Walking dollar graffiti © Daniel Lobo | Flickr

It seems odd now to recall that up until a few years ago, the concept of capitalism largely had fallen out of favor as a subject of academic inquiry and critique. Most scholars in the humanities and social sciences regarded the term as too broad, too vague, too encumbered by associations with either Marxism or laissez-faire. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism could be taken for granted, it seemed. No person or nation could escape the discipline of efficient, spontaneous, self-regulating, globalizing markets.

Economists cut economies loose from society, institutions, culture, and history. They repositioned their discipline upon models that assumed that rational, utility-maximizing individual parts represented and explained the behavior of the economy-as-a-whole. Many social scientists — especially in political science — embraced these rational-actor models. Others joined historians and humanities scholars in the “cultural turn.” They struck out for new worlds of culture, those ever-shifting systems of language and meaning, symbols and signifiers, identity and consciousness that produce and reproduce power. In doing so, however, these academics largely abandoned questions of class and ceded the terrain of economics.

Book cover of The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers by Robert Heilbroner © 1999 Touchstone | Amazon.com
Book cover of The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers by Robert Heilbroner © 1999 Touchstone | Amazon.com

The New School for Social Research swam against these intellectual currents, unafraid of large structures, long processes, broad comparisons, and big questions. Led by colleagues like Robert Heilbroner, Eric Hobsbawm, David Gordon, Charles Tilly, and Louise Tilly, NSSR faculty presumed that capitalism must be explained, not assumed. Capitalism — in its myriad manifestations across time and space — remained a central concern, both as a broad analytic concept and as a subject of nuanced social, political, and historical inquiry. The New School for Social Research continued to expose capitalisms to critical and ethical scrutiny. They embraced the new methods of cultural analysis to interrogate its power.

Drawing upon these NSSR intellectual traditions, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at the New School for Social Research brings together students and faculty from across The New School for interdisciplinary conversations around theoretical approaches to and analytic methods for the study of capitalisms. Affiliated faculty and students work in diverse and innovative fields including the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.

Capitalism is a social process. Institutions, history, and cultural context shape the specific form that capitalism assumes in any given place at any particular moment. The Center for Capitalism Studies identifies power relations — whether organized by state policy and laws, structured by social norms and institutions, articulated in ideology, or embedded within racial, gender and class relations — as critical determinants of economic outcomes. We recognize the capacity of economic theories — such as those concerning the rational actor, efficient markets, and the primacy of shareholders — to operate as political ideologies and to shape the reality they purport to describe. We apprehend capitalism as both a system fundamentally grounded in violence and the most effective engine for bettering the material condition of mankind ever known.

The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies seek to develop a common language with which capitalism can be understood, analyzed, interpreted, and engaged — with rigor, with precision, and in a manner that is accessible to the broadest possible audience. Our graduate and undergraduate courses examine the basic logic of capitalism (as conceived by a range of theorists), its various historically contingent forms, and its ability to structure our political possibilities and creative endeavors. Our program supports diverse inquiries into the major structuring force in contemporary society, posing questions both timeless and pressing:

  • When and how does capitalism emerge and develop?
  • What is the relation between capitalism and democracy?
  • How is the commodification of human relationships best historicized, analyzed, and interpreted?
  • Can a capitalist society preserve cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity and sustain inclusivity in the face of globalized systems of commerce, labor, and finance?
  • When does poverty evidence capitalist exploitation and when does it indicate an absence of capitalist development or inclusion?
  • What assumptions and norms undergird the metrics and indicators used to measure economic performance and well-being at level of the individual, the firm, the nation, and the globe?
  • What is economic value, how is it created, how is it recognized, and for whom does it exist?
  • Can capitalism rest upon any ethical and moral foundation apart from individual self-interest?
  • What impact does the distribution of income, wealth and indebtedness have on macroeconomic performance and on the condition of human capital in a given capitalist society?
  • What modes of finance best support innovation and the equitable distribution of its benefits?
  • What might be the alternatives to capitalism?
"Capitalism is Crisis" street art © 2009 Steffi Reichert | Flickr
“Capitalism is Crisis” street art © 2009 Steffi Reichert | Flickr

The 2007-8 financial crisis — the precariousness and inequality it revealed, the stagnation and disillusionment it wrought — revived academic interest in capitalism. The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies aims to develop theoretical and analytic tools that can help us to envision and to instantiate different and better capitalisms — local and global — for the future. A more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable form of capitalism must begin with incisive and interdisciplinary social inquiry, without which policy change cannot be successful.

6 thoughts on “Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto

  1. I dont think the goal of capitalism studies should be a more generous, etc form of capitalism. Capitalism is not generous, its not egalitarian, its not patient, its not deliberate, and it is only accountable when there is a strong public presence that forces accountability, which there has not been in America for decades. I appreciate capitalism, and I know it is subject to reform a la Keynes, but it can never be any of these things. I believe that we have to look forward to a successor to capitalism, and I think the time for thinking about that is right now.
    Eli Zaretsky

    1. i agree with a lot of what the manifesto states, but i think there is a tension in the text itself between the last question (asking about the “alternatives” to capitalism) and the conclusion, where it seems to be assumed that there is no alternative. so i wonder whether it would not be better to speak about “better economic system” and “more accountable for of economic organization” in the end of the document rather about “better capitalism”, so as to leave that question open.

  2. I agree with Eli minus the public accountability point. Explicitly targeting a Capitalism with a smiley face (as Central Banks do) is assuming Capitalism— precisely what the Center seeks to oppose. Unless of course it fears normative engagement. Perhaps the Center should leave space for those who oppose Capitalism in all its “varieties,” those who believe Marx has already provided the answers to the questions listed here, and other radicals who desire space for real critical analysis and real engagement in the real world where the reproduction of Capitalism is really interrupted. I hope that the Center opens this “manifesto” and itself generally to democratic engagement.

  3. Jeff Goldfarb made this observation elsewhere on Public
    Seminar, but I’d like to reiterate it here. Eli, in your comment you concede that historically, political pressure has engendered relatively more inclusive and accountable forms of capitalism. I agree that capitalism – left to its own devices, disembedded from all social
    norms regarding fairness and inclusion – will never be generous, patient, egalitarian, etc. But history and comparative political economy
    demonstrate that capitalism can be made more so or less so (as is true today in the United States, but let’s not conflate capitalism and neoliberalism). The “more” or “less” is important, for I concede that no form of capitalism could ever be patient, deliberate, egalitarian, generous, and accountable in some perfect, absolute sense.
    No historically-existing form of socialism or communism has ever been,

    The consideration of alternatives to capitalism also must be
    part of the conversation, of course. But these alternatives must be subjected to the same rigorous critical scrutiny. For example, perhaps we wish to ‘devolve’ our economic system down to local, mutualistic, radically democratic communities of simple production and exchange, for we imagine they can better serve collective needs and reverse our course toward ecological disaster. But radical participatory democracy and artisanal production strike me as quite time consuming. I want to understand exactly who will be feeding and rearing the children and caring for the elderly. And after we all surrender our Apple
    devices, the internet, and our social media – on account of the terrible exploitations they embody — how will these communities relate to one another? This question leads us to the obvious issues concerning the abolition of private property, which by definition must occur if we wish to create a true alternative to capitalism, rather than a ‘mixed’ economy (which, by definition, still involves capitalism).

  4. I applaud the development of this Center, and am eager to see and participate in the work it produces in the coming years/decades. One essential component to this enterprise, I think, should be the development of a rigorous interdisciplinary social scientific method, that allows for structured collaboration. It’s my hope that something of that nature wouldn’t necessarily stifle the ways in which disciplines could interact, but rather would act as a guide, pushing them together. As suggested here, if we are to be serious about creating “a more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable form of capitalism”, then there must be easily accessible channels for interdisciplinary scholarship.

  5. Very surprising that Steve Hymer is left out of the discussion here as well as the program in political economy started in the 1970s by grad students in economics. This is a real oversight and the Heilbroner Center should do a lot more to incorporate a global vision of the economy. Steve would be rolling in his grave if he knew about this. Eli Zaretsky’s comments are appropriate. It would be great to get some major thinkers on the left included in the work of the Center like David Harvey or Manuel Castells.

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