The History of Capitalism

Trinity College Dublin, Michaelmas term 2020

Dr Peter E. Hamilton:

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“Time is Money” alongside clocks, world maps, and 關岳廟 (Passage to the Temple of Yue Fei). Gateway to a school, likely Hangzhou, China, c. 1890-1910. The Banister Family Collection, University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China, Ref: Ba01-100.


This module will introduce students to thinking rigorously about the origins, expansion, and evolution of capitalism as both a bitterly debated concept and a violently contested global system of production, consumption, and exchange. To narrow this agenda, this module will focus on: 1) capitalism’s entwinement with empire and colonialism, 2) the subsequent integration of a global capitalist economy (“globalization”), and 3) these processes’ production of racialized and gendered labour hierarchies. As such, we will read and discuss many different types of studies: landmarks in the intellectual history of economics, but also business and economic histories; social, labour, and international histories; political and postcolonial theory, and studies of migration. With limited time, many themes and topics will receive less attention than they deserve. Students are nonetheless encouraged to bring up these topics in class and pursue them in their final papers.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this module, students will be able to:

  • Identify and critically discuss major thinkers and theories in the intellectual history of capitalism.
  • Analyse major debates and themes in the historiography of capitalism.
  • Contextualise and weigh new arguments and interpretations of capitalism.
  • Identify relevant English-language primary source materials available in libraries and online archives.
  • Synthesise research findings and formulate well-supported arguments in presentations and written work. 


Assessment consists of one take-home examination (60%) and one essay of 3,000 words (40%). This essay may either be historiographical or research-based, depending on each student’s interests and feasibility. Students should discuss their ideas and interests with Dr Hamilton early in the term in order to map out possibilities and additional readings. If it is your preference, Irish history is a rich lens through which to explore the history of capitalism, from the linen, crystal, or shipbuilding industries to Ireland’s connections with the slave trade, the Shannon Free Trade Zone, or diverse figures such as Edmund Burke, Arthur Griffith, T.K. Whitaker, or Peter Sutherland. Essay due November 30.


This is the outline of the topics for each week of the term. Please note that the programme is subject to change as the module evolves:

  1. What are commodities? What is capital?
  2. Origins of Capitalism I: Enclosure and Agricultural Revolution Arguments
  3. Origins of Capitalism II: Silver, Sugar, and Transatlantic Slavery Arguments
  4. Origins of Capitalism III: The Industrial Revolution
  5. Britain’s Liberal Imperialists: “Free” Trade, Labour, and Migration
  6. Enslaved Labour and the Expansion of American Capitalism
  7. Settler Colonialism and Asian Migrant Labour in the Pacific
  8. Fordist Corporations, Organized Labour, and U.S. Empire
  9. Economic Nationalism, Global Conflict, and the Crisis of Capitalism
  10. Neo-colonialism and Neoliberalism
  11. Late-Stage Precarity and the Anthropocene

If you would like a full copy of this handbook/syllabus (including readings), please contact me either here or through my Trinity e-mail: