The History of Capitalism and HOTeES

When talking about the history of science and technology here on American Science, I've referred to it as HOST. This is nice. HOST has overtones of hospitality, gift-giving, amiability, and helpfulness, but maybe it's a bit too cozy. On the other hand, it could also be read as a parasitic host, which is more thrilling. Yet, it might be better for marketing purposes to call it HOTS, as in "I have the HOTS for research on paleontology and capitalism." Perhaps, it is even more advisable to talk about the history of technology, environment, and science, or HOTeES. Because, let's face it, who doesn't want to be one of the HOTeES? The things we think about on planes.

I returned a few weeks ago from the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians. This year's theme was "Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy." I'd like to share some various and scattered thoughts on the conference's theme, with an eye as always towards (implications for) the HOTeES. 

On Friday, April 20, Sven Beckert, Jefferson Cowie, and Kim Phillips-Fein took part in a panel titled "The Return of the Political Economy?" The panel was clearly a cornerstone of the conference's focus on capitalism. As a sub-field, the History of Capitalism (HOC) has been gaining a great deal of traction in recent years, with centers dedicated to the topic opening at Harvard and Georgia. Many practitioners apply the sensibilities and approaches of cultural history to their object, examining how the economy, class, and "markets" are (socially) constructed. Beckert, Cowie, and Phillips-Fein all agreed that a focus on political economy in history is returning—or, indeed, has already come. Beckert outlined his vision of HOC, including his belief that it draws together various disparate trends in historiography.  Cowie expressed his discomfort with the HOC label, preferring the older term, political economy. I've heard several reasons why people prefer this older word, but at least one person told me that he is also interested in non-capitalist economies and, thus, finds political economy more broadly applicable.

HOC has tended to focus on labor (Jefferson Cowie, Shane Hamilton, Bethany Moreton), finance (Stephen Mihm, Julia Ott, Louis Hyman), and elite politics (Sven Beckert, Kim Philips-Fein, Ben Waterhouse). Many of these historians 'slip the surly bonds' of these artificial categories I've tossed up. Other works that fit the HOC bill don't fall neatly in these boxes at all. One example is Elizabeth Shermer's forthcoming book, which is based on her dissertation "Creating the Sunbelt: The Political and Economic Transformation of Phoenix, Arizona."

Still, questions remain: what place do HOTeES have in this mix of historiography? Inversely, what does the (ad) HOC have to teach HOTeES? And I know that the answer to both of these questions is "a lot," but I'm interested in hearing what people see as productive places of tension and overlap. I should also say that these questions remain unanswered for me and perhaps only me. Some people already play at this boundary between HOTeES and HOCs, like Courtney Fullilove & Emily Pawley (both of whom were on an great panel together at OAH) and American Science's very own Lukas.

Beckert explicitly casts HOC as providing a grand synthesis for a profession that was earlier riven by division, especially by a heavy focus on identity—what, in That Noble Dream, Peter Novick hauntingly called "Every group its own historian." Many HOTeES are probably sympathetic to Beckert's drift here. We might consider how this synthesis relates to the another potential synthesis we've seen amongst HOTEeS (as previously discussed on American Science, in the comments).

Of course, protests of "old wine, new bottles" can be heard near and far, particularly among established business historians. (I've heard several people say that their HOC courses were once business history classes.) Along this line, an interesting game might be to consider older works by HOTeES (or their paramours) and judge whether we could now re-describe them as HOC. What about studies of corporate R&D labs and other examples where money shaped science? We could also consider older works that address Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management. Historians, like Daniel Nelson, Daniel Rodgers, Hugh Aitken, and David Hounshell have examined how Taylorism did (and did not) shape industrial practices in the United States. Would these works need some kind of extra, special sauce to become HOC?

Moreover, many historians of science still see the shadow of Boris Hessen's flat-footed Marxist interpretation of Newton and the scientific revolution. They may be hesitant to engage with this return to political economy. But is there some more subtle way to bring science, economics, and Hessen's concern with the rise of practical "problems" together? Probably yes. I thought, for instance, of Jeremy Blatter's doctoral work at Harvard on applied psychology, and how businesses of the day created "problems"that begged for work by scientists.

Another place of potential overlap, of which Taylorism is a part, is the development of abstract "tools" that affect our actions. HOCs have done great work examining how financial instruments have shaped politics, "markets," and people's choices. And we can also think of many places where scientific notions (e.g., efficiency, race) have come to influence behavior. This notional space between economics, finance, science, and engineering as fields might be the richest vein of future exploration.

Finally, when I listen to Beckert and others who discuss HOC, I often agree with a) their description of the problem (fragmentation), b) their hope for synthesis, and c) their instinct that the (socially constructed) economy is the place to turn to draw things together. And, yet, their words lack some theoretical—and perhaps more programmatic—je ne sais quoi that would make it all gel for me.

In what other ways should HOTeES participate in this trend called the history of capitalism?


It seems like HOC (to the extent that we take the "C" seriously) is confined to c19 and later. Do you think so? What about earlier stuff? I know at OAH this question might be moot, but in terms of a "grand synthesis" won't "political economy" draw in more people than HOC?

I'm thinking of a seminar a couple years ago in which someone framed c18 financial ideas in HOC terms. He was urged to drop HOC and instead adopt a theoretical lens from the time itself – that is, find something in Smith (who fell at the end of his paper) with which to frame the analysis.

Finally, is the difference between Hessen's "flat-footed Marxism" (Lukas might stick up for him!) and historically-rooted economic analysis is that we've grown uncomfortable with Marxism's transhistorical assumptions – e.g. base and superstructure?

I'm not sure where people are periodizing the birth of capitalism these days. I think Beckert goes back to the Colonial era in his HOC class at Harvard. Other people would probably stick to the Market Revolution literature, which focuses on the early 19th century. Regardless, yes, there will be some kind of limit to how far back HOC goes.

We've certainly grown uncomfortable with some Marxist categories—including base and superstructure. I meant to suggest that creative ways of re-reading and re-appropriating Hessen might find interesting questions in his work, while allowing us to jettison the more problematic elements. During my most recent reading of Hessen, I was intrigued by his discussion of how science was related to practical problems of industry during Newton's day. I think we can say that the labors of a particular period bring specific problems to the fore without saying that scientists are superstructural cogs in the economic machine.

One thing seems to be hanging in the background of your comment and in your immediately previous post: you commitment to using actors' categories. I would love to hear you expound on this view someday, especially in the light of your recent theory discussions. Are you opposed to using concepts to examine the past? Is there a difference between theory and concepts? How minimalistic and parsimonious must we make our theories in order to leave space for actors' concepts? And what is the goal of this way of viewing things? Are we trying to march through time and reconstruct how different people used ideas to organize their reality?

Thanks for this post, Lee. I guess it should come as no surprise that I'm very sympathetic to what I understand as your central point here; namely, that history of science / technology has a lot to say to the history of capitalism and vice versa. (As is Dan Bouk, I imagine.)

First, a point about labels. I would not place too much stock in the movement's name: History of Capitalism. My sense is this is largely a historical accident. People don't want to call themselves economic historians, because that has certain particular connotations (about cliometrics and all that -- the sort of thing that now more commonly done in economics departments). They also don't want to call themselves business historians (even though there's a lot of overlap) because the idea is to do something new. So the history of capitalism sounds pretty good in part because of what it's not, and in part because it does suggest that we are doing something that's historically specific. Capitalism is a particular economic system with a particular history, which can't simply be written using rational decision theory or optimality modeling. By implication, yes, I suppose the field is temporally restricted. But as I said, I would not put too much stock in a name.

I'd just like to say one thing that History of Science / Technology can add to the History of Capitalism literature. The latter, it seems to me, is very invested in the role that science & technology have played in American history. Whether it's because S&T are important in realizing economies of scale, harvesting new sources of energy, or supplying a model of efficiency, it abounds everywhere! But the existing literature, insofar as I'm familiar with it, does not tend to open the black box of S & T.

Take the expertise point. I've heard it asserted over and over again that the managerial revolution which took place around 1900 was one in which the personal virtues of sole proprietors was replaced with the institutional expertise of middle managers as a locus of trust and authority. I think there is a lot to that observation. In saying this, people tend simply to assume that it is obvious why institutionalized forms of professional expertise (expressed in accounting practices, for example) would serve as a good source of trust and authority. But as anyone who has read Shapin will tell you, it's really not at all obvious! It's just that you need someone who is willing and has the technical ability to look inside the black box and see how scientific expertise derives its epistemic authority in this period to round out the story.

Good point about expertise, Lukas. I think this is an interesting place to think about how Porter (in the latter half of Trust in Numbers) and Shapin (in the first half of The Scientific Life) speak to one another. Both are invested in digging into science's "external" relations (and both want to get rid of that distinction): Porter in "public life," Shapin in business and industry.

It's cool and confusing how much of this is happening all at once in the decades after the Civil War: the corporation, "scientific management," the American research university, the scientific ideal. I wonder if you guys think the history of capitalism (or whatever we want to call it) is a component of some wider way of describing these big shifts, or in fact captures enough of it to be a new synthesis (just for this period)?

That is, are HOC and HOS about this period parallel movements in the historiography, and/or might we aim at some more general (either more basic, or integrative, or what have you) way of describing these shifts that envelopes both HOC and HOS?

Hi Hank, I'm fairly comfortable saying that the history of capitalism can act as an envelope for the history of science during the period under question (the late 19th cen.).

I've heard Lukas say that the history of the environment is potentially the real synthetic history. That is, it's a history of everything (HOE), including the natural world, human settlements, political economy, science, ideas, you name it.

Another way to look at this issue is to fall back on the organizational synthesis (Louis Galambos, Alfred Chandler, Brian Balogh, Steven Usselman, and many, many others, including older thinkers, e.g. Wiebe). In other words, what holds HOS and HOC together during this period is that somehow people were getting themselves together and organizing "better" beginning in this period.

I recall Braudel placing the beginnings of capitalism in the early modern period (if not even earlier), linked to the practices of long-distance merchants. By that definition, the question is not when capitalism was born (which would precede the colonies, I think), but when capitalism became popular, when it hit the coasts and began to work its way through the American frontier.

I'm not sure off the top of my head about the Adam Smith distinction either. He certainly talks about "capital" in Wealth of Nations. Is it the "ism" that is the problem?

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