Land of Capital: Jonathan Levy's "Ages of American Capital" ReviewedHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, book reviews, political history, history of capitalism
Steven Hahn teaches history at New York University and is completing a book, Illiberal America: A History.
The great surprise of 2016 was not the rise and election of Donald Trump; that path had been laid out for more than 50 years by Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and the two Bushes. The great surprise was the emergence of Bernie Sanders. A proud, self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Sanders set his political sights on capitalism—especially in its corporate form—which he clearly named and then blamed for the economic inequalities, social injustices, concentrations of power, and neglect of public health that so deeply afflicted the country. Although he identifies as an independent in the Senate, Sanders chose to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination rather than run on his own or as a third-party candidate. Never before had a socialist done such a thing, and one might have expected a fast exit. Hillary Clinton surely did. But as we well know, Sanders attracted a mass following, especially among the young, demonstrating, it seemed, that socialism was no longer anathema or capitalism sacrosanct. As a result, 2016 proved to be a remarkable moment in American political history and, perhaps, an even more telling one in the history of American capitalism.
Capitalism has had a strange relation to the history of the United States. Whereas most societies of the Euro-Atlantic world have defined their histories at least in part around their transition from feudalism to capitalism or their complex (and often explosive) encounters with the latter, the history of the British North American colonies and then the United States has generally assumed a simultaneity in origins. The historian Carl Degler once wrote that capitalism came to North America “on the first ships,” and as simplistic as that might sound, he captured a wider sense that private property, acquisitiveness, and individualism were the foundations on which this country was built.
Some historians have emphasized the conflicts between different forms of capitalism—commercial, agricultural, industrial, corporate—but save for a couple of decades when social historical writing became prominent, capitalism in the United States has rarely been problematized as a historical phenomenon. Louis Hartz built an entire history of the “liberal tradition” in the United States around the absence of a feudal past, and while this so-called “consensus” view of American history was soon subjected to a withering attack by scholars, the break with European feudalism has generally been accepted. With the rise of neoliberalism and the end of the Cold War, capitalism all but vanished as a subject of interest—somewhat ironically, given the dominance that capitalism appeared to achieve around the world.
The crash of 2008, however, proved to be a scholarly as well as a social and economic wake-up call. The study of American capitalism gained new attention and soon spawned cottage industries around the history of slavery, the advent of financial instruments, and the racist exploitation that American capitalism has long appeared to thrive on. Many pieces—mostly monographic and narrowly construed—of what could be a big new story have come to litter the scholarly field, raising provocative questions that are often disconnected over time and space.
Jonathan Levy’s Ages of Capitalism, one of the first large-scale and synthetic works to pull together much of the new interest and interpretive orientation of this history-of-capitalism field, thereby fills an important intellectual need. It is an ambitious and impressive book, a cut above much of the recent literature not only in its scale but in its determination to construct a historical arc based on clearly articulated concepts. It may also share much more with the older, “consensus” view than Levy or the many other scholars who embrace his perspectives would care to think.
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