Sarah Churchwell is a professor of American literature and humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, the New York Times Book Review, and New Statesman, and is the author of several books, most recently, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (2013) and Behold America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream’(2018). (February 2019)
The real moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is not how they lost touch with their mercantile roots, tempted by the lure of speculative wealth. It is the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement. Within two decades of the end of the Civil War, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism.
We hear a great deal these days about the right’s hostility to “identity politics.” In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an aberrant left too concerned with narrow questions about niche groups and out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans. The good news is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left, or that the Klan was America’s first “identity movement.” The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.