Reassembling the Economic: New Departures in Historical Materialism1
Department of History
Florida International University
To appear in the American Historical Review, February 2016
Historians are examining the economy once again. They are studying commodities, markets, corporations, and banks. They are mapping trade patterns, dissecting marketing strategies, and deconstructing managerial ideologies. Graduate schools now offer courses on the history of finance, political economy and the grandest topic of all, capitalism. Sensitive to cultural history’s critique of simple materialism, the new scholarship in business and economic history offers the possibility of a synthesis of the material and mental in the study of the past.
Fifty years ago history was anchored in what Geoff Eley and Keith Nield term a “sovereign materialism.”2 Even when studying culture and social relations, historians assumed that at base the past was shaped through material forces, notably systems of production, technology, property, and exchange. Much of the debate in the profession over the past half century has been about establishing the authority of ideas, values, and identities independent of coarse materiality or narrow economic interests. That project was largely successful, but it isolated the study of economic matters from the mainstream of history.
The return of the economic reflects a desire to take the material side of life seriously once again. Things, nature, technologies, labor and commodities count, not just as cultural representations or referents in language, but in their own right. But things, their making and exchanging, cannot be separated from language and ideas. Understanding the interconnections between material and symbolic life is at the heart of the new literature. The best examples have found original and compelling ways to bring the economic back into the larger narratives of history.
In what follows, I shall explore the projects of the new economic and business historians. The works discussed largely cover the past two hundred years. Most, though not all, concern the West, or examine other regions as they connect with or compare to the West. This is partly a matter of my own professional expertise, but also a reflection of where much of the new work has concentrated. Nonetheless, as we shall see, some of the topics have deep roots in the pre modern past while others span the world. Likewise, I have selected key examples from labor history, environmental history and the history of technology, but not attempted to do justice to the important and related developments in those fields. Instead, I draw from these literatures as well as texts central to economic and business history to address three big issues: the industrial revolution; capitalism; and the global economy. I conclude by arguing for tearing down the walls between economic, social, and cultural history, a reunification plan that requires historians to rethink materiality.
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In the early 1970s, economic history was one of the most stimulating fields in the profession.3 Drawing on economic theory, with its noted precision and rigor, so-called cliometricians bid to overturn long standing historical interpretations.4 Leading the uprising was future Nobel laureate Robert Fogel. His books on railroads and then, with Stanley Engerman, on slavery, argued that historians had misunderstood transportation, agriculture, slave plantations, and indeed many other features of the past. Economic theory would help set the record straight.5
Cliometricians made the boldest statements of this era, but economic history more broadly could be found in multiple literatures that rested the social on a material base. In Europe Ferdinand Braudel guided the Annales School (originally Annales d'histoire économique et sociale) through both Marxian and mainstream economics, as well as geography, sociology, and anthropology to write a total history of society. Moving from geology to economy to culture, the Annales brought both mountains and mentalities under the purview of the historian.6 In Britain, Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill and others led a new wave of Marxist scholarship that investigated the long history of capitalism.7 Back in the United States, Alfred Chandler and his followers combined economics and organizational sociology to map the history of the corporation.8 Scholars took different approaches and had different politics to be sure, but all “wrestled inside the ring of historical materialism,” seeking the connection between social experience, mentality and material forces.9
The prominence of the economic in history declined quickly in the 1980s. By then historians had found a new appreciation for language and symbols that made reductive materialism seem too narrow and mechanistic. Post structuralists questioned the presumption that human experience took place outside of language. Focusing on the semiotic systems that shaped subjectivity, they unseated the long standing belief that class interests would arise out of objective economic circumstances. Their critique “played havoc” with material and structural history and left it “badly in doubt.”10 Society could no longer be conceptualized as structures operating on human agency and consciousness. 11
As historians’ confidence in the base importance of material structures declined, so too did their interest in the economy. Labor historians looked outside of the workspace and studied communities and identities. Social historians turned their attention from class to language.12 New cultural historians interrogated texts and read systems of signs to understand the mental world of people in the past, even the inarticulate, subordinated, and anonymous. Post structuralists also challenged the positivist, empirical methods favored by economic historians. They pointed to the inevitably intertextual nature of what had been assumed to be objective evidence, and they deconstructed what had been taken as ahistorical categories, such as gender. Cliometricians and business historians, on the other hand, remained loyal to structural history and positivist methodology, affording them little connection with the move to subjectivity and semiotics.13 Economic theory lost status with most historians, who were now reading cultural anthropology and literary theory.14 At the very time when multinational corporations were restructuring the global economy and nations were embracing neoliberal policies, the economic found scant space in historical writing.15
The recent rebound of interest in economic matters grows from a sense that the profession has left itself without a way to engage these sorts of issues.16 The authors of this new literature, however, are less committed to old style structural analysis and more prepared to try on a variety of theoretical perspectives. Many are trained in history, but others come from sociology, anthropology, environmental studies, even accounting and management.17 Likewise, mainstream economists have grown more interested values, institutions and politics.18 The result has been something of a cross-disciplinary convergence in economic history, though with important differences in methods and interpretations.
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Industrialization, and the pattern of world economic development more generally, was one of the principal subjects of economic history decades ago. Traditionally framed by the question why did Europe industrialize first, the answers had once seemed clear. Mechanized factories, first in Britain, then on the European continent, vastly increased productivity.19 A relative handful of places harnessed the new production technology, riding an unprecedented “hockey stick” trajectory of upward economic growth. Consumer abundance, longer life spans, better health, taller bodies, shorter work hours, smaller families, more leisure time, and perhaps democratic politics, human rights and new personalities followed from this fundamental economic change.20
In the 1980s and 90s, some writers challenged this dramatic, indeed heroic story of industrialization. They proposed that change was gradual not sudden, a slow accumulation of improvements in technology and markets. They emphasized not the industrial revolution but the earlier commercial revolution that swept across Northern Europe.21 Most recently, some have argued that there was nothing special about Europe, as the same economic potential existed elsewhere. Debate continues between the Eurocentric and world historical perspectives on industrialization and economic development.
Joel Mokyr has kept the European side of the argument alive. He sees industrialization as a long term development, but one with roots deep Europe’s past. In The Gifts of Athena, he gives credit to the unique freedom and intellectual culture fostered by the Enlightenment.22 New ideas about progress inspired a faith in human control and improvement of nature, which opened the doors to scientific and technological innovations.23 From these new forms of “useful knowledge” came factory mechanization and mineral energy sources, abundant agricultural yields and improving living standards.24
Mokyr’s celebration of Enlightenment progress runs strongly against the prevailing historiography. Historians of technology question the presumed links between science and industrialization and historians of science deemphasize the notion of culture-wide revolution in thought and knowledge.25 The Enlightenment also encompassed a far broader range of people than Mokyr considers. Free and enslaved Africans and colonial subjects were equally engaged with the new climate of thought, but were unable to participate in entrepreneurial activities or technological innovations.26
Many economists nonetheless remain convinced that there was something distinctive in European history that explains its early and fast pace of industrialization. Some have examined the region’s political and civil institutions.27 This vein of research has been mined most intensively by Nobel Prize winning economist Douglass North, a leader in a revived field of institutional economics. North argues that institutions are crucial to a society’s economic fate. By institution he means the implicit rules of the game people play by, something more like the anthropological definition of culture. Depending on the institutional matrix, a society may or may not develop practices that promote growth and innovation.28
In Violence and Social Orders, North and his co-authors look back over the centuries, concluding economic growth is fostered by “open access orders.” In these societies, the state relinquishes its monopoly of violence, allowing private institutions to flourish. 29 Citizens are thus free to experiment and innovate on their own. By contrast, in closed access orders, the state maintains tight control over all functions, usually resulting in small, self-perpetuating elites who expropriate economic rents and protect the status quo.30 Societies that transition to open access orders place constitutional limits on the state and develop strong property rights that encourage individual initiative. The typical example is Britain after the Glorious Revolution. Its constitutional politics prepared the way for the nation’s leap to industrialization.31
A more balanced assessment of institutions comes from the pens of Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist, and James Robinson, a Harvard political scientist. In Why Nations Fail, they ambitiously survey world history, cataloguing the political and institutional conditions that lead to good or bad economic outcomes. The pattern they find is similar to North’s closed versus open access orders.32 The main difference is that closed societies, dominated by elites who refuse to share resources and wealth, cannot be blamed solely on the state. Private actors are equally avid in pursuit of rents, and frequently create the type of state that serves their interests. “Wealth creators” in all societies are vested in protecting their positions, and their wealth can be translated into political power.
Although Acemoglu and Robison find examples of institutional failure in many societies, institutionalists generally end up with the narrative of Western triumphalism. The roots of the European economic miracle lie in European cultural, political and social norms. Economic stagnation stems from the absence of such traits. Sometimes, as with Latin America, the problem is the wrong European institutions—civil law rather than common law for example.33 In theory, any nation could have jumped on the growth path of open access orders; but in these histories, only a few places in the West, plus some close imitators elsewhere, made the leap.34
The recent work of Kenneth Pomeranz has seriously undermined claims that link European industrialization to the broad features of the history of the West. In his 2000 book, The Great Divergence, Pomeranz showed that China was as wealthy as Europe until the mid to late 18th century.35 Europe was finally able to “break the Malthusian shackles” that restricted per capita growth by drawing on resources from the “ghost acres” of its Atlantic colonies and, for England, easily accessible coal.36 China’s falling behind was due to an unfortunate set of events and environmental constraints. Neither the Enlightenment, nor constitutions, nor long standing cultural values can explain what is actually a quite recent and rather sudden divergence between the economic fortunes of the East and West.37 More generally, there was nothing inherent in either society that mandated (or inevitably stifled) growth.
Responding to Pomeranz’s critique, some economic historians have tried to develop a less Eurocentric view of industrialization. Contingencies and material endowments, rather than unique practices, beliefs, or knowledge, set places apart. Often the difference hinged on small variations in initial conditions. The particular crops that could be grown or the relative abundance of land or labor shaped technologies and institutions in ways that led toward or away from growth.38 Robert Allen contends that such material incentives stimulated the invention labor saving technology in Great Britain.39 Where Pomeranz and his followers place special emphasis on the environment and basic materiality, Allen looks to the ever adjusting market as the cause of divergence. High wages, a legacy of the Black Death, gave British producers the motivation to invent and deploy textile machines and steam engines.40 This was a completely rational decision but presumably one that any people would have made under similar conditions.41
There was also nothing unique about western political institutions. Jean-Laurent Rosenthal and R. Bin Wong critique North’s claim that freedom from the state promotes economic success. They argue that China in fact benefitted from a strong imperial state, which kept the peace and encouraged a lively internal trade. This record compared favorably with fractious Europe, which wasted resources on defense and military competition.42 The great divergence was merely an unintended outcome of the perfectly intelligible, if rather different political trajectories of Europe and Asia. Ironically, Europe’s factionalized politics encouraged competitive investments in new technology to keep ahead of rivals, while moving manufacturing behind the safety of city walls (whereas it stayed in countryside in China). What had been a wasteful display of military rivalry fertilized the ground for the European breakthrough in labor saving technology.43
By providing a comparative context, Pomeranz and those following his lead have shown that industrialization cannot be traced to the deep roots of European history alone. In fact, there were multiple possible paths to development. In many ways the West’s labor saving model was the exception, as industrialization has often proceed elsewhere in a more labor intensive way. Without adopting the classic capital intensive machinery, China, India, Japan, West Africa, even parts of Europe were able to increase output and improve productivity using high quality, disciplined labor. 44 It is a mistake to see these alternative paths as traditional, pre-industrial, or backward.45
We now have a richer, more subtle narrative of industrialization and economic development. The new literature takes advantage of economics’ parsimonious model of historical agency, using individual self-interest to explain behavior in markets, politics and civil institutions. At the same time, it acknowledges contingency and historical difference, in contrast to standard neoclassical theory, which often simply assumes that preferences, technology, and endowments lead to unique and predictable outcomes in any period.46 Some authors delve into historical detail, cutting off the historian’s retreat to the archives and “yes, but surely other things mattered as well” defense.
Still, the focus on endowments, institutions, and incentives often ignores the power dynamics that play across societies. The same Western culture that might promote growth and freedom at home could be highly exploitative abroad.47 Many once wealthy civilizations experienced a “reversal of fortune” when they came under European rule.48 The slave trade had devastating effects on parts of Africa and fomented institutions that inhibited economic development for generations to come.49 Far from standing at the forefront of free market policies, Europe benefited from strategic use of state power to promote its economic interests.50 British imperial policy, for example, undermined India’s highly successful textile industry, giving British producers the opportunity to build textile factories at home.51 As an imperial power, Britain repurposed the subcontinent as a supplier of low wage, low value goods and raw materials. What looked like a traditional culture keeping people poor and backward was actually the erasure of the earlier Indian economy from history, a misreading that fooled even Marx.52
To historians attuned to the cultural critique, even the new, more relativistic institutional economics will seem reductionist and deterministic. Institutions are not pre-existing structures, but historically situated assemblages with both material and expressive features. Their full properties only become manifest in context. Some institutional economists, for example, argue that religious and ethnic ties can promote trust and enforce rules against cheaters and frauds in economic exchange. Culture and social relationships thus substitute for weak markets and fill in for states unable to regulate transactions.53 As Francesca Trivellato warns, however, historians should not "assume that blood ties and putative likeness…forged bonds of trust” that offered “significant competitive advantages.” In her study of Jewish merchant communities in early modern Livorno, she finds that trading partners established relations over time, both among and beyond those who shared the same religion.54 In fact, rather than culture serving the needs of trade, trade served expressive ends, spreading values and beliefs, establishing new cultural patterns and connections.55
Subjectivity is not fixed, nor is identity primordial and preexisting. Identities form in time and place, with both economic and noneconomic experiences interacting. Culture and economics each work on their own time scale and by their own logic. They come together at some moments, separate at others. The result is that we cannot predict the effects of institutions such as family, ethnicity, or religion on trade, exchange, or finance, outside of a particular context.56 Looking, in the manner of positivism, for stable, enduring relationships between cultural practices or beliefs, on the one hand, and economic behavior on the other, is to mistake what are contingent and constructed connections for strong universal patterns.
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Sorting these matters out requires a rich narrative attendant to the complex relationships between systems of meaning and material forces. This is the approach taken by a diverse group of scholars writing a new history of capitalism. Their work challenges both older structural interpretations, as well as alternatives that stress agency and resistance. Abandoning the notion of historical stages or determinate laws of motion, they instead attend to the mosaic of economic forms and institutions that constitute a capitalist system. They replace the traditional Marxian focus on labor’s reduction to a commodity with a more encompassing view of commodification reaching into many parts of life.57 In this way their work upsets the historiography on both labor and consumption.
In the 1980s and 90s historians had stressed the agency of consumers and celebrated the world of goods as a refuge from the grim advance of wage labor.58 Even in a market driven society, men and women could attach their own signification to the objects they purchased and brought into their homes.59 The new scholars of capitalism are less sure that consumption can be so easily isolated from production. Commodification involved technology, transactions, and scale economies, along with “social habits” and “cultural logics.”60 Markets worked through not against the deep symbolic resonances of goods. Things traveled from the realm of scared objects to monetized commodities and back again, as with art that moves between museum and collector.61 The result is a story of subtle but relentless capitalist expansion, with few opportunities for opposition by consumption alone.62 Animated not by a tension between agency and structure, capitalism moved forward through a process of gradual enrollment.63 “Ordinary material practices,” ensnared people in ways they only “dimly and bemusedly” perceived.64 Property law, aesthetics, gender relations and even economic thought and language were brought into concert to gradually “reformat” the economy along capitalist lines, closing off “alternative ways of living and thinking.”65
In the new scholarship, the maw of capitalism appears much bigger than was once assumed. It swallowed agriculture as well as industry.66 Money and market relations had penetrated so-called “traditional” French society long before the French Revolution, creating something of an agrarian proletariat.67 Nineteenth century America farmers may have resented Wall Street, but they eagerly took advantage of mortgages to satiate their appetite for land. They got more than they bargained for, however, soon finding themselves chained to national, indeed international markets for commodities and capital.68
In place of the earlier history of capitalism that sought to explain transitions between discreet economic stages, the new history is one of ongoing transformations and hybrid forms of production. Capitalism’s strength was its skill at winding its way through a variety of productive systems using many types of labor.69 As Seth Rockman shows, Baltimore prospered as a commercial center in the early nineteenth century by creating a flexible labor force that included both the nominally free and formally enslaved.70 Though they were not industrialists imposing factory discipline, Baltimore’s capitalists found a permanent pool of labor among those with the fewest cultural and economic resources: the urban poor, immigrants, slaves who hired their own time, convicts, free blacks, the “hidden labor” of women in the home. They cultivated a labor landscape populated by mixed and hybrid forms.
In this narrative, slavery no longer belongs in the pre capitalist world. Where Eugene Genovese defined slavery as a paternalistic system of non-capitalist exploitation, the new historians of capitalism incorporate slavery as an alternative, but fully viable form of capitalism.71 It was another example of relentless commodification, where cotton and black bodies were drawn into the market, weighed, measured, sold and turned into property. Ownership of human property, which could be mortgaged for capital, rather than just control of labor, made slavery a capitalist enterprise.
In River of Dark Dreams, Walter Johnson tracks this alternative form of capitalism through the great cotton boom of the 19th century. American planters aggressively secured slavery’s domain. They removed native populations and drew on British capital to acquire land and labor, making the slave states the most heavily capitalized and monetized parts of North America. 72 As rational, entrepreneurial, and grasping as any factory titan, planters understood clearly that the value of their human property was linked to world demand for their crops.73 In the United States, as Edward Baptist notes, they eagerly reorganized agricultural production to satiate the growing need for cotton. They did so, however, with a “technology” based not on machines but on exacting physical punishment. Combining the “calibrated lash” of overseer with sophisticated measurement and bookkeeping methods, owners wrung every last ounce of effort from their slaves.74 The rapacious imagination of the slave masters reflected the reality of an Atlantic market that stretched from the factories of Europe and North America through the plantation estates of the American South, Caribbean, and Latin America.75
Including slavery in the lineage of capitalism makes it much more difficult to separate out a progressive, forward looking entrepreneurial class from supposed traditionalists. Slaveholders were conservative when it came to ideas of individual freedom, but were financial and organizational innovators, as much as the merchants of New York, the bankers of London or the industrialists of Lowell. The image of capitalism here is not black and white but chiaroscuro. Against the wall of history are now thrown up the shadowy figures of forgers, bankrupts, land sharks, gamblers, slave stealers, and plantation masters riding into the heart of darkness.76
This economic narrative is marked by crises and cultural conflicts, rather than a smooth trajectory of growth and market transparency.77 Indeed, capitalism was built on conflicts over even its most basic component--money. As Stephen Mihm shows, the extensive problem of counterfeit banknotes in 19th century America reflected fights over what constituted legitimate money and who had responsibility for policing it. Partisans of different forms of currency--paper, gold, silver—wielded heavy symbols of civilization and savagery against each other. Counterfeiters played on public confidence, manipulating social clues to gain trust and exploiting people’s desire to grasp the main chance. This economy is best represented in the get rich quick schemes lampooned by Herman Melville and Mark Twain, not by the “plodding, gradual pursuit of wealth” lauded by Max Weber.78
The fraught question of money provided an extreme demonstration of how “at its core capitalism was little more than a con game.”79 Confidence is a multivalent word. For those who believe in a fundamentally a rational market, it means techniques to mitigate risk, secure contracts, and establish trust. But the new historians of capitalism also stress what John Maynard Keynes called the system’s animal spirits: wild enthusiasms, boom and bust investments, misdirection, deception, and a desire for dominance.80 One measure of this side of the confidence game was the many anxious schemes promoted to tame such excesses by policing virtue and moralizing the amoral market. As credit expanded merchants devised systems seeking to link credit to character.81 Nations passed new bankruptcy laws that asked who was a cheat, and who a mere hostage to fortune to be redeemed with a second chance.82 Moral codes and interpersonal relations, in fact, continue to operate in even the most abstract and modern markets today.83
In treating finance as a political and cultural matter, historians depart from economists, who generally emphasize the efficiency of financial markets and their contribution to growth.84 Economists have argued that strong financial institutions give creative entrepreneurs the means to innovate and sweep away old, inefficient industries.85 The financial sector is the heart of a strong economy and those who would restrict it are only depriving themselves of the life blood needed for good economic health.86 Historians are less sanguine about unfettered finance. Rather than promoting transparency and empowering would-be entrepreneurs, creative finance may just as easily obscure the workings of the market to fleece the unwary.87 Through their control of the most abstract form of capital, financiers gain the power to make workers, middle class savers, retirees, even states and corporations do their bidding.88
Borrowing money, for example, was once a rare and often questionable activity for the non-wealthy.89 Through a combination of government policy and economic innovations, however, lenders discovered how to manage risk and extract profit from debt. They repositioned consumer credit as the stepping stones to a better life. Doing so hid or ignored structural changes that moved manufacturing off shore and undermined wages and unions. Rather than leading people into the middle class, the path of debt stranded them in a quagmire of unpaid mortgages and perpetual credit card balances. Not every nation was profligate with consumer debt, a variance which suggests that the financial sector rises and falls by its cultural and political as well as monetary capital.
There is a long tradition of looking at the interests behind the money to explain such patterns. But a new group of sociologists of finance argue that financial power (and the power of markets more generally) comes less from actors behind the scene and more from the performativity of intellectual systems and theoretical apparatus. Finance calls all to dance to its tune not by coercion but by idealization and normalization, remaking economic subjects in the image of theory.90 Thus aligned, markets began to resemble the textbook models. Performativity is not just a matter of representation, however. As Donald MacKenzie notes, it has a material side. “Economic actors are socio-technical ensembles,” hybrids of mind and the material capacities that fall to hand. 91 Rather than speak of abstract markets, we should speak about specific markets, defined by specific material conditions and technologies, including the “technology” of economic theory. As William Cronon demonstrated, what made a wheat market possible was the coming together of grading systems, futures contracts, grain silos, railroads, mercantile practices, and new financial concepts in nineteenth century Chicago. It is almost impossible, and perhaps missing the point, to try to separate out the material aspects of such transformations from the discursive or intellectual elements.92
Capitalism transforms not only social relations but relations with nature as well.93 Spaces and environments, as well as our perceptions of them, are reshaped through market expansion and entrepreneurship. One way this happens is through what economists call negative externalities, or placing on to others the full cost of producing a good. The classic example is pollution, whereby the producer incurs no cost for fouling the air or contaminating the water. Neoclassical economists hold that externalities arise from insufficient markets. Air, water and other “commons” are owned by no one so there is no one to charge for their use.94 Commodification scholars, on the other hand, argue that the degradation of the natural world is an inevitable part of the extension of the market and the turning of more and more of nature into a commodity.95 This procedure often entails colonial penetration of remote lands, separating production and consumption to keep disagreeable effects out of the backyards of the wealthy and impose them on the poor and weak. Capitalism as commodification reduced moral sensibility, rather than enhanced it as Thomas Haskell argued.96
Natural resources are not neutral resources. They are linked to people and their culture. Power struggles between planters and laborers were written into the landscape, Thomas Rogers shows in his study of the twentieth century Brazilian sugar industry. The “deepest wound” was not the traditional externality of pollution or soil depletion, but a material and mental dependency that kept nominally free workers tied to the land.97 Landscapes also change social relations. Rogers’ sugar tenants were radicalized by the breakdown of the traditional land-labor system following a renewed demand for sugar for Brazil’s ethanol industry. An earlier global energy market played out in similar fashion among coal miners in the American West, as Thomas Andrews shows in Killing for Coal. A new coal based economy gave cities heat and light and allowed the mine owners to quite literally live high on the hill, while their workers toiled underground in polluted valleys below. At the “workscape” of the coal face miners converted themselves from a diverse band of mutually suspicious ethnic groups into strikers who challenged John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Coal and Iron Company at Ludlow in 1914.98
In arguing that sugar, coal, and other naturally occurring materials yielded new social relationships, environmentally focused histories afford the natural world a measure of what might be called of agency.99 Nature speaks to humans with its own voice, and not just through the categories of experience formed by language. The coal mine held a sensual materiality.100 Reverberating with the harrowing echoes of failing timbers, suffused with the deathly presence of suffocating gasses, it shaped workers’ identities, or ended their lives. In contrast to Marx, nature does not simply await the transforming power of human labor; nor is it a resource made tractable and predictable by prices and markets. There is a complicated “dance of agency” between natural and human actors through which the material world and our subjective experience of it are shaped together, often in unpredictable ways with unexpected results.101
One of the most liberating features of the new economic and business literature has been its willingness to historicize capital with the same attention to detail that labor historians lavish on labor.102 The literature breaks with the standard assumption that capital can be taken as “given and fixed,” or that profit is sufficient to explain the strategy and conduct of the capitalist class.103 Instead, we see that all economic actors, even the elite, have multiple motives and complicated subjectivities. All economic institutions are complex, partial, and flexible in form and function.
Much of the writing in this vein comes from the pens of business historians, a group of scholars who overlap with but also are distinct from the self-identified historians of capitalism. Business history has moved considerably beyond the paradigm developed a generation ago by Alfred Chandler.104 Chandler had portrayed firms, notably the modern corporation, as rational and efficient responses to technology and market conditions. Businesses prospered by their ability to manage economies of scale and scope in production and distribution. Nations that failed to develop “managerial capitalism” were doomed to second rate economic status. 105
For a time it seemed that Chandler’s model would be replaced with a much more traditional economic one that emphasized markets and entrepreneurs over the visible hand of management. Corporations were coming into eclipse as information technology made efficient transactions possible without the intermediation of large-scale organization.106 In a series of books and articles, Naomi Lamoreaux, Peter Temin and Daniel Raff established a compromise position. Mapping the shifting boundary between the corporate and non-corporate sectors through history, they saw an evolutionary process at work, with different mechanisms of economic coordination emerging at different times and places, depending on informational, technological, and socio-political conditions.107
The most recent work in business history engages a vast ecology of private enterprises and broad array of activities. Historians have written on “cultural businesses,” from books, music, and film, to greeting cards, to iconic foods such as chocolate and champagne. They have shown how cultural practices such as marriage and religion used business strategies to adapt to new conditions. While the marketization of culture might be interpreted as the decline of authenticity, the new studies highlight the complex entanglements of technology, organization, profit, representations, values, and meanings. They point causal arrows in both directions, from business to culture and culture to business.108
Business activity had different meanings and functions for the many different groups of people who undertook it.109 Small, non-elite firms provided self-employment for those shut out of skilled labor markets, contributed to the income of struggling immigrant families and offered an escape from oppressive conditions for subaltern classes. African Americans started beauty shops and operated funeral parlors and insurance companies, both as profit making ventures but also to fulfill a social need in a segregated society.110 Business offered the minority and oppressed a measure of agency, even against the most repressive of forces, such as slavery.111
The social nature of business enterprise was not, however, only to be found among the non-elite. Male entrepreneurs took advantage of social capital and favorable connections, even while proclaiming themselves “self-made.” Female entrepreneurs, while subject to gender constraints, engaged in business to make a profit and pursue opportunity just as men did. 112 At the same time, for most men and women self-interest was inflected by personal values and community responsibilities. The old gender distinction that automatically treated men as ambitious, would-be tycoons and women as modest, family oriented shopkeepers no longer holds.
More generally the new literature on business decreases the space between traditional social or communal activities, and modern, rational behavior. Even in large corporations managers still had to interpret their environment, fight internal bureaucratic struggles, communicate values, and cultivate consent.113 Employees brought their class, gender, and ethnic aspirations into firms.114 Indeed, organizations were often successful only when they called on traditional values and moral language to train workers or entice consumers. Far from being a self-contained institution, business now appears as fluid mixture of parts running from the material to the expressive.115
Business’s influence also expands outward, with permeable barriers between private firms and their social and political milieu. Sinuous networks connect professionals, experts, administrators, scientists, engineers, and consultants.116 These firm-transcending and industry spanning linkages contributed to early manufacturing, spurred vast improvements in agriculture, and gave rise to scientifically advanced sectors such as pharmaceuticals.117 Many important public issues also get enacted inside of business: civil rights, environmentalism, gender relations.118 Modern capitalism, economist Richard Nelson notes, is so complex that it only operates by mixing many structures, institutions, and practices together—from firms to families, from education to criminal justice.119
Interlocking circuits of business, politics, and society have given rise to a critical literature as well. Power and profit, rather than innovation and social value, were the outcome of the great railroad building era of the nineteenth century, argues Richard White. Private sector buccaneers manipulated the state and invented new ways to separate investors from their cash.120 They offloaded the costs of their transportation schemes onto workers, taxpayers, and nature. This was not a failure of markets; it was a perfect example of how entrepreneurs exploit market opportunities and operate across the socio-political spectrum, leaving problems behind for others to clean up. White emphasizes the destructive part of creative destruction: undercapitalized facilities, inefficient expansions, and a lack of transparency. He highlights not the corporation’s inhuman efficiency but its capacity to disorganize markets and send resources crashing into useless (though lucrative) ventures. Much like Walter Johnson’s slave masters, White’s railroad builders were capitalists whose primary mission was the enlargement of their capital. Any other outcomes—innovation, growth, new consumer products—were merely fortuitous.121 We are far from Alfred Chandler’s professional managers, let alone Joel Mokyr’s Enlightenment rationalists.
This darker portrayal can be accused of underestimating the human qualities of business people, reducing them once more to monomaniacal (if sometimes bumbling) profit seekers. Even while railroad barons were chasing profits, engineers, regulators, and middle managers were working to bring unpredictable and often intractable technologies under control to improve efficiency and safety. The effort of these less heroic figures, Steven Usselman notes, gave America the most impressive rail system in the world by the end of the nineteenth century.122 Industrialists often saw their business endeavors in the light of social improvement. They merged profit with social and religious missions. Such mixtures can be found in Robert Owen’s utopian factories, in the Lowell textile mills, in company towns, profit sharing plans, worker welfare programs, and human relations-type management systems.123 English confectioners Cadbury and Rowntree, French tire magnate Michelin, German industrialists Siemens and Rathenau all devised their own versions of business with a social conscience.124
The latest manifestation of this pattern, argues Bethany Moreton, is the linkage between evangelical Christianity and America’s newest largest corporation, Wal-Mart. In a Sun Belt culture favorable to free enterprise, Wal-Mart connected its service sector jobs to the Christian ethic of service, an abiding tenet for the store’s rural workers and suburban customers. The retail giant grew by way of a cultural agenda that had a broad populist appeal to those alienated from mainstream secular values.125 Even as it pioneered a new level of selling efficiency, it opened new spaces of belief and meaning in its brightly lit stores.
Moreton is clear that the ideology of Christian service benefited the company at the expense of its workers (as was often the case with the earlier business missionaries). But she upends the notion that the corporation was a purely secular institution. Salvation did not give way to self-realization, the usual trajectory predicted by modernization theory. “Despite frequent paeans to laissez faire competition,” Moreton writes, Wal-Mart “sought to abstract and inculcate the rather pre capitalist values that early employees brought to the corporation.”126 Nor did pre market values provide a cultural alternative to capitalism. Christianity offered “sanctuary” when “market logic became unbearable” and but this only kept the “free market holy, and wholly available to the powerful.”127 Capitalist enterprise was assembled through such creative mergers of technology, organization, and culture.
The older literature of economic history had neglected the symbolic systems that code experiences. The new literature on capitalism pays closer attention to subjectivity, and it does so both with regard to labor and capital. Neither class has direct access to unmediated experience and in neither case are structural conditions and material incentives sufficient to explain action. Incentives only operate through systems of meaning. But unpacking capitalism cannot be done by deconstructing discourses alone. It also requires attention to the material features of daily routines and everyday practices that take place with objects, technologies, money, labor, and nature.128
The result is to return to capitalism the sense of wholesale radical transformation seen in the works of Marx and Schumpeter—a creative destruction that remakes material life, thought, and feeling in equal measure.129 It is not an interpretation that will satisfy those seeking to recover some non-market tradition or locate some oppositional culture, for even conflicts take place on the plane of capitalism. 130 But it is a literature with a moral perspective. With their easy incorporation of slavery, their willful flouting of the supposed bourgeois virtues of thrift, character and trust, their ensnaring webs of debt, capitalists have a lot to answer for.131
For all its strengths, the new history of capitalism must leave aside a good swath of the economic past. It cannot fully engage earlier periods before capitalism or the history of non-capitalist or mixed economies.132 It is not even clear what defines capitalism. For some authors it is commodification, for others the coercive control of labor, for still others it is about profiting from radical uncertainty. Some of these definitions are inconsistent with each other. Capitalism is a pitiless revolutionary force uprooting the past, yet it cloaks itself in traditional values. It relishes war and violence but vastly increases productivity and promotes innovation. It irrationally wastes resources, yet also takes command. It started with the intermediation of merchants in world trade, or with factory industrialization, or existed back in ancient Babylonia. Perhaps this why, one author notes, most historians just assume they will know capitalism when they see it. 133
Treating capitalism as a many-headed hydra might be a way to capture its monstrous complexity. Cut off one head and another grows in its place, always moving the capitalist beast toward the same essential end. But the heads sometimes seem to have a will of their own, with no connection to the main body. There is quite a difference between an economic system predicated on ownership of labor, and one trying to substitute capital for labor. What sort of history is possible if capitalism exists in so many places and wears so many faces that it is impossible to know when an economy is capitalist and when it is not?
Assimilating many different forms and processes to a single category misses the marvelous diversity of the economic experience. Looking across the globe, we see a strikingly variegated economic landscape. Labor relations, production regimes, welfare policies, and the distribution of wealth and income differ significantly between North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia.134 So too do business institutions.135 In some places family firms are more important than bureaucratic corporations.136 In others, business groups, networks, industrial districts, or cartels dominate.137 Big business, small business, and medium size business and cooperatives can coexist in the same economies.138 Choice and variation adhere in the ways that nations define even the most basic, seemingly universal economic categories, such as savings and investment.139
Seen through the lens of diversity, what we call capitalism is perhaps no more than a convenient name for a mixing of different types of capital, the connecting of private and public institutions, the drawing together of forms of knowledge, localized practices, and varied governance structures in an economy. Viewed longitudinally, there is no evidence that capitalism follows a single path or resolves itself into a single form, such as corporate monopoly, as critics once feared. The particular capitalist assemblage will depend on any number of factors, from the material to the cultural, with different logics that govern how production is carried out, how its fruits are distributed, and where the line between the public and private sectors gets drawn.140
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Economies not only diverge, they also connect, making economic and business history a part of global history. Sinews of commerce, capital and consumption linked East and West for centuries. Colonial policies fueled the growth of Europe and North America with raw materials extracted from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Slave, immigrant, and semi-free labor circulated around the globe. Sugar, bananas, and pineapples brought the tastes of the tropics to the tables of the industrial world, as trade, transportation, and marketing transformed what had been distant, exotic, and unfamiliar into goods of daily consumption.141
In the 1980s, world systems theorists, following the pioneering work of Immanuel Wallerstein, explained economic globalization as a function of unequal exchange. 142 They incorporated elements of commodification theory, arguing that the drive to find and exploit markets, labor, and resources was an ineluctable dynamic of capitalism.143 Wealthy states organized the world economy for their benefit. They used peripheral areas as low wage, raw material suppliers. Places did not rise and fall according to their own capacities, and the world would not converge to the industrial West’s levels of income, wealth and productivity.
More recent work has both extended and questioned the world systems model. By following the life of individual commodities, scholars have been able to tease out the connections between production and consumption in numerous places in the world. But this new literature also questions the periodization of globalization and argues for greater agency on the part of places and peoples that Wallerstein considered to be in the dependent periphery of Western economies.
As measured by the movement of goods, labor, and capital across borders, the world became highly globalized in the nineteenth century through improvements in transportation, advances in communication, reductions in tariffs, and stabilization of exchange rates under the gold standard.144 Globalization declined in the protectionist interwar period and collapsed with the Great Depression and World War II. It revived after the war with a commitment to free trade and stable currencies led by the United States. Since the 1970s, globalization has entered a new phase where capital moves freely and production can be carried out in a series of coordinated steps in different locales.145 But this narrative can be teleological, the story of a fragmented world awaiting the connecting devices of technology and markets. Newer studies of globalization emphasize a long term process, incomplete, partial, nonlinear, and often destructive in its effects.146
Historians following the circulation of commodities have drawn detailed maps of these tangled economic configurations.147 Cotton has been perhaps the most studied. Sven Beckert argues it created the first truly global capitalist system by the nineteenth century. But this was not an agentless process of market convergence. An assortment of actors coordinated the division of labor that grew, graded, and shipped fiber, spun cloth, and distributed goods to millions of consumers.148 The global cotton economy redefined consumption as well as production. Throughout history cotton textiles had place-specific cultural and religious meanings tied to people and place. It took both material and cultural work to convert them into homogenous goods that could be sold across borders.149 Europe used state power, colonial plantations, and new centralized production methods to supplant an earlier global cotton economy based in India and Asia. Whether one or both of these global systems were capitalist is perhaps less significant than our recognizing the way that modern globalization built on and displaced earlier long distance economic connections.
Cultural politics is also part of the way that global economies get made. Victoria De Grazia’s Irresistible Empire shows how American marketers, promoters, and advertisers, with help from the state, stoked the world’s desire for American goods and cultivated a fascination with the “Fordist” production regime. They adroitly linked consumer abundance to the admirable features of the American way of life.150 Other scholars have examined the influence of American banks, which provided poorer nations with the financing to purchase American goods, and depended on the American government to assure that loans and investments would be repaid. 151 Economic policy makers and managers of multinational corporations projected a soft imperialism through stereotyped representations of Third World people who needed to be trained and uplifted into proper economic behavior.152
In the twentieth century, multinational corporations have emerged as arguably the most powerful global actors. Their place in the world remains controversial. An earlier literature portrayed them as economic leviathans that bestrode the globe and loomed over states.153 Newer literature emphasizes both the positive contributions that global firms make to the global economy, as well as a more subtle interaction between corporations, states, and other actors.154 Business firms do extensive developmental work in the places they operate. They build infrastructure, direct investments, establish trade flows, and transfer intellectual property, manufacturing methods, and ways of doing business around the world. A substantial portion global activity takes place within business enterprises and never enters the marketplace. 155 Global capital, in short, does not move abstractly; it is embodied in management and organization, and culture too, since ethnic groups and families are important actors in global business.
Recent texts have tended to view the relationship between firms, states, and people as multilateral rather than top down. Geoffrey Jones notes that the most successful corporations balance the efficiency of centralized control and standardization with the particularities of local markets and cultures. In the beauty industry, for example, firms acted as intermediaries between products and particular cultural concepts of bodily adornment.156 Global brands have often replaced local brands in the twentieth century, yet at the same time marketing around the world has become increasingly segmented, with products targeted at highly specific audiences and attuned to different tastes and traditions.157 Even where it seemed that American style mass consumption was going to triumph, consumers often adopted those aspects of the American model they wanted, modifying business structures, technology, and policies as they went.158
Seen this way, the global is but a collection of many local economic relationships worked into connection. Indeed, globalization does not necessarily require full interconnection. It may instead be built of numerous highly local and specific links. Networks of loosely allied actors, Michael Miller writes, were crucial to the creation of a global shipping industry in the twentieth century.159 Associations born of familiarity, cultural ties, and shared values provided the glue that bound the movement of goods, the scheduling of ships, and the coordination of transportation modes in an apparently seamless web of commerce.
Even as markets knit together diverse places, local people were afforded opportunities to gain new resources and assert economic agency.160 In the early twentieth century a small town in Northern Italy negotiated its way to the center of world jewelry production by building on artisanal traditions, family lineages, lines of credit, marketing relationships, and a long history of political independence. In Mexico and Japan women found new economic openings outside of traditional patriarchal structures when Singer brought sewing machines to their towns and villages. In the Caribbean migrant workers formed transnational ties of family and ethnicity to allow them to make the best of their opportunities.161 Commodity chains and global manufacturing permit underdeveloped nations to produce and sell higher value products.162 Even during the devastating incursions of the slave trade, the supposedly weak and stateless societies of Africa were able to bend external economic forces to their own ends. They acquired resources and linked themselves to the international economy to preserve their way of life, not to uproot it.163
It is important not to romanticize the local. In an age of capital mobility and multinational corporations, the divisions of wealth and inequality of incomes across the globe remain stark. Still, the salient lesson of business history is that capital is not always footloose nor markets frictionless, making capitalism lumpy rather than seamlessly dominant.164 However much internationalist might have wanted to remake the world over in their own image, not everyone capitulated to space-transcending forces.165
When global convergence occurs, it may be more the result of ideology than economics. This ideology has been particularly strong since World War II, embodied in a set of policies known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is characterized by an abiding faith in unrestricted trade, free flows of capital, and open markets with limited government interference. Angus Burgin and Kim Phillips-Fein trace it to the resurgence of free market conservatives who refused to be plowed under by Post World War II liberalism.166 The ideology drew support from financial economists and supply side policy makers who argued that tearing down barriers to trade and removing fetters on finance would unleash entrepreneurship and innovation. The neoliberal ideology contributed to the demise of the old “Fordist” production regimes and undermining of welfare capitalism, reversing the historic role of the state as supervisor of the market. Instead, the market became the controller of the state, while states worked to produce liberal subjects fit for such an economy through the regulation and “perfection” of individual freedom.167
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New work by economic and business historians has shown us that the economy is far more diverse in its practices and subtle in its effects than we once imagined. It has unseated traditional assumptions about the pecuniary fortunes of Asia and Europe. It has dismantled old divisions between free and unfree labor. It has complicated the master narrative of the corporation and unpacked concepts such as profit and risk to embed business activities in cultural and social contexts. The salient move has been to replace older structural models of economic history and rework periodization to open our eyes to hybrid practices, alternative paths, and mixtures of the seemingly modern with the putatively archaic. Historiographers, however, will rightly want to know how such studies will reshape the practice of history? The answer, I believe, lies in their contributions to a new type of materialism.
When historians turned from economic and social to cultural history they left behind much of the material world. To a degree this was understandable. Materialism had been conceived largely in structural terms.168 Nature and objects stood outside of culture and subjects. The material was presumed to determine consciousness and limit agency. But in freeing themselves from structural materialism, historians ended up giving far too little attention to commodities, labor, capital, money, technology, and the attendant institutions of markets and business. Or else they addressed them only semiotically—as representations of identities or articulations of meanings—failing to engage the recalcitrant presence of matter. 169
If we do not want to return to the materialism of old, we have to take seriously the cultural critique, but at the same time avoid reducing materiality to a mental construction. The material is real and outside the mind. It has, however, no inherent structural properties or deterministic requirements. It does not yield automatic meaning that can be read off its blunt reality.170 Materials are open-ended, indeterminate, their capacities revealed only in networks with people and other objects. A steam engine does not “demand” one and only one response from us. It has various capacities, and the ones activated will depend on the materials and subjects with which it is linked.171 Cultural theory had the salutary effect of reminding us that the material can only work on subjectivity when categories of experience are already present.172 Its mistake was to assume, in Kantian fashion, categories were only made in the mind, governed by a system of linguistic differences that prefigured action. The new materialism avoids the trap of both structural and linguistic determinism, seeing instead the social (and thus the economic) as formed through assemblages composed of relationships among heterogeneous collections of subjects and objects. 173
Thinking in terms of assemblages demands an ontological symmetry, where the human and non-human are equally real, equally vital, and neither is an effect of the other.174 In place of the traditional opposition between materialism and semiotics, assemblages offer a material semiotics, bridging the “Cartesian divide” separating thinking, human subjects from presumably mechanistic material conditions. 175 Material things can act in the sense that they can produce effects or inflect what happens in history, just as symbols can mobilize real resources. 176 Who we are, how we identify, and what we think depends in part on the objects we have access to. But alone, without expression and language and connections to other objects, material things only offer potential and capacity, not clear outcomes. Put another way, both the material and the human are alive and open ended to possibility. What matters is how they assemble and connect.
Assemblage theory upends both the positivist methodology of cliometrics and the linguistic model of culture. Standard economics treats actors as atomistic and isolated, a methodological individualism that often turns to ontological individualism where nothing exists except choice.177 We can agree with the aphorism of Margaret Thatcher that there is “no such thing as society,” at least until it is assembled, but we should also remember that there is no such thing as an individual. People are not pre-loaded with universal self-interest. 178 Rationality is situational, derived from its place in a larger context.179 Like material objects, people have multiple capacities, their subjectivity emerging out of the interactions of the assemblage.180 At the same time, the assemblage departs from cultural theory by treating discourses not as disembodied truth claims but as a blend of linguistic and practical elements.181 Subjective categories harden when they mix with everyday practices rooted in laws, events, technologies, labor systems, markets, standards, experiments, and measuring devices, what Foucault called the dispositif.182 Only when the material and non-material elements are interacting do they gain purchase on history, not by their separate and independent effects but by the emergent qualities of their interacting.183
Although none of the works discussed above explicitly frames itself as a study of assemblages, many of the best are organized in ways highly amenable to this approach. Capitalism arises as concepts of risk, systems of transportation, customs of labor, even religion, aesthetic values, and ideals of love and affection bump against each other. Businesses operate as networks of people, values, knowledge, and technologies extending within and beyond the legal boundary of the firm. Trade and culture form together, built from diverse materials ranging from ethnic identities to the basic materiality of the written word.184 Money is defined not just through its economic functions, but in a contested political and cultural space where pecuniary and non- pecuniary boundaries are reworked. Globalization is result of many different actors independently establishing connections with each other, for many different reasons.
In each of these cases, economics is not called upon to explain the past, but rather the past is used to show how the economy, and economics, came to assume its form. We cannot start with present day assumptions about where the economic is located, for it may appear in what to us are very unlikely places.185 We cannot even take our study to be the different ways that people in the past have confronted the material challenges of their lives, for materiality itself is worked into shape, its particular capacity revealed by where it fits into the larger assemblage of objects.186
Assembling the economic means avoiding abstractions in favor of tracing relations among concrete actors (human and otherwise). The economic past is not the story of the market, or the corporation, or even capital. It the construction of specific versions of these things in specific times and places. This requires us to focus not on the finished objects but on the relations among the parts coming together to make them. Those parts may be quite diverse, ranging from material artifacts to moral language, and may exhibit surprising or even counterintuitive affinities. We have to avoid the search for the essence of economic objects and instead remain open to the prospect of hybrids, like global family corporations or slave based capitalism.187
For this work we need plausible causal stories, not just statistically valid relationships. And these stories cannot be imposed after the fact, taken from a priori theory, or based on commonplace assumptions about how the world works.188 We have to get under the hood of history, so to speak, map the connections, follow the assembling and disassembling of social patterns and institutions, expose the mechanisms of causation that keep the network together, or allow it to fall apart. Constructing such accounts means more of our labors will go into rich description and unpackings, less into narrow analytical studies.189
Not surprisingly, with so many diverse elements and contingent properties to address, we are far from weaving a master narrative of the economic past, assuming that is even a good thing to do. Instead, this history will operate at the level of conjuncture, the coming together of events, practices, deeper patterns and stable institutions. There is nothing organic at work, no economic or historical laws pushing one way or another. The results are contingent, possibly serendipitous—an unbidden alignment of gradually coalescing elements. But because conjunctures have so many different, independent but connected parts, and because the parts operate on many different time scales, there are many points of change, making for a loose coherence, much different than the strong determinative structures of old. The most forceful outcomes are often the unintended ones. Indeed, as Andrew Pickering puts it, “unintended consequences are what we should expect,” as with Europe’s history of internecine struggle promoting industrialization.190 Likewise what seem to be stable relationships, between for example, religion and accumulation or ethnicity and trade, soon break down when the context changes. The shape of the network of components yields both the actors and the outcomes, neither pre-determined but always emerging in relationship with each other.
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The revival business and economic history comes at a time when issues of wealth, poverty, and distribution are subjects of great debate in the world.191 It is an opportune moment for historians to contribute to the discussion, as they did in an earlier era, not just by borrowing from other disciplines, but by speaking back through historically informed work. Such work challenges assumptions about how economies operate by engaging the radical differentness of past worlds and opens up new optics on how societies and economies might be organized by recognizing that even when they seem most stable, they are merely temporary assemblages of diverse elements in time.