Publications by Author: Sven Beckert

American Capitalism
Beckert, Sven, and Christine Desan, ed. 2018. American Capitalism. Columbia University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract

The United States has long epitomized capitalism. From its enterprising shopkeepers, wildcat banks, violent slave plantations, huge industrial working class, and raucous commodities trade to its world-spanning multinationals, its massive factories, and the centripetal power of New York in the world of finance, America has come to symbolize capitalism for two centuries and more. But an understanding of the history of American capitalism is as elusive as it is urgent. What does it mean to make capitalism a subject of historical inquiry? What is its potential across multiple disciplines, alongside different methodologies, and in a range of geographic and chronological settings? And how does a focus on capitalism change our understanding of American history?

American Capitalism presents a sampling of cutting-edge research from prominent scholars. These broad-minded and rigorous essays venture new angles on finance, debt, and credit; women’s rights; slavery and political economy; the racialization of capitalism; labor beyond industrial wage workers; and the production of knowledge, including the idea of the economy, among other topics. Together, the essays suggest emerging themes in the field: a fascination with capitalism as it is made by political authority, how it is claimed and contested by participants, how it spreads across the globe, and how it can be reconceptualized without being universalized. A major statement for a wide-open field, this book demonstrates the breadth and scope of the work that the history of capitalism can provoke.

Global History, Globally
Beckert, Sven, and Dominic Sachsenmaier. 2018. Global History, Globally. Bloomsbury Publishing. Publisher's Version Abstract
In recent years historians in many different parts of the world have sought to transnationalize and globalize their perspectives on the past. Despite all these efforts to gain new global historical visions, however, the debates surrounding this movement have remained rather provincial in scope. Global History, Globally addresses this lacuna by surveying the state of global history in different world regions. 

Divided into three distinct but tightly interweaved sections, the book's chapters provide regional surveys of the practice of global history on all continents, review some of the research in four core fields of global history and consider a number of problems that global historians have contended with in their work. The authors hail from various world regions and are themselves leading global historians. Collectively, they provide an unprecedented survey of what today is the most dynamic field in the discipline of history. 

As one of the first books to systematically discuss the international dimensions of global historical scholarship and address a wealth of questions emanating from them, Global History, Globally is a must-read book for all students and scholars of global history.
Image of book cover of Global History, Globally
Beckert, Sven, and Seth Rockman, ed. 2016. Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Publisher's Version Abstract

During the nineteenth century, the United States entered the ranks of the world's most advanced and dynamic economies. At the same time, the nation sustained an expansive and brutal system of human bondage. This was no mere coincidence. Slavery's Capitalism argues for slavery's centrality to the emergence of American capitalism in the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War. According to editors Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, the issue is not whether slavery itself was or was not capitalist but, rather, the impossibility of understanding the nation's spectacular pattern of economic development without situating slavery front and center. American capitalism—renowned for its celebration of market competition, private property, and the self-made man—has its origins in an American slavery predicated on the abhorrent notion that human beings could be legally owned and compelled to work under force of violence.

Drawing on the expertise of sixteen scholars who are at the forefront of rewriting the history of American economic development, Slavery's Capitalism identifies slavery as the primary force driving key innovations in entrepreneurship, finance, accounting, management, and political economy that are too often attributed to the so-called free market. Approaching the study of slavery as the originating catalyst for the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism casts new light on American credit markets, practices of offshore investment, and understandings of human capital. Rather than seeing slavery as outside the institutional structures of capitalism, the essayists recover slavery's importance to the American economic past and prompt enduring questions about the relationship of market freedom to human freedom.



Global history is very much the fashion in leading university history departments today. Some of them seek to replace courses in Western civilization with classes in global history—but usually such courses have to be team-taught by a variety of specialists, since so few individual academics have such a broad reach. “Empire of Cotton” proves Sven Beckert one of the new elite of genuinely global historians.

Book review of Sven Beckert's Empire of Cotton: A Global History.

A review of Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert reveals that while Britain abolished the slave trade in the early 19th century, 50 years later its cotton industry still depended on American slave-labour.

Beckert, Sven. 2015. “Cotton, A Global History: Spinning tales.” The Economist. Publisher's Version Abstract

Good economic history tells dramatic stories of ingenuity and aspiration, greed and national self-interest. Sven Beckert writes good economic history. But why cotton? Mr Beckert’s answer is that for 900 years, until 1900, it was the world’s most important manufacturing industry. Cotton is relevant now because the story explains how and why an industry goes global. It is a story of wildly fluctuating fortunes, from stunning wealth to dire social disasters.

Beckert, Sven. 2014. “Capitalism, As Woven Through Cotton.” International New York Times. Publisher's Version Abstract

After a quarter-century of tightly focused studies, historians are addressing extended periods of time and the global dimensions of history. As Thomas Piketty did in “Capital in the 21st Century,”his excellent recent study of wealth and inequality, Sven Beckert takes the long view in “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.” Mr. Beckert’s book is more broadly framed and more readable, but at its heart, as in Mr. Piketty’s book, is inequality.

Beckert, Sven. 2014. “‘Empire of Cotton,’ by Sven Beckert.” International New York Times. Publisher's Version Abstract

The history of an era often seems defined by a particular commodity. The 18th century certainly belonged to sugar. The race to cultivate it in the West Indies was, in the words of the French Enlightenment writer Guillaume-Thomas de Raynal, “the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the Universe.” In the 20th century and beyond, the commodity has been oil: determining events from the Allied partitioning of the Middle East after World War I to Hitler’s drive for Balkan and Caspian wells to the forging of our own fateful ties to the regimes of the Persian Gulf.

Beckert, Sven. 2014. “Empire of Cotton.” The Atlantic. Publisher's Version
Empire of Cotton
Beckert, Sven. 2014. Empire of Cotton. New York: Random House. Publisher's Version Abstract

The epic story of the rise and fall of the empire of cotton, its centrality to the world economy, and its making and remaking of global capitalism.

Cotton is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible, yet understanding its history is key to understanding the origins of modern capitalism. Sven Beckert’s rich, fascinating book tells the story of how, in a remarkably brief period, European entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen recast the world’s most significant manufacturing industry, combining imperial expansion and slave labor with new machines and wage workers to change the world. Here is the story of how, beginning well before the advent of machine production in the 1780s, these men captured ancient trades and skills in Asia, and combined them with the expropriation of lands in the Americas and the enslavement of African workers to crucially reshape the disparate realms of cotton that had existed for millennia, and how industrial capitalism gave birth to an empire, and how this force transformed the world.

The empire of cotton was, from the beginning, a fulcrum of constant global struggle between slaves and planters, merchants and statesmen, workers and factory owners. Beckert makes clear how these forces ushered in the world of modern capitalism, including the vast wealth and disturbing inequalities that are with us today. The result is a book as unsettling as it is enlightening: a book that brilliantly weaves together the story of cotton with how the present global world came to exist.

Beckert, Sven, and Jonathan Shaw. 2014. “The New Histories.” Harvard Magazine. Publisher's Version Abstract

IN MAY 1968, the university’s students wanted to change the world. Left-thinking ideologies like Maoism and socialism were in their minds, and “Vietnam” was on their lips. They went on strike, skipping classes and exams. They rioted and clashed with police. One student was killed, 900 arrested.

If this sounds like a scene from Kent State, where student demonstrators were killed two years later, that is because the May 1968 unrest at the University of Dakar in Senegal was part of the same general mood around the world that moved students to protest, says Omar Gueye, professor of history at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Gueye spent six months at Harvard during the 2013-14 academic year as a postdoctoral fellow at the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH), a program premised on the belief that events like these—not unlike the seemingly contagious uprisings of the Arab Spring—can be fully understood only in a global context. As elsewhere during the student protests of the late 1960s, local factors played a role in Dakar: government cuts in scholarship funding precipitated the strike. But student anger tapped a deeper sense of injustice as well: although French colonial rule had ended in 1960, the university was still French, Gueye explains, and the French military was still stationed in Dakar. “Vietnam”—another former French colony—therefore had a specific resonance among Senegalese students, who felt a sense of brotherhood with the Vietnamese.

HISTORIANS increasingly recognize that trying to understand the past solely within the confines of national boundaries misses much of the story. Perhaps the integration of today’s world has fostered a renewed appreciation for global connections in the past. Historians now see that the same patterns—colonialism, or the rise of small elites controlling vast resources—emerge across cultures worldwide through time, and they are trying to explain why. “If there is one big meta-trend within history, it is this turn toward the global,” says Bell professor of history Sven Beckert, who co-directs WIGH. “History looks very different if you don’t take a particular nation-state as the starting point of all your investigations.”

The rise of a global perspective is one of several trends that are changing the way history is studied and understood.…

The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century
What precisely constitutes an American bourgeoisie? Scholars have grappled with the question for a long time. Economic positions—the ownership of capital, for instance—most obviously define this group but cannot explain the emergence of shared identities or the capacity for collective action: after all, economic interests frequently drove capital-rich Americans apart as they competed for markets or governmental favors. Engaging fundamental questions about American society in the nineteenth century, this book argues that one of the most important factors in the self-definition of the bourgeoisie was its articulation of a shared culture.

Social classes, like fortunes, are made and remade, and invariably the two are linked. Tracing the shifting fortunes and changing character of New York City's economic elite over half a century, this book brings to light a neglected—and critical—chapter in the social history of the United States: the rise of an American bourgeoisie.

How a small and diverse group of New Yorkers came to wield unprecedented economic, social, and political power is the story that Sven Beckert pursues from 1850 to the turn of the nineteenth century. Blending social, economic, and political history, his book reveals the central role of the Civil War in realigning New York City's economic elite, as merchants began to shed their old allegiances to slavery and the Atlantic economy, and to cede a greater share of economic power to industrialists. We then see how in the wake of Reconstruction the New York bourgeoisie reoriented its ideology, abandoning the free labor views of the antebellum years for laissez-faire liberalism. Finally, in the 1880s and 1890s, we observe the emergence of a fully self-conscious and inordinately powerful New York upper class.

Drawing on a remarkable range of sources from tax lists to personal papers, credit ratings to congressional testimony The Monied Metropolis provides a richly textured historical portrait of society redefining itself. Its reach extends well beyond New York, into the most important issues of social and political change in nineteenth-century America.