The importance of cross-pollination

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “Why Write the History of Capitalism?

Prof. Louis Hyman, guest blogger

One of the hardest skills to teach in history is how to ask good questions. Even for professional historians, finding new topics or interpretations can be difficult. A lot of smart people have been thinking about history for a long time, so a new question or perspective is extremely valuable.

Yesterday, during the History of Capitalism Summer Camp at Cornell, I was reminded how generative this new field is for asking good questions, even among those who claim to be experts in the field. In this case, it was an exchange that touched on black entrepreneurship, civil rights, and neo-liberalism.

One of the “campers,” Prof. Nathan Connolly of Johns Hopkins, and I were discussing the history of real estate in the Jim Crow era, which is his specialty. Both of us teach American history and have degrees from reputable universities. In fact, both of us teach the history of race and business. So when he was talking about the role of black entrepreneurs and black consumers in the Civil Rights movement, it was not entirely unfamiliar territory. We both lecture on this area in our courses.

And yet, as he spoke about the Civil Rights movement, he framed it differently than it is usually discussed: as a showdown between those who want to dispose of their property without racist government regulation (Civil Rights advocates) and those who wanted lots of government regulation to protect their property (white supremacists). This critical inversion of Right and Left — as we think of these distinctions today — is part of what makes his work so gripping. I asked him the natural follow-up question: what is the connection between the property-rights Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s?

He looked at me. And I looked at him. And we agreed that we did not know (although we had some ideas), and in fact, that this was an excellent question that we hope someone will research.

This hypothetical connection between black entrepreneurship, civil rights, and neo-liberalism is not an obvious question in the normally separate historiographies of business history, social history, and intellectual history. But History of Capitalism is providing conversations between people that are creating new questions for all kinds of scholars, and I am excited to find out what they unearth.


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