Commodifying Labour, Commodifying People

cotton millThis post is part of an ongoing exploration of the edges of capitalism that I’ve been conducting in the pages of the Junto, most recently here. One element of that exploration, and something that’s been highly visible in the discussion lately—especially with things like the furore over The Economist‘s review of Ed Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told (we posted our own review)—is the relationship between slavery and capitalism. Today I want to focus on just one element of that relationship: the distinction between commodifying labour and commodifying people. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHThe past week has brought a number of fascinating developments in the world of academe and early America. But I think by far the most exciting has been the arrival in mailboxes around the country of the Fall 2014 issue of Early American Studies—a special edition dedicated to “Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America.” The articles are rich, creative, and surprising; I haven’t been able to put the issue down. If you’ve not gotten around to reading it yet, head on over to Project Muse and enjoy. In case you have already savored the new EAS issue, though, here’s your weekly roundup of noteworthy online happenings to bide you through a crisp fall Sunday. Continue reading

Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?

wallstreeteastfromnassaustreetSeth Rockman begins and ends his recent essay on the “new history of capitalism” by describing capitalism as an economic system; but one of the features of the movement he describes is that it rightly treats capitalism as much more than that. As Rockman admits, “it is difficult to say what exactly it excludes.”[1] What’s most provocative and powerful about the new history of capitalism is precisely the fact that it recognizes and tries to historicize the pervasiveness of capitalism as a system that touches every aspect of our lives—everyone’s lives. Capitalism isn’t just in the workplace and the marketplace; as Jeffrey Sklansky has suggested, it’s in our very ways of being, seeing, and believing. But if the history of capitalism is an empire with no borders, just what kind of claims can it be making?[2] Continue reading

Another Kind of Blood: Edward Baptist on America’s Slaver Capitalism

edwardbaptist-thehalfREVIEW: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. By Edward E. Baptist. New York: Basic Books, 2014.

The Half Has Never Been Told attempts a difficult feat: to analyze slavery’s place in the history of American capitalism, but also describe it as a lived experience. This is a story about commodities, bonds, and blood.

To join the abstract and the concrete, Edward Baptist relies on extended metaphors. His narrative traces the form of a human body: the ten chapters move from “Feet, 1783-1810” through “Tongues, 1819-1824” to “Arms, 1850-1861.” Overall, the narrative book follows an image, adapted from a Ralph Ellison essay, of “slavery’s giant body,” stretched across the territory of the United States, serving as the stage on which the drama of American history is acted.[1]

Continue reading

Guest Post: The Decline of Barbers? Or, the Risks and Rewards of Quantitative Analysis

Today’s guest post is authored by Sean Trainor, a historian of the early American republic with an interest in the intersection of labor, popular culture, and the body. He is a PhD candidate in History and Women’s Studies and Pennsylvania State University, where his dissertation examines the history of men’s grooming in the urban United States between the turn of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War.

Trainor_Barber ChartA few weeks ago, I finished compiling a database, long in the works, containing the names and addresses of all of the barbers in the cities of Boston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans between 1800 and 1860. Thrilling, I know, but the project has broader implications for historians interested in the intersection of quantitative and cultural history which, if you’ll bear with a brief exposition, I’ll discuss below.

Continue reading

The Trouble with Global: Early Thoughts from an Early Americanist

mapofthenewworld-debryThis week, I’m wrapping up my survey course on modern global history (1500 to the present). It’s the first time I’ve taught this course. So I have opinions.

Let me just put this right out there: I had long been skeptical about global history as a standard survey course. It seemed too unwieldy, too shallow or spotty in coverage, and way too vulnerable to political ax-grinding. I assumed this course would reinforce old stereotypes: that history is an endless parade of random facts and dates and battles and names of elite men. Or else it would turn into pure theory, and thus an exercise in polemic. Either way, it would have little of the texture of lived experience, which is what I reckon makes history compelling to ordinary powerless students.

Continue reading