Oxford symposium follow-up

As a follow-up to the Oxford event, Michael Zakim has submitted the following response to the questions suggested by Ed Balleisen: What is it that we don’t know? What do we know that other people should learn about? What, in sum, should be the research agenda for the future? Please feel free to join in this discussion.


One response

29 09 2010

Our brief discussion at Oxford about “What do we know that other people should learn about?” – frankly, I don’t remember talking about what it is we don’t know – focused on our influence, or lack thereof, over public opinion and policy making. I want to suggest a different orientation that strikes me as more practical, but no less significant: the pressing need to inform the history profession as a whole about the economy. That is to say, I think that our agenda should be to “bring the economy back” into the discipline, to convince scholars that any serious attempt to write about the structures of political power, social authority, language, or family life must address the relationship between culture and material, whether that means the way labor is mobilized, property is owned, money is counted, or any number of other methods by which the economy is organized.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire profession ignores economic history. Personally, I think there is good reason for this: the field is one big oxymoron. Consistently flattening experience by “bracketing” whatever proves too awkward to measure, economic historians invariably wind up telling the same old secular, statistically-retrofitted tale of price series, productivity rates, and “standards of living.” Meanwhile, the social drama and conflicts that accompanied the creation of such categories as price, production, and living standards (the last being a particularly rich etymological gem) are dismissed as exogenous to the (organic) logic of exchange, and so irrelevant to the story. That is why economic history so often reproduces capitalist ideology itself, separating economic activity out from the rest of society and assigning it an autonomous operating principle.
I used to think this was indicative of intellectual bankruptcy, something that even bordered on a confidence game. But I’ve been reading Donald MacKenzie since our weekend together in Oxford (at the behest of several of you) and now better understand that economics should not be thought of as a scholarly discipline, but as a political project whose business, so to speak, is to create reality rather than reflect on it. Social analysis is consequently a means, and so if bracketing this or that social reality allows one to then more effectively engage in public action (which might then make the bracketed subjects truly irrelevant, retrospectively justifying their exclusion in the first place), all the better.

We can’t do that. As Jim Livingston and I discussed in the taxi on the way to Christ Church, we should subsequently not call what we are doing “economic history.” Rather, we are engaged in writing the history of the economy. This no doubt includes the invention of economics, but in stark contrast to the latter we do not base our interpretations on the same categories that we actually seek to analyze. Indeed, our scholarly raison d’etre is to produce genealogies of those categories.

Unfortunately, none of the numerous historical “methodologies” (sorry, but I can’t think of a better term) which should be doing this are critically engaged with the history of the economy.

True, business historians are generally aware of the disruptive nature of innovation and profit-making, which has led them to study the construction of systems for managing the chaos/control symbiosis that lies at the heart of capitalism (and to recognize – by implication, at least – that the market does not coordinate economic activity as much as it itself requires coordination on the part of economic agents). But business historians have consistently refused to follow these activities out of the firm and ask how they have colonized industrial life as a whole. How, in other words, did business logic become a general social logic? (How did the “bottom line” emerge as a favorite synonym for the unadulterated truth?)

Historians who approach the economy from the opposite direction – scholars of material culture writing about the minutiae of the everyday – haven’t done any better. They’ve identified an excellent opportunity for examining the practical foundations of industrial civilization, the interplay between abstraction and sensibility, but “material culture” studies almost always devolve into a banal obsession with technique, elaborated in a mechanical idiom incapable of investigating the social relations by which things are turned into commodities.

The opposite problem plagues cultural history, including studies explicitly concerned with commodification and its effects on social authority and the production of truth. Historians of gender, sexuality, privacy, and the self, for instance, ambitiously scrutinizing the epistemologies of our life, rarely think about the movement of prices, contract law, or bankruptcy proceedings as anything other than metaphor. They consequently re-inscribe the categorical division between materiality and mentality that informs the same liberal gestalt they seek to question.

No doubt, the most consistent effort in recent decades to present a wider understanding of the economy has been undertaken by social and labor historians. In fact, they have explicitly turned their gaze to that which was customarily “bracketed,” rescuing memories of class resistance, the ethics of moral economy, or corporate identities from a Whiggish teleology with little interest in such purported marginalia. Social and labor historians consequently recovered an authentic, anti-market impulse within an American propertied tradition. And yet, guided by their own political agenda and excited at the prospect of applying this newly revealed usable past, these historians described popular opposition to commercial progress as a radical project, reflexively turning market society into a conservative status quo and so perversely turning capitalism into a force of reaction (rather than revolution).

Well, please excuse my long-winded, maybe even presumptuous, review of the current “state of affairs” and attempt to define our “research agenda.” But I hope my remarks leave readers with a clear sense of how much our work is cut out for us.

Michael Zakim

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