Michael Zakim – Accounting for Capitalism. The World the Clerk Made

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s nice to see that Corey
is a wonderful motivator. Lovely to see you all here. This is the first talk of the
new semester for the Rhodes Center. It’s a pleasure to welcome
Michael Zakim of Tel Aviv University here to talk
about his new project, accounting for capitalism. The world the clerk made. I’m just going to
say a couple of words not about this
because Seth is going to do the introduction
for Michael proper, but just about
some of the things that we have coming up over
the semester, just to get us started. First of all, this Friday
we are hosting along with the Brown Institute
for Environment and Society a conference America’s
climate change future housing market stranded assets
and entrenched interests. Sheldon Whitehouse,
our senator is going to be there along with
a bunch of other people. So if you’re interested in how
climate change may actually affect things much closer
to home than you think, for example, Rhode
Island real estate, could be a good thing to come
along and have a look for. After this we’ve got a
couple of talks coming up. We have Linda Yueh who was
one time the BBCs China correspondent who
has a great book out called What Would the
Great Economists Do? She’s coming in to talk
to us February 25th. Then we have Ling Chen
from Johns Hopkins SEIS. She’s got this masterful
book on how China manipulated globalization. And then April 8,
Zsófia Barta In the Red: The Politics of Public Debt
Accumulation in Developed Countries. So we’re hitting
all the high points. Basically too much debt, how
globalization gets manipulated, and what would dead
people tell us to do. I think that’s a nice
suite of things to get us started in this semester. And without further
ado, I shall ask Seth to come up and
introduce Michael. It’s really wonderful to
see you all here today. Thank you for coming out. It’s a rare pleasure
again to introduce someone who has played such an
important role in a scholar’s intellectual development
as Michael Zakim has played in mine. When I think of who are the
interlocutors in the field of the history of capitalism or
19th century American history, Michael really stands
at the top of the list. So being able to see him here
today at Brown to introduce him to you and to have him
share his work with you is an extreme pleasure for me. So Michael who teaches at
the University of Tel Aviv is currently really the
leading cultural historian of the American economic
past, a position that was attained through his
wonderful 2003 book Ready-Made Democracy, his 2011 field
shaping book Capitalism Takes Command, and the
long anticipated book that he’ll be
talking about today, Accounting for Capitalism. Zakim is a graduate
of Oberlin College and completed his doctorate
work at Columbia University in the 1990s. At a moment when a critical
mass of scholars some of whom may be known to you Jeff
Sklansky, Sven Beckert, others working in the
orbit of Betsy Blackmar, and Eric Foner were really
forging a new scholarly field, the history of capitalism,
although maybe doing so without really
articulating it or even knowing it at that time. So in order to understand sort
of where Zakim’s work fits in and where this field
sort of occupies terrain and the broader sort
of scope of historiography, it’s probably important to take
a step back and talk about what this new history of capitalism
is because by talking about that you will have in
fact a better sense of why Michael’s work is so important. So basically over
the last decade historians have made
a concerted effort to reclaim the economic
past from the rigid and a historical methodologies
of neoclassical economics. So instead of studying
economic transformation from the perspective of
institutions and policy, historians of capitalism
have interwoven several related but discrete sub
fields, business history, labor history, economic history,
history of technology, political economy, and the
history of economic thought into a new field of study
that is fundamentally geared towards the project of
denaturalizing capitalism. That is considering capitalism’s
governing institutions, its practices, its ideology
not as the inevitable product of human progress or of
inexorable market forces, but rather as the result of
complex, cultural and political work necessary to make a
historically specific form of market organization
appear to be in fact timeless and incontrovertible. In some ways the
history of capitalism as an intellectual
project might be thought of as something
comparable to science studies or to STS, an enterprise that
similarly seeks to denaturalize processes that appear to be
inevitable under the heading of progress. Both undertakings interrogate
their very subjects science, capitalism, as
contested terrain where claims to authority and social
power are made and exercised. Presuming nothing to be
inevitable historians of capitalism and
STS, scholars embed what they study in a
matrix of social relations, cultural practices, and
institutional arrangements operating under specific
it always contingent historical circumstances. Put differently, the
history of capitalism ultimately seeks to
dismantle or open the black box that obscures
the substantial work involved in transforming aspects
of the material world into interchangeable
and exchangeable units. The most important
work in the field has come from the
methodology, I would argue, of cultural history
where scholars have interrogated the economic itself
trying to ask how this particular
realm of human experience came to be understood
as standing apart or outside other facets of
lived experience and the social and the cultural, and to
that extent when we have a cultural historian
who can talk about the history of
capitalism in the way that Michael Zakim does we
are in for a real treat. In some ways Zakim framed
the governing or organizing question of this field in the
introduction to the 2011 volume that he edited
with, Gary Kornblith called Capitalism Takes Command
asking the question of how capital became an -ism. How did basically
the notion that there is property that can be invested
become an organizing ideology that structured not just market
relations, but every facet of the human experience? This is the kind of
generative question that has already launched
dozens of dissertations, and that I could
think will continue to organize much
of the field ahead. Michael’s own work as to
how capital became an -ism has been pursued by looking
at particularly squirrelly characters in the
economy and by squirrelly I don’t mean
individuals so much, but rather types of people
whose work ultimately is crucial to the material
development of capitalism, but upon whom all sorts
of fantasies, anxieties, and aspirations
can be read upon. So in his 2003 book
Ready-Made Democracy, it was in fact the seamstress
who was the key figure. The clothing industry is
analog to the machine. Someone who lowers the
production of making clothing at a moment when clothing
was becoming mass produced, but who also as a figure
raises all these questions about gender, about democracy,
about race, and about whether or not capitalism
and ultimately democracy could be reconcilable
at a moment when both were rushing
headlong under this flag of this new American nation. The seamstress at the heart of
this Ready-Made Democracy book is someone who is not simply
the victim of capitalism, not a merely suffering
and exploited worker, but really sort of
a central figure on whom or through whom you
can see all of these processes at work. So in some ways
it’s not surprising that Michael has found
another, perhaps even more urgent figure, to read the
history of capitalism through, and that is the clerk
the subject of Accounting for Capitalism, the book
he’ll be talking about today. I won’t spend any time talking
about what’s in the book because I know Michael will
do so, but simply to say he’s previewed this book with
a number of articles that have been in a range of publications
that have basically given historians a huge
amount to think with not just about the accounting
practices of the new businesses of the 19th century,
but really getting into the nitty-gritty of
the posture of the clerk at the desk, the
ink which he used, the social lives of these people
and the ways in which they’re ambiguous status as
knowledge workers, but also interchangeable
and easily replaceable workers raise a huge
series of questions about whether or not
capitalism would in fact be a set of practices
that would fulfill the aspirations of white
manhood in the new nation. So without further ado, I
want to welcome Michael Zakim. And please join me in
welcoming him to [INAUDIBLE].. [APPLAUSE] I think you deserve
a hug after that one. That’s very nice. Thank you. I also thought I
would sit down– and that’s– protocol allows
that slightly less formal setting. Perhaps part of it– in an attempt to turn– You may want to
sit in the middle then so that everyone
on the side can see. So– oh, OK. So can you hear me just fine? Before I would–
before I begin today, I’d like to say a few words
about my brother-in-law. [INAUDIBLE] passed
away yesterday. [INAUDIBLE] was a professor
of government for many years at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem. He was a scholar of modern
science and of modern politics, and most especially of the
relationship between the two fields. I’ll sorely miss him. The world of scholarship
will miss him. A world of Israeli politics will
miss him, perhaps most of all. In any event, I’d like to
dedicate my remarks today to his memory. I want to begin a– with my own account– my own accounting
for capitalism. This recently published, oh-so
cleverly titled study which is about– it’s actually about
a lot of things, but I think most generally,
it’s about modern capitalism’s stunning success at capturing
not just the material, but also the moral high
ground in powering America’s great transformation
into a market society. I often conceive of
these events exactly how Seth described them– that is, in literal terms. Thinking about
capital’s emergence as an -ism as a
capitalism, it’s one point in the middle of
the 19th century. Such etymological
detail was revealing, I think, of an
extraordinary event, and that is the conversion of a
highly specific form of wealth, which up ’til that
time, had also been a traditionally, at least
highly marginal form of wealth into an encompassing
world view– an -ism. At once a commercial
logic and a social ethic of purported relevance to the
whole of the human condition. Another pithy way of summarizing
these revolutionary events is to speak in terms
of the commodities rise to sovereign status. Again, not just within the
economy, but in the polity. Any such account, by
the way, is necessarily a history of the winners,
a kind of history which has been neglected
in recent decades, if not simply dismissed
as illicit hagiography of dead, white men. But in fact, I think the
opposite is the case. I think that the scholarly
devotion to the social margins, to the victims of power
rather than the wielders– those who wield power– has often served to
privilege the latter– has turned their
power into something of a self-evident
postulate against which the struggles for
justice are waged. Too many cultural, social,
and labor histories have consequently
rehearsed the market’s own foundational conceit– namely, that it has no history. And that due to the market
economy’s natural genealogy, I adopt, however, the
opposite approach. Working under the assumption
that the commodities emergence at the nexus of
social life required a sustained material as well
as philosophical effort– or, again channeling Carl
Karl Polanyi’s rage disguised as irony– and I quote from his
Great Transformation– “to make Adam Smith’s simple
and natural liberty compatible with the
needs of human society was a most complicated affair. To presume otherwise is
to embrace the market’s own declarations about the
transcendent status of truck and barter. The power and privilege
of dead, white capitalists had to be earned,
in other words, for there was nothing
natural or preordained about the stunning ascendance
of this radically new form of social, material life.” And so the United States
boasts a rich revolutionary tradition– namely, capitalism
whose development closely follows
upon a Schumpeterian narrative of
creative destruction. Destruction of not only
an [INAUDIBLE] regime of agrarian households, but
of previous incarnations of itself. The abolition of
slavery remains, I think, the most
dramatic episode in capitalism’s permanent
revolution, although there are moments where it seems
that its current subversion of liberal tradition might
prove to be equally cataclysmic. I recently read
Wolfgang’s Streeck’s How Capitalism Will
End, so I’ve come to you in a particularly
pessimistic mood. So now I’d like to move
beyond such manifestos and offer some slightly more
focused remarks regarding my accounting for capitalism– clever title– did I mention? Did anyone catch the
implicit reference in the subtitle, the
world the clerk made? Who am I paraphrasing? Genovese. Genovese– The World
The Slaves Made, which I consider to be arguably
the most important work of American history written
in the 20th century, which of recent years has
been largely airbrushed out of the historiographical memory
of our profession for reasons, perhaps, we don’t quite
have– we might want to– Seth might want to expand
upon later in our discussion. In any event, my
accounting was inspired not just by Eugene Genovese, but
by the insights of a few others as well. The first is a passage from
Karl Marx’s essay on capital and wage labor, which was
published in 1849 as something of an outline draft of
what would become capital about 15 years later. At one point during a
discussion of the unfixed nature of prices, Marx explains
that in the total movement of this disorder
is its very order. This struck me as a most
perspicacious observation, not only of the eternal
logic of exchange, not only even of the
industrial economy in toto, but of all of modern life. Of a modernity in
which change became the only permanent
feature of the system. Georg Simmel would eventually
offer his own version of this dynamic in The
Philosophy of Money, identifying that
historical pivot when stability and absoluteness– his terms– gave way to
motions and relations. How, I wondered– since I’m a
historian and no philosopher by any means– was such disorder practically
rendered into a working system– leveraged into a high
functioning liberal order? This question led
me to statistics. In industrial technology, for
the production of knowledge, actually, I think
the statistics are more ambitious than
that even, designed as they are to produce absolute
truth in a post-absolutist age, driven by a market
that turns everything into a relative value. Most importantly,
statistics generated certainty, or objectivity,
without abandoning that relativism. Impermanence, the untethered
movement of persons and goods, constitutes the very ontology
of statistical knowledge. This is where my
argument begins. And in narrative terms, this
is where the book actually ends, specifically
with the manufacturing schedule of the
federal census of 1850, one of the watershed
events in the history of American governmentality. My engagement with
statistics then soon extended to other
technics similarly devoted to ordering the [FRENCH]
of capitalist life. This included first and
foremost accounting, a centuries old
invention in contrast to the statistics that
now came into its own as both praxis and parable,
churning the trivial into the metaphysical– in terms borrowed from Marx’s
famous discussion of fetish in the opening
chapter of Capital. That is, rendering the
total movement of disorder into absolute truth, or in the
terms of accounting, of course, into the bottom line. So another question
that informed the beginning of this project
was how the bottom line became a synonym for the truth. But because I wanted to write
a social history of capital to chronicle this
capitalist revolution on its own quotidian,
and even banal terms, to unpack its
epistemological apparatus, I found myself invariably
drawn to the clerk– the business clerk, of course. That pallidly neat,
pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn figure who
now emerged at the center of the industrial landscape. Employed in counting rooms,
credit agencies, commission businesses, trust companies, law
offices, insurance brokerages, auction firms, import houses,
savings bank, retail stores, and wholesale warehouses,
devoting long hours to taking stock, keeping
accounts, displaying wares, delivering bills, distributing
samples, paying import duties, figuring interest charges, and
copying out a constant stream of correspondence. This new class was assigned
the most important production project in the new economy– production, that is,
of the market itself. As such, and perhaps
anti-intuitively, the clerks comprised
a revolutionary class. Contemporary certainly
understood as much, for they promoted these
dandies of the desk– that’s not my term– into an object of
anxious conversation about the end of the real
in favor of the nominal– in using Emerson’s terms– which anticipated Simmel’s
transition from absoluteness to motions and relations. But more than Emerson,
it was Herman Melville who consistently and
obsessively addressed the crisis born of a past
post-absolutist world without God. In everything he wrote,
at least after 1850, it was Herman Melville
who recognized the clerks’ central place
in this age of anxiety. Why, I asked myself at the
beginning of this project, did Melville locate
his archetype of modern schizophrenia
in a commercial law office on Wall Street busily copying
out deeds and contracts? And so I begin the book,
not exactly with Bartleby, but with all his paperwork. A day and night line, copying
by sunlight and by candlelight silently, palely, mechanically. The resulting piles of
documents, warehouse receipts, and tariff digests,
insolvency proceedings, and three facsimiles
of all correspondence in the event that one copy
was lost in the mails, while the third was
kept on file to ensure that both parties were
working off the same text, is not to be dismissed as
the detritus of modernity, nor even as ephemera
since everything was systematically filed
for future reference anyway, and certainly not as metaphor. This was, rather–
all this paperwork– the very infrastructure
of capitalism, and a sign that the republic’s
founding relationship between labor and its
fruits was coming undone. Trade, I mean to say, would
be the basis of industry rather than the
opposite, exemplified by remarkably white hands
as Asa Greene observed in The Perils of
Pearl Street in 1834. While the ladies declared
about the clerk that he smelled delightfully. He really did emerge
now as something of a Daumier caricature. The clerk was
consequently denounced by almost everyone for
producing nothing of value, apropos of versions or emerging
versions of American manhood in the middle of
the 19th century. In fact, I argue
that he produced the very system of value. Doing so in counting
houses that function as assembly lines for the mass
production of indices, rate schedules, consignments,
contracts, reports, surveys, updates, and the increasingly
ubiquitous profit and loss sheet– namely, a knowledge economy. That paper economy rested on
writing techniques designed to speed up production
by adopting a loop style once considered effeminate,
but now embraced for obviating the need for
ever removing pen from paper in the course of the
writing, while at once saving on the number
of strokes required for fabricating each letter. The letter– the
alphabet was broken down into an interchangeable
assemblage of basic arm movements, divorced
from the meaning of the words themselves,
anticipating the machine logic of the typewriter. Clerks did not as such become
appendages of the machine, but they turned their own
appendages into something like machines for
producing a capitalism ever more dependent on
written information. This office regime
spurred a flurry of technological spillovers– single standing desks
and double counter desks featuring either 9
or 15 pigeon holes. In fact, if you recall, I think
one of the strangest passages in Melville’s story,
Bartleby, is when they reach into Bartleby’s pigeon hole– deep, deep into the
pigeon hole and pull– I can’t remember what
exactly they pull out– like an old baloney
sandwich or some– It’s after they’ve carted
him off to the tombs. New steel nibs that replaced
the traditional quill were now invented– found their most
perfect realization in the through flow mechanics
of the fountain pen– newly patented–
along with aniline inks that would not
corrode the metal. The paper itself–
different versions of paper from the
continent that proved more appropriate
for bookkeeping, other paper, for
correspondence, et cetera. All this scrivining was devoted
to the accounts, of course, which I argued did not
just serve the increasingly complex needs of doing business,
but the needs of society at large by transcribing
the commotions of the market into a remarkably consistent
geometry of perpendiculars– rows and columns that
integrated all the buying and selling into a unified
field theory in which everything became accountable, or knowable,
by assigning it a price. The industrial market
which was no longer confined to any
particular time or place– that is, to any marketplace– found its most
tangible existence here in the standardized
fields of the ledger. This was where all
parties met, and this was where flesh and
blood values became abstract equivalencies that made
the accumulation of capital– that is, profit and loss– synonymous with the economy. What I mean to say by all this
is that the signal contribution of the accounts to
capitalism, a notion familiar to us– in fact,
something of a cliche even, from Sombart, for
instance, or Max Weber. The contribution of
the accounts issued less from their success in
measuring material reality than in creating that reality. And that by counting
and calculating an ever expanding
universe of goods, the accounts proved just
how naturally commodifiable everything was. Well, that’s the first chapter. [LAUGHING] I’m already out of
breath, and I promised to be as short as I could– as concise as I could. It’s actually a
pretty short book, but it’s a bit on
the dense side. It’s a problem with my
writing style in general– I don’t want to say
my thinking style. So I’ll make my best effort
to abbreviate what follows. But I’ll take you
through the chapter so you get a general sense of
the various perspectives that inform the world,
or that explain the world the clerk made. The following chapter
explores the social, not just the epistemological
effects, of all this paperwork. Chronicling the rise
of a market society upon the ruins of the
patriarchal household that had once, and for a
long time, grounded America’s great experiment
in Republican politics. Patriarchy gave
way to a fraternity that was populated by
individuals serving as their own best agents,
searching always, falling, picking himself up again,
often disappointed, never discouraged, as Alexis
de Tocqueville described the phenomenon in the second
volume of Democracy in America. This was an identifiable
homo economicus who understood life– his life– or everyone’s
life, for that matter– as an enterprise
whose opportunities were to be maximized,
and who spoke literally in terms of time profitably
spent, of an investment in personal character,
and certainly gave an accounting for himself. These weren’t just
rhetorical gestures, though. They were a literal expression
[AUDIO OUT] of meaning. Social life became embedded
in the economy, plotted within a Benthamite grid
of costs and benefits, that found pointed expression
in a remarkable neologism of these years– a standard of living which could
never have been calculated, let alone conceived,
in an agrarian economy. We can certainly
now begin to talk about the social life of money. While the abstract quality
of such a mass circulating currency dissolved
the intimate fabric of the patriarchal
household, money also then connected all the atomizing
interests back together, and did so significantly
enough without relying on the organic hierarchies and
the absolute values that had once secured the social order. These developments reach a
narrative climax in chapter two in a thick description
of salary negotiations– a commercialized version of
the social contract, I argue. A fraternity of
strangers that required one and all to act with a
common purpose, a shared dedication to each one’s
own best interest– otherwise, the
salary [AUDIO OUT] something Bartleby
never learned to do, which explains, of course, our
own incomprehensibly regarding his personality. Not only ours, his employers
incomprehensibility. Anyway, I then expand this
discussion of a fraternité– this market personality– in
the following chapter which engages the other definitive
-ism of the times, and that is individualism. By reconstituting public
life and private prerogative, individualism no less radically
upended the traditional order of things than did capital -ism. But the individual’s
emergence or transformation into an -ism– into a new cultural hero– was a distinctly
post-patriarchal event, which– whose hero, of
course, was no less than the self-made man, another
expression born of the times. Self-made men were
truly, truly subversive, replacing not just
the patriarch, but God himself as
their own maker. And thus, they need to be
understood in literal terms– namely, as a production
project, and in this case, production of
[AUDIO OUT] exemplified in another novel literary
genre called autobiography. Indeed, the self-made man is the
other great production project of the industrial century
alongside the market and concurrent to the market. Interestingly, however,
and perhaps surprisingly to us today, the
self-made man also initially appeared on
the historical stage as a counterweight to
capital’s subversive effects on social life. If growing and making things no
longer proved to be virtuous– a virtuous, or even a reliable
foundation for order in the new economy– as contemporaries worriedly
asked themselves– what would fill
that essential role? What was the proper object
of man’s prodigious powers of production and his command– his growing command over nature? Well, man himself would become
that object, safely ensconced outside the nominal -ism
of commercial exchange. I should not talk
so much about myself if there were anybody else
whom I knew as well, as Thoreau announced in explaining
the prevailing use he made in Walden of the
first person singular, as he announces early in the
book in a chapter [AUDIO OUT].. The first person singular was
an organic whole identical with itself, and so immune
to the divisions of labor, the transmutations of and the
constantly renegotiated value that were coming to define
all other forms of property. The self-made man thus
redefined liberalism, Lockian self-possession from a
century and a half earlier was divorced from its dominion
over the external things of the world, by
which it had anchored a labor theory of value. It was re-conceived as
the dominion over oneself. No longer the outcome from
mixing one’s physical labor with nature, but from applying
mental labor to the production of one’s own life. This delivered a sober rebuke
to those traditionalists who continued to celebrate the
virtues of productive labor. the productive laborers–
virtues of productive laborers as well. It was no coincidence
that William Ellery Channing’s self-culture, which
I think is the definitive text of what Tocqueville a year
later described as a new social philosophy– that is, individualism–
was originally composed as a lecture– a sermon might be a better
[AUDIO OUT] association. What I mean to
say by all of this is that the new form
of productive labor, production of oneself,
ideologically disenfranchised the working class
while bolstering the rule of the unproductive,
desk-bound bourgeoisie, but it did so not by
celebrating the market order, but by condemning it. By recognizing, in fact,
the economy’s unhappy effect on men’s souls. In– the chapter then
plays out by exploring another important side of
paperwork, the personal diary, which I suggest that the
diarist acted as something of his own clerk, carrying on a
debt relationship with himself, rehearsing the same logic as the
new imperative of accumulation played out in the account books. So the diary
reveals, ultimately, just how relevant paperwork
was to making persons as much as it was
to making profits, which is also why these
two great production projects of the age– production of the self,
production of the market– were so closely intertwined,
and also explains why, despite the self-made
man’s initial efforts, he ultimately became
synonymous with [AUDIO OUT].. From here, I move onto
complications– to the same– exploring the same
complications– the same recognition of
the deleterious effect of the market on our
souls with a chapter devoted to the subject
of desk diseases. A diagnostic rubric
that I borrow from the contemporary
medical discourse about a series of
nervous disorders that principally affected
those who were further removed from hard work out of doors. I open with an examination
of some of the infirmed themselves. William Hoffman who succumbed
to dyspepsia in its worst forms soon after finding work
in a Manhattan cloth importer. Edward Taylor who
became increasingly preoccupied with a sharp pain he
traced to an optic nerve being strained and tasked to much by
the miserable blinding light which finds its way
into our counting room. Robert Graham who complained
of enfeebling headaches that came on after long
days spent copying out the correspondence,
comparable to the torturing headache and wretched
nausea Alan Richman attributed to the same labor
intensive office regime. Meanwhile, Charles French’s
eyes swelled up so [AUDIO OUT] the store’s back
journals in Boston, that I was unable to leave
the house for a week, and I was obliged to
wear a covering over them and keep them constantly closed. Look at our young
men of fortune, Harper’s Weekly soon
concluded about such lives embedded in the market. Were there ever such a
pasty-faced, narrow-chested, spindle-shanked, and
dwarfed race so debilitated. Degenerate bodies were
not, I want to say, the exclusive possession of
the age’s subaltern classes. A means of marking, and
consequently excluding black, or female, or proletarian
others from public life. Alongside this well-studied
medicalization of deviance, the opposite dynamic proved
to be no less prevalent, and I would argue
more important– namely, the medicalization
of normality. The truth is public life
in antebellum America was inundated with [AUDIO OUT]
infirmity on the part of those models citizens of the
commercial republic– all of those same
self-making men. At the same time, their
ailments became the setting for an equally adamant
performance of recovery by the same sedentary types
who accordingly overcame the very threat the capitalist
disorder posed to themselves and to society at large. So in an inversion
of terms suited to these revolutionary
times, one had to be sick in
order to become well. It follows then that
the bourgeoisie– all those dead, white men– did not renounce their bodies. They most insistently lived
in them and through them, and proved to be far less
immaculate and far more hysterical than we have
heretofore recognized. Among the thick mythology
of headaches, and dizziness, deteriorating eyesight, liver
dysfunctions, deafness, piles, failing bladders, not to
mention the omnipresent problem of masturbation, I devote
most of my attention here to an epidemic of constipation,
commonly diagnosed as dyspepsia that broke out some
time after 1830, and prompted a wide broad range
of remedial [AUDIO OUT] largely and significantly familiar to
us today in the 21st century– vegetarianism. Organic food, of course,
but first and foremost, graham bread. Also the avoidance of fatty and
fried food, unripened fruit, strongly flavored
dishes that dangerously encouraged one’s appetite. Full and deliberate mastication,
the single dish method, or the one meal per
day system of eating. This control over
the appetites now emerged as the principle site– or one of the principle sites
of responsible self-government. And this is the place to, at
least parenthetically, take note– that Bartleby ends up
starving himself to death. But it was probably
Ralph Waldo Emerson who promoted this
gastrointestinal gestalt to its neurotic
consummation when he began to log the net weight
of his daily intake at meals, happily reporting after the
first week of a per diem reduction from 14 and a
quarter to 12 and 1/2 ounces. So this new distinctly private
version of self-government probably found [AUDIO OUT]
I argue, at the gym. This was where the pasty-faced,
narrow-chested, dwarfed race of clerks practiced a new form
of individual sovereignty, now called physical education. A cataclysm designed to arrest
the corporeal decline that was so imminent to
commercial civilization. And in fact, arrested
in terms of man’s own– or due to man’s own immense
capacity for self-restoration– self-government–
consequently overturning all those old, tired,
agrarian cliches regarding the corruptions of modernity. And really, my clerks
were busy stopping at the gym on the way down
to the office of Wall Street for an early morning workout. The final chapter of
the– in 1840 that is, not 1990 or 2019– the final chapter of this
accounting of capitalism is devoted to the invention of– excusing me– statistics, of
which I’ve already spoken. This was a distinctly–
these statistics were a distinctly
modern form of knowledge [AUDIO OUT] that prevailed
so much in a society where ever increasing
numbers of persons found themselves living
outside of familiar networks of households and villages. The statistics thus
became a central means for reconstituting social order
on the unfixed terms of market society. The statistics were used to
count both the population and industrial production. And the fact that
the same scheme was applied to goods
as well as persons promoted it into another means
by which society was embedded in the economy and vise versa. That is another
epistemological way station in the history of what
we so casually refer to today as human capital. My focus is on the federal
census, and specifically the census of 1850,
the first that was to survey individuals rather
than households, posing all the interrogatories to all
persons who are identified by name for the first
time, and accorded their own distinct
field in the blanks. The results were unprecedented. A nearly limitless
avalanche of data, or a ledger of the nation,
as the superintendent of the census, someone by the
name of [INAUDIBLE] happily declared. To make a rather intricate
story much, much shorter, the same post
patriarchal taxonomy that individualized in
order to universalize proved equally effective in
counting Industrial Revolution. I’ll spare you the
details as I promised, but the unprecedentedly
inclusive, diverse returns regarding the
nation’s economy were achieved by making capital
output the guiding principle of the data collection. This in fact– that
statistics, one could thus say, turned money into the
foundation of objectivity. Not only did the manufacturer’s
schedules blanks resemble the ledgers symmetries
but the commodity form itself was assigned
epistemological status, resulting in an economy
that worked only for profit. This meant that the mixing
of labor with nature would not be counted as
an industrial activity in the formal or the official
version of the nation’s economy unless the resulting
products of that labor circulated as goods for sale. All this means the
truck and barter came to underwrite both common
wealth and common sense– that being the world
the clerk made. So Accounting for
Capitalism finishes up with a short, disconsolate
essay entitled “White Collar,” and it seeks to bring the
clerk problem up to date– up to the operative logic
of today’s neoliberalism. I then segue into a short, angry
riff about the paperless office initially theorized
in the Reagan years, which seems perfect shorthand
for the gig economy’s flextime, at once metaphor [AUDIO OUT]
the dematerializing essence of a post-industrializing
economy. And yet, I would suggest– I do suggest– in
the book’s conclusion that today’s capitalism
remains saturated in paper, even if this is no
longer the stuff of rags or any other form
of physical pulp. But the fact is, libraries,
and documents, and folders, and files, and perhaps most
insultingly, bookmarks, fill the same function
they did in the early years of the regime. The abstraction of
knowledge into forms best suited for business,
whose origin is not found in a computerized
techno logic, but in a commodity logic that
then informed the computer. The fact– and I
remind you of something that should be as obvious
to us as anything else, and that is machines
didn’t make capitalism, capitalism made
machines, apropos of Industrial Revolution,
which is another rubric that we’ve lost. It’s fled the historiographical
conversation, most unfortunately. Pen and paper, in other words–
and here, I’ll conclude– had always rendered [AUDIO OUT]
virtual reality, endowing an otherwise unilinear
world with a widening array of temporalities
and valences, which that being the basic
condition for capital’s continual migrations from
place to place, and from form to form, passing
between merchant, industrial and
financial incarnations, and then back again,
and then back again. Enough to make anyone
not a little dyspeptic. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Michael, are you happy
to field questions? I’m very happy to
field questions. [INAUDIBLE] [INAUDIBLE] Go ahead. So thank you so
much for your talk. It was really,
really fascinating. You mentioned Thoreau and
Emerson throughout your talk, and so I’d be very curious
to know a little bit more about how you read them
within this overall project of self-making, because I
think of them as people who recognized this all-encompassing
market culture that was prompting people
to remake themselves. But who at least
attempted to craft forms of life that were
at a remove from it, and to retreat from it. But do you see them as,
perhaps nevertheless, being co-opted by it, or– I would just love to hear more
about your thoughts on it. Anyone else want to pipe
in in regards to Thoreau? I spent a sabbatical in
Boston a few years ago, and they kept telling me
it’s Thoreau, not Thoreau. So I’m the only person in
Tel Aviv who says Thoreau– pronounces. Yes, they were– there’s
a debate about Emerson. I think Jeff Sklansky and his
wonderful book about the market economies effect on men’s souls
seeks [AUDIO OUT] alienated from market logics– that he might first– it seems. And he was very central to the
individual’s transformation into an -ism, which of
course, I argue in this book and elsewhere, is an essential
pivot, or essential element in the life of the market. Thoreau was much more explicit
in condemning the effect of the commodity on our lives. And he was quite insightful, in
fact, in recognizing how much– of what appeared to be at first
traditional forms of manly labor, engagement in the
soil, had also been co-opted– to borrow your term– had also been commodified,
even though the same farmer who owns his own soil. So in the same famous chapter– famous passage in
that famous chapter in economy with which
he opens Walden, he says, I look around me and
I see them plowing their fields and growing wheat, or– he says they’re not growing
wheat, they’re growing dollars, and that’s ruining their life. And then he plays off– it’s hard– I think
it’s hard to [AUDIO OUT] but there’s a there’s a
delicious sarcasm in the book, including his sarcastic
use of accounts. He adds up the value
of everything he ate, and at one points says,
yes, I had eaten $8.34. So there is a terrific
ambivalence, if not outright, in opposition to
what’s going on. And it doesn’t– I don’t like
to say the market co-opted them, but capitalism was able to
incorporate even the criticism. So Channing, who’s close
to Emerson and Thoreau and was an important
host for Tocqueville when he arrives in Boston in 1831– so Channing devotes
his self-culture to deep reservations about
this developing market culture. But he does that
by, in fact, also devaluing traditional Republican
notions of productive labor, which ultimately
serves an ideology– the capitalist
ideology [AUDIO OUT].. So this is some of the more
structural movement going on underneath the surface,
which I think informs what I described in the beginning
of my remarks as a rather breathtaking political and
moral success of the market in redefining who we
are, or in inventing– or turning us into capital– human capital. [INAUDIBLE] clerks
and bureaucracy– Hang on a sec, we’ve got a
microphone because we actually post all this stuff. Thank you. Clerks and bureaucracy
are often given as an important ingredient
of civilizations that have been called great. The Egyptian, Roman,
Venetian, even the strength of the papal powers. How do the clerks that
you describe in capitalism differ, or do they differ,
between the important contribution that clerks
and record keeping are important to the
commerce of any civilization. $10,000 question–
what have you said that we didn’t know before. Yes– it’s
interesting, whenever I talk about this subject in
Israel in Eurocentric history departments in
Israeli universities, I have to I have to devote
several long minutes to explaining that the
clerk I’m talking about was employed by businesses
and not by the state. And we’re used to
thinking– when we think about the
history of bureaucracy, and when we read Faber,
we’re first and foremost thinking about the state’s
use of clerks, of paperwork, of the kinds of even
managerial techniques for organizing, surveying,
and ordering modern life. So first and foremost in terms
of the history of bureaucracy, what is relatively novel
in the industrial century is how much this has become
a commercial or a private, and not a state-driven
business, or employment. Now on the other hand,
as you rightly point out, they didn’t invent commerce
in the 19th century. But here, I referred to kind
of my earlier generalization about– or in observation– that the
capital was an old category, but what was new
was how central it had become to economic life
in modernizing and kind of industrializing–
or Christian world of Europe and North America. And in that respect, the
fact that the clerks have become a mass– had become [AUDIO OUT]
class, which if we look at the employment
statistics by 1855 when they start asking enough
specific questions that we have something called
employment statistics, we recognize the clerks to
be the third largest group working for a wage in Manhattan
and most every other city, after day laborers
and some other. So they become in fact the
single largest wage earning profession in the
industrializing economy by the mid-century. So it’s a mass phenomenon
just like capital has become a mass phenomenon. And my young men are
moving off the farm– moving off the family
farm, and in that respect, embodying what
the great defining movement of the
birth of capitalism, and that is the economy’s shift
of its gravitational center from land into labor. So all these are rather
new developments. And ultimately, then I would
also suggest paperwork’s very logic, the very epistemology’s
of accumulation in profit and loss, and [AUDIO OUT] in the
way we understand and construct our own lives– completely novel. And that’s a very clerical– it turns out to be a very
clerical– you’re all clerks. We’re all clerks– makes– deepens my sadness. I do own a pair of Clarks. I’m not sure that I’m a clerk– maybe not. First of all, thank
you for the talk– I needed that. It actually made me want to buy
the book in all seriousness– [LAUGHING] –it really did. I thought that was great. In which case, I have to
apologize for its cover price. I don’t care. I’ll use funds–
someone else’s funds. Oh, that’s– I’ll use my clerking function
to basically expropriate funds in order to make this happen. So you started– and we
had a slight conversation about Polyani when
you mentioned Polyani. So here’s my one line
on what you said– “clerks produce nothing of
value except the infrastructure of value based upon legibility.” So that’s my
little– that’s what I think you said, and I agree. Now here’s the question
then– who produced the clerk, because if it’s
the self-made man, the self-made man is coterminous
with the clerk– they’re kind of coproducts. So my Polyanian heart says where
is the state in all of this, because Polyani– as I read Polyani, his claim is
the market order is violence, the market order is usurpation,
but prior to class conflict, it is a state conflict whereby
you get the state in order to make markets. So I’m just wondering how that
fits with this, because it’s– there is a danger,
or perhaps a sense in which it becomes
coproduction rather than an essential
beginning of production. Thank you for
gastrointestinal gestalt, that is the best phrase
I’ve heard in ages and I will be using
it everywhere. Second comment– Schumpeter
was also mentioned, and when I was listening to
you, I was thinking about if you take your description
of the self-made man and place that against
Schumpeter’s description of the entrepreneur. At the end of Capitalism,
Socialism, and Democracy, he goes through this long
lament about the decline of the self-made man, or as
he puts it, the entrepreneur, precisely because in
a sense, clericalism has gotten out of hand. So rather than being a kind
of technology of the self that balances the dyspepsia
produced by being the clerk, in this case, it goes terminal. And I’m just
wondering if you think Schumpeter would be able
to read you and understand where you’re going with it. Two big questions. The first ones very big. Seth, why don’t you
tackle the first one? [LAUGHING] The state and economy–
state and the market. Europe, or Britain and America. You want to– OK. [LAUGHING] So I’ll start with Schumpeter,
which is a little more direct. The decline of the
entrepreneur– right– the decline of the
entrepreneurial spirit, of the free market– and that becomes– that thing
gets played out in a post-war– in a [AUDIO OUT]. C Wright Mills’ White Collar, or
William Whites’ Corporate Man, even– Burnham. –Burnham. I even wanted to pull out– I even wanted to pull
out Death of a Salesman and this lament of Fordism’s
squashing of the human spirit, and a nostalgia. By the way, I have a very short,
but I think unusually good, treatment of the
role of nostalgia as also actually a product of
market economy or capitalist– of a capitalist civilization,
and how nostalgia also helps us turn
disorder into order without reverting to a
pre-modern, organic hierarchy. So this kind of
postwar nostalgia became very, very common. And then it gets
overturned– then of course, it gets overturned by the
’80s with the rediscovery or reinvention of the market– the Reaganite invention
of the market. What was the question? So that’s Schumpeter. So, yes– so my young men
belong to the golden age of– and they [AUDIO OUT]. There’s no doubt the move off
the land into a labor market that allows them
to sell themselves, to market themselves,
to maximize themselves, to essentially produce
themselves, and not wait around for 20 years for their father
to die so that they can inherit either the farm or enough cash
to buy a farm out in Minnesota is experienced as a
truly freeing moment. I’m very skeptical about
what comes 100 years later, and that is the yearning for
the freedoms that we’ve lost. And I think my skepticism
is informed by the last 30 years of our worshiping at
the altar of the free market, and seeing just how
non-liberating it is. That’s as far as
Schumpeter is concerned. The state– of course, Polyani
is in Britain, and the fight– this Ricardian fight
over the poor laws ultimately depends
on state legislation. So– and his argument
of course is there’s no such thing as laissez faire. The British state–
the English state– without the English
state, there would never be a market economy. And we know this also
from legal historians in the United States. My favorite is– I’m not even going to be
able to pull his name out. [INAUDIBLE]? No, no. [LAUGHS] An older
Wisconsin school– [INTERPOSING VOICES] Hearst– [AUDIO OUT] whose
wonderful scholarship devoted to how much
laissez faire was dependent upon all sorts of
not just less legislation, but more court-driven law which
redefined property rights. Without of course, for
a moment overturning the very category
of private property, but inverting it entirely. And I guess the most– the pivotal moment is the
Charles River Bridge decision by Judge Taney in 1837,
if I’m not mistaken. So you’ve opened up a huge
interesting can of worms– a comparative can of worms as
well, and that is the state. And I find myself working
through the census– working the invention
of statistics, even though it was managed
by these new statistical associations– largely
based in Boston, but there was an important
group in New York as well– nevertheless, they understood
they couldn’t do it without the state. Only the state had the
bureaucratic apparatus to carry out a
nationwide survey, asking 20 million people
the same question. So there– these are– getting back to what
you already suggested, these aren’t dichotomous
terms by any means. However, [AUDIO OUT] no doubt. And in this respect,
I will revert to some degree of
American exceptionalism, and argue that my clerks– not by accident,
my clerk is working in a law office on
Wall Street and not in the Treasury
Department in Washington. Yeah– this is kind of
a follow up, I guess. Mark asks who
produces the clerks? Seems to me there are at
least two aspects of that. There’s the material
aspect– who produces people who are
actually doing these jobs? And then there’s the
constructionist aspect of this– who defines
them as clerks? It seems to me that
it’s not a coincidence that when you talk about your
two largest categories of labor in the census in
New York, they’re day laborers and their clerks,
and they’re both incredibly large, heterogeneous categories,
that if they are defined in different ways, would have
been smaller and more numerous. At the same time in terms
of the material question, where do these guys and
women– well, guys– actually come from? You seem to conflate
industrialism and capitalism, but they’re not
necessarily the same thing. When you talk about Thoreau, you
talk about agrarian capitalism. We also have examples
of industrial societies that our capitalist,
like the Soviet Union. So I’m wondering whether
you see these people as derived from
capitalism, from industry, or from the
combination of the two? I think it’s very
difficult in the United States in the 19th
century to distinguish between industrialization
and capitalization. Industry is increasingly
capitalized– intensively so– and
requires more and more capital investment,
even in branches that are not machine driven. I revert back to my ready made– to my– invention
of the ready made soup, where you could start
up a business with not a huge investment. But the industry
itself was registered– arguably the greatest
capital investment in the entire economy by 1860. So there’s no– obviously,
this isn’t a Soviet model, but no one– but
collectivization or state-owned– the bridges in Charles River
were never state-owned, even the first one that was built
under agrarian auspices. So that was never an option,
so here I don’t distinguish. You’re right– I rather do
conflate, and thus I’m– I would like to bring
back Industrial Revolution as a concept and not just a turn
of phrase to our conversation. I think it’s very, very relevant
to the changing experience of work and labor, and the
relationship of work and labor to economic structures– first
and foremost, the market. So you also asked a
lot of big questions. You’re also right
about who’s a clerk. Most of my clerks
are writing out– copying correspondence and
doing double entry bookkeeping because they’ve all gone
to business school– not really– they
took business classes. There’s huge now industry
of training these clerks, so in a way that becomes maybe
one way of identifying them or defining them. Someone who’s acquired
a new toolkit– a post-agrarian toolkit. And this whole rather largely
familiar advice literature, and how to become an independent
young man in a cosmopolitan– so when you’re
alone in the city– largely tells them go
learn to do the books and improve your
handwriting skills. By improving them– not
just legibility, but speed– there’s a speedup–
long before Ford, there’s an intense
speedup of the production of these documents. Many of them would
prefer to be salesmen– they would prefer to sell
rather than manage the accounts, because they get a commission. And if they can be a
salesman, they apparently improve the odds of
becoming being invited into the firm as a
partner, because they’ve been able to generate income. [AUDIO OUT] much of a
distinction because I see them moving back and forth,
and I identify their activities as devoted more or less
to the same object, which is buying and selling things. But yeah, you could– if I was more– so I didn’t really write
about clerks, I used them. I didn’t write a social
history of clerks, I wrote a social
history of capital. If I was to– if I was a better
social historian, then I would pursue your set
of questions, but I’m not. So fascinating stuff. We’ve had Polyani,
we’ve had Schumpeter, so I’m going to do [? Borger. ?]
So what I’m curious about is you use the phrase truck
and barter quite a bit, which I assume you’re kind of
taking from the primary sources partly– it’s not just
your choice, but it’s– The primary source. [LAUGHS] So to me at least, the
phrase truck and barter is actually not from the
world the clerk made. It’s from the world that
the trader, or the merchant, or the sea captain made. Truck is transportation,
barter [AUDIO OUT] connotation of haggling, and so on. And so what the clerk
is doing actually isn’t truck and
barter, it’s much more about a commodity form,
where you can transfer things on paper and they
become transferred. You don’t have to put them
onto a ship or onto a truck, and you don’t have
to barter them because they have a
price attached to them which can be
recorded, and so on. And so the
[? Borgervian ?] question is if at the time
people talked about this as a world of truck and
barter, it seems to me it’s kind of misrecognition. And I’m wondering if you
could talk a little bit about the sort of social
or cultural history of the misrecognition, and
what the effect of that was in the development
of the world that the clerk made, but
claimed the sea captain made? I think you explained it. The big difference
is we can call it commodification or
dematerialization mostly. So there’s this is
wonderful passage where– I think I took from Hunt’s
Merchants magazine– it was a fairly
central monthly being read by a lot of people
around the country– where they said, don’t we live
in a remarkably progressive enlightened world, where a
single clerk now is alone working in a giant
warehouse on the wharves, no longer needing to move the
goods back and forth from place to place, but only
refile this receipt and transfer it to that
file, or at the most mail it, which is now– the mails having now been
significantly– the cost of mail as having now been
significantly reduced. And I think we know
from David Henkin that 90% of the private mail–
the newly reduced, newly cheapened private mails in
the United States in the 1850s are business mail. So there’s– they’re already
aware of the dematerializing nature of commodity exchange. Is this Smith– does
Smith know that this is– that 60, 70 years
later, this would become the basis of
the wealth of nations? I don’t know. Maybe– I have a lot of
things to say about stuff, but I’m not going to say them. He’s also one of my heroes,
as he was for Karl Marx. But what is clear is
that this economy of– markets have always existed– or always– I’m a historian– I’m not allowed to say always. But we’ve had thousands
of years of markets, and perhaps even a longer
history of exchange, but something’s different now. And I think one of the most
spectacular expressions of this difference is the
anonymity of exchange. You’re doing business with
people you don’t know, you never will know,
you’ve never met, and this is a grid that covers
now almost the entire economy. This isn’t that oh-so thin
layer of globalists working the Atlantic economy in
the 17th and 18th century, it’s everyone– all citizens– buyers,
sellers, brokers. And that’s– that
anonymity, I think, is what means that truck and– nothing’s going to move without
the paper, and that’s new. That’s my argument. That’s industrial, and that’s
industrialization I would also suggest. One more follow-up question. And we’ll make this
our last question. Oh, OK. I thought you might say that
capitalists created clerks, because– two comments. I once read a book– Professor [INAUDIBLE]
will like this. I once read a book that posited
that the big eight accounting firms were founded by
English investors sending Scottish accountants to
look over their investments in Western Rangeland. And the big eight
accounting firms came from them when they
needed other things to do here. And the second
thing is, when you read about the creation of
the commodities business in a book I read by William
Cronon about Chicago and metropolis,
one of the keys was that the system that the
various segments of the markets came up with that made it
possible for the farmer to trade to someone he
didn’t know by classification of grain, by identification
of letters of credit, and other financial instruments,
and things like that. I think you could
say that a lot of– that capitalists
themselves created clerks through the system
that they felt they were necessary for just
improving their business. That fair? I would sign on. He’s a structural– the economy
needed him so it invented him. And they jumped at– these young
men jumped at the opportunity– they still do. They’re still busy interviewing
in Wall Street firms– law firms. What’s changed? At the end of my book, I
suggest, as I did here today, that I– because capitalism is
a permanent revolution, it’s constantly upending
itself, but there are but there are common
denominators that proved to be remarkably persistent. One [INAUDIBLE] conclusion
is [INAUDIBLE] the– not rather than
accountancy firms, it’s consultancy
firms [INAUDIBLE] because their job is
to tell you– no matter how complex things get,
[INAUDIBLE] we can tell you what box to put it in. Just a thought. Yes. All right. This was fantastic. Thank you all for coming today. Thank you very much. Thank Michael Zakim