[Jeffrey] Sklansky argued that one of the reasons why commodification has become such an important frame for new histories of capitalism is because—unlike proletarianization—it seems to have no necessary boundaries.
This boundlessness is quite different from the implicit premises of a narrative focused on proletarianization. Labor history and business history—as they were written up through, say, the 1990s—thrived on drawing distinctions, on identifying stages of development and differentia specifica. The most important distinction, perhaps, was between the human and the nonhuman: proletarianization is, after all, a human process.
Commodification, on the other hand, tends to overwhelm distinctions, starting with the human-nonhuman: while only humans can be proletarianized, everything can be “priced”—placed in a relationship with other things that can be expressed in terms of a number. Even more, while the process of proletarianization seems never to engulf the whole of a person (see my argument in this post), commodification assimilates both individual humans and their internal qualities to a system of commensurable valuations: your cheerfulness as well as your blood pressure, your knowledge of Latin as well as your attention can all be denominated in dollars, no different from a television or a ticket to a concert.
In this way, the story of commodification flattens distinctions between humans and the (rest of the) natural world, demolishing proletarianization’s marked anthropocentrism. Putting a price on human lives or health or knowledge or creativity and putting a price on a chair or a car is one single continuous process; as much as labor could be abstracted as just one more input or one more production cost, the story of making humans into proletarians was always distinct from—if parallel to—the story of extracting value from the natural world.
There are various ways to account for this shift in historical narration away from proletarianization’s anthropocentrism. Certainly, the influence of environmentalism has something to do with it. While very much leftist critique descending from Marx is (still) only fitfully cognizant of ecological critiques of capitalism, some of the ontological premises of an ecological worldview have seeped into culture so generally that an older stark separation of the human and the nonhuman is no longer tenable.
Another possible explanation comes from the small explosion since the 1990s of works in the subfield of what Lorraine Daston has dubbed “historical epistemology,” which as Sklansky defines it is the study of “the invention of new kinds of fact such as employment figures and credit ratings along with the modern metrics and matrices that produced them” (Sklansky, “Elusive Sovereign,” 242). Offspring of the history of science, studies in this vein emphasize the ways that quantification and abstraction have profoundly reshaped the image of “the human,” creating what Dan Bouk has called the “statistical individual.” Incarnated in numbers, this creature can float freely as part of a universe of endlessly adaptable equations: where the human worker needs to occupy a certain place in the production process, the statistical individual can be plugged in far more flexibly at many points in a firm’s calculations and predictions.
The other week on Twitter, Eli Cook pointed out one possible source of inspiration for a generation of historians, one reason why folks who entered graduate school from at least the mid-90s through the present might have had commodities on their minds. That source is a single chapter in a single monograph: the grain chapter of William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991), Chapter 3.
The key argument of that chapter was that the grain trade had transitioned over the course of the nineteenth century from a system of water and warehouses to one built on railroads and elevators, and that the shift from one to the other entailed a new kind of abstraction which severed “the link between grain as physical object and grain as salable commodity” (109). The pleasure of Cronon’s chapter is in the fine technical detail of how these two systems functioned, but the chapter more subtly also drew the reader’s attention to the chicanery of the middlemen and speculators who took full advantage of this new abstractness.
Part of the influence of Nature’s Metropolis comes from the elegant clarity of its organization of evidence and the lambent intelligence of its prose—no doubt it would prompt emulation under any conditions. But the historian readers of Nature’s Metropolis would also have encountered it from within an academic setting shaped profoundly by the linguistic turn, and I would hazard that its great impact on a generation or two of graduate students has something to do with the way its ideas, its method, and even its tone interact with the ideas, method, and tone of scholarship directly inspired by post-structuralism.
In other words, Eli was totally right in locating Nature’s Metropolis as the fountainhead of the new history of capitalism, but what this insight reveals is the possibility that the field took shape largely in a subliminal dialogue with the kind of cultural history that embraced the linguistic turn unambiguously.
Here’s what I mean. If they were discontented with the total surrender to the play of symbols that post-structural mavens evangelized, graduate students could discover in Cronon’s book something that had the same kind of piercing thrill of demystification as deconstruction but that conspicuously lacked the terminological fustian of capital-T Theory. Moreover, where the linguistic turn pushed toward a wholesale denial of materialism and smashed binaries with the violent zeal of an iconoclast, Cronon’s story of sacks and elevators steadfastly took the irreducibility of the material world as primary and affirmed the importance of at least some binaries as a way to structure a narrative.
On the other hand, Cronon’s sophisticated understanding of what a commodity was thoroughly matched the tenor of the linguistic turn: it would take more room than I want to give it here, but his description of the historical process by which “grain as salable commodity” unmoored itself from “grain as physical object” resembled nothing so much as the deconstructionist’s analysis of the “slippage” that occurs when signifiers detach from their signifieds and flurry about. Cronon’s conceptualization of the commodity was immediately—even intuitively—legible from within the linguistic turn: the commodity was a signifier. Or to put it another way, Cronon was one of the first historians to reconfigure the plot of capitalism as a story of commodification, but he did so (perhaps unconsciously) using a readymade structure cribbed from post-structuralism.