It seems odd now to recall that up until a few years ago, the concept of capitalism largely had fallen out of favor as a subject of academic inquiry and critique. Most scholars in the humanities and social sciences regarded the term as too broad, too vague, too encumbered by associations with either Marxism or laissez-faire. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism could be taken for granted, it seemed. No person or nation could escape the discipline of efficient, spontaneous, self-regulating, globalizing markets.
Economists cut economies loose from society, institutions, culture, and history. They repositioned their discipline upon models that assumed that rational, utility-maximizing individual parts represented and explained the behavior of the economy-as-a-whole. Many social scientists — especially in political science — embraced these rational-actor models. Others joined historians and humanities scholars in the “cultural turn.” They struck out for new worlds of culture, those ever-shifting systems of language and meaning, symbols and signifiers, identity and consciousness that produce and reproduce power. In doing so, however, these academics largely abandoned questions of class and ceded the economy to economists.
The New School for Social Research swam against these intellectual currents, unafraid of large structures, long processes, broad comparisons, and big questions. Led by colleagues like Robert Heilbroner, Eric Hobsbawm, David Gordon, Charles Tilly, and Louise Tilly, NSSR faculty presumed that capitalism must be explained, not assumed. Capitalism — in its myriad manifestations across time and space — remained a central concern, both as a broad analytic concept and as a subject of nuanced social, political, and historical inquiry. The New School for Social Research continued to expose capitalisms to critical and ethical scrutiny. They embraced the new methods of cultural analysis to interrogate its power.
Drawing upon these NSSR intellectual traditions, the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at the New School for Social Research brings together students and faculty from across The New School for interdisciplinary conversations around theoretical approaches to and analytic methods for the study of capitalisms. Affiliated faculty and students work in diverse and innovative fields including the history of capitalism, economic sociology, international political economy, heterodox economics, critical theory, economic anthropology, and science and technology studies.
Capitalism is a social process. Institutions, history, and cultural context shape the specific form that capitalism assumes in any given place at any particular moment. The Center for Capitalism Studies identifies power relations — whether organized by state policy and laws, structured by social norms and institutions, articulated in ideology, or embedded within racial, gender and class relations — as critical determinants of economic outcomes. We recognize the capacity of economic theories — such as those concerning the rational actor, efficient markets, and the primacy of shareholders — to operate as political ideologies and to shape the reality they purport to describe. We apprehend capitalism as both a system fundamentally grounded in violence and the most effective engine for bettering the material condition of mankind ever known.
The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies seek to develop a common language with which capitalism can be understood, analyzed, interpreted, and engaged — with rigor, with precision, and in a manner that is accessible to the broadest possible audience. Our graduate and undergraduate courses examine the basic logic of capitalism (as conceived by a range of theorists), its various historically contingent forms, and its ability to structure our political possibilities and creative endeavors. Our program supports diverse inquiries into the major structuring force in contemporary society, posing questions both timeless and pressing.
The 2007-8 financial crisis — the precariousness and inequality it revealed, the stagnation and disillusionment it wrought — revived academic interest in capitalism. The Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies aims to develop theoretical and analytic tools that can help us to envision and to instantiate different and better capitalisms — local and global — for the future. A more generous, egalitarian, patient, deliberate, and accountable economic system must begin with incisive and interdisciplinary social inquiry, without which policy change cannot be successful.
Directors of the Heilbroner Center
Julia Ott is associate professor in the history of capitalism and the co-director of the Robert L. Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College at the New School. She is the author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2011) which received the Vincent DeSantis Prize from the Society of Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in 2013.
She serves as a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Ott co-edits Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism for Columbia University Press.
Prof. Ott’s research investigates how financial institutions, practices, and theories influence American political culture and how, in turn, policies and political beliefs shape economic behavior and outcomes.
Please see her website here.
William Milberg is Dean and Professor of Economics at the New School for Social Research and co-director of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies at The New School.
His research focuses on the relation between globalization, income distribution and economic growth, and the history and philosophy of economics.
Dean Milberg’s most recent book (with Deborah Winkler) is Outsourcing Economics: Global Value Chains in Capitalist Development (Cambridge University Press, 2013). A previous book, The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1996) was co-authored with the late Robert Heilbroner. His paper with Peter Spiegler, “Methodenstriet 2013: Historical perspective on the contemporary debate over how to reform economics,” won the award for best paper of 2013 in the Forum for Social Economics.
Visit his website here.