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LUMPENPROLETARIAT—Ruchira Sen rules.  Despite having an exam and a deadline, and a busy day tomorrow (i.e., 15 MAY 2015), in preparation for going out of state, Ruchira has been gracious enough to, not only, grant Lumpenproletariat.org an interview, but a wonderful late lunch, as well, at Sahara, a cool restaurant across the street from UMKC, for some wonderful Mediterranean food.  “I like your blog,” said Ruchira.  Thanks, I said (totally spazzing out and trying to keep my cool around one of my intellectual sheroes).  I just hope, I said, to comprehend and metabolise your analysis adequately enough to be able to share your ideas and where I disagree/agree with your ideas with our circle of friends (and enemies).

337px-Karl_Marx_001WikiUserI read Ruchira’s 27-page iPh.D. working draft dissertation, Towards a Theory of Imperialism, as well as her 19-page 2013 paper “Marxian Social Theory and Capitalist Crisis” prior to the interview, but that wasn’t nearly enough time for me to fully marinate it all.  So, I apologise in advance for my harried mind.  Even without much time to prepare for the interview, I am grateful to Ruchira Sen for granting it, and for the generosity and wisdom, with which she so graciously graced Lumpenproletariat.org.  We look forward to learning more from her work in future.  (Also, we’ll share with you a transcript of her presentation at UMKC’s 2015 Interdisciplinary Conference (IDC).)

—Messina

***

MESSINA: “This is Messina, for Lumpenproletariat.org.  And, today, I have the great pleasure of speaking with Ruchira Sen.  I’m so excited about this, mostly because Ruchira is, like, one of the warmest people I’ve met at UMKCRuchira, thank you for speaking with [Lumpenproletariat.org].”

RUCHIRA SEN:  “Thanks, Felipe.  And thanks for the nice introduction.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  No problem.  I know that it’s crazy busy right now.  And I really appreciate that you’re gonna take some time out from your busy schedule.  And I know you’re working on an exam right now.”

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “So, I really appreciate this.  And then you’re getting ready to take off tomorrow.  So, I got a chance to read the paper, that you presented at the IDC, the Interdisciplinary Conference, Towards a Theory of Imperialism.  And I also got to read “The Marxian Social Theory and Capitalist Crisis“.  I was really happy to at least read a little bit.

“And I will apologise, right now, in advance, to all of the readers and/or listeners, for my lack of preparation for this interview.  […]  And, even though I’m gonna be completely shooting from the hip here.  [laughs]”

SEN:  [chuckles]

MESSINA:  “Can you start by talking a little bit about your background and your early years, where you grew up?”

SEN:  “Well, my early years are not very exciting.  I was in India.  I grew up in a classic upper-middle class family.  It wasn’t always upper-middle class.  My father worked with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation because, back then, the public sector in India was what was considered a gem of theyou knowburgeoning, developing economy.  And, at that time, there was an idea that the industrialisation in India would happen through the public sector.  We had the second Five Year Plan with the Mahalanobis model.  And it mostly talked about the rise of the industrial sector.  And how public investment would happen in dams, infrastructure, in oil and natural gas, and steel.

“So, at that time, getting a job in the public sector was something that very few people got.  And my father had one of these very coveted public sector jobs.”

MESSINA:  “Ah, that’s awesome.”

SEN:  “Yeah.  My mother was a doctor with the ONGC.”

MESSINA:  “Whoa.”

SEN:  “So, it was, you know, one of thosethey were up-and-coming people.  And they sent me to a very fancy boarding school because that was the up-and-coming thing to do.”

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “You know?”

MESSINA:  “That was gonna  be my next question, about your schooling.”

SEN:  “Yeah.”

MESSINA:  “So, you got to go to the nice schools.”

SEN:  “Yeah.  I went to a fancy school.”

MESSINA:  “Unlike, what?  Most people?  Most folks in India?”

SEN:  “Yeah.  It was very rare and veryit was a rare privilege.  And I would say I belonged to the elite educated classes.”

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “I can’t really say the ruling class.  But, definitely, as far as, you know, education and, to some extent, I would say this class has a disproportionate share of representation in the decision-making of the nation, in media, in the professional services.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  Now, where is this is in India?”

SEN:  “This is in Dehradun.  It’s a valley in the Himalayas, north, way north.  You know where you have, like, right now they talk a lot about the Himalaya

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “because of this earthquake in Nepal.”

MESSINA:  “M-hm.”

SEN:  “There’s a fault line, that lies out there.  But before you get to Nepal, if you’re going to Nepal from the South, you have the Sivalik Mountains, which are lower and then the Himachal mountains are higher.  So, there are a bunch of valleys there.  And I grew up in one of those valleys.  So, it was a beautiful childhood.  You know?  One of those idyllic times.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  [laughs]”

SEN:  “Rhododendron trees, living on a valley on the foothills of

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  [laughs]”

SEN:  “the Himalayas.”

MESSINA:  “Wow!”

SEN:  “Yeah.”

MESSINA:  “That’s awesome.  So, you got to go to nice schools.”

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “You went towhat?all the way through college in India?”

SEN:  “Yeah.  I’ve aSo, when I graduated from school, then, after thatyou know?the real world comes and hits you because, suddenly, you realise that you’re in a country with a billion people.  And you have to get a college education.  And it’s almost impossible to get into college because you need over ninety-percent score to be able to get into some of the better colleges.”

MESSINA:  “Wow!”

SEN:  “So, there was this crazy rat race.  One thing is I was extremely nerdy

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “and I had the scores.  And I got into a really good college.  So, again, you know, the reality didn’t really hit me because I was so nerdy.  And I had, I mean I don’t agree with this term, social capital

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  [laughs]”

SEN:  “but I belonged to a, you know, a family, which has that privilege of good education and so on.  So, with that baggage, or with that background, I was easily able to get into one of the best colleges.”

MESSINA:  “Wow!”

SEN:  “And

MESSINA:  “Which is?  What’s it called.”

SEN:  “St. Stephens College, Delhi.  It’s a missionary college.  It’s affiliated with the Church of North India.  So, yeah, that means I do know a lot more about Christianity than most people from non-Christian households do.”

MESSINA:  “Were you guys Christian?”

SEN:  “No.

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “But, you know, the Church in India does a lot of good work with education.”

MESSINA:  “Okay.”

SEN:  “So, they had one of the bestit’s called the Harvard of India, the Ivy League of India.  So, one of the best colleges, St. Stephens.  And it’s supposed to be a great privilege to be there.  And I, somehow, found myself there.

“And, after, once I was there, I started getting disillusioned because it didn’t make sense anymore.  It was all about: Oh, you are in the hallowed halls of Stephania.  You should be able to do this.  And you should be able to do that.  I couldn’t understand what the whole deal is and why that doesn’t make me different from anyone else.  Why do I have to, you know, put in this added effort of maintaining a certain position in the elite class in society?

“And we had to do a Delhi University syllabus.  So, I started getting introduced to Marx.”

MESSINA:  “Hmm.”

SEN:  “I read Sweezy (1942).  I read Theory of Capitalist Production.  And then I read John Gurley, mostly the traditional, historical view of Marx. I thought:  Hmm. This stuff is interesting.  And, somehow, most of the people around me don’t seem to be interested in this type of stuff.  And, somehow, I seem to be interested in it.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah. [inquisitively]”

SEN:  “Is there something wrong with the world?”

MESSINA:  “I know.  Right?”

SEN:  “This little cliquish, niche, world that I live in.”

MESSINA:  “That was my next question.  So, you encounter Marx in your college studies.”

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “[So, does that change your worldview?]  What led you to start seeing things this way?  Was it your parents?  I mean you were already different.  Right?”

SEN:  “I think I was steadily a bit of a misfit in this, you know, elite society, in which I lived.”

MESSINA:  “Okay.”

SEN:  “So, you know, I still have a lot of very bourgie friends.”

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “You know?  And they come over.  And they want to go to the Plaza.  And they want to go shopping.  And I’m stuck following them around and trying to understand what they are talking about.”

MESSINA:  “[Oh, brother.]  You’re notYou’re not feelin’ it, anymore?”

SEN:  “I never did feel it.”

MESSINA:  “You never did feel it! [laughs]”

SEN:  “Yeah.  I think it’s just.  I don’t know what it was.  In India, wherever you are, you are a foreigner.  You know?  I was a Bengali in a Hindi-speaking majority.  I didn’t speak the language.”

MESSINA:  “Ah.”

SEN:  “I didn’t have the same background, as everyone else in my school.  So, I was already a misfit.  My parents were not business class, but professional class.  So, actually, I couldn’t affordmy parents could afford a lot.  But we couldn’t afford what my friends thought was cool.  You know?  Little Mermaid shampoo bottle.”

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “I mean, you know, Gap is supposed to not be a great brand here.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “But, in India, it’s so cool.  And McDonald’s, where everybody eats here, in India, that’s where people go on dates.

“So, and I think Bengalis, as such, have a cultural background of not liking money.  You know?  It’s just cultural.  I don’t know where it comes from.”

MESSINA:  “Ohh.  Okay.”

SEN:  “So, if I wanted to be like my friends, and if I wanted the Little Mermaid shampoo and the fancy stationary boxes and the Nike shoesNike is a big deal in India.  I know you are laughing.  But Nike is a big deal in India.”

MESSINA:  “No; yeah.”

SEN:  “It’s what the elite people wear.  [laughs]

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “So, I never had Nike shoes.  I had Action shoes, bought in the cheap store.  And people would make fun me saying:  Oh, why do you have such cheap shoes?”

MESSINA:  “I can relate.  It’s kind of similar.  My parents came from Mexico.  They never even went to first grade.  But they worked so hard for us to have what everybody else had.  And I went to a basically preppy school.”

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “[…]  And yeah, I would wanna dress like the preppies.  And have all those kind of fancy stuff.  But I don’t know what kind of led me to reject that.  Maybe it was being broke.  But I’m glad that you did.”

SEN:  “I wouldn’t say I rejected that because I wasn’t strong enough to do that.  I was just dealing with the bullies because I was nerdy.  And nerdy people get bullied.  So, I was trying to deal with a lot of mean girls.  You know that classic movie?  Mean Girls.  It was like that.  And they would come and throw water on my bed.”

MESSINA:  “Wow! That’s horrible.”

SEN:  “They knew I cared a lot about my books, so [laughs] they would do all kinds of crazy stuff.  They would take my books and dump them in buckets of water, so that I would see my books destroyed.”

MESSINA:  “That’s terrible.  […]”

“Like I said I was really stoked about the IDC presentation because you were talking about imperialism.  So, I’m just gonna kind of jump around.  […] We had to write a paper.  And I’m like well, what should I write about?  Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is imperialism.

“And I thought the same thing.  Like, what happened to imperialism.  Nobody talks about imperialism anymore.  I guess imperialism’s over.  I had vaguely heard about Immanuel Wallerstein and his world-systems approach, and a center-periphery stuff I’d heard about.

“But I would hear from activists on the street.  They still talk about imperialism.  And, maybe, I thought, maybe they’re kind of outdated.  Maybe they’ve got it wrong.  Maybe things have changed and moved on.  So, I decided to learn more about it by writing about it.  […]

“Would you mind going over a bit of a review of your presentation for everyone who has not caught your presentation?”

SEN:  “Well, I think, so far, that the West does not really have an understanding of imperialism.  For instance, I’ve been speaking to some Marxian scholars here.  Their idea becomes of imperialism as aggression, as militarism

MESSINA:  “M-hm.”

SEN:  “of countries taking over other countries.  And I mean countries taking over other countries is not new.  It’s not something that is necessary and sufficient just to capitalism.  It predates capitalism.  In Veblen, we read that wonderful essay of his, ‘The Barbarian Status of Women.’

“We heard about, since the time, there has been the emergence of surplus, you know, various human societies have tried to take over other human societies and enslave the people, make them the lower caste of production, take the women over as trophies.  You know?  That’s where marriage comes from.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “That stuff is there.  And maybe you can think of that, as imperialism.  But that’s not modern imperialism.”

MESSINA:  “No.”

[SNIP]

[This is a rush transcript.  This transcript is currently under construction.]

[SNIP]

MESSINA:  “(c. 57:50)  Well, I’m lookin’ at your paper.  And Marx talked about some of that stuff.  So, what I’m getting at is:  There’s so much influence, what seems to be Marx influence

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “in Veblen

SEN:  “I think that.”

MESSINA:  “in Keynes

SEN:  “Yeah.”

MESSINA:  “in, like, everywhere.  Right?”

SEN:  “Yeah.  I mean, I’m glad Americans read Veblen.”

MESSINA:  “It seems dishonest, intellectually dishonest.  I don’t know.”

SEN:  “I’m glad Americans read Veblen

MESSINA:  “Yeah!  [laughs]”

SEN:  “because, well, if they don’t read Marx, at least they read Veblen.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  You know?”

SEN:  “And Veblen is great in his own way.  I like his idea of capital, as intangible assets, as opposed to produced means of production.  I mean he obscures the social relations, but

MESSINA:  “He seems to have read Marx, and then done something else with it, and then not mention Marx.”

SEN:  “No, Veblen has this annoying tendency.  He doesn’t cite any of his sources.”

MESSINA:  “Is that, kind of, like, a fair assessment of Veblen?

SEN:  “I think that is.  But you know Veblen never cites any of his sources.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “Maybe it was not the academic thing to do back then.  You know?  He’s so influenced by Darwin.  I haven’t seen a single Darwin reference in any of his work.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “So, Veblen clearly read Marx.”

MESSINA:  [laughs]

SEN:  “And he clearly read Darwin.  And he was a very well-read person.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah!  In Dr. Sturgeon’s Institutional Economics class, I always kept bringing up Marx because it screams out at you everywhere.  You know?”

SEN:  “Oh, he doesn’t like that.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah!  And he was–I think he was quite respectful, to me, because, I don’t know, I [wasn’t rude about it.  He is very cool].  But he talked about capital.  And that’s another question I was going to ask you was how he disagreed with Marx’s definition of capital because he said Marx’s definition implies some sort of natural rights.  And I think you say in your paper the exact opposite.”

SEN:  “What do I say?  What rights?”

MESSINA:  “Well, I mean

SEN:  “I do talk about a rights-based approach a little.  You know?  A right to employment, a right to food, and so on.  That’s my ways of development under imperialism.”

MESSINA:  “Are you familiar with that Original Institutional definition of capital and their complaint against Marx?”

SEN;  “Which is that?  No, not really.”

MESSINA:  “No?  Oh, okay? [laughs]”  (c. 1:00:00)

SEN:  “Could you tell me about it?”

MESSINA:  “I don’t think I can, unfortunately.  [reaching for notebookHe discredited Marx’s definition of capital because he says that it relies on [shuffling through notebook], he said”  [1]

SEN:  “He said it’s too physical.  Right?  Nature of Capital.  [reading my notebook]  I’ve read that book.”

MESSINA:  “He’s saying:  Veblen finds Marx’s definition too limiting.  It implies natural rights of the capital holder.”

SEN:  “Ohh.”

MESSINA:  “Or something like that.  That it’s a natural rights argument.”

SEN:  “Interesting.”

MESSINA:  “And I’m thinking:  No.

SEN:  “I read that paper.  I didn’t really see this there.  What I got from it:  I thought it was more than just about the means of production because he starts talking about intangible assets, like goodwill and, you know.  It goes beyond actual, physical stuff.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”  (c. 1:00:58)

SEN:  “It goes beyond the whole commodity approach of classical political economy.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah, which I think is cool.  You know

SEN:  “Which I think is cool.”

MESSINA:  “he injected some cool stuff into, you know, into Marx.”

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “I just wish that Veblen would have said: Yeah, I’m building on Marx. [chuckles]  You know?”

SEN:  “Yeah.”

MESSINA:  “I mean, the Original Institutionalists talk about the cumulative accumulation of the common stock of knowledge and so forth

SEN:  “Yeah.”

MESSINA:  “and somehow they still refuse to acknowledge the obvious influence of Marx, the Marxian influence.  [laughs]”

SEN:  “Yeah.  But, you know?  I think it’s also the old way of reading Marx, a tendency to read Marx in a world of commodities and not looking at the fact that capital is a relationship.  It’s not a thing.  They sort of see it as a thing.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah!  What is that a reification?  They reify it?”

SEN:  “Yeah.  And they don’t see that capital–I mean, they think that they are building and creating something new by talking about goodwill and intangible assets.  And my relationship with you is, certainly, capital.  And a lot of our colleagues also, you know, do this in the Institutionalist approach, like Jonathan Ramse’s paper on capital, the seven capitals, where he’s trying to marry the sociological and economic definitions of capital.

“He’s also relying on that!  He’s saying that a social relationship can be capital.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.”

SEN:  “Yes, I agree.  A social relationship can be capital.  That is not a rejection of Marx!

MESSINA:  “No!  U-uh.”

SEN:  “They see it as a rejection of Marx because they have understood Marx in a very limited way.”

MESSINA:  “Yeah.  I mean, you know, I always point people to Dr. Richard Wolff

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “who does his weekly radio broadcasts.  And, you know

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “and he points out, all the time, to the public, you know.  The capitalist would never hire you, unless the capitalist can make more money off of you than he’s gonna pay you.”

SEN:  “Yeah!”

MESSINA:  “You know?  It’sfrom the beginninga predatory and exploitative relationship.”

SEN:  “Exactly!”

MESSINA:  “Ruchira Sen

SEN:  “M-hm.”

MESSINA:  “thank you very much for speaking with Lumpenproletariat.org.”

SEN:  [smiles]

***

[1]  Upon closer inspection of my lecture notes (ECON 451: Institutional Economic Theory, Fall 2014):

Dr. Sturgeon was discussing the factors of production, as described in economic theory.  The most problematic one, he said, was capital, because

“it is frequently confused or confusing what it is we’re talking about.  Are we talkin’ about plant and equipment?  The industrial arts?  What Veblen, would later call, Industrial Capital.  Or are we talking about money?  The pecuniary arts?  What Veblen would later call the pecuniary capital?

“Or are we talking about something entirely different from both of those things?  Are we talking about the process of the development of the joint stock of knowledge, upon which we all draw when we do something?  So-called social capital.”

So, Dr. Sturgeon recommended Veblen’s “wonderful, two-part article”, entitled “On the Nature of Capital” (1908, Quarterly Journal of Economics).  I was impressed to hear of this article by Veblen because I always thought he was greatly influenced by Marx.  I thought this would be where Marx would be cited and further vindicated.  But, instead, Dr. Sturgeon, rather than point out Marxian influence in Veblen’s definition of capital, said Veblen built on Veblen’s prior work, Theory of the Business Enterprise.  “Veblen would have us completely abandon the old notions of capital.”  Yes, but, perhaps, Veblen would only do so after working through the literature, including Marx.

So, I asked Dr. Sturgeon, during the lecture:  “He would have us abandon Marx’s definition of capital, for example?

Most definitely,” he said.

So, it’s not the extraction of surplus value?” I queried.

No, he nodded his head, “because that is culturally limited to those who think that somebody has a natural right to something.”

“Hm?” I thought, right flummoxed.

A natural rights doctrine is a culturally-set doctrine,” he continued.  The room was silent.  So, my colleague Evan Payne quizzed:  “So, is Veblen’s notion of capital, closer to [Pierre] Bourdieu?”  “Or the other way around,” concurred Dr. Sturgeon, “Yes.”

He recommended, for a deeper look at this issue, that we students look at, or revisit, the Cambridge Capital Controversy, or, more precisely, the Cambridge Controversy on the Theory of Capital.”  He explained how academics were trying to get at the nature of capital, but, ultimately, ending in a stalemate.  What seemed grossly lacking to me in all of this, as Dr. Richard Wolff often points out, is how there’s no mention of those epic tomes on capital written by Marx. It seems like such a huge oversight.  As Dr. Richard Wolff pointed out in one iteration on Democracy Now!:

“I was always struck that as I went through these schools, studying history, politics, economics, sociology—the things that intrigued me—I was never required to read one word of Karl Marx. And I remember telling that to my father, who looked in stunned disbelief at the very possibility that an educated person going to such august universities would not be required to at least read people who are critical of the society, simply as a notion of proper education. So with a father like that, it wasn’t so surprising that I went and found ways that individuals who were on the faculty sometime could, out of the classroom, teach me, take me through the great classics of critical literature, whether it was Marx and Engels themselves or Antonio Gramsci or George Lukács or all of the other—Rosa Luxemburg, the great thinkers of the critical perspective. So, I got excited about learning that on my own.

“Then I discovered that these people are full of interesting insights about our society, and I should have been asked to read them. And the more I read it, the more I realized that I wanted to be an economist, but one who had a toolbox not only with the conventional stuff that I was learning in my university classes, but also with the nonconventional stuff. And, you know, over the last 40 years in America, it’s a sort of a sad comment, but if you’re interested in Marxism, then people look at you as if you either are a Marxist, or worse, some sort of caricature of a Marxist. So I always have said I use Marxist theory, I find it very insightful, I think it’s a shame that other people don’t have it, and I think it’s made me a better economist when it comes to writing and teaching than I would have been without that. And I think that would be the same for my colleagues, and that it’s a deficiency of theirs that the education didn’t do it.”

However, Dr. Sturgeon said, “perhaps, the most illuminating comment was made by Joan Robinson, who said: If I had it to do over again, I’d have started the controversy out of Veblen’s work. (i.e., ‘On the Nature of Capital‘)”

Dr. Sturgeon stressed taxonomy: What is capital?  He also emphasised the importance of definitions needing to be evolutionary, otherwise, eventually, as society evolves, the definitions will no longer square with reality.

***

[Last modified 15:27 CDT 15 MAY 2015]

[Image entitled “Karl Marx 001” by John Jabez Edwin Mayall – International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]

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