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Accounting for Capitalism

The World the Clerk Made

The clerk attended his desk and counter at the intersection of two great themes of modern historical experience: the development of a market economy and of a society governed from below. Who better illustrates the daily practice and production of this modernity than someone of no particular account assigned with overseeing all the new buying and selling? In Accounting for Capitalism, Michael Zakim has written their story, a social history of capital that seeks to explain how the “bottom line” became a synonym for truth in an age shorn of absolutes, grafted onto our very sense of reason and trust.

This is a big story, told through an ostensibly marginal event: the birth of a class of “merchant clerks” in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. The personal trajectory of these young men from farm to metropolis, homestead to boarding house, and, most significantly, from growing things to selling them exemplified the enormous social effort required to domesticate the profit motive and turn it into the practical foundation of civic life. As Zakim reveals in his highly original study, there was nothing natural or preordained about the stunning ascendance of this capitalism and its radical transformation of the relationship between “Man and Mammon.” 

272 pages | 26 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work


“Excellent. . . Perhaps the most thorough book I know on the importance of small innovations.”

Tyler Cowen | Marginal Revolution

“Zakim shows how human capital became the bedrock of modern capitalism, by examining delightful correspondences between man and market. . . . The book abounds with such nifty echoes between persons and profits, which Zakim draws out of magazines, pamphlets, and other 19th-century texts.”

Public Books

“Rigorous and insightful. . .In adding a nuanced explanation of this monumental social transfiguration of the nineteenth century, Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made succeeds in illuminating capitalism as a complex architecture–a joint project between industrialists, financiers, clerks and a revolution in social mores–that mobilized tens of millions to pursue an ‘American dream’ over paper trails and a materialistic concept of progress. As such, Zakim’s cogently argued monograph merits recognition for demonstrating the grand historical consequences wrought by the lesser-known enablers of a radical economic system.”

LSE Review of Books

Accounting for Capitalism is the best intellectual history of American constipation you will ever read. . . . Zakim’s book is a triumph.”

Society for US Intellectual History Book Review

“An exemplar of recent scholarship on American capitalism in the nineteenth century. Zakim’s succinct, elegant, and smart prose will not surprise readers of his previous work. The impressive methodological breadth of [Accounting for Capitalism] might do so.”

Business History Review

“By focusing on merchant clerks during the 19th century in the US, Zakim has found the perfect profession through which to understand changes to individuals, households, and the economy wrought by the widespread movement away from household production. . . .Recommended.”


“In this exhilarating study, Zakim introduces us to a most unlikely set of heroes: business clerks. Dedicating their lives to the paper machine, this vanguard made the market, as the market made them. They forged an eerily modern world in which life under the aegis of capital became an unremarkable and deeply consequential pillar of our civilization. This book establishes Zakim as one of our most perceptive interpreters of capitalism.”

Sven Beckert, Harvard University

“Zakim is at the top of his form in Accounting for Capitalism. His fascinating and engrossing analysis of the discursive world-making of the nineteenth-century clerk will no doubt stir debates among all sorts of readers. It will surely inspire a more engaged and productive conversation between cultural and intellectual historians and economic sociologists and ethnographers. Even after the current interest in nineteenth-century Bartlebys passes, readers will still want to revisit ‘the world the clerk made.’ Accounting for Capitalism is news that stays news.”

Jean-Christophe Agnew, Yale University

“Michael Zakim is among the most creative historians at work today on any subject. Accounting for Capitalism is one of a kind. Here is a uniquely rich history of life inside the market, among the men who made it, and who in the process made themselves. No other book tells the history of capitalism and individualism in America with such verve, intelligence, and insight.”

Jonathan Levy, University of Chicago

"An inspiring and significant book...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."


Table of Contents

Introduction:  The Clerk Problem 
1 Paperwork
2 Market Society
3 Self-Making Men
4 Desk Diseases
5 Counting Persons, Counting Profits
Conclusion: White Collar

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