First published in The American Historian, August 2017.
It began the way a lot of good (and bad) ideas do: at the conference hotel bar. On a chilly day in November 2013, a group of us, all historians, were marveling at the explosion of popular interest in capitalism since the 2008 nancial crisis. A key example of this phenomenon was the podcast Planet Money, a This American Life spin-off on National Public Radio. The podcast airs twice-weekly, twenty-minute episodes about topics as seemingly dull as purchasing U.S. Treasury bills, Nobel Prize in economics contenders, and how billing for cable service works. A renewed public interest in economics and the how of finance made these once anathema topics the subjects of water cooler talk among the liberal, well-heeled NPR set.
As historians, however, we were frustrated. We knew that historians of capitalism were writing remarkable, insightful books on these topics that would never find their way to NPR. We also saw that popular discussions of capitalism’s erratic, crisis-ridden past and present often lacked historical context. Most distressingly, these new conversations on capitalism lacked sufficient attention to politics. In explaining how the financial system works, new forms of economic reporting tended to reinforce a technocratic perspective. The emphasis lay on the how of our economic system rather than the why or the for whom.
Fueled by optimism and the hotel’s draft beer, the two of us decided to launch our own podcast on the history of capitalism. We hoped we would reach a wide audience of people interested in how our financial system worked by speaking with historians and other scholars who could give listeners a sense of change over time, historical contingency, and competing interests. At the same time, we hoped to tell a history of capitalism that placed labor, racial formations, gender, and sexuality at the center. We had two aims: to bring the lessons from the history of capitalism to a broader public who would never have the time to pick up a history monograph; and to assert that the history of capitalism is also, necessarily, a history of race, gender, and sexuality.
For us, podcasting was the perfect venue to pursue these two goals. Podcasts have exploded in popularity over the past three or four years, particularly among commuters. 1 Free to download, podcasts are broadly accessible, and at baseline they cost very little to produce and distribute. They allow longer and deeper engagement than the old public intellectual standby of the op-ed, and listening to a podcast feels less like work than reading a think piece. With the success of blockbuster podcasts such as Backstory, a template exists for successful, engaging historical audio programs that reach a large audience. We were also drawn to other podcasts on related topics such as Sarah Jaffe’s and Michelle Chen’s Belabored (with whom we later collaborated), as well as Doug Henwood’s Behind the News and Richard D. Wolff’s Economic Update. For us, it seemed obvious that podcasting was the medium we should use, and in May 2014, we launched Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism Podcast.
The skills we employ for our podcast reflect those cultivated by historians. We are dedicated to illuminating how past actors made choices that both reflected and responded to the context of their lives, and to sharing such lessons with our audience. Although our show is not built around a sustained argument or historical timeline like a history class would be, we hope listeners will see patterns as well as discontinuities between episodes. For example, we recently interviewed Nancy MacLean about her new book Democracy in Chains. Her answer to a question highlighted the work of Kim Phillips-Fein’s Invisible Hands — who joined us to discuss the book on episode 10 (as well as on episode 34 for her most recent book). As a result, during the question we aired in the episode, we made sure to frame it in a way that would remind audiences of our episode on Invisible Hands. Just as we might ask our students studying World War II and the March on Washington Movement to remember the role World War I played in the suffrage movement, we ask our listeners to recall what they have heard on past episodes. Or if they are new to the show, such references point to a place to deepen their knowledge, as well as forge continuities between our guests.
We were very self-conscious in the subtitle for our show. In selecting “A History of Capitalism Podcast” rather than “The History of Capitalism Podcast,” we sought not only to create space for others to initiate their own shows, but also to disagree with ours. If our rendering of the subfield of the history of capitalism did not harmonize with other scholars, well, wonderful! Perhaps they would start their own podcast.
Integrating analyses of racism, patriarchy, and heterosexism into our ongoing conversation about the history of capitalism was crucial. We were heartened by Louis Hyman’s injunction to study “history from below, all the way to the top.” 2 We take this lesson to heart, and our guests, through their narratives, reveal the inadequacy of understanding any event as simply and only economic. However, our guests do most of the speaking on our show, and they do not always entirely share our formulation of the history of capitalism. We pose questions and we edit their words, but they are not obliged to agree with us about the field. In this way, perhaps our role is more curatorial from episode to episode. But we also hope that arguments about the subfield and its formation can emerge for those seeking to find them.
We have also been ercely interdisciplinary in our selection of guests. Doing so is necessary since, as historian Stephen Mihm has argued, “the history of capitalism attempts to see capitalism from multiple angles using multiple methodologies. at means writing works of history that deliberately erode disciplinary barriers.” 3 We have accordingly drawn attention to the important historical implications of work by economists such as Thomas Palley, legal scholars like Mehrsa Baradaran, and even novelists such as Jennifer Haigh. And we have also emphasized that for us, the history of capitalism is not simply a return to a mode scholarship where women, people of color, and non-elites are marginalized. Rather, we have sought to bring attention to urgent scholarship like LaShawn Harris’s award–winning book on black women in New York’s informal economy, not least of all for its methodological innovations in studying those whose lives have resisted the archival gaze. Each of these guests can enlarge our understanding of the people who have impacted — through their resistance and their acquiescence — the history of capitalism.
Broadly speaking, we see our show as contributing to work done in public history and digital humanities. To date, our episodes have received over 100,000 downloads — an astonishing amount to us. Seeking to enlarge the public dialogue about history and political economy, we were thrilled to recently receive a note from a high school teacher informing us that they planned to use our shows in their classes this year. In this way, we view our show to be in a long tradition of scholarly engagement with the public, one that uses and innovates the mechanisms of its historical moment to best accomplish that task. 4 Examples range from the Communist party’s Jefferson School of Social Science, to an octogenarian W.E.B. Du Bois joining workers from Brooklyn’s United Electrical union to discuss African American history in the early 1950s. Then a member of the union, prior to his career as the famed labor historian, David Montgomery described the moment in this way: “The most memorable single experience in all my days in Local 475, even more than being in the first sit-down strike since the 1930s, was our Negro-history-week meeting to which Dr. Du Bois came; workers were hanging from the rafters...And Du Bois, as you might expect, pulled absolutely no punches, talked down to nobody. You could have heard a pin drop from beginning to end. This was their historian.” 5 Like Du Bois and like Montgomery, we aspire to stretch what is understood as the history of capitalism and share that work with the public.
In this historical moment, when attention spans are short and misinformation is rampant, we hope our show can provide a way for the public to access scholarship that they might otherwise not have the time to focus on. In this way, we see ourselves as intellectuals who are accountable to the broader public good. After all, the public — in the form of public education and government grants to private universities — has invested resources and capacities in us over our lifetimes as students and scholars. Thus, we see our work as accountable to serve the public interest. The podcast is one manifestation of this belief.
1. Kevin Rose, “What’s Behind the Great Podcast Renaissance?” New York Magazine, Oct. 30, 2014.
2. Jennifer Schuessler, “In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism.” The New York Times, April 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/education/in-history- departments-its-up-with-capitalism.html.
3. “Interchange: The History of Capitalism,” Journal of American History, 101 (Sept. 2014), 504.
4. A key example and inspiration is the American Social History Project, https://ashp.cuny.edu/.
5. MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization, Visions of History, “David Montgomery” (1983), 178.
Betsy A. Beasley is a Member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. She specializes in urban history, transnational labor, and international business in the twentieth century. Her current book project, Service Capital: Houston and the Making of a Postcolonial Oil Economy, traces Houston-based oilfield services executives who promoted a new ideology of American internationalism that envisioned the U.S. not as a center of manufacturing and production but as a white-collar headquarters serving the world through its provision of expertise. She cohosts and produces Who Makes Cents: A History of Capitalism Podcast with David Stein.
David P. Stein is a Lecturer in the Departments of History and African American Studies at UCLA. He specializes in the interconnections between social movements, public policy, and political economy. His first book, Fearing Inflation, Inflating Fears: The Civil Rights Struggle for Full Employment and the Rise of the Carceral State, 1929–1986, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press. He co-hosts and produces Who Makes Cents: A History of Capitalism Podcast with Betsy Beasley.