A leading economic historian traces the evolution of American capitalism from the colonial era to the present—and argues that we’ve reached yet another turning point that will define the era ahead.
Today, in the midst of a new economic crisis and severe political discord, the nature of capitalism in United States is at a crossroads. Since the market crash and Great Recession of 2008, historian Jonathan Levy has been teaching a course to help his students understand everything that had happened to reach that disaster and the current state of the economy, but in doing so he discovered something more fundamental about American history. Now, in an ambitious single-volume history of the United States, he reveals how, from the beginning of U.S. history to the present, capitalism in America has evolved through four distinct ages and how the country’s economic evolution is inseparable from the nature of American life itself.
The Age of Commerce spans the colonial era through the outbreak of the Civil War, a period of history in which economic growth and output largely depended on enslaved labor and was limited by what could be drawn from the land and where it could be traded. The Age of Capital traces the impact of the first major leap in economic development following the Civil War: the industrial revolution, when capitalists set capital down in factories to produce commercial goods, fueled by labor moving into cities. But investments in the new industrial economy led to great volatility, most dramatically with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. The Depression immediately sparked the Age of Control, when the government took on a more active role in the economy, first trying to jump-start it and then funding military production during World War II. Skepticism of government intervention in the Cold War combined with recession and stagflation in the 1970s led to a crisis of industrial capitalism and the withdrawal of political will for regulation. In the Age of Chaos that followed, the combination of deregulation and the growth of the finance industry created a booming economy for some but also striking inequalities and a lack of oversight that led directly to the crash of 2008.
In Ages of American Capitalism, Jonathan Levy proves that, contrary to political dogma, capitalism in the United States has never been just one thing. Instead, it has morphed throughout the country’s history—and it’s likely changing again right now.