Capitalism and its Critics

The details
Colchester Campus
Postgraduate: Level 7
Thursday 07 October 2021
Friday 17 December 2021
17 May 2021


Requisites for this module



Key module for


Module description

In recent years, and especially since the financial crisis of 2008, the social consequences, moral acceptability, and even the long-term viability of capitalism have come under renewed scrutiny.

Is capitalism the best way of organizing the economic life of society, so as to secure individual freedom and economic prosperity? Or does it lead to the pillaging of nature and exploitation of human beings, socially damaging levels of inequality, and the morally regrettable transformation of everything of value into a commodity for sale? And if it does lead to fundamental problems, can it be reformed or do we need a non-capitalist economy (and what would that be)?

In this module, we will study the views of both defenders and critics of capitalism. In exploring the arguments around capitalism as an economic system and form of life, we will study a range of texts, both historical (such as Adam Smith, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Karl Polanyi) and contemporary (such as Nancy Fraser, Liza Herzog, Debra Satz, Elizabeth Anderson, and Wolfgang Streeck)

Module aims

Familiarise students with discussions of capitalism and its critics, specifically those influenced by the Western Marxist tradition and its forerunners.

Module learning outcomes

A. Knowledge of the Western Marxist and its forerunners.
B. A good understanding of the main theories, models and concepts applied in the analysis and critique of capitalism.
C. Good critical evaluation of the arguments made by advocates and critics of capitalism.

Module information

The exact details will change from year-to-year, but this is an indicative syllabus:

Week 2: Introduction
We begin by considering what capitalism is, with particular focus on its current phase -- i.e. what is often called "neoliberalism". The next sessions are framed by surveying briefly the contested terrain of positions taken by defenders, reformers, and radical critics of capitalism.

Week 3: Adam Smith on 'commercial society' and political economy
Adam Smith is often presented as the founding father of modern economic theory, and as someone who defended unrestricted free-market capitalism (or 'commercial society', as he called it). We investigate his views and uncover some of its complexities, including (a) his openness to certain forms of state intervention and market regulation, and (b) his critical views of certain aspects of capitalism.

Week 4: Hegel on freedom, abstract right, and capitalism
Hegel recognises that capitalism realises an important dimension of freedom, but he also criticises it for overlooking other dimensions of freedom. Moreover, he realised that capitalism leads to crises and argues that it will continue to do so, unless it is regulated by the state and supplemented by other spheres of recognition and self-realisation (as well as welfare provision). Thus, he is one of the first reformist critics of capitalism.

Week 5: Karl Marx (I): The Young Marx and the Critique of Alienation
Karl Marx stands out among the early radical critics of capitalism for the intellectual power and scope of his work, and for his deep understanding of the presuppositions and implications of the new theories of political economy. We consider various aspects of his theory in this module. This week we start with his earlier works and the influential charge that alienation is intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production.

Week 6: Marx's critique of capitalism II: exploitation and justice
Next, we critically scrutinise Marx's claims about the exploitative nature of capitalism, and the normative status of these claims, looking particularly at Western Marxist accounts. Are the proletarians forced to sell their labour power? And if so, does this mean that they are exploited?

Week 7: The Empire Strikes Back – 20th/21st century defenders
Not least in the wake of the experiences in nominally socialist countries, defenders of capitalism hit back. This week, we discuss the case they make for capitalism's superiority over other socio-economic systems.

Week 8: READING WEEK – no lecture/class unless notified otherwise by teacher.
The purpose of Reading Week is for students to catch up on reading from previous weeks (notably any readings in addition of the weekly required readings) and make major progress with their assignments. Also, if teaching events have to be rescheduled, they usually fall in Reading Week. Office hours will normally run in Reading Week, and students should avail themselves of this opportunity to discuss module material or raise any other queries about their studies, personal development or future career.

Week 9: Capitalism and Democracy
Right from the beginning, an important criticism of capitalism has been that it is undemocratic, and this has been particularly important within the Western Marxist tradition. Private ownership of the means of production removes a vital aspect of social life (material production) from collective control. Also, economic power always threatens to control political processes too. This kind of criticism has regained new salience in the context of neoliberalism, where the social constraints of the welfare state on capitalism are being dismantled. Reformist critics make a range of proposals to regulate capitalism in a way that is meant to render it compatible with democracy.

Week 10: Feminism and the Critique of Capitalism
This week, we consider arguments over the relation between emancipatory goals of feminism and the critique of capitalist society – something particularly important within Western Marxism. We also consider related issues to do with commodification (i.e. turning some things normally not for sale -- like reproductive labour -- into things that can be sold and bought, into commodities).

Week 11: Why Not Socialism?
In the final week, we consider what radical critics say about a socialist alternative, especially those standing in the Western Marxist tradition, and discuss the merits and drawbacks of this alternative.

Learning and teaching methods

There will be a one-hour lecture each week followed by a one-hour discussion seminar at which issues covered in the lecture and the wider literature will be discussed. Week 8 is Reading Week.


  • Anderson, Elizabeth. (1990-10) 'The Ethical Limitations of the Market', in Economics and Philosophy. vol. 6 (2) , pp.179-205
  • Heath, Joseph. (2014-01-01) Efficiency as the Implicit Morality of the Market: Oxford University Press, USA., pp.173-204
  • Marx, Karl. (2000) 'Selections from Capital (Volume 1)', in Selected writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp.482-513
  • Marx, Karl. (2000) Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1843/44), Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp.85-104
  • Smith, Adam. (2008) An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations: a selected edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press. vol. Oxford world's classics
  • Friedman, Milton. (2002) Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • de Bruin, Boudewijn. (2019-10-4) 'Epistemic Injustice in Finance', in Topoi.
  • Marx, Karl. (2000) 'On James Mill (1843)', in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp.124-133
  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Fredrich. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., pp.227-239
  • F. A. Hayek. (1945) 'The Use of Knowledge in Society', in The American Economic Review: American Economic Association. vol. 35 (4) , pp.519-
  • Fraser, Nancy. (2014) Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode, New Left Review 76 (2014), pp. 55-72.

The above list is indicative of the essential reading for the course. The library makes provision for all reading list items, with digital provision where possible, and these resources are shared between students. Further reading can be obtained from this module's reading list.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
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Coursework Exam
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Module supervisor and teaching staff



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