Sven Beckert - Faculty & Research - Harvard Business School
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Sven Beckert

Professor (Harvard University)


Professor Beckert researches and teaches the history of the United States in the nineteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the history of capitalism, including its economic, social, political and transnational dimensions. He just published Empire of Cotton: A Global History, the first global history of the nineteenth century’s most important commodity. The book won the Bancroft Award, The Philip Taft Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His other publications have focused on the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, on labor, on democracy, on global history and on the connections between slavery and capitalism. Currently he is at work on a history of capitalism. Beckert teaches courses on the political economy of modern capitalism, the history of American capitalism, Gilded Age America, labor history, global capitalism and the history of European capitalism. Together with a group of students he has also worked on the historical connections between Harvard and slavery and published Harvard and Slavery: Seeking a Forgotten History.

Beckert is co-chair of the Program on the Study of Capitalism at Harvard University , and co-chair of the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History (WIGH). Beyond Harvard, he co-chairs an international study group on global history, is co-editor of a series of books at Princeton University Press on “America in the World,” and has co-organized a series of conferences on the history of capitalism. He is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. He also directs the Harvard College Europe Program.

Books
  1. Global History, Globally: Research and Practice Around the World

    Sven Beckert and Dominic Sachsenmaier

    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.

    Keywords: History; Research; Global Range;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven and Dominic Sachsenmaier, eds. Global History, Globally: Research and Practice Around the World. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.  View Details
  2. American Capitalism: New Histories

    Sven Beckert and Christine Desan

    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 over two centuries. 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.

    Keywords: Economic Systems; History; Finance; Trade; Economy; Policy; United States;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven and Christine Desan, eds. American Capitalism: New Histories. Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.  View Details
  3. Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development

    Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman

    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.

    Keywords: History; Development Economics; Ethics; Social Issues; United States;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven and Seth Rockman, eds. Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  View Details
  4. Empire of Cotton: A Global History

    Sven Beckert

    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.

    Keywords: Economic Systems; Plant-Based Agribusiness; Globalized Markets and Industries; Society; Manufacturing Industry; Agriculture and Agribusiness Industry;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.  View Details
  5. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896

    Sven Beckert

    This book, first published in 2001, is a comprehensive history of the most powerful group in the nineteenth-century United States: New York City's economic elite. This small and diverse group of Americans accumulated unprecedented economic, social, and political power, and decisively put their mark on the age. Professor Beckert explores how capital-owning New Yorkers overcame their distinct antebellum identities to forge dense social networks, create powerful social institutions, and articulate an increasingly coherent view of the world and their place within it. Actively engaging in a rapidly changing economic, social, and political environment, these merchants, industrialists, bankers, and professionals metamorphosed into a social class. In the process, these upper-class New Yorkers put their stamp on the major political conflicts of the day—ranging from the Civil War to municipal elections. Employing the methods of social history, The Monied Metropolis explores the big issues of nineteenth-century social change.

    Keywords: Literacy; Income; Identity; Culture; Economics; Power and Influence;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. Paperback ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003.  View Details
  6. The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century

    Julia Rosenbaum and Sven Beckert

    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 defines this group. Control of resources cannot explain, however, 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. This book argues that one of the most important factors in this respect was the articulation of a shared culture, but this aspect has been neglected by most scholarship on the issue. This volume engages a fundamental disciplinary question about this period in American history: how did the bourgeoisie consolidate their power and fashion themselves not simply as economic leaders but as cultural innovators and arbiters? How did culture help them formulate a sense of themselves as a distinct social group with shared identities, while simultaneously setting themselves apart from other Americans?

    Keywords: Literacy; Income; Identity; Culture; Economics; United States;

    Citation:

    Rosenbaum, Julia and Sven Beckert, eds. The American Bourgeoisie: Distinction and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.  View Details
Journal Articles
  1. American Danger: United States Empire, Eurafrica, and the Territorialization of Industrial Capitalism, 1870–1950

    Sven Beckert

    During the last third of the nineteenth century, a debate emerged in a number of European countries on the “American danger.” Responding to the rapid rise of the United States as the world’s most important economy, some European observers feared their nations’ declining competitiveness in the face of the territorial extent of the United States and its ability to integrate a dynamic industrial sector with ample raw material supplies, agriculture commodities, markets, and labor into one national economy. This “second great divergence” provoked a range of responses, as statesmen, capitalists, and intellectuals advocated for territorial rearrangements of various European economies, a discussion that lasted with greater or lesser intensity from the 1870s to the 1950s. Their sometimes competing and sometimes mutually reinforcing efforts focused on African colonialism, European integration, and violent territorial expansion within Europe itself. Using the debate as a lens to understand the connections between a wide range of policy responses, this article argues that efforts to territorialize capitalist economies delineate a particular moment in the long history of capitalism, and it demonstrates the unsettling effects of the rise of the United States on European powers.

    Keywords: Atlantropa; colonial expansion; economic nationalism; second great divergence; Economics; Global Range; History; United States; Europe; Africa;

    Citation:

    Beckert, Sven. "American Danger: United States Empire, Eurafrica, and the Territorialization of Industrial Capitalism, 1870–1950." American Historical Review 122, no. 4 (October 2017): 1137–1170.  View Details