Timothy Shenk on the Historians of Capitalism

10 11 2014

In recent years, a group of young business historians in the United States have attempted to re-brand business history at the “history of capitalism.” As part of the rebranding, these scholars have refocus the attention of the business-history community on the issue of inequality.

The Nation, a left-leaning US magazine, has published a very lengthy article on the new breed of historians of capitalism. This l thoughtful article, which is by Timothy Shenk, is about far more than the scholars who are calling themselves historians of capitalism. Indeed, this article is an intellectual tour of the horizon and discusses the ideas of the wide range of social thinkers, from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill to Larry Summers and Tyler Cowen. (The TV host Jerry Springer also gets a brief mention).  Anyway, this piece should be read by all serious social scientists.

Here is a sample of the article.

Historians of capitalism hail from departments across the country, but the field’s most prominent enthusiast occupies an ideal perch for academic proselytizing. In 1996, a young German-born historian of the United States named Sven Beckert was hired by Harvard University’s history department. The title of Beckert’s dissertation alone was significant: called “The Making of New York City’s Bourgeoisie, 1850–1886,” it nodded to the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s classic text The Making of the English Working Class (1963), and it highlighted a concept—“bourgeoisie”—shunned by scholars wary of associating themselves with a Marxist vocabulary. Beckert’s methodology was more indebted to the great figures of modern sociology than to Capital, but at the time Marxism of any kind was unfashionable among historians. It remained so five years later when the book quarried from Beckert’s dissertation was published as The Monied Metropolis.

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