Capitalism: Politics and Political Thought in a Market Economy

(Upper division seminar - upcoming Fall 2019)

The United States is a capitalist economy and we live in a capitalist world. This a fact we take for granted and therefore spend little time examining. Capitalism’s proponents attribute our society’s unprecedented wealth and technological advances to this economic system. Some go so far as to claim that modern democracy and social progress are impossible without a capitalist economy. Critics point to growing social inequality and a slew of environmental ills as proof of capitalism’s systemic unsustainability. Some suggest that capitalism is antithetical to true democracy and human flourishing. But what exactly is capitalism? How did it evolve in the USA and how does the form capitalism takes in the United States differ from the forms it takes elsewhere? And, crucially, how is capitalism shaped by – and how does it shape – politics? And how exactly is this all related to liberalism, conservatism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, socialism, and democratic socialism? This seminar is designed to help students critically approach these questions through discussions about the relationship between capitalism and key contemporary political issues. Throughout, we will discuss the theoretical and empirical arguments put forward by a historically and disciplinarily broad range of thinkers including Karl Marx, Simone Weil, John Locke, Adam Smith, Robert Nozick, Thomas Sewell, Nancy Fraser, David Graeber, Melinda Cooper, Andreas Malm, and Guy Debord, through to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elon Musk.  

Fear and Loathing: Writing About Contemporary American Politics

(Upper division seminar)

This course is focused on reading, analyzing, and, most importantly, producing writing about the American political experience and contemporary events in American politics. We will use scholarly, print, and new media sources from different sides of the political spectrum, drawing on political and literary theory to inform our discussions. We will then try to do better: Students will write and workshop a variety of pieces of different lengths and styles, spending considerable in-class time on peer critique, presentations, and writing exercises, which they will compile into a writing portfolio. We will discuss and write op-eds, memoirs, long-form book reviews, commentary essays, and satire. Readings will include works by James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Claudia Rankine, Hunter S. Thompson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexander Chee, Elizabeth Rush, and Omar el Akkad. We will draw on political commentary from sources ranging from The Washington Post to Jacobin to The Onion, through to Facebook and Twitter. Throughout, we will consider a wide range of topics pertinent to writing about politics, including questions of the make-up of the public sphere and diverse audiences, the use of voice and language, the deployment of facts and rhetoric, the place of fiction and humor in political critique, and the rise of fake news and trolling.

Modernity and the Slaughterhouse: Violence, Labor, and Animals in Contemporary Society

(Upper division seminar)

The United States today produces and consumes more meat than ever, but most Americans live at an increasing geographic and perceptual distance from animals and the humans who work with them, relying on a system of industrial production and a complex division of labor. This course approaches the politics of this distribution of labor, violence, and human-animal relations from a site rarely considered in political analysis: the modern slaughterhouse. It engages with this institution as a historical and cultural object, starting from an analysis of its emergence and operations to ask broader questions about politics under contemporary capitalism in the not-quite-post-industrial USA. We will draw on an interdisciplinary range of academic and non-academic sources ranging from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, to foundational works by Zygmunt Bauman and Peter Singer, to recent ethnographic and journalistic accounts of animal production, through to documentary films and transcripts of Senate Committee hearings. Using these, we will explore a range of issues including the relationships between institutions and rationality, visibility and invisibility, and labor and marginalization, as well as examine the narratives ostensibly peaceful, liberal democracies tell themselves about violence, history, and progress. 


Commodities: An Introduction to the Political Economy of Consumer Culture

(Lower division seminar)

We live a world increasingly saturated by market forces, where an ever-growing number of things are up for sale. But what does it mean for something to be a commodity? What logics govern the markets for things as diverse as sugar, art, animals, and DNA? What can we learn about society, history, and politics – and ourselves - by studying products? Should there be limits to what can be bought and sold? This course foregrounds commodities as a base for introducing students to foundational aspects of the theory and practice of political economy. By engaging with a range of primary commodities as they move through various phases of their respective value chains, we will explore the dynamics of production, market exchange, advertising, and consumption. We will then turn to the question of what is obscured by the (fetishized) commodity form and how value (and values) are created in markets. This will include an introduction to the debates about the social and ethical limits of commodification. Throughout, we will interrogate the broader historical and economic context within which market exchange takes place while also examining our individual participation in the system and the range of political opportunities for personal and systemic change. We will draw on an a wide range of authors belonging to diverse disciplines, including Karl Marx, William Cronon, Jean Baudrillard, and Ralph Nader, among many others.


Transitions to Democracy

(Upper division seminar)

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history” and the victory of capitalist liberal democracy. But ongoing struggles for political transition throughout the world and socio-economic crises in developed countries show that history is far from over. In this course we will examine the idea of democracy and the ideal of democratization before moving into focusing on the tangible practice of transition. We will study how countries have transitioned to various forms of democracy from totalitarian, authoritarian, and colonial governments by looking at case studies from around the world (including Poland, Argentina, Mexico, and South Africa). We will then turn our attention to the theory and practice of regime change, to retreats from democracy, and to critiques of democracy as a mode of governance. The roles played by domestic and international actors as well as the place of violence and nonviolent resistance will be considered. Throughout, academic sources will be bolstered by journalism, public and intellectual commentary, and art that reflect the lived experience of those struggling for change.   


Introduction to International Trade

(Lower division lecture)

This course has three main objectives. The first is to introduce student to the history and socio-political importance of international trade and of the phenomenon of globalization. The purpose of this is to place the study of international business within a broader context rather than taking an insular “good for business / bad for business” approach. The second goal is to introduce the student to basic concepts and theories underpinning the operation and flow of international business. This discussion includes the conduct of international trade, the institutions and agreements which provide structure for global commerce and the organizations, both large and small, which undertake international business. This material is meant to provide an integrated framework which allows students to understand various aspects of international business not as individual facts but as part of a systematic whole. The final objective of the course is to heighten students’ awareness of current issues in the field, combining an understanding of theoretical principles with a grasp of how these principles tangibly impact on countries, businesses, and individuals on a daily basis.