History of Capitalism Initiative

History from the bottom up — all the way to the top.

The History of Capitalism Initiative is Cornell University's intellectual center for ideas, programs, research, and curriculum development on the history of American capitalism.

We seek to understand the many dimensions of American capitalism, setting the stories of corporate titans and failed entrepreneurs, industrial workers and newly arrived immigrants, in a global framework that arcs from slave plantations to the transnational corporations of today. Our project is to draw together the disparate fields of history — including the study of work, labor, politics, culture, gender, race, environment, the state, and economics — into a rich discussion about the development of capitalism.

Capitalist development is a thing of immense power and complexity. It has delivered unrivaled prosperity, but with unparalleled social costs. Understanding capitalism's past is essential to understanding our world today—as well as tomorrow.

We plan to make the history of capitalism into a global project, but we begin this initiative with an eye toward advancing our understanding of American history. The "new social historians" of the 1960s and 1970s turned their attentions on the powerless, but these histories of everyday life offered limited insight into how the powerful ruled. In the 1980s and 1990s, the "cultural turn" embraced the role of culture and language in historical studies, revealing the power embedded in everyday practice.

In recent decades, however, as market fundamentalism has become political commonsense, historians have seemed unable to offer a sophisticated understanding of the foundation of it all, capitalism, in terms that makes sense to the larger world.

As a result, in the past several years there has been a resurgent interest of what was once called "political economy” — a framework that unifies the diverse subfields of history. In the history of capitalism, culture, ideology, and policy are put into conversation with the material conditions of production, distribution, and finance in order to understand the full dynamics of American society.

The History of Capitalism Initiative at Cornell will tell story "from the bottom up" — all the way to the top.