Written in the ‘before times’ and printed in April, 2020 at the start of the pandemic, Capitalist Political Economy was published just as the world was poised for a major change in its political economy… or was it? Was 2020, with its ascendant nationalism and crises in production and social reproduction, a fundamental break with the past? Notwithstanding the novelty and gravity of our times, a tour through the political economy tradition makes plain that signposts can be found, antecedents and corollaries abound – whether it’s Marx on crisis that we look to, or Veblen on the leisure class, or feminist political economy on care work. Given its timing, the book obviously does not focus on the specific conditions of 2020/21, but what I hoped to make clear is that the development and evolution of capitalism and its theories can tell us a lot about today: how we got here, and where we’re going.
The Introduction casts a wide net by commenting on the political economy tradition more broadly, with the book proceeding through a thematic and largely chronological treatment of the capitalism of and for its leading proponents and opponents. Chapter 1 chronicles Smith’s Wealth of Notions espoused on eighteenth century proto-industrial Britain; subsequent chapters follow the travails of political economy through Jevons’s New Margins with an economics shorn of its politics and Marx’s Capital Idea written in and on grinding newly-industrial nineteenth century England; Keynes’s General’s Theory that conquered the laissez-faire underpinning the Depression-ravaged early twentieth century; the Emigrant Iconoclast movements of Polanyi, Veblen, and Schumpeter through a much-consolidated and crisis-prone capitalism; the global yet rooted views on World Economy and National Crises offered by the likes of Braudel, World Systems theory, and the Social Structure of Accumulation approach; and the Home and Away of feminism and ecological economics on who and what are being pushed to the limits by capitalism. Whether we subscribe to any of these particular views or not, we are all impacted by theories and related developments in capitalism.
The distinct and interdisciplinary field of political economy speaks both to ‘Capitalism’ writ large and is a reflection of the capitalism of its day. Theorists themselves are no exception; while their ideas may endure, they too are products of their time. And most of these foundational thinkers led genuinely interesting lives, often contradicting expectations. You may already know of Marx’s servant and his love of Shakespeare, but what of Smith being kidnapped as a child, or Jevons’s up-close experience with squalor and bankruptcy, or Keynes’s collection of pen nibs? Part trivia, part telling.
Capitalist Political Economy thus concerns itself with the time, place, and characters of political economy theory. The book also humbly recognizes its limits: whither the non-Western tradition, a non-capitalist political economy, exciting but fringe theories and thinkers, deeper dives, and the cutting edge? Mostly these lacunae were intentional, in line with familiar issues like space and time constraints, the limitations of my own desires and capacities, and hopes for companion books in the future. My colleague Eric Helleiner, for example, is conducting fascinating historical research into the non-Western political economy tradition that I’m sure we’re all excited to read. Likewise, inspirational texts include work by Frank Stilwell, Geoff Mann, Robert Heilbroner, Geoffrey Ingham, Nancy Fraser, and many others discussed in the Introduction and cited throughout. The book’s content was also intentional in the sense that it explicitly aims to show what is central to capitalist thinking and why, and hint at the reverberations for the rest of us whether we agree or not. The book does not try to do it all and more needs to be done (and is quite obviously being done by creative and meticulous political economists around the world).
By following leading theorists around, the book is largely silent on the intricacies of myriad capitalisms. In Canada, we have a rich tradition of critical political economy with its own legacies and developments. Under the weight of colonialism, but positioned as a rich dependency, the Canadian political economy has been dramatically shaped by its own variant of settler capitalism just as it is intertwined with global systems and trends. As editor and author, myself and 19 other authors assess and reinvigorate the historical and contemporary contributions offered by this unique field of study in Canadian Political Economy through 17 chapters and 440 pages, also published in 2020 (University of Toronto Press).
While the pandemic has surely taken too many lives, 2020 equally lost many great political economists. Here in Canada we now miss three brilliant and much-loved scholars: Mel Watkins, John Loxley, and Leo Panitch. Despite their differences, all dedicated their life’s work to a political economy view attuned to the needs and lives of the working and subaltern classes. Just as history informs the present, the legacy of their works will endure. Their contributions to the field are monumental and live on through our work. And if we’re lucky enough, we get to teach with and learn from them too.