Trying to Understand a Changing World

Academic interest in capitalism as a category of social organization stems from attempts to summarize how peoples at different times and places in history have sought to organize activities aimed at ensuring their survival, reproduction, and prosperity when faced with uneven availability of and access to resources. Categories such as capitalism both derive from and encourage politically laden questions either indirectly by contesting the basis of knowledge underlying distributional arrangements or directly from a politics of emancipation. For example, ‘How do or should societies in different territories attempt to use their economic and other activities to achieve agreed or desired outcomes?’ ‘What are the main mechanisms available to extend existing directions or make changes?’ ‘How do the relationships amongst different actors influence who gets what, where, and when, and what might be done about things?’ Regardless of political persuasion a consensus position is that investment decisions are paramount. This is where it gets tricky. While investment is undeniably important, opinions fly to the extreme over how to decide on investment priorities – markets or politics. In the twenty first century we must continue to ask such questions, and be open to the conditions in which the questions are being given voice, and especially by whom, and moreover, what the values and goals of the questioning are. In the revisioning of the academy underway at present human geographers have a responsibility to pose questions about the global scene. Against the backdrop of a century of expansion and elaboration of capitalist processes, how has most of the world’s population (human and nonhuman) fared and what futures might they have? Those delving into these concerns argue that since the 1960s international spatial inequalities have become more rather than less pronounced. We know so little about nonhuman populations. Looking forward, the focus is on how humans and nonhumans cohabit in the nexus of biophysical processes. What questions need to be put? What might new questions mean for how we interrogate capitalist processes?

As a noun, the word capitalism tends to imply a fixity and finality of features and form that belies the attempts by researchers and scholars, especially those working in the political economy tradition, to highlight the nature and implications of the dynamics of capitalist processes. Framed in this manner it is amenable to abstraction. Depending on which literatures are read, however, diametrically opposing claims are made and conclusions drawn. This distinction is not trivial. Attempts to investigate economic processes and their institutional settings can be traced back as far as Adam Smith. Schools of thought dominating thinking over the past century have diverged around four main concerns: the degree to which the object of interest is the economy alone (neoclassical economics) or the economy and its social and political foundations (Marxian and Weberian analyses); a contest over the relative importance of legitimacy of profits (neoclassical economics) or needs and inequalities (Marxian and Weberian analyses) as guiding principles for individual, community, and social investment; the extent to which self regulation of markets, industries, firms, and individuals (neoclassical economics) or political processes (Marxian and Weberian analyses) should guide the allocation of resources and distribution of goods and services; the role of choice (neoclassical economics) versus democratic processes (Marxian and Weberian analyses) and; whether inquiry should attempt to make the world look like the model (neoclassical economics with an emphasis on perfecting markets) or whether the focus should be understanding how the world actually works (Marxian and Weberian analyses with its emphasis on acting to change the world).