Tag Archives: O’Connell Initiative
The first of the three Fall O’Connell lunch seminars was a great success. Faculty and graduate students engaged in a spirited discussion of Rebecca Spang’s Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution and the role money played in creating a gulf between political ideals and daily life. Join us for the second lunch seminar on Thursday, Nov. 3, 12:00pm-2:00pm (LC, 12 th floor, President’s Dining Room) to discuss James R. Fichter’s So Great a Profit: How the East Indies Trade Transformed Anglo-American Capitalism.
On Thursday October 6 12:00-1:00PM in Duane Library 140 (Theology Conference Room) the History Department will hold the first of our 2016 O’Connell lunchtime seminars. In our first meeting, we will discuss Rebecca Spang’s Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution (Harvard, 2015). Spang’s new history highlights the crucial role of money in the creation of a gulf between political deals and daily life at the time of the French Revolution, artfully restoring economic considerations to the heart of the Revolution and modern history. A recent reviewer writes that it asks “a penetrating set of questions about the general issue of how we should understand social experience and its political consequences in the French Revolution, and beyond.” Please come and join us for a stimulating discussion of this book the issues that it raises for the global history of capitalism.
Members of the Fordham community who would like to take part in the seminar and would like a copy of the book are asked to RSVP to ndeantonis at fordham dot edu by September 23. Copies will also be available for loan in the History department office.
This year, in conjunction with the department’s O’Connell Initiative, the History Department awarded a $250 O’Connell Research Award for the most original graduate student research on the history of global capitalism. This year’s winner was MA student Grace Healy, who won for her final research paper entitled “Swamp or Climax Region? Congressional Perceptions of the Everglades, 1947-1989” We asked Grace for details of her research, and she reports:
My project focused on the Everglades in South Florida, specifically the way in which members of Congress have thought about that landscape over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. As the people who mark the boundaries of land that will be preserved, I believe that congressmen’s perceptions of land, ecosystems, and the environment in general are an important aspect of conservation history.
I became interested in the Everglades because I enjoy analyzing the contradictory (or balanced, based on your perspective) way that Americans have managed land. For example, large portions of the Everglades are being protected because of its distinct environment. At the same time, however, vast tracts of the Everglades have been altered and manipulated for commercial reasons. I think that attempting to understand why certain types of landscapes are managed in these divergent forms is not only important to a historical understanding of the United States but also relevant to the environmental movement going forward.Professor Stoll was an excellent mentor throughout this project. At times he pushed me to think more critically about certain aspects, at other times he knew exactly what text I should read to gain more insight. I think he was most helpful when I was I was still developing my ideas. It can be really difficult to find the right project that can be completed in about a semester and half. Professor Stoll really helped me tailor my ideas so I could deeply investigate this one important aspect of the Everglades.
In anticipation of our Thursday event “Tracking the Global History of Capitalism” with Sven Beckert, we asked Professor Steven Stoll to tell us about the history of the term “capital”. Where does the word come from, and what does it say about the history of capitalism?
Professor Stoll writes:
Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is about how cotton became the key commodity in the making of nineteenth-century global capitalism. It’s the story of land and slavery, financiers and merchants, and competition between the American South and India for dominance in production. But Beckert hesitates to define capital or capitalism. Here is a quick take and a few thoughts about the word itself and the world it creates.
Capital is money in motion. It’s not a bag of seed or a college education or an idea for a new business or your terrific potential as an artist or the car you drive to work. It’s not even the same thing as wealth. If capital is any of these things, then it’s existed for as long as Homo sapiens and has no historical specificity. It is surplus value in the act of generating surplus value–profit that creates profit. Marx expressed it as M→C (LP + MP)→P→C’→M+∆M, in which Money is advanced to buy Commodities, consisting of Labor-Power, the Means of Production (which would include land or factories and raw material). Labor is the most important purchase because it is the only factor that creates more value than it costs. If a capitalist pays someone $10 for a day’s work he can use their labor-power to manufacture $100 in widgets. Labor combined with the means of production results in second-order Commodities. These must be sold for the original Money advanced, plus an increment (the surplus-value). Money does not become capital until or unless it is advanced. To paraphrase Forest Gump, capital is as capital does.[i]
The word first appeared between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for the top or head of something (from caput, or head), like the Corinthian capital of a marble column. It referred to the greatest height or degree, like a capital crime, a capital enemy, capital wounds, and a seat of government (all between 1400 and 1600). At the same time capital developed toward an important sum of money. Fernand Braudel found this sense of the word in Italian as far back as 1211. St. Bernardino of Siena wrote in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century of “that prolific cause of wealth we commonly call capital.” But sums of money had not yet become perpetuating funds.
Other English words carried similar meanings. Cattle and chattel came into English between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, not as words for barnyard creatures but for property, goods, and even money itself. Horses, oxen, and bovines became cattle (around 1400) because they were significant property. The word did not refer to animals as animals in the fifteenth century and did not refer specifically to bovines until the sixteenth century. Stock, another word for accumulated value, stood for something that sprouted and spawned endlessly like a stem or tree trunk until about 1380 when it shows up as a word for domesticated animals. It did not describe a growing herd of livestock until the sixteenth century. But once it did, around that time, stock took a turn. It began to take on meanings similar to capital. It 1526 it referred to money that could be invested, and by 1714 the word was in common use as the subscribed capital of a merchant house.
Capital pulled away from these other words. By the time Smith published The Wealth of Nations political economists in Britain and France had already given capital the meaning it carries today. Smith used the term “capital stock,” suggesting money that reproduced a percentage of itself in a given time. According to Braudel a Russian consul made the essential distinction, reporting that France under Napoleon Bonaparte fought “with her capital,” while the countries that France invaded fought “with their income.” For centuries few institutional pathways existed for employing income in order to earn income. Capital appeared along with these pathways, as people needed a word to differentiate this new entity from merchant wealth and the dividends represented by lambs and calves.[ii]
Historians ask all sorts of questions about capital. One of them is who is inside and who outside its creation. If the owner of one of a sandwich shop on 9th Avenue in New York City reinvests some of her profit by buying bread and tomatoes or by making improvements to the kitchen does that make her a capitalist? What if she has a retirement account with a brokerage firm? Is she a capitalist for making a living in a society organized by capital? To think so blurs categories. It equates the owner of a bodega to the owners of Standard Oil. Firms that generate vast capital have certain characteristics. They tend to operate across national boundaries. They diversify their investments, so that they do not commit themselves to any one commodity. They have deep ties to governments and the global political economy that includes international banking. And they are always looking for new places to get hold of resources and hire labor. There are certainly small capitalist firms, and a business like Wal-Mart began as a country store in an Arkansas town. Capitalism comes from the larger social order, but it then seeks to dominate it. That does not describe the owner of the sandwich shop.
On second thought, maybe we are all capitalists in certain sense. Whether we generate capital or not, command it or not, manage it or not, capital has brought almost all of our occupations into existence. Occupations shape identities, situating people within institutions that lend internal coherence to the social system, regardless of its contradictions. And that social system is tightly bound up with the United States, so much so that many patriotic Americans make little or any distinction between the freedoms detailed in the Bill of Rights and “free enterprise,” even though entrepreneurship has existed for as long as people bought and sold things and even though capitalism in the eighteenth century is nothing like what it is today. “The worst error of all,” Braudel reminds us, “is to suppose that capitalism is simply an ‘economic system’, whereas in fact it lives off the social order, standing almost on a footing with the state, whether as adversary or accomplice.”
So complete has capital become throughout the social order that it appears to have emerged from the natural order, and the behavior it instills seems to many people to be an expression of universal human motives and aspirations. As three historians observe, “One of the distinguishing features of a free-enterprise economy is that its coercion is veiled … Far from being natural, the cues for market participation are given through complicated social codes. Indeed, the illusion that compliance in the dominant economic system is voluntary is itself an amazing cultural artifact.”[iii] It might be true that the gentry did the same thing in 1650 that they did in 1250. They extracted value from people and environments. But they did it differently than anyone had before, through a discipline imposed by rents and wages, through social codes and cues that appeared to be independent of people. They aren’t. Perhaps the most radical idea we can have about capital, the single most subversive thing we can think about it, is that it begins as nothing more than a relationship between people. Like the meanings of words, relationships change.
[i] “I should say that this is the circuit of capital. It is not a formula for capitalism, which is an entire social system that is based on the recreation or reproduction of capital. Once people began to produce capital they became committed to it, created institutions to further it, connected their identities to it, or could no longer what life was like before it. Capital found its way into so many facets of life and became the basis of giant amalgams of people and production, not to mention nation-states, that any substantial change now seems like it would amount to the end of the world.” – Marx, Capital, Volume 1, 247.
[ii] Fernand Braudel, Wheels of Commerce, tr. Sian Reynolds (New York, 1982), 232-234; Oxford English Dictionary; Smith, Wealth of Nations, 353-355.
[iii] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York, 1994), 120-1.
Last Day to Register: O’Connell Initiative Inaugural Event- Sven Beckert on Global History of Capitalism
Just a reminder that today is the last day to register for next Thursday’s major event inaugurating the O’Connell Initiative, Sven Beckert’s talk on “Tracking the Global History of Capitalism”. The talk is at 6PM at the Lincoln Center Campus and a reception will follow. Come along and hear one of this country’s most exciting historians talk about the importance of the global historical perspective! You can register for the talk here.
Faculty and students in the History Department are getting extremely excited about the upcoming November 5 event to launch the O’Connell Initiative in the Global History of Capitalism. The event, which will feature a talk by Harvard University’s Sven Beckert on “Tracking the Global History of Capitalism,” is particularly exciting for the faculty who have read and been inspired by Beckert’s award-winning 2014 book Empire of Cotton: A Global History. We asked two members of our faculty, David Hamlin and Christopher Dietrich, to sit down and share their thoughts on the book. Their conversation is transcribed below, and it represents both a wonderful entry point into the book’s larger themes and a meditation on the value of studying capitalism from a global perspective. Continue reading