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Thinking about Capitalism

Thinking about Capitalism

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

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Thinking about Capitalism

Course No. 5665
Professor Jerry Z. Muller, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
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4.6 out of 5
92 Reviews
88% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 5665
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 1,000 illustrations, portraits, photographs, and textual citations. There are portraits including those of capitalism's boldest thinkers, proponents, and opponents, including Voltaire, Hobbes, Burke, Lenin, Hayek, and Schumpeter. There are illustrations and photographs that help you visualize the economics of the 17th-century Dutch Republic and the formative years of the United States. And there are plenty of textual citations from fundamental economic works, including The Wealth of Nations, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.
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Course Overview

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
 |  31 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Jerry Z. Muller

About Your Professor

Jerry Z. Muller, Ph.D.
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...
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Thinking about Capitalism is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Capitalism A must have course on history of capitalism presented with class by an excellent teacher.
Date published: 2017-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable and informative Many interesting lectures covering a wide range of thinkers and issues. I especially enjoyed the lectures on Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter. (Audio Version)
Date published: 2016-12-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Current Assault on Capitalism In 2016 it's fashionable to "bash" Capitalism and "embrace" Socialism, so I decided to find out on my own what makes people feel the way they do. Glad I did, because these lectures ought to be on every individual's "radar" who supports a system other than Capitalism. So very enlightening! Great information provided by an unbiased Professor. Appreciate The Great Courses for selecting outstanding experts in his/her field.
Date published: 2016-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 'Understand the Modern World We Live In' Eye opening and potentially life changing. A series of expertly presented lectures that elucidates the world we live in and how best to successfully navigate such a world. Great minds of modern Western intellectualism turn their powers of analysis to the reality in which they lived. And that reality has many core similarities to the present-day political, economic and cultural environment in which we all operate. Professor Muller deserves the highest praise. This is a masterly work of clarity and depth. Scholarship at its finest. 'Thinking about Capitalism' merits a wide audience.
Date published: 2016-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from As true today as it was all those years ago I can't recommend this course highly enough. Simply wonderful and totally satisfying. Many of these thinkers I studied at university 30 years ago so it was great to update and refresh my learning in such a convenient and enjoyable manner - as well as receive additional insights. The one thing that comes across so vividly is that the concepts and ideas discussed then are just as relevant today. Professor Muller is a highly skilled and engaging teacher and the course materials are very useful as well.
Date published: 2016-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful Course about Capitalism I just completed this wonderful and insightful 36-half hour-lecture course by Professor Jerry Z. Muller. I immensely enjoyed and learnt a lot from this course. As a long-term student of business and capitalism, I am amazed by the depth and variety of thoughts, perspectives & insights produced by past and contemporary thinkers as outlined by Professor Muller. Some of the thoughts, perspectives and insights I found memorable and useful from this course include the following: • Lecture 1: Professor Muller discussed how, although there was a lot of trade in the Middle Ages, most households at that time continued to consume most of the things that they produced, and to produce most of what they consumed. It was only in the 18th century that in the most advanced parts of Europe, the majority of people came to ‘buy’ most of the things they needed, and ‘sold’ most that they produced. This provides hints into the pragmatic definition of capitalism and when it began. • Lecture 2 (The Greek and Christian Traditions): How the Church resolved its antipathy/suspicion against commerce (‘usury’), beginning in the 12th century, by allowing the Jews to engage in moneymaking activities. • Lecture 4 (Dutch Commerce and National Power): The Dutch’s commercial and military success (although it had limited natural resources) in the 17th century, led to its neighbours raising the issue of the links between commerce and national power. The Dutch also pioneered in early 1600s the creation of merchant companies to pool capital and risk for large-scale undertakings (e.g., Dutch East India Company, the first company to issue stock). • Lecture 5 (Capitalism and Toleration – Voltaire): Voltaire (the ‘Malcolm Gladwell’ of his day) described how the quest for economic gain led people more willing to tolerate those from varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. • Lectures 7 – 10 (on Adam Smith): What an amazing thinker and observer – Smith foresaw many aspects of capitalism that are still highly relevant today (from the 1770s!). For instance, he claimed that protectionism will hamper economic growth; using the example of the ‘pin factory’, he explained the massive productivity improvements gained from division of labour and specialisation (through greater skills, saving (changeover) time, and new inventions (including technological) that reduced the amount of labour over time); he also forecasted (correctly) that more and more specialisation and division of labour will lead to bigger markets (as unit cost decrease) and universal opulence; hence the concept of ‘invisible hand’ linking economic participants’ ‘self interest’ to societal well-being (a paradox at first glance). Smith also described that economic relationships are not ‘zero sum game’ in that one nation’s gains do not lead to other nations’ loss. Smith also discussed how trade will enable richer governments, which in turn enables stronger defence, better education, infrastructure, protection (law etc.), i.e., ‘public goods’. He also wrote about the potential ‘narrowing effects’ of the division of labor on the human psyche/soul, and how this can be counteracted by universal public schooling, to be provided largely by the government. • Lecture 14 (Alexander Hamilton): I was surprised by Hamilton’s thinking and application of the forerunner of what ends up to be called the ‘theory of uneven development’, in which young countries (like the young United States) should protect (through tariffs and subsidies) certain, important infant industries to ‘catch up’ to other more economically advanced nations. One can argue that this was applied by Japan, South Korea and China (and Singapore?) in more modern times. • Lecture 15 (on Alexis de Tocqueville): Very observant and prophetic on the effects of capitalism (which he wrote after his visit to the United States): loneliness, individualism counteracted/moderated by associations and religious activities; and can lead to different type of social hierarchies (polarisation & new form of aristocracy). • Lecture 18 (Matthew Arnold): Contributed to realms where ‘non-market’ thinking is applicable, e.g., public goods such as universal education. In such areas, the ‘market’ will either ignore them or ‘market thinking’ will guide them ineffectively. • Lecture 19 (Simmel on Capitalism and Community): Georg Simmel in 1900 was prescient and insightful when he described how capitalism will lead to more and more depth & varieties of interests/activities which would not otherwise be possible; these will create their own ‘communities’ / associations. • Lecture 21 (Cultural Sources of Capitalism – Max Weber): Weber’s discussion on the associations between religions and economic / commercial prosperity is interesting (although won’t be politically correct to be discussed today). • Lecture 22 (Joseph Schumpeter): Schumpeter is another insightful thinker who described how the (minority) entrepreneurs drive capitalism and also drive public (majority) resentment against them. • Lecture 27 (Keynes and the Rise of Welfare-State Capitalism): This lecture discussed Keynes and his contribution to recommend fiscal and monetary policies to ‘temper’ economic cycles (including the use of welfare programs by states). • Lecture 30 (Daniel Bell): Daniel Bell was insightful in the 1970s in describing the rising importance of services (hence also more jobs suitable for women) and technology) in the post-industrial society. He also recommended the necessity of balancing institutions (such as schools, churches (religious beliefs) and the family) to counteract negative cultural impacts of capitalism. • Lecture 31 (The Family under Capitalism): Professor Muller talked about the reducing family size under capitalism and its drivers. He also linked Gosta Esping-Andersen’s three models of welfare-state to birth rates, which was original (I never thought of this before) and refreshing! • Lecture 32 (Capitalism and Democracy): James Buchanan in the 1970s (stagflation period) insightfully criticised Keynes for being naïve about democracy, in that elected politicians (to win votes in a democratic system) had a built-in tendency to run perennial budget deficits, which tend to lead to inflation and state debt. • Lecture 33 (Globalisation): In this lecture, Professor Muller discussed periods in the past when economic growth was ‘speeded-up’ and when it was sluggish or even in decline. In general, Professor Muller attributed improvements in transportation and communication technologies (e.g., 1870 to 1914 high economic growth), high ‘export-oriented industrialisation (Japan in 1950s and 1960s, and East Asian Tigers in 1970s and 1980s), as well as the transformation of previously communist regimes into more capitalistic regimes (fall of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe communist blocs in late 1980s, as well as Deng Xiao Ping’s 1978 market opening of China). This begs the question, what will lead to ‘speeded-up’ economic growth in the future? • Lecture 34 (Capitalism and Nationalism): Ernest Gellner (1983) made some very interesting observations/conjectures about how capitalism may lead to sentiments toward nationalism. • Lecture 35 (Varieties of Capitalism): In acknowledging the varieties of capitalism across multiple dimensions, Professor Muller recommended nations to not think too much about applying or ‘copying’ what works with other capitalistic system, but to think more about complementarities of various capitalistic systems in the international economy. I think this is a refreshing view and a correct one. Professor Muller’s teaching style is highly engaging and he clearly knows his subject matters in detail. I like the way he uses frameworks as described by the best thinkers in this subject in parallel to discussing chronological historical events. In this case, he mimicked the great Adam Smith in attempting to unfold understanding through historical analysis. In conclusion, Professor Muller has more than succeeded in bringing out, what Matthew Arnold called, the ‘best that has been thought and said’ about capitalism.
Date published: 2016-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thorough, balanced, comprehensive, and excellent. This course is great. The lectures are substantive and very well-prepared and argued. The course's greatest virtue is that (as is the professor's explicity stated intention) it examines capitalism as an important phenomenon in today's world, rather than taking other conceivable approaches (e.g., an impassioned defense or critique of capitalism.) There is no obvious bias, just a thoughtful analysis of today's world's paradigmatic economic system.
Date published: 2016-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thinking about Capitalism Insightful content. I completed the course with far better understanding of the influence Capitalism has had on the shaping of each of us as a whole. Presentations were very good. Course notes were great. I'm sure I'll review this program again in the future.
Date published: 2015-12-07
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