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Where is the Political Economy?


Angela P. Harris is Professor Emerita at the UC Davis School of Law.

Amy Kapczynski (@akapczynski) is Professor of Law at Yale Law School. 

Noah Zatz (@NoahZatz) is Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law.

Neoliberal rhetoric portrays the economy as a self-regulating machine that begins to malfunction when the state “intervenes,” disrupting the internal mechanisms that would otherwise yield good and efficient results. LPE scholars, building on previous critical legal work, argue instead that markets are created and maintained by state law and are embedded in political institutions and social norms. Turning to prescription, we often call for “democratizing” the economy—as in the LPE Project’s recent conference, “Democracy Beyond Neoliberalism.” But what, and where, is the economy that we should be democratizing?

Embracing the terms “economy” and “political economy,” as LPE has done, risks—unless we are careful—invoking just the kind of separate, reified realm that we are trying to critique. In our view, defining “the economy,” and studying how legal institutions have done so, should be central issues that LPE scholarship aims to address.

Like the word “class”—which in the U.S. tends to conjure up an image of (white) industrial workers—the word “economy” calls forth certain images:  factories, greenbacks, retail stores, banks. LPE analysis often calls attention to the social and legal conditions upon which all of these depend. We think LPE scholars should be equally attuned to what falls outside the frame, and why. Conventional understandings of the economy implicitly reduce it to domains of voluntary exchange involving money. These misconstrue where and how production and exchange that matter to human flourishing occurs. As importantly, the very boundaries of what counts as part of the economy (and markets, and capitalism) carry with them implicit valuations of certain kinds of work, bodies, and geographies.  These boundaries are set through hierarchies maintained by ideology, discipline, and violence. If we fail to see the economy as more than the domain of market exchange, then we will miss the centrality of contesting those hierarchies to the LPE project.

For example, feminist scholarship on social reproduction has long criticized the exclusion of housework and caregiving located within families and households from conventional accounts of the economy—hence the feminist quip that GDP goes down if a man marries his housekeeper. Scholars like Nina Banks recently have extended this analysis to a whole range of life-making work that happens outside markets and is not typically recognized as economically productive, such as Black women’s community activism. Instead, nonmarket care work is frequently naturalized as either the product of voluntary generosity, or the result of “social” (i.e., non-economic) dynamics associated with gender, sexuality, and race. LPE scholars often note how waged labor relies on background coercion (an imperative to “work or starve” grounded in property law), but we also should have little trouble recognizing that structural coercion, enforced by law, helps constitute these ostensibly “voluntary” and “social” forms of nonwaged production and reproduction. Moreover, status hierarchies help make this process invisible as economic.

For example, unpaid care workers, most often women, are frequently legally defined as unproductive “dependents” unable to stake claims to economic citizenship, as in the organization of both Social Security and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Clinton-era policy reforms fused this “dependency” assumption with anti-Black tropes about “welfare queens” and labor discipline to shrink the social safety net, impel Black caretakers into low-wage work, and reorganize bureaucratic systems around the suspicion of fraud. The erasure of nonmarket care is also deeply intertwined with devaluation of even paid care work, which is performed disproportionately by immigrant women and women of color—a devaluation reflected in longstanding exclusions of paid domestic workers from labor, employment, and social insurance measures.

Understood this way, SEIU’s and NDWA’s campaigns around long-term care and universal family care—recently situated in the claim that “care is infrastructure”—are central, not peripheral, to the LPE mission. These policy initiatives seek to expand healthcare coverage, finance child- and elder-care, and create structures to support home care workers’ organizing, wages, and working conditions. From a theoretical perspective, these initiatives are examples of how we might democratize economic life: by expanding our view to recognize care (in and out of the home) as central to the economy and human flourishing, and reducing our reliance on exploiting hierarchies of gender, race, and citizenship to provide the essential labor of care.  

Conventional understandings of “the economy” also tend to overlook the involvement of outright coercion and violence in the production of goods. For example, Timothy Mitchell explores the central role of imperial military power in securing the flow of fossil fuels from the oilfields of the Middle East to the “developed” world. Mitchell shows that in the early twentieth century, oil companies and the “great powers” acted together to maintain control of oil wells, pipelines, refineries, railways, docks, and shipping lanes, crushing strikes by local workers with deadly force and, where necessary, organizing coups against democracy-inclined governments. Stories like this, which link the European imperialism of the nineteenth century to today’s energy supply chains, conventionally are analyzed in terms of foreign policy and national security, not economic ordering.

Where economics does conventionally enter this picture is through narratives of “development,” under which the US and the global North benevolently tutor the Middle East, Africa, and the poorer countries of Asia in how to manage their economies for maximum efficiency. This story is often accompanied by laments about failures of democracy in the global South and calls for poor countries to practice “good government.” As Jon Sylvester and Ruth Gordon note, however, such narratives rely on racist tropes about backward natives, and erase the attempts by countries in the global South, and ordinary citizens in these countries, to exercise democratic control over their resources.

As in the care economy, moreover, circuits of commodity production and waste become less visible as economic when the people involved with them are nonwhite. A report recently issued by Greenpeace and the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy identifies “fossil fuel racism” in the US as the result of Indigenous land dispossession, racial discrimination in housing and employment, and elected officials beholden to corporate power, the combined effects of which place the most dangerous impacts of pollution on the most disadvantaged, especially Black, brown, Indigenous, and poor communities. Indeed, around the world the extraction, processing, refining, and combustion of fossil fuels places disproportionate environmental burdens on racialized communities—from the Niger Delta, to the Canadian tar sands, to the disproportionately Black communities living in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” Ideologies of race, poverty, and development, however, naturalize these inequities, and in ways that a critique of neoliberal marketization cannot adequately unpack.

The new scholarship of racial capitalism exposes the carceral state as another site where the conventional understanding of race and poverty as more “social” than “economic” turns our attention away from these dynamics as important strategies of capitalist accumulation. For instance, Donna Murch has called attention to “the persistence, in one guise or another, of justice system practices designed to extract capital and labor from poor and working class black citizens.” Jim Crow practices of debt peonage, convict leasing, and criminalization of labor mobility or unemployment have given way to today’s landscape of asset forfeiture, money bail, “offender-funded justice,” exorbitant criminal legal fines and fees, new debtors’ prisons, and labor extraction through prison labor and threats of incarceration. These forms of economic extraction rely on ostensibly non-economic forms of violence and coercion structured through the criminal legal system and typically are embedded in moralized rhetoric about race, poverty, and individual responsibility for crime. As such, they risk becoming invisible or considered unimportant within market-focused economic analyses, even critical ones.

Again, it is trivial to acknowledge that race, gender, and other systems of domination play some sort of structuring role in market activity. The entire field of antidiscrimination law is devoted to identifying and rectifying that role in labor, housing, consumer, and other markets. The standard approach, however, is to treat the influence of race and gender as market distortions. (This approach notoriously positions discrimination as a law and economics puzzle, because discriminating firms should be driven out of the market by nondiscriminatory competitors.) But if discrimination is conceptualized as an issue of imperfectly competitive markets, agency costs in monitoring and correcting discriminatory managers or co-workers, and the like, such analyses remain grounded in a baseline account of socially-disembedded market exchange. A better LPE account would describe markets as embedded within social and political relations, not only by supplying “inputs” into or constraints on market activity, not only by shaping the formation or construction of markets, but also by shaping the ongoing social relations internal to market activity. From this perspective, all market dynamics—supply, demand, price setting, bargaining, and so forth—operate within social relations, and thus are engaged with domination irreducible to the market form.

Darrick Hamilton, William Darity, and other scholars have shown, for example, how even under standard rational actor models, preexisting commitments to white privilege can easily survive, stratifying the marketplace and affecting the production and distribution of public goods. Karen Ho describes how high finance has operated as a space of “elite white racial fraternities” in ways that have facilitated and constituted their operation, rather than introducing “friction” into them. Carmen Gonzalez describes international trade law as predicated on ideologies of “comparative advantage” that facilitate the replacement of domestic markets in poor countries with export-driven production, at the cost of intensifying colonial inequalities. In labor markets, wage-setting is well known to reflect social judgments of need and desert; consider the complementarity between the wage bonuses men have received to support “dependents” and the penalty for women deemed “secondary” earners. In intellectual property law, the property granted exclusive rights protection is defined with reference to individual authorship, excluding a vast backdrop of production and reproduction, from educational institutions to open science to seed stocks and knowledge about uses of plants nurtured by farmers over millennia. In the agricultural sector, Charlotte Alexander has anatomized the reliance of poultry processing on immigrants who are both rendered precarious by non-citizenship and excluded from wage norms tied to an “American standard of living.”

If we call for “democratizing the economy” while accepting the standard account of what “the economy” is, we risk depoliticizing essential structures of economic ordering—and sustaining relations of domination. For LPE to achieve its aspirations, we must be willing to challenge both the conventional wisdom on how the economy is and should be governed and where we look for the economy in the first place.