Global Capital: Political Economy of Capitalist Power (YorkU, GS/POLS 6285 3.0, Graduate, Fall Term, 2022-23)

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Global Capital: Political Economy of Capitalist Power (YorkU, GS/POLS 6285 3.0, Graduate, Fall Term, 2022-23)

March 26, 2023

Jonathan Nitzan

What is capital? Despite centuries of debate, there is no clear answer to this question – and for a good reason. Capital is a polemic term. The way we define it attests our theoretical biases, ideological disposition, view of politics, class consciousness, social position, and more.

Is capital the same as machines, or is it merely a financial asset? Is it a material article or a social process? Is it a static substance or a dynamic entity? The form of capital, its existence as monetary wealth, is hardly in doubt. The problem is with the content, the stuff that makes capital grow – and on this issue there is no agreement whatsoever. For example, does capital accumulate because it is productive, or due to the exploitation of workers? Does capital expand from within capitalism, or does it need non-capitalist institutions like the state and other external forces? Is accumulation synonymous with economic growth, or can capital expand by damaging production and undermining efficiency? What exactly is being accumulated? Does the value of capital represent utility, abstract labour – or perhaps something totally different, such as power or force? What units should we use to measure its accumulation?

Surprisingly, these questions remain unanswered; in fact, with the victory of liberalism, most of them are no longer being asked. However, the silence is incomplete. As crisis and social strife intensify, the questions resurface. The accumulation of capital is the central process of capitalism, and unless we can clarify what that process means, we remain unable to understand our world, let alone change it.

The seminar has two related goals: substantive and pedagogical. The substantive purpose is to tackle the question of capital head on. The course explores a spectrum of liberal and Marxist theories, ideologies and dogmas – as well as a radical alternative to these views. The argument is developed theoretically, historically and empirically. The first part of the seminar provides a critical overview of political economy, examining its historical emergence, triumph and eventual demise. The second part deals with the two ‘materialistic’ schools of capital – the liberal theory of utility and the Marxist theory of labour time – dissecting their structure, strengths and limitations. The third part brings power back in: it analyses the relation between accumulation and sabotage, studies the institutions of the corporation and the state and introduces a new framework – the capitalist mode of power. The fourth and final part offers an alternative approach – the theory of capital as power (or CasP for short) – and illustrates how this approach can shed light on conflict-ridden processes such as corporate merger, stagflation, imperialism and the new wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Pedagogically, the seminar seeks to prepare students toward conducting their own independent re-search. Students are introduced to various electronic data sources, instructed in different methods of analysis and tutored in developing their empirical research skills. As the seminar progresses, these skills are used both to assess various theories and to develop the students’ own theoretical/empirical research projects.

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