Strangers in a strange land

Posted: 5 November 2012 in Uncategorized
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Friday evening, I gave my plenary talk at the Stranger Economies conference.

The title of my talk, “Strangers in a Strange Land: A Marxian Critique of Economics,” was of course borrowed from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel (which, alas, only two people in the audience had read).

Below are excerpts from my talk. You can download the whole thing here [pdf].

1.

Anyone associated with Marxism, at least in this country, will have the sensation of living a science fiction novel. Like being a stranger in a strange land. This is particularly true in the academy, especially in the discipline of economics where I have worked for the past 30 years or so.

Economics is a very strange land—not unlike the future United States of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 novel whence I have borrowed the title of my talk (who has read it?). And those of us who are Marxist economists are often made to feel like Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised by Martians who fails to “grok” the strange habits of humans on planet Earth—although unlike Smith, we will never become celebrities nor will be feted by the elite of our planet Earth, the discipline of economics. . .

2.

Marx was, of course, a stranger in his own set of strange lands, as he traveled in exile from Germany to France through Belgium and finally to England, where he settled down to write his magnum opus.

“A critique of political economy” is, of course, the subtitle of Capital—and that idea, critique, has taken on increasing significance in my own interpretation of what Marx was up to across the three volumes of Capital. It’s an idea that Marx first announces in the 1843 letter to Ruge:

 if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

On that interpretation, Capital is a two-fold critique: a critique of mainstream economics (the mainstream economic thought of his idea, the classical political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the other classical political economists, decades before the mainstream economic thought of our day, neoclassical and Keynesian economics, had emerged) and a critique of capitalism.

The idea is that what Marx was doing—and what Marxists after him need to do—is less the application of a particularly Marxian method (whatever it is called) and more the two-fold critique of mainstream economic thought and of capitalism, the economic and social system celebrated by classical political economists.

Let me push that idea a bit further: the starting point of Capital consists in the taken-for-granted assumptions of both classical political economy and of bourgeois society and then to develop a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It begins by accepting the rules of both mainstream economic thought and of capitalism and then calling them into question. . .

Having been around as long as I have, I can tell you the discipline of economics and capitalism are certainly strange lands. So, in many ways, being a stranger and following the method of critique that makes the common sense strange are in fact where I prefer to be.

3.

I also think it’s where other Marxists prefer to be, especially those associated with the journal Rethinking Marxism. Over the course of the past 25-30 years, the folks involved with the journal have paid particular attention to the distinctiveness of the Marxian critique of political economy and, rather than normalizing it, either accepting the protocols of traditional Marxism or making it like the rest of economics, they’ve taken up the project of extending the concepts and protocols of the Marxian critique, of rethinking it—both uncovering aspects of the Marxian tradition that have been forgotten or overlooked and borrowing from other critical traditions to highlight the differences between Marxism and other approaches to economics. In other words, they’ve kept alive the project of carrying out a “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” . . .

There’s no necessity for the accumulation and no necessary laws of motion of capitalism. What this means, an argument that will appear in an essay to be published next year in RM, is that we have to rethink the history of Marxian crisis theory—giving up the idea that capitalism’s crises represent the unfolding of an inexorable logic, in favor of much more contingent and historically specific explanations (such as the higher levels of economic exploitation we saw emerging in the United States from the mid-1970s onward, leading to housing and financial bubbles that burst and became the crisis of 2007-2008). In other words, every crisis is different, and contemporary contributors to the critique of political economy need to understand both the specific causes of each crisis (such as the present one) and the possibilities for creating alternatives to capitalism both when it is doing well (when the accumulation of capital is working and capitalism is growing) and when (such as now) it clearly is not.

4.

That’s the challenge for us: to continue that project of criticizing political economy, which these days means challenging the terms and implications of contemporary mainstream economics. The idea that the only alternative theories are neoclassical and Keynesian economics, that we have to stick to capitalist markets—whether celebrated and reinforced with more tax cuts or regulated and stimulated with more government spending. And that we need to accept the idea there are no alternatives to an economy in which a tiny minority is allowed to make decisions concerning the surplus that determine the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of people, here and abroad.

We need to be familiar with and to study the rules and regulations of that strange land. But we don’t have to obey them. Contributing in diverse ways to the critique of economics (such as RM authors have been doing, in many more ways than I could cover in this short talk) means that we cannot but be strangers in a strange land.

And that’s just fine. To borrow the concluding statement about the Man from Mars, it’s time “to get to work. He could see a lot of changes he wanted to make.”

Comments
  1. Toby Miller says:

    Great stuff, David

    The Australian is illustrating a story I wrote on my struggles with UK higher-education bureaucracy with this image. Resembling Iggy Pop, lacking the fun he had getting there

    Best

    Toby

    [cid:C951DB95-18D0-4803-8305-362990C0462B@Home]

    Toby Miller tobym@ucr.edu

    http://www.tobymiller.org

  2. […] of course, is what Karl Marx did with classical political […]

  3. […] have no problem with group identification (I often identify with Marxists and many of the other strangers in the strange land of economics). But when it’s identification with a few leaders, and when […]

  4. […] have no problem with group identification (I often identify with Marxists and many of the other strangers in the strange land of economics). But when it’s identification with a few leaders, and when […]

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  6. […] the case. But, instead of drawing up a blueprint of what such an alternative might look like, Marxists are engaged in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not […]

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