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Ajit Sinha and Alex M. Thomas (eds), Pluralistic Economics and Its History

Maria Bach
p. 351-357
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Ajit Sinha and Alex M. Thomas (eds), Pluralistic Economics and Its History, London: Taylor & Francis, 2019, 298 pages, ISBN 978-113809003-3

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1In Ajit Sinha and Alex M. Thomas’ edited volume on Pluralistic Economics and Its History, the contributors “reflect on the historicity of their own research agendas.” (2) Their history of economic thought volume deals with a variety of subjects ranging from post-Keynesian, Marxian and institutional economics, to the Cambridge School, structuralist dynamics in economics and general equilibrium theory. Moreover, there are three chapters that deal specifically with the history of economics in India, which, taken together, offer some perspectives on the current state of historiography. As my own research interests lie in the history of Indian Economics in the late 19th century, the present book review will concentrate on these three chapters. The chapter titles are the following: the first chapter by Tirthankar Roy is titled “the writings of Indian economic history since independence,” the second chapter by Sunanda Sen, “On the evolution of heterodox economic thinking in India,” and the third by Sheetal Bharat, “Two sides of the colonial coin: British and Indian women’s engagements with colonialism and patriarchy.” The review will discuss Roy’s chapter in more detail than the other two.

2In chapter 15, Roy describes the development of the discipline of Indian economic history since independence. However, the chapter starts with a brief explanation of the key texts that come before independence, laying out the two directions that economic history took between 1900 and 1947. The first direction includes scholars that subscribed to the arguments made by earlier scholars Romesh Chunder Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji that India had been made poorer by the British Empire’s commitment to openness and globalization (240). The other direction came from European scholars in India who contended that trade relations with Britain had made India better off. The dominant of the two was the one that argued heavily for the disadvantages of Imperial rule in India. Methodological debates within, and a distinct field of, economic history, however, had not emerged yet.

3In the twenty years after independence, the field remained small and unchallenged. From 1947 to 1967, there were three developments that affected the field: the emergence of Development Economics as a separate sub-discipline of economics, the modernization theories and a study on Indian agricultural laborers, which was the start of evidence-based research in economic history that could successfully challenge the Dutt-Naoroji thesis mentioned above. There were several publications during this period, nonetheless, mostly in the positivist historical tradition. There were some steps made towards “new frontiers of interpretative economic history,” but generally the field had still to go through its definitive moment (242).

4That moment came in the 1970s when India was experiencing a crisis caused by temporary shocks such as harvest failure, a collapse in the balance of payment and trade, and industrial stagnation. They sparked a debate whether there were structural reasons for the poor economic trends. Marxism came to the forefront of economic thinking in India at this time because it argued that Indian poverty was caused by rich countries exploiting their labor and raw materials. These arguments were of course deep rooted in the theory that European colonialism impoverished colonial territories via trade, plunder and drain—as seen in the Dutt-Naoroji thesis. This thesis then started to be critiqued. Morris D. Morris’ studies came first, based on evidence-based approaches, arguing that India’s poverty and underdevelopment could not be explained by colonial repression and cultural backwardness alone. Roy’s own research was then the first to widely diffuse the idea that Indian stagnation was rooted more in structural and geographical conditions than colonial constraints. And more importantly, his research contributed a more nuanced view of the Indian colonial economy, showing quite convincingly, for example, that there was slow industrialization in India at the turn of the 19th century coupled with deindustrialization in the traditional handicrafts industries.

5Roy argues that the crux of the main question in Indian economic history, why did India diverge from Western economies, is to explain the following paradox in the Indian economy. How could there be industrial growth in parts of the country while there were extreme levels of poverty in others? Roy found that these evidence-based studies were met with great resistance. Roy and others were blamed for defending colonialism. The debates then ended in the 1990s and the decline of the field, according to Roy, began. There were several reasons for the decline. For instance, scholars lost faith in positivist history due to postmodernism. Another reason lies in the decrease in support for softer economic disciplines, like economic history.

6Fortunately, there was a revival of the debate around the origins of modern economic growth at the last turn of the century, coming from the institutionalist school and economic historians like Kenneth Pomeranz, who coined the term the great divergence. Angus Maddison’s international dataset on per capita income also helped compare and contrast average incomes. However, what these studies miss, Roy argues, is the diversity within countries, which is especially pertinent for a sub-continent like India. To see whether India has managed to converge to European levels of development, the conclusions will be different if we study the Bombay industries or the forested tribal zones of central India. Finally, Roy advocates for moving away from the dominant question in Indian economic history, viz.: how did colonial rule ruin India? He reasons that the question is irrelevant if you take into account that the government represented a small share of the GDP from 1900 to 1946.

7Roy’s research was and is certainly important to the field of Indian economic history. Nevertheless, there are a few points of critique worth highlighting. Despite the colonial state being a weak economic agent (as testified by the small share of GDP in the first half of the 20th century), the state played a large role in opening up the Indian economy to global competition. Roy correctly points out that the major cause for India’s deindustrialization in the traditional handicraft industries and lack of industrialization in large-scale industries was globalization—most historians agree. But still Roy argues that India’s problem was not globalization, but the uneven distribution of gains from globalization. But did the colonial state not play a role in how India’s borders were opened? Take Germany as a counter-example, a country that was only able to industrialize after Britain by implementing protectionism—a policy not open to a colony such as India. The size of the state is not the only variable that counts. Globalization harmed many parts of India, leaving me unconvinced that globalization had a net positive effect on Indian growth. For instance, increased links between India and the Manchester Cotton producers led to monocultures in the Marathi provinces, replacing much of the previous subsistence agriculture. India then saw its worst famines in history at the end of the 18th century—e.g. there were over 140,000 deaths in the Marathi province in 1899-1900 (Satya, 1997, 50, 155, 281-282, 296; Wilson, 2016).

8Moreover, Roy’s research seems to lack in parts an adequate account of colonialism’s varied impact. An argument could be made that innovation was stifled during colonialism—for example the ban of any textile imports into England before Manchester Cotton implemented through the Calico Acts of 1720 or the heavy tariffs on textile imports into England became internationally competitive in the 18th and into the 19th century (Alavi, 1982, 56). Additionally, could the lack of investments in human capital during colonialism not be a cause for the slower Indian development? For instance, Maddison’s argument (Maddison, 1971, 49) that colonial taxes were too low for sufficient public investment to push development—in infrastructure, education, etc.—is missing in Roy’s overall analysis. He mentions in his concluding remarks that these investments cannot be considered a “magic solution”; but the European experience must convince us that it at least helps foster development to some extent (254).

9I find that the concept of power is underdeveloped in Roy’s analysis. Perhaps this is a consequence of his methodology, evidence-based history, because it is near impossible to measure power and therefore its impact. Finally, Roy’s second concluding remark is unconvincing. Roy contends that most economic historians assume state discontinuities in India. Yet, my experience is that many colonial historians have a deep and qualitative understanding of the continuities from the British East India Company rule, to the formal Crown rule, and then independence (e.g. Washbrook, 1988; Wilson, 2016; Bagchi, 2010; Habib, 1996; Kumar and Desai, 1983). When historians ask how the colonial state impaired Indian development, this is rooted in the idea that still today, India lives with a colonial legacy that hinders its economic growth.

10In sum, despite the above criticisms, Roy’s research gave and gives Indian colonial history a nuanced view of Indian economic development. It is certainly necessary, as Roy argues, to analyse the paradoxes so widely seen in India. Complexity rather than simplicity is the way forward. India cannot, as Roy writes, be defined as economically prosperous or impoverished—the South Asian sub-continent has pockets of both prosperity and poverty.

11In chapter 16, Sen briefly outlines the evolution of heterodox economic thinking in India starting with the early years of the late 19th century until the 20th century interwar period. Heterodox literature in this context, according to Sen, are writings that oppose the British colonial policies and advocate for Indian independence. Sen identifies three major issues in the heterodox writings. First, the home charges, second, tariffs and exchange rates that negatively influenced Indian industrialization and, third, the management of credit and external payments during the Great Depression. Sen then presents two main conclusions: the Indian heterodox thinkers of the time, widely accepted as Nationalists, provided a plan for industrialization in independent India, and they also anticipated Keynesian demand analysis.

12The first conclusion is documented in previous secondary literature and Sen uses many of the key works. However, I wonder, for example, why Sen does not quote Bipan Chandra’s seminal work entitled Economic Nationalism, as well as Manu Goswami and Partha Chatterjee’s widely read works.

13What is more interesting is Sen’s second main conclusion. Sen compares Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji’s drain theory with John Maynard Keynes’ multiplier. The Indian economists narrate “the sequence of a negative multiplier exercising a dampening effect on the country’s income and output.” (259) I agree that their analysis is similar to Keynes’ macroeconomic analysis of effective demand, even though their demand analysis included less mathematical theorization and only a few discussions of demand can be found in their original texts. A deepening of the comparison would have been appreciated. As it stands, the comparison is merely drawn, and we must take the author’s word that there is a link between the two sets of theories.

14Sen then goes into more detail on Naoroji’s other contributions to economics—especially on how progressive taxes are needed to abate inequality and the consumption function. Again, while these interventions on what Naoroji analysed in his writings are welcome, evidence such as quotes from Naoroji’s texts and further discussion on, for example, the claim that Naoroji’s and his followers were narrating a sequence of a “negative multiplier” and an earlier version of Keynesian effective demand analysis are lacking (259).

15Finally, a more substantial discussion on what “heterodox” means in this context would have been useful. As I understand it, Sen considers “heterodox” theories that stand “in opposition to British economic policies and the macroeconomic implications of the prevailing policies of the colonial government” and as “unconventional” “ideas based on economic nationalism.” (266) Is nationalist economic thinking heterodox, or is it more appropriate to call it anticolonial?

16In chapter 17, entitled “Two sides of the colonial coin: British and Indian women’s engagements with colonialism and patriarchy”, Bharat aims to “construct a more democratic account of historical events that does not appear to have been written by the winners.” (269) The author looks at the literature written by women who lived in colonial India “to gain an understanding of the various and opposing forces at play with regard to the British occupation of India.” (269) Bharat looks at British women in India, as well as the Indian women who fought in the nationalist movement.

17Bharat discusses the travel guides of India written by British women and how the British women justified British rule in their writings. These women notably wrote about the “backward” practices of Indian society, thus allegedly legitimizing the colonial ‘civilizing mission.’ Bharat concludes the section dedicated to British women by writing: “History recognizes the Governor-Generals as the heroes of empire, but the women’s roles in supporting and sustaining British rule for as long as it survived was crucial, though largely invisible.” (275)

18The analysis of Cornelia Sorabji’s writings is particularly interesting. Sorabji’s, although an Indian woman, openly disagreed with the swadeshi movement (the movement calling Indians to buy domestically produced goods) on the ground that it was economically irrational, shows how women, notably Indian women, were also contributing to economic thinking in this period. Little has been done yet on the contribution by Indian women in economics.

19Moreover, Bharat’s analysis of the female Indian nationalists’ writings brings to light new discourses. Especially notable was how the women twisted the British imagery of India as a woman, suggestive of the fact that India would need a male guardian, to argue instead that India was being exploited by Britain, just like women were exploited by men. Overall, the analysis of lesser-known individuals, at least in the economics literature, is welcome—e.g. Bhikaji Cama, Naidu, Mokshodayani Mukhopadhyay, Swarnakumari Devi, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan and Dayani Priyamvada. Histories need to be written from several perspectives.

20However, I found certain points lacking in this chapter. The Indian nationalist women are also said to be feminist, although their writings were predominantly on nationalism and the need for Indian independence. As Bharat writes, “the fight against patriarchy played a crucial role in mobilizing women against colonialism, to an extent setting back the clock on feminism.” (270) However, this last statement seems difficult to prove. Did all these women prioritize independence over women suffrage or empowerment? Finally, I do not understand why Margaret MacMillan’s seminal work Women of the Raj on British women in India was not cited in the chapter.

21In sum, these three chapters are an important contribution to the growing field of history of economic thought in India. The fields of economic history and heterodox economics, as well as the economic literature written by women, are still under-researched. More research like this will give further insights on India and its connection to the global economic literature.

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Alavi, Hamza. 1982. India: The Transition to Colonial Capitalism. In Hamza Alavi et al. (eds), Capitalism and Colonial Production, 23-75. London: Croom Helm.

Bagchi, Amiya. 2010. Colonialism and Indian Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Habib, Ifran. 1996. Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception. New Delhi: Tulika.

Kumar, Dharma, and Meghnad Desai (eds). 1983. The Cambridge Economic History of India. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maddison, Angus. 1971. Class Structure and Economic Growth: India and Pakistan since the Moghuls. London: Allen and Unwin.

Satya, Laxman D. 1997. Cotton and Famine in Berar, 1850-1900. New Delhi: Manohar.

Washbrook, David A. 1988. Progress and Problems: South Asian Economic and Social History c. 1720–1860. Modern Asian Studies, 22(1): 57-96.

Wilson, Jon. 2016. Indian Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire. London: Simon and Schuster.

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Maria Bach

The American University of Paris.

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