Interpreting Historical Data in the Rise of American Capitalism

James Parisot, University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley

This paper expands from a recently published book titled How America Became Capitalist to discuss the ways that critical historians and sociologists address questions of using theory and generating narratives in interpreting the case of the rise of capitalism America from the 1600s-1800s. The information available on this topic is vast but messy, and writing a coherent story of the rise of capitalism is, as well, shaped by a wide range of conceptual frameworks. For instance, some Marxist inspired accounts focus on the rise of wage labor as central to the specifics of capitalism, world-systems analysis has focused primarily on the question of market incorporation, other historians have centered their analyses around the concept of a ‘market revolution’, and ‘new’ histories of slavery tend to suggest that the data, in many regards, speaks for itself: capitalism is simply the facts pulled out, and overarching theory is not seen as necessary. In this context, this paper suggests a way of interpreting the data that focuses on analyzing capitalism as rooted in racialized and gendered social relations of production including but beyond wage labor including chattel slavery. It also suggests a rethinking of the dichotomy between ‘capitalist’ or ‘non-capitalist’ by reinterpreting historical data to show a wide variety of ways social relationships very gradually became subordinated to the power of capital over long periods of time. In doing so, I provide both an alternative conceptual approach to the above perspectives along with a new interpretation of historical data itself to generate a novel interpretation of the history of US capitalism which also may be useful for other examples.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 229. New History of Capitalism