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Thinking about Capitalism

Explore one of the most fundamental forces affecting you today with this captivating 36-lecture course that takes a historical look at the development and growth of capitalism and investigates how this economic system impacts every aspect of our world.

Thinking about Capitalism is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 131.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course Excellent overview of thinkers who helped formed what we now call capitalism as well as its detractors from the 18th century onward. Mueller is fair towards is his subjects – objectively articulating their views first, offering his own critique only at the end. I found the lectures on Matthew Arnold, Joseph Schumpeter and Daniel Bell particularly thought provoking. My one quibble is that I wish he would have analyzed the views of James Burnham in “The Managerial Revolution” - an important critique of contemporary capitalism.
Date published: 2024-05-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding I have seldom been disappointed by the quality of the lecturers of the Great Courses. Professor Muller far exceeds my already high expectations. I recommend this course for all those who have shown particular interest in the history of Western Civilization since the 16th century. His lectures are colloquial, measured, organized, precise, effective, and tremendously illuminating. I have know a few extremely smart people in my life, and my opinion is that this guy is brilliant.
Date published: 2023-12-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Ignore capitalists. Just listen to intellectuals. If you want to learn about baseball, you'd naturally want to learn what baseball players say about baseball, wouldn't you? Not according to Jerry Muller, the author and lecturer of this course. In lecture 1 (between 9:14 and 10:50), Muller explains precisely why you WON'T be learning about baseball from baseball players: "Our focus will be on how capitalism has been analyzed, interpreted, and evaluated by intellectuals. But why, you might ask, why don’t you tell us what capitalists thought about capitalism? Why not focus on the line of great capitalists, from, say, Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century, the great pottery manufacturer, through Werner von Siemens, the founder of the German Siemens engineering firm, through Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford? The answer is, I’m afraid it wouldn’t be very enlightening. It’s not that these men were unintelligent or lacking in cleverness. On the contrary, they were both intelligent and clever. They’re very good at what they did, but they were eminently practical men: focused, driven, expert in their areas of concentration. But practical men are rarely reflective men. They rarely have the time and knowledge or the inclination to reflect on the broader structures of which they’re a part. Just as you wouldn't turn to Joe DiMaggio to explain the cultural and economic significance of baseball, you'd be ill-advised to turn to business leaders to understand the larger contexts and ramifications of business. But trying to put things in their larger contexts, to think about their deeper roots and their broader ramifications, that’s precisely what intellectuals do for a living. Indeed that’s what makes them intellectual, as opposed to just specialists and one or another particular field." This course spends 36 lectures studying what intellectuals have written about capitalism. What's wrong with that? Such intellectuals were politicians, or bureaucrats, or they were writers supported by wealthy patrons, or they were university professors, nurtured in the womb of academia, with life tenure. All of the intellectuals discussed in this course never produced goods or services that consumers wanted to buy. They never participated in the free market. They were never capitalists. Muller basically says, "The one group you shouldn't learn about capitalism from is capitalists. Instead, learn about capitalism from non-capitalists." If you listened to 36 lecturers about baseball from "intellectuals", would you learn how to play baseball? Not a chance.
Date published: 2023-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It is March 2023 and I just finished the 36 lectures. Very enjoyable, very informative. This is a history of Capitalism up to about 2007. So it does not treat the events of 2008 and the following years and of course not the current situation with inflation, interest rate increases and the bank failures. My opinion is that the course is relevant. The recent events result from specific government actions and aren't reflective of capitalism overall. It is neither a comparison between capitalism and socialism nor a defense of the former vs the latter. While I am reasonably familiar with Keynes, von Hayek, and some of the others I appreciated the extensive attention to Schumpeter. I knew a little of his thoughts and learned a good deal more with this course.
Date published: 2023-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very informative Prof Muller is excellent. Clear, informative, delightful speaker. I thought i had a good understanding of capitalism before i listened to him; now i realize i didn't, but feel i do now. He illustrated beautifully the scope & range of the impact of capitalism on so many aspects of ourlives, our histories.
Date published: 2022-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love this course! This is one of my very favorite great courses, and Prof. Muller is one of my favorite presenters. He is unbelievably clear and straightforward in presenting this very complex material. I have read a lot of history, and watched many Great Courses on the subject too, but this is one of the best jobs I've seen on the evolution of thinking about the purpose of life, government and the economy. I wish he had done many more courses.
Date published: 2022-12-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Treatment of Capitalism This course was excellent. Professor Muller is thorough, fair, and objective. I watched and listened to each lecture one after the other. My only wish is that he produces more courses like this one. I recommend this one without qualification.
Date published: 2022-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very articulate, thoughtful historical view of capitalism. I had no idea, and my degree is in Economics. Presenter is on top of his subject.
Date published: 2021-12-11
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In an era of increasing globalization, capitalism plays a dramatic role in the world economy and your everyday life. Explore the wealth of perspectives on this pervasive economic force in Thinking about Capitalism, and gain fresh insights into capitalism's history, its proponents and opponents, and its startling impact on our world. Drawing on his exceptional ability to frame each thinker's concerns within its historical context, intellectual historian and Professor Jerry Z. Muller takes you beyond economic analysis to look at capitalism's many moral, political, and cultural ramifications. These 36 engaging lectures are the perfect way to grasp the intricacies of this vital economic system.


Jerry Z. Muller

When I was growing up, I worked in a number of family businesses, but I didn’t want to go into business. I wanted to be an intellectual, to learn about and reflect on the interconnection of things.


The Catholic University of America

Dr. Jerry Z. Muller is Professor of History at The Catholic University of America, where he has taught since 1984. He earned his B.A. from Brandeis University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has been a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin; the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy; the Olin Foundation; the Bradley Foundation; and the American Council of Learned Societies. Dr. Muller wrote The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought, which was cowinner of The Historical Society's Donald Kagan Best Book in European History Prize. He is also the author of Adam Smith in His Time and Ours: Designing the Decent Society and The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. He is editor of Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present. His many articles and essays have appeared in scholarly journals as well as in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, and The Wilson Quarterly.

Why Think about Capitalism?

01: Why Think about Capitalism?

You consider how capitalism works, its political prerequisites, and its political, moral, and cultural ramifications through key elements of capitalism and its origins.

31 min
The Greek and Christian Traditions

02: The Greek and Christian Traditions

You learn how modern Western intellectuals have evaluated capitalism by starting with the two great premodern traditions: the civic republican tradition and the Christian tradition.

29 min
Hobbes's Challenge to the Traditions

03: Hobbes's Challenge to the Traditions

Hobbes criticized these traditions, emphasizing happiness in this world as the goal of government and refuting the notion that government exists to guide us to some shared purpose or highest ideal.

30 min
Dutch Commerce and National Power

04: Dutch Commerce and National Power

In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic provided an example of a highly commercial society of increasing power, leading European thinkers to reformulate civic republicanism in a more commercial direction.

30 min
Capitalism and Toleration—Voltaire

05: Capitalism and Toleration—Voltaire

In his "Letters on England (1734)," Voltaire argued that commerce provides a means for people of different orientations to cooperate.

32 min
Abundance or Equality—Voltaire vs. Rousseau

06: Abundance or Equality—Voltaire vs. Rousseau

Enlightenment thinkers debated the moral status of material well-being. Voltaire argued that the abundance created by commerce was the basis of civilization. Rousseau countered that material progress had increased inequality and undermined virtue.

31 min
Seeing the Invisible Hand—Adam Smith

07: Seeing the Invisible Hand—Adam Smith

In "The Wealth of Nations," Adam Smith explained how a competitive market could channel self-interest into socially beneficial directions.

31 min
Smith on Merchants, Politicians, Workers

08: Smith on Merchants, Politicians, Workers

Smith argued that capitalism diverged from his competitive model, with each economic group trying to use its political power to promote its own interest. He urged policymakers to promote competitive markets that served the "general" interest.

31 min
Smith on the Problems of Commercial Society

09: Smith on the Problems of Commercial Society

Smith's influence was probably greatest in arguing against government's direct economic involvement, but Smith, in fact, believed that a well-functioning government was the only source of many essential functions for a commercial society.

31 min
Smith on Moral and Immoral Capitalism

10: Smith on Moral and Immoral Capitalism

You explore Smith's views on how a capitalist society could make people better off but that lack of the rule of law, or inequality before it, could cause commerce to lead to immoral outcomes.

30 min
Conservatism and Advanced Capitalism—Burke

11: Conservatism and Advanced Capitalism—Burke

Edmund Burke offered a conservative analysis of the hazards posed by some forms of capitalism. His "Reflections on the Revolution in France" (1790) remains the most influential work of conservative thought ever published.

31 min
Conservatism and Periphery Capitalism—Möser

12: Conservatism and Periphery Capitalism—Möser

Justus Möser is an example of a conservative in a largely pre commercial society, for whom the spread of international capitalism was a threat to existing ways of life.

31 min
Hegel on Capitalism and Individuality

13: Hegel on Capitalism and Individuality

This lecture introduces you to Hegel's ideas about capitalism, individuality, and how institutions foster individuality.

31 min
Hamilton, List, and the Case for Protection

14: Hamilton, List, and the Case for Protection

You encounter two voices in the early debate over free international trade: Alexander Hamilton, who made the case for protecting infant industries, and Friedrich List, who developed Hamilton's ideas into a national industrial policy.

30 min
De Tocqueville on Capitalism in America

15: De Tocqueville on Capitalism in America

Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" explores the propensity toward individualism and materialism in America and the countervailing influence of republican institutions and religion.

33 min
Marx and Engels—

16: Marx and Engels—"The Communist Manifesto"

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels concluded that industrial capitalism profited only the wealthy while leading to the material and moral degradation of the masses. Nevertheless, in "The Communist Manifesto" (1848), they also recognized capitalism's achievements and possibilities.

32 min

17: Marx's "Capital" and the Degradation of Work

Marx spent most of the decades after "The Communist Manifesto" working on his comprehensive analysis of the capitalist economy. Although he provided a searing portrait of the industrial factory's degradation of labor, he overlooked the trends that argued against his theory.

30 min
Matthew Arnold on Capitalism and Culture

18: Matthew Arnold on Capitalism and Culture

The British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold was concerned about "Philistinism"—spiritual and cultural narrowing in a capitalist society and the spill-over effect of applying a narrowly utilitarian, market mentality to other areas.

30 min
Individual and Community—Tönnies vs. Simmel

19: Individual and Community—Tönnies vs. Simmel

In the last third of the 19th century, a newly unified Germany went through a process of capitalist transformation, leading to debate about capitalism's social, cultural, and political ramifications.

30 min
The German Debate over Rationalization

20: The German Debate over Rationalization

Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Werner Sombart offered three different perspectives on the cultural and spiritual effects of the spread of capitalism and its ideas of rationality and calculation.

30 min
Cultural Sources of Capitalism—Max Weber

21: Cultural Sources of Capitalism—Max Weber

You examine the cultural sources of disparate group success under capitalism, with special focus on Weber's "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (1905) and Sombart's "The Jews and Modern Capitalism" (1911).

30 min
Schumpeter on Innovation and Resentment

22: Schumpeter on Innovation and Resentment

Joseph Schumpeter was among the most wide-ranging analysts of capitalism. But unlike most mainstream economists of his day, Schumpeter focused on the role of entrepreneurs, whose dynamism, he believed, caused resentment of capitalism.

32 min
Lenin's Critique—Imperialism and War

23: Lenin's Critique—Imperialism and War

You examine Vladimir Lenin's idea that capitalism fosters imperialism and related arguments by the British liberal John Hobson and Marxists Rudolf Hilferding and Rosa Luxembourg, before taking up a refutation offered by Schumpeter.

33 min
Fascists on Capitalism—Freyer and Schmitt

24: Fascists on Capitalism—Freyer and Schmitt

This lecture looks at the critiques of the Weimar Republic's liberal democracy by political analyst Carl Schmitt and sociologist Hans Freyer, who argued that capitalist democracy posed a threat to effective government and national power.

31 min
Mises and Hayek on Irrational Socialism

25: Mises and Hayek on Irrational Socialism

This lecture looks at ideas about the importance of markets introduced by Ludwig von Mises and further developed by his student, Friedrich von Hayek, whose neo-liberal approach focused on individual liberty and the restriction of government. Hayek's theories about the roots of Fascism and the link between anti-Semitism and anticapitalism are also examined.

30 min
Schumpeter on Capitalism's Self-Destruction

26: Schumpeter on Capitalism's Self-Destruction

You focus on Schumpeter's version of the notion that capitalism ignites processes that destroy its institutional foundations set forth in his "Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy."

32 min
The Rise of Welfare-State Capitalism

27: The Rise of Welfare-State Capitalism

Perhaps the most important transformation of capitalism in the mid-20th century was the development of welfare-state capitalism. This lecture explores its origins and the varieties of welfare-state capitalism that developed after World War II.

33 min
Pluralism as Limit to Social Justice—Hayek

28: Pluralism as Limit to Social Justice—Hayek

This lecture examines Hayek's conception of the links between capitalism and Liberalism, which called into question many of the premises of those who wanted to use the welfare state to shape society.

32 min
Herbert Marcuse and the New Left Critique

29: Herbert Marcuse and the New Left Critique

During the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse's most influential work analyzed contemporary capitalism's ability to keep the masses quiescent by manipulating their needs.

32 min
Contradictions of Postindustrial Society

30: Contradictions of Postindustrial Society

In the 1970s, Daniel Bell argued that America had entered a postindustrial age and that capitalism undermined the work ethic, frugality, and deferred gratification that it depended on.

31 min
The Family under Capitalism

31: The Family under Capitalism

This lecture examines some useful conceptual frameworks for thinking about the links between capitalism and the family.

33 min
Tensions with Democracy—Buchanan and Olson

32: Tensions with Democracy—Buchanan and Olson

You explore James M. Buchanan's critique of Keynesianism based on public choice theory and Mancur Olson's explanation of how the logic of collective action could lead to economic stagnation.

32 min
End of Communism, New Era of Globalization

33: End of Communism, New Era of Globalization

This lecture explores the origins and nature of the newest era of globalization and puts it into historical perspective.

33 min
Capitalism and Nationalism—Ernest Gellner

34: Capitalism and Nationalism—Ernest Gellner

An interpretation of modern history argues that the processes that made capitalism possible also led to changes in personal identity that made nationalism attractive.

33 min
The Varieties of Capitalism

35: The Varieties of Capitalism

You examine capitalist societies from five perspectives - political structures, types of welfare states, developmental strategies, forms of business, and extent of equality.

33 min
Intrinsic Tensions in Capitalism

36: Intrinsic Tensions in Capitalism

Why has capitalism been so productive and innovative, and why has it outlasted its competitors, such as Socialism? You look at some recent thinking on this and at some intrinsic tensions in capitalism.

32 min