Following up yesterday’s review by Lindsay Keiter, today The Junto interviews James Parisot, author of How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Pluto, 2019). James teaches in the Department of Sociology at Drexel University, and received his PhD at SUNY Binghamton, home of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations.
Junto: One of the conceptual innovations in How America Became Capitalist is the distinction you make—riffing on Ira Berlin—between a “society with capitalism” and a “capitalist society.” What do you mean by that and what makes it useful?
James Parisot: By a “society with capitalism” I was referring to the fact that, from the start of English colonisation in North America, there was a kind of unevenness whereby not-so capitalist relations articulated with capitalist relations. For instance, while the 17th and 18th centuries the expanding white-settler countryside developed these sorts of small-scale patriarchal relations with safety-first farming, at the same time, on the coast a capitalist fishing industry took off, and even in the mid-1600s there was a small ironworks industry that formed with a proletarian class consisting of both waged and indentured labor. And in the south, while most books on slavery focus on, say, big plantations, there has also been a lot of good research done on the small farmers who, I argue, had somewhat similar non-capitalist types social relations in some areas.
Of course there is a lot of grey area and it becomes difficult sometimes to find distinct ruptures in history, so much as countless unquantifiable moments, and even tracing the story of a single individual’s life in, say, the 1700s or early 1800s, is one in which people navigated a wide variety of modes of production. But making this distinction has at least helped me conceptually navigate this terrain and find a way to think about colonial and early American history not purely just in terms of “capitalism” or “non-capitalism” but gradations of more capitalist and less capitalist types of social relations.
Junto: You’re obviously working in a broadly Marxist tradition of historical sociology. But class struggle is not a prominent feature of your analysis. Why is that?
JP: Different forms of class struggle and social protests of course shaped this history in many ways, from slave rebellions to the Whisky Rebellion to urban artisans organizing combinations to protect their way of life, to squatters building settlements on the frontier only to have their homes burned down by the military, and so on. But at least in my interpretation I really have a hard time seeing capitalism as emerging from, say, the “unintended consequences of class struggle” as one perspective puts it, so much as a gradual process in which social life was incorporated into capitalism, in different cases with more or less class struggle.
Think of, say, the famous case of the Lowell Mill girls, who chose to become at least temporary wage laborers because it was a path towards a more independent life. And while in some cases farmers were pushed into capitalism against their wills, in other cases, they incorporated themselves deeper into market relations in order to purchase more goods, etc., just as urban artisans may have found they could increase their standard of living by hiring wage laborers rather than journeymen and apprentices (which of course meant a perhaps more insecure life for those they hired). So—even as someone highly critical of capitalism in general—I had to recognize that the history of capitalism is one in which people were both forced into the system but also in some cases consented into it. Life as a barely above subsistence farm family, after all, was not particular luxurious!
Junto: This is not just a book about capitalism, but also about empire. What is the relationship between the two that you are trying to articulate?
JP: I was trying to understand how the shape of empire changed with the rise of capitalism. If in some cases in the first two-and-a-half centuries of American history it was not always capitalism per se that pushed empire building, but mixed sorts of social forms, how did it become the case that capitalism ended up becoming the driving force pushing the last stage of American continental expansion?
I think the reasons for empire-building, especially from the 17th to mid-19th centuries, were manifold, from small farmers who wanted to live outside of market dependence pushing west, to speculators who saw the west as a vast space of potential profit, to the federal state which at times aimed to commodify and sell land dispossessed from Native Americans to generate revenue. Thus my goal was really to bring out the interplay of these forces and show how over time the logic of capital, by the 1870s or so onward, really became the decisive power pushing empire. In this sense, I was more trying to push debates over the history of capitalism to try and locate the dynamics of empire, show how capitalism changed the form empire took, and, in this regard, also push against academic literature not only on American Empire, but histories of empires more broadly, to take more seriously the question of how different empires historically have been rooted in different social relations of production.
Junto: A lot of recent work on American capitalism has focused on the nineteenth century, but a substantial portion of your book is spent in the colonial period. How did that come about?
JP: The historical scope sort of emerged organically as I was researching and writing. When I started the project I was looking mostly at the 19th century, digging through literature on slavery, the history of worker’s movements, the market revolution, and so on. But I wanted to make sure the book was about more than capitalism in one country, and show the way that American colonization and capitalism emerged in an international context. Doing this meant going back to the colonial era.
I suppose I was also willing to try and take on this challenge because my background is in historical sociology rather than “history” proper. Historical sociologists like me are naively ambitious enough to take on big chunks of history and risk making lots of mistakes. So I decided to try and take on this big chuck of time and hope, with whatever mistakes may come up, the overall argument will hold.