Thinking about Capitalism

Course No. 5665
Professor Jerry Z. Muller, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
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Course No. 5665
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  • 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
 |  Average 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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  • 192-page printed course guidebook
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  • Questions to consider
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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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Reviews

Thinking about Capitalism is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 103.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best . Economics Course . Ever This course is a brilliant intellectual study of capitalism. As L1 states: “…capitalism is too important and complex a subject to be left to economists because it involves a great deal more…" Muller delivers a balanced historical economic perspective interspersed with incisive insight. If you want to know "how we got here", this is the course. There are many reasons to take this course. First, it is a huge time saver. Having tried to understand the historical realities behind Marx’s thinking or to deal with the huge run on sentences of Hayek, the tight cohesive summaries in this course amaze. Second, it is a huge source of economic pearls. Third, what we see as reality today was often predicted by the sheer genius of of over 100 years ago. Read why Burke predicted political radicalization in L11, Moser predicted massive social disenfranchisement in L12, and de Tocqueville noted “This taste for material well-being…coupled with a social state…" is characterized by individualism that “...leads to loneliness..." Hegel predicted civil servant control of the economy in L13 (ask your hair dresser about what they go through to get a licence). Fourth, if you have questions about why things are the way they are, here are the answers. Your questions will differ from mine, so this is just a sample: Where did the culture of “me” come from? See Thomas Hobbes and Voltaire. Yet Rousseau predicted that Voltaire’s consumption would produce “happy slaves" to luxury, poor citizenship, rampant usury, vanity, and a massive wealth gap. Well, that sounds familiar! In 1900, George Simmel identified “individuals whose identities were formed by belonging simultaneously to multiple cultural and social circles". For those of us who don’t understand where our kids are now, read L19. Where did big government and moral relativism really get started? See the moral philosopher Adam Smith’s master virtue of “self control" was to be groomed through compliance with current marketing aided by governmental oversight. This produced a form of economic “self control" now recognized as an ever-changing moral relativism based on who is in control of market oversight. Yet he stumbled a bit on a source for the “greater virtues” of bravery and fortitude without which a country could not defend itself. Job-hopping and modern disenfranchisement with impersonal corporations…see Schumpeter. Pornography in schools? See Herbert Marcuse of the German Marxist Frankfurt School [the same school that influenced our own Chicago School and the National Education Association] in 1964 as he argues, “erotic instincts…were being repressed…far more than was necessary". Thus concluding, he goal became to “influence students”. What caused the death of deferred gratification on which capitalism depends? See Daniel Bell. Why do our largest newspapers concentrate on economic jabs instead of bipartisan solutions? To quote Schumpeter: “argument in favor of capitalism was too difficult for many people to grasp.” What could the welfare state, Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, social gospel Protestants; and secular economics have in common? See John Maynard Keynes. How so very small groups control today’s societal direction? See Mancur Olson. There is so much more. Don’t miss that while Keynes promoted governmental deficit “under certain conditions” he called for repayment when times are good. So why, during the last business cycle when the economy has risen nearly asymptotically, has Federal debt not been repaid but rather itself become asymptotic itself? Since Keynes felt that deficits were only valid when capitalism was not producing jobs, the idea of not repaying deficits when unemployment is zero is contradictory to Keynes but compatible with Buchanan’s analysis of a politician bias toward deficit-spending to satisfy an expectant public. It seems that Murphy himself recognized the immense amount of material he covers and in lecture 36 he provides a framework for course review by dividing his chapters into topics based on recognized tensions between capitalism and…the state, self-interest, the individual, democracy, and the community. This clear course summary also provides a sense of flow of the foundations for modern economic arguments and counter-arguments. It is well worth your time.
Date published: 2018-09-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Among the best of the best This course provides a comprehensive survey of capitalism from a wide variety of perspectives. Capitalism's strengths, weaknesses, intrinsic powers like promoting peaceful interactions between disparate people, implicit side effects such as shaping fundamental groups like families—all are covered with great insight. I learned much directly, and was further inspired so that I'll definitely read a number of the suggested resources. Professor Muller is exactly what I (and IMHO, most people) want in a college professor: expert in the material, organized, well-spoken, and perhaps most importantly, able to clearly explain both direct and subtle concepts in an appealing manner. I highly recommend this course. Even if you may not think you're interested in a subject like capitalism, you'll come away with a better understanding of how the world works.
Date published: 2018-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! I find it interesting reading the other reviews, especially the negative ones. No matter how well presented or how well covered, there are going to be some customers who are not satisfied for any course. They should voice their negativity. However, for this course as well as many others, my impression of some reviews is the writers are trying to show how smart they are. I must say some of the negative reviews are very impressive.
Date published: 2018-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course on an interesting topic This is a well-organized and presented course on a topic that is both interesting and very relevant, both in terms of the world today and our own lives in it. The professor weaved together history and philosophy in a compelling way, and I was struck at both the interesting and innovative ideas covered, as well as in many cases the common themes that seem to recur at regular intervals (eg, anti-trade or anti-globalist arguments). I thought the presentation was articulate, thoughtful, and balanced, with the professor pulling out interesting observations even in cases where it seemed he may have disagreed with the thinker in question, or in other cases (like Marx) where the thinker was largely discredited by subsequent events. I wish this class was taught in college today.
Date published: 2018-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating subject I found this course to be fascinating on many levels. I learned so much more than I expected to when I bought the course.
Date published: 2017-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course Well rounded and considered speech and presentation.
Date published: 2017-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from High Praise! Prof. Muller has done a terrific job of surveying, distilling, and presenting this very important subject matter in an effective and entertaining way. His approach is even-handed and expansive, and he is a very articulate and engaging lecturer. Kudos to the Great Courses for offering this course in 36 lectures; I suspect there may have been a temptation to condense this subject matter into 24 lectures, and Prof. Muller has used the added time to great effect to give full and exhaustive treatment to his subject. I listened to the audio version, which i found entirely adequate. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well worth the money! While I have only listened to two lectures, I have been impressed by the Professor's balance with both sides of an issue and his grasp of what it means to be an intellectual in this alternative fact era. He never allows his grasp of the esoteric to cloud the clarity of his presentations.
Date published: 2017-06-20
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