New Review Essay on The Cambridge History of Capitalism
This is the abstract for a new Review Essay published in Business History Review by Angus Burgin entitled ‘Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, The Cambridge History of Capitalism: Volume 1, The Rise of Capitalism: From Ancient Origins to 1848; Volume II, The Spread of Capitalism: From 1848 to the Present‘.
The Cambridge History of Capitalism, a formidable compendium of thirty-four essays spread over two volumes (each well over five hundred pages in length), was first conceived by the economic historians Larry Neal and Jeffrey Williamson in 2005. At that time, the “history of capitalism” was not yet a term of art in history departments; even in graduate workshops at Harvard, the locus classicus of the later movement, “political economy” was still the preferred phrase. By the time the book was published in 2014, much had changed: Harvard now offered a program on the “study of capitalism,” Cornell was convening a summer boot camp on the “history of capitalism,” Columbia had a book series on the history of “U.S. capitalism,” the Journal of American History had assembled a roundtable on the theme, and the front page of the New York Times had taken notice. Questions that long seemed the province of other disciplines had come to the forefront in history departments.
The Cambridge History of Capitalism, despite its title, is not a product of this recent turn. The majority of its contributors are economists, and its central problematics are derived from long-standing debates within the field of economic history. But the recent convergence of economists and historians around a common rubric provides an opportunity to assess the similarities and differences in their lines of inquiry. To what extent does the meaning of “capitalism,” as understood by economic historians, align with the representations now emerging from history departments? Where do the questions asked by each field intersect, and where do they diverge? What can these respective disciplinary projects learn from each other?