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Adrian Pabst and Roberto Scazzieri, The Constitution of Political Economy

Paolo Santori
p. 129-133
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Adrian Pabst and Roberto Scazzieri, The Constitution of Political Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023, 274 pages, 978-110883109-3

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Crédits : Cambridge university press

1Benedetto Croce wrote that “every true story is contemporary history” (Croce, 1921, 13). He meant to say that every scholar studying the past is doing it from an interest and a point of view that pertains to the present. This is also valid for the history of ideas, where we look back in search of questions, answers, and perspectives to address contemporary issues. The book The Constitution of Political Economy by Pabst and Scazzieri follows this pattern, although in an original way. They aim to furnish a useful heuristic tool for policymakers to effectively design policies to address systemic crises (ecological, social, health, and so on). The tool is the discipline of political economy or, more precisely, its constitution, i.e., “the ordering principles behind the economic arrangements in each domain of political relevance and with the range of transformations compatible with the maintenance of each domain fundamental identity” (215). Therefore, they offer a theoretical inquiry rather than a historical journey into economic and political ideas. References to the history of economics, politics, and philosophy always back up the concepts exposed. For example, the notions of interdependence and sociability are explained through ideas developed within the Scottish (Adam Smith) and Italian (Antonio Genovesi) Enlightenments. Framing theory into the history of ideas is what makes this book a research in “contemporary history” in the Croce’s sense. After having presented the core topics of their book, I will argue that the historical character of Pabst’s and Scazzieri’s analysis is a key factor for the success of their ambitious project. At the same time, I will argue that the theoretical apparatus they developed might entail some problematic stances.

2The project of reviving the political economy through inquiry into its constitution is simultaneously against dualism and reductionism. This might appear counterintuitive or even paradoxical as, in Western logic, we associate the reduction of something with the process in which that something, made of different phenomena, is reduced to one single explanation (reductio ad unum). Conversely, according to Pabst and Scazzieri, the problem with the political economy is that it is reduced to two separate and autonomous domains of inquiry: “one set of approaches focuses on individual actors in the marketplace or in the public sphere while another set of approaches shifts the emphasis to the state as a self-contained and internally undifferentiated collective actor” (13). According to the authors, these two lenses through which we observe and analyze social life are highly defective because they ignore the connection and interrelatedness of economic structures and political actions—and vice versa, political structures and economic actions. The failure of this dualism is visible in policies that are incapable of promoting the systemic interests of the constitutive body of society. Pabst and Scazzieri argue instead that we need to look to the constitutions of the economic and political structure of society and their mutual embedment: “The economic features of politics call attention to the complementarities, constraints and possibilities that shape both conflict and cooperation,” whereas “the political features of the economy highlight systemic conditions that constrain and orient the division of labour and exchange in the polity if material and social resilience is to be achieved” (4). The book’s primary goal is to furnish a heuristic to understand the static and dynamic of this middle-ground between the economic and political spheres of society.

3The book is divided into two parts, both connected and reciprocally referencing one another—it is impossible to analyze the economic part without the political and vice versa, both being constitutive parts of the social body. The first three chapters of Part I are functional to build Chapter 4, which explores the constitution of the economy. Chapter 1 contrasts the contractualist approach, which focuses on individuals and states as main actors of the economic domain, with the constitutional approach, where the actors are context-embedded and interrelated. Chapters 2 and 3 explore the interrelation of actors of the social body through the notions of sociability, interdependence, and (simple and complex) division of labor. These elements are subsumed in Chapter 4, where the constitution of the economy is inquired through the relation between dispositions, constellation of interests, and mode of associations. The chapter’s outcome is the “principle of relative invariance”, i.e., the identification of the unchanging relationship at the basis of the division of labor that leads to different modes of association (hierarchical/non-hierarchical, open and closed) in a given society. Economic policy should focus on this principle to understand what kinds of transformation are feasible under certain economic constitutions. Part II complements this analysis by describing the relational structure of political life (characterized by interconnectedness and mutual recognition, Chapter 5), the emergence of institutions of the political body in the presence of individual, collective, and systemic interests (Chapter 6), and, finally, the embedded policy-making (Chapter 7), which can and should identify “the fundamental conditions for sustainability of the political body and the economic body” (212).

4The first of two key strengths of The Constitution of Political Economy is that Pabst and Scazzieri presented the book contents through constant referencing to the history of ideas. This is, in my view, one added value of their book in respect of many analyses in pure economics or analytic philosophy where the history of concepts is omitted. Scholars interested in economic and political thought will find references to varied authors, from Adam Smith to John Hicks and Luigi Pasinetti, from the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) to the Italian school of civil economy (Doria, Genovesi, Filangieri), and many more. In other words, Pabst and Scazzieri succeeded in presenting an inquiry amid the fields of philosophy of economics and political philosophy whose theoretical contribution is strictly tied to the inquiry into the history of ideas. This was their declared aim: to revive the field of political economy after it had been subsumed both into economics (through the marginal revolution) and into Marxism (even if they do not mention this passage directly). Their choice strengthens their main argument, and the historical perspective makes the book interesting even for readers who do not agree with or support their view of political economy. To young researchers (as the author of this review) who work in the fields of political and economic philosophy or who are interested in the history of ideas, Pabst and Scazzieri show a fruitful pattern of analysis that makes history, as Croce said, contemporary history.

5The second strength of the book is its advocacy for a constitutional perspective over a contractualist one. While the latter focuses on self-interested individuals and states as units of analysis, confining policymakers to the nation-state or global perspectives, the former shows the complex interdependencies of the economic and political dimensions that form the social body. Contemporary challenges ask for this shift. Think about policymakers in nation-states and global institutions who must deal with the issues of local and global commons (common goods such as water, the ozone layer, seeds, biodiversity, and so on). From Hardin to Ostrom, we know that the individual-state dichotomy will not work to address these complex phenomena. Conversely, the constitutions of political economies within and outside nation-states show the interconnectedness of various forms of human associations, from industries to production and consumption chains. The relative invariance of these units of analysis can help policy-makers abandon short-sighted perspectives in favor of a systemic multi-layered approach that respects the complexity of human motivations and the institutional infrastructure of human associations. To govern the local and global commons, it is time to move from the view of self-interested individuals and nation-states/international institutions managing power to a more realistic and complex view of society. Pabst and Scazzieri shows a way, and this is a contribution for scholars interested in reviving political economy and for policymakers searching for new perspectives.

6The book develops a conceptual apparatus to describe the constitution of political economy. In my view, however, their commendable theoretical endeavor entails some problematic stances that need to be clarified. First, the analysis wants to move from the dichotomy of context-dependent and context-independent analyses of social life to describe the relative invariances of political economies. However, the focus is mostly on Western societies. This is also shown from the inquiry into the history of ideas, where mostly Western history of economic and political thought is considered. In other words, it is not clear if their analysis can be applied to other societies beyond Western liberal democracies with other forms of government. Given the book’s ambition, I would argue that it aims to be applicable worldwide, not least because some political economies transcend national borders.

7A second related point is that some categories of analysis are left behind without a strong justification. Gender, religion, and culture are all elements crucial to understanding the interdependence and sociability of human beings and sources of conflict or cooperation. In my view, the constitutions of political economies cannot leave these elements behind, as they are part of that complexity that the book aims to recognize. I think these two points remain implicit in the analysis developed in the book, whereas it would be essential to understand how they fit into it or, at least, the reason for leaving them at the margins of the project.

8The third remark is about the theoretical apparatus in itself. The reference to the history of ideas is crucial for the reader to understand the numerous concepts and ideas exposed in the book. However, as a book that also targets policymakers, there is a lack of examples or clarifications of the many concepts introduced. While this is done sometimes, for example, when production and consumption models are discussed in Part I, or when fiscal, industrial, and global policies are discussed in Part II, the reader might feel the need for more case studies or illustrations of complicated concepts such as disposition, constellations of interest, modes of association, etc. For example, in the Introduction and Chapter 2, the authors describe the reciprocal relation between mutual needs and mutual dependencies, as mediated by social dispositions. While I have understood the concept intuitively, I would have appreciated a clearer definition of these concepts, or maybe an example, to understand what counts as a need, what is a dependency, and what makes a disposition a social disposition. If not through examples and illustrations, a glossary, or a conceptual map at the end of the book could have helped to have an overview and precise definitions of the numerous concepts exposed in the book.

9In conclusion, The Constitution of Political Economy is an ambitious and needed reading. Both policymakers and scholars can benefit from the theoretical shift proposed by Pabst and Scazzieri.

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Croce, Benedetto. 1921. History, Its Theory and Practice. Translated by Douglas Ainslie. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

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Paolo Santori, « Adrian Pabst and Roberto Scazzieri, The Constitution of Political Economy »Œconomia, 14-1 | 2024, 129-133.

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Paolo Santori, « Adrian Pabst and Roberto Scazzieri, The Constitution of Political Economy »Œconomia [En ligne], 14-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Paolo Santori

Department of Philosophy, Tilburg University.

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