While the Oscar for Best Picture went to Ben Affleck’s Argo, Americans would have learned a lot more if Affleck had gone further back in history. The same holds for a surge of college courses on “the history of capitalism.” Students would learn more if the courses went further back than the 19th century.
For the uninitiated, Argo is the movie version of CIA operative Tony Mendez’ book, The Masters of Disguise. Mendez led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. It’s a good film, but if you’re were familiar with Robert Parry, you know moviegoers would learn more if Affleck went further back in history. Parry wrote America’s Stolen Narrative, a book detailing the CIA coup in 1953 as well as President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to free 52 embassy employees. He details the complex relationship that has existed between the United States and Iran. Had Affleck included this bit of history, Americans might better understand the story of the U.S. and Iran is a bit more complex than simply good guy vs. bad guy.
The same can be said about a new series of courses on college campuses. As Jennifer Schuessler reports in the New York Times, “a specter is haunting university history departments: the specter of capitalism.”1 Elite colleges and universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell, are offering a growing number of courses on “the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.” Capitalism is becoming cool. The trend seems to have started at Harvard, when, in 1996, historian Sven Beckert offered an undergraduate seminar titled “The History of American Capitalism.” There were nearly 100 applicants for 15 spots. The seminar has grown into one of the biggest lecture courses at Harvard, which in 2008 created a full-fledged Program on the Study of U.S. Capitalism.
These courses are a step in the right direction. The only drawback is that they don’t step far enough back in history. They only go back to the 19th century. That’s shortsighted. If these courses went further back, students would see how commerce and capitalism is a story about bosses, bankers, brokers – and believers.
For starters, the church father Augustine ruled that price was a function not simply of the seller’s costs, but also of the buyer’s desire for the item sold.2 Monastic estates operated this way, giving legitimacy to the eventual involvement of the church in the birth of capitalism. That birth dates from about the 9th century. The great estates belonging to monastic orders experienced increases in agricultural productivity that resulted from such significant innovations as the switch to horses. No longer limited to mere subsistence agriculture, these estates began to specialize in particular crops or products and to sell these at a profit. A cash economy emerged. Monasteries then began to reinvest their profits to increase productive capacity. As their incomes continued to mount, many monasteries became banks, lending to the nobility.
This rich history is why Randall Collins describes monastic estates as not merely a sort of proto-capitalism, but a version of the developed characteristics of capitalism itself. In fact, he calls this development of commerce “religious capitalism,” adding that the “dynamism of the medieval economy was primarily that of the Church.”3 We see this dynamism in the 11th century, when Thomas Aquinas explained just prices by posing this question: “Whether a man may lawfully sell a thing for more than it is worth?” He answered by first quoting Augustine that it is natural and lawful for “you wish to buy cheap, and sell dear.” This was common knowledge by the 13th century, when Saint Albertus Magnus proposed that the “just price” is simply what “goods are worth according to the estimation of the market at the time of sale.”
The role of theology in all this cannot be underestimated. Church theology stressed that reason informed both political philosophy and practice. The result was that responsive states began to appear in medieval Europe, sustaining a substantial degree of personal freedom and providing safe havens for the flourishing of capitalism. The overlap of products, profits, and political stability meant that by the 14th century, the term “capital” had come into use to identify funds having the capacity to return income, rather than simply being of consumable value. The term “capitalism” soon followed.
In his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Rodney Stark surveys the historic contribution of Christianity to capitalism. He suggests “capitalism was not born of the Protestant ethic, having appeared in full flower in Italian city-states centuries before the Reformation.” Rather, when we go back far enough in history, we see the Protestant ethic was born of capitalism. This is why courses that begin the history of capitalism in the 19th century are shortsighted. They leave students shortchanged.
The cheat is that bosses, bankers, and brokers pretty much disconnected religion from capitalism in the 19th century. Starting a course in the 1800s shortchanges students, leaving the impression the Christian faith has little to do with capitalism. The solution is stepping further back in history. But that’s easier said than done. That would require resolving this question: What would it take for Harvard or Cornell to take the church’s contribution to capitalism seriously? At the very least, it would require a farsighted strategy. That’s not a bad place to start, since it would keep the church from proposing shortsighted solutions. No sense in repeating the error of shortsightedness currently happening at so many colleges.
1 Jennifer Schuessler, “In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism,” the New York Times, April 6, 2013.
2 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 58.
3 Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 58.