Spring 2010 Theme

CAPITALISM IN QUESTION (Because It Is)

During the spring 2010 semester, the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry at Pitzer College will present lectures, seminars, and a gallery exhibit that will aim to re-open questions about capitalism and its discontents—rather than treat capitalism, or “markets,” as the all-purpose answer to social questions. This sustained thematic inquiry will look backward in time to examine the most recent and earlier “busts” following capitalist “booms,” and will look forward in time to consider the range of forms, both desirable and undesirable, that might emerge when the global economy “recovers” from the Great Recession of the present.

Critics of capitalism have long argued that capitalism, even when it is thriving, bears fundamental discontents. One way to think about these discontents is in terms of relations that extend in space and relations that extend in time.

Start at any physical site of prosperity and select a profitable consumer good—coffee, let us say—and follow the labor chain behind that good across various borders and geographic formations (or across the often subtle barriers between urban neighborhoods). As a rule, sooner or later, you will find some workers who were intensely exploited in the production of that good. To quote from the March 2009 Gourmet magazine: “If you have eaten a tomato this winter, chances are very good that it was picked by a person who lives in virtual slavery.”

Alternatively, start at a moment of visible prosperity—autumn 2006, let us say—and move forward in time a few years. As a rule, at some point moving into the future from the starting point, you will observe a fantastic economic collapse and evaporation of money-wealth. One could equally well pick February 1637 as autumn 2006—and then move forward in time to observe the fantastic collapse and evaporation of all of the wealth invested in tulips rather than houses.

Or—as a different example of the way the discontents of capitalism are to be found either in another place or in a future time—one can think about the ways capitalist enterprises, at least since the industrial revolution, have externalized the costs of environmental damage, whether burdening marginalized communities, future generations, or both.

Simply put then, capitalism, even when it is visibly thriving, always bears discontents—be they located somewhere else or in the future. Moreover, if we place ourselves at some distance from the prosperous and observe them in their moments of greatest prosperity, we can add that capitalism both bears discontents and produces some extraordinarily gullible persons. These are the people who have the fantasy that the economic “boom” of their time, unlike all previous “booms,” will not be followed by a “bust”—as if, somehow, “the market” had become savvy enough to accurately factor in all elements of “risk.” These are the people who assert that capitalist prosperity can be shared by all—that poverty can be ended in a capitalist world economy—if only the poor would work hard enough (a conservative view) or be afforded enough schooling and “skills” (a neoliberal view). Here, what is assumed is that capitalism can produce its heights of prosperity (its super-rich) without extracting surplus value from labor somewhere in the world, and what goes unasked is whether it is possible, in a market economy, for all laborers, in every region of the world, to be “high-wage” laborers—or even “living-wage” laborers.

Finally, if we peer forward in time from our own moment in the Great Recession, we can see in front of us a broad horizon of possible futures, stretching from the dystopian to the utopian and from the banal to the fantastic. The character of these futures, and the possibilities for having some role in shaping them, are other questions we will explore during our semester of social inquiry.

These comments do not, of course, exhaust all of the dimensions of capitalism and its discontents. They are, instead, only a starting point—initial provocations to be taken, we hope, in myriad directions.