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.

Conclusion

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. 

Kaushik Basu’s Economic Methodology and the Economic Survey of India 2011-12

As the title suggests, this blog post examines a couple of policy recommendations made in Chapter 2 (Micro-foundations of Macroeconomic Policy) of the Economic Survey 2011-12. This examination is carried out in conjunction with Kaushik Basu’s economic methodology which is scattered across the Economic Survey and very visible in his 2011 book Beyond the Invisible Hand: Groundwork for a New Economics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press). Note that we are making an assumption, albeit very plausible, that Basu authored and/or significantly influenced the contents of Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey. On the basis of these two texts – Chapter 2 and his 2011 book, this blog post evaluates (1) Basu’s method of doing economics, (2) his affinities towards the micro-foundations approach and (3) his (select) macroeconomic recommendations. The blog post concludes with a critical look at the role of economics as espoused by Basu.

Basu writes in the Economic Survey that ‘monetary and fiscal policies are part science and part intuition and common sense’ (p. 24). This statement reflects the openness to knowledge possessed by the author. However, owing to his role as the Chief Economic Advisor of India, he is an economic architect. Therefore, at a deeper level, one wonders whether he is talking about the ‘intuition and common sense’ of a particular individual (himself?) or a certain group of individuals. We get to read more of his thought on ‘intuition’ in his 2011 book. Some priceless extracts are reproduced below:

‘My view is that in economics, the need for intuitive understanding is much greater than most economists would have you believe. Good economic policy requires a “feel” for things over and above the knowledge of theorems and regression coefficients’ (p. 14).

‘Both interventions and noninterventions have too often been left to the ideological whims of believers. They need to be founded on analysis and reason, not faith’ (p. 23).

‘What we so often take to be features of the world are actually propensities of the mind’ (p. 51).

‘My belief about the puzzle of knowledge lies somewhere between the skeptical and evolutionary claims. I have faith in our intuition’ (p. 53).

‘Causality lies in the eyes of the beholder’ (p. 54).

‘To sum up, scientific knowledge has to be combined with intuition and a shot of skepticism for it to be useful’ (p. 54).

On p. 23, he argues that policy interventions should be based on reason and not faith. However, on p. 53, he asserts that he has faith in (his?) intuition. Most of his comments seem to indicate a certain sense of confusion on what the scientific method entails and the role of economic theory in particular. This is quite unfortunate, since it comes from the pen of the current Chief Economic Advisor of India. If it is not confusion then it seems to be a proposal that ‘any idea goes’ wherein obviously the ‘idea’ is decided by those in power. Whatever happened to reason? At the risk of repetition, let me state that this is an extremely dangerous outlook to possess because bad economic policies have devastating implications for majority of the population.

Basu rightly points out in his 2011 book that ‘the economy must be viewed as embedded in society and politics’ (p. xi). No one disputes this fact of reality. A worthwhile digression follows. Classical economists such as William Petty, Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx in their contributions to political economy, as it was called then, never said otherwise. They stressed the need for proper social and political institutions. Coming back to Basu, he further writes: ‘Minimally, a proper understanding of economics requires recognizing that our economic relations are a part of a larger sphere of social and cultural interactions and institutions’ (p. 104). Based on this premise, he criticises neoclassical microeconomics for restricting individual choice to their budget sets for, in reality, they make choices outside their budget sets. In other words, there is a wide range of behavioural options which cannot be captured by the budget set and therefore Basu arrives at the conclusion that traditional microeconomic theory is very unqualified to deal with human behaviour. But, isn’t the aim of microeconomics to explain (economic) prices and quantities? Or, should we consider microeconomics as the study of human behaviour? Basu seems to think of the latter when he discusses economics. For him, economics is primarily the study of human behaviour and actions and not primarily a study of incomes and prices (on this, see Economics: The Study of Commodities). It also must be kept in mind that Basu’s scientific strengths lie in game theory, behavioural economics and related fields. In his 2011 book, he himself states that his analysis ‘belongs predominantly to positive social science’ (p. 98).

Since his objective is to study human behaviour, he proposes that we expand the scope of economics. This proposal, as we all know, has important repercussions on economic theory and eventually on economic policy. As Malthus pointed out, to study wealth and its distribution, one needs depth and not breadth; in short, the boundaries or scope of economics must be clearly outlined, however limited they might seem. Introducing several aspects of culture as Basu suggests will only make the explanatory and causal content of economic theory very weak. In fact, it might make economic theory too open that it can be used to explain everything. This must be resisted at all costs for it is knowledge that is at stake here (see also Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy). Basu therefore hopes to expand the scope of economics by altering and widening its foundations in order to usher in the micro-foundations approach in macroeconomic theory as well as in policy making. One glance at the title of Chapter 2 of the previous three Economic Surveys is sufficient for this purpose – 2009-10: Micro-Foundations of Inclusive Growth; 2010-11: Micro-foundations of Macroeconomic Development and 2011-12: Micro-foundations of Macroeconomic Policy. The mark of Kaushik Basu is indelible.

Basu seems to be doing exactly what Gary Becker did when he applied microeconomic tools to a variety of human behaviour around the 1970s. Although, things have improved since then and research in game theory and behavioural economics have been reasonably successful in dispelling the very nice-to-hear qualities of the individual/agent in the economy. Cooperation, reciprocity, trust, etc have once again (Adam Smith talked about a lot of this in his Theory of Moral Sentiments; although he believed that it was necessary to assume certain behavioural propensities when studying the generation and distribution of wealth) begun to play an important role in economics. Basu does provide the reader with many such insights in his 2011 book by drawing upon his earlier research. As a consequence, he criticises the manner in which mainstream neoclassical/marginalist economics employs methodological individualism, especially the textbook version of it. Basu is unhappy because the agent in mainstream economics still does not carry out identity-based behaviour (p. 49). He demands an agent who is more social which does not imply a complete rejection of methodological individualism. Basu is candid about this: ‘It is not within my ability to break away from methodological individualism to the extent that we will eventually need to in order to have a more powerful social science and at the same time retain rigor’ (p. 101). He wants an increased role for identities in economic theory – caste, gender, race, language, etc. As pointed out earlier, bringing too many variables when studying a specific problem often muddies and obfuscates the phenomenon under study. Moreover, the cognizance of such identity-based behaviour can easily be taken into account while formulating policies without having to call for an overhaul of economic theory. Therefore, Basu calls for widening the scope of economics:

‘A fundamental step in broadening the scope of economics is to recognise that the feasible set of actions open to individuals is much larger than our models make it out to be’ (p. 27).

‘Minimally, a proper understanding of economics requires recognizing that our economic relations are a part of a larger sphere of social and cultural interactions and institutions’ (p. 104).

‘How a nation functions at the level of macroeconomic aggregates depends a lot on the nuts and bolts of the economy. In our concern with managing the large and attention-catching variables, it is easy to let attention slip on the small, which may be vital’ (p. 39, Economic Survey 2011-12 ).

Given Basu’s view about the scope of economics, it is easy to understand why he promotes the micro-foundations approach in macroeconomics. This is undertaken in a manner which shows complete disregard for alternative/heterodox macroeconomic schools such as the Post-Keynesians, the Sraffa inspired Classical/Keynesians, the Marxians or the Kaleckians. These schools of thought are built on the belief that the economy is a system which has a logic and working distinct to itself. They criticise the neoclassical/mainstream economists of committing the fallacy of composition when they conceptualise the economy as an aggregation of individuals (see Some Logical Fallacies in Economics). Basu strongly advocates using the micro-foundations approach to macroeconomic issues in the Economic Survey. He writes:

‘The error has usually been in misreading the incentives and behavioural traits of the individuals who are to benefit from the policies and those who are supposed to carry out their day-to-day functioning. Fortunately, this is beginning to change both in the discipline of economics as well as in the design of policies in India. There is increasing recognition that flawed micro-foundations can devastate the best of macro intentions’ (p. 24).

‘Macroeconomic policymaking entails a mix of science and intuition. To ignore either of these would be a mistake. We need to marshal the best scientific knowledge available and study the microeconomic foundations of these macroeconomic concerns and then blend them with intuition and commonsense to craft policy’ (p. 25).

In short, according to Basu, micro-foundations is THE way forward both of economic theory and for policy.

His macroeconomic policy recommendations are problematic because of two reasons. First, his method of doing economics seems to be lack focus on the issues at hand – unemployment, poverty, inflation, agricultural growth and so on; instead, his entire focus is on human behaviour and micro-foundations. Second, he appears to lack a solid understanding of macroeconomics, especially its alternative schools. In any case, let us take a look at two of his major macroeconomic proposals – on fiscal deficit and Government as an enabler.

‘In the interest of medium- to long-term growth, it is important for us to bring the fiscal deficit down. While an expanded deficit can boost consumption and economic growth, this is medicine akin to antibiotics. It is very effective if properly used and in limited doses, but can cause harm if used over a prolonged period. Hence, government’s aim must be to effect rapid fiscal consolidation. A large deficit over a long period tends to squeeze out the private sector from the credit space. This dampens private investment and productivity and, more significantly, worsens the options of the inflation-growth mix available to government’ (p. 27).

‘This is what is meant by the enabling role of government. It should create a setting where it is in the interest of private agents to deliver on what needs to be delivered’ (p. 28).

As long as the economy is not at the full-employment level of output, crowding-out can never happen. Moreover, Basu forgets that the economy is not a stagnant organism; instead it is a growing one. The idea that government investment crowds-out private investment precariously hinges on the notion of scarcity in the economy. In a setting where the Central Bank controls interest rates so as to maintain price stability, it is difficult to see how crowding-out occurs as a result of government expenditure (see Introductory Macroeconomics: On Crowding Out). As for the enabling government, Basu seems to forget that India requires significant government expenditure/intervention in the form of Right to Food, Right to Education, Right to Employment, Right to Information, etc so that a dignified ‘setting’ can be constructed for everyone.

To conclude, it appears that as a game theorist who has important socially relevant insights, Basu is well on the mark. However, his macroeconomics, unfortunately, is grounded on extremely weak foundations and therefore is well off the mark.

What Can Indian Economists Learn From Sismondi?

Although J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) lived in Geneva and wrote on economics, history and public policy, his concerns about the role of political economy is valid even today, especially for India. Marx considered Sismondi to be the last classical economist. Sismondi engages with the economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J B Say in his 1819 work New Principles of Political Economy: Of Wealth In Its Relation to Population. This work has been translated into English by Richard Hyse in 1991 (available at Google Books). According to Sismondi, the objective of Political Economy is to ensure that majority of the population live a happy life.

Indian realities

Sainath informs us that India has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The total figure according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 256,913. And, since 1998, at least 15,000 farmers have committed suicide very year. More unsettling is that fact that the total number of farmers have been declining significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, it is alleged that 90 farmers committed suicide, that too, in rain-fed areas, in the last few weeks.

The inflation of food articles has reached double digits. Food inflation doubly affects the actual cultivators. Since, the prices are fixed by the Government (minimum support prices), the price rise does not benefit the actual cultivators. Secondly, their ability to purchase their usual consumption basket also falls when price rise. It is in this context that M S Swaminathan’s reminders need to be understood. He rightly asserted: “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else can go right for this country.”

Very recently, Dreze and Sen pointed out the nature of the asymmetrical growth that is driving India with a majority of the population living without access to basic amenities. They concluded their article in the Outlook by stating that one of the ways forward is to have a “radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters—rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.” In other words, how much has the socio-economic condition of majority of the Indian populace (who happen to be farmers and weavers) improved?

Sismondi

In the hurry to build sophisticated DSGE models and while working out monetary and/or fiscal solutions to inflation and economic growth, it is often forgotten that actual human livelihood is at stake. How can Indian agriculture not be a necessary component of the curriculum in economics? Within economics, steep walls which cannot be crossed exist between agricultural economics, macroeconomics, monetary economics, labour economics, development economics, etc. The so-called specialization in these fields (to be understood as literature which is not easily accessible or comprehensible to an economist from another field) has reached alarming levels. Sismondi says the following on the nature of economic inquiry:

However, I believe I should protest against the manner, so often superficial, so often false, in which a work on the social sciences is judged in the world. The problem which they offer to resolve is tangled in quite another way than those that arise from the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals to the heart as well as to reason. The observer is called upon to recognize unjust sufferings that come from man, and of which man is the victim. We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy (Sismondi 1819: 13).

Maybe, the idea of modern science does not allow investigators to be moved by the ‘object’ under study. Nevertheless, as Sismondi reminds us, economic problems and their solutions affect people (who are not ‘objects’) in a significant manner. The state of Indian farmers and weavers is certainly to be given attention, especially in terms of livelihood building, through providing employment and incomes in a dignified manner.

The following lines from Sismondi echoes what Dreze and Sen recently pointed out as regards Indian growth:

If they find a tremendous accumulation of riches, an improved agriculture, a prosperous business community, manufactures which multiply without end all products of human industry, and a government that disposes of almost inexhaustible coffers, as in England, they call the nation opulent that has all these things, without stopping to inquire whether all those who work with their hands, all those who create this wealth, are not reduced to mere subsistence; whether every tenth member among them must not apply each year to the public welfare; and whether three-fifths of all individuals, in a nation that is called rich, are not exposed to more privation than an equal proportion of individuals in a nation called poor (Sismondi 1819: 22).

In India, the wealth creators, the farmers, are forced to live below even ‘subsistence levels’ as Sainath’s commentary on farmer suicides indicate. Even though we have 53 agricultural universities in India, their contribution to the farming population is circumspect. Three to four decades before, working on agricultural economics and debating issues related to agriculture was fashionable and ‘important’. Today, it is even more important but, perhaps, not very attractive. In fact, the Government admits that the farm sector has been neglected.

Admitting that the government is neglecting research in the farm sector, the agriculture ministry has sought more funds in the next Five Year Plan (2012-2017) for significant jump in food grain production.

But, focussing on aggregate food grain production is clearly insufficient. One needs to look at the ‘production conditions in Indian agriculture’. As Sismondi points out very clearly

Commercial wealth is augmented and distributed by exchange; and even the produce of the ground, so soon as it is gathered in, belongs likewise to commerce. Territorial wealth, on the other hand, is created by means of permanent contracts. With regard to it, the economist’s attention should first be directed to the progress of cultivation; next to the mode in which the produce of the harvest is distributed among those who contribute to its growth; and lastly, to the nature of those rights which belong to the proprietors of land, and to the effects resulting from an alienation of their property (Sismondi 1819: 133).

In 1974, Krishna Bharadwaj published a book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture. In the same period, economists such as Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Rudra, Amartya Sen, K N Raj, C H Hanumantha Rao, Pranab Bardhan, etc wrote extensively on various aspects of Indian agriculture. The issues Sismondi pointed out were discussed and debated. Bharadwaj points out the significance of examining property relations, technology, local patterns of power, etc. Moreover, she notes that non-economic variables such as tradition, customs, caste and religion determine the economic position of a farmer and thereby determines their income and asset levels. The rise in food inflation has prompted many commentators to hold employment guarantee schemes (NREGA) responsible. If agriculture generated adequate incomes (to maintain a decent and dignified life) employment guarantee would not be necessary. In other words, employment on and off farm cannot be treated as independent of each other. Further, in India, markets are interlocked through both price and non-price links (with the Government playing an ambiguous role). These interlocked markets are exploitative as it denies the following freedoms to the agricultural farmer, who is very much an entrepreneur.

(1)   What to produce?

(2)   How much to produce?

(3)   For whom to produce?

(4)   When to sell the produce?

Conclusion

As Sismondi reminds us, we cannot ignore the majority of the Indian population who do not have access to the basic necessaries of life. Agriculture provides livelihood to more than half the Indian workforce. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food, the most basic of all commodities. Although, it might not be academically fashionably and profitable to study Indian agriculture but as Sismondi notes: “We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy.”

Urbanization in India: What does it mean?

 

In the recent past, there have been a lot of discussions and commentaries on the merits of urbanization in India. In addition to this, we also hear about the poor, rather pathetic, living conditions of migrants who work in urban spaces, there are pressing environmental concerns especially regarding air and water pollution, public transport is in a disarray, etc. The latter concern has led to the rise of ‘new’ areas of learning and research such as urban studies, urban economics, urban ecology, urban sociology and urban planning. These are extremely important areas of learning considering the fact that urban centers attract both labour and capital. This blog post tries to understand some economic issues relating to the process of urbanization that is taking place in India. In particular, we seek to understand the limits of urbanization and in the process we try to know what it means to achieve economic growth.

According to the World Bank, “Urbanization is not a side effect of economic growth; it is an integral part of the process.”  McKinsey states that “Urbanization is critical to India’s development.” Further, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India notes that “It is important to note that the contribution of urban sector to GDP is currently expected to be in the range of 50-60 percent. In this context, enhancing the productivity of urban areas is now central to the policy pronouncements of the Ministry of Urban Development. Cities hold tremendous potential as engines of economic and social development, creating jobs and generating wealth through economies of scale. They need to be sustained and augmented through the high urban productivity for country’s economic growth. National economic growth and poverty reduction efforts will be increasingly determined by the productivity of these cities and towns.”

From the above excerpts, some important assumptions (or rationales) for promoting urbanization can be understood.

(1)    Economic growth is synonymous with urbanization.

(2)    India has to urbanize in order to attain economic growth and development.

(3)    Urban spaces need to be promoted because they generate about 50% of the Indian GDP.

(4)    Cities are potential engines of economic and social development.

 Economic growth

In a macro sense, economic growth refers to the sustained growth in national output – GDP. However, for policy purposes it is important to look at per capita GDP. This is a proxy for looking at how much on income an average person possesses. The objective of economic growth (and economics) is to ensure that all individuals are employed (who seek work), have adequate food, have access to drinking water, transport, etc. In no way should we consider the objective of increasing GDP to be our aim. It is a necessary means to an end- better life.

Urbanization is understood as an increase in the population of urban spaces. This also means that there is a growth in employment, capital inflow, infrastructure, etc. In turn, such large increases in population will result in an increased pressure on resources – water, space, housing, transportation, office space, air, etc. Communication seems to be the only one which has relatively negligible supply problems.

Given this, how can the Central Government or Planning Commission argue that urbanization is the way to go forward? This means – fatten urban spaces and neglect rural areas! Both, as we know, are not desirable. Fattened urban spaces will present a whole new set of issues to tackle with; neglecting rural areas will mean that agriculture and those dependent on agriculture (around 60% of India) will not be encouraged. Clearly, this does not increase the well being of majority of Indians. More importantly, it is illogical and unwise to argue that urbanization is (or leads to) economic growth. Yes, it leads to economic growth, but only in a very superficial manner and not in any substantive way.

India: Rural and Urban

As per Census 2011, 69 % of Indians live in rural areas and only 31 % in urban spaces. It seems to be the case that the policy makers are interested in improving the “urban spaces”. This does not necessarily include improving the living conditions of the majority of Indians. It is strange how language plays a dividing role too: urban habitats versus rural areas! It is true that the urban sector contributes roughly around 50% of India’s Net Domestic  Product (NDP). The remaining comes from rural India which comprises majority of the populace. As for agriculture, rural areas contribute 94% (for the year 2004-05) of total agricultural output. So, if urban areas are targeted at the cost of rural areas, those employed in agriculture, which is a very difficult occupation, are going bear the brunt.

It is strange that the Government and policy makers (including private think tanks) argue that cities are potential engines of economic growth, when 60% of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood which is mainly located in rural areas. This tendency of policy making to favour any method which just boosts the numerical value of GDP without any qualitative change must be stalled. By qualitative change, I refer to improvements in quality of life – food, shelter, education, water, health and so on.

According to a recent paper (July-August 2011) by Gilles Pison in Population & Societies, India is expected to become the most populous country by 2050 and will overtake China. Yes, we have heard that India has been blessed with the demographic dividend; but we must remember that it is no dividend unless there are employment opportunities, and they should not just be in urban spaces. This paper also notes that India records the highest number of deaths under age one – 13,96,000.

Hence, the Planning Commission has considered it imperative that the next 5 Year plan will include urbanization as a key challenge. This, however, is a myopic strategy and especially because of the neglect of agriculture. In addition, employment generation should be the key challenge. Jayati Ghosh also argues in a similar fashion in a recent article of hers. She points out that “The number of urban settlements has increased from 5161 in 2001 to 7935 in 2011, an increase of 54% that dwarfs the 32% growth in urban population.” This means that urban statistics have swelled up because of a reclassification and not mainly because of rural-urban migration. This key information poses further problems for policy makers; actually, it poses problems only for the ‘concerned’ policy makers!

Conclusion

To sum up, it would be disastrous to formulate policies which targeted the urban spaces at the cost of rural areas. The objective of economic policies must be to improve the well-being of the people and not to increase the percentage of GDP by a few points! In fact, even in France and Europe, when the process of urbanization began in the early 18th century, agriculture was neglected. However, a group of economists known as Physiocrats argued that agriculture cannot and should not be neglected as it will lead to a downfall of the economy (see more). It is time that we realized the interdependence present in the economy between rural and urban areas and also high time we acknowledged the significance of creating employment opportunities to the majority of the population.