Is Gender Missing in the New History of Capitalism?

Read is also a verb… such a verb

It has been over thirty years since Joan C. Scott let the historical profession know that gender is a “useful category of analysis.” (How many academic journal articles get their own Wikipedia page? Not many I assume. Oh, wait — here’s one of my all-time favorites.) And it’s been well over forty years since second-wave feminists — especially Marxist feminists — forced unwaged domestic labor into the conversation about capitalism, pointing out the many tasks borne almost exclusively by women (at the time, anyway) of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and rearing children that produced and reproduced the labor force. (One proposal was to bring the market model into the home by actually paying wages to women for their domestic work; capitalism is gonna capitalism, though, and Americans since the 1960s have outsourced at least a significant portion of this labor to the food service industry, daycares, and Merry Maids, as dual-income households became the norm.)

In any case, Scott’s influential essay was not so much a manifesto as a summation — a recognition (in the profession’s premier journal, no less) of the work that feminist scholars and social historians had been doing in the preceding two decades to bring women and gender into the scope of historical analysis. And the economy was never far from view in this scholarship — if, in fact, I’m not smoking crack. Scholars such as Alice Kessler-Harris and Theda Skocpol were always concerned with the world of work, money, and power, i.e. political economy, at the same time that they were quote-unquote “writing about gender.” (Look at Kessler-Harris’s 1982 Out to Work orProtecting Soldiers and Mothers, Skocpol’s epic 1992 book.)

This fact seems to run against the narrative that historians got off track by delving into cultural history (the “Cultural Turn,” sort of), gender, sexuality, semiotics, critical theory, erotic cartographies and navel-gazing in general during the 1980s and 1990s, losing sight (supposedly) of the hard stuff of real power — business and politics. (The way I’m characterizing this argument might seem like a bit of a straw man, but perhaps not.) Attacks on the humanities have been, in part, justified by a widespread perception among talking heads that scholars had lost the public’s trust and occasioned their own irrelevance by disappearing down the rabbit hole of theory gibberish. In a way, this critique is a historiographical analogue to a similar argument that “identity politics” got liberals or the Left to embrace an ineffective, even self-indulgent, strategy. I’m not sure how much of this criticism is really grounded in reality — most historians never stopped doing very empirical political and social history — but it is true that Homi Bhabha is completely impossible to understand.

In any case, the new History of Capitalism (HoC) came along in the early twenty-first century, with an implicit (and sometimes explicit) aim to bring the economy back into historical scholarship. Historians such as Louis Hyman started writing about subjects such as debt and finance, and “work” as an object of study reentered the scholarly debate, following the long decline of labor history as a field. The term “History of Capitalism” seemed to gain currency by the mid-to-late 2000s — at least as far as my own awareness of it goes — and commentators were quick to suggest that the economic turbulence of the new century, particular the 2008 crisis, sparked greater interest in all things economic. A curious thing, though — since many of the books that resonated with the zeitgeist of the times had originated as dissertations, conceived and written long before the crisis. My own book, Democracy of Sound, was based on a dissertation defended in 2009; by the time it was actually published in 2013, I realized that the project was really History of Capitalism but I had never thought to frame it that way. If I had finished the book a few years later, I would have pitched it to both publishers and the academic job market differently.

On one level, HoC seems like not much more than a bunch of scholars who are particularly interested in capitalism — people who tend toward a materialist or class-based understanding of historical change and who, like me, just find economic stuff to be really interesting — how things are made, how processes work, how systems of production and distribution flow, how decisions are made. One could define it as merely historians bringing the Economy back into the story, whatever that means. (Indeed Eric Rauchway, in a great 2001 JAH article, talked about how Americans in the Progressive Era first came to even came talk about “The Economy” being a thing.)

But of course every new movement in scholarship has to have a rationale that’s grander than simply “Hey, I think this is interesting.” My sneaking suspicion all along is that HoC was simply a way to smuggle political economy back into historical scholarship, especially for historians of a vaguely Marxist bent. “Follow the money!” “It’s all about the means of production!” “You’re epiphenomenal, sir. Epiphenomenal!”

But evidently the rationale given by at least some practitioners of HoC is that they are correcting a tendency to focus too much on culture, identity, discourse, and so forth. Stop focusing on the squishy stuff and look at the really important history: who rides whom and how? This is, at least, the argument that historian Nan Enstad sets out to rebut and critique in her forthcoming article in Modern American History. Enstad describes a sort of “new history of capitalism” (NHOC) ideology, notably advanced by prominent white male historians:

The NHOC jeremiad ranges in its various iterations from the reasonable and unobtrusive to the absurdly overblown. Think of the difference between propping your front door open with a brick so you can carry in a new couch to blasting the door open with a grenade. One is conducive to the subsequent entry of neighbors and friends; the other makes more of a mess. Thus Philip Scranton wrote in brick-like fashion, “Now, after decades emphasizing social and cultural themes, US historians have begun to display renewed interest in organizations and actors structuring, critiquing, and transforming America’s political economy.” Kenneth Lipartito took the door off its hinges when he described a fall from grace in the 1980s: “As historians’ confidence in the base importance of material structures declined, so did their interest in the economy. Labor historians looked outside the workspace and studied communities and identities. Social historians turned from class to language.”

Nan Enstad, “The ‘Sonorous Summons’ of the New History of Capitalism, Or, What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Economy?” (2019)

Or, as Royal Tenenbaum once said, “I’m talking about throwing a brick through the other guy’s window. Taking it out and chopping it up!” Scranton and Lipartito brought bricks and come correct.

Now, I have little patience for historiographical debates, especially when they dramatize rather fine-grained and trivial differences as some kind of epic clash. The differences in argument and interpretation among historians tend to be fairly subtle and distinctly not-epic — angels on the head of a pin having a tempest in a teapot, as Thomas Friedman might put it. Few historians are so bone-headed as to say categorically that gender doesn’t matter, or class doesn’t matter, or xyz factor is just not worth considering. The differences tend be a lot about emphasis.

Enstad argues that the NHOC literature tends to ignore issues such as gender and the family, while slipping in an old-school, top-down focus on great white men of means under cover of capitalism. Is this true, though? It’s perhaps fair to say that Hyman’s first book, Debtor Nation, is chiefly about policy and business; other emerging scholars whose work I have seen in this general area also focus on laws, regulations, and corporations as their objects of study, e.g. how credit cards and banking deregulation reshaped national financial markets in the 1970s and 1980s. On the other hand, Joshua Clark Davis’s From Head Shops to Whole Foods (the first book in Columbia University Press’s new HoC series) certainly looks at businesses run by and for women and people of color. Indeed, as a friend recently put it, race and gender have been left out of the new literature “if you exclude Walter Johnson, Nancy MacLean, Bethany Moreton, and Lane Windham from the history of capitalism, which of course makes no fucking sense.”

To that I would add Aviva Chomsky (Linked Labor Histories) and Jennifer Klein (For All These Rights, Caring for America with Eileen Boris), scholars who have certainly not lost sight of race and gender even as they examined global supply chains or casualized contract work.

Having said that, I still think Enstad is on to something. Surely it is a huge mistake to draw a bright line between a world of culture, identity, gender, sexuality (defined implicitly as personal and subjective) and a world of labor and capital (defined as real, tangible, objective). If that’s what people are doing, then there’s a risk of losing the gains of social history, gender studies, and the cultural turn and writing thin stories about EPA regulations and investment mechanisms, bankers and balance sheets. (Wasn’t the point of EP Thompson’s work that class wasn’t just a job or an income quintile? In other words, it’s not just all base and no superstructure.) If the Economy™ has a certain epistemological authority that surpasses other domains of human experience, then we’re bound to misunderstand capitalism itself.

And this is where I found the most evocative passage of Enstad’s essay.

If historians are reorienting historical questions around “economy,” then we need to struggle actively with that term, particularly with its gendered and raced freight—its legacy of a fantasy of white male mastery and universality—lest we replicate that legacy in our published work or in our professional hierarchies. We should be especially wary of any jeremiad that requires performative distancing from “social and cultural” history in favor of “economy” for two reasons. First, actively resisting the tendency to polarize materiality and social life will help us write critically astute histories of capitalism. Because the terms we inherit are themselves the product and site of struggles over power, we should be especially aware of the ways that race and gender attach in a sticky way to “social and cultural,” though they are, of course, equally “economic,” while derivatives or capital gains or even entrepreneurs can seem unquestionably economic, though they are also and equally social and cultural. We cannot allow the NHOC jeremiad to animate the same universalizing tendency of economy that we should be struggling against. Indeed, we might see “social and cultural” as valuable precisely because of the whiff of embodiment and identity that those terms carry from decades of history scholarship, even when they are being used as categories to analyze markets.

Nan Enstad, “The ‘Sonorous Summons’ of the New History of Capitalism, Or, What Are We Talking about When We Talk about Economy?” (2019)

“Embodiment” as a term struck me. This is very much what I’ve been thinking about in terms of envisioning a new project. I want to shift the focus from the abstract and (yes, sorry) reified categories of information, technology, and innovation to the places where much of the Economy™ happens: living rooms, classrooms, emergency departments, call centers, the places where relationships are created and affect, health, well-being are produced. This interpersonal human element is very much corporeal and embodied — like the touch of a caretaking relative or a home health aide on the shoulder of a lonely senior citizen, or the loosening tension in a depressed person’s body when they talk to another listening, understanding human being on a therapist’s couch or a suicide help-line. Those are real effects and affect that have meaningful value for the overall functioning of society and, indeed, the measurable output of the Economy™, and they’re not the production or distribution of knowledge or information or innovation in any meaningful sense. They’re both embodied and relational, and they are the product produced by industries such as education, healthcare, and social work — which, together, constitute a large part of the Economy™ itself.

Indeed, as Enstad asks, invoking Raymond Carver: “What are we talking about when we talk about the economy?” My contention is that the focus on knowledge or information as a thing (intellectual property) displaces our attention from where it should be, where value is really produced, in the cultivation and maintenance of human beings as thinking, feeling, producing, caring people. An assessment of contemporary capitalism that loses sight of this essential affective labor — with all its gendered, racialized, classed, and sexualized dimensions — will have about as much interpretive power as a ledger book. And I think this is the danger that Enstad was calling out in her essay.

For those of us who are preoccupied with the dynamic, malleable, creative, destructive, foxy, flinty, mercurial and quicksilver-like thing called capitalism, it’s good to keep Enstad’s caution in mind. What I’m trying to figure out is a way to tell the story of postindustrial capitalism along a different axis, from a different angle of vision. A de-centered, re-centered story, where the work of care, the building of relationships, and the cultivation of human capacities are central rather than technology.