Wednesday, December 17, 2014

More new "history" of capitalism

Sven Beckert has an essay in the Chronicle Review, markting his new book.
Historians “observe, quite rightly, that the world we live in cannot be understood without coming to terms with the long history of capitalism—a process that has arguably unfolded over more than half a millennium. They are further encouraged by the all-too-frequent failings of economists, who have tended to naturalize particular economic arrangements by defining the "laws" of their development with mathematical precision and preferring short-term over long-term perspectives.”

The need to offer some vague critique of economics in everything they write is one of the most tiresome features of the new historians of capitalism. I suggest that he take a look at some of the work by economists that examines the influence of differences in institutions and endowments on long term economic performance: North, Sokolof and Engerman, and Nunn would be good places to start.

“What distinguishes today’s historians of capitalism is that they insist on its contingent nature, tracing how it has changed over time as it has revolutionized societies, technologies, states, and many if not all facets of life.”

Who does this distinguish them from? Business historians have frequently made such distinctions, writing about proprietary capitalism and managerial capitalism, or just varieties of capitalism. Or, consider the work on the evolution of monopoly capitalism by Marxist scholars. Most of the work by new institutional economic historians is about how capitalist economies have differed from place to place and eveolved over time.


“For too long, many historians saw no problem in the opposition between capitalism and slavery. They depicted the history of American capitalism without slavery, and slavery as quintessentially noncapitalist. Instead of analyzing it as the modern institution that it was, they described it as premodern.

Some scholars have always disagree with such accounts. In the 1930s and 1940s, C.L.R. James and Eric Williams argued for the centrality of slavery to capitalism, though their findings were largely ignored. Nearly half a century later, two American economists, Stanley L. Engerman and Robert William Fogel, observed in their controversial book Time on the Cross (Little, Brown, 1974) the modernity and profitability of slavery in the United States. Now a flurry of books and conferences are building on those often unacknowledged foundations.”

Why don’t the people doing the new history of capitalism start acknowledging these foundations?


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