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For most mainstream economists, culture is either a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

For Raymond Williams [ht: ja], culture was something very different.

Williams makes it clear early on that if he could pick only one term to investigate, it would be “culture.” The word comes from the Latin verb colere and originally meant “to cultivate,” in the sense of tending farmland. A “noun of process,” it gradually expanded to include human development, and by the late 18th century, people commonly used “culture” to mean how we cultivate ourselves. Following the Industrial Revolution, however, the word took on a new emphasis: It came to mean both an entire way of life (as in “folk” or “Japanese” culture) and a realm of aesthetic or intellectual activity that stood apart from, or above, the everyday (basically, what people parody when they say “culchah”). Over several hundred pages, Williams shows how dozens of writers developed these senses of “culture” in order to explain, and manage, the changes remaking British society in the 19th century—from rapid industrialization to the new markets it created for literature, and from land enclosure to overseas colonization.

Williams (along with, of course, many others, including Stuart Hall and Edward Said) redefined the meaning of culture, which provided “a record of change, and of the clashes of interest that drive that change.” Williams and the other “cultural materialists” of the time challenged both traditional humanities scholarship (which sought to identify and cultivate the elitist “finer values”) and traditional Marxism (according to which culture either reflected the “economic base” or, in its mass commodified form, forced workers to accept capitalist values).

Implicitly, Williams and the others also challenged mainstream economists’ version of culture, by emphasizing the idea that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

That’s the approach I took in my presentation last year in my talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

And it was in honor of Williams that I accepted the invitation to write the entry on “Capitalism” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and later, with Maliha Safri, to launch the Keywords series in the journal Rethinking Marxism.

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A beautiful idea?

Posted: 26 May 2015 in Uncategorized

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What most of my students know about John Nash and game theory (at least before sitting through my two or three lectures on the topic or taking an entire course in game theory) they derived from the film, A Beautiful Mind, and the stupid example used to illustrate game theory in the film (of a blond woman walking into a bar).

As Kenneth Chang explains, the episode in the film is not an example of a Nash equilibrium.

A simpler example is what is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Two conspirators in a crime are arrested and offered a deal: “If you confess and testify against your accomplice, we’ll let you off and throw the book at the other guy — 10 years in prison.”

If both stay quiet, the prosecutors cannot prove the more serious charges and both would spend just a year behind bars for lesser crimes. If both confess, the prosecutors would not need their testimony, and both would get eight-year prison sentences.

At first glance, keeping quiet might seem the best strategy. If both did so, both would get off fairly lightly.
But the calculation of the Nash equilibrium shows they would likely both confess.

This type of problem is called a noncooperative game, which means the two prisoners cannot convey intentions to each other. Without knowing what the other prisoner is doing, each is faced with this choice: If he confesses, he could end up with freedom or eight years in prison. If he stays quiet, he goes to prison for one year or 10 years.
In that light, confessing is the better option. And he knows that the other prisoner has the same incentive to confess, so it is less likely he would stay quiet.

Further, changing strategy to staying mum would be a bad move — longer prison term — unless the other prisoner somehow also decided to do that. Without any communication, that would be a highly risky guess, and thus, this strategy represents a Nash equilibrium.

When I teach game theory, I use a couple of other examples to illustrate the problems highlighted by game theory.

One, in the area of noncooperative games, has to do with the wages paid by capitalist employers: they want to pay their own workers low wages (to extract as much surplus as possible) but they want the workers of all other capitalists to be paid high wages (so they can purchase the commodities being produced). This is one of the basic contradictions of capitalism. These days, the noncooperative solution—even in the midst of declining unemployment—is to keep the wages of most workers low.

The other is the so-called ultimatum game, which, in the simplest form of the ultimatum game, involves a proposer who decides how much of a sum of money (say, $10) to give a responder, and the responder decides whether to accept or reject the offer. If the responder accepts, the players split the money in the way the proposer suggested. If the responder rejects, neither player gets any money. The neoclassical version of game theory predicts that, since both the proposer and the responder know that rejection of the offer results in neither receiving any money, the proposer will offer the smallest possible amount (anything greater than $0) and the responder will always accept. As it turns out, during actual experiments, participants choose outcomes that are much closer to a 50-50 split, which runs counter to the usual notion of self-interest—something we might call “fairness.”

But there’s an additional—to my mind, quite beautiful—outcome due to Robert H. Frank, Thomas Gilovich, and Dennis T. Regan: economists and students who have taken courses in neoclassical economics are much less likely to engage in cooperative behavior than noneconomists and students who have not been exposed to those ideas.

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The story about the long-delayed beatification of Archbishop Romero and the ensuing discussion reminded me of a talk I gave back in spring 2008 on the topic of Marxism and Liberation Theology.

I had been invited to give the talk by a couple of students who lived off-campus. As it turns out, the crowd grew beyond their expectations and we were forced to move out of the small house they were renting in a poor neighborhood and array ourselves across the front yard. I was seated on a rickety old chair, while the students found a spot for themselves on the lawn or the porch—neighbors and cars going by, wondering what this was all about. It was one of those memorable teaching moments.

In any case, here are the notes I scribbled down for the talk (which served as the basis for some good questions and an intense, engaged and engaging, discussion afterward):

Marxism and Catholicism?

In general, Marxist suspicion toward religion, as covering/justifying economic and social inequalities and violence.

And Catholic suspicion toward Marxism, based on natural law, including the sanctity of private property and social cooperation.

But changes in both Church teachings and religious movements, especially in Latin America, especially leading up to and after Vatican II in mid-1960s.

Long history that stretches from Rerum Novarum (the beginning of Catholic social teaching down to present). Can’t do that history. But can talk about some of the key issues and answer questions. . .

Catholic interest in Marxism:

  1. focus on human dignity (and away from natural law) and ways in which existing social inequalities and injustices undermined the possibility of that dignity
  2. interest in explaining the structures of economic and social inequality/injustice
  3. interest in criticizing and changing those structures and creating more just economic and social order

Thus, theology of liberation, preferential option for the poor and oppressed, i.e., focus on Jesus Christ as not only the Redeemer but also the Liberator of the oppressed. It emphasizes the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed, particularly through political activism. Not responsibility for the poor but Christian witness from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Fighting to change the world for them and for all.

So, what does Marxism have to offer?

  1. focus on capitalism as particular form of alienation, creating lots of human possibilities but then elevating profit and self-interest as only goals, i.e., undermines human dignity
  2. adds class exploitation—performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor—to analysis of society, i.e., not just exchange of commodities but commodities produced under conditions of class exploitation
  3. necessity not just to criticize and ameliorate effects of exploitation but to eliminate exploitation itself, i.e., possible to change society and create nonexploitative economic and social relations

The three elements that attracted Catholics, especially priests and nuns working with social movements, to Marxism. Not give up Catholicism for Marxism (although some did)—or, for that matter, Marxism for Catholicism (although some Marxists found new hope in liberation theology). Still, a productive alliance—opposed by Church hierarchy because it went against some traditions:

  1. social change not charity, i.e., love and hope mean changing conditions that oppress people and keep poor people poor
  2. rejection of social hierarachy as well as challenge to hierarchy within Church, i.e., bottom up rather than top down
  3. involvement in movements and even governments (such as Sandinistas)

And dialogue goes on today—in Catholic Church but also other Christian churches.

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