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Capitalism Studies: A Manifesto

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.

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?

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.

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Julia Ott

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