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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

On Amartya Sen’s Interview

Saturday 12 March 2016


by Paresh Chattopadhyay

We read with considerable interest Sen’s interview with the Hindu (The Hindu, December 24, 2015: Amartya Sen, ’National Security is one component of human security’). Here again this eminent humanist, unlike many in the profession, shows in unambiguous terms his concern for the oppressed and the downtrodden and his pronounced sympathies for the Left. However, there are some particular points made in the interview with which, unfortunately, we are unable to agree. This concerns specially his position on Adam Smith and Karl Marx. He opines that if capitalism, a term which Smith never uses, means the systematic neglect of the interests of the poor, then Smith, who was against the excessive power of capital, was anti-capitalist. So is Sen himself, and ‘so was Karl Marx in many ways’.

Of course, Smith’s high morality and his sense of justice stand out among his contemporaries.

However, to start with, Smith’s whole world view is the very opposite of Marx’s. While for Smith capital signifies a ‘stock’—a thing—for Marx capital is not a thing, but a specific social relation of production based on a specific mode of production. This is a relation in which the direct producers having nothing else but their own labour power (physical and mental) to dispose of, confront the means of production separated from them—this separation constituting, in Marx’s view, the very definition of capital—in the process of production. The resulting products, alienated from the producers, dominate the producers instead of being dominated by them. In his 1840s Parisian Manuscripts Marx famously called this labour ‘alienated labour’. This is the situation of wage labour. In Marx’s own words, ‘capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital’. In Marx’s view, this system in itself is a system of exploitation and it must be abolished.. To our knowledge, Smith never contested this system—called by Marx ‘wage slavery’—however opposed he might have been to the ‘excessive power’ of the individual capitalists.

Secondly, the ‘excessive power’ exercised by individual capitalists was of secondary importance for Marx. He did not distinguish between a good capitalist and a bad capitalist. For him, what counted was the capitalists as a class governing the society and exploiting the workers. In the same way Marx did not consider his own economic work as ‘Political Economy’, not to speak of ‘Economics’. As opposed to this Political Economy, one of whose great represen-tatives was, of course, Adam Smith, Marx considered his own work as a ‘Critique of Political Economy’. This expression appeared as designating even his very first economic work of early 1840s. Later, in the ‘Afterword’ to the second edition of Capital vol. one, he made his position very clear. He called Political Economy the ‘science of bourgeois economy’ whose last classical representatives were Ricardo and Sismondi (just as its first classical representatives were Petty and Boisguillebert). Then, as opposed to this ‘bourgeois science’ , he contrasted his own contribution, characterising it as ‘Critique of Political Economy’. He wrote: ‘The particular development of the German society excluded any original progress of the bourgeois economy, but not its critique. In so far as this critique represents a class, it can represent only that class whose historical mission is to revolutionise the capitalist mode of production and the final abolition of classes— the proletariat.’ (Standard Moscow translation modified in view of the original text)

The author belongs to the Faculty of Human Sciences, University of Quebec, Montreal.

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