In recent years – particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and again following the election of Donald Trump – the relationship between wealth and power in the United States has been endlessly debated. While these concerns can seem new and urgent, issues related to the creation and distribution of wealth, the accumulation of power and privilege, and the relation of wealth and power to the public or collective good have been contested for centuries – notably by authors writing in the tradition of Political Economy, a field of study that investigates dynamics of wealth and power in the context of moral-ethical reflection. Using classic texts in Political Economy (ranging from the 18th to the 20th centuries), this course investigates a wide range of issues at the intersection of wealth and power, from the historical origins of capitalism and the economic and political virtues of free markets, to the alienation of labor; the commodification of persons and nature; consumerism, market values, and cultural production; class power, poverty, and inequality; the impact of corporate power on democratic practice; and the problem of economic instability and crisis. All of these subjects have direct bearing on how we conceive of the aims and limits of governmental or public power today. What collective ends should we strive to achieve together? Do today’s political and economic problems simply reflect concerns that go back centuries, or do we face new conditions in the digital age that complicate and disrupt relations of wealth and power in unanticipated ways? To engage these questions, we will read from older works by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Friedrich List and consider twentieth century writings by Thorstein Veblen, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Susan Strange, among others.

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