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The Clerk Problem

The Clerk Problem

(p.1) Introduction: The Clerk Problem
Accounting for Capitalism
Michael Zakim
University of Chicago Press

Digging up rocks on a virgin hillside in preparation for planting might have still served as a defining moment of American civilization at mid-century, but such heavy lifting was increasingly dependent on the offices of factors, brokers, and wholesalers who specialized in disposing of the surpluses of others’ productive efforts. The clerk emerged as a popular symbol of this economy, which turned “the real employment intended for man” into an open question while organizing social life around the bargain. This was only one of several competing visions of the republic’s future, it is true. Hard money loco-focos, western farmers, New England transcendentalists, and Southern slaveowners all advanced their own designs for the nation’s development. However, the clerk’s trajectory off the land and into the store exemplified a capitalist program in which the constant flux of trade was recast as the source of stability, personal ambition ceased to pose a threat to human civilization and became identified as its most natural expression, and a commonweal took shape that rested on each person’s pecuniary gain.

Keywords:   office work, loafer, counter jumpers, market revolution

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