Capitalism and its Alternatives

Theories and Historical


Karl Gerth, History,

Faculty Group Members: (in alphabetical order)

Mark Hendrickson, History

Martha Lampland, Sociology

Wendy Matsumura, History

Ulrike Schaede, GPS

Clinton Tolley, Philosophy


We propose a Faculty Seminar Group to host a series of lectures and research group meetings around the topics of “Capitalism and its Alternatives: Theories and Historical Practices” during the 2017-2018 academic year. Although each of the core participants works in a different area of research and distinct temporal and geographic contexts, we have a shared interest in new theories and histories of capitalism and the attempts to critique and create an alternative. We are excited for the opportunity to synthesize our various critical approaches and research methodologies to make a substantial and new contribution to this emerging field of theory and practice.

Recent and ubiquitous attention to the history of capitalism has done little to advance a definition of what does—and does not— constitute a capitalist system. The essence of capitalism has been understood in various ways, including as a form of economy structuring production and consumption of goods, as a political configuration of power- relations inhering in a state or within transnational exchange, as a socio-cultural ethos structuring individual and collective consciousness. And there are others as well. As a group we have little interest in constructing a rigid definition of capitalism, but we would aim to further an understanding of what constitutes the core features of the system. It is important to recognize that even the term “capitalism” is relatively recent in origin. Marx, for instance, did not use the term capitalism, and instead described “capitalists” and “capitalist modes of production.”

In recent years, theoretical and historical challenges to definitions of capitalism that begin from the assumption that it began somewhere and was transplanted elsewhere - either through the natural expansion of the free market or through violent, colonial imposition - have prompted a reconsideration of its origins and operations by scholars in fields as diverse as literary studies, African American studies, postcolonial studies, and Marxist theory. We examine the implications of these new developments to our own work and aim to contribute to these broader scholarly conversations that have profound implications for the way that real alternatives and strategies for realizing them are defined.

Thinking about capitalism comparatively and globally—as all members of the group do in different ways in their own work— but now in a collaborative way, will allow us to pursue a number of important and interrelated topics in ways that creates new synergies across disciplines/divisions at UCSD. The opportunity to bring in external speakers who can inform our ongoing collaborative deliberations will further strengthen these intellectual bonds and our efforts at collective learning.  The list of issues we would hope to interrogate have enormous contemporary and historical relevance, and include: the relationship between intensive economic growth and transnational labor migration; the impact of foreign direct investment in manufacturing, agriculture and extractive industries on the economic, social, and political development of host nations; the development of international governance and judicial institutions designed in part to mediate conflict between financial capital, states, firms, and local interests; the ways in which notions of sovereignty have been shaped and reshaped by increasingly global capitalism; the ways in which state and non-state sanctioned violence have been used to define permissible and impermissible dissent and the prospects for reform and revolution; and, of course, the relationship between global capitalism and increasing economic inequality across the globe.

The interests of each individual member are already internationally oriented (toward China, Japan, the United States, and Europe), and this comparative-internationality will only be multiplied and deepened by our interactions and collective efforts. The group includes a philosopher (Tolley) who researches and teaches on 19th-century German idealism (including Marx and anarchism); an anthologist who works on attempts to create a socialist alternative to capitalism in Eastern Europe (Lampland); and a political scientist who works on East Asian forms of capitalism (Schaede). The group also includes three historians who work on the development of capitalism (and alternatives to capitalism) in the United States (Hendrickson), Japan (Matsumura), and China (Gerth).

Faculty Groups