Cultural Values in Political Economy
Edited by J.P. Singh




Cultural Values in Political Economy

J. P. Singh

THE PUZZLING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ECONOMIC CONDITIONS and cultural anxieties is now front and center in global debates. From the headlines about rural-urban economic divides to the effects of trade and migration, the distance between values and beliefs that constitute culture and the material and political conditions of economics has closed. The blurring of these boundaries should not be surprising: culture underlies all human action. Terry Eagleton describes culture as the “social unconscious” that shapes human conduct and is, therefore, present and implicit even when unnoticeable in material conditions (2016, viii). Allen Patten terms culture a “precipitate” of socialization (2011, 741). The difference from the past is that the “unconscious” and the “precipitate” of culture have come to the fore in our global political-economic outcomes. Trade, immigration, and rural-urban demographics are now increasingly understood as cultural phenomena. Cultural politics seem ubiquitous.

The coexistence of seemingly stable economic conditions and the turbulent cultural anxieties of recent times further complicates how we understand their relationship (Eichengreen 2018; Sunstein 2018; Rodrik 2018). A few examples from current cultural political economy, before the COVID-19 pandemic, are illustrative. The US unemployment rate held around 3.7 percent during 2018–2019, the lowest since 1969, along with a healthy 2–3 percent growth rate for the economy (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020; Badkar, Fleming, and Rennison 2018; Financial Times 2019). The economic indicators hardly produced any widespread satisfaction: they arrived in the midst of “deep and boiling anger” revealed in public opinion polls (Dann 2019). Germany’s Bavaria, the country’s most populated state with thirteen million people, headed into provincial elections in October 2018 with a 2.8 percent unemployment rate and surpluses in most city governments. Instead of rewarding the incumbents, voters ensured that the Christian Social Union lost its majority electoral share in the regional parliament that it had held for sixty years (Chazan 2018; Buck 2018). During the June 2019 European Parliamentary elections, Christian and Social Democrats, who have dominated EU politics since its inception, decreased their share of elected members to 44.7 percent of the total from 53.5 percent in the last election in 2014. The EU growth rate hovered above 2 percent in 2017–2018, and the unemployment rate was at 6.3 percent by mid-2019, the lowest since 2000 when EU monthly unemployment statistics began to be reported (Eurostat 2019). A mix of material and cultural factors are cited in the media for electoral shifts from the majority incumbents toward rising shares of liberal, green, and far-right parties. These statistics raise further questions about cultural anxieties and economic conditions.

How can we analyze the perplexing links between cultural and material factors in recent (or historical) political-economy outcomes? This book locates human interests in cultural contexts to understand both their origins and impact on outcomes. An intrinsic part of culture is its history. However, at any given time, different cultural values are sifted through this history and mobilized or instrumentalized for collective action. Values are the core traits of any culture; their variability through space and time, synchronically or diachronically, endows cultures with uniqueness and collective meanings. Values also intersect with other cultures. They include belief systems, symbols, and principles of everyday life. In Adam Smith’s ([1759] 1976) terms, they are moral sentiments both intrinsic to and negotiated for human conduct. Methodologically and empirically, we suggest ways to operationalize cultural values that underlie political interests to explain outcomes. As many chapters show, not all outcomes involving values are beneficial, despite the strategic calculations of political players. Cultural values shape outcomes that can make groups worse or better off through times of instability and stability and help with understanding cultural contradictions when they do arise.

This chapter provides a context for understanding the role of cultural values in political economy examined in this book. It analyzes the understandings of cultural values as everyday life with socialization experiences that include both symbolic representations and group inclusions and exclusions. The relevant literatures come from social sciences, especially anthropology and economics, but also from cultural studies and art. For reasons explained later, this book avoids the language of cultural identity around singular values or traits. Instead, culture is conceived of as a set of alternatives and values that are mobilized—strategically, instrumentally, cognitively, or habitually—through varying political economies. Our current global politics have brought cultural anxieties and values to the fore. However, the latent invisibility of cultural values and interests does not mean that they did not exist earlier.

Conceptually, the book attempts to provide an interdisciplinary and comprehensive understanding of the ways cultural values are imbricated in political economy—whether they are implicit or explicit, utilitarian or symbolic, constant or changing—and the way to move from collective to individual interests, and vice versa. We are especially cognizant of cultural values in times of stability versus instability. The chapters include references to many of our current cultural moments, but we have also included historical examples to increase the scope of our queries and examine issues such as environmental change, international trade and development, cultural economies of class and religion, and international cultural relations. This chapter concludes with an illustrative historical example from North-South trade relations to describe how colonial and postcolonial cultural values embedded in racism and paternalism intersect with trade specialization to explain the lack of trade reciprocity toward the developing world.

The Motivation and Plan

The current cultural politics and the questions they engender provide the immediate motivation for this book. Cultural fallouts and anger—expressed through populism, nationalism, political rallies and marches, “alt-right” or “radical left” ideologies, and tumultuous voting results—are often linked in the media to cultural perceptions regarding economic processes: international trade and its institutions, concerns about immigrants and refugees, income inequalities and shrinking of the middle class, loss of manufacturing jobs, and the claims on government-provided public goods such as education and health care. However, until recently, dominant scholarship on these processes and institutions tended to exclude cultural explanations.

The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June 2016 and President Donald Trump’s victory in the United States in November 2016 coincided with and, arguably, further encouraged the rise of economic nationalism and populism in the world. In Germany, the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland [AfD]) now controls 92 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag following the October 2017 elections.1 The AfD is the biggest opposition party to the government, though it polled lower than expected at 10.7 percent in the subsequent October 2018 Bavarian election. The September–October state elections in Germany reduced the shares of incumbent Christian Democrats in Saxony and Thuringia and of Social Democrats in Brandenburg. Although its vote share was not enough to form the government, the AfD received 27.5 percent of the vote share in Saxony, 23.5 percent in Brandenburg, and 23.4 percent in Thuringia. In Brazil, the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro won elections for the presidency at the end of October 2018. In Mexico, the left-wing president, populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was inaugurated in December 2018. The de facto heads of state in Austria, the Philippines, Hungary, India, Italy, Poland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States have often stoked cultural tensions through populist rhetoric and policies, including shoring up the extremist right wing in their country.2

What happens when underlying cultural values that inform political interests, as evidenced in the cultural anxieties previously referenced, are no longer dormant but begin exercising greater political influence? Or when the explicit equilibrium of material interests rests precariously on the underlying support from shared cultural beliefs and values? Periods of cultural turbulence can expose the compact between cultural values, economic conditions, and human conduct that stable cultures take for granted.

The links between culture and political economy are complicated and important, but in social sciences such as economics and political science, they have until recently been marginalized. The intellectual legacy from Homer to David Hume, or from the Upanishads to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, links people’s habits and interests to their social and culture sentiments. Culture became marginalized during the behavioral revolution of the postwar era when rational and strategic calculations, contingent on payoffs or incentives but devoid of cultural content, began to explain human endeavor. Cultural analyses continued, albeit in a secondary position. One early analysis in international relations traced the strategies of great powers such as the United States and the USSR to Greco-Roman and Byzantine cultural ideas, respectively (Bozeman 1960). In the present day, economic sociologists show that the self, rational or otherwise, rests on socialization experiences (Smelser 2013; Granovetter 1985). Constructivists in international relations point out that willingness to be open (or closed) to each other and the world rests on cultural understandings, as do norms of cooperation and anarchy (Klotz 1995; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998; Wendt 1999). Even the legitimacy of law at national or international levels rests on cultural congruence (Focarelli 2012). Political-economic institutions can be traced back to cultural understandings (North 1994). Despite this formidable intellectual history, cultural interests have been taken for granted or held constant in most economic and political analyses while material interests and strategic calculations are used to explain outcomes.

The current cultural politics and the questions they foreground provide the immediate motivation for this book. However, we attempt to provide conceptual tools and empirical examples to examine varied and changing cultural political economies in general over time. Part I provides the conceptual foundations that engender the cultural assumptions held implicit or constant in a few analyses and explain the contexts under which cultures transform interests. The interplay of deeply held cultural values and instrumental interests is important in this section. These include the cultural context of individual interests (Chapter 2), the distinction between formative and functional cultural values (Chapter 3), the fixity and evolution of cultural values and interests (Chapter 4), and the links between parochial and cosmopolitan interests arising culturally from an interplay of globalization, demographies, and other political economies (Chapter 5).

Part II examines the processes of cultural interaction, which expand or close the cultural stratifications referenced in Part I. While Chapter 5 briefly references the way education shapes group interests, Chapter 6 outlines how cultural boundary work from classes produces inequalities, including disparities in access to higher education. Chapter 7 points out the deeper cultural ideologies that shape trade politics (as does this chapter’s last section, which gives a brief example taken from North-South trade relations). Chapter 8 shows how the rise of the religious right in the United States may be linked to an underlying political economy and ways that religious values have adapted to this political economy. Chapter 9 examines intercultural interactions through the realm of soft power and cultural diplomacy and takes up the question of global access to higher education. The focus on education in three chapters is not coincidental; it is a major explanatory factor for our current political economy outcomes. The authors, nevertheless, analyze education as culturally shaped and produced before explaining outcomes.

All chapters have a theoretical and empirical component, though Part I strives for conceptualization, while Part II leans toward praxis. Collectively, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai instructs us in the foreword, culture is not just “inert ballast” but also “a scheme for action, a map of possibilities, and a tool for making new arrangements in the world.”

To summarize, cultures are understood as repertoires of values, distributed (and shared) differentially across and within groups. To state it crudely, values can be linked to culture as prices to markets. They provide the signals and incentives for collective action. Given varying values, cultural interests can be instrumentally rallied to influence outcomes. During times of cultural instability, there is a great need for mobilizing values through ideologies that simplify reality. Education serves as a counterpoint to this simplification. Methodologically, cultural values provide a vocabulary for operationalizing culture without arresting it in static categories of cultural identity.

Collectively, the book forwards the following worldview with each author contributing to one or more of the propositions:

1. Preferences and interests are always embedded in cultural values.

2. Cultural values emerge over the long run and influence transformations of cultural meanings.

3. Cultural values narrow or broaden the set of possible political economy outcomes through their distributional and meaning-making effects. This proposition links cultural and material or economic explanations.

4. Cultures replenish and evolve through interactions across bundles of values, but there are different levels of interaction ranging from observation to immersion.

5. Ideological arguments become salient in unstable cultural times.

6. Cultural identity is a valid political category but a fraught concept that lacks operational measures.

7. Cultures and cultural identities often contain contradictory values. Therefore, an instrumental view of culture, based on transitivity of preferences, will always be insufficient to explain cultural evolution. Even in times of stability, people will cite values that sound contradictory.


1. Interestingly, several economists helped start AfD in 2013 as an anti-euro party following the Greek debt crisis. AfD gained popularity after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow one million refugees into the country in 2015. AfD includes former Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politicians.

2. Leaders such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom are also often viewed as populist.