You may remember that an editor at the WSJ asked me to write 2000 words for the Weekend edition, which imitates the Financial Times by pretending that the Philistines have ideas of their own. He also offered to pay me handsomely. I told him I wanted a hefty kill fee because an editor at his paper had fucked me over in 2011-12, when my Against Thrift was in the news, over the objections of many morons. He agreed. Then he killed the piece, on the grounds that the robber barons “emerge here as evil people.” Also, that it is “too fancy.” And, of course, that there is “no detachment here.” He’s wrong on two of the three counts. Judge for yourself: here’s what I sent him.
To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American. Because we don’t share a national origin, a racial stock, a linguistic affinity, or a religious denomination—and never have—the background that binds us as a people are the stories we tell about our origins and our development. So we’re always rewriting our history, making it malleable, making it new. We’re always looking for a usable past.
Right now we’re engaged in another rewrite, as we wonder what to do about monumental tributes to powerful men who were slaveholders, avowed racists, eager imperialists. So far John C. Calhoun at Yale, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, and Cecil Rhodes at Oxford have galvanized our critical attention, as students protest their ugly legacies. (The question of the Confederate flag, now settled, is an off-campus preface to this struggle.)
Once upon a time we couldn’t learn from the people these powerful white men silenced. Now we can, and we do, because in this country, unlike any other, the winners don’t get to write the history—the losers do. The Anti-Federalist idea that the Constitutional settlement was a counter-revolution still convinces most historians. For a century after 1865, the South controlled the narrative of Civil War and Reconstruction (first tragedy, then farce): D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915), an early landmark of filmmaking, was festooned with quotations from Woodrow Wilson’s scholarly work as a political scientist. The Populists of the 1890s, who tried to abort the emergence of corporate capitalism by destroying “the trusts”—also, nationalizing the banks, the railroads, and interstate communication—still persuade most historians that they were the last best hope of democracy.
The new losers are the mostly young people who want to rewrite the history of the US—to acknowledge the racist, misogynist, exploitative, imperialist, and violent dimensions of its past. Not to mention its abiding present, when armed white men can shoot black children or seize federal property with no fear of reprisal. In urging their revisions, these mostly young people are relying on what they learned in college, on the very site of their protests.
They’re relying, in other words, on the rewrites we call African-American and gender history, which have taught us that without a formal voice and without the vote, slaves and women played leading roles in the political cataclysm we know as the Civil War and Reconstruction. They’re also relying on post-colonial theory, subaltern studies, and the concept of the Black Atlantic, which taught us to think differently about literary canons and the very idea of nation states, including the United States.
But these radical rewrites, which most of us who study history or literature now take for granted, once made for extreme controversy: they were the core curriculum of what we now call the culture wars. So instead of dismissing the new controversies on campus, we’d better pay close attention. Change is coming— these symptoms are attempted cures of something. What kind of change do we want?
The question being raised from Fresno State to Yale is not how to avoid or erase the past by pulling down statues and renaming buildings. No, these supposedly coddled students are asking something more troubling: Is this past even ours? As the grandson of poor Irish immigrants, for example, or the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, do you remain responsible for the sin of American slavery, and thus owe its descendants reparations? Or can you divest yourself of this dishonor? What can you learn from people who believed in the “white man’s burden,” except that they were deluded or disgusting? Why would you let monuments to their dubious achievements stand?
Readers of the Wall Street Journal will want to ask a related question about the swashbuckling capitalists of our past. What is to be done about Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, James B. Duke, and Leland Stanford, infamous robber barons who founded great universities?
Must we obliterate all traces of these powerful men—unbound capitalists who cheated competitors, exploited workers, and hired thugs to silence the poor, the weak, the oppressed, as long as they could—so that we can get on with the work of rewriting the past? Or does our search for a usable past require a reckoning with their foundational, fundamental contributions to what we call America? To ask that question is to explore both the guilt and the anger that have always attended the development of capitalism, especially in the United States.
The great achievements of American higher education came in the century after 1862, when the land grant colleges were endowed as a dimension of the Homestead Act and the creation of the Department of Agriculture. The great public universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, California, et al.) enabled by this legislation, amplified in 1887, laid the intellectual groundwork for the Progressive Era. The Ivy League colleges, which had specialized in training preachers and teaching the classics, belatedly tried to copy the publics by turning themselves into modern universities—by broadening their curriculum, revising their mission, reconsidering their admissions policies.
Meanwhile John D. Rockefeller, the favorite target of the muckrakers—this was the man who built the Standard Oil Trust into the perfect symbol of rapacious, lawless capitalism—invented the University of Chicago; James B. Duke established a university in Durham, where his cigarette company mass-produced lung cancer; Andrew Carnegie branched out from libraries to found one in Pittsburgh, where he had made a fortune by ruthlessly exploiting immigrant steel workers; and Leland Stanford, the railroad titan who robbed California blind, started yet another university in Palo Alto. These were all private institutions, but they were in the new business of imitating the public universities, not the Ivies.
Rockefeller’s university—the only of these that didn’t bear the name of the founder—is perhaps the most interesting, politically speaking. Of course it became a fuddy-duddy in the 1930s, after the appointment of Robert Maynard Hutchins as its president, but from the 1890s into the 1920s it was the avant garde of higher education and intellectual life. In the department of political economy, for example, J. Laurence Laughlin wrote about banking reform, founded a new journal (still in print), and recruited Thorstein Veblen and Wesley C. Mitchell as graduate students. Veblen would go on to write savage critiques of consumerism, corporations, and economy theory which are still read, to this day (see, to begin with, The Theory of the Leisure Class  and The Theory of Business Enterprise ). Mitchell would go on to found The American Economic Review (1912) and the National Bureau of Economic Research (1919), all the while conducting path-breaking research into the nature of business cycles—from the Left.
Things were even more interesting in the philosophy and psychology department, where John Dewey, a founding father of pragmatism, became the presiding spirit in 1894 on the recommendation of a former colleague, George Herbert Mead. He left Michigan because Chicago offered him the opportunity to build graduate programs. But he didn’t leave his radical politics behind, and nobody expected him to. Everybody knew that Dewey spent his last years at Michigan working with an anarcho-syndicalist, Franklin Ford, on a project called “Thought News,” a magazine that would put the people and the professors together on behalf of the Commonwealth. As soon as he arrived in Chicago, he followed Mead’s example and started working with Jane Addams and Rockefeller’s fiercest critic, Henry Demarest Lloyd—the author of Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894), the best-selling indictment of the Standard Oil Corporation. By 1900, there were 354 graduate students in programs Dewey had helped organize and direct. More than half were women, 75 years before the Ivies admitted females.
The University of Chicago wasn’t a refuge for radical intellectuals in the 1890s. Like the publics, it merely acknowledged that faculty members would be discussing the pressing social issues of the day. These included Lloyd’s vernacular way of expressing the opposition between capitalism and socialism, the growing “woman movement,” and the troubling “labor question.” Political controversy has never been foreign to higher education in the US (or anywhere else). You might even say that absent such controversy, higher education has no purpose. That is why recent conflicts are so refreshing—they remind us of a past that may be useful.
I’m not writing an amicus brief for the robber barons. Nor a defense of capitalism or capitalists in the present. Nor an endorsement of philanthropy, the idle playground of the guilty rich.
No, the story of higher education I tell is my way of quoting Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt School theorist whose enigmatic “Theses on the Philosophy of History” inspired Tony Kushner to write “Angels in America” (Prior Walter is named after Benjamin). The key moment of Thesis VII goes like this: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
That big word, “civilization,” used to have the connotations of origins and antiquity. Who built the pyramids? Whose labor subsidized Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic? But now we ask, who pays the price of modernity, the civilized world created by markets, money, credit, and globalized investment—in a word, capitalism? That’s the real question animating both recent political controversies on campus and the new, cross-disciplinary field called the “history of capitalism.” How do we acknowledge the barbarism of capitalism even as we accept its benefits? Very few of us want to rid ourselves of markets—and none of us can. What, then?
Then we acknowledge that capitalism has been a progressive force in the history of humanity. Marx himself insisted that the theory and practice of equality was inconceivable until the creation of a market in labor, the founding gesture (“primitive accumulation”) of capitalism. Meanwhile we acknowledge that the development of capitalism required the reinvention of slavery in the Western Hemisphere and of serfdom in Eastern Europe. Capitalists were agents of both progress—new thinking about the practical possibility of linking liberty and equality—and regress—new thinking about the practical possibility of perpetuating slavery. They still are. [Capital vol 1, Kerr ed., pp. 69, 189n.1]
Most important, we acknowledge that every one of us is implicated in the crimes that provide the comforts of commodities produced in a world so far elsewhere that it seems a foreign planet. In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson, our very own Nietzsche, explained to his myriad audience that the “trail of the serpent”—the moral taint of slavery—was legible in the sugar they consumed and in the cotton clothes they wore, yet he praised the commodity form, the merchant, and the market as indispensable to the future of thinking as such. He rejected the unearned innocence of the American Adam, who would escape the nightmare of the past rather than face his own complicity in its reproduction—the manchild who grew up to be Huck Finn, lightin’ out for the Territory. [“Man the Reformer”]
If we can follow the examples of Marx and Emerson, we’ll find a way beyond the either/or choice that dictates we must choose between the past and the future, as if the present is the finder and the keeper of an immutable truth. We’ll be able to rewrite our history but not obliterate the past as it’s inscribed on buildings, preserved in archives, embodied in ritual celebrations, and written in the books. We’ll be able acknowledge the sins of our fathers—Carnegie, Duke, Stanford, Rockefeller, among others—without indulging the urge to erase our memory of them. We’ll know that capitalism is the pressing social issue of our time, and proceed accordingly.
At any rate we’ll avoid the fate of Benjamin’s Angel of History, the devil himself. His face is turned always toward the past because the storm of progress blowing in from Paradise won’t let him close his wings. We will face both ways, and so we will learn that the wreckage of the past—the slaughter-bench of history, as Hegel called it—is not just a catastrophe to be forgotten in the name of the future. It’s the workbench we need to repair the present.