M. Zakim: Accounting for Capitalism

Accounting for Capitalism. The World the Clerk Made

Zakim, Michael
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
$ 25.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Nina Mackert, Leipzig Lab „Global Health“, Universität Leipzig

This is an inspiring and significant book. Michael Zakim’s account of merchant clerks’ accounting in the mid-nineteenth century is a history of how capitalism was created by the self-made man. Based on a wide array of sources – with an emphasis on clerks’ diaries – Zakim traces the emergence of the clerk as an embodiment of “the two great production projects of the day—the making of the self and the making of the market”. (pp. 120f.)

Zakim offers much more than a “social history of capital,” (p. 8) as he modestly claims, and in fact writes in the tradition of the new history of capitalism, underscoring how the market society was created and shaped through people’s everyday practices. Capitalism, Zakim contends, was not so much “force of nature” as a “cultural achievement” that required “enormous effort […] to domesticate the profit move and turn it into the practical foundation of social intercourse” (p. 14). In focusing on manifold practices of bookkeeping, writing, filing, calculating, exercising, self-educating, journaling, and counting, Zakim shows how merchant clerks contributed to “reinvent […] civic life in the form of a business deal” (p. 8) while also making themselves “archetypes” of what is now called “human capital” (p. 197). The self-responsible and self-improving individual that was epitomized by the clerk, Zakim argues, simultaneously “produced the market” and was “one of its products.” (p. 7)

In five chapters, Zakim offers a thorough analysis of the clerks’ lives and labor, tying the seemingly mundane – such as pen nibs, the ventilation of office spaces, and exercising at the gym – to the nineteenth-century market revolution. Chapter one, “Paperwork”, argues that practices of bookkeeping created and naturalized the market by “arranging th[e] flow of values within the grid of accounts” (p. 11), thereby producing the “very system of value” that would become central to capitalism. Thereby, Zakim states, bookkeeping stabilized the market by rationalizing its disorder, turning bankruptcies, for instance, into calculable and consequent events. Next to the science of bookkeeping, he explores the apparatuses and techniques clerks engaged with in order to perform their job: from innovations in paper, ink, and pens, desks and office chairs, to techniques of sitting and writing in order to achieve a speedy flow. Writing, Zakim claims, became “the male equivalent of sewing, a traditional skill, that is to say, accelerated beyond recognition by the ‘fast property’ of the commodity form.” (p. 29)

The nineteenth century transition from agrarian to industrial society, Zakim suggests in chapter two, “Market Society,” did not simply give rise to clerks but simultaneously liberated and subjugated the young men who were leaving their families to find clerking jobs in the cities. The demise of a land- and family-based patriarchal order freed young men from the constraints of family farms, while turning them into “’architects of [their] own fortunes’” (p. 53), compelled to increase their human capital in a competitive marketplace. Yielding not less but more fluid hierarchies, this transition replaced land proprietorship with “a new proprietary ethic” of owning one’s self (p. 84).

Chapters three and four deal with the ways these human assets could and should secure and increase their individual capital and “self-possession” (p. 97). Chapter three, “Self-Making Men,” unravels how clerks engaged with the era’s new techniques of self-improvement to show how “individualism,” a neologism of the era and its “restless signifier” (p. 110), emerged as a reinvention of “self-government for a postpatriarchal age of men.” (p. 86) Practices of self-education, engaging in private study, and keeping a diary, Zakim contends, extended the scope of self-making beyond the economy, encompassing the whole experience of citizen selves. The author suggests that such techniques allowed clerks to claim self-responsibility and autonomy while remaining under the bonds of wage work. Moreover, by emphasizing self-mastery, they contained the principal threat of individualism, of a “society founded on the discrete desires of autonomous individuals” (p. 108) pursuing happiness.

As Zakim explores in chapter four, “Desk Diseases,” new conditions such as dyspepsia, an umbrella diagnosis for stomach problems, ostensibly complicated self-making by problematizing the very conditions of clerks’ existence. Their sedentary lives and the bustling, anxious times of a competitive money economy were believed to cause new health issues. Key to the new ailments was the assumption that they were as much nervous diseases as physiological ones – a particularly productive link between body and mind, as Zakim indicates. This allowed for an assessment of the state of those selves by looking at their bodies and it suggested that “desk diseases” were curable by proper self-government: through exercise and moderation in eating. In the “age of ‘ambition and indigestion’” (p. 137), physical education aimed to train a sound mind and a healthy body as core elements of self-possession. By going to the gym, clerks could demonstrate their physical effort dedicated to self-making. “In one of capitalism’s most surprising inversions of common sense,” Zakim quips, “productive effort became the purview of sedentary men.” (p. 152) As such, “desk diseases” did not so much pose a threat as an opportunity for the striving self, since they allowed for the performance of the desired self-making: “One had to be sick in order to become healthy.” (p. 129)

The fifth chapter, “Counting Persons, Counting Profits,” looks at statistics as a “new system of social accounting” (p. 170), in particular at the emergence and transition of business statistics. For instance, when the census began to count manufacturing businesses by money value, including all businesses “‘producing articles to the annual value of $500’” (p. 182), it contributed to making money value into the privileged measure of industrial activity, “now called […] industrial economy.” (p. 188) As such, statistics emerged as one strategy to turn the market into a universal, coherent system of causalities and regularities.

Zakim very much succeeds in assembling a rich, elaborately presented kaleidoscope of discourses and practices around clerking and the making of an individualist market economy. Although a little more guidance for readers would have been helpful to follow his arguments, Zakim compellingly shows how capitalism was made by everyday practices, and how the modern (male, white, middle-class) autonomous self became the model citizen. Some readers, the reviewer included, might have wished for a more explicit engagement with the issue of agency that is so important for the book’s argument of the entangled making of the market economy and “self-made” individuals. There is one more notable absence: Zakim doesn’t discuss slavery at all. This is surprising not only because the book’s title seems to be borrowed from a book on slavery – Eugene Genovese’s classic Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made – but also because of the wealth of recent work on racial capitalism.[1] Nevertheless, Accounting for Capitalism is an original and illuminating contribution to both the new history of capitalism and to the history of liberalism and the modern subject.

[1] See, for instance, Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, New York 2014. In a footnote, Zakim states that it “remains unclear whether the wholesale commodification of social relations that the clerk personified in antebellum America was symptomatic of slave society” (p. 201), and refers to his longer engagement with this question in Michael Zakim, Capitalism and Slavery in the United States, in: Jonathan Daniel Wells (ed.), Routledge History of Nineteenth-Century America, New York 2017, pp. 146–167. See Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery. Masters and Management, Cambridge, MA 2018 for the argument that Southern slavery was pervaded by modern techniques of accounting and notions of human capital.