U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Broadcasting Capitalism’s History: A Guest Post by Betsy Beasley and David Stein

In this guest post, Betsy A. Beasley and David P. Stein introduce an exciting new project they’ve recently undertaken, Who Makes Cents: A History of Capitalism Podcast. Historians from many different subfields–including intellectual history–continue to explore new ways of engaging with both general and specialized publics via digital and on-line platforms, and, just as intellectual history is entering a renaissance, the history of capitalism is in, I suppose, a naissance–arguably, as you’ll see. At any rate, I’m thrilled to welcome to the blog Betsy, a PhD candidate in Yale’s American Studies program, and David, who recently completed his dissertation at the University of Southern California in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, as they describe the intellectual and practical aspects of making a podcast on the history of capitalism.

In May 2008, the top-ranking Public Radio International show This American Life broadcast an episode entitled “The Giant Pool of Money.” It was an accessible yet complex hour-long untangling of the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis.  Despite its complicated economic content, the episode was a hit with the listenership, especially for a show that rarely covered economic issues.  The episode even sparked a spinoff show, NPR’s Planet Money.

“The Giant Pool of Money” demonstrated quite clearly that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, many people wanted to understand, analyze, and critique how American capitalism—and global capitalism—work.  This is hardly a new reality; even in flusher times (well, flusher for some of us), economic questions are not merely the purview of economists and capitalists.  But for decades, economists and capitalists have had the loudest voices in the room.  And this reality has meant that critique, especially historically rigorous critique, has been hard for the public to find.  In academia, historically minded scholars have been tracing how capitalism has unfolded—sputtering, uneven, haphazard, serendipitous—but their work has been hard for non-historians to find.

As historians, we wanted to bring the work being done by historically engaged scholars of capitalism to an audience of academics and non-academics.  Our discipline has good stories.  As Cornell University historian Louis Hyman has pointed out, “most economists have failed to provide an explanation that makes sense to people.  Stories, in most situations, are more powerful than regressions.”[1]  And showing how capitalism has a past, how its current shape has been struggled over, is a deeply important pedagogical and political project.  In May, we started Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast as a step in the direction of bringing these stories to a broader audience.

Our programming draws inspiration from an academic subfield that has emerged relatively recently, called the “history of capitalism.”  Broadly speaking, proponents of the history of capitalism argue that identifying capitalism as the object of historical scrutiny—rather than labor or business or the state—provides the possibility to incorporate histories of labor with the debates at the Business Roundtable, to explain how the lives of un- and underemployed people intersect with high finance.  At its best, the history of capitalism takes seriously “bottom up” social history and the theoretical commitments of the “cultural turn” while also shedding light on elite economic actors and macroeconomic developments.

Amongst historians, there has been disagreement about what constitutes this subfield and the intellectual stakes of studying the history of capitalism rather than (or in addition to) labor history, or business history, or African American history, or gender history.  Is the history of capitalism primarily an exercise (ironically enough) in marketing—providing professors a way to elicit more excitement about studying work and commerce in a generation of students who grew up in a post-1989 world?  How new is the “new” history of capitalism?  Was it invented a few years back at Harvard? Or does the subfield have a longer historical trajectory, routing through everyone from Eric Williams, to Alfred Chandler, to Meg Jacobs, and many more?  Indeed, none other than David Montgomery, one of the most important thinkers in labor and working-class history, commented in the early 1980s: “Although my specialty is working-class history, the subject I am trying to get at is the history of capitalism. From this vantage point I have as much respect and esteem for the study of the economy or of foreign relations as for that of working people.”[2]

We at Who Makes Cents? are inspired by all of these questions. And we hope to create a forum to explore these conversations by providing a space to consider how capitalist social relations have changed over time.

The title of our show poses questions that many have explored and debated: how is value produced? How is value put into motion to create more value? What social relationships undergird the struggles over the production and appropriation of surplus value? These questions are at the heart of our show. We aim for each episode to reveal insights into these core questions through interviews with scholars about their work. We are aiming towards methodological breadth and intend for our shows to be broadly accessible.  We have been inspired by the interest in economic analysis and reporting over the past few years that is available in the form of podcasts: from Doug Henwood’s Behind the News, to Sarah Jaffe’s and Michelle Chen’s Belabored, to Richard Wolff’s Economic Update. As historians of capitalism, we hope our show can lend insight into the power struggles that established the present. Through introducing listeners to scholars and social critics whose research illuminates the people whose choices have influenced economic relations, we hope to help provide the public with tools to understand their own historical context.

Our first episode focused on one of the most urgent topics of recent years: the rise of consumer credit in the postwar period. To listeners for whom onerous debt has been a persistent millstone, Louis Hyman revealed some of the political and economic underpinnings of their experiences. Hyman’s research shows how credit moved from, as he puts it, “the margins of American capitalism to its center.” In so doing, he highlights the role of relatively cheap goods and the rise of discount retailers in changing how credit is distributed—from installment credit to revolving credit. In this sense, Hyman shows some of the daily manifestations of how consumers have experienced these changes in economic relations.

Right now, a majority of people in the U.S. own some form of financial security, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Our second episode featured Julia Ott who discussed the ascendance of mass investment in financial securities in the early part of the twentieth century. Whereas in the 19th century, the investor was considered to be a parasite on the economy, Ott explained how mass investment became an accepted practice. In this sense, Ott shows the rise of the political-economic subjectivity of the “shareholder” long before maximizing shareholder value became the ruling directive for many firms in the 1980s and after.

On our most recently released episode, we go back to 18th century England to discuss the policing of vagrancy with literary scholar Sarah Nicolazzo. Nicolazzo shows how “vagrancy” charges could be deployed to criminalize a huge swath of behaviors, especially those that challenged hetero-patriarchal property relations. She shows how discussions of “vagrancy” were pervasive in this moment of economic transformation, and how such discussions shaped labor markets of the period. Although her research addresses issues from over two hundred years ago, it also lends insight into contemporary policing in areas such as downtown Los Angeles’s Skid Row district, where harsh policing of marginalized people has become has been met with much public controversy.

Our future episodes feature David Huyssen, whose book Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920 was recently reviewed on this blog. And we will talk to Nathan Connolly about his soon-to-be-released book, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. By asking what the history of capitalism is and what history can tell us about capitalism, we hope to take the broad public and academic interest in economic life and provide some audio that provokes, challenges, and intrigues a broad swath of listeners.

If you have ideas for shows, please email us at [email protected], like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at WhoMakesCents.  You can also check out our website and search Who Makes Cents? in iTunes to subscribe to the show for free.

Betsy Beasley is a Ph.D candidate in American Studies at Yale University, where she is writing her dissertation, Serving the World: Energy Contracting, Logistical Labors, and the Culture of Globalization, 1945-2008. Her research interests include U.S. political, social, and cultural history, the history of capitalism, the history of the U.S. and the world, urban studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Drawing from history, geography, and urban theory, her scholarship focuses on the intersections between U.S. labor history and the expansion of U.S. global power.  Read more about her work here.

David Stein recently completed his dissertation, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The End of Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at University of Southern California. His research interests include African-American studies; working-class history; history of capitalism; policing and imprisonment; social movements; and political economy. Read more about his work here.

[1] Louis Hyman, “Why Write the History of Capitalism,” Symposium Magazine (July 8, 2013), available at http://www.symposium-magazine.com/why-write-the-history-of-capitalism-louis-hyman/.

[2] MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization. “David Montgomery.” In Visions of History, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

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