Capitalism in the 21st Century

Overview: Capitalism in Crisis, Capitalism in Transition

The Mellon-Sawyer seminar aims to bring together scholars from the humanities and social sciences thinking critically about capitalism as an economic, social, cultural and historical phenomenon. Following the 2008 financial meltdown there has been a striking resurgence of interest in the study of capitalism, capitalist crises and transition. Indeed, after having been largely marginalized as an object of analysis in both the humanities and social sciences for decades, the “resurgence of political economy” can clearly be seen from the frequency with which “capitalism” and “crisis” are appearing as key terms in annual conference themes and journal topics: the 2012 Social Science History Association Meeting theme is “Histories of Capitalism”, the 2012 Organization of American Historians (OAH) meeting theme is “Democracy and Capitalism,” and PMLA, the organ of the Modern Language Association, recently published a collection of essays on the topic, “Economics, Finance, Capital, and Literature”.

The 2008 financial meltdown and its aftermath may, in retrospect, be seen as a major intellectual turning point for the humanities and social sciences. The past 30 years have been punctuated by a series of severe crises; among the most notable, the debt crises that shook Latin America in the 1980s, the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the Russian financial meltdown in 1998. But 2008 is different in large part because the crisis (and its aftermath) have hit longest and hardest in the historically dominant centers of wealth and power—that is, the United States and Western Europe—rather than in more peripheral areas of global capitalism. Economic growth in large swathes of the global South—most notably, but not only in China—has continued apace, after a short hiccup. As a result of this geographical divergence, the crisis has been associated with a sensation of epochal shift in the world-scale balance of economic, political and cultural power. For the first time in the history of world capitalism the center of gravity may be shifting from North to South and from West to East.

Whether such hopes/fears turn out to be warranted, the crisis has been associated with a whole set of consequential cultural anxieties in the West. The rise of a politics of austerity, the undermining of established ways of life and livelihood, the dismantling of welfare state organizations that had embodied a consensus on the social-cultural priorities of societies; the hopes and fears arising from these dramatic shifts and how they are translated into new patterns of thought and action, including new artistic and expressive practices — all these are integral aspects of the crisis and its moral, ethical and cultural ramifications.

Our seminar is thus germane to both humanistic and social scientific inquiry; but more importantly, an adequate understanding of the nature and consequences of the current crisis of capitalism can only be achieved through the integration of theories and perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences. A major objective of the seminar will be to foster cross-fertilization among disciplines whose boundaries have become a significant barrier to producing a deeper understanding of the present moment in world history.

While thinking about capitalism across disciplines is challenging, it is not unprecedented. Beginning in the late 1970s, the idea of postmodernism gave humanistic scholarship a powerful way to describe post-war shifts in the strategies of global capital. It was philosophers, art historians, and literary critics who gave us the framework of the postmodern, clearly describing the intellectual, cultural, and aesthetic ramifications of the shift from industrial to post-industrial forms of labor. As Fredric Jameson famously wrote in 1984, postmodernism was “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” But this formulation depended on the work of an economist, Ernest Mandel, who coined the phrase “late capitalism” in his 1972 dissertation, as part of a three-stage account of the history of capitalism: market capital, monopoly capital, and late capital. Mandel’s description of the economic character of late capitalism provided the ground for Jameson’s more existential account of the postmodern. For Mandel, the “late” stage of capitalism is organized around the problem of how to find consumers for an ever-increasing surplus of commodities, the fruits of the streamlining achievements of the previous stage of monopoly capital. Jameson translated this problem into his account of the sense of free-fall or “depthlessness” in the postmodern era, a difficulty in telling coherent stories about the experience of social space or historical time, and a reliance on media spectacle as a substitute for political engagement. More broadly, Mandel’s under-consumption thesis opened a useful door to critical analyses of “consumer society.”

While this act of translation from economics to literary and cultural theory has been extremely productive, the “postmodern” thesis is sorely in need of supplementation as it is ill equipped to tell us what we most need to know about capitalism today. It has been a powerful tool for accounting for capitalism’s resilience, but it is of limited use for understanding crises or transitions, or for analyzing one of the most important features of contemporary capitalism—the growing centrality of finance. These are limits that Jameson himself recognized in a 1998 essay entitled “Culture and Finance Capital.” In this essay, he draws attention to Giovanni Arrighi’s 1994 book, The Long Twentieth Century, which offers an important alternative theoretical account of capitalist history as a non-linear evolutionary process (a spiral) in which systemic transformations proceed through a series of crises and discontinuities in time and space. Jameson then speculates on the potential uses of Arrighi’s theory for literary and cultural interpretations, particularly for rethinking the historical sequence from realism to modernism to postmodernism.

If Jameson’s work illustrates the gains to be made from acts of translation from the social sciences to the humanities for understanding capitalism, Giovanni Arrighi’s work is an example of the fruits to be harvested from movements in the opposite direction. Arrighi—who taught at Johns Hopkins from 1998 until his death in 2009—was trained as a neoclassical economist but journeyed through political economy and social anthropology before professionally settling in sociology in the 1980s. His powerful theory of historical capitalism, particularly as it relates to the late-twentieth century rise of finance capital, is the product of an intense engagement with the writings of a number of historians, most notably Fernand Braudel. It was in the second and third volumes of Braudel’s trilogy, Capitalism and Civilization (written before the take off of the late-twentieth century financial expansion), that Arrighi found some of the key elements of his interpretive scheme. Among these are the notion that financial expansions—periods in which financial activities came to dominate the world of capitalism—have been a recurrent phenomenon in capitalist history since its beginnings in early-modern Europe; and the notion that the essential feature of historical capitalism over its longue durée has been its flexibility and eclecticism in search of profits rather than the particular concrete forms it has assumed in different places and times. For Braudel, the successive shifts by the leading capitalists of an era (Genoese, Dutch, British) from a strategy focused on generating profits through investment in production to one focused on generating profits through finance and speculation were a sign of “the autumn” of their power. The switch temporarily reflated the power of the old centers (e.g., the Victorian belle époque), but financial expansions were historically preludes to a shift in the geographical center of world power.

If, as the sociologist Charles Tilly remarked, Braudel approached a problem by “fondling its ironies, contradictions, and complexities; confronting the various theories scholars have proposed; and giving each theory its historical due,” Arrighi’s act of translation involved fashioning out of Braudel’s “overabundant supply of world historical facts, conjectures and interpretations” an economical, consistent and plausible theory of the rise and full expansion of the world capitalist system since its earliest origins. Arrighi’s reconstruction of the past was with comparative intent—that is, to explicate the dynamics of the current financial expansion. His reconstruction allowed him to offer a strikingly prescient interpretation of the late-twentieth century financial expansion as the “autumn” of the US-centered era of capitalist world history.
This seminar will draw inspiration from these previous acts of translation between the humanities and the social sciences in an effort to advance our collective understanding of the nature of contemporary capitalism.

Thematic Threads and Comparisons

Three thematic threads will guide the Seminar:

(1) Dynamics of capitalism and crisis: theoretical approaches to understanding the dynamics of capitalism and crisis, including its spatially uneven development and historicity in the sense of origins, evolutionary patterns, contradictions and limits.

(2) Lived experiences of capitalism and crisis: the effects of capitalism and crises on patterns of thought and action including popular culture, protest and resistance.

(3) Capitalism, crisis and knowledge production: how the evolution of capitalism (and anti-capitalism) has shaped and reshaped the production of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

These thematic threads are analytically distinct but we expect them to intersect in interesting ways in seminar papers and discussions. We would welcome, for example, papers focusing on the ways in which capitalist crises have shaped protest and resistance (drawing a causal line from theme 1 to theme 2) as well as papers that reverse the direction of the causal arrow by examining the ways in which protest and resistance have shaped in significant ways the historical evolution of capitalism. We would similarly welcome seminar papers running in either direction between thematic thread 2 and 3. For example, a paper might move from theme 2 to theme 3 by discussing the ways in which lived experiences in indigenous communities in Latin America are shaping theories and perspectives within the humanities and social sciences about alternatives to capitalism or “realistic utopias” (to borrow a phrase from the 2012 American Sociological Association Meeting theme). Likewise, we can easily imagine papers focused both on the ways knowledge production is shaped by and has shaped the dynamics of capitalism itself.

Integrating Disciplinary Perspectives

One of the main premises of our Seminar is that an adequate understanding of these thematic threads requires the integration of theories and perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences. In current scholarship, some of these thematic threads have been more consistently the purview of social scientific studies while others have been taken up primarily by humanists. We will seek to break down this division of labor by inviting both humanists and social scientists for each thematic thread. This is a challenging but important task. Social scientists have been the primary contributors to thematic thread 1, but humanists have made important contributions as well. One example is the 2008 book by literary theorist and historian Mary Poovey, who in her Genres of the Credit Economy, links the consolidation of a national British currency in eighteenth-century England to debates about trust, reliability, and authenticity that themselves drew on related debates around the emergence of literary fiction in order to produce a stabilizing account, not only of reliable narrators, but of trustworthy financial institutions. Likewise the primary contributors to thematic thread 3 have been humanists, but social scientists also have moved onto this terrain in interesting ways. An example here would be the sociologist Randy Martin’s 2002 book The Financialization of Daily Life, which draws upon evidence in the history of economics and banking, but also from studies of popular culture, in order to produce a compelling account of how the valorization of “risk-taking” has migrated from the realm of financial advice literature out into American culture at large.

Incorporating Multiple Regional Perspectives

Another main premise of our Seminar is that an adequate understanding of capitalism and crisis requires that we incorporate scholarly perspectives and empirical cases from multiple world regions. This will be one of our main priorities in choosing readings and speakers for the Seminar. Indeed, stories told about each of our three thematic threads would vary significantly depending on the geographical perspective from which they are told. Literary critics have produced important works, such as Roberto Schwarz’s 2001 book, A Master on The Periphery of Capitalism, showing how one’s position within global capitalism shapes the production of literature—in Schwarz’s case how modern Brazilian literature was shaped by its ambiguous status within 19th-century capitalism. Another example that we noted in the Introduction, is how the current crisis has been felt quite differently in the United States/Europe versus much of the global South. This divergence, in turn, is having all sorts of interesting implications for lived experience and knowledge production that should provide the Seminar with fascinating material to explore. Examples include the deepening embrace of neoliberal austerity policies in Western Europe versus the almost complete discrediting of the same in Latin America; or the varied forms of protest that the recent global wave of protest has taken (e.g., Tea Party and Occupy in the United States versus factory workers movements and environmental/land struggles in China).

In bringing in multiple regional perspectives, the intent is not to carry out strictly or narrowly comparative analyses; but rather to examine the relational links among the cases. From this point of view, it would be interesting to explore the current crisis, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as the end point of a 30 year event—starting with the Latin American debt crises of the 1980s, proceeding through a series of booms/busts around the world—in which the contradictions of capitalism have been successively displaced temporally and geographically, in a kind of whack-a-mole game (what David Harvey refers to as capitalism’s “spatial fix”).

Comparing Time Periods

As noted in the Introduction, systematic comparisons between the present and past periods can be a powerful tool for teasing out the specificities of the current moment of world history. Throughout the Seminar we will make a conscious effort to identify and empirically develop useful comparisons between time periods. While we have our own ideas about sets of temporal comparisons that would be particularly fruitful, we will not start out with a predetermined list of comparisons to pursue in the Seminar. We expect that seminar participants and invited speakers will identify a variety of time periods for comparison, and that our discussions about these different choices—around the question of what constitutes a viable comparison—will reveal interesting divergences in our underlying theoretical assumptions about the temporal span (and uniqueness) of something that we might meaningfully call capitalism—in other words, it will help us to substantively explicate the first thematic thread on the nature of capitalism and capitalist crises.

Comparing time periods has been put to good use for analyzing different aspects of capitalism and crisis. For instance, anthropologist David Graeber, whose 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, takes us on a journey from the early agrarian empires to the present, making the argument for a degree of comparability across millennia in the politics of debtor-creditor relations. Sociologist Bruce Podobnik’s 2006 book, Global Energy Shifts takes us back 500 years to compare major transitions in global energy regimes (from biomass to coal to oil) in order to think about the current limits and contradictions of capitalism arising from ecological and resource constraints. Questions of ecological limits (and more broadly the theoretical and historical role of the externalization of costs of reproduction of humans and nature for capital accumulation) have been a major part of recent debates on the future of capitalism and should figure importantly into our discussions of all three thematic threads.