In the fall, 2005, Professors Sven Beckert (FAS, Dept. of History) and Christine Desan (HLS) initiated a new graduate student-faculty research seminar on the Political Economy of Modern Capitalism. The seminar aimed to provide a forum for the intensive interdisciplinary study of capitalism with particular attention to it as an historically situated process of regulating social relations. The topic is unparalleled in importance. Capitalism predominates over much of the globe today. As a political economic form, it defines not only market dynamics, but governance structures and social relations. The study of its growth and development therefore attracts scholars from a wide variety of fields; their contributions can powerfully stimulate mutual insight.
Scholars in law, history, political science, and allied fields have long recognized that political and economic forces inform one another. They investigate the effect of economic structures on individuals and groups, produce accounts of political change sensitive to materialist (and other) drives, and identify agency within given political economic orders. But in doing so, they often treat the socio-political and economic worlds as discrete and intrinsically separate entities, implicitly endorsing the modern conception of the polity and economy as separate “spheres.” Recent historiographic and disciplinary divisions have reinforced that tendency. Much historical research in the last several decades has eschewed political economic inquiry altogether for new questions about the power of culture and the play of race, gender, and religion in social order. At the same time, the disciplinary divide between economics and other disciplines has deepened. Economic historians —increasingly to be found in Economics rather than History departments—have approached the market order with tools, including mathematical models and cliometrics, developed to understand phenomena particularly defined as economic.
Increasingly, historically oriented scholars (in history, economics departments, and fields like law) are recognizing the limits of existing approaches to the political economy. Explorations of competing influences, political and economic, can entrench the assumption that those fields have their own logics. Sometimes, that assumption produces naturalizing narratives of change. In other accounts, political organization itself moves, like the market or as part of market development, in almost evolutionary fashion towards modern forms of organization. Other scholarship produces rich accounts of social struggle contrasting “efficiency” goals with cultural considerations, but fails to interrogate the definition of “efficiency” or reifies and abstracts cultural or social considerations. The workshop has focused on overcoming these divides and enabling a cross-disciplinary conversation of one of the most important topics of our times.