Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 31 July 2022

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS - Freedom and Necessity


Contrary to what Lenin is said to have quipped, politics is not a concentrate of economics. It is the other way round: economics is a concentrate of politics. In other words, it is not politics that "boils down" to economics; it is economics that can be reduced to a bundle of politics. The important thing is to focus on the meaning of the phrase "a concentrate of" and the phrase "boils down to". What is it that we mean when we say that "in the final analysis" politics is economics or the opposite, that economics really is politics? What kind of "reality" do we refer to when we speak of the ultimate foundations of economics or politics? As we all know, necessity is not just "the mother of invention" - meaning that there are some needs that are so fundamental that they stir up human imagination and inventiveness. Necessity can also be camouflaged and disguised or simply be rationalised away as "virtue": this is what we do when "we make virtue out of necessity". Differently put, we recognize that there are situations in social relations when we are coerced into doing things that either we would rather not do or else "concentrate the mind" to the point of inducing virtue - the acquiescence to necessity as virtue - or inventiveness, the desperate search for alternative solutions. But in all these cases, in all these instances, what we call ‘necessity’ is a function of social relations, not of physical or physiological necessity. If we accept that our environment offers sufficient resources for human societies to reproduce themselves, then it is evident that economics - which as "the dismal science" is often confused with "the sphere of necessity" - has little to do with physical or physiological necessity but must instead have everything to do with "coercion". The necessity of economics intended as a "science" is therefore in reality the necessity of political coercion. That is why it is correct to insist that "economics is a concentrate of politics", in the sense that what we describe or circumscribe as a separate field of human activity - "the Economic" - is a specific form of coercion imposed by some people on other people in the sphere of the production of and for human needs and their satisfaction.

To accept with Lenin that "politics is a concentrate of economics" would be tantamount to asserting that economic activity is dictated by a "necessity" that is independent of "coercion", that is physical or even physio-bio-logical in nature – and therefore independent of "the Political". This may make sense in terms of the economic determinism – indeed, an eschatology or even a “theodicy” of communism – that Lenin inherited from Marx’s labour theory of value and is implicit in the conception of human history expounded most explicitly in The Communist Manifesto and in the “Preface to A Contribution”.

Bourgeois economic theory, which includes Classical Political Economy and Neoclassical Economic Theory, has always sought to draw a nexus, a substantive link, between the freedom involved in the production of things by human beings and the necessity that limits the quantity of that production given a certain level of technological means. Thus, the value of goods produced has always depended for bourgeois economic theory on the strict link between unbounded human needs and wants, on one side, and the clear limits on our ability to satisfy them. In its effort to present itself as “economic science”, bourgeois economic theory has always presented the value of production as dependent on this interaction between unlimited demand and strictly limited supply.

Consider these two statements made by Joan Robinson in her “Freedom and Necessity” intended as an anthropological introduction to “economic science”:

In so-called civilized societies, it is the poor who spend their days in an anxious search for the means to live and the rich who can indulge in gratuitous activities; but when we compare rich and poor societies, the reverse often appears. The isolated communities, when they were discovered and brought into the frame of reference of ‘national income per head’, were placed very low on the scale, yet for many of them the proportion of energy, skill and mental activity devoted to non-economic aims was much greater than it is with us.” (J. Robinson, Freedom and Necessity, p.25.)

[Cf. also the asinine remarks Robinson makes on adaptation on p.10.]

The survivors of each generation are those whose genetic make-up is propitious to survival, that is, well suited to finding nourishment and avoiding enemies in the particular environment in which they grow up. Thus the pressure of technical conditions has carved out the multiplicity of creatures who appear to us to be so marvellously 'designed' for the life that they lead.¹

For a species, variability itself is propitious, within limits, to survival. The species capable of adaptation are, for the most part, the ones that have survived till today, though there are some which have proved successful with remark ably little variation.

The habits of a species are just as much subject to the pressure of evolution as its physical form. A great variety of types of family life exist in nature - monogamy, polygamy, and group marriage; continuous association, pairing during a limited breeding season or casual mating. The style of life of a species must be consonant with its way of getting a living. (Op.cit., p.10)


The immediate problem with this understanding of value is that it presupposes the existence of property rights whereby the exchange of products between independent producers and, consequently, the settling by these producers of the exchange values of their production can be determined. But it is just as immediately evident that there can be no necessary link of any kind between the human production of goods and the proprietary and legal rights to which producers can lay claim over that aggregated production!

This is quite clearly and incontrovertibly the rock against which all bourgeois economic theory must founder! The presumed and claimed objectivity of bourgeois economic science founders against the rock of the abject arbitrariness of all legal proprietary rights and claims over production by presumed independent producers!

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