Capitalist Crisis and Who Built America?

2009 February 26

An article by the urbanist Richard Florida in the current Atlantic provided me with a welcome “aha” moment on the subway this morning, piercing the intellectually deadening fog of federal grant writing that has descended on me this week. Florida evaluates the current financial crisis in the context of previous convulsive shifts in the development of capitalism in the U.S., starting with the late 19th century–the original Great Depression, as Josh reminded us at our staff meeting on Tuesday.

In addition to generating some sound policy proposals, Florida’s insights rest on a concept that seems  useful for thinking about the next edition of the Who Built America? textbook. He argues that different phases in capitalist development engender and are enabled by specific geographies: the late 19th century shift from agriculture to manufacturing multiplied the rise of dense urban areas; the shift to a consumer economy that began during the 1930s led to (and was powered by) suburbanization. This connection of capitalism and space is not new, of course (think William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, for example), but Florida’s concise presentation of it in the service of understanding financial crisis helped me to connect the dots back to WBA.

Most of WBA‘s narrative about U.S. history is driven by economic (mostly capitalist) transformation and how it both shapes and is shaped by working people. But midway through the second volume, around the early 1950s, economic transformation cedes the wheel to politics and social movements, which drive the remaining chapters of the textbook (with a few interjections from economic transformation, now ensconced in the back seat). WBA starts to sound more like other textbooks at that point, and we’ve so far made that trade-off in order to maintain coverage of many key events. But Florida might offer a conceptual solution. Can drawing those connections between space and capitalist development help us restore economic transformation to a more central place in the second volume’s later chapters? And can it help us to integrate environmental history–currently quite scarce in both volumes–in a way that is organic rather than tacked on? Have we missed the forest of postwar suburbs’ capitalist function and implications for the trees of their racial and class formation?

WBA does a great job of presenting the lived political, social, and cultural responses of Americans undergoing the financial crises and transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we need to start collecting evidence for this latest catastrophe.

Last 5 posts by Ellen Noonan

2009 March 2
Josh Brown permalink

Ellen’s right. The geographic and spatial contingencies of history have, indeed, received short shrift in previous editons of Who Built America?. And the challenge is how we integrate that scholarship into our overarching “narrative.” Truth be told, some of the newer scholarship we have included in the second and then third editions of the textbook has been lodged in the illustrations: cultural history otherwise often rests uneasily in the body of the text, usually described in broad generalizations, so we tried to make the most of the illustrations as ways to convey concomitant cultural changes (the new edition’s introduction of decorative art, I believe, has been particularly useful in that regard). In any case, as Ellen suggests, it’s incumbent on we the authors and editors to reconceive both the history and some of the ways we recount that history.

2009 March 8

[…] Canada and the 3Tsby Richard FloridaSun Mar 8th 2009 at 10:26am EDTRethinking History This post by Ellen Noonan on the American Social History Blog made me reflect on my own intellectual history. […]

2009 March 17
Steve Brier permalink

Just looking at Ellen’s very insightful post for the first time (and Josh’s good response). We indeed changed the terrain in the second half of the second volume, de-emphasizing larger economic issues (except for the important insight of the stagnation of real wages after 1973) for a more vigorous engagement with social and political movements. It’s ironic that we would do this, given how strong our sense of political economy is in the first volume (we explain the development of the U.S. as nothing less than a titanic struggle between slave and free labor systems). The current economic depression (let’s call it what it is) offers us an opportunity to re-conceive the last half the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. How to undergird our analysis in the next edition with political economy while not sacrificing close attention to the diverse movements of ordinary people in this period is the challenge. I’d be happy tko participate in a process of theorizing this changed focus.

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