Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)


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Currently, many MPE scholars argue that the tendency of the over-accumulation of capital since the s is key to understanding the various financial and economic crises of the past decades throughout the globe. In this situation too much money capital is searching for profitable investment opportunities.

Since investments in financial assets have become increasingly profitable in the past decades, money capital is disproportionately subtracted from industrial production and employed as fictitious capital. This form of money capital is fictitious because it is without any material basis in commodities or productive activities.

Although not generating any surplus value in the labour process, fictitious capital can reproduce itself M—M' through the representation of a claim on the realization of future surplus value.

Marxian Political Economy

A prime example for this process is the global financial crisis of — which was triggered by excessive derivatives trading fictitious capital in subprime mortgages. The central problem addressed by MPE is the exploitation of workers by capital, i. Thus, the unit of analysis is classes , not individuals and collective interests are determined within classes rather than between individuals. This does not mean that individuals are unable to make their own choices. However, within a certain mode of production there are powerful material and social structures e.

Hence, MPE does not propose a universalist view of humans as being necessarily competitive or collaborative but emphasizes the effects of the historically specific mode of production on the way humans behave. Within a certain mode of production, MPE historically has sought to isolate some tendencies and laws of motion in the economic, the social and the political spheres.

In the capitalist mode of production, examples would be the increasing accumulation of capital and its concentration, as well as the recurring crises of capitalist production. These laws of motion are thought to be ontologically real and some MPE scholars have argued that the laws determine the behaviour of societies. Some strands of MPE have however put emphasis on over-determination , highlighting that even though laws of motion can be discerned, their interconnectedness and multiplicity makes it more difficult to make accurate statements about the behaviour of human societies see also Methodology.

Theorizing in the field of Critical Political Economy has emphasized the concept of hegemony , stressing the historical nature of processes of societal change and the constant struggle of ideas and movements the war of position in the words of Antonio Gramsci for temporal and spatial dominance.

According to these theorists the laws of societies and economies are more dependent on historical and cultural junctures, thus making a case against determining theorizing. A possible bridge between these two traditions is offered by critical realist theorists: they assume a real world, both in the natural and the social world, but this is subject to changes and actualizations that can originate in the actions of historical and spatially confined actors. With Marx one could restate that:. Notwithstanding these theoretical differences, MPE theories do generally agree that the world is not made out of particulars that can be isolated for the purpose of analysis.

Instead entities like classes, firms, states, and institutions exist within a context, which is essential to their existence. By disaggregating these bigger components to their constituent part one cannot do justice to their real nature, since at each stratum or level of organization from subatomic particles to complex systems such as human societies there are emergent powers that are ontologically real in their own right Sayer , Also, MPE gives importance to dynamic processes like e.

An important aspect of MPE is furthermore that Capital is not defined ontologically as a material asset like money, machinery, etc. MPE theories do explicitly identify themselves as normative and performative and regard the positivist position of descriptive and value-free science as false and ideologically motivated. Hence, the goal of scientific analysis is to create knowledge that fosters the emancipation of those who are dominated and oppressed. According to Andrew Sayer, many proponents of critical social science of which MPE forms part conceive emancipation as proceeding in the following manner Sayer , :.

2. Terms, Analysis, Conception of Economy

As Sayer notes, there are, however, some problems with this linear progression from the scientific identification of problems towards the conclusions, particularly with respect to what constitutes emancipatory practice and which values and norms can be considered better than others, since they are backed by scientific evidence. Secondly, he problematizes the new emergent interrelationships that might arise once a practice is replaced by another and hence emancipatory practice in one part of society might lead to repression in another.

For example, Western women integrating into the paid workforce by contracting reproductive labour to women from the global south; and workers taking over a coal mine that otherwise would have to be closed might emancipate themselves but this can have negative repercussions on the environment or other communities inhabiting the area, as these may be negatively affected by pollution.

MPE theorizing that operates in the philosophical tradition of critical realism holds that the link between the real world and scientific inquiry is not straightforward. Strong constructivism, the view that the scientist makes the real world by coming up with conceptions or by self-referentially talking in ways that previous scientists have come up with, is also rejected. Instead, the fallible nature of science as well as its theory-laden and standpoint-dependent character is acknowledged but still, judging whether the theory is good or bad is considered to be possible by reference to the real world.

This means that social science research can be diverse, depending on the theory applied as well as the personal biography and biases e. Still, a judgement as to whether a particular piece of research draws valid conclusions is possible and as such objective statements about the causal mechanisms that were responsible for concrete social phenomena are feasible. The test for what is a true statement in critical realism is however somewhat more complicated than in other traditions. Given the emphasis on causal mechanisms rather than on regularities and correlations, simple statistical testing will not suffice to establish the validity of a hypothesis.

Instead, from the observational evidence, abstractions have to be made in order to check the validity of a supposed causal mechanism. As such, for example, counterfactual case studies or thought experiments might have to be performed in order to check the explanatory power of a hypothesis. On the other hand, with regards to theory validation, there is great scepticism towards prediction. This is because, in over-determined and evolving open-systems conditions, for mechanisms to work as theorized they might change during the process and hence new mechanisms might emerge.

MPE neither works deductively nor inductively but assumes that there are multiple causalities and thus multiple ways of undertaking research. These depend on the situation, for example, the particular point of capitalist development. A central element of Marxist analysis is dialectics.

Dialectics claims to transcend the classical logic of direct causation and linear relationships and replaces it with a dynamic understanding of processes as well as with different categories that would sometimes be considered to be contradictory in classical terms. An example of dialectical reasoning is given in Figure 1 Sayer , , where simple and abstract concepts are combined with the complex, specific and contingent characteristics of a concrete situation. Since a lot of research in MPE often makes reference to abstract concepts such as financialized capitalism or accumulation regimes, these conceptualizations have to be meaningful and justified by having analytical value rather than being ad hoc.

As such, statements attributing causal powers to the service sector e. As to whether the theoretical perspective or the research object drive research within MPE, historically the theoretical perspective has been more important. Thus, the object e. For those working in the tradition of critical realism, this reliance on methods is however somewhat less pronounced, since critical realism claims that different layers or strata are ontologically existent and hence have to be identified by different branches of science.

Marxist political economists have the explicit aims to first critique and second transform society. It can be conceived as performative and reflexive. Thus, it is not only the aim to describe, but to transform society. The role of critique is central to this. This emancipatory perspective aims at a more just society that combats dominance, exploitation and inequality, and hence aims to radically reform or overcome capitalism. Emancipation does not only concern inequality in terms of income, property or alienation, but also concerns gendered or racial dominance. Income and wealth distribution are structurally unequally due to the capital—labour relations.

Yet, although distributional equality and capital are incompatible, different capitalist phases were characterized by different degrees of inequality. Rather, it suggests tackling inequality at its roots. Thus, worker-control initiatives, solidarity economies and communitarian and cooperative structures of production are frequently promoted, because they alter the very conditions of productions which are foundational to existing inequalities see also Harvey , — For instance, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the concept of the Commons — the communal organization and use of goods and resources — was highly debated within social movements see e.

Federici The Commons are considered as a way to encounter consequences of alienation, land grabbing, property and income inequality and the marketization of life and knowledge and build on movements especially from Latin America. Like the Commons, most of these ambitions are not political goals set in party platforms, but rather are formulated as claims by various social movements or put into praxis by existing alternatives.

Perhaps one of the most extensive practical alternatives in this sense is the autonomous region controlled by the Zapatistas in Southern Mexico. The capitalist structure of production — in which the organization and type of economic activity is determined by the holders of capital by separating workers from the decisions how to put their productive energy into use — contributes to a psychological condition in which workers are deprived of the meaning of their labour and reduced to nothing more than an instrument in the production process.

Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach - Professor Douglas Porpora

This dire condition, alongside the tendency to create poverty and huge inequalities in spite of the huge potentials of production unlocked by capitalism, provides amongst others a rationale for the Marxist argument that capitalism is something that has to be overcome. In the past decades, MPE has contributed to a large body of literature studying such diverse topics as the class constitution and socio-economic consequences of neoliberal globalization, the financialization of the world economy, the power of transnational capital, and the potential for post-capitalist formations in the convergence of various crisis moments.

To map all of these debates and insights would go far beyond the ambitions of this section. Instead, a short review of the narrative linking convergent crisis, left strategy and transformation towards post-neoliberal or even post-capitalist societies will be further explored, because these themes are mirrored in almost all of the current MPE debates see contributions and special issues in the journals listed below.

The advent of the US subprime crisis in —, which quickly evolved into a financial and economic crisis for most of the world economy, signalled a comeback of Marxian analysis and critique of capitalism. Perhaps the biggest and first fundamental search for alternatives in the aftermath of the financial crisis was the Occupy Movement. Many MPE scholars claim that this crisis may represent a large or structural crisis for capitalism, potentially changing the structure of the world economy for the upcoming decades. In this context, an increasing strand of interdisciplinary research has broadened the debate by highlighting that the crisis is not limited to finance or the economy, but is best understood as multiple crises , including the climate and environmental crisis, a crisis of representative democracy and global governance, and a crisis of social reproduction.

Ultimately, the convergence of these crisis dynamics calls for a fundamental transformation of the social organization of global production, distribution and consumption. In this regard, current contributions intensely debate strategies, and the strengths and weaknesses of transformative politics and social movements in the face of the crisis.

Debates about post-capitalism , new forms of socialism or communism have been prominent in recent years.

To what extent these debates will translate into effective social change will depend much on the configuration of the balance of forces in society — and not on the speed and scope of academic debate. Yet, the latter can offer an interesting starting point for students to fundamentally rethink society and social change, not the least reason why many economics students have become interested in understanding and employing MPE see e. Barkin ; Harvey ; Rethinking Marxism MPE, like most other academic paradigms, has experienced different waves of renovation, reception and magnitude over the past years for an overview of Western Marxism see also Anderson While the first generations were almost exclusively political activists, party strategists and academics, at the same time MPE institutionalized strongly as an academic paradigm with less party affiliation in the US and Europe during the Cold War — especially in the s and s.

From utopian socialism to classical or orthodox Marxism, from Neo- or Post-Marxism to Analytical Marxism and Critical Political Economy, a wide range of historical and contemporary perspectives have been associated with MPE. In an attempt to provide a typology, Stephan Resnick and Richard Wolff have classified these perspectives into the following six broad categories.

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Property theories emphasize the unequal distribution of wealth and ownership of the means of production. Class conflict, exploitation and other dynamics inside the capitalist system arise as a consequence of the distribution of property. Power theories emphasize power and authority structures and the possibility of some classes e. Accumulation theories stress the relentless drive for accumulation that is internal to capitalism as the driving force of capitalism and hence reproduces all other dynamics and social relations.

Forces of production theories emphasize productive technologies as the determinants of the way a society is structured and the relations that are formed amongst its constituents. Consciousness theories emphasize the importance of culture and shared ideas. Over-determination theories do not privilege any of the aforementioned explanations in a deterministic fashion and instead consider them to be partial explanations. Still, the emphasis on class relations and a critical, emancipatory stance are maintained whilst theorizing the capitalist system.


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Economists in the Regulation School e. Michel Aglietta research stability and continuity despite recurring crisis in the capitalist mode of production. They examine the historical and spatial existence of regimes of accumulation such as post-war Fordism , which have a distinctive set of institutions, and a mode of regulation, that allows for their continuous reproduction in the sphere of production, consumption, politics, and international context.

The regulation school combines aspects from Marxian theory with Institutionalist approaches. World Systems Theory e.


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World Systems Theory economists e.

Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)
Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory) Transforming Economics: Perspectives on the Critical Realist Project (Economics as Social Theory)

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