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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 48, New Delhi, November 13, 2021

Reading Political Economy with Michael Perelman | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 13 November 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


Domination of the market in our lifeworld is a given fact in neo-liberal times. The proponents of neo-liberalism preach the doctrine of the market as an axiom.

Michael Perelman, in his seminal book, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation (Duke University Press, 2000), interrogated the doctrine of the market formulated by the theorists of the Classical Political Economy. He argued: “For more than two centuries, successive generations of economists have been grinding out texts to demonstrate how these early theorists discovered that markets provide the most efficient method for organizing production...Most contemporary readers of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the other classical political economists accept their work at face value, assuming these early writers to be uncompromising advocates of laissez-faire. For the most part, even many Marxists accept this interpretation of classical political economy”.

Perelman drew our attention to the dark side of the story:

Alongside their work on pure economic theory, the classical political economists engaged in a parallel project: to promote the forcible reconstruction of society into a purely market-oriented system...To make sure that people accepted wage labour, the classical political economists actively advocated measures to deprive people of their traditional means of livelihood. The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy. In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as “primitive accumulation”.

Michael Perelman’s document-based critical reading of the thinkers of classical political economy offers valuable insights for our understanding of the “forcible reconstruction of society”, taking place in 21st century neo-liberal times. It also makes us alert about the organic connections between contemporary theoretical developments in mainstream economics and the untold story of “primitive accumulation” unfolding before our eyes.

(I am indebted to Iman Mitra, who introduced me to the critical writings of Michael Perelman)

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