Posts Tagged ‘Marx’

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It just so happens that, in class yesterday (actually, in both courses I’m teaching), I presented Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. I explained that the first chapter of volume 1 of Capital begins with the common sense of the commodity (common sense, that is, for mainstream economists and for those of who live in a commodity-producing society) and ends with making the commodity strange, by denaturalizing it.

I explained, in particular, that Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities—that economic agents need to be characterized by certain notions of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham” in order for commodity exchange to exist—represented a critique of both mainstream economists (for whom commodity exchange is natural, transcultural and transhistorical) and of Ludwig Feuerbach (for whom commodity fetishism was a false or distorted consciousness). In other words, Marx developed a notion of economic subjectivity that is endogenous, both historical and social, as against notions of a given human nature.

Then, after class, a couple of students stayed behind to talk about they and their classmates felt the pressure to fill out their resumés and craft themselves in order to secure advancement (e.g., in the job market) and not to take risks that might raise questions (e.g., on the part of prospective employers). I felt bad for them.

As it turns out, Paul Verhaeghe [ht: sk] confirms both Marx and the students: the current economic situation is bringing out the worst in us.

the financial crisis illustrated at a macro-social level (for example, in the conflicts between eurozone countries) what a neoliberal meritocracy does to people. Solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment to the enterprise or organisation.

Bullying used to be confined to schools; now it is a common feature of the workplace. This is a typical symptom of the impotent venting their frustration on the weak – in psychology it’s known as displaced aggression. There is a buried sense of fear, ranging from performance anxiety to a broader social fear of the threatening other.

Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms. This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”. Adults display childish outbursts of temper and are jealous about trivialities (“She got a new office chair and I didn’t”), tell white lies, resort to deceit, delight in the downfall of others and cherish petty feelings of revenge. This is the consequence of a system that prevents people from thinking independently and that fails to treat employees as adults.

More important, though, is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other, as thinkers from Hegel to Lacan have shown. Sennett comes to a similar conclusion when he sees the main question for employees these days as being “Who needs me?” For a growing group of people, the answer is: no one.

Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people fail, feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.

A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise freedom. Along with the idea of the perfectible individual, the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age. . .

Our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves. You don’t need to look far for examples. A highly skilled individual who puts parenting before their career comes in for criticism. A person with a good job who turns down a promotion to invest more time in other things is seen as crazy – unless those other things ensure success. A young woman who wants to become a primary school teacher is told by her parents that she should start off by getting a master’s degree in economics – a primary school teacher, whatever can she be thinking of?

There are constant laments about the so-called loss of norms and values in our culture. Yet our norms and values make up an integral and essential part of our identity. So they cannot be lost, only changed. And that is precisely what has happened: a changed economy reflects changed ethics and brings about changed identity. The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us.

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The answer, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, is: you can’t handle institutions!

Certainly not Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson [pdf]—and not, for that matter, Branko Milanovic. They simply can’t handle the institutions Marx refers to and analyzes throughout his oeuvre.

Milanovic discusses many of the problems in Acemoglu and Robinson’s treatment of Piketty’s book I noticed when I read their critique: dismissing the role institutions play in Piketty’s analysis (although, to be honest, I would have preferred to see less on elite educational institutions and more on the institutions that are the sources of the income and wealth of the 1 percent), the facile equation of Piketty and Marx (and thus, in their mind, guilt by association), the failure to understand what it means that labor income plays a role in driving the inequality of the 1 vs 99 percent (do we really want to treat the salaries of the 1 percent in the same way as we do the labor incomes of the other 99 percent?), and so on. And, of course, there’s Milanovic’s quite-accurate dismissal of Acemoglu and Robinson’s own attempt to conduct an institutional analysis of Sweden and South Africa:

I do not discuss Acemoglu-Robinson  analysis of South Africa vs. Sweden increase in inequality because I really fail to see a great virtue in it. As I unfortunately have to confess, I often find reading Acemoglu-Robinson descriptions of political changes quite superficial: they read like Wikipedia entries with regressions. I had the same feeling here too.

But let me take issue with one of Acemoglu and Robinson’s assertions, with which Milanovic agrees: that there’s no institutional analysis of capitalism in Marx’s texts.

Acemoglu and Robinson do admit that Marx allowed for “feedback from politics and other aspects of society to the forces of production” in the Eighteenth Brumaire but that’s it. They can’t seem to find any other institutional analysis worth its name in the rest of Marx’s oeuvre—nor do they even bother to mention Engels (ever hear of The Condition of the Working Class in England, The Peasant War in Germany, or The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State?) or the work of generations of Marxian scholars (on a wide variety of local, national, and international institutions).

But let’s stick with Marx for the time being. Do they want institutions? Admittedly, they won’t find much in the 1844 Manuscripts or the German Ideology. But they might take a look at Marx’s journalism (with Engels, for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, or Marx alone in the New York Daily Tribune). Or beyond the journalism: The Civil War In France and The Paris Commune. And the list could go on.

But maybe Acemoglu and Robinson and Milanovic are just confining themselves to volume 1 of Capital. Surely, they’ve read the institutional detail in Marx’s discussion of such topics as The Working-Day, National Differences of Wages, the Industrial Reserve Army, and, of course, the entire section on the so-called Primitive Accumulation of Capital, in which Marx analyzes the institutional detail surrounding the Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land, the Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated, from the End of the 15th Century. Forcing down of Wages by Acts of Parliament, the Genesis of the Capitalist Farmer, the Reaction of the Agricultural Revolution on Industry. Creation of the Home-Market for Industrial Capital, the Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, the Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation, and The Modern Theory of Colonisation.

They want institutions? Then try this vivid summary (from Chapter 31) of the institutions that gave rise to capitalism:

Tantae molis erat, to establish the “eternal laws of Nature” of the capitalist mode of production, to complete the process of separation between labourers and conditions of labour, to transform, at one pole, the social means of production and subsistence into capital, at the opposite pole, the mass of the population into wage labourers, into “free labouring poor,” that artificial product of modern society. If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

Acemoglu and Robinson and Milanovic (not to mention Piketty) can’t, it seems, handle that kind of institutional analysis.

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Recent legal decisions—such as the NLRB’s ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are employees of the school and are therefore entitled to a union election, and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling on the so-called O’Bannon case, which will enable football and men’s basketball players to receive more from schools than they are receiving now—have raised lots of important questions about how we look at and compensate the work performed by student-athletes in American colleges and universities.

One of the most interesting issues has to do with unpaid labor. Here’s the New York Times editorial board on the O’Bannon ruling:

The N.C.A.A. and its member institutions have no one to blame but themselves for any unintended negative consequences. They built a lucrative commercial enterprise that depended in large part on unpaid labor. Now they have to move forward without exploiting the very students they have always purported to protect.

That’s right: U.S. colleges and universities have been producing and selling athletic performances—especially, but not only, football and basketball games—that are produced by student-athletes who are not paid for their labor. The players do receive some compensation, such as tuition and room and board (and, on the O’Bannon ruling, will be permitted to receive money to defray some additional costs of attending school) but they are not being paid for the total value they produce for the schools they attend. Therefore, the players are performing unpaid labor.*

But why stop there? It may be easier to see unpaid labor when workers, such as student-athletes, receive absolutely no pay—and their employers are raking in huge sums of money from the work they perform. But why not then identify and do something about all the other forms of unpaid labor being performed in our economy? I’m thinking, for example, of autoworkers, restaurant employees, nurses, daycare workers, and so on, all of whom receive wages but wages that are much less than the total value they produce. They, too, are performing unpaid labor, which is then appropriated by their employers and serves as the source of the enterprises’ profits. 

No amount of tinkering with workers’ compensation—whether in the form of establishing a trust fund for student-athletes or raising minimum wages or increasing wages through market pressure or collective bargaining—will ultimately eliminate that unpaid labor. It may diminish it, by changing the ratio of unpaid to paid labor, but vast amounts of unpaid labor will continue to exist.

And that’s the problem that needs to be solved, both on American campuses and in the wider economy.

*In Marxian terms, the players are productive laborers and, by virtue of creating surplus-value, are being exploited by their capitalist employers, the boards of trustees of the colleges and universities where they work. Much of that extra value is retained by the athletic departments (which is then used to pay head coaches, their coaching staffs, and to build new, start-of-the-art athletic facilities), and another large portion is distributed to the NCAA. Hence, the opposition of the schools, coaches, and the NCAA to any measure that increases the bargaining power of the student-athlete-workers.

 

Here is my friend and former fellow graduate student Antonio Callari in an interview on Marxism he did for a group that produces educational videos directed at students and teachers. He starts with Marx’s biography, discusses changes in Marx’s thought and politics during the nineteenth century, and concludes with a discussion of the ways Marxism has (and has not) worked over the course of the past century.

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Some Marxists put a great deal of stock in inexorable laws of capitalism, such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. I don’t. I don’t look at capitalism with the presumption of any kind of laws of motion nor do I look for them as the outcome of an analysis. For me, it’s all conjunctural.

And, in the current conjuncture, the tendency is for the rate of profit to rise. Not inexorably (there are lots of conjunctural causes). And not evenly (precisely because of changing configurations of those conjunctural causes). But, if you look at the data (such as the rate of profit calculated in the graph above*), we can see the capitalist rate of profit—an index of capitalist success if there ever was one—rising. It’s been rising on average (through a series of upturns and downturns) since 1990 or so, and it’s been rising (even more dramatically) since the onset of the Great Recession.

That, in my mind, is what matters. Right now, what we’re witnessing—precisely because of the measures taken to solve the crisis the capitalists themselves made (starting with the bailout of Wall Street and then continuing through various rounds of quantitative easing, high unemployment, the stagnation of wages, and so on)—is a tendency of the rate of profit to rise.

 

*I understand that “my” rate of profit (based on total corporate profits, flows of investment, and labor compensation) doesn’t exactly correspond to what others calculate as the Marxian rate of profit (which generally includes the stock of capital). I can defend my proxy (for r=s/[c+v]) theoretically. It also tracks other estimates (such as those by Fred Moseley) pretty well.

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I’ve written more than a bit over the years about taxes, distribution (including predistribution), and Modern Monetary Theory.

But I’ve mostly treated them as separate issues (except here). Randall Wray [ht: br] has brought those issues together, building on Rick Wolff’s argument against raising taxes as the solution to inequality.

Rick is absolutely correct that when the public begins to see taxes as a payment for services rendered, then they start trying to calculate whether their own payment is “fair”.

That is a primrose path to hell so far as government services are concerned. Since around 1970 that is exactly what has happened to state and local government finances. In the economics literature it is called “devolution”—moving provision of most government services to the state and local government level, and forcing them to pay for it with taxes.

It encouraged the “donut holes” that devastated cities as the more affluent whites ran off to the suburbs.

With new infrastructure and higher income and wealth in the ‘burbs, relatively low tax rates could provide good services. The cities that were left behind had to raise tax rates on an ever-shrinking tax base to try to provide even basic services.

Witness Camden, NJ, which has essentially abandoned large swaths of its jurisdiction to “Escape from New York” dystopia.

This “stakeholder”, “taxes pay for the goodies I get” view has already reduced much of America to third world living standards. No wonder that Regressives pushed the devolution that wiped out cities.

Now the Progressives want to do the same at the Federal level.

The notion that you’ll significantly reduce inequality through taxes on the rich is a pipedream. How high would taxes have to be on the top few tenths of a percent? 50%? 75%? Forget it. They’d still be filthy rich and you’d be poor by comparison.

As I said in the first instalment [sic], we don’t need taxes for revenue. We can justify taxes on the rich not for revenue purposes but as sin taxes. Look at it this way. Let’s raise sin taxes on the rich to reduce the sin of ill-gotten gains.

How high? 100%? Nay, 1000%. Take everything: all their income, all their wealth, the house, the car, the dog. Don’t let crime pay.

Wray and Wolff agree there are far better and more effective ways to solve the problem of inequality in the United States today than to tinker with tax rates.*

 

*I’m pleased to see a first step toward an alliance between the views of Modern Monetary Theorists and Marxists (which apparently I was accused of back in 2011). But for that theoretical alliance to develop, we’re going to have to convince Marxist economists to give up their view that “taxes pay for government services” and MMTers to consider the significance of the processes whereby the surplus is produced and distributed.

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After learning that Joseph Stiglitz had been invited to give a lecture on inequality at the University of Oxford, I asked my friend Stephen Whitefield, Professor of Politics, University Lecturer in Politics, and Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, to offer his sense of Stiglitz’s lecture. I am pleased to publish his comments here.

It was a huge pleasure for me and my college (Pembroke) and my Department (Politics and International Relations), with the support of the UK Fulbright Commission, to welcome Joseph Stiglitz back to the University of Oxford to deliver the 4th Annual Fulbright Distinguished Lecture. Stiglitz had been Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford in the 1970s. Of course, he won the Nobel Prize for his work that shows, as I understand it, that when markets don’t function with perfect information—that is to say, almost always–then there is also always room for government intervention to improve welfare outcomes. That was a huge turn in the debate, even if many mainstream economists and their political allies/masters have yet to catch up.

Stiglitz was in Oxford to talk about “The Causes and Consequences of Inequality and What Can Be Done About It,” which topic marks another great turn in the debate about what kind of political economy we want, from thinking that inequality is irrelevant, since all boats are rising, to thinking that inequality matters, because it makes just about everything worse, at least when it is at very high levels. Stiglitz was of course also central to shifting the current of academic opinion on this topic. And he demonstrated in a brilliant talk—which everyone can link to here (as a podcast or video)—that he is not averse to turning that scholarship into powerful and persuasive accessible language. I have also to add that Stiglitz is a great person to talk to. As Ngaire Woods, his old friend, said in her introduction to his lecture, Stiglitz listens to people.

So, I know he will not be at all put out if he reads me to say that, while his dissection of the causes and consequences of inequality was outstanding, his discussion of what can be done about them was rather light. I told him that myself at dinner afterwards, as did others. I am sure that a lot of that would have been sorted out if he had had more time to talk. After all, he is not at all short of policy prescriptions, as are others like Thomas Piketty, who advocates a global wealth tax. But the problem is not that there is a lack of policies to put forward. In my view, the main problem is with the lack of a clear vision about how to build the political alliances that are necessary to enact those prescriptions. Maybe Stiglitz is right that things look better in places like Brazil and that we can learn things from its experience. Becoming Swedish, however, even if we thought that an attractive proposition—and I still have Per Wahloo in mind when thinking about Swedish Social-Democracy—is just not an option. So, how do we create a winning coalition against inequality that looks plausible and appropriate to our national conditions?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that right now. But here is a gesture in that direction. First, an irony—that he gave this talk in Oxford where we are of course constantly seeking the support of the 0.01-percenters, including to fund a chair to commemorate Senator Fulbright in my college and department. There were a number of such people in the lecture theatre. But note next something we all know (or strongly believe since Wilkinson and Pickett), that in highly unequal societies even the richest 1 percent appear to have worse health outcomes compared to their counterparts in more equal societies. Stiglitz did not offer a very convincing explanation as to why this is the case. He put it down to stress, which is possible but not very plausible on the face of it. Susan Kelly, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter, puts a more likely hypothesis to my mind: over-treatment. There is apparently a negative correlation at the top end between numbers of physicians and health outcomes. But, who knows? A good question to research. . .

But, to return to my point about the political coalition to implement a reduction in levels of inequality, what we need to know is this: who are the political actors interested in doing this? This was not addressed in any explicit way by Stiglitz, and it seems to me a characteristic of even progressive policies presented by scholars that the questions of who will implement them and in whose political interests they are enacted are seldom on the table. There is talk—just—in analyses of inequality of class but not much about class interests or class actors. Now, there was an implicit answer in Stiglitz’s talk. Perhaps it is the enlightened rich who will use their massive power to reduce inequality, because they will come to see that it is harmful to their interests. Maybe. I have my doubts. Certainly I would not expect inequality to come down to the levels that I would find economically, socially, or politically appropriate if those were the political forces driving it.

But if not the rich, then who? By the admission of all involved in the analysis of inequality, the period from around 1930 to 1980 was one of declining inequality and of course in the post-WWII period of rapid economic growth as well. A time also, not coincidentally, of strong organised trade unions and a mobilised working class. All that is recognised. Less so is the counterpart in international relations, the existence of the Soviet Union and then the Communist bloc and the international communist movement, which presented an alternative to capitalism that many working-class people found attractive and the rich found terrifying enough to make significant concessions. I suspect it takes a stick as well as a carrot to make the rich see their self-interest differently.

Almost all of that historical moment is gone now, and not all for the bad. As a student of the Soviet system, I only lament it when thinking about the appalling kleptocracy that emerged from its womb, to use Marx’s kind of metaphor—a kleptocracy that aspired to be as rich as our own oligarchs. But we should remember that the creation of unions and left movements was the work of generations of intellectuals—I mean that in the broadest Gramscian terms—to create not just policies but first and foremost social and political actors. Perhaps that is what we now need to concentrate on imagining, not to mention doing.