THE ECONOMIST AS HARUSPEX: IN MEMORIAM OF ASDRÚBAL BAPTISTA

THE ECONOMIST AS HARUSPEX: IN MEMORIAM OF ASDRÚBAL BAPTISTA

Asdrúbal Baptista’s death represents a great loss for the Venezuelan social sciences in particular and for the political-spiritual life of the country in general. In an intellectual panorama characterized by philistinism, parochialism, the narcissism of small differences, the halls of mirrors, and sad passions, Baptista was a creative antithesis. it is not surprising that his work and its political implications were suspicious now for a left whose reading of Marx was manual and indoctrinated, now for a right for which neoliberalism became a thoughtless litany, or for variants of the postmodern doxa whose lack of systematicity was erected as a barrier to its rigor and theoretical zeal. However, Baptista’s message was too clairvoyant to be overlooked, so it was accommodatively metabolized. In some, it represented a window to raise the good news of neoliberalism against the vices of the political economy of rentier capitalism. In others, it represented the opportunity to remedy the reflexive fatigue of the critical theory on Venezuelan specificity by making instrumental use of the arsenal that the economic theory of rentier capitalism provided.

Baptista’s edifying work was erected in a country whose cognitive maps find it difficult to assimilate that the same man is at the same time admirer of Marx and Smith, a connoisseur of Böhm von Bawerk, Keynes and Celso Furtado, pointillist of John Stuart Mill and unconditional Hegel and Heidegger. If we attempt to resort to a concept of the western philosophical tradition to assimilate the intellectual stature of Asdrúbal Baptista, perhaps we should opt for the negation of the Hegelian negation insofar as in his work diversity is not conceived in any way as the development of truth , but it is an index of the contradiction, of the creation. Beyond orthodoxies and heterodoxies, Baptista’s intellectual guide was always “what constitutes the life of everything” according to Hegel’s model.

His intellectual concerns were multiple and ran organically from the foundation to the phenomenon. Where the academy entrenches itself decades or centuries to debate aporias, he was able to construct singular responses. He made number and formalization his faithful companion but did not succumb to its fetishization, on the contrary, epistemologically he was a radical historicist attached to the teachings of Hegel, Smith and Marx. In the diatribe between the theoretical and the empirical, he was an advocate of the importance of data for our “post-metaphysical” era, however, he expressed with clear clarity that “all theory creates its own empirical base, which by necessity, then it must be statistical, numerical, quantitative ”[1]. His philosophical training radiated his work as a social scientist, his concern with the ontological foundation of the cosmos was a creative anomaly in the routine world of economists.

In countercurrent to the triple epistemological and ontological split of the economic, the political and the social characteristic of liberal geoculture, it recovered, from the teaching of historical-economic sociology of Adam Smith [2], a holistic knowledge of society. In his attempt to scrutinize the foundations of the historical science of political economy (as he defined his business) he came to such profound and relevant interpretations as, for example, tracing with admirable rigor how the political economy forked between Hegel and John St Mill when the latter axiomatized his task and separated his object from history to build the foundations where the pantheon of neoclassical theory and marginalism would rise. An interpretation of this fact with such clarity cannot be found in Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis to cite one case. Within the Limits of political economy: about a historical science from 1996 [3] Venezuelan science has a work of universal value on the interpretation of economic knowledge.

What Asdrúbal Baptista bequeathed to the knowledge of the social and economic life of Venezuela is really significant, rigorous, and profound. Here I can only mention some milestones. In Petroleum in Venezuelan Economic Thought, he constructed, together with Bernard Mommer, the first systematic attempt, to my knowledge, of a genealogy of economic thought on petroleum in Venezuela. Economic theory of rentier capitalism is undoubtedly on the honor roll of the most important works of the Venezuelan social sciences and its legacy is current and enduring. Several lines of analysis emerge from this magnum opus. First, the importance of revisiting the theoretical foundations of classical political economy if you want to build a toolbox capable of accounting for a national rentier economy. Second, the relevance of what the author called “the double spatiality of rentier capitalism,” that is, the insertion of the rentier national economy in the dynamics of the world market. Third, to promote comparative analyzes between the dynamics of rentier capitalism and the dynamics of capital accumulation in other national states as a mechanism to uncover the profound singularities of the Venezuelan economy. Fourth, the peculiarity of rentier capitalism in the “functional” balances between productivity and real wages, production and consumption. Fifth, the distribution of oil income and the relationship that this fosters between the State and civil society. Sixth, the exchange rate as the headquarters of the country’s economic policy. Seventh, the crisis of rentier metabolism.

Finally, his The Relay of Rentier Capitalism: Towards a New Balance of Power is an insightful work that masterfully points out the crossroads in which Venezuelan society entered since the 1970s. At the risk of simplifying, I dare to transcribe a quote that summarizes the tone and analysis of that work: “The Venezuelan 20th century can be understood as an attempt to grasp the most dynamic forces in the history of humanity to the present, to make them their own, endogenous, and root them in the soil of the same national currency. The country did not have all of them in this pretending of such decisive consequences ”[4].

In a country that historically fluctuates from ferreus politicization to uncompromising disaffiliation, it is not surprising that the first flank of attack on a thinker is his political positions, especially for those who the thought lacks of the ontological dignity that they grant to small politics. On this topic I will limit myself to mentioning a couple of things. In his capacity as Minister of State for the Reform of the Economy of Venezuela during the months of January to April 1994, Baptista carried out a country program entitled “The future of the nation and the oil property”. The postulates of that program were “equity, solidarity and economic justice” and it was proposed to resolve the conflictive situation between productivity and real wages: “there is no way to have a politically viable, politically sustainable growth that does not imply in a firm and sustained way the increase in real wages ”[5]. That Baptista program, despite momentary snipers, still awaits us in the future.

In the presentation to the second edition of Economic Theory of Rentier Capitalism Baptista evaluated the question of a non-capitalist way out at the crossroads of rentier capitalism. With an honesty that is not easy to find in the Venezuelan intellectual environment when it comes to evaluating the viability of political projects with which he does not personally agree, he pointed out: “Is it admissible to think that the economic use of this international income stream can serve to support a process of social change, whatever its political orientation, for example, non-capitalist? Ignoring by reason of the argument the side contest that will provoke or arouse such a proposal, the first answer seems to be that there is nothing fundamental that contradicts this intention. The theoretical and political implications of this statement also await us in the future.

The Etruscans bequeathed to the Roman world a figure capable of unraveling the future from the beginning of the macrocosm and the microcosm: the haruspex. Asdrúbal Baptista was the haruspex of the rentier society. His task was not that of the oil specialist who, in the framework of rentier reason, seeks ways to increase the income that the country receives from the world market for the ownership of a natural resource. His job, instead, was to unravel the economic metabolism of a society that reproduced for a century (and counting) to capture a portion of the surplus-value from the world market not for his national work but for that of state property over the oil. His work will undoubtedly be a cardinal motive for generations of social and political scientists in 21st century Venezuela.


[1] A. Baptista, Itinerario por la economía política (II) y otros escritos, Caracas, Ediciones IESA, 2016, p. 21.

[2] A. Baptista, El sistema intelectual de Adam Smith: ciencia e historia, Mérida, Universidad de los Andes, 1980.

[3] Caracas, Panapo, 1996.

[4] A. Baptista, El relevo del capitalismo rentístico: hacia un nuevo balance de poder, Caracas, Fundación Polar, 2004, p. 137.

[5] Ibid, p. 266.

[6] Ibid, p. 261.

Malfred Gerig

Sociologist from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and candidate for Master in Political Science from the Simón Bolívar University (USB). Researcher with an interest in global political economy and political economy of oil.

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