Empire of Cotton, Lecture by Sven Beckert to the Heilbroner Center
Introduction to Heilbroner Center Lecture by Sven Beckert 2/6/2015
When I taught a course at Lang “Understanding Global Capitalism” first day I would ask each student to check the tag of the shirt of the person to their left: what country was it made in? We would write the list of countries on the blackboard and talk about how globalized apparel production would become (actually amazing how dispersed production is after the phase-out of the MFA). This allowed us to talk about the globalization of production, the structure of the modern corporation and the importance of branding and intellectual property, and the relation between trade flows and capital flows.
What I didn’t have when I taught that course was Sven Beckert’s book Empire of Cotton, which not only raises these issues but also those of colonization, slavery, war, agriculture and industrialization.
These are big issues, but in a way they could only be told in a single tome by a historian.
This was behind the basic rationale of our formation of a Center for Capitalism Studies – that there are major, dynamic questions about capitalism that cannot adequately be addressed by economics alone – that there are crucial political, cultural and sociological aspects to these questions.
Historians can provide a lens that brings many of these perspectives together, so it is not surprising that two historians at the New School – Julia Ott and Oz Frankel—were the ones that first imagined a “Center” for capitalism studies. And thus it is a pleasure tonight to welcome another historian.
The idea of the HCCS was precisely to take on big questions -- about economic dynamics, income distribution, the role of the state and of social movements in relation to economic change -- with input from all these disciplines.
Similarly, it is not surprising that such a Center sits comfortably at The NSSR.
Bob Heilbroner, who I had the great fortune of working and teaching with for over a decade, became well-known not for the precise answers he gave to these questions, butbecause he raised these questions in the first place. He argued along broadly Marxist and Keynesian lines that capitalism had a “nature” and a “logic”. But as precise as this sounds, he also understood that economics (and especially modern, “rigorous” economics) could not adequately address these questions.
Bob would quip that “if economics had a journal, the Journal of Big Economic Issues, its pages would be empty.” The profession could not take them on and so retreated into corners of technicism and overspecialization.
This is not just of academic interest. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the Queen of England (yes, the queen) wrote a letter to the Presidents of the British Academy Society at the time, asking “Why did no one see it coming?”. The reply from Professor Besley and Hennessy was :
Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standards measures of success, they were often doing it well. The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction. ..So in summary, Your Majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, …was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people… to understand the risks to the system as a whole.”
Thus the pragmatic – not just theoretical – need for a center for capitalism studies.
I am pleased to ask Julia Ott to introduce our speaker. Julia is Associate Professor of History at the NSSR and Lang College. She has a Ph.d. in history from Yale and is the author of widely-acclaimed”When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy” publiched by Harvard University Press.
Julia is currently working on a book project that explores “the ideas, individuals and Institutions that Brought U.S. Inequality.”
She is the co-Director of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies and a terrific colleague.