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political economy

  The term was first used in the early eighteenth century and referred to government policy. The English classical economists Adam Smith (1723-90), and especially David Ricardo (1772-1823), later took up political economy as a term, but redefined it in terms of two theoretical emphases: first, the production and accumulation of wealth; and second, the distribution of the \'surplus\' so produced. It is especially the stress on distribution that accounts for the political part of political economy. Questions of apportioning the surplus among social classes necessarily pushed inquiry beyond the purely economic and into social and political spheres.

In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx (1818-83) also fixed upon the same two emphases, and creatively wedded them to both a theory of revolutionary change and a new science. Revolutionary change would occur because of inherent contradictions within the spheres of production and distribution (see Marxian economics and historical materialism). And a new science was necessary, he thought, to probe beneath the surface of capitalism that hid those contradictions from general view. This last point requires elaboration. Marx argued that the kind of exploitation and oppression found in pre-capitalist societies required no special scientific investigation because it was so transparent. In contrast, under capitalism exploitation and oppression are concealed under the veil of seemingly free exchange. In such an obfuscatory setting they can only be exposed by a new science, Marxian political economy.

More generally, Marx\'s writings were a critical reaction to Smith and Ricardo, whom he judged at least half right. neo-classical economics, however, which began to gain ascendancy from 1870 onwards, Marx found wholly wrong. Exclusively emphasizing the noun in political economy, neo-classical economics was not so much a science as an ideology. By celebrating market exchange, neoclassicism acclaimed the very source of capitalism\'s mystification. It was \'vulgar economics\', to use Marx\'s phrase.

Vulgar or not, it took hold, and at least in the western academy neoclassicism\'s dominance pushed political economy into an underground existence until the late 1950s. It was then, particularly through the work of the American Marxist Paul Baran (1957), that political economy began enjoying a revival, which continues to the present.

Political economy is now a vibrant and variegated theoretical tradition consisting of at least five different strains:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } fundamental Marxists who keep to the letter of Marx (Meiksins Wood, 1996); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } regulationists who analyse the regulatory apparatus of capitalism in order to understand its continued existence in spite of Marx\'s best predictions of its demise (Boyer, 1990); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } neo-Ricardians who provide a minimalist account of both politics and economics following Sraffa (1960); {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } analytical Marxists who employ rational choice theory to scrutinize analytically, and reconstruct logically, Marx\'s essential insights (Roemer, 1988); and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } post-Marxists who draw upon a wide range of often post-structural writers (Gibson-Graham, 1996).Ironically, also during the late 1950s the radical libertarian right from the University of Chicago appropriated the term \'political economy\'. Focusing on the problem of choosing among alternatives, the group examined all facets of human life — literally from birth to death — in terms of the tenets of rational choice theory. The nature of the state, political choice and decision-making are similarly examined by them, giving rise to public choice theory.

In human geography, political economy first emerged in the late 1960s with radical geography, and later with a fully-blown Marxist geography associated, in particular, with Harvey\'s (1973, 1982) writings on urbanism and later his close, geographical reading and theoretical interpretation of Marx\'s texts. Initially, the focus was on urban and regional issues, but since the early 1980s political economy has become both more diffuse and more pervasive. It has directly or indirectly influenced at least five major debates since the mid-1980s (Peet and Thrift, 1989): (1) on structure and agency (seen, for example, in Duncan and Ley\'s, 1982, criticisms of structural Marxism\'s treatment of human agency; see also structuration theory); (2) around realism (Sayer, 1984, argues that Marx\'s work best exemplifies the critical realist approach); (3) in the locality debates (Cooke, 1987, was challenged among other things about the political economic credentials of his locality project; Smith, 1987); (4) around cultural landscapes (Cosgrove, 1984, in one of the first substantive works within the new cultural geography, maintained that cultural landscapes must be understood as the product of specific political economic formations); and (5) discussions about postmodernism (seen in Deutsche\'s, 1991, and Morris\'s, 1992, criticisms of Harvey\'s, 1989, The condition of postmodernity).

Most recently, within economic geography there have been a number of discussions around the possibility of integrating political economy with cultural politics and post-structuralism (Gibson-Graham, 1996; Lee and Wills, 1997).

Only a single common thread seems to connect the many uses of political economy within geography: the belief that the political and the economic are irrevocably linked; a sentiment not so unlike that held by the originators of the term. (TJB)

References Baran, P.A. 1957: The political economy of growth. New York: Monthly Review Press. Boyer, R. 1990: The regulation school: a critical introduction. New York: Columbia University Press. Cooke, P. 1987: Clinical inference and geographical theory. Antipode 19: 69-78. Cosgrove, D. 1984: Social formation and symbolic landscape. London: Croom Helm. Deutsche, R. 1991: Boy\'s town. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 9: 5-30. Duncan, J.S. and Ley, D.F. 1982: Structural Marxism and human geography: a critical assessment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 30-59. Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996: The end of capitalism (as we knew it). A feminist critique of political economy. Oxford: Blackwell. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. London: Edward Arnold; Harvey, D. 1982: The limits to capital. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford: Blackwell. Lee, R. and Wills, J., eds, 1997: Geographies of economies. London: Arnold. Meiksins Wood, E. 1996: A chronology of the new left and its successor, or: who\'s old fashioned now? In L. Panitch, ed., Socialist Register. London: Merlin Press, 22-49. Morris, M. 1992: The man in the mirror: David Harvey\'s \'The condition of postmodernity\'. Theory, Culture and Society 9: 253-79. Peet, R. and Thrift, N.J. 1989: Political economy and human geography. In R. Peet and N.J. Thrift, eds, New models in geography: the political-economy perspective. London: Unwin-Hyman, 1-29. Roemer, J. 1988: Free to lose: an introduction to Marxist economic philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Sayer, A. 1984: Method in social science: a realist approach. London: Hutchinson (2nd edn, published 1992). Smith, N. 1987: Dangers of the empirical turn: some comments on the CURS initiative. Antipode 19: 59-68. Sraffa, P. 1960: The production of commodities by means of commodities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading Barnes, T.J. 1995: Political economy I: \'the culture, stupid\'. Progress in Human Geography 19: 423-31. Peet and Thrift (1989).



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