Mission Statement Update

I created Roads to Modernity and Spectres of Modernity blogs without a clear purpose for either. These blogs were bound together by a loose critique of modernity. I wanted a public space to voice my thoughts on history, which lied outside the purview of my Master’s Thesis. I felt there was more to say about modernity—even though literature about the failures and agendas of modernity are not left wanting. I knew I wanted to focus on history; on historiography; on political economic thought; slavery; stratification—liberalism, but without a direct focus, my blog devolved into re-blog-repost of popular history book reviews and academic conversations. Although I stayed true to my interest, the breadth of my interests was too broad and my skills were too unrefined to produce anything of consequence—I am rebooting.

I am refining the theme and focus of these two blogs by combining several recent trends in history to address modernity, liberalism, capitalism, and slavery in the long duree (late 18th century to the present). I will use Roads to Modernity as a site for reviews of books and articles pertaining to Atlantic history, Global history, the new history of capitalism, and Slavery’s Capitalism. In Spectres of Modernity, I will include my thoughts and opinions on modernity in the longd duree.

This change is somewhat inspired by David Armitage and Jo Guildi’s The History Manifesto (2014). The authors argue that we live in a moment of accelerating crisis characterized by the shortage of short-term thinking.”[1] This short-term thinking has extended to history, where authors are encouraged to write and publish micro-histories over long-term histories. My blogs seeks to aid in the tasks of studying the long duree—a term used by the Annales school of historians including Ferdinand Braudel. His work, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) looks at the Mediterranean World through the long duree, meaning that Braudel wrote about the effects and changes of institutions over a long period of time. Armitage and Guildi want history to become more politically relevant to today’s world. I agree, though I do not necessarily think that history repeats itself—verbatim. Never the less, Spectres of Modernity will attempt to draw connections between historical events and modern political economic affairs. Slavery’s Capitalism serves as a starting point for my endeavor.[2]

Slavery’s Capitalism, in part, emerged from the new history of capitalism. Three years ago Jennifer Schuessler published an article in the New York Times—In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism”—where she introduced the public to the new history capitalism. One of the driving forces for the new history of capitalism “portrays capitalism not as a given (something that “came in the first ships,” as the historian Carl Degler once wrote) but as a system that developed over time, has been constantly evolving and penetrates all aspects of society.”[3] In other words, markets, under the new history, are de-naturalized. They are the subjects of human agency, often manipulated to favor a few over the many.

Three years ago Jennifer Schuessler published an article in the New York Times—In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism”—where she introduced the public to the new history capitalism. For Schuessler, the new history of capitalism abandoned “history for below” for a history of “bosses, bankers, and brokers who run the economy.”[4] Prestigious universities such as Harvard, Cornell University, and other institutions are offering classes, seminars, and programs on the history of American (U.S.) capitalism. In part inspired by the stock market debacle of 2008, Schuessler considered the new history of capitalism as a turn away from the history of “minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny” to capitalist and capitalism’s management, but her comments came before the development of these programs and the publications of works such as The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) by Edward Bapist. In fact Cornell’s “History of Capitalism Initiative,” as if commenting on Schuessler’s article, defines itself as “history from the bottom up—all the way to the top.”[5]

Historians currently writing about Slavery’s Capitalism, such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2015), and collection of essays in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development (2016) edited by Beckert and Seth Rockman are revising a long held opinion that the peculiar institution of slavery was antithetical to the rise of American (U.S.) capitalism in the 19th century reveal that the institutions endemic to capitalism e.g. insurance, markets, contracts, management, etc. became part of the capitalist framework through slavery. Much of the writing dealing with the new history of capitalism and slavery’s capitalism are concerned with the nineteenth century. However, the relationship to slavery and capitalism and slavery and liberalism has a longer history than 19th century America. For instance historian William Pettigrew, in Freedom’s Debt, argues that the ideas of free trade–and freedom itself–resulted from the British African slave trade.  Private merchants fought the monopoly of the Royal African Company in the early eighteenth century achieved liberal legal reforms in relation to corporate monopolies.  The roots of free trade were founded in the African slave trade.

Other works, by writers such as Susan-Buck Morss and Gerald Horne have written histories highlighting the ironies between liberal democratic freedom and slavery—two institutions, which coexisted together, and both were foundational to the development of America.[6] The history of liberalism, like that of capitalism and democracy, was fraught with discrepancies between ideals and practices. These discrepancies lie at the center of my project.

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[1] Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage. The History Manifesto. 2014.

[2] I borrow the phrase, Slavery’s Capitalism, from the collection of essays edited by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman under the same name: Beckert, Sven, and Seth Rockman. Slavery’s capitalism: a new history of American economic development. 2016.

[3] Foner, Eric. “A Brutal Process ‘the Half Has Never Been Told,’ by Edward E. Baptist.” New York Times, n.d.

[4] Schuessler, J. “In History Departments, It’s Up with Capitalism.” New York Times (2013).

[5] http://hoc.ilr.cornell.edu.

[6] Liberal democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not meant to extend to women, the poor, African Americans, Asian Americans, or any other “minority” group. The history of liberal democracy, in the public sphere, has manipulated the past to serve political rhetoric of the present. This issue is one of the main points I address in Spectres of Modernity.

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