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Class Acts in Political Economy

by David Ruccio on November 4, 2016
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This is the text of the talk delivered by David F. Ruccio at Gleebooks, Sydney, 19 October 2016, as part of a ‘Class Acts in Political Economy’ roundtable with Katherine Gibson.

First, thanks to Adam Morton for organising this event. And to Katherine Gibson for taking time out of her busy schedule to join me. We’ve been to many meetings and conferences together but this is the first time, I think, we have shared the same stage.

So, the question Adam put to us was: where and how does class fit into our approaches to political economy?

performing-diverse-economiesLet me steal for a moment Gerda, Kevin, and Gibson-Graham’s title: the point of class is to make other—and, I would add, better—worlds possible. In other words, class is not just a concept we can use to make sense of the world around us, the existing class society. It’s also a way of thinking about how we go about imagining and making a different kind of class society, one in which class exploitation is but a distant memory.

For me, as I tried to explain in my Wheelwright lecture yesterday evening, it all starts with critique.  With “ruthless criticism of everything existing.” And class is central to that ruthless criticism, at least in the Marxian tradition.

Not that Marx invented the idea of class. He certainly didn’t think so. He traces it back to the Greeks. What Marx did, however, is define it in a particular fashion (in terms of surplus labour) and apply it within the context of the critique of political economy.

It’s actually a two-fold critique: a critique of mainstream economic theory and a critique of capitalism, the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists. And, as many of you, both mainstream economists and the prophets of capitalism, while engaged in class projects—as ways of making and remaking the world in a particular fashion—both deny the existence of class. The prophets of capitalism, because it’s based on the premise and promise of “just deserts,” everybody gets what they deserve. And mainstream economists because, through their most basic concepts of price and the distribution of income, deny the existence of class and, especially, class exploitation.

Interestingly, some of that resistance is beginning to break down, in the face of the grotesque and still-growing inequalities that characterise capitalism today. But still, even some of the staunchest critics of inequality (like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz) stop short of class analysis. We can come back to that problem if you wish.

ruccioFor my part, I’ve been working on issues of planning, development, and globalisation for about thirty years. Both the theories and, with many trips to Latin America (Nicaragua, Peru, Brazil, and so on) over the years, in practice. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve been horrified. Every time I wandered into one of the debates concerning planning, development, and globalisation, I was horrified by the existing common sense, by the narrow terms of the debate. And class is one of the ways I have found to disrupt that common sense, to denaturalise and challenge the terms of the debate—even when many others, on both the Right and the Left, have tried to convince us to leave class behind.

Let me offer a few examples from the book, starting with planning.

Planning

Planning was in the air when I set out to write my first essays on socialist planning. It was being theorised and debated by both mainstream and radical economists, as part of the unfortunate dichotomy associated with markets: the debate was cast as markets versus planning and the individual versus the state. The assumption was that mainstream economists preferred markets while heterodox economists sided with one or another form of planning—more or less the same presumption as today, in the debate over the current crises of capitalism (with government intervention and regulation invoked in the place of planning). I consider the terms of the debate to be unfortunate for a number of reasons: markets and planning were taken to be alternative modes of allocating scarce resources, as if that goal was shared; each was taken to be unitary, such that the market and planning were understood to be singular entities; and each was presumed to correspond to a different approach to economics, in the sense that markets were presumed to be neoclassical while planning corresponded to Marxism.

economic-representationsMy first reaction was: that’s it?! That’s what planning and socialism are reduced to, state decision-making rather than private markets? The goal I set for myself was to look at socialist planning from the perspective of the theory with which it has long been associated—to conduct a Marxian class analysis of socialist planning, in both theory and practice.

I used class to deconstruct the mathematical models of planning theory. And then I went to Nicaragua, where I analysed the initial attempts, after the overthrow of the Somoza regime, to reconfigure the state as the centre of accumulation. Without going into the details, my research on the Sandinista Revolution led to the formulation of two key theoretical and political questions: First, how can the transitional socialist state (as under the Sandinistas) eliminate its noncommunal distributive class positions and expand its new position in both receiving communal surplus and providing some of the conditions of existence of nonexploitative forms of production outside the state? Second, how can the state eliminate its position as a capitalist exploiter (in, e.g., state capitalist enterprises) and itself become a site of collective or communal class processes, in which the workers themselves are not excluded from appropriating the surplus they produce? My goal was to place those questions on an agenda that had been straitjacketed, then as now, by the “state versus market” dichotomy.

Development

Another area of my writings over the past 20 years is Third World development. If the discussion of socialism and planning had (at least until recently) virtually disappeared, development has been fundamentally transformed—from one of the most interesting areas of economics, where many important debates have taken place, to a more or less complete adoption of the theoretical terms and policy conclusions of mainstream economics. When I first got started, development economics represented a fundamental critique of mainstream economics, a politically radical and theoretically interdisciplinary alternative to the methods and presuppositions of conventional microeconomics, macroeconomics, and international trade. Today, development economics is focused almost entirely on traditional themes—promoting macroeconomic stability, fostering economic growth, and alleviating poverty (now, in the latest fad, on the basis of randomised control trials).

postmodern-momentsIn the case of stabilisation and adjustment, I was dissatisfied with the usual left response: to oppose neoclassical and IMF (what later came to be called Washington Consensus or neoliberal) austerity programs and offer instead a Keynesian or structuralist program. As with the planning debate, my response was: that’s all the Left has to offer, a return to fiscal policy and state regulation?

Using Marxian class analysis, I show how in four key areas—a more unequal distribution of income, overvalued exchange rates, inflation, and government deficits—what non-Marxian economists and politicians perceive to be failures actually, in different ways, foster the development of capitalism. They lead, in different ways, to the widening and deepening of the capitalist appropriation of surplus-value. Thus, what others see as nonclass failures are, in fact, class successes. And it is that commitment—to capitalist class successes, in one form or another—that keeps the stabilisation and adjustment debate confined to the terms of neoclassical and structuralist macroeconomic theories. That was the commitment underlying the debate in Latin America just as it serves as the basis of the mainstream debate concerning the current crises of capitalism in the United States and around the world.

Globalisation

The third topic of my research in this general area has been international political economy or, what has come to be called, globalization. In many ways, since I first started writing, globalisation has displaced development as the key area of debate between mainstream and heterodox approaches to political economy.

Mainstream economists—both academic (like Jagdish Bhagwati) and everyday (such as Thomas Friedman)—tend to celebrate globalization. Their view is that the freeing up of commodity and financial markets on an international level, just as within nations, leads to an efficient allocation of scarce resources. The lowering of barriers to the flow of goods and services as well as investment capital and finance around the world promotes economic growth (of individual national economies and of the world economy as a whole) and thus promises a solution to poverty and underdevelopment.

The heterodox view is, of course, somewhat different. It emphasises the unequal structure of global capitalism—both in terms of unequal nations (such that some nations benefit while other nations lose) and unequal actors (with large multinational financial, service, and manufacturing enterprises gaining at the expense of other groups, such as labour and small farmers). According to heterodox economists, the globalisation of capitalism thus undermines the possibility of overcoming the problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Therefore, it needs to be contained and regulated, either by reinforcing national controls and forms of government intervention or by creating a supranational global authority.

Once again, I was frustrated by the existing debate—especially by the absence of a class analysis of globalisation (on both sides). And while there was a longstanding Marxian tradition of analysing the global dimensions of capitalism (beginning with the Communist Manifesto and continuing through Lenin’s famous treatise on imperialism), it was not at all clear how the rethinking of Marxism could be extended to examine the conditions and consequences of contemporary globalisation. That was my next project.

What a class analysis of globalisation helps us to do is to challenge the economic—in the case of particular interest to me, the class—homogeneity imposed by most uses of the term 2016-ruccio-gleebooks-web-1globalisation—the idea, for example, that capitalism has become singular and universal. My idea was (and is) that we can produce a hetero­geneous class landscape, filled with both different forms of capitalism and various types of noncapitalism, in the midst of the global reach of certain capitalist enterprises, private capital flows, and free international markets for goods and services.

This encouraged me, at least, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and to think of imperialism as a machine—as against either a particular stage of capitalism (Lenin’s preference) or merely a political choice (the approach of Lenin’s nemesis, Karl Kautsky). Precisely the options that are repeated today. In contrast, the machinelike quality of imperialism gives a sense of the ways in which it has various parts that (often but not always) work together, a set of energies, available identities and categories that propel individuals and groups, institutions and structures, to enact designs and to “civilize” those who attempt to resist its apparent lessons, to make them succumb to the naturalised logic. Not a stage of capitalism but rather a machine that energises and is energised by capitalism at various points in its history. Not a mere political choice available to ruling governments and regimes, although it does include various options: military bombardment or invasion, economic carrots and sticks, cultural hegemony and worldwide news reach—and the knowledges produced by economists, especially (but certainly not only) in the United States.

In my view, we need to criticize and disrupt the existing, tired debates about planning, development, globalisation. Introducing class is one of the important ways of doing that.

David Ruccio
David F. Ruccio is Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame and former editor (from 1997 to 2009) of the journal Rethinking Marxism. His most recent book is Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis (New York: Routledge, 2010). He is currently working on two book manuscripts: "Utopia and Critique" and "What's the Matter with Exploitation." His blog, Occasional Links & Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society, can be found at http://anticap.wordress.com.

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