Political Economy — An Intro
Basics and Definitions
Political economy has become distorted in recent decades by liberal academics, but originally this field/specialty belonged solely to the social sciences, and to Marxism. At its most basic, it studies the distribution of goods and material wealth through the various stages of development in society.
The basis of life, its qualities both qualitative and quantitative, lies in material production and the relationship humans have to modes of production (will be explained further below). Humans toil and work, struggle with nature to create things: food, clothing, housing, etc. They do so not as individuals, but collectively. Most of the things we use and consume today were made through socialized production aka multiple hands went into the making of each thing.
A few definitions out of the gate:
- Labor — labor is any purposeful activity of a human being where they transform and adapt natural objects to satisfy their own or others requirements. In today’s age, labor has been abstracted somewhat from interaction with natural materials, including more mental and managerial work, but nonetheless the base remains the same.
- Subject of labor — everything to which a person’s labor is directed (for example: wood, oil, machinery). Subjects of labor previously subjected to the process of labor are called raw materials.
- Means of labor— all the things that make labor output possible: buildings, machinery, land, roads, storage houses, trains, etc. Instruments of production are included under the means of labor and are the most crucial part of the production process. These are the tools used in production processes, and directly correlate to the level of development of a given society, its ‘mastery over nature’.
- Means of production — both the subjects of labor, and the means of labor. Means of production cannot actually produce anything without labor power to drive them: tools, buildings, machinery…all useless without the laborer to engage with them.
Having said all this, we can view the whole of history via the lens of relations to the means of production: who owns them? Who uses them? To whose benefit is the whole of society mobilized? We consider this the ‘character of production/relations of production’.
Relationship to the Means of Production Over Time
The ‘relationship to the means’ depends on who owns the means of production, whether they are the property of particular people, of a particular class or social group…as well as how they are utilized. Are the means of production owned by a few and used to exploit a majority, as under capitalism? Or are they owned collectively and utilized for the betterment of society, as under socialism? The last portion of this puzzle of product is distribution. Today, many reformists will try only to address this point: this is idealist fantasy and does not get to the heart of our issues.
Capitalist society and production revolves around the production of commodities, meaning that distribution of material wealth occurs solely on the basis of exchanging commodities produced by labor. Production, exchange and distribution come together to describe the economic base of society, with production playing the key role. Without it, the other two are useless as one cannot distribute or exchange what has not been produced. Production can either take on a developmental role in society, or serve as a hindrance. Marxists consider that capitalism’s period of development has passed, and the system has now taken on a hindering role. We can see in the great examples of China and the USSR that this holds true, as both countries saw the most rapid and sustained period of societal growth ever witnessed after transferring to socialism.
Around the economic base of society (the production, distribution and exchange) there rises a superstructure: ideologies that dominate a particular era, all that “men say, imagine, conceive”, including such things as “politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc”. All these things are subject to radical transformation when the economic base is transformed, but it is important to keep in mind that they exist. This can help us decide what is and isn’t worth fighting for or against. For example, let’s take religion, a part of the superstructure. Religion was also key and played a heightened role in society under feudalism, serving to ideologically support and justify colonialism, remaining slavery, and monarchy. It transformed fundamentally when ‘exposed’ to capitalism, now taking on other aspects and qualities of the superstructure like consumerism, and often becoming the breeding ground of reaction. That is not a necessity of religion, however. We can see that concepts and practices such as ‘liberation theology’ can serve as ideological support for and superstructure of a new and burgeoning society under socialism.
Out With the Old, In With the New
How do societies change, qualitatively and radically? Productive forces can only develop unhindered for a time…only while production relations correspond to the nature of the productive forces. What does this mean? It means that at a certain stage of development, the productive forces have outgrown the framework of the given relationships of production and come into contradiction with them. Like the contradiction in capitalism between socially produced commodities that are owned privately (by the capitalists).
This also means that during each epoch of human history, the material basis for the new was born out of and produced by the old. In a society based on private property of the capitalists and exploitation of ‘man by man’ and ‘nature by man’, conflicts between the mode of production (capitalism) and the productive forces (people and nature) are expressed in class struggle, where the workers realize their lower place in the society and work to change that.
Political Economy — A Detailed Definition
“Political economy investigates how social production develops from lower, stages to higher stages, and how the social orders which are based on exploitation of man by man arise, develop and are abolished. It shows how the entire course of historical development prepares the way for the victory of the socialist mode of production. It studies, furthermore, the economic laws of socialism the laws of the origin of socialist society and its subsequent development along the road to the higher phase of communism.” — Political Economy, Economics Institute of the USSR
Put more simply, political economy is the study of the development of socioeconomic relations between persons. It brings to light the relations that regulate the production and distribution of material wealth in society at different stages of development.
The method used to study this is called dialectical materialism, and its application to history ‘historical materialism’. This science is different than other sciences: it cannot be studied in a lab. It must be applied to real and tangible life, and retroactively applied to history to draw out understanding and lessons for the future.
We can briefly outline the historical epochs using the above outline:
Primitive communism — means of production, although majorly underdeveloped, are owned in common. Everyone produces and consumes for their own needs in a social manner.
Slavery — Slaves constitute the main means of labor power, using the subjects of labor to create things. Society and the means of production are owned by slave owners and an aristocracy of one form or another. Class structures form along these lines, with the introduction and solidification of ‘racism’ as a concept. The patriarchal family unit emerged as well during this period, as intergenerational wealth shows up for the first time: someone needed to lay claim to this, and as such, patriarchy and sexism found their roots.
Feudalism — after great and numerous slave rebellions (class struggle being the main driver of history), slave owners could no longer uniformly exploit the masses freely — the peasantry took its place, working and producing for monarchs and an expanded aristocracy, complete with regional powers and royal families. This too would lead to a period of rapid advancement, followed by regression and suppression by the ruling class of the time. A more educated and conscious section of the peasantry, what would become today’s bourgeoisie, would organize and take power to establish capitalism the way we know it. This wasn’t and isn’t a ‘clean’ break from feudalism, however. For many decades, small merchants, mercantile capitalists, became examples and embryos for modern day capitalism to burst forth from.
Capitalism — after a period of development, followed by stagnation and hindrance by the land-owning lords and royalty, the revolution of today’s bourgeoise took place, overthrowing feudalism. In its place, capitalism, the commodity production system emerged. Yet contradictions would come to hinder progress eventually. Socialized production, private accumulation of profit. An earth with finite resources is in contradiction to a system that requires constant economic growth. As mentioned above, society does not change overnight. The new system struggles to be born from the old system: socialism. Prominent, real life examples have given us a root node, an initial iteration to grow and learn from. And that tide cannot be quelled or dispelled, despite the efforts of the ruling minority.
Bias — Can a Marxist Be ‘Neutral’?
Some economists like to say that political economy is some neutral, non-party science. This is false. The entire subject is the study of the development, the progression of society! That means that a Marxist must always be on the side of progress, the side with everything to gain and nothing to lose but their chains: the proletariat.
“Such an objective political economy can only be the political economy of that class which has no interest in slurring over the contradictions and sore places of capitalism, which has no interest in preserving the capitalist order: the class whose interests merge with the interests of liberating society from capitalist slavery, whose interests coincide with the interests of mankind’s progressive development” — Political Economy, Economics Institute of the USSR
Political economy and dialectical materialism, the world outlook of the class conscious workers of the world, can be used as a great weapon to advance the whole of society, to overcome the moribund and decaying capitalist imperialist system, and take humanity to a higher stage of development.
If you enjoyed this brief outline, please follow for future articles relating to each stage of historical political economy in isolation.