The New York Times ran an interesting piece last week about the newfound popularity of (rebranded) academic scholarship and university courses on the history of capitalism. The immediate assumption of some seems to be that this new field – if you can call it that – will be reflexively (as in unfairly) critical of capitalism. But I'm not so sure.
First, a little bit about this new trend. According to the Times, even before the financial crisis, courses in “the history of capitalism” (a new subfield is born) along with dissertations on once deeply unsexy topics like insurance, banking, and regulation were beginning to grow in popularity. Now they're all the rage. Some admittedly cherry-picked examples of this trend include:
– Columbia University Press's new “Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism” book series (“This is not your father’s business history,” the publisher gushes);
– “Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America,” whose author, Jonathan Levy, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, helpfully explains that in order to understand capitalism, “you’ve got to understand capitalists”;
– “A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States," whose author, Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, recounts how after the crisis hit, "people started asking, ‘Oh my God, what has Wall Street been doing for the last 100 years?’”;
– Brown University changed the name of its course "Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early America" to "Capitalism" and students concentrating in economics and international relations started showing up alongside the student labor activists and development studies people;
– Julia Ott, an assistant professor in the history of capitalism at the New School has students in her course "Whose Street? Wall Street!" dress up in 19th-century costume and re-enact a primal scene in financial history: the early days of the Chicago Board of Trade; and
– To promote a two-week history of capitalism “boot camp” to be inaugurated this summer at Cornell University, Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell (and a former consultant at McKinsey & Company) designed “history of capitalism” T-shirts (no word yet whether they will be made available for purchase more broadly). The camp, Dr. Hyman explained, is aimed at getting relatively innumerate historians up to speed on the kinds of financial data and documents found in business archives. Understanding capitalism, Dr. Hyman said, requires “both Foucault and regressions.”
To me what's most interesting about this trend is its seemingly unreflexive nature. Here's what I mean by that. Back when I did graduate work in sociology, I became interested in the application of population ecology and other biological models to the behaviour of large social organizations, particularly corporations (it seemed exciting and self-realizing to master a whole new jargon and then lord it over my innumerate, scientifically-challenged peers). But what really interested me, after the initial euphoria faded, was how population ecology and evolutionary models of organizational behaviour became fashionable at the very same moment that evolutionary justifications began to be offered up anew for all kinds of social behaviour, no matter how anti-social, something that seemed neither to interest nor to trouble the new organizational ecology scholars.
Maybe rebranding academic scholarship and university courses is a good thing, a gesture toward scholarly engagement with the pressing issues of the day. But it may also be a regression toward the very mean – multiple puns, all intended – that this kind of teaching and research should be cognizant and critical of, including the corporate colonization of university teaching and research (what Bill Readings brilliantly diagnosed as the culture of excellence in The University in Ruins). As Foucault famously remarked, "[w]here there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power" (The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, p. 95).