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Human Capital

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Organizer: Ben Baer

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Although human beings have been bought and sold for millennia, the question of what a human life is worth, on average, in a calculable monetary metric, emerges with the beginnings of modern political economy in the seventeenth century. The resulting category of “human capital” eventually became a centerpiece of neoliberal theory and practice. In that context it was keyed especially to the sphere of education, which is claimed to offer a reliable index of the relation between investment and return in the form of earnings. Conceived as a capital asset, a life is something in which to invest with the aim of maximizing later income-returns. From here developed the figure of the human being as an entrepreneur of itself, an auto-CEO, the outline of a retooled social Darwinist entity capable of self-adaptation to the most adverse types of environment.

On the other hand, in the mid-twentieth century, the concept of human capital also played a role in theories of postcolonial development that did not have a specifically neoliberal or even capitalist end in view. There exist unexpectedly socialist and collective recent permutations of the human capital idea grounded on the need for endogenous post-revolutionary or postcolonial social development. Are neoliberal appropriations of the human capital concept therefore an example of a socialist-inflected category being annexed to heal capitalist crisis?

This seminar seeks to examine multiple permutations of how human capital is and has been represented in terms of its genealogy and current configurations. It invites papers that do so from the widest range of perspectives as an experiment in interdisciplinary conversation: the price of slaves in antiquity, early modern insurance schemes, socialist planning, rural microcredit, monetizable data profiling, actual readings of classic neoliberal texts. These are just examples. Given the conference’s disciplinary ambit, we expect literary and cultural instances to be prevalent but not exclusive.

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