Many of us don’t realize that capitalism is by no means “natural”; just like every other social, political, or economic system, it was created by humans, can be revised by humans, and can be undone by humans.
To understand capitalism, we need to examine the values that underpin it. Likewise, to change or reform capitalism, we need to propose new values to guide our laws, policies, and individual behaviors.
These are some books that put capitalism in context and/or present hopeful visions for a new economy.
To understand something, you first need to examine the values that underpin it. The Wealth of Nations – or as I like to call it, the “Bible of Capitalism” – is important reading for anyone that wants to understand our current economic system.
As you can see from the following quote, self-interest and competition are essential to capitalist ideology.
One of the fundamental tenants of capitalism is that “growth is good.” Beyond Growth is one of the first books I read that problematizes that notion. The Earth’s resources are finite, so indefinite economic growth is not just unsustainable; it’s impossible. (Unless, of course, we start to colonize other planets; but we’ll explore that on a later date…)
Daly proposes that we move towards a “steady-state economy” rather than a “growth economy.” The purpose of the “steady-state economy” is to provide people the amount of resources sufficient for a good life.
Note: It’s our job to determine what “sufficient” and “good life” mean in this context.
Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist, scholar, and teacher, yet she writes in a very accessible, colloquial manner. The book is primarily about climate change, with chapters about fossil fuels, renewable energy, food systems, and the environmental damage already caused by human-induced climate change.
Ultimately, her argument transcends environmentalism. She argues that we need to reform our global political economy so that the world’s resources are more equally distributed. We need to share more and horde less.
Joseph E. Stiglitz is a Nobel-prize winning economist. His book differs from Daly and Jahren’s books in that he does not challenge the fundamental assumption that growth is good. Importantly, though, he shows that growing inequality constricts growth in the long run, and a more equal society translates to stronger economies.
5. Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, Edited by Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato
This book is a collection of scholarly articles that challenge the fundamental assumptions of capitalism. It includes articles called, “The Costs of Short-Termism,” “Decarbonisation,” and “Investment-Led Growth.”
Its essays are informed by the argument that unfettered capitalism and economic growth are not just environmentally unsustainable – they cause social, political, and moral problems that far transcend their benefits.
6. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work is essentially to understanding the broad impacts of capitalism and inequality. They argue that more equal economies lead to better societies – making everyone better off through better governance, greater public trust, and even better public health outcomes.
Importantly, they show that inequality is even harmful to the better-off – that “luxury” and “extravagance” do not always translate to greater wellbeing.
7. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Wilkinson and Pickett’s work is so good, I had to include two of their books. The Inner Level discusses the unforeseen consequences of inequality, but instead of looking at broader societal issues, it examines inequality’s impact on the individual level. They argue that things like social anxiety and self-doubt are more prevalent in unequal societies, and improving the socioeconomic equality of societies will increase everyone’s psychological wellbeing.