Capitalism and its Critics

The details
Philosophical, Historical, and Interdisciplinary Studies (School of)
Colchester Campus
Postgraduate: Level 7
Monday 13 January 2025
Friday 21 March 2025
03 April 2024


Requisites for this module



Key module for

MA V5T112 Western Marxism and Translation,
MA V54E12 Western Marxism,
MA V54EJS Western Marxism

Module description

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

The aim of this module is:

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

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module, students will be expected to be able to:

  1. Have knowledge of the Western Marxist and its forerunners.

  2. Have a good understanding of the main theories, models and concepts applied in the analysis and critique of capitalism.

  3. Have a good critical evaluation of the arguments made by advocates and critics of capitalism.

Module information

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)?

Indicative Syllabus (the exact details will change from year-to-year)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

In the final three weeks, we will consider contemporary problems in capitalist societies. These may include the moral limits of markets, the relationship between capitalism and race and gender, and the tension between capitalism and democracy. 

Learning and teaching methods

This module will be delivered via:

  • One 1-hour lecture per week.
  • One 1-hour discussion seminar per week at which issues covered in the lecture and the wider literature will be discussed.

There will also be a reading week.


This module does not appear to have a published bibliography for this year.

Assessment items, weightings and deadlines

Coursework / exam Description Deadline Coursework weighting
Coursework   Essay (4000 words)    100% 

Exam format definitions

  • Remote, open book: Your exam will take place remotely via an online learning platform. You may refer to any physical or electronic materials during the exam.
  • In-person, open book: Your exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer to any physical materials such as paper study notes or a textbook during the exam. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, open book (restricted): The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may refer only to specific physical materials such as a named textbook during the exam. Permitted materials will be specified by your department. Electronic devices may not be used in the exam.
  • In-person, closed book: The exam will take place on campus under invigilation. You may not refer to any physical materials or electronic devices during the exam. There may be times when a paper dictionary, for example, may be permitted in an otherwise closed book exam. Any exceptions will be specified by your department.

Your department will provide further guidance before your exams.

Overall assessment

Coursework Exam
100% 0%


Coursework Exam
100% 0%
Module supervisor and teaching staff
Prof Timo Juetten, email:
PHAIS PG Queries:



External examiner

No external examiner information available for this module.
Available via Moodle
No lecture recording information available for this module.


* Please note: due to differing publication schedules, items marked with an asterisk (*) base their information upon the previous academic year.

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