Review: Parisot, How America Became Capitalist

James Parisot, How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (London: Pluto Press, 2019).

parisot_coverIn just under 200 pages, Parisot traces the intertwined expansion of white settler colonialism in British North America and the transition to capitalism from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. A historical sociologist, Parisot synthesizes a great deal of historical scholarship in order to offer a framework for “how a society with capitalism became a capitalist society” while embracing “multi-linear complexity” (2, 6). He argues that both capitalist and “not-so-capitalist” relations drove American Indian dispossession and westward imperial expansion. Inspired by the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Parisot’s framework seeks to take race and gender into account “to explain capitalism, imperialism, and empire as processes reaching down into daily life and stretching back to broad historical structures which they in turn co-shape” (16).

Parisot offers historians two valuable concepts: that of the “patriarchal household mode of social reproduction,” and “societies with capitalism” versus “capitalist societies.” The “patriarchal household mode of social reproduction” encapsulates “both the division of labor and organization of gender in non-capitalist relations” in colonial British North America/the early United States (39). These households were headed and managed by husbands, focused on household-level sufficiency more than market relations. Their demand land for each new generation to replicate these social relations, driving westward expansion throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The pursuit of land-based competency rather than profit motivated the members of these “societies with capitalism.”

Parisot demonstrates how “societies with capitalism” existed alongside and in changing relation to “capitalist societies.” In northern colonies and states, capitalist societies initially clung to the coasts and rivers, with trade centers like Boston and Philadelphia surrounded by market-oriented agriculture and extracting industries like fishing and fur-trading. The south, Parisot reminds us, was more complex than the recent focus on the capitalism of plantation slavery might suggest; “while plantation slavery was capitalist, not all of the south was capitalist” (114). The plain folks and small planters, especially outside the most fertile regions, focused on safety-first agriculture before market relations.

Such sweeping synthesis is challenging to summarize, but I’ll briefly sketch the main points of each chapter. From the settlement of the British colonies, pursuit of competency and profit were in tension. Parisot follows these competing motives as both settlers and speculators laid claim ever more of the North American continent. Chapter One reviews the nascent capitalism of Europe and England to contextualize the various motives for founding colonies in Massachusetts, where the patriarchal household mode dominated despite the fishing and trading along the coast; Pennsylvania, with a consciously commercial center surrounded by less and less market-oriented agriculture; and Virginia, an explicitly speculative venture that morphed into an early capitalist and slave society. The next chapter traces the eighteenth-century western expansion of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania to “show how gradually, over many decades, social life became subsumed to capitalist relations of production” as small farmers competed with speculators for land and eventually transitioned to petty-commodity production (49). The third chapter follows settlers westward into Kentucky and Ohio as key sites of competition between international empires and degrees of market integration. Both states followed a broad pattern of settlement by European squatters seeking to establish patriarchal households clashing with speculators aided by the nascent state, followed by settlers who purchased or rented land and engaged to varying degrees in petty-commodity production. In Kentucky, Parisot argues, enslaved labor was “an important part of the Kentucky economy but many slaves were also incorporated into smaller scale family production, rather than large scale capitalist plantations” (98). Technology dramatically accelerated market integration, as steamboats and then railroads facilitated market access, giving rise to a “social form . . . somewhere in between” isolation from and being fully subsumed by the market (106).

In Chapter Four, Parisot addresses the renewed interest in slavery and capitalism. Parisot chides historians for their aversion to theory, and while I won’t be developing any seventy-seven word definitions myself (see p. 14), I agree with his call for something more robust than I-know-it-when-I-see-it explanations of capitalism. He points out that “these recent works [by Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, and Sven Beckert] have somehow managed to make a case about capitalism while avoiding a clear definition of it” or “engaging with the long history of debate over, methodologically, how to understand capitalism historically” (113). Capitalism, as Parisot defines it, is “a social order . . . organized around capital accumulation and the extraction of surplus value from a variety of labor forms” (12). Hopefully future literature will respond to this criticism by clarifying what the author believes capitalism to be.

While he concurs that plantation slavery was fundamentally capitalist, Parisot argues that “it was the presence of intersections between capitalism and non-capitalism that characterized southern empire building” (114). Like northern imperialism, southern empire was driven by both capitalist and non-capitalist motives as yeomen sought to establish patriarchal households (some of which incorporated enslaved people) while for capitalist planters and the burgeoning financial infrastructure supporting them, “[e]xpansion was a key method for increasing profits from slavery” (123). These dual motives enticed American settlers into the three states he considers in Chapter 5: Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. By this, squatters and settlers seeking competency also had to contend with “mining and railroad companies and others seeking out western space for profitable use,” creating “gradations of capitalist behavior, from the more capitalist urban centers to less capitalist petty-commodity producers” (130, 136). In Chapter 6, Parisot frames the Civil War as in part about “competing pathways of capitalist imperialism,” with the southern labor relations ultimately restructured to fit into an industrial (still racialized) capitalist state after Republicans “increasingly developed an ideology that, with variation, accepted capitalism as American freedom” (161, 176). The completion of the transcontinental railroad symbolized the triumph of globalized industrial capitalist imperialism and the emergence of the state-aided corporation.

While impressive, I saw a few shortcomings from a historian’s perspective. One is primarily disciplinary and methodological, and thus perhaps unfair: primary sources are used periodically to illustrate broad points, rather than continuously as evidence for the trends Parisot identifies. Another is that, in grappling with a vast body of interrelated literatures on race, gender, and empire, the analysis of race and especially gender are thin or misrepresented in places. My sense is that his errors are the result of impressively wide rather than deep reading. My final quibble is that Parisot often falls back on the passive voice in a way that obscures the responsibility of historical actors.

Overall, these shortcomings don’t invalidate Parisot’s central claims – claims to which I hope historians will pay close attention, and with which I believe historians can productively engage. This book would be especially useful for graduate students interested in the history of capitalism and empire as a brief introduction to large literatures and as a big-picture framework against which to test the conclusion they draw in the archives. While historians, with our attention to specificity, may find instances to dispute or complicate, Parisot’s complex analysis offers historians useful theoretical grounding.

One response

  1. Pingback: Q&A with James Parisot « The Junto

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