Capitalism 4.1

Article Abstracts – Winter 2023


Mixed Signals: Political Economies of the Sign
C. N. Biltoft


The Paintgrinder: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Karl Marx on a Horizon of Thought
Benjamin Pickford, Dominic J. Jaeckle

This article undertakes a radical rereading of capitalist ideas in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In both popular and academic appraisals, Emerson is an exponent of mainstream American values, moral and economic. We challenge such appraisals through a novel analysis of Emerson’s brief contact with the work of Karl Marx and proceed to illustrate the subtlety of Emerson’s engagement with the structure of capitalist labor. Using explanatory metaphors based on painterly labor, Emerson demonstrates how labor structures that are assumed to be products of capitalism were also discernable in cultural settings in the mid-nineteenth century, and that neglected lines of affinity exist between cultural and capitalist production. The result is a speculative new purview for the analysis of the social forms of the capitalist era, which indicates the shortcomings of what Michel Foucault termed a Marxian “horizon of thought” that governs the critical outlook of the humanities.

Les Capitalistes: The First Capitalists and the Debt Created by Haitian Slavery
Joan DeJean

Les Capitalistes” re-creates the gradual emergence in print of the word capitaliste during the second half of the eighteenth century. It retraces the word’s transformation from a term used to refer vaguely to any wealthy individual to one with a meaning still familiar today, that of a high-stakes investor. As a result of this evolution, by the 1790s, men who made major investments in the hope of significant profits were first known as capitalistes. The original capitalistes participated in the financing of France’s slave trade with its most lucrative colony, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and subsequently in the financing of the debt created when the Haitian Revolution destroyed both Saint-Domingue’s economy and the Haitian slave trade.

The Unequal Mind: How Charles Murray and Neoliberal Think Tanks Revived IQ
Quinn Slobodian

An instant bestseller, The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray deployed psychological race science against enduring demands in the United States for social justice and equality of economic outcomes. Using new archival evidence, this article situates the book in a long-standing transatlantic exchange about race science that runs through the world of conservative philanthropy and free-market think tanks, with a special role played by the psychologist Richard Lynn. It also illuminates a broader shift in the history of free-market conservatism in the 1990s away from behaviorism, rational choice theory, and cost-benefit analysis and toward the idioms of differential psychology and intelligence. What I call the “new fusionism” defends libertarian policies through arguments borrowed from cognitive, behavioral, and evolutionary psychology and, in some cases, genetics and genomics, sociobiology, and biological anthropology. Assertions about the unequal mind became a renewed basis for attacks on political-economic equality.

Capitalism and Communications: The Rise of Commercial Courier Networks in the Context of the Champagne Fairs
Juraj Kittler

This essay examines the nexus between the roots of modern capitalism and the rise of the first networks of pedestrian couriers known as scarsella, arguing that they both emerged simultaneously during the thirteenth century in the context of the Champagne fairs. This claim is based upon the premise that the essential feature of the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages—the rise of the sedentary merchant—would have been literally unthinkable without the establishment of reliable communication channels and the mastering of paper manufacturing in northern Italy. Paper represented a light and affordable medium that revolutionized business by enabling merchants to carry out not only long-distance communication but also extensive record-keeping. However, this study proposes that the earliest public postal operations in Europe were driven not by merchants’ desire to conduct epistolary exchange but by the need of the commercial banks to execute long-distance money transfers through bills of exchange. 


Information, Surveillance, and Capitalism
Kenneth Lipartito

Information economics has become a major branch of the discipline, but economists have not always agreed on how information operates in the economy. This paper starts with the debates over information stretching back to the 1930s, follows the rise of a neoclassical information economics tradition, and brings to bear recent critiques of information from a surveillance perspective. In particular it engages with the claims of Shoshana Zuboff on the rise of surveillance capitalism, unpacking and critiquing her use of this concept. It takes a special look at her intellectual debt to Émile Durkheim. Zuboff sees surveillance capitalism as a recent aberration in capitalism’s otherwise successful development, whereas this essay argues that it is both much more deeply embedded in capitalism historically and that her essentially functionalist, humanistic perspective does not fully account for the workings of subjectivity and power in surveillance.

Orwell’s Efforts in (Self-)Persuasion
John Considine

When George Orwell was appointed literary editor of London’s Tribune magazine in late 1943 he was a financially unsuccessful author. Encouraged by his new position, he engaged in a campaign of journalistic persuasion. The campaign started by seeking to persuade the public to purchase more books. His initial enthusiasm was replaced by a despairing realization that the public’s purchases were less than he suspected and that his campaign was unlikely to change the situation. His journalism then changed in a subtle way. On the surface he asked the public to admit their preference for movies, dog racing, and socialized alcohol consumption. But at a deeper level, Orwell’s weekly columns were an effort in self-persuasion. Ironically, as his editorial campaign failed to persuade people to buy more books, his efforts to find a larger market for his own books started to succeed. Maybe this persuaded him to be more accepting of the public’s preferences.