Calling the growth of capitalism “one of the most important historical processes of the past 500 years,” an eminent historian challenged some current views on this charged topic and called for a far better understanding of its history.

“Capitalism, so it seems, is as familiar as it is unknown,” said Sven Beckert, PhD, a Harvard history professor and Pulitzer Prize finalist, during a Nov. 6 lecture at Fordham. “Passionately articulated opinions and widely shared certainties go hand in hand with only vaguely remembered facts. … Our thinking about capitalism urgently needs the voice of historians.”

Providing that voice is the mission of the O’Connell Initiative on the Global History of Capitalism, for which Beckert was delivering the inaugural lecture. Named for its benefactor, Robert O’Connell, FCRH ’65, who was present, it will produce scholarship on the social, economic, and ecological history of capitalism from medieval times to the present.

Beckert argued for a global view of capitalism that integrates all its players worldwide, at the level of communities, regions, and nations—and not just those of Europe.

“Much of the history of capitalism as it has been written to date has been told as the quintessential Eurocentric story, in which the rest of the world is largely featured only as a story of failure,” said Beckert, the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard. “In a world such as ours today, however, in which the most dynamic capitalist economies are to be found outside the North Atlantic region, such a story is clearly unsustainable.”

He focused the lecture on his recently published book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf, 2014), for which he won the Bancroft Prize and received a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

His book examines capitalism through the lens of cotton because its history demonstrates the unprecedented increase in human productivity and consumption brought about by industrialization and by capitalism generally.

The book addresses the Great Divergence, or the surge in economic growth in some regions, especially the North Atlantic, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rather than being driven by climate, Protestantism, or “peculiar” European institutions, it had its roots in “war capitalism”—“the violent appropriation of territories in the Americas, labor in Africa, and markets all over the world”—that made the industrial revolution possible, Beckert said.

In some ways, slavery was at the core of the expansion of industrial capitalism, he said, disputing those who have described it as “essentially premodern” and “a surviving artifact of an earlier world that was done away with by the very capitalist revolution.”

“Indeed, at a particular and crucial moment in capitalism’s history, slavery stood at the center of the most dynamic and far-reaching production complex that had ever been created in human history.”

He also examined the “fashionable” view of “state intervention as somehow contradictory to the unfolding of capitalism,” noting states’ various interventions throughout history to block imports, mobilize workers, conquer distant markets, and support industries.

Understanding capitalism’s history, he said, “will help us navigate some of our contemporary dynamics.”

Perhaps most importantly, he said, it will put the lie to notions of a “master process” unfolding in history, or the fulfillment of an “essence that has been there from the very beginning.”

“Instead, history is a continuous process in which people’s interests, preferences, hopes, beliefs, politics, and power shape the world in which they live and in which we live,” he said.


Chris Gosier is research news director for Fordham Now. He can be reached at (646) 312-8267 or [email protected].