Economics as capitalist science

On Monday 6th February I went to the first in a series of introductory lectures and discussions on economics, Crashing Through Capital: An Introduction to Economics, hosted by The Really Open University at the Space Project. The lecture was given by David Harvie, an economist at the University of Leicester. This post summarises some of the key points and issues as they struck me, so it will not be a detailed transcript of the lecture or the Q&As. A recording of the lecture was made and hopefully this will be made available on-line in due course. If so, I’ll link from here. David has given permission for his slides to be attached to this post – Economists and Commoners (slides).

David opened the lecture by questioning if it was necessary or useful for us, as lay people and activists, to learn about economics. He made it quite clear very early on that establishment economics, which he referred to as a capitalist science, is highly problematic and in some particulars simply wrong. None-the-less we need to know about it so as not to be deceived by it. As, metaphorically speaking, economics functions as a sort of handbook for capitalism, we need to study it in order to ‘know the enemy’.

He made a distinction between two approaches to economics as a discipline – the positive versus the normative. The positive view sees economics as a science that reports on the way the economy works. It claims to be a neutral account, just like any other science, that simply tells us the way it is with no value assumptions or axes to grind. Opposed to this is the view that economics should be normative. It should be based upon and express values. It should be concerned with value judgements about how economies should work, the way society should be. It is clear that the positive view and its assumption of value freedom are highly problematic. David drew our attention to this but did not elaborate. Sufficient to say that the claim that science is value free and simply produces objective models of reality has long been discredited. There is no such thing as a value free science and therefore no such thing as a value free economics. Positive economics that claims to be value free is in fact shaped by values whether its practitioners and advocates realise it or not. In practice these unacknowledged values are based on some underlying assumptions including that capitalist economies are in some way natural.

David introduces another perspective on economics that he favours. Economics is performative. Economics doesn’t just describe the world; it is the basis of policy and action and is instrumental in shaping society and producing aspects of its reality. This is why he is ambivalent about just claiming establishment economics is wrong. It is certainly demonstrably wrong in some of its assumptions about society, human nature and so on. But there is some sense in which it is correct simply because the world it describes has been partly produced according to its theories and models. It studies and describes phenomenon that to some extent have been produced and made real according to its dictates and templates. It is correct in much the same way that a plan (say of a road system) becomes a map once the plan has been carried out and there is a reality that corresponds to the plan. There is a long tradition for this sort of thinking. I immediately thought of W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), the American sociologists whose famous theorem was “if men (sic) define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Today readers may be more familiar with something like Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ perhaps.

We then had a brief tour of historically influential economists that still shape economics today, starting with Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations. Smith is the founder of political economy, the forerunner of modern economics. Using a series of quotations David established three basic tenets of economics that still inform the discipline today – individuals are selfish, they have a natural propensity to truck and barter, and therefore markets are natural. In addition, when individuals seek their own advantage (as they do naturally due to their inherent selfishness) the cumulative consequence of this benefits the whole of society as if guided by an invisible hand. (Once someone mentions ‘unintended consequences’ my sociological antennae begin to quiver. One description of sociology is the study of the unintended consequences of human behaviour). These assumptions are still alive and well (or ill) in modern economic theory – markets are natural and are the most efficient allocator of goods, the trickledown effect, human beings are naturally rational economic actors (homo economicus), and so on. David appeals to a variety of writers and anthropological evidence to call these assumptions into question and asserts that in practice there is virtually no empirical, historical or anthropological evidence to support any of them. For instance there is virtually no evidence that markets in the truck and barter sense existed prior to capitalism. What economics assumes is natural about today’s economy is actually produced by capitalism and the capitalist state. David referred to the work of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. But despite some of his assumptions being incorrect, Smith’s account of the economy was not wrong in any simple way. He described what he saw and offered an explanation for it but in doing so helped to shape the processes he was describing. In this sense his economics was performative. His ideas helped create markets that had not existed earlier and in his own time were highly contested, for instance the food riots where people wanted to pay what they saw as the moral, fair, price rather than what the merchant could get by keeping the produce and taking it to market. The food was taken and sold at the fair price, the money taken being returned to the merchant. This account was taken from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1961) and a later essay, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century (1971).

One of the most original and influential insights Adam Smith had was the centrality of human labour to the production of wealth. Before him wealth was seen as arising from the land and agriculture (the Physiocrats) or from minerals like gold and silver (the Mercantilists). He recognised that wealth was produced by human labour but couldn’t explain how it was produced; where profit came from. The answer to this riddle was provided by Karl Marx. At this point David gave a brief explanation of Marx’s theory of value (value basically means profit). In summary, the labourer sells his capacity to work to the capitalist employer for a specified working day. The time it takes to produce the value that covers his wage is, say, four hours. This means that in a twelve hour day (not uncommon then), for the remaining eight hours the value of goods produced goes entirely to the owner. The owner can increase profits in a number of ways. One is to extend the length of the working day so the worker works more hours producing profit beyond his or her wages. Another method is to shorten the number of hours it takes for the worker to create the value of his wages. This latter strategy can be accomplished by either making the labourer work harder and faster or by making the worker more efficient, perhaps by reorganising the work or introducing new tools or technology. Of course both can happen – the lengthening of the working day and the improvement of the workers’ productivity. In practice, as the position of workers has become more powerful (for a number of reasons including collective organisation) the working day has tended to shorten but profits have been increased by increasing productivity – the intensification of labour. But it is the production of value over and above the wages paid that is the source of profit. Of course it is more complicated than this, for instance profit is increasingly made from rent rather than directly from human productive labour, for instance software licenses and other intellectual assets. But it is still the case that the majority of wealth is created ultimately by paying workers less than the value of their work. In this sense the the capitalist labour relation is essentially exploitative, however benignly you care to interpret that term.

Maynard Keynes partyingIn contrast to this we were then introduced to John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), quite a party animal according to David.  Keynes, although radical in his approach to economics with his analysis of the demand side of the economy and the economic role of the state, was by no means anti-capitalist. David illustrated Keynes position with a number of apposite quotations. Keynes was more realistic about how the economy works, recognising that to some extent markets have to be produced and enabled by supporting the conditions for consumer demand. There is no point in capitalist enterprise producing more and cheaper goods if they stay in the warehouses for want of buyers. In the early days of capitalist production the wages of the labouring classes were rarely much above subsistence, if that. Most manufactured goods were sold to relatively wealthy customers. But as production increased the working classes gradually became important as consumers as well as producers. The tendency had been to drive wages down to increase profits but once profits also depended on the purchasing power of the workers in expanding markets the capitalist was faced with something of a contradiction – two drivers of capitalist development that seemed to pull in opposite directions. To some extent the welfare state, inspired in part by Keynes’ argument that the State had a role in supporting the demand for goods, offered a solution to this dilemma by promoting consumption by state expenditure, effectively putting money into the economy and people’s pockets. The freeing and encouragement of debt has had a similar function in recent decades. So like the previous orthodox economics, Keynes’ theory was a theory of the capitalist economy but one that recognised how the modern economy worked in the early 20th century rather than based upon an idealised version of how it worked in the late 18th century. And like previous economics it was performative in that it shaped the reality it described via government policy. Economics is performative in the sense that it is prescriptive as well as descriptive.

However, despite Keynesian economics achieving near orthodoxy in the post WWII era of reconstruction and development, it was largely defeated in the 1970s with the return of something like the positive economics based on the ideas of Adam Smith. There are a number of complex reasons for this including a world recession, globalisation and so on but these were not covered in this lecture. The current performative economics is now represented by the neo-liberal and Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker whose acceptance speech was published as Human Capital (subtitled A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education). David suggested we might like to read this as a paradigmatic example of current neoliberal economic thinking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and found it thought provoking. It left me with a number of questions. David implied (although didn’t say) that the improving share of wealth the working class achieved over the best part of 300 years was due largely to their increasing power and resistance through organisation and collective action. Also, by implication, he suggested that the dramatic fall in that share since the mid 1970s is largely due to the weakening of working class power. Undoubtedly this is of central importance but the rise and fall of the fate of the working classes, including the managerial and administrative classes, is tied to a number of systemic features of a now global capitalist economy that I think we may be addressing in future meetings for this course. My other main reflection is that the lecture and presumably future lectures focus on and study economics as a performative discipline. However, what emerges from this first lecture is the notion that the concept ‘economy’ as used in economics is an abstraction from a social reality where ‘the economic’ does not exist as an isolated separate sphere of behaviour or social process. A critical stance towards economics as a discipline exposes its ideological and partial (and historically contingent) nature and therefore demonstrates the necessity to go beyond the bounds of orthodox economics to make sense of living and working in late modernity. I guess this is what a sociologist would say.

I have reconstructed this account from my near unreadable notes. I would be very happy if anyone else at the lecture wants to take issue with any of this or add anything I’ve missed. Please leave a comment.

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For a more detailed account of the way capitalism accumulates value, its impact on the division of labour today and some of the political consequences, in his view, you might find Zizek’s recent article in the London Review of Books interesting . The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie is a short post here and a link to the original article.

I was very interested in what David had to say about the notion of a moral economy. I found the following article about E. P. Thompson’s ideas on this – Moral Economy as an historical social concept.

An interesting paper by Ben Fine (who David referred to as a Marxist economist and a critic of Gary Becker’s neoliberal fundamentalism)  that outlines Fine’s view of modern classical economics, its exclusion of society and even an understanding of its own history, its assumptions and narrow focus, etc. is Economics Imperialism and Intellectual Progress: The Present as History of Economic Thought?


One Response to Economics as capitalist science

  1. Thanks, Terry, for such a comprehensive, complimentary and indeed complementary account of my talk!

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