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Originally published Saturday, April 6, 2013 at 8:49 PM

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Since crisis, history of capitalism a hot topic on campus

Even before the 2008 financial crisis, courses in “the history of capitalism” began proliferating on campuses, along with dissertations on once-unsexy topics such as insurance, banking and regulation.

The New York Times

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A specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism.

After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.

Even before the financial crisis, courses in “the history of capitalism” — as the new discipline bills itself — began proliferating on campuses, along with dissertations on once unsexy topics such as insurance, banking and regulation. The events of 2008 and their long aftermath have given urgency to the scholarly realization that it really is the economy, stupid.

The financial meltdown also created a market opportunity. Columbia University Press recently introduced a “Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism” book series (“This is not your father’s business history,” the proposal promised), and other top university presses have been snapping up dissertations on 19th-century insurance and early-20th-century stock speculation, with trade publishers and op-ed editors following close behind.

The dominant question in U.S. politics today, scholars say, is the relationship between democracy and the capitalist economy.

“And to understand capitalism,” said Jonathan Levy, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of “Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America,” “you’ve got to understand capitalists.”

That doesn’t mean just looking in the executive suite and ledger books, scholars say. The new work marries hardheaded economic analysis with the insights of social and cultural history, integrating the bosses’-eye view with that of the office drones — and consumers — who power the system.

“I like to call it ‘history from below, all the way to the top,’” said Louis Hyman, an assistant professor of labor relations, law and history at Cornell University and the author of “Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink.”

In 1996, when Harvard University historian Sven Beckert proposed an undergraduate seminar called the “History of American Capitalism,” colleagues were skeptical.

“They thought no one would be interested,” he said.

But the seminar drew nearly 100 applicants for 15 spots and grew into one of the biggest lecture courses at Harvard, which in 2008 created a full-fledged Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism. That initiative led to similar ones on other campuses, as courses and programs at Princeton, Brown, Georgia, the New School, the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere also began drawing crowds.

While most scholars in the field reject the purely oppositional stance of earlier Marxist history, they also take a distinctly critical view of neoclassical economics, with its tidy mathematical models and crisp axioms about rational actors.

Markets and financial institutions “were created by people making particular choices at particular historical moments,” said Julia Ott, an assistant professor in the history of capitalism at the New School (the first person, several scholars said, to be hired under such a title).

To dramatize that point, Ott has students in her course, “Whose Street? Wall Street!”, dress up in 19th-century costume and re-enact a primal scene in financial history: the early days of the Chicago Board of Trade.

Some colleagues take a similarly playful approach. To promote a two-week history of capitalism “boot camp” to be inaugurated this summer at Cornell, Hyman (a former consultant at McKinsey) designed “history of capitalism” T-shirts.

The camp, he said, is aimed at getting relatively innumerate historians up to speed on the kinds of financial data and documents found in business archives. Understanding capitalism, Hyman said, requires “both Foucault and regressions.”

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