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OP-ED: Sen’s reflection on Karl Marx and some thoughts

  • Published at 11:54 pm October 25th, 2021
RMG Worker
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Through his long and meticulous devotion to research, Sen has provoked readers to challenge some of the most powerful dominant narratives in the discipline

It is quite paradoxical how the academic arena that is expected to generate new knowledge for the society, often becomes a mundane ecosystem where life mirrors the routine and rigidities of industrial life.

Academics in the modern setting are not expected to be the ‘renaissance men’ – as they are dominantly entrusted to concentrate on narrowly defined intellectual territories and learn the art to embrace the template of accepted research which can get them published in respectable journals.

This, in essence, makes academic papers and writings largely uninteresting for the average reader – as social scientists increasingly disarm themselves of the style and techniques that can allow them to provoke interesting questions and communicate with lucidity that opens up complicated topics to interested bystanders.

Fortunately, Amartya Sen, in that context, has been a refreshing outlier, whose style of thinking, writing and inquiry has made him not only one of the most original thinkers of our time, but has allowed a discipline – economics – to receive new philosophical perspectives.

My first encounter with Sen’s writing happened in 1998 when I saw his picture in one of the Bengali dailies that my late father read.

My late father, Naziur Rahman Manzur,  was a politician with a deep interest in economic and philosophical issues – and narrated to me often what Sen said on famine and its causes – and how the quality of political institutions and not food shortages per se shaped how famines translated into human catastrophes.

This for me personally was a pivotal moment – given that it marked the beginning of my interest in key economic questions.

Why are some nations rich and others poor? Why does poverty endure for certain groups? What does it mean when we say that we care about economic equality? And how did Kerala manage to attain a higher life expectancy than some US States?

Perhaps this early encounter with such powerful and pertinent questions tilted my academic preference – as I indulged further to study economic sciences.

Through his long and meticulous devotion to research, Sen has provoked readers to challenge some of the most powerful dominant narratives in the discipline – and how key economic propositions and prescriptions change if we rethink the fundamental assumptions that dominate economic thinking.

Is human behaviour only shaped by self-interest? Is social choice possible? Can democracies instrumentally matter for development?

Thus, when Sen devoted a chapter in his recently published memoir to Marx titled – What to Make of Marx–I could not resist the temptation of giving this section of the book a sincere scrutiny.

My personal interest in Marx has been a somewhat recent phenomenon.

Bluntly stating, for a long time, I was ignorant of the critical arguments that Marx articulated in his famous Das Kapital – which elaborated how capitalism suffers from some fundamental inherent contradictions, and how these contradictions make it vulnerable to collapse.

This ignorance largely stemmed from the training I received in economics at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences (LSE), which did not pay much attention to the writings and thinking of Karl Marx.

Like most mainstream approaches to teaching economics, Marx was kept on the periphery at the LSE – an experience shared by Sen too while he was in Cambridge in the 1950s.  

That is, one would occasionally see his picture in the Student Union or on the cover page of books by writers such as Lord Meghnad Desai– but one could, nonetheless, graduate without ever doing a single serious assignment on Marx.

This was largely due to the confidence of the dominant economic thinkers on how capitalism was the best means to address the fundamental economic problem.

Hence, their short discussion on Marx was that he was wrong.

The longer discussion on his thoughts noted that he was both wrong and unhelpful in explaining or understanding the power of the modern capitalist world – vindicated by the fall of the Soviet Union and the apparent economic stagnation observed in many formerly socialist economies.

Arrogance

Yet, this arrogance somehow received a necessary correction after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

The question that kept recurring like a thorn for public thinkers after the global economic meltdown was how could almost the entire fraternity of economists and bankers not see the economic tsunami coming?

Was there intellectual hubris?

Or, are economists simply not equipped with the analytical tools that could help them understand how critical economic outcomes like global growth behaved over time?

Or was their ignorance of the analytical tools that could help them better understand how the global economy was functioning largely jeopardized by politics, which compelled them to overlook critical examinations of capitalism?

Most importantly, if this is the dominant trend in this discipline, then can one see economics as a discipline within the realm of science?

Can such biases originate in physics, for instance, and endure?

Can an astrophysicist keep his job if he or she grossly miscalculates the trajectory of an asteroid destined to hit the Earth?

Then what allows mainstream economic thinking to be so arrogant after failing to gain the needed precision in their prediction on macro-outcomes? 

The dominant economic thinking in the modern world largely views an economy and a political arena as a frictionless space where consumers and producers, employers and employees, politicians and voters interact to determine who gets what and how resources are allocated to determine what is produced, how it is produced and for whom it is produced.

Yet, as Sen notes, Marx dismantles this “objective illusion” that views capitalism as a system where all stakeholders have equal voice.

This is because defenders of capitalism ignore the power structures that ultimately determine who gets an upper hand in the bargaining game and how the distribution of social, economic and political power shapes the distribution of the economic pie.

In particular, his complex examination of capitalism predicts that the economic pie going to the workers (proletariat) will continue to shrink as the capitalists (bourgeoisie) will keep finding new means to squeeze the economic returns to labour.

And this economic process will be manifested in the intensification of income and wealth inequality; pushing the society to an economic state where the workers will no longer have enough to meet their basic demands.

This will eventually induce the capitalists to explore international markets – culminating in globalization.

But, in a world where workers have very little to spend on their basic needs, they will have no incentive to such an enslaving economic system.

Consequently, a revolution is inevitable and the triumph of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie is destined to produce a classless society.

Current scenario

Interestingly, we do live in a world where globalization dictates how goods are produced and consumed and few individuals have more wealth than the bottom 3.8 billion people.

In advanced industrialized nations like the United States, “real average hourly wages” have remained unchanged between 1978 and 2018 – while its GDP has grown by a factor of three.

In fact, the wealthiest 1% in the US now own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%, and this gap between the rich and the poor widened from the late 1970s.

Even in countries like the UK and France, income inequality has continued to increase in the 1990s as their political elites increasingly un-winded the welfare state institutions.

Thus, some of these outcomes do conform to Marx’s prediction a century earlier.       

Of course, the prophesized revolution never happened and why it did not happen is a long discussion that I will not touch in this article; but Sen correctly underscores that Marx fell acutely short in explaining what political institutions will guide the formation of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

More precisely, would such a polity have any legitimate countervailing force that can instil checks and balances within its political setting?

How would political power be distributed and exercised in a post-capitalist society?

As Sen critically writes, “it is hard to think of a more breathless bit of theorizing that idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat”. 

Yet, it would be incorrect to confine Marx’s contribution to our understanding of political and economic evolution over time by excessively focusing on what he thought would replace capitalism.

To understand capitalism thoroughly, we rather need to revisit its fault lines seriously along the contours first identified in the Das Kapital – and extend this understanding further so that we can try to augment capitalism as much as possible to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

If not anything, the intellectual hubris that kept Marx on the periphery of mainstream economic research and teaching must end – so that the academic climate dictating how one must try to understand the economic forces shaping our lives is more inclusive and evidence-based, while limiting the influence of politics in determining what can be taught.

In short, Marx needs and deserves a serious discussion in mainstream economics if we want the discipline to be taken seriously.


The author is senior economist at the Policy Research Institute (PRI), and can be reached at [email protected]

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