From Socialism to Hedge Fund: The Human Element and the New History of Capitalism

David Huyssen


Alfred Winslow Jones was a socialist who founded the first hedge fund in 1949. He had been U.S. Vice Consul in Berlin from 1931 to 1932, Soviet sympathizer and anti-Nazi spy with dissident German communists, humanitarian observer during the Spanish Civil War, acclaimed sociologist of class, and an editor for Fortune magazine. At every stage of his life, Jones occupied positions of advantage, and his invention of the modern hedge fund has had an outsized impact on global capitalism’s contemporary round of financialization. On its face, then, his life would appear to offer ideal material for a “great-man” biography. Yet this “great man” also wrestled with the continual recognition that structural forces were undermining his fondest hopes for social change. Following Georgi Derluguian, Giovanni Arrighi, and Marc Bloch, this article proposes a world-system biography of Jones as a method better suited for mapping the internal dialectics of twentieth-century capitalism, using Jones as a human connection between cyclical and structural transformations of capitalism, and across changes of phase from financial to material expansion—and back again. On another level, it suggests a theoretical reorientation—toward what Bloch called “the human element”—for studies of capitalism’s cultural and material history. It argues that such a reorientation would hold rewards for the “new history of capitalism” field, which until now has pursued its quarry primarily by tracing the movements of commodities, capital, institutions, and ideas.

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