Is Amartya Sen 21st Century’s ‘Great Critic’ of Capitalism?

A response to Tim Rogan

Tim Rogan, in an essay recently published by Aeon, claims that Amartya Sen is the “Century’s Great Critic of Capitalism.” He states that Sen deserves this attribute because of his groundbreaking approach to capitalist critique, wherein he combines the moral and material critiques of capitalism that have hitherto remained two distinct streams of thought. This should be the way forward, according to Rogan. While it is naive to deny the wide-reaching influence of Sen’s work in academia and public policy, the argument that his line of thought alone represents the most useful critique of contemporary capitalism does a great disservice to the works of more heterodox and radical schools of social science. Rather, we should move beyond Sen to arrive at a more effective and meaningful critique of capitalism.

Sen’s biggest contribution to development economics is generally identified as the “capabilities approach,” the cornerstone of the human development paradigm. In a nutshell, the capabilities approach to development involves the expansion of freedom(s). Poverty is not just related to income but also to choices that effectively hinder individuals from realizing their potential or exercising their agency. Thus by incorporating moral philosophy (read ethics) in his model, Sen broadened the narrow economistic and unidimensional conception of “welfare,” which was heavily influenced by “utilitarianism,” and called for a more pluralistic approach that would reflect diversity in aspirations. Despite the progressive implications of this proposition, we need to realize the inadequacies of this approach in realizing authentic emancipation of the large majority.

Firstly, though capability expansion calls for socio-economic rights for the marginalized, it fails to recognize the structural reasons responsible for their marginalization in the present-day context. While Sen identifies famines of the colonial era as a human-made problem, the persistence of malnutrition and hunger in contemporary capitalism is not structurally analyzed. While democratic systems have eradicated famines, there remains an epidemic of peasant suicides in the Global South, primarily due to capital’s encroachment on and destruction of agriculture and petty production. This violence of capitalism that threatens the fabric of liberal democracy is not sufficiently exposed by Sen, who, at best, believes in free-market capitalism with strong public institutions.

Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche characterize contemporary capitalism as a system of “conjugated oppression” – where caste, tribe, gender, and region are constitutive of class relations that effectively restrict the marginalized from any meaningful participation in society. Sen, on the other hand, by stating that the state is malleable according to popular will, does not pay adequate attention to these complex and asymmetrical power relations that exist in society. In reality, public policy formulation and implementation are spaces of contestation of power between a host of unequal actors.

In contemporary capitalist society, where there are inequalities in resource distribution and capital ownership across social groups, there is a need to assert collective identities in terms of class, gender, race or caste, which is ignored in Sen’s methodology, as his analysis focuses on the “atomized individual.” For Sen, capability expansion is largely individual-centric and only empowers the individual to take advantage of the opportunities of the market economy. This is antithetical for collective movements against exploitation. Thus, while Sen has broadened neoclassical economics, he has not moved counter to or beyond it.

Secondly, while Sen’s call for greater public investment in health and education is certainly laudable, he ignores the overwhelming evidence that the state is structurally constrained by the hegemony of globalized finance. In India, the welfare programs like MGNREGA (guaranteed employment) and ICDS (child development) that Sen hailed in the past have been diluted over the years, clearly showing the hegemony of neoliberal ideology. While reformists like Sen believe that capitalism is efficient, as it is pliable through strong democratic movements, these movements rarely challenge the structurally embedded and oppressive power relations that exist in society. For example, while MGNREGA has achieved pay equity, women are still actively discriminated against and excluded from the planning process in the worksites. Thus, micro-level lived realities are not given due importance in Sen’s macro-level analysis.

Finally, it is also important to note that Sen fails to acknowledge the role of indigenous cultures in framing capabilities. The concept of development itself is contentious, as capitalist development is threatening our planet’s limits. Ecological catastrophes, which pose one of the biggest challenges to human existence in the twenty-first century, do not find their deserved place in the analysis of this century’s “great critic of capitalism.” Instead, stressing capabilities that in turn can be used to further capital accumulation through environmental exploitation is seen as an end in itself.

Without discarding that there is indeed a dialectic between reform and authentic emancipation, we need to pay attention to the possibilities of a radical transformation of society. Such an economy would be based on solidarity between individuals by properly acknowledging and tackling the multiple oppressions that create and perpetuate various unfreedoms. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” For true freedom, we need to move beyond Sen and think beyond capitalism.

Aabid Firdausi MS is a master’s student at the Department of Economics, University of Kerala.

S. Nandita is a master’s student at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.

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Aabid Firdausi

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