As I wrote previously, there’s a resurgence of interest in Marx. People writing about and giving lectures on him and his ideas (especially in relation to the current crisis). Unfortunately, many of the writers and lecturers know little about Marxian theory and recent scholarship on Marxian ideas (understandable, at least in the United States, given past history) or treat that theory seriously (unfortunate, especially when they don’t know much). So, Marx and Marxian ideas get set up—and then quickly knocked down.
That’s certainly the case with Professor DeLong’s recent lecture, “Understanding Marx.” He repeats much of the old nonsense (Marxian theory is based on economic determinism, class doesn’t have much to do with changing the world, and so on) and then reduces Marx to “six big things to say”—inevitably, 3 right and 3 wrong. What an injustice to DeLong’s students, who are simply not getting a view of Marx and Marxian theory informed by serious scholarship.
Let me focus on just one of DeLong’s points, concerning the labor theory of value. Here’s DeLong:
What I think is going on inside Marx’s head is something strange. To say that “the value relation[s] between the products of labour… have absolutely no connection with their physical properties” is simply wrong: if the coffee beans are rotten–or if their caffeine level is low–they have no value at all, for nobody will buy them. Marx says that the value of a good is something inscribed within it and attached to it–the socially-necessary labor time for its production—that then bosses people around. And it is the values–not the prices at which things are actually bought and sold–that are the elements of the real important reality. And those values: “appear as independent beings endowed with life and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.”
And his critique?
Now I have never found anybody who thinks this way.
Nobody I talk to believes that “values” are objective quantities inherent in goods by virtue of the time it took to produce them.
Now, there are lots of things that can be, and have been, said and written about Marx’s labor theory of value. But the idea that it can be simply dismissed because DeLong doesn’t know anybody “who thinks this way” betrays a lack of seriousness.
What DeLong doesn’t get is (a) Marx developed a critique of political economy, which was aimed at the mainstream economics of his day (which was based on the labor theory of value) and (b) different theories of value have different entry points and logics. So, analyzing the “language of commodities” from the Marxian perspective of labor and class is surely quite different from analyzing it in terms of the exogenous features of nature (preferences, technology, and endowments) presumed by neoclassical economists.
That’s what one does in teaching economics: explain the various theories (including their assumptions and logics) and sketch out their consequences (for the world of ideas and for society). That’s a task that appears to be too difficult for Professor DeLong.