Capitalism, by its nature, cannot be understood through the lens of any one discipline. Most importantly, it is not fully comprehensible by economics; there is no such thing as an economic theory of capitalism. Philosophy is important, for example to understand the moral standing of capitalism, but it is scarcely sufficient. Capitalism is a social system, but it does not belong to sociology. It is closely tied to politics, but cannot be described by political science. History, by its nature, is broad and encompassing and capitalism is well-understood as a stage in history. But history, too, cannot supply an adequate theory of capitalism, which requires for example a level of abstraction that history alone does not provide.

The first third of our course, then, is aimed at developing the concept of capitalism, at a general level. “Varieties of capitalism” seems irrelevant here, as of course there are different instantiations, but we still need a concept just as there are many different metals, but we have a concept of metal. In this class, our most general concept comes from Marx, not because his 150 year old thinking is adequate, but because he is the first and clearest to conceptualize capitalism as something distinct and new. Why is the economic world system of the 2nd millennium BC, centered on tin in Babylonia, not capitalist? Why is the first European Revolution, which enfeoffed the peasantry and created the aristocracy not capitalist? Marx’s answer can be summarized in formulaic form. It lies in the difference between C-M-C’ and M-C-M’. The first formula describes the socio-economic character of a market or commodity producing society, such as colonial America. People produce commodities (C), trade them for money, M, and buy new, more valuable commodities with the money M’. For example, they grow wheat, bring it to market, and buy seeds or land or shovels with their profits. M-C-M’ begins with money, which buys commodities, and then sells them for gain. However, what makes this capitalism and not just trade is the nature of C: labor-power, a uniquely wealth-producing commodity. This is a different conception of society than we see in predecessors of Marx like Adam Smith who describe commercial or trading societies, not capitalism.

To understand this difference I like Duncan Foley’s term: we see a unique synthesis of society and economy. This needs unpacking but it is helpful. Furthermore, the unique character of “C” — labor power — has two important implications. First it gives us abstract labor. This means that all the forms of concrete labor that exist, such as farming, baking, tailoring, sailing and so forth can be brought into relation to one another. It means a further step in the mathematicization of the world, and the encouragement of mathematics as a form of human thought. Second, it creates the very dynamic capital/labor relation. This means that productivity and scientific development are internal to the system. Earlier economies lacked this. Slaves and even serfs have no impetus to work harder or to innovate. Empires grow by conquest, they get too big and collapse. Capitalism goes through developing the workers who fuel it. To be sure, this contradicts other aspects of capitalism, but that is part of what we need to understand.

The second part of the course is centered on the great expansions in the study of capitalism that occurred in the 1970s: the idea of a capitalist world-system, the problem of gender, the role of the family and of social reproduction and the technical/material bases of capitalism, as shown in today’s ecological crisis. Interestingly, the social movements — post-colonialism, feminism, ecology — that have centered on these questions show a similar arc: they begin amid the neo-Marxist birth of the seventies, move away from a concern with capitalism, and are now moving back to capitalism, but not as a simple return to the 1970s. All three also have drawn on what might be termed Weberian concerns: law, authority, motivation and the state in the make-up of capitalism. Some key questions: what is the relation of the family to capitalism? What are the implications of linking the family and capitalism? What are the political characteristics of developmental states? What difference does the energic bases of capitalism, for example oil as opposed to coal, make? Are there ecological “limits” to growth?

Finally, the last third of the syllabus is concerned with how to understand the present crisis, conceived of as something that began in the sixties or seventies. The main theme seems to be the shift from industry to finance. One way to think about the period is in terms of what Keynes — as the great theorist of capitalism in its industrial era — called “the euthanasia of the rentier class.” This raises the question of whether what characterizes our epoch is the possibility that we no longer need a capitalist class to extract a surplus and reinvest it. In other words, corporations become self-financing. So perhaps the key idea is that capitalism perpetuates itself when it isn’t necessary, even if markets and private property are. Other themes might include new forms of exploitation based on lending rather than labor (Graeber is relevant here), the hollowing out of the state, which was so key in the industrial era, the relations of the banks to corporations and how to understand the world system that succeeded to Bretton Woods.

“Rethinking Capitalism” will be team-taught by Eli Zaretsky (History), who has overall responsibility for the course, as well as Duncan Foley (Economics), Nancy Fraser (Political Science and Philosophy), Julia Ott (History), Johanna Oksala (Philosophy), Sanjay Ruparelia (Politics), and Paulo dos Santos (Economics). The teaching assistant is Dan Boscov-Ellen. This interdisciplinary course is funded by the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies.

Course Expectations

All students will be required to come to class prepared, to enter into discussions, and to write a paper, whose character will be explained in class. There will be approximately 100 pages of reading per week.

Required Texts

All readings will be posted on Canvas.


January 28 – Opening Class

Mechanics of the class. All professors will give a short presentation. Professor Zaretsky will give a brief historical overview to situate the problematic of capitalism.

** Part One **

Part One will discuss What is Capitalism? One crucial point of reference is Marx’s distinction between a market society and a capitalist society. This is not a course in how markets work, but then what is its subject? What is the structural and historical relationship of capitalism to the state? What is its relation to other institutions, notably the family?


February 4 – Lecture Title/Topic (Duncan Foley)

This lecture will discuss such basic concepts as money, labor power, value, surplus value and capital.


Gérard Dumenil and Duncan K. Foley, “Marx’s Analysis of capitalist production,” in ed. Steven Durlauf, The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (London: Palgrave- Macmillan, 2007).

Duncan K. Foley, “Rethinking Financial Capitalism and the `Information’ Economy,” Review of Radical Political Economy (2013)

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York, NY: International, 1970)

(optional) Duncan K. Foley, Understanding Capital: Marx’s Economic Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986)

(optional) Karl Marx, Capital, volume 1, parts 1 and 2.

(optional) Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Penguin, 1973).


February 5: Sven Beckert Lecture, time and place to be announced. This lecture is not required but is recommended. Beckert is an historian of capitalism.


February 11 – Lecture Title/Topic (Nancy Fraser)

This lecture will directly address the question: what is capitalism? I’ll consider, and reject two widely held answers: 1) capitalism is an economic system; and 2) it is a (reified) form of “ethical life” in Hegel’s sense. After showing why these answers are not convincing, I’ll defend a third view: capitalism is an institutionalized social order on a par with feudalism. This view requires us to conceptualize the relation between the “foreground” economy of capitalism and its background conditions of possibility. The lecture will discuss three such background conditions: social reproduction, nature, and public power. In this way, I will resituate the Marxian picture of capitalism in relation to the insights of feminist, ecological and political theory. I will also draw out the practical implications of such an “enlarged” or “expanded” view of capitalism.


Nancy Fraser, “Can society be commodities all the way down?” Economy and Society,vol. 43, no. 4 (2014).

Arlie Hochschild, “Love and Gold,” in Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, ed. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (Henry Holt 2002), p. 15-30.

Jason W. Moore, “Environmental Crises and the Metabolic Rift in World-Historical Perspective,” Organization & Environment 13, 2 (2000): 123-157.
Wolfgang Streeck, “The Crises of Democratic Capitalism,” New Left Review 71 (2011): 5-29.

Wolfgang Streeck, “Citizens as Customers: Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption,” New Left Review 76 (2012): 27-47.


February 18 – Lecture Title/Topic: Guest Lecture: Moishe Postone “Capitalism Rethought”


Marx-Engels Reader, sections from the Grundrisse on the “Method of Political Economy,” (pp. 236-244) and the “Contradiction between the foundation of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development” (pp. 283-285). Sections in the Reader from Capital pp. 302- 312, 319-336, 343, 376-397, 415-417,419-431 and David Harvey,The Condition of Postmodernity, Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1987, pp. 121-197.


February 25 – Panel Discussion (Fraser and Foley)


Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism,” New Left Review 86 (2014) pp. 55-72.


March 4 – Spring Break

** Part Two **

Part Two will take up three core dimensions of capitalism, based on theoretical work produced during and after the 1970s: the global organization of capital (i.e., the world system); the relation of capitalism to the family (social reproduction) and the energy basis of capitalism (the so-called ecological crisis). What is the role of geography, as discussed by David Harvey.


March 11 – Capitalism, Imperialism and Development in the Global South (Sanjay Ruparelia)

This lecture introduces the historical relationship between capitalism and imperialism. It examines general patterns of dependency, industrialization and development in the postcolonial world, analyzing why certain regions of the world began to catch up with the advanced capitalist states of the north Atlantic after WWII. It concludes by asking whether the rise of new growth centers since the 1980s, led by China and India, heralds more equitable prospects of development or new forms of capitalist dependency in the global South.

All students will submit a one page prospectus on their paper.


Alexander Gerschenkron, “Economic backwardness in historical perspective,” in his Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective: a book of essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 5-31.

Andre Gunder Frank, “The development of underdevelopment,” Monthly Review, 18 (4) September 1966: 17-31.

Gabriel Palma, “Dependency: a formal theory of underdevelopment or a methodology for the analysis of concrete situations of underdevelopment?” World Development, 6 (7/8) 1978: 881-924.

Atul Kohli, State-Directed Development: political power and industrialization in the global periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), TBD.

Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1994), TBD.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Richard Sandbrook, Marc Edelman, Patrick Heller and Judith Teichman, Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: origins, challenges, prospects (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 3-64 and 177-254.

Deepak Nayyar, Catch Up: Developing Countries in the World Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), TBD.


March 18 – Capitalism and Feminism (Johanna Oksala)

The lecture will discuss the relationship between capitalism and feminism by

focusing on the role of the family, reproductive labor and care work in capitalism. Can capitalism be adequately conceived in gender-blind fashion or is capitalism’s social organization inherently androcentric, incapable in principle of instantiating egalitarian forms of gender relation? Are nuclear family and gendered division of labor in the household inherent aspects of the capitalist mode of production? What specific forms do reproductive labor and care work take in societies in which capitalism is globalizing and neoliberal? How do these developments affect contemporary feminism? Key concepts will include the public/private divide, social reproduction, the feminization of labor, the feminization of poverty, and affective labor.


Vogel, Lise (1983): Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, chapters 2 and 10, (‘A Decade of Debate’ and ‘the Reproduction of Labor Power’), plus the introduction to the 2014 edition by Ferguson, Susan and David McNally, “Capital, Labour-Power, and Gender-Relations: Introduction to the Historical Materialism Edition of Marxism and the Oppression of Women”.

Sassen, Sakia (2003): “Global Cities and Survival Circuits”, in Ehrenreich, Barbara and Arlie Russell Hochschild (eds.): Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, 254-274.

Weeks, Kathi (2007): “Life Within and Against Work: Affective Labor, Feminist Critique, and Post-Fordist Politics.” Ephemera, vol 7 (1): 233-249

Fraser, Nancy (2013): Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, chapter 10 (‘Between Marketization and Social Protection: Resolving the Feminist Ambivalence’), 227-241.

March 25 – Capitalism and Ecology
(Dan Boscov-Ellen)

This lecture will discuss the relationship between capitalism and ecology today, exploring the scope and scale of the present ecological crisis and examining several arguments for the incompatibility of capitalism and ecology. It will discuss the political implications of this incompatibility, stressing the ways that ecological crisis simultaneously grows out of and compounds existing forms of exploitation and oppression (with emphasis placed on the relationship between ecological, anti-colonial, and feminist struggles).


Daniel Bensaïd, “The Torment of Matter,” in Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2002: 312-360.

Neil Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy.” Socialist Register Vol 43 (2007): 16-36.

Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism.” Monthly Review 61 (Number 10), March 2010. (

John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction,” in The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009: 201-212.

Jason W. Moore, “Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital,” prepared for Food, Energy, Environment: Crisis of the Modern World-System, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University, 9-10 October 2009: 1-48.

James O’Connor, “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism,” in Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford Press, 1998: 158-177.


April 1 – Panel Discussion (Ruparelia, Oksala and Boscov-Ellen)

** Part Three**

The Contemporary Crisis in Capitalism. If there is a crisis in capitalism it began in the 1970s, not in 2007. What is the nature of capitalism in our time? Can we speak of our time in terms of crisis? What does crisis mean?


April 8 – Financialization: Past, Present, and Future? (Julia Ott)

In recent decades, financial institutions shifted away from funding the production of goods and services towards activities such as consumer lending and trading securities and derivatives. Meanwhile, non-financial corporations increasingly shied away from long-term investments in plant, equipment, and research and development. Instead, they too diverted capital to finance. The results included a surge in investors’ returns, an explosion in the compensation of financiers and corporate executives, and a far more volatile and unequal form of capitalism, periodically besieged by financial crisis. No account of ‘financialization,’ is complete without an historical understanding of the shifts in political ideology and economic policy that long predate the 1970s.


Krippner, G (2005), “The Financialization of the American Economy”, Socio-Economic Review 3(2), 173-208.

Julia Ott “‘The Free and Open People’s Market’: Political Ideology and Retail Brokerage at the New York Stock Exchange, 1913-1933,” Journal of American History vol. 96 no. 1 (June 2009): 44-71

Louis Hyman, “Ending Discrimination, Legitimating Debt: The Political Economy of Race, Gender, and Credit Access in the 1960s and 1970s,” Enterprise and Society 12 (March 2011): 200‐232.

Milton Friedman, “The Purpose of the Corporation is to Make Profits” New York Times Magazine (September 13, 1970)

Michael A. McCarthy, “Turning Labor into Capital: Pension Funds and the Corporate Control of Finance,” Politics and Society vol. 42 no. 4 (2014): 455-487

Julia Ott and Louis Hyman, “The Politics of Debt: How Labor Should Think about the Debt Question,” New Labor Forum vol. 22 no. 1 (Spring 2013), 29-38

Thomas Volscho and Nathan J. Kelly, “The Rise of the Super Rich: Power Resources, Taxes, Financial Markets, and the Dynamics of the Top 1 Percent, 1949-2008,” American Sociological Review vo.77 no. 5 (2012): 679-99

Fred Block, “Democratizing Finance,” Politics and Society vol. 42, no. 1 (2014): 3-28

Justin Fox and Jay W. Lorsch, “What Good Are Shareholders?” Harvard Business Review vol. 90 no. 7-8 (July-August 2012): 49-57


April 15 – Contemporary Banking and Financial Relations (Paulo dos Santos)

This lecture will present and interrogate the distinctive financial practices, instruments, and relations of contemporary capitalism. Those practices will be contrasted to the kinds of practices that characterized the functioning of financial institutions is previous periods. Most importantly, the lecture will discuss ways in which Marxian approaches to political economy may be developed and extended to offer insights into the social content of contemporary financial relations, and of their likely impact on distribution and the prospects for stable economic growth.

Required Readings:

Dumémil, G and D Lévy (2005), “Costs and Benefits of Neoliberalism: A Class Analysis”, in G Epstein (Ed).

dos Santos, P (2009a), “On the Content of Banking in Contemporary Capitalism”, Historical Materialism, 17(2), 180-213.

Lapavitsas, C (2009), “Financialised Capitalism: Crisis and Financial Expropriation”, Historical Materialism, 17(2), 114-148.

Rodrick, D (2006), “The Social Costs of Foreign Exchange Reserves”, International Economic Journal, 20(3), 253-266.

Itoh, M and C Lapavitsas (1999), The Political Economy of Money and Finance, London: McMillan. Chapters 3, 5

Vasudevan, R (2008), “The Borrower of Last Resort: International Adjustment and Liquidity in a Historical Perspective”, Journal of Economic Issues, XLII(4), 1055-1081

Background, Recommended, and Broader Reading:

Allen, F and A Santomero (2001), “What do financial intermediaries do?”, Journal of Banking and Finance, 25, 271-294.
Lapavitsas, C (2013), Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All, London: Verso.
dos Santos, P (2009b). “At the Heart of the Matter: Household Debt in Contemporary Banking and the International Crisis”, Ekonomiaz, 70, 54-49.
Epstein, G (2005) “Introduction: Financialization and the World Economy”, in G Epstein (ed), Financialization and the World Economy, Cheltenham and Northampton: Edward Elgar.
Itoh and Lapavitsas (1999), chapters 4, 7
Hilferding, R (1910), Finance Capital, (Tom Bottomore translation) Chapter 5
de Brunhoff, S (1976), Marx on Money, New York: Urizen Books.


April 22 – Panel discussion (Ott, Dos Santos)


April 29 – Summary Class

All faculty will be present to sum up and to discuss the intellectual, cultural and political relevance of the concept of capitalism we have developed so far.


May 6 – Time to write papers I


May 13 – Time to write papers II


DATE – Papers Due