New Book Arrivals

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.

Reading this week: Roy and Pessoa

This week I finished Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and started Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The two texts are very different in many ways. Roy’s book is extremely political while Pessoa’s is introspective. The both made me pause in different ways, and while I’d usually avoid talking about a text I’m still reading, the The Book of Disquiet is having such an effect on me that I’m finding it hard to stop talking about it.

I was excited to pick up Roy’s book since I’d read her previous novel, The God of Small Things (1997), and thought it was extraordinary. I thought the new one was also very good, but I’m more reluctant to talk about it.

It’s not only a very political work, but a very timely one. The novel is set against the background of the complex history of Kashmir as a semi-autonomous, or even independent territory between India and Pakistan, and considers the lives of the people stuck in what seems like a perpetual conflict. I’m reluctant to have too strong an opinion about it because it demands a grasp of context that is beyond mind. And I worry that for many readers the book will be the only context – and given the complexity of the situation, that’s likely not a good thing.

The current troubles in Kashmir aren’t new, but a continuation of a long history that I’m not very close to.

Being familiar mostly with Roy’s fiction and only broadly conscious of her political works and leanings I’d consider her well placed to write a book enmeshed in the history of this particular conflict. And perhaps she has done that well. The success of the book, however, lays in showing the deep roots of the relationship Kashmir has to its neighbours. The intersection of geopolitics, religion, nationalism, and culture forms an abyss the bottom of which is invisible to casual onlookers. Maybe the abyss itself is invisible, given how little attention Western media has given to the current wave of trouble in the region?

In any case, it is this abyss of context that stands before me as a wall over which I can peer, but which stops me from giving in to my tendency to have an opinion. I could climb over it – but the one thing Roy’s book has succeeded at is showing me just how little I understand of the context, so that would be futile.

I mention all of this because I read the book at a point where I’d begun forcing myself to articulate my thoughts on what I read a bit more explicitly (which is also one of the occasions of me reviving the blog as a place to think out loud in public). It’s just my luck then that the first book I pick up is one on which I think articulating my thoughts might be irresponsible.

But it did make me think about the responsibility one has as critic, to bring out the context and to help the reader grasp it. A responsibility I myself hadn’t always been very conscious of, and which I think it is increasingly important to uphold.

Not all works demand such context, perhaps.

This is why Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is a fortunate choice of reading to follow Roy’s book with.

I imagine what I think will change several more times as I read the book and I hope to write some thoughts about it another time. But one thing that I am struck with immediately is how well it sets out its own context. The fragments collected here let us into a world that belonged entirely to Pessoa in his lifetime.

The edition I own (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, ed. Maria José de Lancastre) is a masterwork of literary translation. I could pause on each sentence and try forever to articulate what it is that makes it genius. The words aren’t even Pessoa’s any more – they’re the translator’s. But they leave openings to interpretation, and ultimately here the context isn’t so necessary. The fragmentary nature of the work, the fact most of the fragments are undated and thus impossible to order (no that there is much of a discernible narrative anyhow). This removes all context and lets the reader get lost within the work itself, on its own terms.