In The Nation, an exceptionally thoughtful article by Timothy Shenk explores the strange novelty of capitalism as an academic object. When examined by historians as an event (or thing), rather than by economists as a generic form (or type), it emerges as a peculiarly neglected target of attention which — despite its apparent familiarity — remains to a remarkable degree theoretical terra nova. Shenk notes:
Capitalism might seem like a strange topic to require discovery, yet until recently, scholars concerned with the subject tended to style themselves practitioners of economic history, or social history, or labor history, or business history, not the history of capitalism as such. But that is the genius of the label: it names a topic, not a methodology, opening the field to anyone who believes capitalism worth studying.
Taking the work of Harvard historian and “academic entrepreneur” Sven Beckert as a clue, Shenk outlines the emerging problems — and ironies — of the shift towards a growth-oriented perspective. Rather than representing the incarnation of a political-economic idea, or a ethico-political dilemma, “capitalism is defined not so much by its institutions as by its results — not by what it is, but by what it does.” The new capitalism studies sheds presuppositions in order to gain cognitive traction upon the plastic dynamism of a self-expanding system. Previously-dominant modes of engagement in both economics and history are disrupted in consequence:
Instead of focusing on the experiences of wage workers, scholars now dwell on the variety of ways in which labor of all sorts can be commodified and exploited. Plantation slaves and factory workers become different points on a common spectrum, rather than fundamental opposites. Commodified persons and the deft financiers capable of exploiting their commodification provide these narratives with their central figures — new embodiments for the old categories of labor and capital. […] In this rendering, capitalism is less a specific entity whose precise contours can be outlined than an infinitely resilient blob capable of absorbing every blow dealt against it and emerging stronger. It is a view that imposes stark limitations on the realm of the politically possible. Hyman is explicit on this point, arguing that “American capitalism is America, and we can choose together to submit to it, or rise to its challenges, making what we will of its possibilities.” Reform might be achievable, but the only revolution on offer is what Beckert, with a sly wink to Leon Trotsky, calls the “permanent revolution” of capitalism itself.
The puzzle of Modernity once again takes center stage. Yet Shenk is especially attentive to the fact that this growth-oriented definition of the capitalist ‘thing’ has arisen at exactly the moment growth confidence relapses into widespread stagnationism. An important theme of the article is the remarkable marginality of growth-based definitions of capitalism within the history of political economy, making recent dismal expectations of its prospects far more normal than their narrow 20th-century contextualization would suggest. Given the intellectual authority of equilibrium models, this should scarcely surprise us. Shenk too, of course, is a growth (and thus capitalism) skeptic, but an impressively problem-centric, and programmatic one:
Today, confronting the twin pressures of mounting income inequality and escalating concerns about climate change, partisans of economic growth face stronger opposition than at any time in decades. Even if continued growth were desirable, an increasing number of economists are convinced that a decrease from the last century’s norm will be unavoidable in the century ahead. It is a strange tableau: while economists speculate on growth’s decline, a swath of the historical profession, eager to challenge the tyranny of economists, has attempted to make modernity into the story of economic growth — a story that the economists of a prior generation did more than any other group to canonize. Understanding how we arrived at this intellectual crossroads requires a history of its own.
This essay provides a valuable sketch of its general contours.