But the story of risk, as Jonathan Levy shows us in Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, is anything but new. Levy traces the evolution and popularization of the idea of “risk” from the early nineteenth century, which he sees as the origin point of our contemporary American entanglement with finance.
In contrast to older histories of capitalism that focus on changes in property ownership, the class structure, or the expansion of the market, Levy deals with financial institutions and the rise of a network of financial relationships. His interest in these, though, is not so much their economic function as their cultural and intellectual influence. The question is not how futures contracts changed the economy, but how they both invented and were part of a new way of thinking about time and about material reality. Insurance is interesting to him as a way of understanding how people came to consider their lives and labors as assets—commodities to be insured. The interlocking history of the rise of accounting and the abolitionist movement suggests something important about new ideas of freedom. Levy’s purpose is to think about and take apart the daily reality and underlying assumptions of life and selfhood under capitalism, and to show the history that lies beneath our most mundane conceptions of ourselves. “Analyzing the nitty-gritty details of new financial practices demonstrates how risk burrowed into popular consciousness,” as he puts it.
In this way, Freaks of Fortune is an excellent example of the recent move in American historiography toward writing the “history of capitalism,” which promises to jettison the divisions between labor, economic, and business history, offering instead an expansive vision of how to write about the political, cultural, and intellectual meaning of the economy. These histories seek to undo the economist’s image of the market as a space that transcends history, in which categories such as “risk” are essentially timeless, by showing how much of what we take for granted as natural today is in fact the product of historical change. Freaks of Fortune is not just an important book in its own right, but a model of a new kind of scholarship—and accordingly it offers a chance to think about both the insights afforded and the questions raised by this new approach.