• James Livingston
  • James Livingston
  • Professor Emeritus of History
  • Degree: Ph.D., Northern Illinois, 1980
  • Specialty: Modern US: Intellectual and Economic History


I started out as an economic historian writing about banking reform in the Progressive Era.  My first book, which is still in print thanks to the financial crises created by supply-side economics since 1983, was Origins of the Federal Reserve System: Money, Class, and Corporate Capitalism, 1890-1913 (Cornell U Press, 1986).  The success of post-structuralist theory and the return of pragmatism had meanwhile let me make my own “linguistic turn” toward cultural-intellectual history.  The result was Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940 (UNC Press, 1994).

Before and between these books, I was writing for Socialist Revolution, In These Times, democracy, Marxist Perspectives, and Cineaste on critical realignments, fiscal politics, disco, Keynes, Freud, Shakespeare, corporate liberalism, diplomatic history, and Disney, pretty much in that order.  Scholarly publications meanwhile appeared in Chicago History, The American Historical Review, Psycho-History Review, and Social Text.

Thereafter my abiding interest in pragmatism, consumer culture, and the rise of corporate capitalism led me toward a close study of modern feminism, particularly as it had emerged and evolved in the 20th-century US.  The result was Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (Routledge, 2001).

The “election” of George W. Bush and the political, intellectual, and cultural consequences of 9/11 changed my attitude toward history.  I started a blog in 2003 as a desperate, feeble protest against the militarization of American life and the march toward a “war on terror” in the Middle East.  It has since evolved into a writing experiment, a place where I try out different voices and perspectives, but always with an eye on the past.

Among other things, the blog has taught me how to write for an audience broader—and deeper—than my fellow academics.  At any rate the conversational, transactional style I learned there informed The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).  This book is in most respects a product of teaching undergraduate classes on cultural history in which music, movies, and cartoon politics are the principal subjects.

When the Great Recession hit, I was swamped with demands to explain it, mostly from perfect strangers who had read the Fed book.  Here’s a financial crisis, they said, what’s the story?  So in October 2008, I wrote up a two-part comparison of the Great Depression and the current debacle, posted it at the blog, and offered it to History News Network.  It went viral within a week.  That’s how Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul (Basic Books, 2011), and op-eds for WiredThe New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, got written.

My current interests center on the intellectual revolution in the pilot disciplines of the postwar university, particularly in History departments—I’m 20,000 words into a book on the topic—and on the fetish of work in every current incarnation of critical theory, from Marxism to psychoanalysis.  The latter interest has given me a tentative title for another book.  F@!% WORK, I call it, with an endless subtitle that would just start as follows: Why “Full Employment’ is a Bad Idea, or, When Work Disappears, What Is To Be Done?

Photo Credit: Bruce Williams Photography