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Introduction to the History of Capitalism

Course Description

Capitalism is a mode of organizing economic life such that from a given set of inputs (like sweat, calories, soil, minerals, petroleum, photosynthesis, brainpower, clean water, and even smiles), a surplus is created. We call that surplus a “profit,” and it usually comes in the form of an abstract equivalent that we call “money.” And although it may seem natural for us to work—on ourselves, on the land, as well as on and under the sea—so that a firm maximizes its profit, that is but one way of organizing our productive energies. Capitalism has a history, one that involves subordinating other ways of organizing nature and humanity into its own logic. Examining that history is the purpose of this course.

Just as there are other ways to organize our economic lives and our relationship with the earth and other species, there are many ways to study capitalism. We could study classical economic theory (writings by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and others), business history, economic anthropology and sociology, labour history, and environmental history. In this introductory course, we incorporate bits from each of these approaches to focus on the entwined histories of capitalism and culture. Students will be introduced to classic texts as well as to more recent work that uses historical methods to study the social, cultural, ecological, gendered, and ethical aspects of economic life under capitalism. The course takes a global perspective, and the geographic focus will range from examining the historical development of capitalism in Latin America, Canada, the United States, Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Image credit: Petrochemical America by Richard Misrach and Kate Orff. Source.