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Unit information: Theories of Capitalism and Postcapitalism in 2016/17

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Unit name Theories of Capitalism and Postcapitalism
Unit code SOCIM0021
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Harry Pitts
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


Public debate today is pervaded by discussions of capitalism and postcapitalism. This unit will equip students with the theoretical resources to critically navigate these debates. It does so by exploring the theoretical insights of, on the one hand, Marx’s critique of political economy, and, on the other, Frankfurt School critical theory, a synthesis represented today in the path-breaking work of the New Reading of Marx, including thinkers like Werner Bonefeld and Michael Heinrich. By reading the critique of political economy as a critical social theory, and critical theory as a critique of political economy, the course equips students with the theoretical tools to decode everyday categories like work, money, wealth, and subsistence in a sociological way. It focuses on: using the theory to embed these issues within contending visions of the future of capitalism, and how it can help us understand a set of concrete empirical issues confronting capitalist society in the 21st century. It will seek answers to questions such as: Have digital technologies changed work forever? Will robots make work redundant? Will a basic income liberate us from capitalism? What is the future of care and subsistence in a crisis of social reproduction? Can alternative currencies create a fairer monetary system? Is the central class divide in contemporary capitalism that between the 99% and the 1%? Engaging with these popular topics of political and sociological discussion from a standpoint informed by the most critical strands of contemporary sociological theory, this unit will allow students to assess the possibilities and limitations of social change in the present. The aims of the unit are as follows:

• To explain how critical approaches to capitalism differ from traditional and mainstream approaches, and show why they are relevant to the study of capitalism and its future.
• To demonstrate how theoretical approaches to capitalist economic and social categories can be applied to concrete areas of significant contemporary concern so as to further our understanding of the processes, relations and tendencies that underlie them.
• To develop students’ skills in writing and thinking critically about theoretical and empirical debates in sociology, social theory and the study of social issues and problems.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to:

1. Demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the relationship between the critique of political economy and critical social theory, and their difference from mainstream traditional understandings of capitalist society.
2. Demonstrate the ability to critically compare, contrast and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different critical positions about capitalism and the future of capitalism.
3. Demonstrate the ability to apply concepts and approaches from the traditions of the critique of political economy and critical theory to contemporary economic and social issues, including: unemployment and technological change; financialisation, alternative currencies and the basic income; gender, care and social reproduction; and the international division of labour.

Teaching details

Ten two-hour seminars, including introduction by unit owner, close reading of selected theoretical text/s, and student-led presentation of given empirical case around which to apply and discuss the theoretical perspectives covered.

In addition to the 20 hours of classroom time, students are expected to devote approximately 180 hours to independent reading, seminar preparation and essay writing.

Assessment Details

Formative Assessment: Book Review (1000 words)
Students will be asked to review one book from a selection derived from the indicative list given below. Addressed to the lntended Learning Outcomes 1-3, the task will assess students’ ability to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a piece of critical scholarship on contemporary capitalism and/or its future, contextualise it within contemporary debates around critical approaches to capitalist society, and apply this understanding to the concrete subject matter covered in the text. Written feedback will aid students in developing their written use of critical concepts and approaches, and building effective critiques and arguments in dialogue with those of others. This will help students progress towards the summative assessment.

Summative Assessment: Essay (4000 words) (100% of final mark)
The summative essay will assess the ability to meet Intended Learning Outcomes 1-3, asking students to apply one of the theoretical perspectives covered to a concrete substantive issue in contemporary social and economic life cutting across the empirical and theoretical topics discussed over the course of the ten seminars. Students will be provided with a list of 10 essay questions to choose from. The questions will be designed so as to test students’ ability to apply critical theory and the critique of political economy practically to real-world sociological issues. These might include, but are not limited to: the future of work, the threat of automation, the crisis of social reproduction, building concrete alternatives, money, finance, and wealth inequalities, class struggle and new forms of resistance, and gendered/global divisions of labour.

Reading and References

• Bonefeld, W., 2014. Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason. London: Bloomsbury.
• Caffentzis, G., 2013. In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Brooklyn: Common Notions.
• Connerton, P. (ed.), 1976. Critical Sociology. London: Penguin.
• Dinerstein, A., 2015. The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America: The Art of Organising Hope. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
• Doogan, K., 2009. New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work. Cambridge: Polity.
• Federici, S., 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Brooklyn: Common Notions.
• Hardt, M., and Negri, A., 2001. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Heinrich, M., 2012. An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.
• Lotz, C., 2014. The Capitalist Schema: Time, Money and the Culture of Abstraction. Lanham: Lexington Books.
• Mackay, R., and Avanessian, A. (eds), 2015. #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Falmouth: Urbanomic.
• Marx, K., 1976/1990. Capital. Vol. I. London: Penguin.
• Mason, P., 2015. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Penguin.
• Neary, M., and Taylor, G., 1998. Money and the Human Condition. London: Macmillan.
• Noys, B., 2012. The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
• Polanyi, K., 2001. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.
• Srnicek, N., and Williams, A., 2015. Inventing the Future. London: Verso.
• Weeks, K., 2011. The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.