In the last year, the rise and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fictitious nature of some of the categories we deploy to conceptualise the world of labour. Indeed, it has revealed the contingent nature of the separation between productive and reproductive spaces, times and realms when it comes to labour processes.
According to estimates produced by Janine Berg, Florence Bonnet, and Sergei Soares, when the crisis hit, around 30% of North American and Western European workers were in occupations that could allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. This is to say that in the Global North, the pandemic could de facto manufacture million homeworkers overnight, following national lockdowns. In many cases, these would still be contributing to formal sectors of the economy.
It is rather unsurprising that this shift to homeworking could not materialise in the Global South. Labour relations here are largely characterised by informal employment, in its double character – namely, employment in the informal economy and informalised employment in otherwise formal settings. While homeworking represents one segment of informal employment, its major share is composed instead of precarious forms of casual employment, far more difficult to immediately insource in home-settings. By the time the crisis hit, according to the ILO, informal employment constituted 69.6 percent of employment in the Global South and, given the share of working people it hosts, it constituted over 60 percent of total employment on our planet.
One of the key characteristics of informal employment is the interpenetration between productive and reproductive dynamics, activities and realms. The ever-growing reality of informal employment forces us to reflect and revise theories of value generation and extraction, and ultimately the basis of exploitation worldwide. That is, they force us to re-engage in the study of key Marxian categories of analysis, in ways that may account for how the majority on earth labours. These ways must necessarily account for the centrality of social reproduction in the working of labour processes and relations worldwide.
Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014; Keen 2011; Nelson 2018, Mazzucato 2018, Raworth 2018, Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020; Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriously as structural-relational problems?
Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.
So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.
Working as a product designer in media for the past five years, I’ve witnessed the topic of “design ethics” raised at industry conferences, presentations, and meetups. Yet I’ve noticed that in our discussions, designers rarely mention the economic context within which we design. We hold up examples like news feeds promoting fake news and financial apps encouraging users to trade the riskiest stocks and we ask: how might we design better? Conventional discourse presents these unintended consequences of our work as technical problems: how might we design and code ethically, while maintaining profitability and growth? (Perhaps the most well-known example of this framing is The Center for Humane Technology’s “The Social Dilemma,” which confuses correlation with causation by attributing negative mental health and political trends to technology, with no mention of technology’s place in capitalism.)
We will not solve problems of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, misinformation and addictive technology, mental health and public health, or climate change with design ethics. While designers should thoroughly consider the consequences of our work, the problems facing the design and technology industry are not ones of individual bad actors (though some exist). Rather, we must acknowledge that design decisions are economic decisions––and in our current economic system, the economic interests of individuals often conflict with their social consequences. Technology firms are not cultural or ideological actors, but “economic actors within a capitalist mode of production…compelled to seek out profits in order to fend off competition” (Srnicek 2017, 3). If we truly want to design ethically, we must first consider how technology is embedded in capitalism. Our ability to make technology work better for society as a whole depends upon our willingness to reorder our priorities and redefine value as more than profit maximization.
What’s Wrong with Economics? The title of economic historian Robert Skidelsky’s latest book captures well a prevailing mood of popular disaffection with the dismal science. Many have come to associate the discipline with specific lines of political partisanship—including forms of market fundamentalism and the politics of austerity. Economics has also been widely criticised for its failure to grapple with actual, urgent economic problems. Within academic circles, the discipline has become widely regarded as insular and dismissive of the contributions other fields of social and historical inquiry make to the study of economic life. Among the public at large, the credibility of the discipline as a whole has faced considerable scrutiny, even while individual contributions by dissenting economists are widely debated and generally well received.
Recent political developments like the rise of the Movement for Black Lives and the #MeToo movement have helped broaden the sense of crisis in economics; encouraging examination of the discipline’s deeply problematic relationship with realties of race, gender, and other elements of people’s social identity. As a number of critics have noted, the problems are reflected most obviously in the profession’s basic institutional composition, which is grossly unrepresentative. In the United States women account for only 14 percent of full professors in PhD-granting departments. Of all doctorates conferred in the academic year 2015–2016, only 1.29 percent were conferred to Black or Latina women. This dismal performance was significantly worse than the 3 percent average across all STEM disciplines. That same year, only 3.6 percent of all full economics professors at PhD-granting institutions were Latino; a meagre 1.6 percent were Black.
The problem is also evident in prevalent attitudes and values among economists. Casual racism and misogyny among leading economists appears to have few or no repercussions. A 2019 survey of academic economists by the American Economic Association found that nearly half of Black economists reported being targets of discrimination in the profession. It also found that “only 45 percent of all . . . respondents (regardless of race) believed economists who are not White are respected in the field.” When the work on the economics of racial stratification by scholars like William Darity and Darrick Hamilton was finally included in the alphanumeric classification system for research topics in economics, it was placed in the last, residual category, “Z – Other Special Topics.” Recent work by Alice Wu uncovered evidence that these attitudes are prevalent among economics students, while work by Valentina Paredes, Daniele Paserman, and Francisco Pino found evidence suggesting that economics programs both attract and cultivate bigotry.
What has so far received comparatively less attention are the ways these attitudes are embodied in the basic concepts and analytical tools that most contemporary economists use to understand the world. Yet it is over this terrain that the discipline’s problems with issues of social identity prove most harmful to society at large.
The frameworks at the heart of contemporary economic thinking reflect analytical choices that ultimately betray the social position and outlook of those developing economic theory. In all of these choices, contemporary economic thinking has created a stilted conceptual terrain where it is easy to ignore or downplay the economic expressions of systemic inequities by social identity and class. This is evident in some of the discipline’s core analytical stances, like what is and what is not considered as economic activity, and in its rejection of social categories like gender, race, and class as useful in the analysis of markets and economies. It is also evident in the ways most economists think about the nature of discrimination, its relationship to market competition, and the statistical measurements of its effects on economic outcomes.
Given the outsized influence economics exerts across all fields of social inquiry and policy, these biases exert an insidious, conservative influence over public thinking and over the very framing of debates about those iniquities. Countering this influence requires understanding these biases, which in turn requires engagement with a few foundational methodological and technical issues in economic analysis. In what follows we draw on contributions by many critically minded economists and political economists, and on some of our own recent work, to contribute to a conversation among social scientists and political actors about these biases and about how they may be overcome.
The Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism I co-edited with Alex Callinicos and Stathis Kouvelakis aims to present the development of Marxism as a militant tradition in dialogue with other traditions and within itself. Even if it was conceived almost six years ago, the multiple crises we are confronting today – economic, political, social, gender, environmental and biological – vindicate the spirit of our project. The project seeks to look at Marxism as a tradition that is rooted in and addresses the totality of capitalist social antagonisms and, by doing so, is able to think strategically beyond capital.
Several contributions challenge reductionist interpretations of Marx’s critique of political economy, and the idea that Marxism is irremediably Eurocentric and underestimates race, gender and ecology. This opens a space for a more complex, and I would say fertile, dialogue with Post-Marxists currents. The format of the Handbook – combining longer contextual essays and shorter essays on individual thinkers mainly – aims at facilitating this dialogue. We chose this format, rather than concentrating on themes and concepts, in order to capture the specificity of, and interactions between, individual thinkers and problematics.
In the final part of the book, “Marxism in an Age of Catastrophe”, John Bellamy Foster and Intan Suwandi forcefully argue that Marx inaugurated traditions of thought that can intellectually encompass the present age of catastrophe, announced by the floods and fires around the world as well as by the Covid-19 pandemic. These reflections complement the first part of the Handbook, “Foundation”, which points to the strong connection Marx and Engels posited between the critique of political economy and a politics of working-class self-emancipation. Thanks to this connection, they were able to conceive of capitalism as a global, gendered, racialized and ecological class antagonism in which struggles over wages and working conditions are organically linked to struggles over dispossession, social reproduction, ecology, imperialism and racism. Support for the demands of the most oppressed is thus crucial for the advancement of the working class as a whole.
How is imperialism relevant today? How has it mutated over the past century? What are different theoretical and empirical angles through which we can study imperialism? These are the questions we deal with in our edited volume on The Changing Face of Imperialism(2018).
We understand imperialism as a continuing arrangement since the early years of empire-colonies to the prevailing pattern of expropriations, on part of those who wield power vis-à-vis those who are weak. The pattern of ‘old imperialism’, in the writings of Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin, were framed in the context of the imperial relations between the ruling nations and their colonies with political subjugation of the latter, captured by force or by commerce, providing the groundwork for their economic domination in the interest of the ruling nations. Forms of such arrogation varied, across regions and over time; including the early European invasions of South America, use of slaves or indentured labour across oceans, and the draining off of surpluses from colonies by using trade and financial channels. Imperialism, however, has considerably changed its pattern since then, especially with institutional changes in the prevailing power structure.
The essays in the volume offer a renewed interpretation, which include the alternate interpretations of imperialism and its changing pattern over space and time, incorporating the changing pattern of oppression which reflects the dynamics underlying the specific patterns of oppression. The pattern can be characterised as ‘new imperialism’ under contemporary capitalism as distinct from its ‘old’ form under colonialism. The varied interpretations of imperialism as in the literature do not lessen the significance of the common ground underlying the alternate positions, including the diverse pattern of expropriations under imperialism.
The volume offers fourteen chapters by renowned authors. In this blog, we organise them in the following manner: the first five of those deal with the conceptual basis of imperialism from different angles, the next three chapters deal with contemporary imperialism, and then the rest six chapters of book deal with India, colonialism and contemporary issues with imperialism.
In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.
The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.
Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.