A Dialogue on History of Capitalism vs. Labor History

Jefferson Cowie (JC): Academic disciplines and their subfields are always in some kind of “crisis,” it seems, but for labor history that crisis is pretty real. If I were to look into the future, the best hope might be the turn toward the “History of Capitalism.” I know it brings students into the classroom and sexes things up a bit (see what’s going on at Harvard) but I’m afraid that it is too totalizing of a framework, one that reifies or naturalizes its subject to the point that conflict, politics, work, unions, and the rest of what we do will be reduced, at best, to occasional colorful appendages to the flows of capital and commodities. In short, while we need to rethink labor history, I fear this move might sacrifice the soul of what’s best of our enterprise.

Scott Nelson (SN): Jeff and I were both trained at University of North Carolina – me in the 1980s and him in the 1990s. Leon Fink (our advisor) pushed us to take classes outside of the framework of straight-up labor history. I remember classes like “capitalism and slavery”, “workers in the world”, “The Americas”, and “Intellectuals and Social Action” (some team-taught with anthropologists, historians and political scientists).

This was great fun for me as an activist and a labor historian, though I found both mainstream economics and social theory difficult. After comprehensive exams when I went back to teaching and TAing our bread-and-butter classes — the US history survey and the labor history survey — I got kinda bored. That’s why I found the idea of a history of capitalism course so exciting. I taught it as “history of American capitalism” this semester and I confess that I like to have a contentious mix of activists, libertarians, and Wall Street wannabes in the class. I also had a former Goldman Sachs bond trader (now a finance professor) in the classroom. It is definitely different from teaching a class on globalization or politics of food or labor & the left (the other sidetrips for labor historians). Is there less labor? Certainly. But I feel like I end up doing many of the same themes: craft production to assembly line, scientific management, populist-labor fusion, Fordism, and the New Deal. But I also have to explain net-present-value and liquidity traps. I have been accused of being a lapsed labor historian, but I would endorse confronting what I would have (20 years ago) called the dark side.

JC: I completely agree with Scott’s (and Leon’s) demand for a more holistic perspective on our field. Labor History does damage to itself and, more importantly, the study of history in general if it is isolated from the rest of the field. Scott’s own work is a testament to breadth.

1911 image of capitalist pyramid  by International Publishing Company
1911 image of capitalist pyramid by International Publishing Company

Yet some of what Scott lays out above brings to mind a problem that I think is under-recognized: the degree to which the success of the field generated it’s own crisis. As I wrote elsewhere, the LH disciples have often gone off to form their own congregations, leaving us with little more than the old orthodoxy:

often overlooked is the fact that labor history is also a victim of its own intellectual successes.  To be interested in the “new” labor history” back in the day of my advisor’s advisor, Herbert Gutman, was to be involved in debates and research on ethnicity, slavery, race, immigration, colonization, community history, and women’s history; in fact, the entire field of social history seemed to sprout from the soil first plowed by the new labor history.  Those fields now flourish with their own journals, their own conferences, their own debates.  “Labor history,” I fear, is now left with only the boring institutional stuff of the sort that may not be all that relevant to understanding many of the problems of today.

So our purview certainly needs to be widened. An overdependence on institutional labor history is a dead end—and it’s also “boring” as Scott says. The term “labor” now seems as buried and ossified as dinosaur bones. But the term “History of Capitalism” seems less useful to me than that old rubric “political economy” or what might be available with a simple modifier like “capitalism and conflict.”

So, although I can’t find a way to fight the incoming tide, I’m still uncomfortable with just how dangerously naturalizing this might be, especially for undergraduates who think “everything has always been thus,” and that there’s little hope of change. HoC does not even take into account what some call the “varieties of capitalism.” I fear the whole thing has a bit of a Fukuyamian whiff to me.

SN: Like Jeff, I’m not a fan of the term HoC, and I agree that we have to teach it in a way that’s not totalizing or assumes that capitalism is somehow natural. We’d be reinscribing the Louis Hartz book, The Liberal Tradition in America, which along with Stanley Elkins were the most loathed history books of social historians a generation before us. I don’t think institutional labor history is fully dead, and digging up metaphorical bones is what we do best as historians. But as for being totalizers, yes, I think we can safely say that all of American history is really labor history. If history is the mother of all the disciplines, then labor history is the grandma. We just need to get the whole world to sign their cards.


  • Brian Kelly December 20, 2012

    I don’t honestly know what to make of this ‘dialogue’. Can it really be the case that the study of working people and the institutions and movements they build to resist capital and affect change is ‘boring,’ but ‘liquidity traps’ light up student enthusiasm? Not in my experience.

    And the very term ‘labor’ is ossified? This in the year after the struggles in Wisconsin, in a period when massive and persistent social inequality marks American life, and in the near-wake of the Occupy movement, which for all its weaknesses demonstrated the resonance of class for millions of Americans? Months after the massacre at Marikana, a seismic labor struggle that has called into question the whole neoliberal edifice of post-apartheid South Africa? A revolution in the Arab world marked both by rejection of authoritarianism and opposition to endless austerity? General strikes in Greece and Spain? I mean no slight to either Scott or Jeff, but I do see a different incoming tide than the one that seems to have them scrambling for a new home for the work they do.

    I understand, and largely agree with, Jeff’s assertion that the very success and expansive reach of the new labor history into an array of important subfields has changed things. But I see that as a very positive development, and not one that should leave us worried that we are stuck with nothing but the ‘old orthodoxy’. [See the review of work on US slave emancipation that I did in ILWCH a while back: “Emancipations and Reversals”] My own take on this would be that labor history’s influence is down to the pervasive centrality of class–essentially that none of the major fields that have emerged along with the new social history (African American history, immigration history, women’s history, the new western history, the history of gender relations, etc etc)–can be effectively developed, or integrated into a credible synthesis of the history of the US without prominent attention to working-class history, to the way in which class, political economy affects each. Scott comes around to saying that “all of American history is labor history,” and I mostly agree with that.

    Is this really so new? I don’t think so. Do any of us really do the kind of old-fashioned institutional history that this dialogue seems to assume is still dominant? If so I must be missing something.

  • Steve Brier
    Steve Brier December 25, 2012

    I agree 100% with Brian Kelly’s response to this dialogue. I, too, fail to see the return to the old fashioned institutional history that JC criticizes. The “new” labor and social history that Thompson, Gutman and Montgomery (now all sadly gone) began to transform almost four decades ago feels very much alive, as a quick perusal of recent issues of and articles in Labor and Labour: Le Travail demonstrates. I also think that while a history of capitalism is essential for doing labor history, we are being offered a false choice here. One way out of this conundrum might be to embrace a better term: “working-class history,” which suggests a much broader, more inclusive array of historical approaches and issues (and which is how I teach it to workers at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies). We could also also comfortably appropriate “political economy,” as both JC and BM also suggest, since bourgeois economists (as my labor organizer father always called them) have absolutely now use for either the term or the analytical approach.

  • Christopher Phelps December 26, 2012

    Sorry to break up the balcony of howling objection, since I like Brian Kelly and Steve Brier’s comments, but I also found interesting the perspectives in Jefferson Cowie and Scott Nelson’s initial posts. I happen to teach both American Capitalism (at post-graduate level, very much in American Studies mode, with novels, reportage, movies, etc., built partly around the recent financial crisis, and then going long to earlier history) *and* straight-up American Labor History (using the Lichtenstein-Boris reader). So I do not see the choice as mutually exclusive. I like Cowie’s idea of Capitalism and Conflict as a way of framing the matter so that opposition is not lost. Something like Capitalism and its Critics might also work. I would think that would actually make possible something like Kelly is suggesting.

    Anyway, another and maybe larger point: I am a bit of an interloper in labor history, having trained as an intellectual historian. In fact, a third class I teach is American Thought and Culture, and it’s what I’m really supposed to be doing in the world as someone who sat in Christopher Lasch’s last colloquium. That field seems to have some vogue right now but I have to say I actually find labor history far more exciting, personally. Admittedly this is a function of my own predilections — I don’t mind a bit of institutional history, personally, now and then — but I wouldn’t despair about parochialism. I personally keep working on projects that I think show the ability to link disparate fields like intellectual history and labor history. I see Cowie and Nelson, in fact, as both exemplifying how labor history is also cultural history.

    Leon Fink should pay attention to this thread and think about getting a symposium together for the Labor journal where people could elaborate on all this. I happen to think the new generation’s interest in studying capitalism systemically a completely logical response to contemporary history and the horizons of their life situation. I’d be reading Capital too. (Of course, I have to admit, I did when I was their age — back when everyone else was reading Friedman and heading off to be Masters of the Universe.)

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