Approach to Economics: Foundations of Political Economy

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Robinson Crusoe is a novel published in 1719 by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), a British novelist and journalist. Robinson Crusoe, the main character, a British young man, is obsessed with trying to make money in the world across the sea. Robinson shipwreck on the uninhabited island while sailing the sea as a sailor in opposition to his father. He alone tries to live self-sufficient on the isolated island.

Even in despair, he makes a large tent to protect dangerous things into a fence, lives self-sufficient hard work. One day, an English ship arrived on the uninhabited island. Since he has drifted to the uninhabited island for 27 years, and he finally escape from this uninhabited island and returns to England. The book, Robinson Crusoe, describes the self-sufficiency of life on the uninhabited island, and is regarded as the first modern novel in England in this respect.

It is also a book with a figurative depiction of the changes in British society in the process of developing into capitalism. Accordingly, we can find parts of the novel that remind us of economics theory and various economic concepts. Robinson Crusoe is a very meaningful book in economics. Let’s look at what elements of the novel remind us of economic theories and concepts.

Approach to Economics on Robinson Crusoe

Economic Autarky

Crusoe landed on the uninhabited island and fell into despair, but he carried many things on his ship to the island. There is something to eat, clothes, gun barrels, chains, hammer, rope, scissors. These ones help to settle down. And he makes his own stuffs whenever he needs anything. Likewise, in economics, the autarky is the type of economy in which he or she makes and uses his or her own goods.

It means that Crusoe is the only producer and only consumer in the uninhabited island. In a self-sufficient economy, a person must be involved in all the processes of production, even if he or she wants to produce only one. Therefore, if individual ability is not concentrated in one place, it is dispersed and productivity gets low. We can see the limitation on Robinson Crusoe.

“I was perplexed again, for I neither knew how to make bread of it and how to bake it.”

“I have to spend all my study and hours of working to accomplish this great work of providing myself with corn and bread.”

“I took 42 days to build a shelf with a tree. In England, one carpenter would have made six shelves of the same tree in a day and a half.”

What if several people shared the work? If a strong man cuts a tree, a person with being skillful makes a plate of a shelf, and a person who is good at handle with a tool use nails to make a shelf, it will save time. Thus, we can call it the division of labor.

The division of labor and Adam Smith

The principle of division of labor is presented as a basic principle that enriches the nation in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by A. Smith, the father of economics. In his book, he explained the principles of division of labor empirically and logically through the example of the ‘pin factory’. The following are some of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’.

“Workers who are not properly trained in pin manufacturing will not be able to make a single pin, rather than twenty pins a day, no matter how hard they try. Today, however, the pin manufacturing industry is divided into the entire work process and operates in a number of independent work processes. When one person brings in a wire, the second person makes it right. When the third person cuts it, the fourth person sharpens the tip, and the fifth person sharpens the other end to attach the pin head. Eventually, it takes up to 18 different steps to complete a pin, and some plants share one person for each work process. The factory produced an average of 4,800 pins per worker.”

As you can see from the above statement, when the division of labor is performed, the individual is responsible for a part of the production process, and the productivity is improved by concentrating there on one work. The increase in productivity comes from the improvement of proficiency by learning by doing. As such, Robinson Crusoe could not do the division of labor with others, but after he repeated the process of getting food, making necessary things like a chair, a table, and improving his proficiency over time.

Value in exchange and communication

Next, we should note that Robinson not only made goods but also accumulated value in exchange even by living on the uninhabited island where people didn’t live. The value in exchange is that any commodity is worth exchanging. If so, can it occur in the uninhabited island?

Firmly, it didn’t occur. What does Karl Marx think of Robinson Crusoe’s self-sustaining economy? He cites Robinson Crusoe in his book ‘Das Kapital’ to explain value in exchange, labor, and use. Goods are made by labor. There are ‘the value of exchange’ and ‘value of use’ in a commodity. For example, if Robinson Crusoe picks up a large pearl shell, he says it is priceless f it is not exchanged. Also, the value of an item is said to be valuable when it is exchanged.

Also, the value of an item is said to be valuable when it is exchanged. In other words, each product has its own value through relative value. Originally, human society was self-sufficient, so there was no commodity production. Therefore, there was no concept of ‘value’ either. Where did the merchandise originate? It is a place where communities and communities come into contact.

The most important thing for exchange of commodities is that there should be trade and communication between people. When people and infrastructure are concentrated in one place, communication and transaction become active. It allows someone to know what needs, so there are people who make the product and sell it to the market and who buy it. That is, the exchange value of the commodity occurs.

To put it concretely, Bartering occurred by requiring some goods among the people. Furthermore, as the money was born, the exchange became easy, and the time and space limitations were overcome. It became the foundation to go into commercial society. In the primitive state, people worked for survival, while they work to produce goods for needs of others in commercial society.

The concept of labor between Marx and Robinson Crusoe are different. If Crusoe worked to survive on the uninhabited island, the work Marx says is that people are subordinated to ‘labor’ under capitalism. In capitalist society, people can only survive if they have money to eat and live, which means they need money with exchange value. In other words, Marx saw labor as a means of survival for money.

In fact, Marx established a theory that assumes Robinson Crusoe’s economic system as a system in which goods can be produced and exchanged. However, Robin Crusoe did not work for commodity production because he lived in Autarky, a one – person system. On the other hand, in the nineteenth century when Marx lived, capital-dominated power was the subject of production and exchange, the workers mass-produced under the capitalists, handed over to the capitalists, and bought the necessary supplies back from the capitalists.


When he saw what he got from the boat, he said, ‘when I looked at all these property next to my tent, I could lie down next to it.’ As you can see, he has a concept of private property because he lived in Britain in the Capitalism. By the way, money is the most important thing for us to live in capitalism, but Robinson Crusoe thought ‘money’ was the most useless thing among other things. This is because there were not people existed, so there is no need for exchange, that’s why money was useless. In fact, the value of money is made relatively this way. So In fact, Robinson’s capital was manual labor, not money.

When British society established parliamentary democracy politically and achieved an industrial revolution, a new class, which is bourgeoisie, emerged. However, in the viewpoint of philosophers and social scientists in this era, the questions such as ‘Where did private property come from and whether private property is right?’ were important problems to be thought.

In feudal society, nobody thought about where private property came from because private property was inherited from parents. However, with the emergence of a class that acquires and accumulates private property with the change of society, the problem of private property became the subject of ideological academic thought. John Locke (1632-1704), the father of civil revolution and democratic thought, is one of these philosophers.

Locke argued that private property should be sacred and protected because it is the result of labor. The private property doesn’t refer to the property by the nobility or the landlords, but means the property of the newly wealth class that have accumulated in the Capitalism. The most important phenomenon of English society at the time of Locke’s life was not the domination of labor by capital but the competition between feudal and emerging classes.

The ‘citizen’ referred to by Locke is this new class, and the democracy he thinks refers to the society in which the bourgeoisie class becomes the master. Daniel ‘Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ is about this new class, Yeoman. Through the Industrial Revolution and the second enclosure movement, Yeoman was dismantled as a social force and a single social class. A few people who received a small amount of money in exchange for land had invested in the industry that had just grown. Therefore, the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class, emerged from among the Yeoman. This is because they are people who have worked and accumulated themselves, as Locke has said.


It is often said Robinson drifts on a desert island and lives alone. But since we have seen, his way of life was holding the string of civilization. Robinson used various knowledge and skills learned from a civilized society. Thus, the island of Robinson, with its knowledge of capitalism in the eighteenth century, was not a self-sufficient economy, but a capitalist system in fact. First, the goods he brought from the ship were the products of capitalism. And he lived in the way I lived in England. His daily working hours were as regular and farming as he was in London, and wild animals were kept tame. Hence, he actually made the uninhabited island civilized.

Cite this paper

Approach to Economics: Foundations of Political Economy. (2021, May 19). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/approach-to-economics-foundations-of-political-economy/



What are the 3 conceptual approaches generally used in international political economy?
The three conceptual approaches generally used in international political economy are liberalism, mercantilism, and Marxism. Each approach offers a unique perspective on the relationship between politics and economics in the global arena.
What are the three types of political economy?
The three types of political economy are socialism, capitalism, and communism. Each type of political economy has different strengths and weaknesses.
What is political economic approach?
The political economic approach is a way of thinking about the economy that focuses on the relationships between political and economic systems. It emphasizes the role of institutions, power, and conflict in shaping economic outcomes.
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