Toward a Very Political Economy of Capitalism

In case anyone is curious about my take on the possibilities of democratization of capitalism, this is a preview of  some things I will be talking about here in Brighton. In academic jargon, it is an abstract, starting with a couple of conceptual clarifications.

A full paper will be available later. I post these short lines here with the hope that someone might care to give me constructive criticism (or any other comments).

Right now a wonderful conference on What’s The Point of International Relations is going on at the University of Sussex. Various key people of our academic discipline (or however one wants to call IR) are speaking here. It was a real honor to be included in that list, also because I have wanted to come to Sussex University (and the cool town of Brighton) since a long time.

Some of the words I might be playing with today are:

Very political economy explores the inherently political nature of things that are commonly defined as economic. It is opposed to the kind of political economy that merely analyzes the interaction between the political and the economic. It does sound better in Romance languages and I first came up with the term when I was teaching economía política at the economics department of the Catholic University of Perú. I informally renamed my course economía muy política.

Economism is a term I find better than, say, neoliberalism to describe the key ideology of capitalism. It is sometimes used in wildly different meanings, which helps obscure debates about it. For me it refers to the idea that the economic is a non-political sphere in which democratic claims have no validity.

Democratizability says something about the legitimacy of democratic claims upon an entity. I am fascinated by the extent of  democratizability of non-state entities, including social movement organizations and capitalist corporations. On the former see e.g. my article on Global Democratization without Hierarchy or Leadership.

Politicization can increase the legitimacy of making democratic claims about something. The politicization of the economic may open new possibilities for democratic transformations of capitalism. Politicization is by no means a sufficient condition for democratization, but it can be considered its necessary condition.

Learning from feminist struggles includes various kinds of political inspiration. Attention to gender-related issues is one of them, but there are also other lessons for strategies of democratizing the world.  When talking about anti-capitalist movements I sometimes make an analogy with how feminist movements were able to politicize patriarchal family by insisting that the personal is political. Without such politicization, subsequent democratic reforms concerning intra-family violence or childcare would have been difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Even if the impact may not have been particularly revolutionary, it was an example of politicization practiced by theorists and activists that contributed to social change.


In my talk today I will argue that within the academic discipline of International Relations, including the field of International Political Economy, the capitalist corporation has often been approached through excessively depoliticized theoretical lenses. Even if political aspects of corporate power are recognized, the political tends to be derived from the state. 

Despite repeated declarations to transgress the boundary between the political and the economic, much of the research in International Political Economy rests on a separation between the two categories.

The corporations tend to be considered political either because the state intervenes in their actions or because they influence the state. Thus, the inherently political nature of the corporation itself is left without sufficient attention.

This limits the usefulness of state-centric IR in both explaining and transforming global capitalism. When something is politicized, the legitimacy of making democratic claims about it increases.

In the paper I will explore the possibilities for a global politicization of non-state actors in general and capitalist corporations in particular. Examples of the global political will be located in intra-firm trade and other instances of corporate planning and command. The role of anti-corporate social movements and corporate social responsibility claims will also be analyzed.

In the paper I will suggest an analogy with earlier feminist strategies of claiming that the personal is political. What kinds of implications will there be for IR theory and for democratic strategies if we take seriously the claim the corporation is political?

4 thoughts on “Toward a Very Political Economy of Capitalism

  1. Do you think that the politicization of the capitalist economy needs a politicization or change of paradigm of the academic discipline of economics, if it is to be succesful? Change from the neoclassical paradigm and also the positivist philosophy of science. The positivist philosophy is hand in hand with the view that economy is non-political.
    As long as the economists keep claiming to be independent and out of politics(for example Talouspolitiikan arviointineuvosto), can there be a comprehensive politicization of the economy? Are these views too deep in peoples common sense? The feminist analogy is useful also from this point of view: like the feminists showed that women are excluded from research, the political and normative nature of the research in economics are hidden. Heikki Patomäki has for example said that the discipline shouldn’t even be called economics (taloustiede) but political economy (poliittinen talous).
    Take, for example, the theory of money. Peoples common sense seems to be that money is a commodity, and governments can run out of money. So the rhetoric that we are living beyond our means is effective. And this feeds the idea that we have to do certain reforms to adapt to changes in the economy and there’s no choice to do otherwise.
    So what i’m trying to say is that can there be a succesful politicization of capitalism without a change of paradigm in the academic discipline of economics?

    • Dear Jussi, Apologies for late reply, especially since your comments are so insightful. You bring up a key issue: one of the characteristics of the mainstream economics paradigm is indeed its depoliticizing dimension. So I do believe that bringing the political (back) in would also imply changing some key aspects of the mainstream economics.

      The link with positivist philosophy is interesting, though sometimes a bit ambiguous, especially since positivism tends to mean different things in different debates.

      Something more on my views on this can be found either in my older article on economism in English:

      …or a newer one in Finnish:

      • Thanks for the reply anyway, better late than never. I agree that the link with positivist philosophy is ambiguous. In political science and IR textbooks (Heywood in PS and Mansbach&Taylor in IR) it is defined simply as the idea that social sciences should be studied in the same way as natural sciences. So what I meant by positivist philosophy when I wrote that comment was that and overappreciation of quantitative analysis and mathematics and also the idea of value-free economics.

        I don’t know if there’s any coherent philosophy within economists and would be interesting to hear their own thoughts about their philosophy of science. But I find it a bit ridiculous when i’m sitting in economics courses that everything is represented in mathematical models instead of just verbal or written representation. It seems sometimes that it is thought to be somehow better to use mathematics even though it is not more precise description of reality. In fact our professor has said explicitly that (neoclassical) economics uses positivist philosophy of science. But he is critical of the neoclassical models so would be interesting to hear thoughts from someone who believes in those models.

        The distinction between economism and liberalism in your articles is interesting. I think modern monetary theory offers an interesting insight related to this topic: If the market is actually created by the state, in what sense can we even talk about a “free market” if free market means market without state intervention? It also blurs the dichotomy between market and the state because market (in its modern form) can’t exist without the state.

  2. On the terms “neoliberalism” Vs “economism”:

    I think you did a great job distinguishing both terms, never thought of it that way before!

    As a public relations practitioner, I would like to point out that this affects the types of rhetoric used. If one were to think of the “privatisation” of trains/ post offices etc as ” a neoliberal” perspective, then more emotional rhetoric will be used. If it’s from an “economism” perspective, then more cost-benefit analysis, verifiable facts and statistics would be used to persuade the public.

    Is the logical implication then that the Finland is sort of screwed, because it seems like “economism” is seen today as “cold and heartless”?

    Haha, unsure, maybe I’d interpreted it wrongly~

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