150th Anniversary of Capital: Reading Francis Wheen’s Biography of Capital (Part I)

wheen-capitalAlthough I had read the three volumes of Capital, three parts of Theories of Surplus-Value, and Grundrisse over the course of my PhD research, all of them merit rereading and I ought to read Marx’s other works. Hence, given that 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Capital, Volume 1 (first published in 1867), I decided to commemorate it by reading a work of Marx I hadn’t read – Wage-Labour and Capital – and a short biography of Capital by Francis Wheen (2006). I shall present my commentary in two parts as it is too lengthy for one post. Part I is a commentary on Wheen 2006, and part II is on Wage-Labour and Capital.

Despite writing about Steuart, Smith, Ricardo, Sismondi, Malthus, Keynes, Sraffa, Krishna Bharadwaj and many others in several posts, I have dealt with Marx’s ideas exclusively only in one: ‘Is Marx (Ir)relevant?’. In the next year, I hope to write more on Marx’s economics. 

Wheen’s biography of Capital is just about 125 pages. Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography is a three chaptered book dealing with the gestation, birth, and afterlife of Das Capital.

Marx, the studious worker 

According to Wheen, ‘Marx’s character was a curious hybrid of ferocious self-confidence and anguished self-doubt’ (p. 3).  It was ‘only after many years of spadework in philosophy and literature’ that Marx turned to the study of political economy (p. 7). At the age of seventeen, Marx precociously wrote in a schoolboy essay: “Our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them” (p. 8). [Wheen’s excerpts from Marx which I quote are in “double quotes” and those by Wheen are in ‘single quotes’.]

The reader gets to appreciate Marx’s style of studying from Wheen’s scattered references across the book. Marx had the habit of noting down extracts from all the books he read while at the university. And he read widely. As Wheen writes, ‘This is the same eclectic, omnivorous and often tangential style of research which gave Das Capital its extraordinary breadth of reference’ (pp. 10-11). His use of dialectic is influenced by his early study of Hegel’s (1770–1831) ‘pursuit of contradictions’. He had taken the idea that ‘people create the constitution’ from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), the German philosopher; Feuerbach had argued that ‘thought arises from being, and not being from thought’ (p. 13). Therefore, humans have to assert themselves as subjects and not as mere objects of capitalism. And to thoroughly engage with the land question, Marx thought it ‘essential to study Russian land-owning relationships from primary sources’ (p. 37). Marx’s data sources included ‘newspapers, parliamentary commissions, factory inspectors and copies of Hansard’ (p. 51); Hansard contains ‘edited verbatim report of proceedings of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords’. Marx’s data on child labourers were taken from English match factory records. [On the importance of using a wider set of data, see English for Economists: Sowvendra’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’.]

Already well versed in German Philosophy and French politics, Marx set out to educate himself in British economics. As he went along, he kept taking copious notes. These notes, which formed the early rough draft of Das Capital, are commonly known as the Paris manuscripts, published as Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (available for under Rs. 200 from Aakar Books and freely available at Marxists.org).

Marx worked extremely hard. He spent most of 1850-1 in the British Museum reading past issues of The Economist and books on economics. He sat in the Museum’s reading room from 9 AM to 7 PM. In the winter of 1857-8, he used to sit in his study until about 4 AM. When he realised that his ‘rudimentary arithmetic’ would prove inadequate in his economic studies, he undertook a ‘quick revision course in algebra’ (p. 27). Marx felt that his study of algebra was necessary “for the benefit of the public”. His ‘nocturnal scribblings’, as Wheen describes them, running to more than 800 pages were published in German in 1953 entitled Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Oekonomie (popularly known today as simply Grundrisse). And the notes he took in 1862 and 1863 filled more than 1500 pages (p. 32); this was posthumously published as Theories of Surplus-value.

Marx’s intellectual corpus in political economy 

Here is a succinct timeline of Marx’s key works in political economy. At the same time, this is also a timeline of how Marx’s thinking evolved to culminate in Capital.

1844: Paris Manuscripts/Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 {notes; posthumously published}

1847: Wage-Labour and Capital {lectures; published as a set of articles in 1849}

1848: Communist Manifesto (political pamphlet; with Engels)

1857-8: Grundrisse {notes; posthumously published}

1859: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy {Marx’s first book}

1862-3: Theories of Surplus-Value {notes; posthumously published}

1865: Value, Price and Profit {speech; posthumously published}

1867: Capital, vol. 1 {Marx’s second book} (second edition in 1873)

The first manuscript in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 begins with the following sentences: “Wages are determined by the fierce struggle between capitalist and worker. The capitalist inevitable wins. The capitalist can live longer without the worker than the worker can without him” (p. 14). This struggle is also found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In capitalism, Marx writes that, productivity rises by transforming the worker’s “lifetime into working time, and … [by dragging] his wife and child beneath the juggernaut of capital” (p. 15).

Marx’s ‘first small book’ is A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. It was first published in 1859 (in German). [I took the phrase “the first small book” from Maurice Dobb’s introduction to the 1979 English translation brought out by Progress Publishers.] Marx had earlier intended to call Das Capital ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Volume II’ (p. 33). It was Engels who compiled, edited, and published volumes II and III of Capital in 1885 and 1905 respectively; see Regina Roth’s work which argues that these interventions were often significant. The Theories of Surplus-Value, sometimes called volume IV of Capital, was published by Karl Kautsky in 1905.

 Capital: key ideas

In capitalism, commodity carries a specific meaning. Even today, a commodity, at the first sight, appears to be a ‘trivial thing’ (p. 42). Fetishism is the ‘belief that commodities have some mystical intrinsic value’ (p. 43). Instead, the value of commodities, for Marx, owes to the value labour provides. The wages of the workers are determined by subsistence wages, a social and cultural variable unlike in neoclassical (more accurately, marginalist) economics where it is determined by the marginal product of labour (and is a labour clearing wage, that is, there is full employment of labour). Subsistence wages includes ‘education and training’ (p. 49). As Wheen writes, ‘Marx has no illusions about the supposedly sacred symmetry of the law of supply and demand’ (p. 55) which is central to marginalist economics. Indeed, as Wheen notes, ‘The only difference from previous epochs is the guile with which the robbery is concealed from the victims’ (p. 50).

The relation between technological progress and better living standards or higher wages is not as straightforward as in the marginalist growth models of Solow and Romer. In contrast to these models, Marx concludes that greater the productivity, greater is the labour unemployment (p. 56). Thus, Marx writes, “It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse” (p. 57). For Marx, poverty “is about the crushing of the human spirit” (p. 58). In an article published in the New York Review of Books, Jeff Madrick observes: “people of all racial and ethnic groups are losing confidence in the core American principle that hard work is a means to upward mobility.” And as Wheen notes, ‘The average British employee now puts in 80,224 hours over his or her working life, as against 69,000 hours in 1981. … many people have no time for anything beyond labour and sleep’ (p. 59). The effects of technological progress or rising productivity has been very uneven.

What causes crises in capitalism? According to Marx, “The last cause of all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses” relative to private investment (p. 61). This key idea resurfaced with vigour in the twentieth century in the seminal works of Michal Kalecki and John Maynard Keynes.

Capital’s afterlife 

In the Preface to Capital, Marx writes, “I assume, of course, a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” (pp. 82-3). Undoubtedly, since its first publication, Capital has enabled many individuals to know the capitalist order better. George Bernard Shaw articulates this view clearly: ‘Das Kapital achieved the greatest feat of which a book is capable – that of changing the minds of the people who read it’ (p. 90). However, the initial reception to its publication was ‘muted’. Wheen thinks that it was ‘sheer incomprehension’ and not ‘political enmity’ which explains the ‘muted reaction’ to the publication of Capital.

As Sir John MacDonnell wrote in the Fortnightly Review (March 1875): ‘People may do him the honour of abusing him; read him they do not! (p. 87). Resorting to an ‘authority’ for support without proper reasoning is always troubling. Wheen notes how during the 1917 Russian revolution, the ‘architects … all cited Marx, and Das Kapital in particular, as the divine authority for the correctness of their views’ (p. 98).

Unfortunately, mainstream economics still views income distribution as a harmonious process. That income distribution is a process characterised by conflict and power relations has been ignored, and perhaps even intentionally supressed. These ideas continue to be studied and researched by ‘heterodox’ economists working in the Classical, Marxian, and Keynesian traditions. And one must not confuse ‘new political economy’ with the political economy found in the works of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx. It is interesting to note that before the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, economists looked down upon ‘political economy’ but after the crisis, the number of mainstream economists who started doing ‘political economy’ rapidly increased.


Marx’s Capital remains one of the most insightful studies on capitalism. With all the strides in technological progress with respect to global value chains, transnational corporations, industry automation, etc., reading Marx’s Capital enables the reader to see the cells of the capitalist order – impoverished workers.

Let me end this post with Marx’s favourite motto (p. 101): ‘de omnibus dubitandum’ (‘everything should be doubted’).


I acknowledge Prasanth Radhakrishnan for his helpful comments. 

Bernard Mandeville and his Unorthodox Economics

mandevilleI first came across Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) while reading Keynes’s General Theory as a student at the University of Hyderabad. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bess: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits was published in two parts in different times. This work has its origins in an earlier work of his: The Crumbling Hive: or Knaves Turn’s Honest (1705). I recently read the Fable of the Bees edition published by Oxford University Press in 1924 with a commentary by F. B Kaye; interestingly, this work is an expanded version of Kaye’s PhD dissertation submitted at Yale University in 1917. On looking up the Yale University Library Catalogue, I found out his complete name and the years he lived – Frederick Benjamin Kaye (1892-1930).

Mandeville was born into a family of city governors, physicians, scholars, and naval officers. He studied medicine and philosophy. The other notable ‘physician-economists’, as Peter Groenewegen, the emeritus historian of economic thought at University of Sydney, labels them, are William Petty and François Quesnay (for a short account of the ‘natural’ origins of economics, read this). Mandeville also published a book entitled A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711). Kaye informs us that his books sold very well.

The Root of evil Avarice,

That damn’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice,

Was Slave to Prodigality,

That Noble Sin; whilst Luxury.

Employ’d a Million of the Poor,

And odious Pride a Million more

Envy it self, and Vanity

Were Ministers of Industry;

Their darling Folly, Fickleness

In Diet, Furniture, and Dress,

That strange, ridic’lous Vice, was made

The very Wheel, that turn’d the Trade.

(p. 25; or see the online source)

In the above passage, Mandeville is arguing that prodigality, considered a virtue, is actually a public vice and luxury, considered a vice, is a public virtue. The importance of consumption in the growth of the economy is also to be found in Sismondi, Malthus, Marx, and Keynes. As Kaye puts it, this is Mandeville’s thesis: “vice is the foundation of national prosperity and happiness” (p. xlvii). In other words, public benefits are a consequence of private vices – ‘pride’ and ‘luxury’.

According to Mandeville, all actions were influenced in part by selfishness. If all people behaved selflessly, Mandeville argued that trade and crafts would be abandoned.

As Pride and Luxury decrease,

So by degrees they leave the Seas.

Not Merchants now, but Companies

Remove whole Manufactories.

All Arts and Crafts neglected lie;

Content, the Bane of Industry.

(p. 34; or see the online source)

How can vice become a virtue? This is the paradox, much like Keynes’s paradox of thrift where increase in saving, while good for the individual, is bad for the economy as a whole.

THUS every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise;

(p. 24; or see the online source)

Mandeville thus argues that private vices have public benefits. What is ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’ for an individual need not be beneficial to the public or society. In the General Theory, Keynes approvingly cites Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees before articulating his fundamental point: “capital is not a self-subsistent entity existing apart from consumption” (p. 106). And, again on p. 371, he places Mandeville among “the brave army of heretics” alongside Malthus, Gesell and Hobson (see Keynes’s short commentary on Mandeville on pp. 359-362 in ch. 23).

It must be noted that Mandeville favoured virtuous vice and not vicious vice (such as crime and theft). Moreover, his thesis is not that all private vices have public benefits. The Fable of The Bees, Kayes cautions us, ought not to be taken literally. As Kaye elaborates, “it is not ascetic virtues, such as hoarding frugality, which make a nation prosperous” (p. lxviii).

Let me now summarise Mandeville’s position on luxury spending. First, he disagreed with the extant view that frugality is a virtue. Second, he disagreed with the dominant view that luxury is bad for the economy. We must also remember the context in which he is writing – luxury was condemned by Christianity. Indeed, Mandeville was challenging the extant religious and economic orthodoxy with his arguments favouring luxury.

Mandeville argued for freer trade both domestically and internationally (pp. xcviii ff.). His argument was anticipated by mercantilists such as Charles D’Avenant, Dudley North, and Josiah Child. According to Kaye, it is in Mandeville’s work that “individualism became an economic philosophy” (p. ciii). In fact, F. A. Hayek labels Mandeville “an advocate of laissez-faire as Adam Smith” (p. 135) in his 1966 lecture at the British Academy (published in 1967; this lecture is publicly available). And, as is to be expected, he thinks that Keynes’s enthusiastic approval of Mandeville is unfounded (p. 133). Moreover, Hayek finds Mandeville’s “understanding of human nature” noteworthy but not his economics – of division of labour and luxury consumption (pp. 125-6). Karl Marx notes that Smith’s ideas on division of labour were strongly influenced by Mandeville’s work but that there is no mention of Mandeville in the Wealth of Nations. However, Smith discusses Mandeville’s views on vice and virtue in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Perhaps, it is befitting to conclude this essay by summarising Marx’s views regarding Mandeville. After all, Marx is one of the greatest unorthodox economist whose political economy is of enduring value.

Originally, Political Economy was studied by philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Hume; by businessmen and statesmen, like Thomas More, Temple, Sully, De Witt, North, Law, Vanderlint, Cantillon, Franklin; and especially, and with the greatest success, by medical men like Petty, Barbon, Mandeville, Quesnay.

(Capital, vol. 1, Ch. 25: The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation)

Marx describes Mandeville as “an honest, clear-headed man” in volume 1 of Capital and writes in part 1 of Theories of Surplus-Value that “Only Mandeville was of course infinitely bolder and more honest than the philistine apologists of bourgeois society.”




A Review of Jean Drèze’s Jholawala Economics

sensesolidarityJean Drèze is a familiar name among social science students and researchers. His contributions unarguably have helped improve the state of social programmes in India and have motivated several students to take up social research. In 2013, he co-authored An Uncertain Glory with Amartya Sen on the importance of public programmes in achieving social development.

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone (2017, Permanent Black) is his second sole-authored book after No.1 Clapham Road, the Diary of a Squat (1990, Peaceprint, published under a pseudonym) on homelessness in London. The 2017 book is divided into 10 sections: draught and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays (of which only one was unpublished, but this has now been published in The Wire). His 2017 book is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in The Hindu, with a fresh general introduction and a section-wise commentary, which sets out the context. This review post engages only with this fresh material.


Drèze’s vision, like most of the current and future readers of the book, is to “create a good society” (p.3). As he writes, this warrants the abolition of caste and patriarchy. Such a vision requires a progress in “ethics and social norms” (p.3). He titles his approach “research for action” (p.4). This reminds me of Marx, who wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

It is indeed commendable that Drèze along with Reetika Khera and others have been able to conduct field surveys with student volunteers. Moreover, he has participated in several village meetings, public hearings, and social audits (p.9).

Drèze’s underscoring of “ethics and social norms” is extremely important today. Many public policy measures try to create policies with appropriate incentives as if they are gods. What we truly lack, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, is good “moral sentiments”—sympathy, compassion, friendship, care, etc. These cannot and shouldn’t be quantified or reduced to monetary terms. Nor can they be incentivised. It is here that ‘experience’ plays a significant role. Looking at theory and quantitative secondary data is insufficient to capture most of social reality. It is precisely this reason that has led to the critique on men writing about patriarchy and Brahmins writing about Dalits. Not only is the lived experience missing in these instances but also can it never be obtained.


Drèze rightly criticizes the quantitative fetishism found in the community of economists and development studies researchers. And, as if they weren’t enough, the public policy specialists have joined this quantitative bandwagon, or rather the bullet train, as it were. This is not to suggest that we abandon quantitative analysis altogether but rather to use it with great care.

I completely endorse Drèze’s recommendation to study literature as a way to understand a society better. He lists the following authors in his book as people who ought to be studied: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Om Prakash Valmiki, and Shantabai Kamble (p.17). In fact, I strongly think that the economics students would benefit with a compulsory course on ‘Literature for Economists’ alongside ‘Mathematics for Economists’ in the curriculum.

There is not much that Drèze writes on economic theory except his approval of game theory, which is not really a theory but a mathematical method of studying conflict and cooperation. I would go further and argue that there is much to be learnt from the theories of economists such as Smith, Marx, Keynes, Kalecki, and Sraffa. A deep understanding of methods—complexity theory, experiments, field work, game theory, instrumental variables estimation, lived experience, ratio and proportion, regression analysis, textual analysis, etc.—in all their plurality is much needed along with a similar understanding of various theories.

Another important learning from Drèze’s book is the need to engage with publicly available data, reports, and legislations. For instance, some of the legislations/programmes mentioned in this book are the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Information Act (RTI). As voters, we too should be reasonably aware of their key provisions.


Many students pursue social sciences with the intention of making a change in the society. And currently, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and disillusionment among these students. Perhaps, Drèze’s approach of “research for action” is one solution. At the very least, such research should be recognized and encouraged by academics and the society at large (particularly, parents). Of course, not everyone might have the means or the luck to pursue this course of action. However, this shouldn’t deter anyone from pursuing good research, which can be in the realms of theory, history, methods, action, or some combination of the four.

To me, the central takeaways from Drèze’s book are that as members and analysts of the ‘Indian’ society, we must be sensible in our approach to theory and methods by bringing in pluralism in these two areas. And, more importantly, solidarity warrants collective discussion, engagement, and action, which also aids in the progress of our “ethics and social norms”.

Finally, I felt that the book is expensively priced at Rs. 795 (hardback). One hopes for a paperback edition priced around Rs. 250. Although all but one are previously published essays, Drèze’s introductory chapter and section-wise commentary provides the readers a peek into his valuable philosophy. I end by wishing for the book to be translated into the many regional languages of India.

I acknowledge Abhigna A. S. for her editorial inputs and Aashish Gupta for alerting me to Drèze’s 1990 book.  

The Political Economy of GST

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, sixty-three years after France first adopted it. In his parliament speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “GST marks the economic integration of India.” It is expected to unify India through the creation of a single market for goods and services as the GST slogan aptly captures: ‘one nation, one market, one tax’. Moreover, it is expected to increase the tax base in India where less than 1 per cent of people pay income tax and close to 90 per cent of the workers are in the informal sector. Both these perceived benefits, according to the government, are expected to accelerate India’s economic growth by making it easier to do business and increasing public investment (financed through increased tax revenue).

The second volume of Economic Survey 2016-17 released earlier last month – another first for India – argues that the introduction of GST partly contributed to “optimism about the medium term”. One hopes that the optimism is well founded and not ‘irrational exuberance’, to borrow Robert Shiller’s phrase. Was the introduction of GST aimed at raising tax compliance by simplifying the indirect tax structure with the aid of information technology? Or, did it aim to structurally reform the Indian economy with a view of increasing employment and reducing inequalities? There is also another important question to pose: is a uniform tax a good policy move in an economy like India where the intra-state and inter-state differences are significant?

Amidst his discussion on inequality, Thomas Piketty rightly writes in Capital that “Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues.” Hence, it is important that the political economy of GST is rendered transparent. After the introduction of GST, several Indian states have lost their autonomy in public policy owing to a reduction in their tax revenue because the GST subsumes state taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), sales tax, and luxury tax. [The service tax belonged to the centre.] In fact, as GST is a destination tax, Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing state, had opposed it because of a potential revenue loss of around Rs. 9,270 crore. Additional reforms are necessary to ensure that the state’s economic policies are not throttled.

If simplification of the tax structure was a central goal, the four tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18%, and 28% do not make sense. However, if the government has an additional goal of influencing consumer choices, different tax slabs make sense. Yet, our current GST tax structure eludes easy interpretation. For instance, why should pens be taxed at 18% and now cost more? And why should sanitary napkins be taxed at 18% and now cost more? There appears to be no obvious economic or social logic behind this classification.

On looking closer, the GST classification for goods and services appears to be based on the ‘ability to pay’ principle and therefore progressive in spirit. Hence, non-AC train travel is GST exempt while AC train travel is taxed at 5%. Similarly, while non-AC hotel services are taxed at 12%, the services in AC hotels attract a tax of 18%. From the perspective of the consumer, it is indeed the case that those who consume ‘luxuries’ (e.g., services in Five-star hotels and restaurants) have to pay a higher GST than those who consume ‘necessaries’ such as education and health services. But how are the producers affected?

During the VAT regime, handmade products were tax exempt but they are now taxed at different rates in the GST regime. If one adopts the sole principle of ‘ability to pay’ in the matter of taxation, taxing handmade products might not seem to economically unjust. As a government official put it, “a machine-made shawl is priced at Rs 500 and a handmade one at Rs 5,000. If a person can shell out so much for a handmade item, they might as well pay a higher tax on it.” This is a good example of myopic thinking because we need to ask what happens to the handloom sector (employment and wages) once the market price rises.

As I write this, a meeting has been organised to protest the taxing of handmade products. The problem is aptly captured in this statement by one of its organisers: “Handmade products such as khadi saris are already expensive as compared to machine-made products. With imposition of GST, a khadi sari has become costlier.” It is elementary economics that this can lower demand for handmade goods and negatively affect employment in this sector. India’s recycling sector has also been adversely affected due to GST implementation.

Economic policies or reforms cannot afford to be short-sighted either intentionally or out of ignorance. The second volume of the Economic Survey proudly states that the GST regime has formalised the informal textile and clothing sector. But at what cost?

It is true that the big firms will benefit from lowered transaction costs and will be able to enjoy an increased volume of inter-state business. Small firms mostly buy their inputs and sell their output within their own state. In short, the lower transaction costs benefit big firms.

While around 160 countries have implemented GST, its effects have been varied. In Malaysia, household consumption reduced after the implementation of GST; in Australia, the burden of GST was more on the poor than the rich; whereas the weaker sections of the populace benefited from GST in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

To conclude, while ‘one nation, one market, one tax’ sounds alluring, it presupposes an economically homogenous nation and a uniform market for commodities and labour. Is one tax justified in India, which has several many different labour markets, each with its own ‘equilibrium’ price? Or do our policy makers think that imposing ‘one tax’ can transform India into a single market? Just like demonetisation, the GST is yet another bad economic ‘reform’ with detrimental impacts on India’s poor and vulnerable.


This is a condensed version of a talk I gave at National Public School, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru on August 11th. I thank the students for posing interesting questions.