What, Where, and When Is Financial Capitalism? Some Historical Reflections

AHA Session 75
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Robert Wosnitzer, New York University
Robert Wosnitzer, New York University

Session Abstract

Since the 2008 financial crisis, historians (and with them economic sociologists, geographers, critical theorists, and many more) have once again turned their attention to the economic. Debate has centered on transformations in the nature of late twentieth-century capitalism, at a time when the capitalist system appears to be undergoing another moment of change.

For those working on the contemporary period, there is a particular problem of definition. How can we usefully identify and therefore discern what is distinctive about the recent history of capitalism? The speculative economy of nineteenth-century imperial nations such as Britain and France appears both remarkably similar to and yet entirely divorced from the capitalist system of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. The search for clarity can be seen in recent debates about the usefulness of ‘neo-liberalism’ as a term of analysis, and the proliferation of possible alternatives: financial capitalism, late stage capitalism, speculative capitalism, and fidelity capitalism each have their merits. At the same time, academics have produced fruitful work on seemingly parallel phenomena: financialization, marketization, the rise of enterprise culture, a concern with the entrepreneurial self, and national variations on a theme such as Reaganomics, Thatcherism, and Rogernomics.

Throwing the weight of our analysis behind any one of these terms is no insignificant matter. To do so fundamentally alters the questions we ask, and the conclusions we are apt to draw. Focusing on the rise of ‘enterprise culture’, for instance, draws attention to a British story centered on the political economy. Yet tracing the contours of the entrepreneurial self shifts attention away from electoral politics towards the individual, selfhood and subjectivity. James Vernon’s recent work on fidelity capitalism accounts for the affective and emotive facets of contemporary capitalism, whilst the term 'neo-liberalism' retains a certain connection to intellectual histories of German, Austrian, British and American economic thought.

The question of definition also leads us to questions of scale, chronology, and agency. When did this latest iteration of capitalism emerge? What systems, structures, institutions and individuals drove the reforms that we wish to label neo-liberal? And where did change occur – how all-encompassing have the late twentieth-century transformations of capitalism been? This session draws on a range of case studies in order to tackle some of these questions.

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