Review Article

Grammar of Political Economy

Anirban Biswas

When teenaged boys and girls go to colleges for studying the subject of economics, they are brainwashed with some subjective theories, and sloppy habits of thought are ingrained into them. In due course, many of them become professors and teach economics in the same subjective way they have been made familiar with. If children, before they enter colleges, can be taught the rudiments of economics in a more objective fashion, they will learn to challenge what is prescribed in the syllabi, i.e. the unscientific basis of the mainstream economics. Ranganaya-kamma's *book (Economics for Children) is an extremely useful and brilliant, exercise in this direction. The book, as its title suggests, is basically meant as a primer of political economy but it is a comprehensive and elegant primer, and in this sense, the author is eminently successful in her enterprise. The method of exposition is lucid and clear, and the methodology follows the outlook of classical political economy as refined by Karl Marx. But the arguments and analyses have been made to suit the Indian context.

There is a difference, however. Classical political economy, although it tried to explore the relations of production existing among classes, more or less confined its study to the phenomena of capitalism, this book discusses precapitalist formations like the slave society and the feudal society as well. The focal points of analysis are, of course, class, class exploitation and class struggle.

The basic outlook is the belief that the fundamental human contribution to production is labour and that labour is the source of value. Human beings, and not tools, make things. The word 'raw materials' are appropriate in case of inanimate things like shirt, chair etc, not of living things like trees, birds, or animals. Ranganayakamma carefully distinguishes between labour and work, arguing cogently "all labour is work, but all work is not labour". She also explains how money arrives owing to the problems associated with a barter system of exchange. For exchanges to take place with great ease, a strange article that is devoid of any kind of use value but possesses only 'the value' is needed. 'Money is such a strange article'. Gold may have a use value, but when it is transformed into gold coins, it ceases to have use value, and possesses only exchange value or value. One point elaborated by the writer is noteworthy. 'Every article would exchange with money only and not with any other article,' and hence money is the value form of all the articles.

A metallic coin, Ranganayakamma correctly suggests, is devoid of not only 'use value ' but also the 'value'. Value is conferred on a paper note by the government. Here, the present reviewer thinks a caveat has to be introduced. The measure of value a gold or silver coin possesses is also guaranteed by some authority, although such a coin, nobody would dispute, has some value of its own owing to its intrinsic worth, owing to the fact that its contents have a market value. The paper money was backed by gold reserves in the hands of the government, but this is no longer necessary at least as far as internal exchanges are concerned, for the simple reason that paper notes are established in each country and used without apprehension by the money-using public. Gold reserves are, however, necessary for foreign transactions. That is why gold is known as 'world money'. The use of money, as the author points out, implies a separation between purchase and sale, and it is this separation that contains the element of crisis. The writer distinguishes between various types of labour, and correctly points out the differences in the values of different kinds of goods and services produced by different kinds of labour.

Now the author directly enters the field of social relations that form the core of investigation of social scientists. Consistent with her fundamental approach, she argues that since labour is the fundamental human contribution to production, social relations are necessarily labour relations. From this starts her analysis of the exploitation of labour and she correctly begins with the phenomenon of appropriation of 'surplus labour' in slave society. The writer also explains how commerce, commercial profits, and the state have their genesis in the slave society, and pertinently points out that the struggles of slaves were directed not against exploitation per se, but against the custom of treating labouring human beings as the property of non-labouring human beings. She also explains how religion was used to make the slaves tolerate their sub-human existence and how a class of religious preachers and storytellers thus emerged in order to serve the slave society. The struggles of slaves finally bring about the abolition of slavery and give way to a new type of exploitative society, the feudal society or feudalism.

Her description of the nature of exploitation under feudalism does not, however, seem to be satisfactory. She refers to the phenomenon of rent in crops as feudal rent, and calls it land rent. Feudal rent, however, is not of one kind. In fact, the oldest form of feudal rent is rent in the form of labour, labour performed additionally by peasants on the estate specially meant to serve the lord's needs (in Western Europe, this was called demesne). Rent as a substantial part of the produce is another kind of rent. Both categories are 'land rents'. More specifically, it would perhaps be proper to call the former labour rent and the latter rent in kind. There is, however, another kind of feudal rent, 'money rent', which generally emerged in the declining period of feudalism.

Of course, the State was there in order to suppress peasants' revolts, and various sorts of theories were concocted in order to use as opium for the people. In this respect Ranganayakamma comments : A 'king' is first an exploiter himself and then a close associate and protector of other exploiters!' (P-178)

She then explains the functioning of the capitalist system, in which surplus value is created by labour and appropriated by capitalists. Also, she distinguishes with enough lucidity between necessary labour and surplus labour. Here it should be emphasized that these two categories are not specific to capitalism, what is specific to capitalism is the transformation of surplus labour into surplus value, because, in capitalism, all things, including the labour power, are commodities, She also explains that the means of production are only embodiments of past labour and argues cogently that it is not capital, but the capitalist that gets profit under capitalism.

One interesting and noteworthy feature of the work is the discussion on the tenant farmer. Tenant farming as a category of farming activity can easily be accommodated within capitalism, and capitalist landlords getting both profit and rent may also be a distinct class.

Discussion on price is highly illuminating. The writer emphasizes surplus value cannot be enhanced or even secured by increasing the price of a commodity arbitrarily, because all the branches of production are interdependent, and an increase in price brings about a more or less corresponding increase in the prices of the means of production and the wage goods. Surplus value, rent and interest have necessarily to be included in the price to be fixed by the capitalist.

The writer (vide chs.61-62) explains the development of the theory of exploitation of labour in the simplest of languages. Earlier intellectuals had considered incomes of the slave owners, feudal lords and capitalists as natural. Karl Marx, in his urge to discover and elaborate the laws of motion of human society in general and capitalism in particular, discovered the historical and exploitative nature of these incomes. Unproductive labour does not create surplus value, while productive labour does. The surplus labour of the former is consumed by the capitalist, not sold in the market. The same kind of labour can be productive at one place and unproductive at, another, for example a cook serving at a hotel and a cook serving in the household of a capitalist. Here Ranganayakamma further elaborates her concept of 'unproductive labourers' with reference to commercial workers. She also argues with force all wages are not values of labour power; for example, the salaries and fees received by capitalist entrepreneurs and managers are parts of surplus value, not received in exchange of labour power. The writer's discussion on the caste system is interesting, showing how caste-based division of labour has perpetuated the appropriation of surplus labour by the upper castes. She, however, is not an Ambedkarite, but a Marxist, and hence is sharp to point out the narrowness of the outlook of the dalit intellectuals, who do not see beyond reservation and some such facilities for the lower castes, forgetting that dalit struggles must be combined with struggles against other types of exploitation.

She also goes on to explain how the inherent logic of capitalist production gives rise to problems of overproduction, under consumption and crisis. Yet the role of financial speculation in today's world economy should and could have been elaborated a bit further.

The author has devoted some attention in discussing the level of working class consciousness. The working class, including the intellectual workers, is burdened with a muck legacy of ideas and hence it is imperative to acquire knowledge of the real relations of production in order to wipe out this legacy.

On the age old subject of the 'dictatorship' of the proletariat, Ranganaya-kamma's comment is pertinent: "In order to abolish the exploitative property rights and the exploitative sources of income and to implement the condition that 'every person must work,' the dictatorship of the proletariat is a mandatory constitutional form. The dictatorship is the only form eliminating the relations of exploitation. Without the dictatorship, there will never be such laws and such changes. It will again become the state of the masters. If the proletarian dictatorship is implemented properly and the relations of exploitation disappear gradually, the dictatorship too will disappear". The Russian and Chinese experiences have, however, taught that 'eliminating the relations of exploitation' is not an easy task and there is every possibility of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' turning into a 'dictatorship of the bourgeoisie'. The writer of this excellent book emphasizes the necessity or correct leadership in this regard, but eschews the question as to why and how the leadership failed in both countries where the future seemed to have clicked.

Despite some inadequacies, the effort by Ranganayakamma is a grand one, and it is not possible to do justice to it within the space of a review article. In short, this reviewer is incline to feel that it should be sold in millions and translated into all the major regional languages of India. The price is abnormally low, and as Ranganayakamma explains in the final note, the publishers have incurred some losses in order to make it available to the reader with small means, and the author has not taken anything for the labour she has put in. No amount of praise is sufficient for the writer and the publisher for bringing out this work that displays the writer's comprehensive grasp of the Marxist outlook of political economy and her ability to apply it to the current international and national situations, her motto being to change this world, not to interpret it only. Some 'Marxist' academics, which revel in hair-splitting debates may treat such works with slight and scorn, but they are perhaps incapable of producing such works owing to their ingrained habit of obfuscating real issues.

*Book: “Economics for Children” by Ranganayakamma

Vol. 48, No. 18, Nov 8 - 14, 2015