The History of Capitalism

I’m not sure which is more shocking:

(a) That one of the most popular articles posted in the last few days on the New York Times website is about the study of history in universities

(b) Or that the field in question is the “history of capitalism.”

Now, my first response was to yawn, “I remember reading business history books in grad school” — but not so fast, Dr. Gehrz! Columbia University Press, in advertising its new series on the field, promises that “This is not your father’s business history!” In part because its teachers do crazy innovative things like have their students dress up like 19th century stockbrokers.

Hyman, Debtor NationBut more because it “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,” thanks to the creative work 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.” (“History from below, all the way to the top,” is how one practitioner describes it.)

And that’s actually promising. In the Times‘ description, historians of capitalism typically “reject the purely oppositional stance of earlier Marxist history” but simultaneously “take a distinctly critical view of neoclassical economics, with its tidy mathematical models and crisp axioms about rational actors.” (They also continue to pay attention to categories like race, gender, and religion.) Perhaps most ambitiously, they strive to take our profession’s natural inclination to tell stories and cultivate empathy while still forcing “relatively innumerate historians up to speed on the kinds of financial data and documents found in business archives.”

If you’d like to sample the field… Some of the books and authors mentioned in the article:

(Read the full Times article here.)

– Chris Gehrz

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