Exploring Modern Popular Meanings of Capitalism

Thomas Hart Benton's A Social History of the State of Missouri, 1936

Thomas Hart Benton’s A Social History of the State of Missouri, 1936

This semester I am teaching a new course that I’m very excited about, which I’ve titled Cultural History of Capitalism, which will mostly focus on the United States.  It’s a senior-level undergraduate seminar, in which we will study some economic history in order to understand the origins, evolution, and importance of capitalism as an economic system, but in which we will mostly read scholarship from the recent historiography on the cultural history of capitalism. As the class dives into this new scholarship, I plan to explore the moments of contingency where capitalism was implemented, the lived experiences of capitalism, and the specific social and cultural processes by which capitalism came to be seen as the natural and proper economic system for the United States and humanity as a whole. I hope that the course will ultimately work to understand and displace modern narratives of capitalism’s inevitability by showing how it was constructed and legitimated in history.

In planning the course, it occurred to me that in order to do this work of undermining the contemporary naturalization of capitalism, the class will have to arrive at a shared understanding of what that modern narrative of naturalness actually is.  Rather than assign scholarship on the subject, in a semester already crammed to the gills with great reads, I decided to have the students research the question themselves.  So I have asked them all to conduct three interviews with peers, family members, or any other member of the public, about what they think capitalism’s history is, and what they think it means for contemporary America.  The students will post write-ups of these interviews on a collective-authored blog entitled “Popular Meanings of Capitalism,” and will write reflection pieces about the themes that emerge from these interviews at the end of the semester.  I’m very excited about this project and what the students will find, so stay tuned for an interesting profile of contemporary American understandings of capitalism and its meanings.

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