Theory and History of Global Capitalism


The lack of knowledge and understanding of the origins and evolution of global capitalism over centuries impedes our understanding of its current outlines. The principal objective of this seminar is to understand, in contrapuntal dialogue, how the relations between colonizer and colonized, domination and resistance, Europe—above all Great Britain, and later the US—and its “others” were mutually constituted in the centuries prior to the formation of the industrial proletariat and modern nation-states in Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.

This approach to the world capitalist system, which is as much chronological as geographical, will allow us to transcend Eurocentric approaches to the origins and evolution of capitalist development, without losing sight of Europe. This will help us achieve a global vision more appropriate to the questions and dilemmas of the present, especially with regard to class formation, and racial and ethnic formation, but also in terms of states and societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We will use the concept of mode of production to help us understand how relations between humans and their natural environment were altered in the course of capitalist development, and how European states conquered and colonized the globe.

We will study the internal dynamics of European societies that consolidated their power in the global order through the construction of imperial nation-states—Great Britain in particular. We will also study the internal dynamics of colonized societies, as well as relations between colonizers and colonized, which ranged from armed resistance to armed collaboration, with many shades in between: so many, in fact, that in most situations, the distinction breaks down. We will also study inter-imperial rivalry, competition for markets, and war as permanent features of capitalist development.

Format and Methodology

We will meet for two hours every two weeks for four months. In the first half hour of class, we will write out longhand answers to a question posed for discussion. Then we will spend the next hour and a half discussing replies, as well as supplementary questions for discussion.

The only requirement is that you read as carefully and thoroughly as you can, and if for whatever reason you can’t, please attend anyway, and listen carefully to what others have to say. You may find ways to contribute to the discussion through close listening.

No matter how much individual preparation goes into them, seminars are a group activity, and we need all hands on deck every session in order to advance together toward the goal of collective understanding.

So if you commit to attending this reading group, please do so wholeheartedly.

Links to textual resources forthcoming.

Part I

Session 1: Introduction to Political Economy

  • Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations:  (1776), Book I, Chap. 1, pp. 109-116; Book II, Chap. 3, pp. 429-450 ; Book IV, Chap. 7, Part 3.

Session 2: Critique of Political Economy

  • Marx, Karl. Grundrisse (1857-58), Intro., pp. 83-111.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital (1867) Vol. I, Part VIII, Chap. XXIV, “So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” pp. 873-940.  

Session 3: Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

  • Merrington, John. “City and Country in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism,” in Rodney Hilton, ed., The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (1976), pp. 170-195.
  • Rediker, Marcus, and Peter Linebaugh. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and The Hidden History of the Atlantic (2000), Intro., Chap. 1, pp. 1-35.

Session 4: Social Reproduction in the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

  • Federici, Silvia. Calibán and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), Intro., Chap. 2, pp. 11-20, 61-132. 

Session 5: Modes of Production: New and Old

  • Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Section III, Chaps. 26-29, pp. 328-398.
  • Wolf, Eric. Europe and the People without History (1983), Introduction, Chaps. 1, 3, pp. 1-23, 73-100.

Session 6: New Commodities: Silver, Gold, and Sugar

  • Stern, Steve. “Feudalism, Capitalism, and the World System from the Perspective of Latin America and the Caribbean,” American Historical Review 93 (1988), pp. 898-935.
  • Tutino, John. Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bahío and Spanish North America (2011), Introduction, Chap. 2, pp. 29-62, 121-158.

Session 7: New Commodities II: Furs, Tea, Opium

  • Wolf, Eric. Europe, Chaps. 6, 8, pp. 158-194, 232-261.

Session 8: New Commodities III: Slaves

  • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), Intro., Chaps. 3-4, 8-9, Epilogue, pp. 1-13, 222-307, 343-360.
  • Wolf, Eric. Europe, Chap. 7, pp. 195-231. 
  • FilmLa última cena/Last Supper

Part II

Session 9: New States, Laws, and Markets 

  • Thompson, E. P. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), in Thompson, Customs in Common (1993), Chap. 1, pp. 185-258.
  • Thompson, E.P. “Introduction,” in Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (1975).
  • Wood, Ellen Meiksins. “Capitalism and the Nation-State,” in The Origin of Capitalism (2002), Chap. 8, 166-181.

Session 10: New Classes I: The Atlantic Proletariat

  • Rediker, Marcus, and Peter Linebaugh. Many-Headed Hydra, Chaps. 4, 7, pp. 104-142, 211-247.
  • Linebaugh, Peter. Red Round Globe Hot Burning (2019), pp. 69-88.

Session 11: New Classes II: The Industrial Revolution and ‘Second Slavery’

  • Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (1963), “Preface,” “Exploitation,” “Weavers,” 9-14, 189-212, 269-313.
  • Linebaugh, Peter. “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12.” Retort Pamphlet Series/PM Press 2012.
  • Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: The Dark Side of Industrial Civilization (2015), Chaps. 4-5, pp. 83-135.

Session 12: The Self-Regulating Market

  • Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (1944)., Chaps. 1, 5-6, 14-17, pp. 3-19, 56-76, 163-208. 

Session 13: Imperialism and the Third World

  • Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (1999), Preface, Chaps. 4, 9, pp. 1-16, 119-140, 279-310,. 

Session 14: War and Revolution in the 20th Century I

  • Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1994), Intro., Chaps. 1-2, pp. 1-84.

Session 15: War and Revolution in the 20th century II

  • Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Extremes, Chaps. 8-9, 12, pp. 225-286, 344-371.

Session 16: Neoliberalism and Permanent War

  • Appy, Christian. “Class wars,” in Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam (2007), pp. 136-149.
  • Harvey, David. “Neo-liberalism and the Restoration of Class Power,” in Spaces of Global Capitalism (2006), pp. 7-68. 

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