U.S. Intellectual History Blog

History of Capitalism Syllabus

I’m teaching a graduate seminar in the fall on the history of capitalism with a (semi-) focus on the US, titled towards the 20th century. Yesterday I put in book orders. Tough choices had to be made and I’m sure I’m missing important books. But in any case, here is the list. I think it’s a good one.  I am open to further suggestions since I will build a bibliography for students in the syllabus. I posted this list at Facebook and have already received MANY great suggestions–and some outrage: Nothing on Nature? Economics? Veblen? VEBLEN!!!!

The list:

Robert Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution

Mike O’Connor, A Commercial Republic

Edward Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told

Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters

Julia Ott, When Wall Street Met Main Street

Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion

NDB Connolly, A World More Concrete

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism

William Clare Roberts, Marx’s Inferno

James Livingston, No More Work

12 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. As an intellectual historians I’m SHOCKED! JUST SHOCKED! that you haven’t included Jon Levy, Freaks of Fortune or Jeff Sklansky, Soul’s Economy. Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul is really great to teach because it’s argument and methodological reflection are so clear, and puts the cultural and social consequences of the market as central to both slavery and race. I have also used a great collection of essays, Michael Zakim and Gary Kornblith, eds., Capitalism Takes Command. And Amy Dru Stanley’s From Bondage to Contract might correct the, ahem, absence of the gendered consequences of capitalism in your list! And while we’re at it, Tom Bender, ed., The Antislavery Debate is still a great read for focusing on capitalism and antislavery. But I could go on all day… Good luck with the course–it looks great!

  2. Andrew,
    David F. Noble, America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism
    John M. Jordan, Machine Age Ideology: Social Engineering & American Liberalism, 1911-1939
    Thurman Arnold, The Folklore of Capitalism
    Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time
    Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901
    John Kenneth Galbraith (choose any of his relevant books—they all make a similar argument!)

  3. P.S., Kurt Samuelson, Religion and Economic Action: The Protestant Ethic, the Rise of Capitalism, and the Abuses of Scholarship

  4. The Burden of Reason: Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market (Megill)
    Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Brown)
    The Mind and the Market (Muller)
    Capitalism: A Short History (Kocka)
    The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature (Moretti)

  5. If you’re looking for non-book recommendations for students, perhaps check out Alexis Madrigal’s new podcast, Containers. It’s an 8-episode series (one/week; the first two are out now). It’s all about containerization and shipping, centered in Oakland. Great project on global capitalism. Both episodes so far are creative and interesting and very cool.

  6. To each his or her own in such matters: you should use what’s fairly familiar and you’re comfortable with (a syllabus, after all, is marked by well-known constraints), although no doubt it’s interesting and occasionally helpful to learn what others would prefer. Lot of good stuff in your list and were I fortunate enough to teach such a course I imagine including a few more “economics” oriented works as well. I suspect the students in this seminar will be well-served by these titles, especially if they read them! At the very least, “outrage” is misplaced if not silly.

  7. Have you considered including Shane White’s Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire? I know the course is slanted towards the 20th century but the book is a really interesting insight into the dynamics of Wall Street and the intersection of race and economic standing.

  8. Andrew–Well, yes. Where IS Veblen? Why not pair Veblen and Keynes, who is probably present in several of the overviews you list but needs some attention as a thinker. Fred Hirsch’s “Social Limits to Growth” does what the title suggests. It explores the relationship between social structure and economic development, with the focus falling on the question of equality and economic growth.Overall, the whole concern with the shift from producer to consumer capitalism–I know they can’t really be separated–probably needs more attention.

    Good luck,

  9. Last year I read Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity. It’s a short book, published in the ’80s, originated as the author’s political theory diss. done under Sheldon Wolin. Parts of it might be suitable for this kind of seminar.

    On Veblen: I happened to notice that Daniel Bell’s 1963 intro essay to Engineers and the Price System is reprinted in Bell’s essay collection The Winding Passage.

    • p.s. The Xenos book is very much about the “shift from producer to consumer capitalism” mentioned by Richard King, above.

      (A more ‘pro-capitalist’ take on it wd be Stanley Lebergott’s bk about comsumption/consumerism, the title of which is escaping me at the moment.)

  10. Here are some of my recommendations for your syllabus:

    Sven Beckert, “History of American Capitalism” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr.

    Seth Rockman, “The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism,” in The Economy of Early America, ed. Cathy Matson.

    Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand.

    Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest For Cheap Labor.

    William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis.

    Nelson Lichtenstein, The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business.

    Juliet Walker, The History of Black Business in America

  11. As currently designed, and I point this out only to be helpful, this class sounds like the history of capitalism in the pre-digital era, and perhaps needs to be expressly framed as such. If you wanted to bring the class forward chronologically, I would include some of the digital labor scholarship. See the work of Lily Irani, Fred Turner, Trebor Scholz, Hector Postigo, Vincent Mosco, Dan Schiller, Pasko Bilic, and many more.

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