'Vertical' versus 'Horizontal' Economics: Systems of Provision, Consumption Norms and Labour Market Structures

By Saad-Filho, Alfredo | Capital & Class, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

'Vertical' versus 'Horizontal' Economics: Systems of Provision, Consumption Norms and Labour Market Structures


Saad-Filho, Alfredo, Capital & Class


EN FINE IS WELL KNOWN in Marxian and radical circles for his research, his teaching at Birkbeck College and SOAS, and his involvement with the CSE. A superficial look at Fine's publications gives the impression that his intellectual trajectory is badly fragmented. Fine seems to have abandoned his highly acclaimed (by Marxists) work on value theory in the mid-80s (especially Fine and Harris, 1979, and Fine 1980, 1982, 1986; see, however, Fine, 1989 (lst ed. 1975), 1990a, 1992a), in order to pursue a disparate collection of Isofter' themes such as the South African industrialisation (Fine and Rustomjee, 1997), the contemporary British economy (Fine and Harris, 1985), the history of the British coal industry (Fine, 1990b), female participation in the labour market (Fine, 1992b), and labour market theory and the political economy of food and consumption (in the books discussed below). When I started reading these books 1 thought, rather sombrely, that their choice of themes was a reflex of Fine's desperation at the sterility of value debates, and of his decision to focus on more tractable and rewarding problems instead. I am glad to report that I was wrong. Fine remains as committed as ever to his intellectual roots, and one of the main purposes of his work is `to press the case for an appropriately constructed labour theory of value that incorporates a full understanding of the complexities of the dynamics of the capitalist economy' (Labour Market Theory: 264). This ambitious exercise is necessary, first, on analytical grounds, because conventional (Marxian) economics is unable to shed light on many complex and concrete problems (see below). Second, it is politically urgent, because Fine (1997) believes that Marxian (and, more broadly, alternative) approaches are at risk of disappearing because of the onslaught of neoclassical economics. This approach has been forcefully consolidating its monopoly within economics while, at the same time, 'colonising' the other social sciences with its peculiar methodology based on individualism (treating individuals as optimising agents and the source of social structures) and equilibrium (both as an organising principle and as the 'natural' state of the world, from which deviations should be explained).

Systems of Provision and the Theory of Consumption In these books, Fine develops the `systems of provision' (SOP) approach, as the basis for a reconstruction of Marxian economics and its synthesis with history, sociology, anthropology, and other neighbouring sciences. Its potential is demonstrated by the light it sheds on such complex problems as the causes of eating disorders, the determinants of fashion changes, the impact of advertising on consumer choice, and the relationship between the Common Agricultural Policy and our diet. Other 'economic' puzzles are also considered, such as the origins of the industrial revolution, the impact of minimum wages, and the reasons why the concepts of human capital and non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment should be rejected. Value theorists will be interested in Fine's innovative analysis of use value, the value of labour power, commercial capital, and consumption (which has been badly neglected vis-ii-vis production, exchange and distribution). As I do not have the space or the expertise to discuss everything I found interesting in these books, 1 will focus mainly on a narrow range of methodological and economic questions. I hope that this will not unduly distort Fine's results, and that it will motivate the readers to consider carefully the potential relevance of the systems of provision approach to their own work. In order to evaluate the usefulness of the systems of provision approach I will, first, examine Fine's criticism of conventional ('horizontal') approaches. Horizontal analyses are usually contained within individual sciences, and they typically investigate specific problemsfor example, the determinants of consumption-by applying one single explanatory factor across all goods (whether motor cars, fur coats or bananas) and all societies. …

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