Category Archives: Research

Guest Post: Basic Readings on Capitalism

Guest post from William Hebblewhite:

Capitalism is a word we hear a lot about these days. It’s an all pervasive social form; an economic system which represents the highest order of individual freedom; an historical abnormality. It is often difficult to have a real, true sense about what capitalism is, where it came from, what it represents and what the future holds or capitalism. I am under no illusion that I can offer any answers to these questions. Luckily for me, there has been a myriad of writers across the ideological spectrum who have attempted to answer them for me. Here I list some of my favourites, and ones which I believe really showcase the vast vista that is capitalism, and the subtly and multivalent definitions that can arise from that one word.

The list is separated into disciplinary categories: History, Philosophy and Economics. I do not mean to purposefully exclude other disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology or political science, but I believe most of the work done in those disciplines can easily be folded into the others. For instance, David Harvey, one of the world’s foremost critics and commentator on Capitalism is a trained geographer. His interpretation of what capitalism is, and what is does to the world is uniquely informed by this geographical perspective. However, much of Harvey’s work can be broadly construed as philosophical and economic. Another case is that of the work of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek, who were economists by training, while their work also fits into the category of philosophy – particularly when they start speaking about “freedom” and its relation to capitalism. What I mean to be saying by these examples is that my categorisation is not to be taken too seriously, but rather that it provides an easy way for new readers to the subject to engage in those questions and topics that are of most interest to them.

Lastly, this is not a comprehensive list, and I do not suggest it is. This just represents a small window to the wide world of academic work on capitalism. There are wonderful authors which I have not listed with wonderful pieces on capitalism. There are also authors who I have not listed, merely because I have not discovered them yet. If you know of other works, or authors you think should be listed do leave a comment. With that being said, let us dive straight into my selections.

History:

Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View (2002, Verso), and Liberty and Property (2012, Verso)
Robert Brenner,  Merchants and Revolution (1993, Princeton University Press – Available on Verso)
T.H. Ashton and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.), The Brenner Debate (1985, Cambridge University Press)
Charlie Post, The American Road to Capitalism (2012, Haymarket Books)
Leo Panitch & Sam Gidins, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012, Verso)
Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism (2001, Monthly Review Press)
David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies and Global Capitalism (2011, Brill)
Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 (1963, Princeton University Press)

Economics

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014, Belknap Press), The Economics of Inequality (2015, Harvard University Press)
Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Must Be Done (2015, Harvard University Press)
Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism (1962, University of Chicago Press)
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (2012, Routledge)
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776, available via the Liberty Fund)
Karl Marx, Das Kapital Volume 1 (1867, available via Marxists.org)
David Harvey,  A Companion to Marx’s Capital (2010, Verso)
Steve Horwitz, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (2000, Routledge), and Monetary Economics, Free Banking, and Economic Order (2019, Routledge)

Philosophy

David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010, Oxford University Press)
Louis Althusser, On The Reproduction of Capital (2014, Verso)
Yann Moulier Boutang, Cognitive Capitalism (2011, Polity)
Edward Younkins, Capitalism and Commerce (2001, Lexington Books)
G.A Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995, Cambridge University Press)
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (2013, Basic Books)
Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism?  (2014, Routledge) and Markets Without Limits (2015, Routledge)
Nancy Fraser & Rahael Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (2018, Polity Press)
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (2009, Zero Books)


William Hebblewhite received his PhD in philosophy from Macquarie University. His research is focused on areas of contemporary European philosophy and political philosophy. In particular, he is interested in equality, and the relations of equality that exist in economic, social, moral and political spheres. He tweets @Whebblewhite.


I’ve added the year of publication and publisher for all of the texts Will suggests. Where possible, it is that of a cheap paperback edition or a free pdf. Any inaccuracies in this regard are my responsibility – Maks.

A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press