|Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews|
Americana: A 400 Year History of American Capitalism
Penguin Press. 2017. 576 pp.
I bring heavy books on the subway. My cool friends, jazz musicians and hipsters, use that word (heavy) in place of "deep" or "complex." In this case I mean physically heavy. Hardback volumes with substantial paper and hundreds of pages that strain the tendons passing through my carpal tunnel. But I keep bringing heavy books on the subway. Bhu Srinivasan's Americana: A 400 Year History of American Capitalism is heavy in that way, but not in the other.
Americana is a history of America through invention. Each chapter covers a different innovation: tobacco, the telegraph, unions, television. Srinivasan's narrative reflects how the country sees itself, but he's more honest than the mythology. Slavery makes an appearance. War does, too. He never overlooks regulation of markets, or their stimulus by federal money. Srinivasan's argument—that American capitalism is molded by state action, and not simply an unbridled force of nature—is convincing. But he's infatuated with the story at the expense of its more interesting (and perhaps more important) detours.
Srinivasan is more nuanced than the average ideologue—because he's not one—but he still clutches after conventional wisdom. In his telling, federal intervention or not, American growth was driven by entrepreneurship and plucky, hardscrabble adventurers who strove until they hit the right combination. But this story, even from a lucid narrator, is just a story and he tells the optimistic half.
Srinivasan immigrated as a boy and understands American opportunity as only someone born without it can. Only a person who doesn't take that opportunity for granted can see it as such a gift. Tony Judt would agree. He argues that "American power and influence are actually very fragile, because they rest upon an idea, a unique and irreplaceable myth: that the United States really does stand for a better world and is still the best hope for those who seek it." Srinivasan echos Judt nearly verbatim, but he's content to stop where Judt only begins.
To Judt, the entire frame is crooked. He contends that public debate centered primarily on "economic questions in the narrowest sense," only for the last four decades and mainly in the United States and Great Britain. Even Adam Smith struggled to balance the moral and material. Pragmatism has its place, but until recently an increase in GDP wasn't an acceptable reason to leave children poor and hungry in most political circles. When America chose its own interests over those of native people, or workers, or ethnic minorities, it reflected not just a cold pragmatism but a warped and backward moral compass.
In his 400 Year History, Srinivasan doesn't wrestle with the moral implications of American capitalism. He doesn't ignore its evils, but instead isolates them. He sees the moral failure of slavery, but cleaves it from his wider argument—that American capitalism is as much the product of state power as of free markets. If human bondage and genocide were the product of government direction rather than a spontaneous and regrettable result of some natural phenomenon, it indicts the entire system.
Srinivasan doesn't rationalize slavery or any other evil. He is quite clear. But he acknowledges the evil of slavery alongside violent union-busters in the late nineteenth century, westward expansion at the barrel of a gun, brutal Indian wars, and Manifest Destiny without asking the larger questions. If these are clear moral failings, does America have a duty to make them right? Is that even possible without completely dismantling the American capitalism that we know?
The invisible hand isn't so invisible as we imagine. Many Americans—politicians, pundits, writers, intellectuals—struggle to accept that simple and indisputable idea. A 400 Year History of American Capitalism that makes that claim accessible and remains sympathetic to the system is enormously valuable. The broad middle of American political thinkers see that this country offers opportunity that most other countries withhold. Many of their critics disagree entirely. The right wallows in cultural grievance. The left offers a critique of American capitalism, blind to its benefits and unable to accept from the inside what those on the outside see clearly.
The perspectives of both middle and left—"neoliberals" and "democratic socialists"—have value if they're willing to admit it to one another. Maybe America really does "stand for a better world." Maybe it still is "the best hope for those who seek it." That such an idea rests on mythology is unimportant. For something to "stand," it need only be a symbol. But those who seek it should consider that a better world may lie beyond what American capitalism in its current form is capable of producing. Maybe the world is as good as it's going to get without confronting what's already wrong.
Srinivasan neglects the essential morality of American capitalism, not as a philosophy, but as a force in the world with a history we can judge. That likely makes his book a bit shorter and more readable, and I still closed it knowing much more than before. That's a credit to Srinivasan in itself. But it's hard to accept a 400 Year History of anything that isolates a subject from the ripples it casts.
In the end, Srinivasan wastes an opportunity. Each phenomenon is compartmentalized, a chapter for slavery and a chapter for the railroad. Each made important for the way in which it leads to the next, but with no attention to the malignant replication of a few. He's positioned to look critically at the morality of American wealth generation, but with a sympathetic eye. He chooses not to. When criticism of American capitalism is left to those ideologically disposed toward its complete destruction, the choice is between revolution and reaction. That's how the broad middle collapses. And all that remains is a box full of knick-knacks, oddities, polaroids, trinkets, and bits of trivia—interesting but destined for the shelf. Heavy, but not in that way.