The best books about the modern capitalist economy from a scholar

Why am I passionate about this?

As both a scholar and a citizen I have spent my adult life seeking to better understand the dynamics of power, especially power wielded in flagrantly unjust fashion in societies otherwise founded on notions of life, liberty, and happiness for all. This has led me to study the history of the economy, not just as a material but as a cultural system that encodes the categories of modern life:  self and society, private and public, body and soul, and needs and desires.


I wrote...

Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made

By Michael Zakim,

Book cover of Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made

What is my book about?

Accounting for Capitalism is a social history of capital. It explains how the “bottom line” became a synonym for truth, and how the commodity’s logic of equivalence and maximization was grafted onto our very sense of justice. This is a big story told through an ostensibly marginal event, the rise of a class of “merchant clerks” in the nineteenth century. These clerks, in fact, manned the central production project of the new capitalist economy, namely, the production of the market. But their role in market society was not limited to administering all the new buying and selling.

Negotiable, impermanent, unhinged from farm and family and carried along by commerce’s tides of boom and bust, these young men exemplified the two “isms” that came to define our age, “capitalism” and “individualism.” 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Michael Zakim Why did I love this book?

The Great Transformation, in which Karl Polanyi explores “the political and economic origins of our time,” is arguably the most important history of the economy ever written. 

Polanyi published his study during the dark times of the twentieth century in an attempt to trace the origins of modern fascism (a task that has lost none of its relevance in the twenty-first century). He located those origins in the industrial transformation of land, labor, and money – the foundations of social existence – into full-fledged commodities, that is to say, into ephemeral vehicles of profit. 

The resulting market society, touted by liberals as the source of universal freedom and equality, brought personal and communal disaster for those less advantageously positioned to compete in the new economy. The price, Polanyi argues, has been catastrophic.

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Great Transformation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.


Book cover of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States

Michael Zakim Why did I love this book?

Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States is a passionate, and passionately polemical, work of history devoted to the circumstances in which the young American republic, founded in 1776, was overthrown a decade later by a new, federal system of government. 

The driving force for this counter-revolution, according to Beard, himself an important figure in early twentieth-century progressive politics, was the anxious attempt of “our most considerate and virtuous citizens,” in the words of founding father James Madison, to protect their property – and, most crucially, their control over the money supply – from populist insurgents determined to democratize control over, both, the polity and the economy.

By Charles A Beard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this famous study, the author turned the hagiography of many earlier American historians on its head. Unlike those writers, who had stressed idealistic impulses as factors determining the structure of the American government, Beard questioned the Founding Fathers' motivations in drafting the Constitution and viewed the results as a product of economic self-interest.
Brimming with human interest, insights, and information every student of American history will prize, this volume — one of the most controversial books of its time — continues to prompt new perceptions of the supreme law of the land.
"A staple for history and economics collections."…


Book cover of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made

Michael Zakim Why did I love this book?

Eugene Genovese was the most brilliant of a talented generation of scholars whose studies of New World slavery have since been largely deposed by a far more simplistic, black-and-white (pun intended) version of the same. 

Genovese’s magnum opus, Roll, Jordan, Roll, offers an unsparing view of a reality in which neither master nor slave “could express the simplest human feelings without reference to the other,” an especially intimate form of class rule which struck a compelling contrast to the anonymity of the wage nexus increasingly prevalent in the Northern states. 

These dialectics played out in a continual, if asymmetric, power struggle at the heart of plantation life, where the economy could not be separated out from racial, sexual, religious, and ideological experience, again, in stark contrast to the liberal division of social life into autonomous spheres of existence.

By Eugene D. Genovese,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Roll, Jordan, Roll as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A testament to the power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression, this landmark history of slavery in the South challenged conventional views by illuminating the many forms of resistance to dehumanization that developed in slave society. 

Displaying keen insight into the minds of both enslaved persons and slaveholders, historian Eugene Genovese investigates the ways that enslaved persons forced their owners to acknowledge their humanity through culture, music, and religion. He covers a vast range of subjects, from slave weddings and funerals, to language, food, clothing, and labor, and places particular emphasis on religion as both a major…


Book cover of The Soul's Economy: Market Society and Selfhood in American Thought, 1820-1920

Michael Zakim Why did I love this book?

Jeffrey Sklansky is that rare academic with a writer’s literary imagination, which serves the reader well in engaging The Soul’s Economy, a riveting and dense intellectual history of the market’s emergence as the organizing principle of not only economic life, but of a distinctly new moral sensibility between 1820 and 1920. 

Sklansky explores this far-reaching turn of events through a series of dedicated readings of America’s leading philosophers and pundits of the times, ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to John Dewey, who collectively recast the pursuit of wealth into an ethic of personal rectitude and even the source of society’s general welfare.

By Jeffrey Sklansky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Soul's Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Socializing the psyche; Tracing a seismic shift in American social thought, Jeffrey-Sklansky offers a new synthesis of the intellectual transformation entailed in the rise of industrial capitalism. For a century after Independence, the dominant American understanding of selfhood and society came from the tradition of political economy, which defined freedom and equality in terms of ownership of the means of self-employment. However, the gradual demise of the household economy rendered proprietary independence an increasingly embattled ideal. Large landowners and industrialists claimed the right to rule as a privilege of their growing monopoly over productive resources, while dispossessed farmers and workers…


Book cover of The Making of the Indebted Man: Volume 13: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition

Michael Zakim Why did I love this book?

Maurizzio Lazaratto is a critic of contemporary capitalism. 

His view of the subject finds powerful expression in Making of the Indebted Man, a study that tracks the development of a neo-liberal, or financialized, global economy organized around a new form of exploitation – no longer the extraction of surplus value from industrial labor, but the ever-mounting debt assumed by consumers seeking to maintain their standard of living while wages keep falling. 

The accruing debts serve as an effective means for disciplining the population while at once becoming an immensely lucrative source of profit for banks and other corporations that buy and sell them on the world’s financial markets.

By Maurizio Lazzarato, Joshua David Jordan (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Making of the Indebted Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new and radical reexamination of today's neoliberalist “new economy” through the political lens of the debtor/creditor relation.

"The debtor-creditor relation, which is at the heart of this book, sharpens mechanisms of exploitation and domination indiscriminately, since, in it, there is no distinction between workers and the unemployed, consumers and producers, working and non-working populations, between retirees and welfare recipients. They are all 'debtors,' guilty and responsible in the eyes of capital, which has become the Great, the Universal, Creditor."
―from The Making of the Indebted Man

Debt―both public debt and private debt―has become a major concern of economic and…


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By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

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What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope…

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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Interested in capitalism, slaves, and economic history?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about capitalism, slaves, and economic history.

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Economic History Explore 47 books about economic history