Monday, April 23, 2007


The Assault Of Vulgar Economy

Prabhat Patnaik

ONE of Karl Marx’s basic propositions related to the two-fold nature of all economic categories under capitalism. A product was simultaneously a commodity; a commodity which had a use value carried simultaneously an exchange value; concrete labour was simultaneously abstract labour; the labour process was simultaneously a value-creating process; the means of production were simultaneously capital; the surplus product in society took simultaneously the form of surplus value; and so on. The first aspect of this two-fold nature of everything related to the material, the concrete, the specific, or what one may call the “thingness” of it (Marx sometimes referred to it as the “use-value” aspect); the second aspect related to the fact that this “thing” was simultaneously a social relation. The two-fold nature of economic categories arose from the fact that all “things” were simultaneously expressions of social relations.

This two-fold nature did not characterise pre-capitalist societies, since in them social relations were expressed directly and blatantly, through force, custom, or habit, and not through the complex mechanisms of a system of generalised commodity production, where the apparent equality of the market place concealed class exploitation. The task of scientific political economy therefore was to discover these social relations. To remain confined to the “thingness” of economic categories, to remain oblivious to the social relations of which they were simultaneously the expression, was “vulgar economy”, and not scientific political economy. Marx described “vulgar economy” as remaining confined to the sphere of circulation, and emphasised the apologetic intent behind it. But his characterisation of it clearly was that it analysed “things” without reference to the social relations of which they were the expression. For instance, its exclusive attention to the sphere of circulation meant that it saw the capitalist economy, in its totality, as being no different from a Robinson Crusoe economy (as a gigantic mechanism for the allocation of “scarce resources” among “alternative uses”), which ipso facto precluded any awareness of social relations.

Almost a century and a half after Marx’s painstaking work had unearthed the anatomy of modern bourgeois society, we are once more in the danger of being deluged by “vulgar economy”. In the Afterword to the second German edition of Capital, Marx had said apropos “vulgar economy”: “It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not..”. The same is true of “vulgar economy” today: it is no longer a question of scientific correctness, but whether a proposition is useful for international finance capital, and the domestic collaborationist bourgeoisie, or not; and in particular, at this juncture, whether it carries forward their favoured “globalisation” project, or not. Nothing must be allowed to cast a shadow on this project and on this consolidation of capital, for which any analysis of social relations must be kept completely out of the picture, through an overwhelming and exclusive emphasis on “thingness”. And if some issue arises which can potentially cast a shadow on this consolidation of capital on a global scale, then that issue must be immediately smothered under an enormous deadweight of “thingness”. Let us consider a few examples from the Indian discourse itself.


Nothing of such enormous social significance has occurred for some time in India as the current spate of peasant suicides. And what do the bourgeois media, intellectuals, and “think tanks” (like the Planning Commission) say about it? That there is a “crisis of agriculture”. And how do they see the way out of this crisis? By inviting corporate capital and multinational corporations to take over this sector, and hence by further promoting the consolidation of capital on a global scale. The “thingness”, the materiality, of the sector called “agriculture” is pushed to the foreground, obliterating the changes in the social relations that underlie this phenomenon of suicides. And this phenomenon which could cast a shadow over the global consolidation of capital is actually made an argument for further carrying forward this consolidation! A crisis of peasant agriculture, a crisis of petty production, arising from the onslaught of capital is presented as its very opposite, as arising from the restraints placed upon capital, from the insufficiency of the onslaught!

The same “vulgar economy” is evident in another example. Much is being made these days of the fact that the economy is growing at 7-8 per cent. The government pats itself on the back for it; the media and the bourgeois intellectuals applaud it; and the Planning Commission in its Draft Approach Paper on the Eleventh Plan wants to do “even better” by raising the growth rate to 8.5 per cent. It is taken for granted that such a high growth rate will automatically (or by creating the enabling condition for the government to act) get rid of poverty. It is deduced from this that in order to get rid of poverty we must have a continuation or a further acceleration of the high growth rate. And how do we achieve it? By creating the appropriate conditions for capital, including in particular international capital, to come into the country, i.e. by further removing whatever hurdles remain to the global consolidation of capital, by actively promoting such a consolidation.

What the promotion of such consolidation will do to the social relations in the country are never discussed. What impact it will have on the organic composition of capital, on employment, on the size of the reserve army, on the rate of surplus value, on the value of labour power, on the length of the working day, on the intensity of work, on the process of primitive accumulation of capital through the expropriation of petty producers, on the prospects of simple reproduction of peasant and petty producers, none of these myriad issues connected with the changes in the social relations that would arise as a consequence of promoting the global consolidation of capital and making our economy a part of it, is ever discussed. All that is emphasised is that a higher growth rate will get rid of poverty!

Let us not get into the issue of whether the “growth rate” has actually accelerated or not; doing so would entail precisely an acceptance of the problematic of “vulgar economy”. But to say that a “high growth rate”, no matter how it is achieved or what it entails by way of changing social relations, will overcome poverty, is to concentrate only on “thingness” and be oblivious to social relations, to accept the analogy of the “cake”, (“a bigger cake is good for all”) which is a thing, a materiality, apparently devoid of any connection with the realm of social relations. This is “vulgar economy” par excellence. It obliterates social relations to a point where poverty, an expression of social relations, is made dependent on the size of a material object, a “thing”, called the GDP (the “cake”).

Marx was particularly emphatic about the fact that poverty was the expression of social relations: “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is .therefore at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital”. The “vulgarity” of contemporary “vulgar economy” consists in its claim that the size or the growth of a “thing”, seen completely in isolation from the social relations of which it is an expression, will overcome per se the social relations underlying poverty.

The third example is even more bizarre. There is much talk these days of the need for “labour market flexibility”, which is a euphemism for a direct attack on the rights of the workers. This is a direct call for changing the social relations in favour of capital. And how is it justified? Through the claim that such a change will improve the investment “climate” and contribute to an acceleration of the growth rate, which in turn is supposed to eliminate poverty! Now, the magnitude of rights enjoyed by workers in any society is a rough index of the degree of space enjoyed by the working people as a whole to defend themselves against capital. To say that workers’ rights should be curbed for bringing in higher growth that will lower poverty, is to project the “thing-centric” view so overwhelmingly, to obliterate the relational aspect of capitalism so completely, that it amounts to endorsing a curb on workers’ rights in order apparently to give them more rights! It is like saying that a person should jump off a cliff in order to enjoy a longer life!


Since “vulgar economy”, as a theoretical weapon of capital in its class struggle, is always around, what it says at any particular time should not normally be a matter of much concern. What is disturbing at present however is the spread of these ideas, the veritable assault that “vulgar economy” has been launching of late, financed liberally by imperialist institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, which has made even intellectuals friendly to the Left, even progressive scholars, fall prey to its “vulgarities”. For instance, a portmanteau term called “development” is widely used these days, by all and sundry, as a wholesome objective of economic policy. And this “development” which is supposed to reveal itself through a higher growth rate of the “thing” called the GDP, is caused apparently by inviting multinational corporations and domestic corporate capitalists to ride roughshod over the rights of the workers, peasants and petty producers, and is defended on the grounds that it will better the lot of persons belonging to these very classes. Everybody, from the Centre-Left to Narendra Modi, is running after this thing called “development”; and any defence of the rights of the workers, peasants and petty producers is dubbed “anti-development”. Poor Karl Marx! He must be turning in his grave at this unusual success that “vulgar economy” still enjoys a century and a half after his scientific magnum opus was published. We owe it to him to expose the vulgarities of “vulgar economy” even when it is articulated by a prime minister we support.

source: People's Democracy Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)Vol. XXX No. 38 (September 17, 2006)