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Critique of political economy or critique of economy is a form of social critique that rejects the various social categories and structures that constitute the mainstream discourse concerning the forms and modalities of resource allocation and income distribution in the economy. The critique also rejects economists' use of what its advocates believe are unrealistic axioms, faulty historical assumptions, and the normative use of various descriptive narratives. They reject what they describe as mainstream economists' tendency to posit the economy as an a priori societal category.
Those who engage in critique of economy tend to reject the view that the economy, and its categories, is to be understood as something transhistorical. They rather argue that it is a relatively new mode of resource distribution, which emerged along with modernity. Hence, it is seen as merely one of many types of historically specific ways to distribute resources.
Critics of economy critique the given status of the economy itself, and hence don't aim to create theories regarding how to administer economies. Critics of economy commonly view what is most commonly referred to as the economy as being bundles of metaphysical concepts, as well as societal and normative practices, rather than being the result of any "self-evident" or proclaimed "economic laws". Hence they also tend to consider the views which are commonplace within the field of economics as faulty, or simply as pseudoscience.
There are multiple critiques of political economy today, but what they have in common is critique of what critics of political economy tend to view as dogma, i.e. claims of "the economy" as a necessary and transhistorical societal category.
In the 1860s, John Ruskin published his essay Unto This Last which he came to view as his central work. The essay was originally written as a series of publications in a magazine, which ended up having to suspend the publications, due to the severe controversy the articles caused. While Ruskin is generally known as an important art critic, his study of the history of art was a component that gave him some insight into the pre-modern societies of the Middle Ages, and their social organisation which he was able to contrast to his contemporary condition. Ruskin attempted to mobilize a methodological/scientific critique of new political economy, as it was envisaged by the classical economists.
Ruskin viewed "the economy" as a kind of "collective mental lapse or collective concussion", and he viewed the emphasis on precision in industry as a kind of slavery. Due to the fact that Ruskin regarded the political economy of his time as "mad", he said that it interested him as much as "a science of gymnastics which had as its axiom that human beings in fact didn't have skeletons". Ruskin declared that economics rests on positions that are exactly the same. According to Ruskin, these axioms resemble thinking, not that human beings do not have skeletons, but rather that they consist entirely of skeletons. Ruskin wrote that he didn't oppose the truth value of this theory, he merely wrote that he denied that it could be successfully implemented in the world in the state it was in. He took issue with the ideas of "natural laws", "economic man" and the prevailing notion of "value" and aimed to point out the inconsistencies in the thinking of the economists. As well as critiqued Mill for thinking that ‘the opinions of the public’ was reflected adequately by market prices.
Ruskin also coined the term 'Illth' to refer to unproductive wealth. Ruskin is not well known as a political thinker today but, when in 1906 a journalist asked the first generation of Labour MPs which book had most inspired them, Unto This Last emerged as an undisputed chart-topper.
[...] the art of becoming "rich," in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is "the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour."— Ruskin, Unto this last
Marx and Engels regarded much of Ruskin's critique as reactionary. His idealisation of the Middle Ages made them reject him as a "feudal utopian".
In the 21st century, Karl Marx is probably the most famous critic of political economy, with his three volume magnum opus Capital: A Critique of Political Economy as one of his most famous books. However Marx's companion Friedrich Engels also engaged in critique of political economy in his 1844 Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, which helped lay down some of the foundation for what Marx was to take further. Marx's critique of political economy encompasses the study and exposition of the mode of production and ideology of bourgeois society, and its critique of Realabstraktionen ["real abstraction"], that is, the fundamental "economic", i.e., social categories present within what for Marx is the capitalist mode of production, for example abstract labour.[clarification needed] In contrast to the classics of political economy, Marx was concerned with lifting the ideological veil of surface phenomena and exposing the norms, axioms, social relations, institutions and so on, that reproduced capital.
The central works in Marx's critique of political economy are Grundrisse, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Das Kapital. Marx's works are often explicitly named – for example: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Marx also cited Engels' article Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy several times in Das Kapital. However Trotskyists and other Leninists tend to implicitly or explicitly argue that these works constitute and or contain "economical theories" which can be studied independently. This was also the common understanding of Marx's work on economy that was put forward by Soviet orthodoxy. Since this is the case, it remains a matter of controversy whether Marx's critique of political economy is to be understood as a critique of the political economy or, according to the orthodox interpretation another theory of economics. The critique of political economy is considered the most important and central project within marxism which has led to, and continues to lead to a large number of advanced approaches within and outside academic circles.
Marx described the view of contemporaneous economists and theologians on social phenomena as similarly unscientific.
"Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this, they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations – the relations of bourgeois production – are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations, therefore, are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws that must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been history, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural and as such, eternal."— Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy
Marx continued to emphasize the ahistorical thought of the modern economists in the Grundrisse, where he among other endeavors, critiqued the liberal economist Mill.
Marx also viewed the viewpoints which implicitly regarded the institutions of modernity as transhistorical as fundamentally deprived of historical understanding.
Individuals producing in society, and hence the socially determined production of individuals, is, of course, the point of departure. The solitary and isolated hunter or fisherman, who serves Adam Smith and Ricardo as a starting point, is one of the unimaginative fantasies of eighteenth-century romances a la Robinson Crusoe; and despite the assertions of social historians, these by no means signify simply a reaction against over-refinement and reversion to a misconceived natural life. No more is Rousseau's contract social, which by means of a contract establishes a relationship and connection between subjects that are by nature independent, based on this kind of naturalism. [...] The individual in this society of free competition seems to be rid of natural ties, etc., which made him an appurtenance of a particular, limited aggregation of human beings in previous historical epochs. The prophets of the eighteenth century, on whose shoulders Adam Smith and Ricardo were still wholly standing, envisaged this 18th-century individual – a product of the dissolution of feudal society on the one hand and of the new productive forces evolved since the sixteenth century on the other – as an ideal whose existence belonged to the past. They saw this individual not as a historical result, but as the starting point of history; not as something evolving in the course of history, but posited by nature, because for them this individual was in conformity with nature, in keeping with their idea of human nature. This delusion has been characteristic of every new epoch hitherto.— Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (Introduction)
According to the french philosopher Jacques Rancière, what Marx understood, and what the economists failed to recognise was that the value-form is not something essential, but merely a part of the capitalist mode of production.
Marx also offered a critique regarding the idea of people being able to conduct scientific research in this domain. Or, as he stated it himself:
"In the domain of Political Economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the materials it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean, and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest. The English Established Church, e.g., will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 articles than on 1/39 of its income. Nowadays atheism is culpa levis [a relatively slight sin, c.f. mortal sin], as compared with criticism of existing property relations."— Marx: Das Kapital (Preface to the First German Edition)
Marx also used to criticize the false critique of political economy of his contemporaries. Something he did, sometimes even more forcefully, than he critiqued the classical, and hence 'vulgar' economists. He for example rejected Lasalle's 'iron and inexorable law' of wages, which he simply regarded as mere phraseology. As well as Proudhon's attempts to do what Hegel did for religion, law, etc., for political economy, as well as regarding what is social as subjective, and what was societal as merely subjective abstractions. In Marx's view, the errors of these authors led the workers' movement astray.
Some scholars view Marx's critique as being a critique of commodity fetishism and the manner in which this concept expresses a criticism of modernity and its modes of socialisation. Other scholars who engage with Marx's critique of political economy affirm the critique might assume a more Kantian sense, which transforms "Marx's work into a foray concerning the imminent antinomies that lie at the heart of capitalism, where politics and economy intertwine in impossible ways."
Regarding contemporary Marxian critiques of political economy, these are generally accompanied by a rejection of the more naturalistically influenced readings of Marx, as well as other readings later deemed weltanschaaungsmarxismus ("worldview marxism"), that was popularised as late as toward the end of the 20th century.
According to some scholars in this field, contemporary critiques of political economy and contemporary German Ökonomiekritik have been at least partly neglected in the anglophone world.
The sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard has developed a critique of Marx's political economy in his 1973 book Le Miroir de la production. He views Marx as being stuck in the very categories he wanted to critique, especially in regard to production. In contrast to this, Baudrillard rather places emphasis on consumption. Baudrillard claims that the structure of every sign is ingrained in every core of the commodity form. He claims that it establishes itself socially, as a total medium, a system which administers all social exchange. In Baudrillard's words, “[Marxism] convinces men that they are alienated by the sale of their labor power, thus censoring the [...] hypothesis that they might be alienated as labor power.”
Mark Fisher critiqued economics, claiming that it was a bourgeois "science", that molded reality after its presuppositions, rather than critically examined reality. As he stated it himself:
"From the start, “economy” was the object-cause of a bourgeois “science”, which hyperstitionally bootstrapped itself into existence, and then bent and melted the matter of this and every other world to fit its presuppositions — the greatest theocratic achievement in a history that was never human, an immense conjuring trick which works all the better because it came shrouded in that damp grey English and Scottish empiricism which claimed to have seen off all gods."
There has been a growing literature of feminist viewpoints in new critique of political economy in recent years.
One may differentiate between those who engage in critique of political economy, which takes on a more ontological character, where authors criticise the fundamental concepts and social categories which reproduce the economy as an entity. While other authors, which the critics of political economy would consider only to deal with the surface phenomena of "the economy", have a naturalized understanding of these social processes.
Hence the epistemological differences between critics of economy and economists can also at times be very large.
In the eyes of the critics of political economy, the critics of economic issues merely critique "certain practices" in attempts to implicitly or explicitly 'rescue' the political economy; these authors might for example propose universal basic income or to implement a planned economy.
[...]Ruskin attempted a methodological/scientific critique of political economy. He fixed on ideas of ‘natural laws’, ‘economic man’ and the prevailing notion of ‘value’ to point out gaps and inconsistencies in the system of classical economics.
'To criticize Political Economy' means to confront it with a new problematic and a new object: i.e., to question the very object of Political Economy
Den klassiska nationalekonomin, som den utarbetats av John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith och David Ricardo, betraktade han som en sorts kollektivt hjärnsläpp ... [Transl. Ruskin viewed the classical political economy as it was developed by Mill, Smith, and Ricardo, as a kind of "collective mental lapse.]
Marx arrives at conclusions and formulates new terms that run directly counter to those of Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical political economists.
The critical edge of Marx's analysis does not derive, therefore, from any sort of declaration that this impersonal social relation does not exist, or is not 'truly' impersonal. Instead, it derives from the demonstration of how such a peculiar and counter-intuitive sort of social relation – one that possesses qualitative characteristics more normally associated with our interactions with non-social reality – comes to be unintentionally generated in collective practice.
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Ruskin’s criticism of Mill is that he based the science of political economy on ‘the opinions of the public’ as expressed by market prices, i.e. on ‘fuddled’ thought induced by contemplating the shadow of value rather than thinking upon, by implication, a true (Platonic) object of cognition.
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Engels var också först med att kritiskt bearbeta den nya nationalekonomin; hans "Utkast till en kritik av nationalekonomin" kom ut 1844 och blev en utgångspunkt för Marx egen kritik av den politiska ekonomin[Engels was the first to critically engage the new political economy his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy came out in 1844 and became a starting point for Marx's own critique of the political economy]
"There are no counterparts to Marx's economic concepts in either classical or utility theory." I take this to mean that Marx breaks with economics, where economics is understood to be a generally applicable social science.
Marx consistently reveals the social abstraction of the substance of value and capital, i.e. abstract labour, as a Realabstraktion dominating individuals in bourgeois society through money and capital.
‘Economic’ categories, appearing as inhuman things with a mind of their own – prices, money, interest rates – are for Marx the disguised form of relations between people.
The expression 'critique of political economy' figures repeatedly in the title or programme of Marx's main works [...] To these we may add a great many unpublished pieces, articles and sections in polemical works.
Marx's critique of classical political economy as a critique of the fetishistic (that is, ahistorical) understanding of economic categories, which identifies the appearance of capitalist society with the universal and transhistorical economic laws of nature. Marx, in contrast, comprehends those economic categories as "specific social forms" and reveals the underlying social relations that bestow an objective validity of this inverted world where economic things dominate human beings.
The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution, etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded. This is the more or less conscious purpose of the whole proceeding. In distribution, by contrast, humanity has allegedly permitted itself to be considerably more arbitrary. Quite apart from this crude tearing-apart of production and distribution and of their real relationship, it must be apparent from the outset that, no matter how different distribution may have been arranged in different stages of social development, it must be possible here also, just as with production, to single out common characteristics, and just as possible to confound or to extinguish all historic differences under general human laws.
Second, Marx's concern is always with social and historical specificity, as against looking for or finding what others would consider being given and universal.
Social phenomena exist, and can be understood, only in their historical context.
[...] a number of important critical- theoretical approaches to the critique of political economy [...] have been largely neglected in the anglophone world.
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It could be argued that Ruskin, like Plato, is addressing the problems of society as a whole rather than addressing economic issues. Nonetheless, he approaches such concerns through a critique of political economy.
This is the Žižekian lesson: Marx’s critique of political economy is not only a critique of the classical political economy (Smith, Ricardo...), but it is also a form of critique, a transcendental one according to Žižek, which allows us to articulate the elementary forms of social edifice under capitalism itself. And this ‘transcendental’ framework, cannot be other than philosophical.