What’s so Political About the Economic? The Limits of Existing Responses


Political economy has of course been the subject of debates and publications for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Formalized as a field of systematic academic enquiry complete with journals and jobs between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it spans at least six major academic disciplines: economics, sociology, history, political science, geography, and business studies. The history and taxonomy of this vast field of study have been extensively presented and discussed elsewhere (Blyth, 2009; Cohen, 2008). What this chapter does instead is focus upon how the most dominant theories within political economy define and problematize the role of politics in economic activity. Astonishingly, this zeroing in upon what existing research on economic activity asserts about politics is not what political economy’s dominant textbooks (e.g. Broom, 2014), handbooks, (e.g. Blyth, 2009; Clift, 2014) and literature reviews (e.g. Cohen, 2008) actually do. Instead, they tend strongly to relate and perpetuate standardized accounts of the history of this field as having been structured by political philosophies and general theories of the world economy—e.g. liberalism or Marxism, rather than by analytical frameworks within which conceptualizations of politics itself play a central role. When one unpacks these wide-ranging philosophies and theories, implicit and occasionally explicit definitions of politics can of course be discerned. Where this chapter seeks to innovate is firstly by targeting these definitions directly and, secondly, by separating out the analytical propositions they each have generated from those that are normative and ideological.

As underlined in the introduction to this book, the main aim of this exercise is to move cumulatively towards the purpose-built framework for studying the politics of economic activity presented in chapter 2. In so doing, the next chapter is also where the two approaches to the economic that I draw most heavily upon—Regulationist economics and constructivist political sociology—will be presented and unpacked. Nevertheless, what follows can also be read as a sustained critique of the more standardized and increasingly unhelpful ways of researching, teaching, and discussing political economy. Revealingly, many of these visions are couched in tired binary distinctions—e.g. economics vs. politics, states vs. markets, equilibrium vs. ‘crisis’—all of which obstruct research rather than stimulate it. More precisely, the purpose of this chapter is to examine the definitions of politics mobilized by the dominant theorists of political economy by placing them within their respective ontologies, i.e. how each theory envisages and ‘investigates reality: the nature, essential relations and relation of being’ (Cohen, 2008: 3). From this perspective, four ontologies which currently dominate political economy will successively be presented and discussed:

  • • material determinism: neo-classical economics, classical international relations theory and rational choice;
  • • societal structuralism: Marxism, neo-Marxism and neo-Gramscian theory;
  • • institutions: historical and sociological institutionalism;
  • • interactionist network theory.

The order of presentation of these theories has some importance because I begin with the most materially deterministic of these theories and end with the least. Specifically, this continuum stretches from accounts of political economy that give most pride of place to assumed ‘interests’ (neo-classical economics) to those that instead stress the role of ‘agency’ (interactionist network theory). However, this dimension of my topography of political economy should not be overstated because, as will be shown, each of the four ontologies and concomitant theoretical ‘families’ combines structure and agency in complex ways. Moreover, it is precisely by examining these combinations that one can reveal each theory’s underlying definition of politics.

Consequently, each of the sections that follow sets out what the approach discussed theorizes and assumes about the relationship between politics and economic activity, before refining this question by examining its explanations of change or stasis. Throughout the chapter, illustrations from the world’s wine industry will be used in order to distinguish the various postulates, lines of reasoning, and conclusions each approach to the politics of economic activity purveys. This case has been selected as an illustration for two reasons. Firstly, it has been studied to some extent at least by all four of the approaches discussed here. Secondly, as I have had the chance to explain at length elsewhere,[1]

although change in the production, distribution, and consumption of wine is frequently treated as a straightforward response to ‘economic forces’, what has actually occurred over the last twenty years has been highly contingent and therefore deeply political. Critiquing how each of the four approaches to politics presented below have analysed change in the wine industry is thus pertinent to the objective of this chapter. Moreover, it also provides a relatively accessible means of empirically nourishing a part of this book that is necessarily dominated by questions of theory.

  • [1] Carried our between 2004 and 2015, this research on wine targeted the question of changeor stasis by questioning in particular the role played by ‘globalization’ (Smith, de Maillard &Costa, 2007) and the European Union (It<;aina, Roger & Smith, 2016a).
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