Importance of Sismondi today
There is social and economic turmoil in Europe because of financial austerity measures, which resemble the process that started in Latin America, for the very same reasons, twenty years ago. There are now 10 Latin-American countries with elected governments that claim to be somehow socialist, but who refrain from embracing Marxism, because their societies are rooted on private property. There are – paraphrasing Pirandello – many political movements in Europe and the Americas in search of an author.
The whole situation makes of Sismondi – a political scientist from Geneva – a most relevant thinker. He was the first to identify the inequities and risks of the Industrial Revolution and to find solutions within capitalism. In his book “New Principles of Political Economy” (1818), he minted the term “proletariat” – Marx used it later- to designate those whose sad role was to guarantee labour through their offspring. He criticized Ricardo and pointed out that making profits at the expense of wages is foolish, because good salaries are necessary to maintain market consumption; very much what Keynes said 100 years later.
He was also the first to demand government intervention to protect workers from abuse and also the first to talk about class struggle and of a minimum salary. He foresaw that the use of the marketplace as the only arbiter would lead to periodic crises. He also criticized Ricardo and Say because for their disregard for over production which distorted the rapport between usefulness and exchange value and tended to create overproduction bubbles, as it is the case today. He warned against the unrestricted emission of money by the banks because it drives them to bankruptcy. He talked of “an economy of global quantities” and “global imbalances between income, expense and production.”
He disagreed with Malthus on the inability of the world’s agricultural land to feed global population and was worried instead on the unemployment caused by the unavoidable application of technological and scientific progress to agricultural and manufacturing production. He thought that the advantages of machines should be better sheared between owners and workers.
Sismondi would have been more influential in solving political and socioeconomic problems since the nineteen-century; had not Marx – who later copied many of his ideas and his dynamic analysis method in Das Kapital (1867)- labelled him a “petit bourgeois socialist” in the Communist Manifesto, in 1847.
He also was a great historian and constitutional analyst. From his studies he reached some conclusions and ideas for institutional models that could be very much useful in these days of a general lack of faith on politicians and in present forms of government institutions.
It should be said that Sismondi is an Nineteen Century Political Scientist whose ideas are extremely useful for the Twenty First Century.