November 10-12, 2016

In Capital, Marx described the volatility of capitalist economies in terms of regular crises, such as the one he saw emerging in 1873. Nearly 150 years after the first publication of this seminal text, it is evident that such periodic busts and booms are indeed frequent in capitalist economies. Thomas Piketty revisited this issue in his bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he argued that increasing inequality is intrinsic to capitalist systems. In February 2016, the Midwest Faculty Seminar discussed Piketty’s conclusions and critiques, using the book as a lens through which to view the logics and politics of twenty-first century capitalism. The focus of Piketty’s insights on capitalist societies, the skyrocketing sales of Capital in the wake of the 2008 economic disaster, and the persistent scholarly interest in both Marx and capitalism invite a re-reading of Capital. What can Marx’s theories teach us about today’s post-colonial, neo-liberal, globalized political economies? How might Capital enlighten us with respect to the problems of the globalized marketplace? And, in turn, how might a consideration of Marx’s text against a backdrop of twenty-first century political economies help us shed new light on its arguments?

Marx would certainly recognize aspects of today’s society, especially the growing inequality between rich and poor, and the shrinking of the middle class. He predicted an ever-growing gap between the capitalist and proletarian classes, where membership was determined by possession (or not) of capital, and by one’s relation to his or her labor. According to Marx, capitalism would cause the class of laborers to continually grow and form an “industrial reserve army,” leaving wealth and power in the hands of just a few. This seminar will problematize Marx’s view of the laborer class, asking who truly belongs, and what impact identity categories like gender and race might have on our understanding of Capital. If the classes of laborers and capitalists have become more complex, then the power relations that arise from their economic association also require re-examination. Recent economic history, especially the subprime mortgage crisis, shows that certain populations are more vulnerable to the busts of the capitalist economy. How does their relative powerlessness affect our reading of Capital?

Marx might not, however, recognize the altered historical conditions that have influenced the various forms that both capitalism and the Marxist critique have taken. Scholars have argued that when we say “Marxism,” we frequently have in mind a particular, often western, vision of Marxism that is historically situated, and must thus be examined in context. They argue that capitalisms across the globe have not necessarily developed along the same paths. How do the distinct paths that capitalism took inform different readings of Capital? And how might these distinct pathways suggest alternative possibilities for the development of capitalism across cultures?

The seminar wrestled with these themes of burgeoning inequality, globalization, and changing power relations against the backdrop of Marx’s theory of capitalism to consider how these themes influence our reading of Capital, and how these readings speak to our present condition.

Speakers were Michael Dawson (Political Science and the Center for Race, Politics, and Culture), Gary Herrigel (Political Science), Moishe Postone (History), and Amy Dru Stanley (History).