Capitalism 1.2

Article Abstracts – Spring 2020


Books v. Books*
Marc Flandreau

IN 1946, cigarettes became the measure of everything. On the war-ravaged Continent, they enjoyed currency as a means of payment—a more stable store of value than even the dollar. In Britain, where they were expensive but not rationed, they found their way as unit of account in George Orwell’s little essay “Books v. Cigarettes,” which appeared in the Tribune and today is the lead essay in an eponymous collection published by Penguin.

Though many readers may be familiar with it, probably not all are, for it is hardly Orwell’s most famous or highly esteemed piece. For example, it is deemed “relatively inconsequential fluff” by “The Narratologist,” who gives the Penguin essay collection four stars out of five and rates “Books v. Cigarettes” the “least interesting piece” in it.


On the Panic of 2007: My Journey from Economics to History and Back Again
Gary Gorton

The financial crisis of 2007-2008, which I insist on calling a “panic” for reasons that this article explores, can only be understood with an interdisciplinary approach that combines history and economics. For the last forty years, I have studied financial crises from both vantage points. In this brief memoir, I provide an overview of my path through these disciplines and relate it to financial crises, as well as some controversial episodes in both history and economics, including macroeconomics and cliometrics.   


Capitalism when Labor was Capital: Slavery, Power, and Price in Antebellum America
Caitlin Rosenthal

The new historians of capitalism have been reluctant to define “capitalism,” warning that a narrow definition could artificially constrain our analysis of the system on the ground. But, as the field matures, thinking more about what capitalism is can help both to clarify cross-disciplinary debates and also to offer a deeper theoretical understanding of the relationship between slavery and capitalism. This paper unfolds in two parts. First, I explore the problem of defining of capitalism, offering one possibility based on the commoditization of labor as it results from the distribution of capital. Such a definition attempts to reconcile understandings of capitalism that focus on wage labor with the circumstances of slavery. The second half of the article considers late antebellum American slavery through the lens of this proposed definition, asking to what extent enslaved people and their labor were “commoditized.” To do this, I explore four genres of valuation in which slaveholders graded and priced enslaved people: inventories, the system of fractional hands, price circulars, and finally, negotiations over manumission. Planters’ calculations reflect their efforts to understand the infinite variety of enslaved lives as abstract, measurable units of human capital. They enjoyed the power to shift among different modes of valuation to answer different questions, and when it served their interests they abandoned the language of commoditization altogether. 

Naturalizing Inequality: The Problem of Economic Fatalism in the Age of Piketty
Eli Cook

Using the unprecedented 2014 Science special issue on inequality as a conceptual guide, this article examines the recent return of an assortment of fatalist arguments which claim that high levels of economic inequality are a natural, inevitable, and basic characteristic of human civilization and that, therefore, it would be incredibly difficult and damaging—if not impossible—to significantly reduce such income and wealth gaps. Classifying these varying arguments into four natural “laws” of inequality—mathematical, neoclassical, historical, and genetic—this article seeks to unpack the internal logic and external politics of such claims by placing them in their broader historical context. In so doing, this article will also show how certain aspects of Thomas Piketty’s earlier work played a key—albeit unintended—role in the recent renaissance in naturalizing inequality. In conclusion, this article reflects on other aspects of Piketty’s analysis that can be used to “denaturalize” inequality and reveal its highly contingent, political, structural, and institutional basis. Finally, the article will end with a call for historians of capitalism to pick up the denaturalizing mantle and seek to explicitly disprove and challenge the contention that high levels of inequality are all but inevitable. 

Decoding the Balance Sheet: Gifts, Goodwill, and the Liquidation of the League of Nations
C. N. Biltoft

This paper asks what we might learn about the “grammatical structures” of capitalism by “reading” the balance sheets of nonprofit organizations. To those ends, it turns to the appraisal and liquidation of the League of Nations’ assets at the time of the organization’s dissolution in 1946. Rather than describing the whole process, the paper narrows in on the liquidation board’s decision to price a valuable collection of gifts and historical objects as zero in the final financial calculation. Drawing on theories of gifts and symbolic exchange, the paper asks what the history of that non-price tells us more broadly about the pecuniary role of what accountants call goodwill not only in the workings of international organizations, but also in relation to both the tangible and intangible nature of modern capital itself. 

The Money Doctors of Seventeenth-Century Naples*
François R. Velde

A collection of texts printed in early seventeenth-century Naples exemplifies the intersection between economic history and the history of thought. A slowly worsening monetary situation led authorities, unsure of what they could and should do, to solicit diagnostics and cures. The unfolding debate is challenging to analyze: participants viewed events through the lenses of their background, training, and interest. Merchant experts competed with university graduates and technical officials. These texts offer us a rich but contradictory set of observations and interpretations in what constitutes an early attempt at applied economic analysis and policy advice.


Revisiting Time on the Cross After 45 Years: The Slavery Debates and the New Economic History
Eric Hilt

In recent years, a wave of celebrated books by historians has explored the role of slavery in the development of American capitalism. Some of the new works make arguments that resemble those of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s 1974 book Time on the Cross, yet they do not engage with the debates surrounding that book or the extensive literature that followed its publication. This paper revisits those debates and discusses subsequent works that have changed how economists analyze slavery in order to make the literature more accessible to non-specialists. The discussion highlights criticisms of Time on the Cross by both economists and historians that remain relevant to the new works on slavery and capitalism.

Neoliberalism and its Interlocutors
Harold James

This article considers neoliberalism in light of the political and intellectual challenge to which it was originally a reaction. What began as a productive way of thinking about the relationship between legitimate political order and exceptionality has become, in today’s ordinary discourse, simply a term of abuse. The themes of the original neoliberals are still relevant: how to maintain an open and dynamic but civilized world in the face of increased nationalism, authoritarianism, and radical popular mobilization by rigorously enforcing competition, taming credit cycles, making general rules the principle of policy, and limiting the politicization of economic decisions.