Read November 2007
No academic subject is so divided into separate disciplines as is economics. On the one hand there is orthodox or bourgeois economics which seeks to explain prices, incomes, interest rates, etc. by using mathematical models. While it is often supposed that traditional economics is an ‘empirical science’, it is in fact largely based on the assumption of rational (i.e. income maximising) behaviour of ‘de-socialised’ individuals. This approach is not wrong – in fact it gives powerful tools for understanding economics – but it fails to explain the fundamental social relationships generated by production, distribution and exchange, which fuel human history of which economics is a part. Thus bourgeois economics can be said to have a confined and falsely isolated un-historical explanation concentrating on the relationship between things, rather than the producers and users of those things.
Ben Fine’s book is a short, but by no means simple, introduction and overview of the other economics, that developed by Karl Marx. Though published two decades ago, the majority of the information in the book has retained its relevance even if its intended audience of economic students would now ignore it.
For the most part, the book follows a faithful account of Volume I of Das Kapital, after giving an outline of Marx’s materialistic conception of history and the methodology thrown up by it. Fine introduces the labour theory of value, exploitation, accumulation, the transition to capitalism, theories of capitalist crisis and the theories of distribution. Readers can see the force of this powerful explanatory system which is as valid today as it was twenty years ago, or indeed in late nineteenth century when Marx was writing. The question it seems to me is not whether Marx was correct or not, but how far and in what ways these theories can be used today to explain the manifestations of twenty-first century capitalism.
Obviously Ben Fine’s conclusions relating to the worker’s struggles in response to Britain’s economic crisis in the early 1980s are no longer as relevant today. Furthermore the book cannot comment on twenty-first century problems: the collapse of the labour movement or on the impact of intensified globalisation. Yet, nonetheless, the contents of Fine’s book continue to contribute to an understanding of the economic system today.