Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

General views of Seattle-based grafitti artists Jonathan Matas and Zach Rockstad's mural called "Up and Down" depicting Karl Marx and Adam Smith located on Mott Street just north of Houston Street in

Mainstream economists refer to it as price theory, everyone else value theory. But whatever it’s called, it’s at the center of economists’ differing explanations of what happens in (and alongside) markets.

As I see it, price/value theory serves as the framework to explain a wide range of phenomena, from how and for how much commodities are exchanged in markets through the determinants of the distribution of incomes to the outcomes—for the economy and society as a whole—of the allocation of resources and commodities through markets.

And each price/value theory has a utopian dimension. It’s not just an accounting for and an explanation of the conditions and consequences of commodity exchange; it’s also a way of thinking about the fairness and justice of markets. It therefore informs (and is informed by) a utopian horizon within and beyond markets.

Let me explain. Mainstream economists today generally rely on a price theory that has been produced, disseminated, and revised by neoclassical economists in a tradition that dates from the late-nineteenth century. Students know it as what they learn in the typical microeconomics course, the rest of us by the celebration of free markets in mainstream theory and policy.*


The starting point of neoclassical value theory is that commodities exchange on markets at a price (p*) that is determined by supply and demand.** But that’s only the beginning. According to neoclassical economists, supply and demand are ultimately determined by human nature—a combination of tastes and preferences (utility), know-how (technology), and resources (factor endowments)—which are taken as given or exogenous.

And that leads to one of the major conclusions of neoclassical theory: the prices of goods and services, as well as the distribution of income, are ultimately determined by—and therefore reflect—human nature. That’s important because, if for whatever reason you don’t like the existing set of prices of commodities or the distribution of income, you face the formidable task of changing human nature.

Other significant conclusions also follow from neoclassical price theory, including:

  • Everyone gets what they pay for (since price is equal to the ratio of marginal utilities).
  • Everyone is equal (since, via the invisible hand, everyone’s marginal rate of substitution is equal to that of everyone else).
  • Everyone benefits from markets (since utility-maximation and profit-maximization lead to Pareto efficiency, i.e., a situation in which no one can be made better off without making someone worse off).

That’s an extraordinary set of conclusions—about commodities, markets, and capitalism—which is why, as I explain to my students, so much theoretical work has to be done to go from the initial assumptions to the final results.

That set of conclusions is the basis of the utopianism of neoclassical price theory.  According to neoclassical economists, the capitalist distribution of income is fundamentally fair. If every factor of production (e.g., capital and labor) is remunerated according to its marginal contribution to production, and each individual sells to firms the amount of each factor they desire (because of utility-maximization), the resulting distribution represents “just deserts.” It’s fair on an individual level and it represents justice for society as a whole. Let free markets operate, without any external intervention (e.g., by the state), and the result will be both fair and just.

It’s that powerful conclusion that serves as the starting point for value theory, the critique of the core of mainstream economics—with, of course, very different results.

Take the case of Marxian value theory. Marxian economists accept the notions of fairness and justice, a standard upheld by mainstream economists, and then shows that commodities and markets can’t but fail to achieve those goals. They do this, first, by showing that every commodity has two numbers attached to it—exchange-value and value—not just the one—price—and showing how those two numbers are equal only under a very particular set of assumptions. Then, second, they demonstrate that, even if the two numbers are equal (such that the form of value in exchange equals the value of commodities in production), the production of commodities is based on a “social theft,” that is, the exploitation of workers.

Here’s the idea: assume that all commodities exchange at their values (that is, the kind of world—of free markets, private property, perfect information, and so on—presumed by mainstream economists). Labor power, too, is allowed to be bought and sold at its value. But after the value of labor power is realized in exchange and is set to work, more value is extracted than it costs employers to purchase it. In other words, an extra value—a surplus-value—is created by laborers (during the course of production) and appropriated by capitalists (and then realized, when the finished commodities are sold, in exchange).

My view is that the critique of capitalist class exploitation forms the utopian horizon of Marxian value theory. Since exploitation violates the social norms of fairness and justice (of “just deserts,” i.e., that everyone within capitalism gets what they deserve), it points in a quite different direction: the possibility of creating the economic and social conditions whereby exploitation is eliminated.

The differences between neoclassical price theory and Marxian value theory couldn’t be more stark. The differences are even more dramatic when we compare their utopian horizons. Whereas neoclassical price theory leads to a utopian celebration of capitalist markets, Marxian value theory both informs and is informed by a utopian critique of capitalist exploitation—and therefore a movement beyond capitalism.

In both cases—neoclassical price and Marxian value theory—the story about commodity exchange, and therefore the analysis of the form that wealth takes under capitalism, has a utopian dimension. The two theories have that in common. Where they differ is the form that utopian dimension takes. Neoclassical price theory is guided by a utopianism according to which free markets and private property represent the best possible way of organizing an economy—and therefore should be created and defended by any means necessary. Marxian value theory, as I interpret it, serves as a critique of all such utopianisms. It marks their failure, on their own terms, and points in a different direction—toward the possibility (but certainly not the necessity) of eliminating the exploitation that serves as the basis of capitalist wealth, and therefore of creating a different standard of fairness and justice.

As is well known, for generations of Marxian economists that utopian horizon has been summarized as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”


*To be clear, modern neoclassical price theory extends some important aspects of the theory originally elaborated by Adam Smith—such as the focus on individuals and the general praise for free markets—but it also represents a fundamental break from Smith’s theory—especially from the classical labor theory of value Smith and other classical economists (such as David Ricardo) utilized.

**It’s actually a pretty complicated set of steps, which most students are never taught. The key is that p*, the equilibrium price, is determined not just by supply and demand, but by the imposition of a third condition—a market-clearing equation—such that the quantity supplied is arbitrarily assumed to be equal to the quantity demanded.



50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, just days after joining a march of thousands of African-American protestors down Beale Street, one of the major commercial thoroughfares in Memphis, Tennessee. King and the other marchers were demonstrating their support for 1300 striking sanitation workers, many of whom held placards that proclaimed, “Union Justice Now!” and “I Am a Man.”

The night before his assassination, King told the striking sanitation workers and those who supported them: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.  Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.” He believed the struggle in Memphis exposed the need for economic equality, social justice, and human dignity that he hoped the Poor People’s Campaign would highlight nationally.

The struggle hasn’t ended—nor have the conditions that provoked the Campaign in the first place.


Today, according to an analysis by 24/7 Wall St., Memphis is the fourth most segregated city in the United States—following only Detroit, Chicago, and Jackson, Mississippi. Just 2.3 percent of white Memphis residents live in neighborhoods where are least 40 percent of the population are poor, compared to 20.5 percent of the black population.


Moreover, data collected by Elena Delavega (pdf) of the Department of Social Work at the University of Memphis show the city to have an overall poverty rate of 26.9 percent—32.3 percent for blacks and 44.7 for children. In 2016, Memphis reverted to being the poorest Metropolitan Statistical Area with a population over a million people.

As recently as last year, the local Chamber of Commerce noted that Memphis offers a “work force at wage rates that are lower than most other parts of the country.”

King understood well the connection between poverty and capitalism. The year before his death, on 31 August 1967, he delivered “The Three Evils of Society” speech at the first and only National Conference on New Politics in Chicago.

When we foolishly maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.It is this moral lag in our thing-oriented society that blinds us to the human reality around us and encourages us in the greed and exploitation which creates the sector of poverty in the midst of wealth. Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard word and sacrifice. The fact is that Capitalism was build on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both black and white, both here and abroad. . .The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor.

That’s the kind of analysis that made King so controversial in mainstream circles in his later years, and that has remained buried for the past 50 years under the exclusive focus on dreams and mountaintops.

Today, in Memphis and across the country, Americans would do well to remember the sanitation workers’ strike and the “radical redistribution of economic and political power,” as part of the new “era of revolution,” that King called for in launching the multiracial Poor People’s Campaign.

As Michael K. Honey puts it,

Remembering King’s unfinished fight for economic justice, broadly conceived, might help us to better understand the relevance of his legacy to us today. It might help us to realize that King’s moral discourse about the gap between the “haves and the have-nots” resulted from his role in the labor movement as well as in the civil rights movement.

In addition to remembering the eloquent man in a suit and tie at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, we should also remember King as a man sometimes dressed in blue jeans marching on the streets and sitting in jail cells, or as an impassioned man rousing workers at union conventions and on union picket lines.



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Donald Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs—on solar panels and washing machines now, and perhaps on steel and aluminum down the line—has once again opened up the war concerning international trade.

It’s not a trade war per se (although Trump’s free-trade opponents have invoked that specter, that the governments of other countries may retaliate with their import duties against U.S.-made products), but a battle over theories of international trade. And those different theories are related to—as they inform and are informed by—different utopian visions.

In one sense, Trump and his supporters are right. Capitalist free trade has destroyed cities, regions, livelihoods, and industries. The international trade deals the United States has signed in recent decades have been rigged for the wealthy and have cheated workers. They are replete with marketing scams, hustles, and shady deals, to the advantage of large corporations and a small group of individuals at the top.

But Trump, like all right-wing populists, as I explained recently, offers a utopian vision that looks backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of U.S. workers was employed in manufacturing and American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries. The turn to import tariffs is a way of invoking that nostalgia, the selective vision of a utopia that was exceptional, in terms of both U.S. and world history, and that conveniently conceals or overlooks many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

It should come as no surprise that mainstream economists, today and in a tradition that goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo, oppose Trump’s tariffs and hold firmly to the gospel of free international trade. Once again, Gregory Mankiw has stepped forward to articulate the neoclassical view (buttressed by classical antecedents) that everyone benefits from free international trade:

Ricardo used England and Portugal as an example. Even if Portugal was better than England at producing both wine and cloth, if Portugal had a larger advantage in wine production, Portugal should export wine and import cloth. Both nations would end up better off.

The same principle applies to people. Given his athletic prowess, Roger Federer may be able to mow his lawn faster than anyone else. But that does not mean he should mow his own lawn. The advantage he has playing tennis is far greater than he has mowing lawns. So, according to Ricardo (and common sense), Mr. Federer should hire a lawn service and spend more time on the court.

That’s the basis of neoclassical utopianism—the gains from trade: when international trade is unregulated, and every country specializes according to its comparative advantage, more commodities can be produced at a lower cost and as a result average living standards around the world are improved.


Like Mankiw, most mainstream economists, who are the only ones represented in the IGM Economic Experts panel, oppose import tariffs (as seen in the chart above) and celebrate the utopianism of free international trade.

That’s true even among mainstream economists who have argued that, in reality, the causes and consequences of international trade may not coincide with the rosy picture produced within the usual textbook versions of neoclassical economic theory.

For example, Paul Krugman was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for his work demonstrating that the relative advantages most neoclassical economists take as given are in fact products of history. Thus, it is possible for countries to enhance their trade advantages (through creating internal economies of scale) by regulating international trade. But Krugman was also quick to belittle “a steady drumbeat of warnings about the threat that low-wage imports pose to U.S. living standards” and, then, in his first New York Times column, to denounce the critics of the World Trade Organization.

A few years later Paul Samuelson, widely recognized as the dean of modern mainstream economics, published an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in which he challenged the presumed universal benefits of free trade. It is quite possible, Samuelson argued, that if enough higher-paying jobs were lost by American workers to outsourcing, then the gains from the cheaper prices may not compensate for the losses in U.S. purchasing power. In other words, the low wages at the big-box stores do not necessarily make up for their bargain prices. And then Samuelson was immediately taken to task by other mainstream economists, most notably Jagdish Bhagwati (along with his coauthors, Arvind Panagariya and T.N. Srinivasan [pdf]), who argued that “that outsourcing is fundamentally just a trade phenomenon [and] leads to gains from trade.”

Finally, Dani Rodrick, the mainstream economist who has been most critical of the role his colleagues have played as “cheerleaders” for capitalist globalization, still defends the standard models of international trade:

It has long been an unspoken rule of public engagement for economists that they should champion trade and not dwell too much on the fine print. This has produced a curious situation. The standard models of trade with which economists work typically yield sharp distributional effects: income losses by certain groups of producers or worker categories are the flip side of the “gains from trade.” And economists have long known that market failures – including poorly functioning labor markets, credit market imperfections, knowledge or environmental externalities, and monopolies – can interfere with reaping those gains.

But Rodrick, like Krugman, Samuelson, and other mainstream economists who have identified problems with the story told by Mankiw, Bhagwati, and other free-traders—who have “consistently minimized distributional concerns” and “overstated the magnitude of aggregate gains from trade deals”—still holds to the neoclassical utopianism that, with “all of the necessary distinctions and caveats,” more international trade can and should be promoted. Thus, as Rodrick argued just last week,

If our economic rules empower corporations and financial interests excessively, then the correct response is to rewrite those rules — at home as well as abroad. If trade agreements serve mainly to reshuffle income to capital and corporations, the answer is to rebalance them to make them friendlier to labor and society at large.

The goal is to make sure everyone, not just “corporations and financial interests,” benefits from international trade.

But recent criticisms of trade deals from within mainstream economics still don’t include the possibility that capitalism itself, with or without free international trade and multinational trade agreements, however the rules are written, privileges one class over another. Capital gains at the expense of workers because it is able to extract a surplus for literally doing nothing. That kind of social theft occurs—both when international trade is regulated and controlled and when it is allowed to operate free of any such interventions.

That’s why Karl Marx ironically came out in support of free trade in his famous speech to the Democratic Association of Brussels at its public meeting of 9 January 1848:

If the free-traders cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another, we need not wonder, since these same gentlemen also refuse to understand how within one country one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.

Do not imagine, gentlemen, that in criticizing freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the system of protection.

One may declare oneself an enemy of the constitutional regime without declaring oneself a friend of the ancient regime.

Moreover, the protectionist system is nothing but a means of establishing large-scale industry in any given country, that is to say, of making it dependent upon the world market, and from the moment that dependence upon the world market is established, there is already more or less dependence upon free trade. Besides this, the protective system helps to develop free trade competition within a country. Hence we see that in countries where the bourgeoisie is beginning to make itself felt as a class, in Germany for example, it makes great efforts to obtain protective duties. They serve the bourgeoisie as weapons against feudalism and absolute government, as a means for the concentration of its own powers and for the realization of free trade within the same country.

But, in general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.

That’s because Marx’s critique of political economy embodied a utopian horizon radically different from the utopianism of classical and neoclassical economics. He sought to transform economic and social institutions in order to eliminate capitalist exploitation. And if free trade was the quickest way of getting to the point when workers revolted and changed the system, then he would vote against protectionism and in favor of free trade.

As it turns out, as Friedrich Engels explained forty years later, both protectionism and free trade serve, in different ways, to produce more capitalist producers and thus to produce more wage-laborers. In our own time, Trump’s protective tariffs may do that in the United States, just as free trade has accomplished that in other countries that have increased their exports to the United States.


But neither protectionism nor free trade can succeed in undoing the “elephant curve” of global inequality, which in recent decades has shifted the fortunes of workers in the United States and Western Europe and those in “emerging” countries and still left all of them falling further and further behind the top 1 percent in their own countries and globally.

Reversing that trend is a goal, a utopian horizon, worth fighting for.


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