations of a variety of events and processes in these books and I do not address all of them. What I do pay special attention to is Stein’s analysis of the contingent developments that structure the capitalism of the last half century. What she describes is precisely that which the new histories of capitalism gloss over frequently, taking these developments as intrinsic givens in the very nature of capitalism or as the effects of structural shifts disconnected from political or social relations. Stein’s work, on the other hand, suggests that historically specific regimes of capitalism need to be accounted for, at the first order, through the balance of class forces in any given era as well the political choices these determine; that is, class politics—not in some mechanist manner but in the choices available and unavailable at particular historical moments—accounts for capital as a process, capitalists themselves (insofar as they are able to behave like capitalists), and capitalism, not vice versa. Finally, I conclude by posing the question of whether the erasure of Stein as well as many others, including but not limited to labor historians, is not an accident of marketing, manners or cohort definition, but inherent in the nature of the project of the new history of capitalism and what may be its intrinsic conservatism.
“Why did the nation replace the assumptions that capital and labor should prosper together with an ethic claiming that the promotion of capital will eventually benefit labor…?”18 How did the United States go from what she terms the “Age of Compression” to the “Age of Inequality?” So Stein opens Pivotal Decade. No question in the history of American capitalism since World War II is more important. It represents the single most dramatic change in the process of capital and how it mattered in the lives of Americans over this time period. The story Stein tells is highly contingent. The choices and interests of people who wielded democratic and extra-democratic power like politicians, businessmen, industrialists, party officials, civil rights organizations, labor unions, and the national security apparatus mattered in this shift and did so in ways in which they did not intend. When taken as a whole though, the transition from compression to inequality was the result of the political balance of class forces becoming extremely tilted toward the interests of increasingly unfettered capital accumulation.
In the 1950s industrial policy in the U.S. was dominated by tax incentives for the military, the promotion of antimonopolistism, and broad regional development. Despite its relative strength and incredibly important victories in comparison to previous iterations, the fact that pensions, unemployment, cost of living raises, and health care became part of labor negotiations rather than state policy was a sign of the labor movement’s weakness, a fact that leaders acknowledged. As Stein put it, “collective bargaining carried the burden of social welfare and eventually those of technological change and industrial restructuring as well.”19 Meanwhile, automation was rearing its head. “Each time the recessions of the 1950s ended, fewer workers returned to work” (Running Steel, Running America, 24). As the 1950s turned into the 1960s and the country shifted from Eisenhower’s presidency to Kennedy’s, the state made only piecemeal attempts at remedying unemployment like the Area Redevelopment Act, the Accelerated Public Works Act, and the Manpower Development and Training Act. Such efforts did not amount to macro labor policy. In an era of broadly assumed affluence, trade and industrial planning took a back seat to foreign policy and a disadvantageous global economic policy was, as Senator Jacob Javits put it “the penalty we pay for being the world leader” (Running Steel, Running America, 29). The stock market collapse of May 1962 and predicted recession led Kennedy to turn to an across-the-board tax cut. Apart from the twenty-percent across-the-board decreases. This measure ensconced macroeconomic policies that made no sectoral distinctions between industries and marked a turn in the federal government’s modus operandi away from specific industrial planning and labor market promotion. In the short term, broad American affluence continued as the result of a massive investment boom. In the long term, though, the defeats and compromises of the 1950s and early 1960s laid the seeds of “the age of inequality” (Running Steel, Running America, 31-36).
At precisely the same moment—one of broad and growing affluence but declining opportunities for targeted planning and labor-market intervention—the Civil Rights Movement was achieving its legislative goals. Despite heroic efforts at shifting the terrain toward structural and planning solutions by powerful leaders with broad constituencies like A. Philip Randolph and Walter Reuther, by the early 1970s, as Stein conclusively argued:
The notion of affluence informed both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination, and the “War on Poverty,” which provided various kinds of youth training. The former ignored the broader economic forces that diminished the work of current steelworkers and potential ones…; the latter ignored the diminished supply and changing character of work in the cities. Although a diverse group of politicians, activists, and academics advocated more active labor market policies, they were overwhelmed by the dominant policy makers. The neo-Keynesian consensus accepted the idea that the pricing system in the aggregate was imperfect, yielding sluggish growth and high unemployment; thus they were interventionist in the macroeconomy. But because they believed labor markets performed adequately, they were laissez-faire in the microeconomy. The market, not government, would redeploy labor, they argued. Prohibiting bigotry was in harmony with this project because prejudice interfered with the proper functioning of the labor market. (Running Steel, Running America, 4-5)
Thus, inequality became a function of either discrimination on the one hand or on the other, “human capital” and its conjoined , the tangled web of pathologies that supposedly haunted African Americans in the 1960s and beyond and have frequently been deployed against other groups on the basis of region, taste, or genetic notions of backwards culture.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s and beyond, the broad assumption and experience of postwar affluence gave way to deep economic challenges brought forth by the end of Bretton Woods, the oil crisis, and free trade, “the snake in the postwar Garden of Eden” (Pivotal Decade, 7). Despite this context, the matrimony between —both based in largely affluent constituencies or at least those in which industrial policy mattered little on a day-to-day level—meant that the Democratic Party thought these shocks to American prosperity were temporary. Democrats, who were at a decided electoral advantage at the beginning of the 1970s—even discounting the soon-to-be Republicans still clinging to the party that did not try to take away their great-grandfathers’ slaves more than a century before—gave voters
incoherent policies that neither protected labor nor promoted growth. The critical moments occurred in 1979 when a Democratic president chose in vain to battle inflation, not unemployment, and promote a balanced budget, not growth. (Pivotal Decade, xi-xii)
In such a world, a Democratic Party that saw its base in a socially liberal and professional middle class had little to offer other than a moral critique of environmental degradation, consumer safety, and discrimination in a constricting labor market with declining wages.
When Reagan took office in 1981–which was more the result of Carter’s incompetency than some rightward, pro-unencumbered capital shift in American life—“a new recipe for economic growth prescribed freeing capital from taxes and unions and liberating markets from government rules” (Pivotal Decade, 262). Via a political power born of its financial support of both major parties, finance “soon became the master and not servant of production in the United States” (Pivotal Decade, 296). With this power it emphasized the dismantlement of regulatory apparatuses, the opening of investment and speculative opportunities in social goods, unencumbered free trade, and historically low rates of taxation. Along the way, the most incomplete aspects of the social state—particularly those not enshrined as universalistic rights like Social Security and Medicare—faltered at the hands of declining revenue and a Democratic Party that first waivered then abandoned its commitment to them. The labor movement was decimated by bipartisan policies that substantially weakened its strongest industrial members and more recently its strong footholds in the public sector and was thus put in a posture of permanent defensiveness. Without an institutional basis in organized labor, even remnants of the Democratic Party committed to reopening questions of labor market planning, industrial and trade policy, and comprehensive social welfare have been forced to rely more on moral arguments about the evils of this or that policy or the shocking exposure of inequality than concrete appeals to organized voter interests.
Writing in the New York Times in 1990, former Nixon advisor and theorist of the Southern Strategy Kevin Philips noted:
Part of the reason survival-of-the-fittest periods are so relentless however, rests on the performance of the Democrats as history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party. They do not interfere with capitalist momentum…20
Nothing explains the capitalism of the Age of Inequality more than the declining ability of politics to shape the terms of the process of capital and to determine for whose benefit that process would be conducted. And while Philips’ quip makes for a nice line, it was not always so, nor was it destined to be so.
For Stein the history of the capitalism of the last six decades is one in which opposition to the most radically upward redistributionist tendencies of the process of capital declined almost constantly in efficacy and political power. A left-to-right consensus that the American economy should be of broad beneficence to all citizens gave way to what Philips usefully described as a “survival-of-the-fittest period” that has seen no abatement under either political party’s rule. During this same period the Democratic Party went from depending for votes and money on labor and labor’s interests to depending on a professional managerial class and its moral concerns and a financial class and its economic interests. From the party of A. Philip Randolph to the party of Gary Becker. Some may quibble with this argument and give more agency to the seemingly novel techniques (from direct mail to the Southern Strategy) that helped pro-capitalist forces—that is, class forces like industries, political parties, and lobbying groups—succeeded. There are larger questions at work in this debate surrounding social and political causation, but I’m reminded of Barbara Jeanne Fields’ words: “[u]ltimately, the only check upon oppression is the strength and effectiveness of resistance to it.”21 If one accepts Levy’s argument about the nature of capital as a process, then following from Fields and Stein, the question is never about capitalists being more moral or enlightened capitalists, it’s about whether the rest of the world is able to dictate the conditions under which they operate.
Stein’s arguments suggest that only in light of class politics, never mechanistic, always complicated and contextual, and often contradictory, does capitalism have a history at all. That is, it’s the only way that capitalism experiences any change in real-world effects over time. Which brings me back to the question of why the history of capitalism has become so buzzworthy. I wonder and worry if the fashionability of the field comes from its evasion of this question. Does it spring from a hope—perhaps born of personal history, friendship and family, and social and institutional embeddedness within a professional managerial class—that capital and capitalists can regulate themselves, that in effect, capitalism can have a history sans class politics. As Stein’s work shows, this seems at best naively decontextualized—detached from the actual history of capitalism. And at worst? Then the new history of capitalism looks a lot like the ideological expression of its subject.