Welcome to the first installment of Critical Readings in Political Economy. This column will appear on a monthly basis and will discuss work—mostly new—in the discipline. It will address the disciplinary residue of Cold War post-colonial containment, the Middle East, including North African countries. It will select and highlight, summarize and critique, and identify trends in subject matter and methodology. Historical materialism is the orienting pole. It will also look to “infusions… from partway outside,” in the words of Richard Levins. Outside only partway, because historical materialism had already affected others’ thoughts and the struggles they informed.
This effort is related to the newly established Political Economy Project, founded almost exactly a year ago, in April 2015, by the Arab Studies Institute. The first/founding workshop was held at ASI/George Mason University. More information on the project can be found at www.politicaleconomyproject.org or by clicking on the images below.
What is political economy? In the nineteenth century, this term referred to those aiming to articulate the cosmology of Europe’s ascendant bourgeoisie. As with any philosophical system, it laid out the logic of that society’s rising elements. It crystallized them in logical form, and gave them an axiomatic basis in natural law.
Historical materialism departed from these eternal laws’ ahistoricism. By situating them as part-and-parcel of the imposition of capitalist social relations, Marx vivisected that thought-world. Inside its formal shell he found a great deal of ideology. He subjected Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus to painstaking scrutiny, exposing how their analyses were rooted in notions of previous accumulation and thought experiments bleached of the blood and fire of historical change.
In the place of the ideological warpings of classical political economy, Marx sought to erect a proper social science. Its goal was to identify capitalism’s patterns—from the tendency of rates of profit to decline, to relationships between price and labor, and on to intersections between forces and relations of production. The goal was to suss out capitalism’s rhythms through an analysis of its dominant institutions and ideologies. Crucially, the methodology was historical. Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, did not derive their models from thought experiments. Rather, they extracted and distilled their theories of social change from historical accounts, ethnographies, and the brimming and detailed ledgers of the world of production and exchange.
Today, political economy can mean all things to all people. This column will take as a realistic approach to defining political economy the notion that I know it when I see it. I will consider works of history that take as a point of departure the patterned and historical interaction and mutual constitution of classes and political institutions. It will consider studies of resistance. Finally, it will consider world-commodity markets, market formation, gender, imperialism and colonialism, and ecological concerns. This last subject has been a traditional weak point for Anglophone research on the Middle East despite the overwhelming influence of the biome on regional social change.
[for more information regarding the founding workshop for the Political Economy Project,
listen to the presentations on Status/الوضع by clicking here or on the image below]
And, finally, why now? It is possible to periodize the resurgence of interest in political economy to 2008 and that year’s crises. But struggles in response to the global counterrevolution called neoliberalism picked up in the early 2000s – with North African labor at their core. Furthermore, the Palestinian second intifada and protesting US aggression against Iraq were crucibles for a new generation of activists. They had tried to pull the brake on the capitalist and colonial counter-revolution which had developed with savage aplomb in the post-1970 era of core advance and revolutionary retreat.
The current efflorescence of research, with a particularly rich crop in Palestine studies, seems to be their harvest. This column’s goal is to present a curated monthly selection of those efforts.