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Mainstream, VOL LX No 1, New Delhi, December 18/December 25, 2021 (double issue)

Reading the World of Commerce | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 17 December 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen

In his seminal book, On Ethics and Economics (Blackwell Publishing, 1987), Amartya Sen argued: “It is, in fact, arguable that economics has had two rather different origins, both related to politics, but relatedin rather different ways, concerned respectively with ‘ethics’, on the one hand, and with what may be called ‘engineering’, on the other”. Regarding the ‘engineering’ approach, Sen observed: “This approach is characterized by being concerned with primarily logistic issues rather than with ultimate ends and such questions as what may foster the ‘good of man’ or ‘how should one live’. The ends are taken as fairly straightforwardly given, and the object of the exercise is to find out the appropriate means to serve them”.

In summarizing the journey of the discipline of Economics, Amartya Sen observed: “It is arguable that the importance of the ethical approach has rather substantially weakened as modern economics has evolved. The methodology of so-called ‘positive economics’ has not only shunned normative analysis in economics, it has also had the effect of ignoring a variety of complex ethical considerations which affect actual human behaviour and which, from the point of view of the economists studying such behaviour, are primarily matters of fact rather than of normative judgement”. (ibid.)

‘Commerce’ has emerged as a stream of knowledge in modern times. The subjects being taught in this modern stream of knowledge, such as Financial Accounting, Cost Accounting, Taxation, Management, Business Law, Economics, Statistics, etc., are “concerned with primarily logistic issues rather than with ultimate ends”.

The classical thinkers in Political Economy were concerned with both the ‘engineering’ and ‘ethical’ dimensions of ‘Economics’ and ‘Commerce’. In his classic book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth ofNations (1776), Adam Smith explored the liberating effects of ‘commerce’. In the chapter titled ‘How the Commerce of the Towns Contributed to the Improvement of the Country’, Smith argued that the growth of towns brought military security, the security of property rights, and markets into the surrounding countryside. To put it in the words of Smith: “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country”. (See Barry R. Weingast, ‘Adam Smith’s Theory of Violence and the Political-Economics of Development’, 2017,

About 100 years after Adam Smith’s reading, Karl Marx offered a powerful critique of ‘commerce’ in his writings. He argued: “The product becomes a commodity by way of commerce. It is commerce which here turns products into commodities, not the produced commodity which by its movements gives rise to commerce...It is in the circulation process that money develops into capital. It is in circulation that products first develop as exchange values, as commodities and as money”(See Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Chapter 20, Historical Facts about Merchant’s Capital). In his early text, On the Jewish Question (1843), Marx made a moral critique of the commodification of life world: “Money debases all the gods of man and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal, self-constituted value of all things. It has therefore robbed the whole world, human as well as natural, of its own values”. (See David McLellan, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, Macmillan, 1973)

The students of Commerce and Economics should go beyond the conventional frames of studying their subjects, and find their own pathways in exploring critically the World of Commerce in neo-liberal times. Going back to the classical thinkers may be rewarding in this journey.

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