Seth 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.” 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?
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.
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.” As Rockman puts it, “slavery was integral, rather than oppositional, to capitalism.” 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. 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.
 Seth Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” Journal of the Early Republic 34 (Fall 2014), 466.
 Jeffrey Sklansky, “The Elusive Sovereign: New Intellectual and Social Histories of Capitalism,” Modern Intellectual History 9 (April 2012), 234.
 Rockman, “What Makes…,” 442-43, 447.
 Walter Johnson, “The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question,” Journal of the Early Republic 24 (Summer 2004), 306, 305.
 Rockman, “What Makes…,” 444.
 Ibid., 442.