The Capital of Capitalism

A Global Emotions History of the homo oeconomicus from 1840 to 1990

Agnes Anna Arndt

If we give credence to the self-representations of entrepreneurs throughout different historical periods and diverse regional settings, then being an entrepreneur is not a profession – it’s a way of life. Entrepreneurs have to have a passion for their projects and products, a desire for power, an ability to grapple with uncertainty and risk, and the flexibility to perform under ever-shifting market conditions. Entrepreneurs tend to style themselves as spitting images of economic dynamism, and – if they are successful – are often seen as such. According to this line of reasoning, it’s the emotional capital and the right personality type that decide whether an enterprise will succeed or fail, not just the financial capital needed to establish and maintain it.

But is this true? And if it is, how are such personalities formed, both today and in history? Which sort of economic, political, and cultural systems foster them, and which hinder them? In short, is the capitalist entrepreneur and the greed often associated with him specific to capitalism? Or is it rather that capitalism is a product of entrepreneurial action that – despite its instability and fallibility – has expanded with such tenacity and developed even under non-capitalist conditions precisely because it draws on mental and emotional resources that differ from mere personal greed?

The project analyzes the question on how to become entrepreneurial from the 1840s to the present. By comparing the historical development of the homo oeconomicus in a global perspective, it concentrates on the question of how entrepreneurs behave under different political and economic circumstances and how they adjust these behaviors to fit changing circumstances. Drawing on source material comprising autobiographical and biographical texts and objects, letters, estates, business school curricula, and entrepreneurs’ journals and social networks, the project combines questions concerning the structural history of entrepreneurial action with questions about the history of this type of action itself. In doing so, it seeks to account for cultural and regional particulars, the influence of trans-individual groups like family, church, and civil society, and the individual motivations, dispositions, and emotions of entrepreneurs. The project concentrates on the distinct forms these emotions take as well as the systems of values that inform and that justify them from economic, moral, social, and cultural perspectives.

Contributing to contemporary debates that have considerably gained in relevance and actuality in the wake of the 2008/2009 financial crisis, the book thereby aims at furthering our understanding both of pleas for stronger regulatory mechanisms to harness capitalism as well as of the reasons why capitalism has a seemingly inherent tendency towards crises while at the same time remaining resilient when they occur.

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