You are invited to ask the next person you meet after reading this article what they understand capitalism to be. Chances are, you will be quite shocked. In most peoples eyes capitalism is a dangerous word. The freight of politics past and present makes it a very sticky word. It carries so many negative connotations and imaginaries that to say the word is to mark one as either some sort of radical or an old school thinker using outmoded language – and that reputation could stick. In the anxious times of the early twenty first century, few want to talk about capitalism, confront the dense language that accompanies the word, and the contradictions and dilemmas that both advocates and critics hold to be so central to any discussion of the subject. Yet most readers of this article will be living in a capitalist society, or market economy, somewhere on the globe and are probably successful in capitalist terms, though wondering and even deeply concerned about why the global economic and planetary situation appears bleak despite a half century of commitment to making capitalism work.

We argue that capitalism needs to be continually reunderstood since it is implicated in how we shape everyday lives and how our activities seem to have impacts on the many others, near and far, though we may never intend that such outcomes might arise. This is not to suggest that knowing capitalism is sufficient to understand all global woes. Rather it is to propose that as efforts are being made to imagine and develop alternative modes of living on the Earth we must be attentive to developments in capitalism, as the embedded rules of capitalist organization often get in the way of alternative projects. The disposition here is fundamentally geographical. It is an attempt to gain a global sense of what is going on, an awareness to use Nigel Thrift’s phrase, derived from considering dimensions of capitalism from our own context, wherever that might be in the world and thinking constructively about how we are connected to others (human and nonhuman and attendant associations) on the planet. Indeed human geographers have played a disproportionately large part in updating the international academy on capitalist developments. They have done so through the lens of chiefly Marxist political economy, at a time ironically when there has been a rapid decline in interest by economists in the field of political economy. In political economy the role of human geographers is dramatically changing. Until recently the narratives from geography have been mostly masculine, privileged, Anglo American, unwittingly capital centric, and not designed to keep an eye on capitalism while also seeking to generate new imaginaries through the use of the rich collective resource of human geography. Now human geographers have available a powerful range of intellectual resources that enable the scrutiny of capitalism to be situated differently and to take place in new and additional ways.

Finding the message lines about capitalist developments and devising strategies to communicate them has never been easy for human geographers. This article faces similar challenges. There are at least three stumbling blocks that need to be confronted if we are to get a glimpse of capitalism’s inner workings. The first is that there are plural political economies or paradigmatic narratives in circulation about capitalism – simplified here as only two – neoclassical and Marxist. This dichotomy is a little forced but the lines of difference between the two are so crucial to understandings about capitalism that it is used to organize the discussion at various points. One unfortunate upshot of this plurality is that particular words have sharply different meanings in the two camps. Another is that efforts to illustrate how the different paradigm stories overlap and intersect have been put aside as too hard. The second problem is that for the visual and increasingly more sensate cultures of this century diagrams help with mapping relationships. Writings on capitalism should meet this demand. Geographers have shown great resourcefulness in pictorially representing conceptual, theoretical, spatial, and historical dimensions of capitalism and spotting when others have utilized diagrams to simplify and heighten their message. The third is the difficulty of attempting to translate formal and abstract political economy ideas into what it means for everyday human and nonhuman life, research practice, and political and ethical strategies. This is as much about geographical interventions, in multiple sites and certainly beyond, as well as in the academy, as it is about teaching and curriculum. Human geography textbooks contain fascinating and accessible examples that aid learning and prepare the reader for the heavier stuff of scholarly writing. The response to such challenges should be to reaffirm the importance of some abstraction relating to capitalism and capitalist processes, providing substantive issues are not separated from theorizing. The article is thus primarily about abstractions that relate to three things: the basis under which capital and the compelling interest in profits for profits sake exist and what that means in terms of pressures on behavior of economic entities, the circulation of capital including the moment of increasing globalization, and new dimensions to capitalism that deserve close scrutiny.

Looking back on the past quarter century insight from especially Marxian informed study of the political economy of capitalism, capitalist production, and capitalist labor arrangements greatly influenced the direction, content, and practices of economic geography in the 1970s and 1980s. This flowering of geographical political economy was itself a product of emerging crisis conditions in both the UK and US, countries, homes to sizeable communities of university geographers. Significant achievements included recognition that the built environment and urban processes should be on the agenda of economic geographers, extension of Marxist theorization to include the post World War II long boom and the aftermath of widespread restructuring and exploration of the changing and invidious geographies and complexities of uneven development and so on. If there was a conscious strategy by geographers, it was to reveal through comparison with existing geographical practice that there was more to geography than the study of the space economy. By the mid 1990s the abstract and theoretical discussion on capitalism had been vigorously challenged and largely rejected as narrow (focusing on the economic), singular (one account fits all), and totalizing (shutting out other lines of inquiry) by critics adopting postmodern, feminist and post structuralist, and other framings. Attention had also shifted to globalization and then neoliberalization, arguably two developments whose wider significance is discernible because of new insights by human geographers into capitalist processes. A key aspect that has driven the re engagement has been the rediscovery of relational ontologies in Marxian and other philosophical thought.

Trying to Understand a Changing World

Contesting Abstractions

Capitalist Processes in the Making