The Global History of Capitalism Project


Storck Harbour Scene


Each generation defines itself via dramatic events.  This year, for example, is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 riots in Paris that preceded a cultural revolution that would spread throughout the world.  It is also the tenth anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis that led to mass demonstrations, including Occupy Wall Street, to protest the apparent systemic inequality of wealth and corporate power.  While the academic study of history may seem far removed from frontline social activism, the 1968 riots provided cultural immediacy for the growth of social history and the 2008 crisis pushed scholars to re-examine the global history of capitalism.  On the tenth anniversary of the “Great Recession,” Oxford has a new platform to study the global history of capitalism bringing together doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate courses, and international outreach through a university-wide project.  And, fittingly, this new interdisciplinary project sits within the Oxford Centre for Global History in Oxford’s History Faculty.

The Global History of Capitalism project is a platform for research across the collegiate university.  Although Rowena Olegario and I (as the co-directors of the project) have an office in the History Faculty, we also remain closely tied to the Said Business School (where we teach courses in business history and corporate reputation) and, equally importantly, with Brasenose College where our doctoral students are members and we make the most of the Senior Common Room and lecture rooms to entertain scholars and convene conferences.  None of this may seem particularly innovative but even Oxford can sometime hold a surprise or two.  And here we think that the Global History of Capitalism project can teach an old institution a few new tricks even as we also learn from it.

Academic research projects can often seem too distant from teaching.  In the global history of capitalism, however, it has been the upswing in student interest that has been a primary driver of the rapid growth of the field.  And so, while we understood that research was crucial to the academic project, so too was teaching and student support for the continued growth of the subject

We therefore offer studentships to doctoral students in their fourth year in exchange for them contributing a business history case-study based on their doctoral research.  These case studies, in turn, are used to teach students in the business history course that we offer to MBAs (and Executive MBAs) in the Said Business School.  This year we will add historical case studies on a range of subjects including the diffusion of the Paisley design by way of the East India Company, the emergence of offshore tax havens, and 19th-century emigration within the Mediterranean to our online collection of freely available cases.  Moreover we try to link these business history cases, for example on a 19th-century Chinese bank, to the collections in Oxford’s museums in teaching the case studies.  This virtuous cycle of building teaching materials from new doctoral research and then tying these cases back to the historical materials within Oxford is a curricular innovation that has received enthusiastic support from our graduate students, external donors, and fellow academics.

This highlights a second innovation in the project: tying material culture to our teaching and research through the museums, libraries, and colleges of the University.  The Ashmolean Museum, for instance, where I held a Mellon Fellowship last spring, is organized around international trade routes, which makes it the perfect place to analyze the global trade in textiles in the 16th century.  Just as interesting to our students is a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum to view Samurai swords and Japanese rifles that illustrate Japan’s industrial transformation during the Meiji Restoration after 1868.  Whether learning about the colonial trade in pharmaceuticals through the plants in the Botanic Gardens or the development of the British transportation network via a boat ride on the Isis River in Oxford, it turns out that the global history of capitalism can be seen through the material culture of global commerce embedded in Oxford’s world-class institutions.

But, of course, a research project would be nothing without cutting edge academic research.  We are lucky to have partnered with the British Academy’s new initiative on the “Future of the Corporation” that recontextualises the purpose of business to ask what its role in society should be.  Our contribution, on the history of the corporation, will help to frame the contemporary debate and, in turn, help us to develop subsequent research topics.  Already, for example, we have supported academic conferences on subjects as diverse as the history of financial advice, Latin American business history, and this June, on “Appraising 'the Other' in Business” to better understand how people have historically built trust as they traded with other cultures.  With a Career Development Fellow soon to join us from Princeton University, another postdoctoral researcher currently working with us on the history of family businesses in the Middle East, and a series of scholarly monographs planned on finance, trade, and corporate crime, the academic output from the project will be impressive.

My current research is on the global history of white-collar crime since the late 17th century. Weaving examples of infamous scandals involving individuals stealing from both for-profit and non-profit organisations, I trace the successive regulatory responses to these scandals and the resulting immoral activities that arose as a consequence of what were presumed to be benign regulatory innovations. Beginning with the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles of the early 18th century, and successively examining French intellectual property theft in textiles, the commingling of funds within a leading American university, embezzlement from British banks, nepotism in American life insurance, Ponzi schemes in Swedish-led cartels, tax evasion in the Caribbean, bribery during the Watergate scandal, insider trading on Wall Street, accounting fraud in Italy and India, and cybercrime in Russia, The global narrative seeks to explain both the form of modern corporate governance and the emergence of business professionals as the private police force serving the corporate state.

Perhaps, however, it is most fitting to finish with an innovation that harkens back to Oxford’s long tradition of generous philanthropy – the Global History of Capitalism project has been entirely funded by private donations.  It is a testament to our donors that they are willing to fund teaching and research on the global history of capitalism and particularly, in an era of increasing government austerity, to sponsor Oxford’s doctoral and postdoctoral students who represent the next generation of international scholars.  We thank them and the many others who have supported us in the first six months of the project’s existence.

For more information on the Global History of Capitalism see our website:

- Christopher McKenna