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]

For Rockman, the movement “shows little interest in demarcating certain economic activities or actors as pre-capitalist or proto-capitalist relative to a predetermined standard of actual capitalism.” It has eschewed earlier historians’ interest in “transitions,” and instead “deepened the field’s chronological range” (though how deep it might go, he doesn’t speculate). To me there’s something rather troubling about those points. If there was no transition to capitalism, if nothing can properly be called pre-capitalist, then has it simply always been here? Rockman says the movement is all about “de-naturalizing… a system that the dominant culture depicts as timeless and irresistible,” but it sure doesn’t sound like it if we can’t point to anything that was ever not capitalism.[3]

It’s been a big part of the new history of capitalism from the beginning to reorient the way historians think about slavery, by removing it from the category of things that are not capitalism. Walter Johnson has asked us to see “the commodification of laborers and the commodification of labor power [as] two concretely intertwined and ideologically symbiotic elements of a larger unified though internally diversified structure of exploitation”—at least, a structure that was unified through most of the “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic.”[4] As Rockman puts it, “slavery was integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.”[5] There’s no denying that the two were intertwined in American and global history. Are we supposed to understand by “integral,” though, something without which the larger system just can’t operate? That strikes me as a harder sell.

The new historians of capitalism may be right to avoid any “fixed or theoretical definition” of what they are studying.[6] Like other complex historical categories or processes—race and gender, say—you have to look at the thing before you can say what it is. Looking at how capitalism has actually worked lets us see how encompassing, how far beyond the merely economic, its effects have been. In fact it should make us question the whole notion of an “economic system” that is not also political, social, cultural, and all the rest. Where, then, should we look for the edges of capitalism? How can we understand it as a bounded, historical phenomenon, rather than something “timeless and irresistible”? What interests me as a historian are the conditions of its birth, expansion, and development: the spatial and temporal processes that took us from a pre-capitalist world through some sort of transition to a capitalist one. It’s through that history that we can approach not just the world we have now, but something that was not capitalist—and glimpse the possibility of something that might come after.


[1] Seth Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (Fall 2014), 466.

[2] Jeffrey Sklansky, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” Modern Intellectual History 9 (April 2012), 234.

[3] Rockman, “What Makes…,” 442-43, 447.

[4] Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic 24 (Summer 2004), 306, 305.

[5] Rockman, “What Makes…,” 444.

[6] Ibid., 442.

14 responses

  1. Tom,
    Thanks for reading the essay and finding something worthwhile to engage in it. I am appreciative.

    What you seem to be saying is that unless we stay focused on transitions, we lose sight of capitalism’s boundaries and become incapable of identifying that which is not capitalist. Let’s put the question this way: can we articulate capitalism’s historical contingency (locating it in specific time and space) without necessarily being invested in what came before?

    As with most everything in scholarship, it is a matter of emphasis. Personally, I am comfortable with shifting our emphasis from the questions of transition (pre- or proto-, revolution or evolution, etc) to those of capitalism’s operational mechanics. It might be ok at this current historiographical moment for the bulk of attention to be given to the question of “how does the system work?” We can still recognize contingency, especially as we investigate one of the fundamental aspects of capitalism, namely its success in masking its own historical specificity.

    Can we point to something that’s not capitalism, you ask? Yes, I think we can. Consider making a list of the attributes of un-capitalism? Lack of private ownership; high legal barriers to social mobility; family/heredity more crucial than wealth in determining outcomes; many relations held outside the market; disbelief in perpetual growth (Malthusian trap still prevails); lack of mobile capital, no standardized measure of exchange; contendedness with the status quo (the opposite of creative destruction: unimaginative conservation); no notion of intellectual property, economic constraints outweigh economic choice. Would this be a satisfying list? Obviously lists are tough: I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work up a definition of capitalism in list form, but have always wondered if you’d need to check off 6/12 attributes, 9/12 attributes, 12/12 attributes to qualify. There are many possible criteria for defining capitalism, and I’ve ended up with a Jeff Foxworthy-like list of “You Know You’re Capitalist When…” Yet as someone who came of age historiographically-speaking when most attention was on determining the tipping-point (maybe 8 of 12 attributes?), I see greater productive possibilities at the present moment in asking different questions, questions that explicitly shy away from origins. That could change in a decade… or sooner with your work, which I anticipate eagerly! But in the meantime, I am not so worried about the slippery-slope notion that unless we firmly establish capitalism’s boundaries at the outset, we’re prone to obscure its historical specificity.

    • Seth, thanks so much for this response. I can definitely agree that emphasising the question, “how does the system work?” is the most important task right now.

      I guess what worries me is that, in ignoring the question of capitalism’s boundaries, it becomes all too easy to ascribe *any* particular process or feature of society to capitalism, and to include it in our description of “how the system works.” That seems to leave no room for the possibility of forces or processes that occurred alongside, or in tension with, those of capitalism–things that were “left over” (as it were) from earlier institutions or traditions. I don’t mean processes like class struggle where forces against capitalism are produced by the relations of capitalism itself. I mean things like, say, religion, patriarchy, or communal identities, which persist through to the present and were no doubt in some way changed and utilised by capitalism but certainly weren’t produced by it, and have presumably had their own effects on its development. How do we talk about the *transformation* of those kinds of institutions without talking about the *transition* to capitalism?

      My difficulty is that I whole-heartedly agree that capitalism is far more than an “economic system” that could sit comfortably alongside other cultural, social, political, epistemic etc. formations: on the contrary, capitalism is a total system. But wouldn’t it actually be better to call it a total-IZING system? That is, one that is always *moving* towards complete domination of everything, but has not actually achieved it (and, hopefully, can’t do so because of its internal contradictions). The history of that process would be a history of (contested) transition, a history located on the border between capitalism and “not-capitalism.”

      I think that’s something you are doing when you write about “commodification,” so I know we’re not reading off totally different song-sheets here. And I agree that we can’t “firmly establish capitalism’s boundaries at the outset.” But where I disagree with what you’ve said so far is, I think doing the history of capitalism has to involve looking for and at its boundaries all the time, and can’t be done at all by ignoring them.

  2. I haven’t read Rockman’s most recent article, but I am familiar with a long review essay he published in (I think) 2006 in a book on new economic history of early American capitalism or something like that. There’s supposed to be a new book published as well which I haven’t heard an update about in a while, with Sven Beckert. It’s all similar stuff, overturning Wood’s and Appleby’s individualist histories of the American Revolution and the rise of capitalism and putting in its place a more historically contingent view of capitalism’s development through notions of class/class power and elite influence. I agree with most of your critique of this work.

    My comment for you is in regard to your final paragraph, in which I think you are simply rediscovering labor history and radical history in general. Early 19th century workers understood very well the processes (economic, political, legal, etc.) which were promoting capitalism and capitalist institutions. So did particular groups in the abolitionist movement, slave rebellions, and even early women’s movements. Also maritime workers (Rediker says boats were the first factories?) These were revolutionary movements of organized and unorganized resistance to the growing hegemony of capitalism.

    Many of these stories have already been told, or are in the process of being told. They definitely do not see capitalism as timeless and work to actively resist it.

    • Hi Dan; yes, I by no means meant to imply that this kind of work hasn’t been done before! I’m not claiming to be a pioneer here! “These stories have already been told” — sure, in part; but all I mean is, our work here is not yet done.

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Tom Cutterham at the Junto asks an intriguing question “Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?” My immediate reaction is no, then yes, then no, then yes again. In other words, I am undecided. Capitalism is a pervasive system that has had a profound impact on our lives. Cutterham is troubled by the notion that capitalism is system that has always been present in human history because nothing could then be called pre-capitialism. It is an intriguing notion. Take a look at Cutterham’s post.

  4. One could argue that capitalism is the natural by-product of free will, or at least the system most compatible with it, and that other systems have been efforts to thwart the exercise of free will via economic restraints. Capitalism would thus be more the natural state of economics in a human society. Trading/bartering would be the most natural state of capitalism than a currency-based system though me thinks.

  5. Defining capitalism is new to me. Well, at least my own active interest in trying to describe the meaning of the word.

    Extensive time working for government agencies and Fortune 500 companies has led me to throw out any simple definition I carried around in my head most of my life. Mostly because I’ve seen the rapid disappearance of private capital during my life time. A significant amount of companies are now fueled by passive investors. I saw first hand in the real estate sector, both commercial and residential, how passive investments changed the decision making process of corporations. Spending money became more about generating profits for individuals in the company, as opposed to the company itself.

    I spent last year teaching policy and program evaluation at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, and I admit to catching the bug to better understand how the public perceives capitalism. I’m combining this with my interest in history and specifically looking at the evolution of capitalism in mining camps in Montana. I have an individual in particular that did very well, became one of the wealthiest men in America, but embraced socialism.

    I appreciate the insights in your posts, the comments that followed, and your footnotes!

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