Critical Historical Studies

Critical Historical Studies is a new interdisciplinary journal devoted to historical reflections on politics, culture, economy, and social life, edited by Moishe Postone and William Sewell (3CT Fellows), and Andrew Sartori (New York University). CHS features research on the implications of socio-economic transformations for cultural, political, and social change. In the broad tradition of Critical Theory, CHS will explore the complex connections between cultural form and socio-economic context and promote a reflexive awareness of the researcher’s own position in the history of global capitalist society.

Critical Historical Studies publishes monographic research articles, theoretical articles, review essays, and critical reflections on current cultural, political, and scholarly issues. The journal aims to foster interdisciplinary exchange among scholars across the entire range of the social sciences and humanities, and publishes work on all historical eras and regions of the world.


Current Issue: Volume 3 Number 1 Spring 2016

Leslie Salzinger, University of California, Berkeley
“Re-Marking Men: Masculinity as a Terrain of the Neoliberal Economy”


Neoliberalism is produced on and through the terrain of gendered meanings. Gender naturalizes capitalist relations and addresses and constitutes subjects across economic arenas. As the unmarked side of the pair, masculinity is too often overlooked in these processes. Ethnographic immersion in two pivotal sites of neoliberal emergence at the nexus of the Mexican and the global economies – one in production and one in finance – provides a window onto the enactment of the post-Fordist global economy and into the role of gendered subjectifying processes in propelling it forward. This analysis reveals the role of gender in the global dispersal of production and the incitement and legitimation of transnational finance, thus throwing empirical light on the routine functioning of actually existing capitalism.

Isaac Arial Reed, University of Colorado, Boulder
“Between structural breakdown and crisis action: Interpretation in the Whiskey Rebellion and the Salem Witch Trials”


Between institutional degradations and structural sources of breakdown, on the
one hand, and actions that emerge within times of uncertainty, on the other, lies an
essential but under-theorized dimension of political crisis: the struggle over
interpretation. This paper provides some conceptual tools to think about such struggle
and its implications for understanding political crisis. The essay examines
the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) with reference to the Salem Witch Trials (1692), and in particular, struggles between local interpretations of the event. I find that crisis comes to have focus and meaning when interpretations construe the boundaries of a crisis, select certain key elements of social struggle, and develop specific speech genres that actors use to talk about a crisis. These findings suggests a distinction between interpretations of crisis that thematize central structural tensions and interpretations that displace anxieties created by those tensions on to a fetishized interpretation of crisis.

Nicholas Grinberg, National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Argentina) and Institute for Advanced Social Studies of the National University of San Martin (Argentina)
“From Populist Developmentalism to Liberal Neo-Developmentalism: The Specificity and Historical Development of Brazilian Capital Accumulation”


This article analyses the trajectory of Brazilian society between the time of populist developmentalism and the emergence of neo-developmentalism. Challenging mainstream accounts, it argues that the various policy regimes consolidating and disappearing throughout the period have been forms of realization of the autonomously regulated process of capital accumulation on a global scale. More concretely, it is claimed that Brazilian capitalism has developed under a specific form which sprung from its particular original subsumption in the international division of labour as producer of primary commodities; capital has accumulated there through the recovery of a portion of the local ground-rent. This form of capital accumulation has come about through specific developmental patterns, state policies, and political processes. Analysis of the historical development of the Brazilian process of capital accumulation  demonstrates the inherent unity amongst the various policy regimes.

Tim Holst Celik, Copenhagen Business School (Denmark)
“Fiscal State-citizen Alignment: Tracing the Socio-historical Conditions of the Financial Crisis” 


The 2008 crisis ended the growth-bubble of the 2000s, which OECD governments facilitated through the normative/political-regulatory promotion of household indebtedness. Historically contextualizing this state-citizen relationship, this article maps out four episodes of sovereign fiscalism, namely debt-taking in the Italian city-states, the making of the absolutist tax/fiscal state, the eighteenth/nineteenth century elaboration of the economic citizen, and the postwar era of managed capitalism. Finally, it applies this framework to the 2008 crisis and the larger post-1970s politico-economic constellation. The crisis can be perceived as a particular articulation of an age-old state-household dynamic – a dialectical alignment of the mode of fiscal state-crafting with the ethos of the state-citizen nexus – characterized by a heightened fiscal attentiveness to ordinary consumer-citizens. By uncovering the socio-historical conditions governing the dominant pre-crisis regime, it not only nuances our understanding of the crisis but also of neoliberalism and suggests the implausibility of returning to “Golden Age” democratic capitalism. 

Debate: Crisis, Race and Neoliberal Capitalism

Michael C. Dawson, University of Chicago
“Hidden in Plain Sight:  A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order”


In the wake of racial violence perpetrated by both the state and individuals steeped in the racism endemic to American civil society new black movements have focused on questions of criminal justice—attacks on black lives and bodies, mass incarceration and the like.  Yet some have argued that we need to focus more intensely on the deep economic inequality that particularly plagues black communities.  The urgency of this question is heightened by a pervasive sense within black communities, of perpetual and rapidly escalating crisis.  One way to reframe the question is what is the relationship between race and this new stage of neoliberal capitalism in the 21st century?  Further, to what degree can we characterize the period we live in as one of crisis, and if so, what is the nature of the crisis?  I argue that the U.S. is experiencing a deep crisis—a crisis that is deeply seated in multiple parts of the population one that will be illegible without understanding the current and historical nature of race and capitalism in the U.S.

Nancy Fraser, New School for Social Research
“Expropriation and Exploitation in Racialized Capitalism: A Reply to Michael Dawson


With Michael Dawson, I hold that exploitation-centered conceptions of capitalism cannot explain its persistent entanglement with racial oppression. In their place, I suggest an expanded conception that also encompasses an ongoing but disavowed moment of expropriation. By thematizing that other “ex,” I disclose, first, the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree and dependent labor, which is expropriated, as opposed to exploited; and second, the equally indispensable role of politically enforced status distinctions between free, exploitable citizen-workers and dependent, expropriable subjects. Treating such political distinctions as constitutive of capitalist society and as correlated with the “color line,” I demonstrate that the racialized subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. After developing this proposition systematically, I historicize it, distinguishing four regimes of racialized accumulation according to how exploitation and expropriation are distinguished, sited, and intertwined in each.

volume 2 number 2 Fall 2015

Nancy Fraser (New School for Social Research) “Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism”


Façade democracy. Post-democracy. Zombie democracy. De-democratization. In proliferating such terms, many observers posit that we are living through a “crisis of democracy.” But what exactly is in crisis here?  I argue that democracy’s present travails are best understood as expressions, under historically specific contemporary conditions, of a general tendency to political crisis that is intrinsic to capitalist societies. I elaborate this thesis in three steps. First, I propose a general account of “the political contradiction of capitalism” as such, without reference to any particular historical form. Then, I reconstruct Jürgen Habermas’s 1973 book, Legitimation Crisis, as an account of the form this political contradiction assumed in one specific phase of capitalist society, namely state-managed capitalism of the post-World War II era. Finally, I sketch an account of democracy’s current ills as expressions of capitalism’s political contradiction in its present, financialized phase.

Katsuya Hirano (University of California – Los Angeles) “Thanatopolitics in the Making of Japan's Hokkaidō: Settler Colonialism and Primitive Accumulation”


This article provides an overview of late 19th-century Japanese settler colonialism in Hokkaidō, a land long inhabited by indigenous people, the Ainu, with a particular theoretical question in mind: What was the precise relationship between the settler-colonization of and the Japanese government’s drive for primitive accumulation of capital? This question deepens our understanding of the intrinsic relation between the formation of a capitalist nation-state and that of its colony, a relation through which indigenous people such as the Ainu lost their means of sustenance—the land—and were eventually driven nearly to extinction. It also compels us to rethink the way historians and social theorists, especially those informed by Marxian approaches, have discussed the relation between settler colonialism and primitive accumulation. The article suggests that the Marxian analysis of colonialism seriously consider politics of death, or thanatopolitics, which constitutes the matrix of settler-colonization, as an integral component of capitalist formation.

Joshua Murray (Vanderbilt University) and Michael Schwartz (SUNY Stony Brook) “Moral Economy, Structural Leverage, and Organizational Efficacy: Class Formation and the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike, Detroit 1936-7”


In this article we use the Great Flint sit-down strike as a strategic case for examining the issue of movement success in seemingly disadvantageous structural conditions. Through an application and elaboration of social movement and organizational theory to the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike we identify four key factors that help to explain the emergence of successful collective defiance by labor: 1) the violation of the autoworkers’ moral economy by General Motors; 2) the organizational flexibility of the UAW in adding new, revised, or revived mobilization and direct action strategies to protest repertoires to take advantage of preexisting social structures; 3) the identification of the sit-down strike as a strategy that leveraged the positional power autoworkers; and 4) the on-the-ground organizational model used by the UAW, which allowed for democratic decision-making that took advantage of local conditions.

Dylan Riley (University of California – Berkeley) REVIEW ESSAY: “The New Durkheim: Bourdieu and the State”


Bourdieu's On the State presents the French sociologist's most complete statement of political sociology. Yet his top-down approach centered on the concept of the field of power produces an inadequate account of the reproduction and origins of the modern state, as well as an overly gradualist view of political development as a whole.

John Clegg (New York University) REVIEW ESSAY: “Capitalism and Slavery”


This review essay explores the topic of capitalism and slavery in recent books by Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist and Sven Beckert. I argue that these authors fail to provide a coherent account of capitalism. This, in turn, leads them at times to make misleading claims about, e.g., the nature of slave owner violence, the dynamics of productivity growth, and the origins of the industrial revolution. I propose an alternative conception of capitalist slavery, based on the ideas of Robert Brenner, that I hope will provide a better foundation for this perennial debate.

Volume 2 Number 1 spring 2015

Jason Moore (Binghamton University) “Cheap Food and Bad Climate: From Surplus Value to Negative Value in the Capitalist World-Ecology”


Capitalism, understood as a world-ecology that joins accumulation, power, and nature in dialectical unity, has been adept at evading so-called Malthusian dynamics through an astonishing historical capacity to produce, locate, and occupy cheap natures external to the system. In recent decades, the last frontiers have closed, and this astonishing historical capacity has withered. This “withering” is perhaps most evident in capitalism’s failure to offer a new, actually productive, agricultural model—as agrobiotechnology failed to deliver on its promissory notes. Moving from bad to worse, a second set of contradictions is now mediated through climate change. Climate change, one among many ongoing biospheric shifts, is interwoven with the totality of neoliberal agriculture’s contradictions to produce a new contradiction: negative value. This signals the emergence of forms of nature that are increasingly hostile to capital accumulation and that can be temporarily fixed (if at all) only through increasingly costly, toxic, and dangerous strategies. The rise of negative value—whose accumulation has been latent for much of capitalist history—therefore suggests a significant and rapid erosion of opportunities for the appropriation of new streams of unpaid work/energy. As such, these new limits are qualitatively different from the nutrient and resource depletion of earlier, developmental crises of the longue durée Cheap Food model. These contradictions, within capital, arising from negative value, are today encouraging an unprecedented shift toward a radical ontological politics, within capitalism as a whole, that destabilizes crucial points of agreement in the modern world system: What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?

Geoff Mann (Simon Fraser University) “Poverty in the Midst of Plenty: Unemployment, Liquidity, and Keynes’s Scarcity Theory of Capital”


In light of the recent explosion of interest in Keynesian economics in the wake of grand-scale financial crisis, an interrogation of Keynesianism is crucial. An examination of the core concepts of Keynes’s economics highlights the extent to which both the theoretical and conceptual architecture of The General Theory, and all things Keynesian, are tied to an to a historically specific understanding of capitalist civil society and its inherent contradictions. Keynes’s political economy and the continued force of Keynesian ideas are rooted in a theory not of capitalism per se, but of the ongoing threat capital poses to “civilization.” A detailed consideration of effective demand, unemployment, liquidity, and scarcity demonstrates the ways in which they contribute to what Keynes once called a scarcity theory of capital, according to which scarcity is necessarily socially produced in capitalism. This analysis helps us understand the tragic paradox of poverty in the richest societies in history, and the irrepressible anxiety that tragedy elicits.

Bernard Dubbeld (Stellenbosch University) “Capital and the Shifting Grounds of Emancipatory Politics: The Limits of Radical Unionism in Durban Harbor, 1974–85”


This article considers the transformation of work for stevedores (longshoremen) in Durban between 1974 and 1985 and its consequences for radical trade union politics. I detail the demise of “racial capitalism” in the port, with containerization requiring fewer, and differently skilled, dockworkers. I then show how radical unionist aspirations of emancipation from both capitalism and apartheid encountered limits that have become increasingly apparent in contemporary South African workplaces. Unlike approaches explaining union difficulties as matters of strategies (industrial or general unionism), tactics, or ideology (“workerism” versus “charterism”), I argue that this period in the harbor offers a lens onto the changing relationship between capitalism and apartheid, revealing the instability of the working class and implying a rethinking of the terms of an emancipatory project. While challenging Marxist sociologies and workplace historiographies in South Africa, I suggest that a different reading of Marx’s analysis of capital could inform such a project.

Viren Murthy (University of Wisconsin-Madison) “Looking for Resistance in All the Wrong Places? Chibber, Chakrabarty, and a Tale of Two Histories”


This study rethinks Dipesh Chakrabarty’s engagement with Marx and Vivek Chibber’s recent critique of postcolonialism in order to offer a new reading of the state of postcolonial studies. It explores the Hegelian dimension of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe and interprets Chibber’s critique of postcolonialism as an attempt to save the Enlightenment from capitalism. The study draws on a number of Marxist theorists to synthesize these two positions, ultimately proposing a class-oriented politics that points beyond capitalism. By accounting for the unevenness capital produces, the article explores the possibilities for a politics of history that is oriented not toward the past but toward the future, in particular, a future beyond capitalism.

Volume 1 Number 2 Fall 2014

Jonathan Levy (Princeton University), "Accounting for Profit and the History of Capital"


Rather than being a timeless category, profit has a history as contingent and as eventful as any other. Focused on the United States, this article assembles and narrates a history of profit from the dissemination of early modern double-entry bookkeeping practices to the mark-to-market criteria of contemporary global capitalism. Profit, despite its changing accounting definitions, always concerns a rate over time. And so, underscoring the crucial dimension of time, I argue that the task of profit under capitalism—in addition to serving as a medium of competition and a category of distribution—is to organize capital's inherent temporal motion. Posing the problem this way leads to the temporal logics of changing forms of capital—from the biological life cycle of the slave, to the rusting obsolescence of the steel mill, to the debt-financed "special purpose entity" of today's financial markets. It also leads to the history of the corporation, the great scene of action in profit's history, and to the dynamics of capital and wealth as they circulate in and through both the for-profit and not-for-profit corporate forms.

David Abraham (University of Miami), "Immigrant Integration and Social Solidarity in a Time of Crisis: Europe and the U.S. in a Post-Welfare State"


A cloud has settled over the immigration regimes of the European welfare states and the United States. Confidence has waned in the viability and value of integrating newcomers into a system of social solidarity. The weakening of civic nationalism and secular constitutional patriotism has unsettled national identities and undermined efforts to facilitate the inclusion of immigrants, especially Muslims. More forceful integration policies might better sustain the welfare state, but individual liberties and group recognition make this more difficult. Ironically, immigrants may now fare better in more unjust neo-liberal societies such as the US than in the advanced welfare states. This essay looks at Europe, Germany in particular, and the US to assess recent developments. Current arrangements are inadequate to resolve the dual crisis of integration and solidarity at the very moment that social equality is increasingly undermined by fiscal crises and aggressive neo-liberal social policies.

Jesus de Felipe-Redondo (University of Michigan), "Worker Resistance to ‘Social’ Reform and the Rise of Anarchism in Spain, 1880-1920"


This article focuses on the relationships between the labor movement and social legislation in Spain, analyzing organized workers' indifference or hostility to state intervention in labor issues during the period when the first social reforms were implemented (1880-1920). Building from recent studies connecting the history of labor relations to the rise of “the social,” the article examines union manifestos and newspapers, official inquiries about labor legislation, and intellectual and political debates about social laws. It offers the conclusion that workers' and politicians' different attitudes towards social legislation derived from their irreconcilable perspectives about the character of labor conflicts and the role of the state in them. Protective labor legislation was based on the notion of society as an organic and autonomous entity whose internal organization and contradictions were the ultimate cause of labor conflicts. From this perspective, the state had to regulate labor relations in order to prevent the worst effects that capitalist development had on the working classes. On the other hand, nineteenth-century unionism drew from contractual conceptions of social relations that prevented state intervention in the sphere of "private" relations among free citizens. These different interpretations explain that the implementation of social laws accompanied the unparalleled increase in labor conflicts and the rise of anti-state movements such as anarcho-syndicalism in the 1910s.

Istvan Adorjan (University of Chicago), "The Fetish of Finance: Meta-Theoretical Reflections on Understandings of the 2008 Crisis"


Many social scientific critiques of neoliberal finance in the wake of the 2008 crisis have proved inadequate. Importantly, these narratives have relied on unreflexive concepts and positivistic frameworks, yielding selective and one-sided understandings of capitalist dynamics, especially of the role financial intermediation has come to play in an era of deregulated markets. This meta-theoretical intervention begins by surveying the burgeoning literature on the 2008 crisis that opposes 'finance' to the rest of society and economy. I argue that these interpretations, which understand finance either as a strategic group of self-interested actors or as a prominent sector in neoliberal markets, can be critically evaluated by revisiting Marx's implicit theory of finance capital and his core concept of fetishism. This category of fetish forms raises an important question about the conditions of possibility for the tacit, widespread acceptance of reified notions of speculative finance that inform many accounts of the 2008 crisis. As an initial gesture towards identifying these conditions, I outline a 'social-epochal' argument about the ways in which the general 'financialization' of society since the 1970s has ultimately also rendered (late) capitalism more adequate to what Marx called its "most superficial fetish". Understanding capitalism in these conditions calls for a greater degree of critical self-reflexivity vis-à-vis 'finance'.

Volume 1 Number 1 Spring 2014

William H. Sewell, Jr. (The University of Chicago),"Connecting Capitalism to the French Revolution: The Parisian Promenade and the Origins of Civic Equality in Eighteenth-Century France."


This essay explores the democratizing effects of early capitalist development on cultural assumptions in eighteenth-century France.  It argues that an expanding fashion industry and new forms of commercialized leisure transformed the nature of the Parisian promenade over the course of the century. Especially on the newly popular boulevards, people of the most diverse classes intermingled anonymously under a tacit suspension of standard status protocols. This expanding leisure realm provided a limited space of de facto civic equality, a kind of existential objective correlative of the notions of abstract social and political equality being developed in the same years by the philosophes.  The essay argues that the new promenade practices were one example of the abstracting tendency of eighteenth century commercial capitalist development in France, a tendency that made increasingly thinkable the abstract civic equality embraced in the early years of the French Revolution.

Christian Uhl (Ghent University), "Fukuzawa Yukichi and Miyazaki Tōten: A Double Portrait in Black and White of an Odd Couple in the Age of Globalizing Capitalism."


The humanities in the past decades have been dominated by attempts at contesting the totalizing, hegemonic claims of apparently static, authentic entities such as the West, global modernity, empires, the nation, etc.. Critical emphasis has shifted to historical contingency in the name of the agency and the "identity" of those subject to cultural and social domination (minorities, refugees, migrants, colonized people, subcultures, etc.). The casualties of this era are overarching explanatory approaches to social and historical phenomena, most prominently those that employ capital as a concept of critical analysis. This essay attempts to challenge these neo-romantic tendencies and uncover their complicity with capitalism and the very structures of social domination that they claim to oppose. My means to achieve this purpose will be a comparative analysis of the autobiographies of two Japanese intellectuals: on the one hand, the recollections of the "Enlightenment thinker", educator and propagator of a radical Western-style modernization of Japan, Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901); and on the other hand, the autobiography of the romantic adventurer, political activist and Asianist rebel, Miyazaki Tōten (1871-1922). I will show that Fukuzawa and Miyazaki, who may appear to have nothing in common except of the fact they both authored an autobiography, are on a deeper level intimately connected, and as complicit with each other as Jekyll and Hyde. I argue that their antagonism and complicity became possible, and is thinkable only within the horizon of a single, capitalist modernity.

Claudio Lomnitz (Columbia University), "Mexico’s First Lynching: Crime, Moral Panic, Dependency."


This paper offers a detailed study of a media event-- Arnulfo Arroyo's attempt on the person of Porfirio Díaz, on September 16, 1897. It shows how the modernization of journalism and its subtle connections to the Díaz dictatorship came together to inflect and infect the whole of Mexican political society with a 'hermeneutics of suspicion.' Crime and criminality, recognized in the period as key elements of positivist interpretations of progress, could no longer be contained either in marginal groups or even in the lower classes as a whole. The Arroyo Affair is an event that serves as an analytically poignant point of departure for understanding the problem of crime and public culture at the dawn of Mexico's modern era.

Olga Sezneva (University of Amsterdam) and Sébastien Chauvin (University of Amsterdam), "Has Capitalism Gone Virtual? Content Containment and the Obsolescence of the Commodity."


Drawing on debates over the alleged virtualization of capitalism, this article examines how recent strategies of commodification have responded to challenges posed by digital and other self-reproducing contents. Using the examples of digitized cultural goods, plant patenting and online gaming, the paper argues that challenges to commodification have not come from intangibility per se but from forms of physical inscription associated with negligible costs of reproduction, sharing and transmission. The commodity form has always been intangible and analytically distinct from commodified content, if empirically intertwined with it. Successful commodification involves the containment of content within the boundaries of the form. Whereas the physical characteristics of industrial products more or less met the requirements of content containment, self-reproducing and digital goods have demanded increasingly costly prosthetics to insure their maintenance as commodities. The article offers three key conclusions. First, although containment remains juridical, it also has recently taken the shape of technological and physical devices embedded into objects, ironically conferring renewed materiality on the commodity form. Secondly, and paradoxically, physical materializations of the commodity also provide a fresh handle for its manipulability: technological policing reintroduces some of the vulnerabilities that juridical containment aimed to curb. Virtual worlds seem to offer a radical solution to these dilemmas by internalizing the space of valorization itself, but their unavoidable physical inscription maintains possibilities for piracy. Finally, expanded prosthetics of commodification carry ambivalent ideological implications. Heightened material obviousness works to reiterate fetishistic beliefs in the self-containment of commodity-objects. Yet, prosthetic swelling can also become a source ideological failure and an indicator of obsolescence – not the decline of the commodity, but the increasingly blatant historical inadequacy of its forcibly prolonged maintenance.

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson (The University of Chicago), "The Origins of Cornucopianism: A Preliminary Genealogy."


The threat of accelerating climate change has revived a long-standing debate over the environmental limits to economic development. Can the biosphere sustain exponential economic growth over the long run? This article explores the historical origins and logic of cornucopianism as an ideology. Here, the author takes issue with Timothy Mitchell's recent argument that the postwar oil economy gave rise to dreams of endless growth. Instead of a single technical or conceptual breakthrough, we appear to be dealing with overlapping myths of abundance and exploitation, shaped in great part by the promise of available technology and its environmental limits. Natural philosophy, frontier expansion, and manufacturing development gave rise to alternating objects of cornucopia. Each of these visions of abundance proved unstable and temporary. Indeed, cornucopianism and environmental anxieties have been closely intertwined in theory and practice from the seventeenth century onwards.