The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

With the publication in 1913 of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948) became one of the most famous, influential, and controversial historians in America.  His book initiated a trend that for two generations became dominant in the way American history was written and taught. The thirty-seven books that he wrote during his legendary career—some of them with his historian wife, Mary Ritter Beard—sold millions of copies. He was esteemed and reviled for arguing that from the country’s beginnings and at every turning point in its history, American politics had to be understood mainly through the motives and world view of economic elites.

The kinetic energy of the historical process in America did not suddenly stop with the Second World War, Beard contended. In the years immediately preceding that conflict, he took a leading role in what became known as the isolationist movement. Beard objected to this label, seeing nothing isolationist about following the advice given by George Washington in his Farewell Address, for the American people to mind their own business. Creating a society of republican virtue at home would be challenge enough for them, without assuming the burden of international responsibilities. Beard judged the Farewell Address to be the most profound statement ever issued about American foreign policy. The mislabeled isolationist movement sought to do no more than to honor the first president’s teaching about how the United States should relate to the rest of the world in a spirit of amity and comity, playing no favorites and resolutely thwarting all attempts to coopt American power and influence for partisan foreign ends.

When the fighting began in 1939, Beard opposed American intervention, claiming that at bottom the conflict had to do on both sides with the acquisition or retention of markets, territories, and resources, just as the First World War had done. The two wars were one war, in his view, with a twenty-year armistice in between. Both wars had imperialist motives. Even after Pearl Harbor, he continued to claim that the war fundamentally concerned not the evil of Hitler—as of December 1941 Stalin, our ally, was the greater criminal by far—but the greed of competing empires. In two classic works written after the war, he denounced the foreign policy of FDR as a masterpiece of deception about a fictitious war for the Four Freedoms, which served as a distraction from the real war for economic empire.

Beard never could accept the vulgate interpretation of the Second World War. In the triumphalist postwar years, he came under mounting attack as an unreliable historian and a man lacking in patriotism. His economic interpretation of history became increasingly marginalized, as consensus historians plighted to the cause of American exceptionalism dominated the field. Beard’s stock as a thinker continued its downward spiral during the Cold War, which he described at its outset as a straightforward imperialist contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. Whichever side won, the world would be subjected to an imperialist order. In no way a Marxist, he conceded that the imperialism practiced by corporate capitalism stood on a higher plane of morality than did the Stalinist variety. Nonetheless, Americans deceived themselves when they imagined the cardinal policies in peace and in war of their leaders to be about anything but imperial control.

Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism offers a fresh interpretation of the origins and development of “Beardianism,” as a way of understanding the connection between economics and politics in American history. The book is especially timely today because of the manifest way in which America’s policies for the maintenance and augmentation of its empire have confirmed his predictions of what the country’s fate would be in the aftermath of the “good war.”

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About the author of this blog post: Richard Drake holds the Lucile Speer Research Chair in Politics and History at the University of Montana where he teaches European and American history.

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The Economic Interpretation of History as a Way of Understanding American Politics

Fashion Cycles

The language of fashion has long been used to dismiss various forms of literary scholarship. Most recently, that charge has been made against types of “post-critique”—methods of reading that seek alternatives to interrogating and demystifying a text’s unstated ideological commitments or implications. Yet, for decades, conservative critics have used the language of fashion to dismiss literature and scholarship that focuses on race, gender, sexuality, and other categories of difference, or that engages “theory,” which usually means poststructuralist thought and its legacies. Ironically, however, some of the canonical works and movements that those literary traditionalists champion were also charged with being fashionable. Modernism, in particular, was parodied as modish before it was canonized, due in part to modernist writers’ preoccupation with style. In all of these cases, to be unfashionable or anti-fashion is to be aligned with more substantial and lasting social and political ideals and aims. But these claims disavow the critic’s own inevitable entwinements with fashion.

Many modernists themselves decried fashion as the epitome of superficial, commodified change.

But, as I argue in Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature, they also turned to fashion to consider what stylized objects might do in midst of war, imperialism, global capitalism, and on-going racial violence. In the work of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, W.E.B. Du Bois, Nella Larsen, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, fashion is treated as a collective mood, a set of influential material objects, as well as a target of critique. Through these authors’ engagements with fashion, their writing becomes a means to understand and generate shared forms of feeling, to excite and animate readers’ bodies, or to imagine alternatives the very economic and political structures that fuel the global fashion system.

Via fashion, modernism becomes of the moment once again.

That is because modernist treatments of fashion intersect with contemporary work in literary and cultural studies that investigates the nature and force of collective emotions, the power of supposedly inanimate objects, as well as the way that beauty and style might fuel various political projects. Virginia Woolf’s treatment of fashion as a shared mood, for example, provides contemporary scholars of affect with ways to describe how seemingly personal feelings emerge with and through specific material, historical, and social conditions. In her anti-war essay Three Guineas, Woolf also provides a timely critique of the ways that seemingly liberal states disavow their fascist, imperialist underpinnings in part by celebrating uniforms—and, we might add, suits—as rational, utilitarian garments that supposedly transcend the vagaries of fashion.

As this example suggests, modernists treatment of fashion help us to reconsider facile distinctions between what is lasting and what is a passing phenomenon.

Given the on-going public disinvestment in higher education, demands that humanities research justify itself in market terms, and the virtual collapse of the “job market” in literary studies, it can seem urgent to champion what is unfashionable. But such a stance usually relies upon caricatures of literature, literary study, and of fashion. Instead, taking fashion seriously can help us to grapple with what it means to do work in the humanities right now.

modernism a la mode


 

About the author of this blog post: Elizabeth Sheehan is Assistant Professor of English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. She is the author of Modernism à la Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature and co-editor of Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion, and will be attending The Modernist Studies Association Conference “Graphic Modernisms” in Columbus, Ohio, this November 8-11, 2018.

Fashion Cycles

The Work of Writing: Contextual Economies from Petrarch to Shakespeare

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Part two of our interview with William J. Kennedy, author of Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare. Read part one here.

Sage House: When you first talked to us about the economic perspective of your book, you mentioned your children, who are young adults making their way in the world, as an inspiration. Can you talk more about that?

William Kennedy: Going back to my adult offspring, our son was trying to mount a career as a musician [in the late 2000s]. Concurrently, our daughter had finished her law degree and was working in the not-for-profit sector [when the Great Recession of 2008–2009 hit]. It was an education for both of them to try to get themselves on their feet. So the experience of our adult children, and certainly the wider experience of economic crisis, got me thinking about these economic questions.


Just wage and inequality, distributive justice, commutative justice: these are all key tenets of moral philosophy in the late middle ages and early modern period.


SH: So you kind of experienced the recession most vividly through your children’s hardship, and these issues came to the fore of your mind at that time. Was this book inspired directly by that?

WK: That’s why I’m calling it a contextual economy. Medieval economics is not systematic economics as we know it now. It’s really a branch of moral philosophy. Continue reading “The Work of Writing: Contextual Economies from Petrarch to Shakespeare”

The Work of Writing: Contextual Economies from Petrarch to Shakespeare

Petrarchism at Work: A Two-part Interview with William J. Kennedy

WJK3-final.pngWilliam J. Kennedy is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. His most recent book, Petrarchism at Work: Contextual Economies in the Age of Shakespeare, is newly published by Cornell University Press. In part one of the interview, we discuss the role of revision in the work of Petrarch and Ronsard and its contrality to Kennedy’s study of “contextual economies.”

80140100363330LSage House: You argue that print technology was a game-changing innovation in the European Renaissance. If print was the disruptive technology of the time, how did poets such as Shakespeare and Ronsard deploy it to disrupt the system?

William Kennedy: People didn’t know what to do with print—the emerging technology of the time—just as I don’t know what to do with Twitter! It wasn’t at all intuitive for a sixteenth-century poet to want to get his poems into print. Poetry was regarded as live entertainment; poets would read their work aloud, sometimes people would copy it down, and sometimes poets would distribute their manuscripts to others to copy and pass on, but without any thought of print publication. Print as a technology was seen as having technical usages in disseminating information. Early printed books tended to favor self-help topics: “how-to” agricultural handbooks, merchant handbooks. Continue reading “Petrarchism at Work: A Two-part Interview with William J. Kennedy”

Petrarchism at Work: A Two-part Interview with William J. Kennedy