Mostly young, and mostly specializing in the history of the United States, historians of capitalism are one part of a broader revival in political economy. Yet the success enjoyed by this segment of a larger groundswell remains noteworthy—and surprising. Despite the seeming predictability of the subject’s popularity at a time when economic issues have moved to the forefront of public debate, turning capitalism into the central category of historical analysis requires intellectual sacrifices, pushing some topics into the spotlight and relegating others to the shadows. This has not escaped the capitalism cohort’s peers, many of whom fear that the trend would undo advances made by a generation of cultural historians, while leading to even more scholarship of and by white men. Historians of capitalism vigorously protest those charges, but murmurs of discontent have already begun, and they will grow louder if the field continues to thrive.Shenk is critical of the new trend's focus on economic growth as a corollary of capitalism:
|“The First Cotton Gin,” Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 18, 1869|
...the new historians of capitalism have a... complicated relationship with economists.... This is nowhere more evident than in the routine conflation of economic growth with capitalism. Though far from the only subject addressed by these historians, economic growth serves a crucial purpose in their accounts, in which capitalism’s ability to satisfy the yearning for more becomes its trump card. An incentive that has stymied would-be revolutionaries for centuries, economic growth unites communities around the pursuit of mutual enrichment, promises social mobility and political stability, and excuses every sacrifice made in its name. Despite its contemporary ubiquity, however, the idea that economic growth is a necessary feature of collective life has a brief history—much briefer than the history of economic growth itself. Not until the middle of the twentieth century was economic growth accepted as a natural and obviously attractive feature of a modern economy, and even then its reign soon came under assault.
Today, confronting the twin pressures of mounting income inequality and escalating concerns about climate change, partisans of economic growth face stronger opposition than at any time in decades. Even if continued growth were desirable, an increasing number of economists are convinced that a decrease from the last century’s norm will be unavoidable in the century ahead. It is a strange tableau: while economists speculate on growth’s decline, a swath of the historical profession, eager to challenge the tyranny of economists, has attempted to make modernity into the story of economic growth—a story that the economists of a prior generation did more than any other group to canonize. Understanding how we arrived at this intellectual crossroads requires a history of its own.