Intellectual Histories of Global Capitalism I

Friday, January 28
11:00 am - 5:00 pm

Neubauer Collegium via Zoom
5701 S. Woodlawn Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637

Intellectual Histories of Global Capitalism explores new frameworks for understanding present-day capitalism. The forceful reentry of the term “capitalism” into the domains of history, economics, literary studies, sociology, and political theory in the last decade or so reflects a collective desire to come to terms with recent, largely unwelcome transformations in the capitalist order. This event, the first in a series of three workshops, initiates a broad interdisciplinary conversation on this topic, with particular attention to the ways in which the early modern economy might hold keys to understanding ostensibly modern developments in capitalist societies.



Michael Dawson (John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago)
“Hidden in Plain Sight II: Race & Capitalism—A Systems of Domination Approach”

Cedric Robinson’s opus, Black Marxism, inspired a massive adaptation by scholars and anti-racist activists of a racial capitalism framework for understanding the relationship between white supremacy and capitalism. There are, however, many versions of this framework including those that focus on colonialism, western hemispheric slavery, and/or the dispossession of indigenous populations and settler colonialism. Further, as Emily Katzenstein argues, there is a difference about whether as Jodi Melamed asserts racial capitalism is capitalism, or whether the link between the emergence of capitalism and modern racial hierarchy is intrinsic to capitalism or not. Consequently, other approaches such as that arguing for a framework of racialized capitalism, not racial capitalism, have emerged. In this paper I advocate for a different approach—one that centers the relationship between three systems of domination: those of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. A systems of domination approach entails examining within a specific historical context how each system of domination is articulated with each other. I argue that each historical articulation of these systems of domination constitute a regime of articulation. A regimes of articulation analysis demands historical specificity including a description of what changes and what does not as well as an explanation of the mechanisms of change. Historical examples will be presented to illustrate and ground the theoretical claims.
Discussant: Adom Getachew (University of Chicago)

William Deringer (Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, MIT)
“Hazardous Nature: Coalmining Engineers, the Price of Risk, and the Future of Capitalism, c. 1800”

While coal has long played a starring role in historical explanations of the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern capitalist economies, the contributions of the coal industry to the intellectual infrastructure of modern capitalism has been far less recognized. This paper reconstructs the role that coalmining practitioners played in the development of one of the foundational conceptual practices of modern capitalist life: the ability to put a price on things, particularly things with an uncertain future. In the final years of the eighteenth century, the engineer (called “viewers”) tasked with managing mines in the rich coalfields surrounding the Rivers Tyne and Wear in northeast England developed remarkably sophisticated mathematical techniques for the valuation of unmined deposits of coal. Combining geological data, engineering know-how, and market intelligence, colliery engineers reimagined subterranean seams of carbon-laden rock as orderly financial assets that could be projected to produce a flow of regular profits. The linchpin of these remarkably modern business models was a calculative technique called “exponential discounting,” which made it possible to assign a “present value” to expected future income using the logic of compound interest. That technique would come to be indispensable to how the future is imagined and evaluated across myriad domains in modern life, from finance and business to government, law, social and environmental policy, and beyond. Mining engineers’ transfiguration of the earth’s products into profit-generating assets marked a key turning-point in the intellectual genealogy of the carbon economy. It also exemplified a critical development in modern ideas and technologies of risk. Colliery viewers found that adjusting just one parameter in their calculations, the “discount rate,” enabled them to adjust for the myriad financial risks that faced investors given the “precarious and hazardous nature of a Colliery property.” At the same time, this clever computational device effaced the very different kinds of risks—noxious gases, mine collapses, catastrophic explosions—that shaped, threatened, and frequently ended the lives of those workers who descended into the mines. Over the ensuing century, mining engineers, often working in the service of colonialist mining enterprises, were instrumental in refining and disseminating these calculative techniques globally—and the understanding of time, risk, and value encoded within them.
Discussant: Charlotte Robertson (Harvard Business School)

Nancy Fraser (Henry and Louise A. Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, New School)
“Three Faces of Labor: Uncovering the Hidden Ties among Gender, Race and Class”

The idea for this project comes from W.E.B. Du Bois. Characterizing Abolition as a labor movement, he speculated that the course of US history would have been fundamentally altered had the movement that aimed to emancipate enslaved back laborers united with the country’s other labor movement, which aimed to counter the degraded condition of free white wage workers. For Du Bois, the tragic failure of these “two labor movements” to recognize one another squandered the chance to build a labor democracy and helped to set the United States on the road to plutocracy. This presentation is designed to adapt and extend Du Bois’s idea to the history of capitalism more broadly. I ask: Can anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements throughout this history be usefully viewed as unrecognized labor struggles in societies that (still) rely on the expropriation of dependent labor? And if so, why stop there? Can we view feminist movements, too, as unacknowledged struggles over work in systems built on a gendered separation of paid “productive labor” from unpaid carework? More generally, can capitalist societies be fruitfully understood as relying on three analytically distinct but mutually imbricated forms of labor: exploited, expropriated, and domesticated? And if so, do the historically shifting relations between these three faces of labor constitute the hidden ties among gender, race, and class in capitalist societies? By disclosing those hidden ties, finally, can we grasp the relations among, not two, but three labor movements and evaluate prospects for uniting them?
Discussant: Linda Zerilli (University of Chicago)