Teaching the History of Capitalism without Teaching the History of Capitalism

Joshua D. Rothman

Although scholarship on the history of capitalism is not a new phenomenon, insights from the recent outpouring of new work on the subject have begun to make their way into the college classroom. As someone who studies the history of the particular relationship between slavery and capitalism, I have endeavored of late to bring some of what the new history of capitalism has to offer into my courses. I should note from the outset that other than at the graduate level, I do not actually teach any classes that are explicitly about the history of capitalism. But the evolution, historicity, and implications of capitalism are salient themes in nearly every one of my undergraduate courses nonetheless.

In the introductory survey, for example, the development of capitalism is a thread running almost continuously through my lectures from the Revolutionary era forward. I teach students, for example, about the battle on the Maine frontier in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between the Liberty Men and the Great Proprietors, as described so brilliantly by Alan Taylor, and I note how that battle was not only over what the Revolution meant and who it was supposed to benefit. In many ways, it was an argument over different understandings of property rights and over what a nascent system of American capitalism was going to look like.

Both overlapping with the immediate aftermath of the Revolution and moving ahead somewhat in time, meanwhile, the struggles over the First and Second National Banks serve as object lessons in the history of capitalism as well. In part, they help extend the idea that the evolution of capitalism in the United States has been the byproduct of ideological and class struggles, but they also familiarize students with the complexities of a capitalist economy that had no single or central currency.

Bureau du coton à la Nouvelle-Orléans by Edgar Degas; Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sectional conflict stands out as the survey’s most salient theme by the antebellum period, but I make clear that it is impossible to understand that conflict without also understanding the significance of capitalist development in the United States. When I lecture about free labor ideology and the ideals of the antebellum middle class, for instance, I do so by describing them as parts of a bourgeois capitalist worldview that emerged out of urbanization and the early Industrial Revolution, and I remind students that such a worldview was by no means transhistorical, universal, or inevitable, even as its predominance in the United States practically to this day makes it seem naturalized. Moreover, I discuss that worldview both in tandem and in contrast with not only the lives and concerns of working-class laborers but also with the slave-based capitalism that took off in the cotton South in the first half of the nineteenth century and that was at once both a distinctive and a central component of the American economic system.There is no single or particular lesson about the morality or ethics of capitalism as an economic system on offer when I teach the survey. The goal is rather to impart to students a sense of that American capitalism has always been contingent, and to demonstrate to them that capitalism as it currently exists is neither static nor a given. Instead, Americans have contested its meaning essentially ever since there has been an economic system that might be called capitalistic in the first place. Indeed, American capitalism arguably has taken its meaning and its shape from those very contests.

There is no single or particular lesson about the morality or ethics of capitalism as an economic system on offer when I teach the survey. The goal is rather to impart to students a sense of that American capitalism has always been contingent, and to demonstrate to them that capitalism as it currently exists is neither static nor a given. Instead, Americans have contested its meaning essentially ever since there has been an economic system that might be called capitalistic in the first place. Indeed, American capitalism arguably has taken its meaning and its shape from those very contests.

This sort of framework for getting students to think critically about capitalism also runs through several of my upper-level classes. In a course I teach on the nineteenth-century American South, for example, I see it being among my most important tasks to dismantle the idea of white southerners as anti-capitalistic or as seated in a nonmarket or neo-feudal economy that was diametrically opposed to the greedy and grasping North. Indeed, I think it vital to expose that idea as an act of the imagination that actually helped entrench slavery, gave rise to racist fantasies about the supposedly proper roles of black people, led the white South into a disastrous Civil War, and yielded the poisonous ideologies of the Lost Cause and the contemporary neo-Confederate movement.

In a course I teach on antebellum reformers and their activities, meanwhile, the very foundations of the entire semester are the economic, social, and cultural changes of what used to be called the market revolution, is sometimes now referred to as the transportation revolution, and can really be called whatever one prefers. Nearly every reform movement engaged in that course—from abolitionism and feminism to phrenology and transcendentalism to utopian communities and temperance—are things that I insist my students understand at least in part as responses by individuals whose senses of themselves, their values, their families, and their country had been thrown for a loop by the evolution of industrial and finance capitalism in the United States.

And yet, despite what might well sound to students like a drumbeat in lectures, once I get beyond those lectures and down into assignments and class discussions of readings and other materials, I very rarely dwell on the history of capitalism in any direct or overt way unless a student brings it up. I would not say that I actively avoid the subject, but I prefer to ask students to talk and write in terms that are implicitly rather than explicitly about capitalism.

The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age “The season of strength” Published by Currier & Ives, c. 1868; Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Two reasons underpin this decision. Neither may be an especially good reason, and surely other professors would and do approach things quite differently. For me, the choice to talk about capitalism without talking about “capitalism” is rooted in part in the fact that students find it terribly dull. I believe that bringing economics and economic history back into undergraduate teaching is tremendously valuable and important, but there is only so much about tariffs and currency and banking policy and markets and prices that most students can take before they begin to tune out altogether. You cannot teach students who have no interest in what you want to teach them, which is why even in my lectures I introduce students to thinking about capitalism more in terms of ideology, values, and social norms than in terms of banknotes, bills of exchange, and the labor theory of value.

I also often come at capitalism somewhat obliquely because the very term “capitalism” has become remarkably loaded in the political environment of the twenty-first century. Even people who craft educational standards at the state level sometimes have been urged if not instructed outright to talk in terms of a “free market system” rather than in terms of “capitalism.” Along the same lines, I find that even when I can get students to talk about capitalism, they can only do so consistently and critically if they are not talking about it directly. Because once the conversation turns explicitly to capitalism, undergraduates tend to settle into one of three camps: the indifferent students whose eyes cloud even at the thought of talking about economic systems; the leftist students who can only think of capitalism in caricatured terms that sound like poorly digested and under-read Marx; and the libertarian or right-wing students for whom capitalism is less a subject for discussion or a system to be analyzed than it is a matter of reverence.

Once students fall into those camps, the possibilities for productive conversations or thoughtful essays narrow significantly. And if those are our goals, then ironically I sometimes find that getting students to think about capitalism in historical terms requires avoiding talking about capitalism at all.

24 April 2017

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Alabama.

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