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Thinking about Capitalism

Thinking about Capitalism

Professor Jerry Z. Muller Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
Course No.  5665
Course No.  5665
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

As the economic system under which you live, capitalism shapes the marketplaces that determine where you live and work, how much you are paid, what you can buy, what you can accumulate toward your retirement, and every other aspect of a society based on monetary exchanges for goods and services. In an era of increasing globalization, capitalism has dramatically strengthened its important role in—and its influence on—the world economy. It is the system under which a majority of the world's population lives, and it continues to strengthen the links of interdependence between the world's economies.

But capitalism's impact is about much more than money and markets. Indeed, capitalism is every bit as much a social force as an economic one. As such, its impact on noneconomic life has drawn the attention of thinkers outside of economics, as well as those inside the discipline, including some of its greatest minds.

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As the economic system under which you live, capitalism shapes the marketplaces that determine where you live and work, how much you are paid, what you can buy, what you can accumulate toward your retirement, and every other aspect of a society based on monetary exchanges for goods and services. In an era of increasing globalization, capitalism has dramatically strengthened its important role in—and its influence on—the world economy. It is the system under which a majority of the world's population lives, and it continues to strengthen the links of interdependence between the world's economies.

But capitalism's impact is about much more than money and markets. Indeed, capitalism is every bit as much a social force as an economic one. As such, its impact on noneconomic life has drawn the attention of thinkers outside of economics, as well as those inside the discipline, including some of its greatest minds.

In Thinking about Capitalism, award-winning intellectual historian and Professor Jerry Z. Muller of The Catholic University of America takes you deep inside the perspectives on this most important and pervasive force. Over 36 engaging lectures, you gain fresh insights that will strengthen your understanding of capitalism's rich history, its fascinating proponents and opponents, and its startling impact on our world.

An Exploration Beyond Economics

Drawing on his exceptional ability to frame each thinker's concerns within its historical context, Professor Muller takes you beyond economic analysis to look at how some of the greatest intellects have thought about capitalism and its moral, political, and cultural ramifications.

Covering capitalism from its 17th-century beginnings to today's era of globalization, Professor Muller explores these thinkers' insights on some wide-ranging questions:

  • What effect does capitalism have on personal development? Or on our identities as individuals, as members of a group, or even as citizens of a nation?
  • What about the seemingly unending variety of consumer goods made possible by capitalism? Have they made our culture better—or worse?
  • Do the facts support our tendency to think about capitalism as the economic system practiced in "free" countries? Or can capitalism exist in a wide variety of political systems?

As capitalism continues to expand across geographical borders, provocative questions emerge about its overall impact. What are the short- and long-term implications of globalization? How and when should we construct economic policies to strengthen or limit its growth? Can capitalism ever undermine itself?

By placing capitalism in its full societal context, Thinking about Capitalism enhances your ability to consider, discuss, and answer these and other critical questions—whatever your point of view.

Get Insights from Three Centuries of Thinkers

For almost three centuries, some of the most interesting thinkers in history have grappled with capitalism. They have explored its key features, cultural prerequisites, and human implications with excitement, caution, or even fear.

Their writings have defended capitalism, argued against it, disagreed over how to characterize it, and questioned whether the human costs incurred in its practice can be outweighed by the obvious material benefits it brings.

These are some of the great minds you encounter in these lectures:

  • Adam Smith: Although famous for The Wealth of Nations, this giant of the Enlightenment was in fact a moral philosopher and political economist whose ideas about capitalism, capitalists, and government exploded past any boundaries of "economics."
  • Joseph Schumpeter: One of capitalism's most wide-ranging thinkers, Schumpeter published four books, at least three of which are considered seminal.
  • Ferdinand Tönnies and Georg Simmel: Tönnies argued that modern history was moving away from tightly knit communities at emotional cost to the individual, while Simmel explored how capitalism offered new possibilities for individuality and community.
  • Friedrich von Hayek: After a flirtation with reformist Socialism, Hayek embraced classical Liberalism, producing influential critiques of collectivism and the welfare state, sharing a Nobel Prize in economics, and winning broad acknowledgment for his work on the coordinating function of the marketplace.

These names only scratch the surface of the grand intellects Professor Muller discusses, who include Voltaire, Rousseau, Burke, Hamilton, De Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Arnold, Weber, Lenin, Schmitt, Marcuse, Gellner, Buchanan, and Olson.

Their insights can prove invaluable in every area of your life. They can surface in the decisions you make about family, work, and consumption; and they can give you a more thoughtful perspective on the ideas and behaviors of commentators, corporations, and governments.

A Fascinating Journey Led by an Ideal Teacher

An intellectual historian, Professor Muller takes you from capitalism's beginnings in commercial Holland and England to the challenges of nationalism, globalization, and contemporary varieties of capitalism.

Genial and disarming, he connects the dots from idea to idea, thinker to thinker. In Thinking about Capitalism, you can finally grasp the history and the concepts of this vital economic system, as well as its importance on the global economic stage and in your own life.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Why Think about Capitalism?
    You consider how capitalism works, its political prerequisites, and its political, moral, and cultural ramifications through key elements of capitalism and its origins. x
  • 2
    The Greek and Christian Traditions
    You learn how modern Western intellectuals have evaluated capitalism by starting with the two great premodern traditions: the civic republican tradition and the Christian tradition. x
  • 3
    Hobbes's Challenge to the Traditions
    Hobbes criticized these traditions, emphasizing happiness in this world as the goal of government and refuting the notion that government exists to guide us to some shared purpose or highest ideal. x
  • 4
    Dutch Commerce and National Power
    In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic provided an example of a highly commercial society of increasing power, leading European thinkers to reformulate civic republicanism in a more commercial direction. x
  • 5
    Capitalism and Toleration—Voltaire
    In his Letters on England (1734), Voltaire argued that commerce provides a means for people of different orientations to cooperate. x
  • 6
    Abundance or Equality—Voltaire vs. Rousseau
    Enlightenment thinkers debated the moral status of material well-being. Voltaire argued that the abundance created by commerce was the basis of civilization. Rousseau countered that material progress had increased inequality and undermined virtue. x
  • 7
    Seeing the Invisible Hand—Adam Smith
    In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith explained how a competitive market could channel self-interest into socially beneficial directions. x
  • 8
    Smith on Merchants, Politicians, Workers
    Smith argued that capitalism diverged from his competitive model, with each economic group trying to use its political power to promote its own interest. He urged policymakers to promote competitive markets that served the general interest. x
  • 9
    Smith on the Problems of Commercial Society
    Smith's influence was probably greatest in arguing against government's direct economic involvement, but Smith, in fact, believed that a well-functioning government was the only source of many essential functions for a commercial society. x
  • 10
    Smith on Moral and Immoral Capitalism
    You explore Smith's views on how a capitalist society could make people better and better off—but that lack of the rule of law, or inequality before it, could cause commerce to lead to immoral outcomes. x
  • 11
    Conservatism and Advanced Capitalism—Burke
    Edmund Burke offered a conservative analysis of the hazards posed by some forms of capitalism. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) remains the most influential work of conservative thought ever published. x
  • 12
    Conservatism and Periphery Capitalism—Möser
    Justus Möser is an example of a conservative in a largely precommercial society, for whom the spread of international capitalism was a threat to existing ways of life. x
  • 13
    Hegel on Capitalism and Individuality
    This lecture introduces you to Hegel's ideas about capitalism, individuality, and how institutions foster individuality. x
  • 14
    Hamilton, List, and the Case for Protection
    You encounter two voices in the early debate over free international trade: Alexander Hamilton, who made the case for protecting "infant industries," and Friedrich List, who developed Hamilton's ideas into a national industrial policy. x
  • 15
    De Tocqueville on Capitalism in America
    Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America explores the propensity toward individualism and materialism in America and the countervailing influence of republican institutions and religion. x
  • 16
    Marx and Engels—The Communist Manifesto
    Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels concluded that industrial capitalism profited only the wealthy while leading to the material and moral degradation of the masses. Nevertheless, in The Communist Manifesto (1848), they also recognized capitalism's achievements and possibilities. x
  • 17
    Marx's Capital and the Degradation of Work
    Marx spent most of the decades after The Communist Manifesto working on his comprehensive analysis of the capitalist economy. Although he provided a searing portrait of the industrial factory's degradation of labor, he overlooked the trends that argued against his theory. x
  • 18
    Matthew Arnold on Capitalism and Culture
    The British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold was concerned about "Philistinism"—spiritual and cultural narrowing in a capitalist society and the spill-over effect of applying a narrowly utilitarian, market mentality to other areas. x
  • 19
    Individual and Community—Tönnies vs. Simmel
    In the last third of the 19th century, a newly unified Germany went through a process of capitalist transformation, leading to debate about capitalism's social, cultural, and political ramifications. x
  • 20
    The German Debate over Rationalization
    Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Werner Sombart offered three different perspectives on the cultural and spiritual effects of the spread of capitalism and its ideas of rationality and calculation. x
  • 21
    Cultural Sources of Capitalism—Max Weber
    You examine the cultural sources of disparate group success under capitalism, with special focus on Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and Sombart's The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911). x
  • 22
    Schumpeter on Innovation and Resentment
    Joseph Schumpeter was among the most wide-ranging analysts of capitalism. But unlike most mainstream economists of his day, Schumpeter focused on the role of entrepreneurs, whose dynamism, he believed, caused resentment of capitalism. x
  • 23
    Lenin's Critique—Imperialism and War
    You examine Vladimir Lenin's idea that capitalism fosters imperialism and related arguments by the British liberal John Hobson and Marxists Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxembourg, before taking up a refutation offered by Schumpeter. x
  • 24
    Fascists on Capitalism—Freyer and Schmitt
    This lecture looks at the critiques of the Weimar Republic's liberal democracy by political analyst Carl Schmitt and sociologist Hans Freyer, who argued that capitalist democracy posed a threat to effective government and national power. x
  • 25
    Mises and Hayek on Irrational Socialism
    This lecture looks at ideas about the importance of markets introduced by Ludwig von Mises and further developed by his student, Friedrich von Hayek, whose "neo-liberal" approach focused on individual liberty and the restriction of government. Hayek's theories about the roots of Fascism and the link between anti-Semitism and anticapitalism are also examined. x
  • 26
    Schumpeter on Capitalism's Self-Destruction
    You focus on Schumpeter's version of the notion that capitalism ignites processes that destroy its institutional foundations—set forth in his Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. x
  • 27
    The Rise of Welfare-State Capitalism
    Perhaps the most important transformation of capitalism in the mid-20th century was the development of welfare-state capitalism. This lecture explores its origins and the varieties of welfare-state capitalism that developed after World War II. x
  • 28
    Pluralism as Limit to Social Justice—Hayek
    This lecture examines Hayek's conception of the links between capitalism and Liberalism, which called into question many of the premises of those who wanted to use the welfare state to shape society. x
  • 29
    Herbert Marcuse and the New Left Critique
    During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse's most influential work analyzed contemporary capitalism's ability to keep the masses quiescent by manipulating their needs. x
  • 30
    Contradictions of Postindustrial Society
    In the 1970s, Daniel Bell argued that America had entered a postindustrial age and that capitalism undermined the work ethic, frugality, and deferred gratification that it depended on. x
  • 31
    The Family under Capitalism
    This lecture examines some useful conceptual frameworks for thinking about the links between capitalism and the family. x
  • 32
    Tensions with Democracy—Buchanan and Olson
    You explore James M. Buchanan's critique of Keynesianism based on public choice theory and Mancur Olson's explanation of how the logic of collective action could lead to economic stagnation. x
  • 33
    End of Communism, New Era of Globalization
    This lecture explores the origins and nature of the newest era of globalization and puts it into historical perspective. x
  • 34
    Capitalism and Nationalism—Ernest Gellner
    An interpretation of modern history argues that the processes that made capitalism possible also led to changes in personal identity that made nationalism attractive. x
  • 35
    The Varieties of Capitalism
    You examine capitalist societies from five perspectives—political structures, types of welfare states, developmental strategies, forms of business, and extent of equality. x
  • 36
    Intrinsic Tensions in Capitalism
    Why has capitalism been so productive and innovative, and why has it outlasted its competitors, such as Socialism? You look at some recent thinking on this and at some intrinsic tensions in capitalism. x

Lecture Titles

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Jerry Z. Muller
Ph.D. Jerry Z. Muller
The Catholic University of America

Dr. Jerry Z. Muller is Professor of History at The Catholic University of America, where he has taught since 1984. He earned his B.A. from Brandeis University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has been a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin; the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy; the Olin Foundation; the Bradley Foundation; and the American Council of Learned Societies. Dr. Muller wrote The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought, which was cowinner of The Historical Society's Donald Kagan Best Book in European History Prize. He is also the author of Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society and The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. He is editor of Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. His many articles and essays have appeared in scholarly journals as well as in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, and The Wilson Quarterly.

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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 79 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course!! This is one very good course. Capitalism is approached from a historical point of view, not an economic one. As the description says: "Exploration beyond economics." The professor gives a very even-handed discussion not being "in favor" or "against" capitalism, but presenting the various facets, developments and theorists that have commented on capitalism. It also mentions many different national positions (from US to Africa to countries of Europe). Muller discussed many theorists who were "new" to me (Moser, List, Freyer, Schmidt, Mises, Hayek) as well as the more familiar (Schumpeter, Marx, Hegel, De Toqueville). So this really provided new knowledge for me. I also enjoyed Muller's lecture style: very very clear, returning and referring to topics and theorists discusses in previous lectures; he even has a very calm voice that added to the performance. I am quite impressed and look forward to more from this professor. Thank you. January 12, 2009
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very insightful I couldn't put it down. It was extremely fascinating July 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very Interesting This course is a history of the development of Capitalism mostly from an intellectual prospective as opposed to an economic history. The title of the course is correct in that the subject matter is presented from the thoughts of historical figures. The lectures go in chronological order, with a brief biography of the person whose thought will be the focus of that lecture. I found this course fascinating. The professor presented the material in an unbiased way and rarely gave his opinion on the topic matter. It really opened my mind to the workings of so many different aspects of our society in the present day as well as the past. As our society, and the world as a whole, prospers as never before, it is important that we understand the foundation upon which prosperity has been built less we allow policies to be developed that erode its foundation. May 2, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by History of capitalism; philosophy without data This course is an overview of the history of philosophical thought about commerce more than any kind of informative evaluation of capitalism. Full of quotes and information about historical people (I was newly impressed with Hamilton, our founding father,) there's a remarkable lack of actual data and objective evaluations of the philosophies of the (all) men presented by professor Muller. This course lacks basic economic theory, as well as objective information about how various philosophies have actually played out. It was interesting as a history of philosophy course, but not much "thinking" was included. It didn't even cover various forms of capitalism as economic systems. It lacked basic economic principles, without which Capitalism can't be understood, much less "thought" about productively. The course was long, boring, biased, without practical examples, and I was rather frustrated and disappointed. On the other hand, the short course "Thinking Like An Economist" was excellent in all the ways "Thinking About Capitalism" wasn't: full of pertinent information, with examples from life and recent history, that can be used to practically improve life. Skip this course and get "Thinking Like An Economist" instead. November 30, 2013
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