The dominant question in American politics today, scholars say, is the relationship between democracy and the capitalist economy. “And to understand capitalism,” said Jonathan Levy, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America,” “you’ve got to understand capitalists.”
That doesn’t mean just looking in the executive suite and ledger books, scholars are quick to emphasize. The new work marries hardheaded economic analysis with the insights of social and cultural history, integrating the bosses’-eye view with that of the office drones — and consumers — who power the system.
“I like to call it ‘history from below, all the way to the top,’ ” said Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell and the author of “Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink.”
The new history of capitalism is less a movement than what proponents call a “cohort”: a loosely linked group of scholars who came of age after the end of the cold war cleared some ideological ground, inspired by work that came before but unbeholden to the questions — like, why didn’t socialism take root in America? — that animated previous generations of labor historians.
Instead of searching for working-class radicalism, they looked at office clerks and entrepreneurs.
“Earlier, a lot of these topics would’ve been greeted with a yawn,” said Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of “A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States.” “But then the crisis hit, and people started asking, ‘Oh my God, what has Wall Street been doing for the last 100 years?’ ”
In 1996, when the Harvard historian Sven Beckert proposed an undergraduate seminar called the History of American Capitalism — the first of its kind, he believes — colleagues were skeptical. “They thought no one would be interested,” he said.
But the seminar drew nearly 100 applicants for 15 spots and grew into one of the biggest lecture courses at Harvard, which in 2008 created a full-fledged Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism. That initiative led to similar ones on other campuses, as courses and programs at Princeton, Brown, Georgia, the New School, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere also began drawing crowds — sometimes with the help of canny brand management.