Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

Keyword: capitalism

Posted: 14 January 2021 in Uncategorized
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I am pleased to announce that my entry on “capitalism” has been included in the print version of the third edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler.

The new essay is a revised version of the entry that appeared in the second and first editions of their keywords collection.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on four previous ones, here, here, here, and here) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The necessary disclosure: these are merely drafts of sections of the book, some rougher or more preliminary than others. I expect them all to be extensively revised and rewritten when I prepare the final book manuscript.

Finally, because of a contractual commitment (which limits the amount of the draft of the book I am allowed to publish on this blog), this will be the last book-related post for a few months.

Toward Marx’s Critique of Political Economy

There is no necessary trajectory to Marx’s writings, no reason his earlier writings had to lead to or culminate in Capital. However, as we look back from the vantage point of his critique of political economy, we can see the ways his thinking changed and how the elements of that critique emerged.

In this section, we take a quick look at some of Marx’s key texts prior to writing Capital: the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the Theses on Feuerbach, the German Ideology, the Grundrisse, and A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Together, they will give us a sense of how Marx’s ideas developed over time.

We will also see two themes emerge over the course of these texts: the role of critique and a focus on social context. First, Marx doesn’t start (in these texts or, for that matter, in Capital) with a given approach or set of first principles. Instead, his method is to engage with ideas and problems that were “out there,” in the intellectual and social worlds he inhabited, and to formulate a critique, thereby giving rise to new ways of posing issues and answering questions. Second, Marx’s concern is always with social and historical specificity, as against looking for or finding what others would consider to be given and universal. Thus, for example, Marx eschews any notion of a transhistorical or transcultural “human nature.” Instead, in his view, different human natures are both the condition and consequence of particular social and historical circumstances. Much the same holds for his method of engaging economic issues.

Once Marx left Germany and found his way to Paris, he met Engels for the first time (thus initiating, following on their previous correspondence, a life-long collaboration) and also began what he considered to be a “conscientious critical study of political economy,” the mainstream economics of his day. The result was a series of three manuscripts (often referred to as the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 or the Paris Manuscripts, which were written between April and August 1844 but only finally published, to considerable interest, in 1932).* What readers will find in the manuscripts is, having “proceeded from the premises of political economy” (meaning “its language and laws,” the assumption of “private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land,” and so on), Marx arrives at conclusions and formulates new terms that run directly counter to those of Smith, Ricardo, and the other classical political economists. In particular, Marx argues that, under capitalism, as workers become reduced to commodities, what they produce confronts them as “something alien.” Therefore, their labor (using terms borrowed from Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel) becomes “alienated” or “estranged.”

it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not.

He then demonstrates that the taken-for-granted assumptions of classical political economy—private property, wages, and so on—are themselves the products of estranged labor. Thus, the distinctions made by the mainstream economists of Marx’s time—between profit and rent, between both and wages, and so on—are rooted not in the nature of things, but in particular social and historical circumstances. They are, in other words, peculiar to capitalism.**

As we saw in a previous section, Marx then (in 1845) developed a critique of Feuerbach. Over the course of his eleven short theses, Marx rejects the idea of a single anthropology (the “essence of man” or human nature) and focuses, instead, on the ensemble of “social relations,” the “historical process,” and “social humanity.” The result is social practice, that is, the goal of not just interpreting the world, but of changing it.

The next year, Marx coauthored with Engels a long set of manuscripts (like the 1844 manuscripts, only published in 1932) in which they challenge the one-sided criticisms of Hegel by Bruno Bauer, other Young Hegelians, and the post-Hegelian philosopher Max Stirner. There, in their attack on German philosophy for having been obsessed with religion (and therefore self-consciousness or the realm of ideas), Marx and Engels announce for the first time what they call the “materialist conception of history,” with an alternative starting-point: “real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity.” This focus on social production means Marx and Engels can transform consciousness itself into a “social product,” which develops historically and changes according to particular forms of society or social relationships.***

Later, once Marx had settled in London, he spent much of his time in the British Museum (a national public museum, which contained both natural history objects and a massive library) studying the texts of the classical political economists. The result were a set of notebooks, called the Grundrisse (literally outlines or plans), which are often considered to be first draft of Capital.**** While the topics Marx covered are wide-ranging, from value and labor to precapitalist forms of economic and social organization and the preconditions for communism, what is of interest here is his announcement of where he thinks the critique of political economy should start: with “socially determined individual production.”

Why is this important? Because it represents Marx’s break from the notion of natural production, and therefore from the mainstream economics of his day (as of our own). In classical political economy (as in neoclassical economics), capitalism and other economies are considered to be natural, because they are finally reduced to and can be explained by certain given or exogenous factors, such as population, technology, and resources (to which neoclassical economists add given preferences). Also, they take individuals as their point of departure (the most famous example being Robinson Crusoe, a story that is repeated even today in mainstream economic textbooks).

Marx’s alternative view is that economics should start with social individuals, “individuals producing in society,” not given individuals outside of particular historical and social contexts. Moreover, the focus should be on “social production”—different, socially determined ways of producing goods and services—not on any kind of production in general (which students today will recognize in the technical apparatus of isocost and isoquant curves).

Marx also demonstrates his debt to Hegel, in discussing the relationship among production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. Where the classical political economists posit that the goal of production is consumption, and many of the critics worry about distribution, Marx sees them in terms of a “dialectical unity.” In its most general form,

A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments. Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments.

It’s a distinction that shows up today in the debate about distribution (through free markets) versusu redistribution (through government programs). What the participants in that debate forget about is the initial distribution related to production (and all that entails for consumption, distribution, and exchange), that is, society produces itself through its initial distribution. It’s that initial distribution that is taken as given in mainstream economics, then as now.

Marx also announces his break from existing ways of carrying out economic analysis, whether starting from abstract first principles (and deducing the rules that govern reality) or from empirical reality (whereby certain “laws” are extracted). Instead, he argues, the method he proposes is a movement from the abstract to the concrete. In other words, economic analysis is itself a process of production—one that starts from relatively abstract notions and, adding more and more determinations or circumstances, arrives at a relatively concrete notion (“the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, [which] reproduces it as the concrete in the mind”). It is not a question of bridging the gap between thought and reality (in terms of some kind of validity criterion) but of producing within thought a particular conception of economic and social reality. The implication, of course, is that different economic theories will lead to different, incommensurable conceptions of capitalism and other economic systems.

Finally, in 1859, Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. There, he designates his break from the philosophies of both Hegel and Feuerbach with what has become one of his most famous expressions:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

This is Marx’s critique of both Hegel’s notion of the Absolute Spirit and of Feuerbach’s alienated consciousness. It’s not an issue of individual consciousness or virtue within existing social order but the conflict-ridden social order itself. Another way of putting this in terms of contemporary debates is: you can’t just have a semblance of freedom (which often means blaming the victims) but you need real freedom, that is, economic and social change that makes the exercise of freedom possible. It’s the same idea that has motivated many working-class political movements, from the nineteenth century onwards, which have demanded an end to poverty and access to decent housing, healthcare, and so on for the majority of people by identifying and seeking to eliminate the economic obstacles to what they consider to be fundamental human rights.

Marx then appends a quotation from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which can also serve as a warning to readers as we embark, starting in the next chapter, on a detailed study of Marx’s critique of political economy:

Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto
Ogni vilta convien che qui sia morta
.*****

———

*The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 was first published in Germany by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow in 1932, in the language of the original. In English, this work first appeared in 1959, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow, translated by Martin Milligan.

**Marx also presents in those manuscripts his critique of “piecemeal social reformers,” including the French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “who either want to raise wages and in this way to improve the situation of the working class, or regard equality of wages,” for not going far enough, because they accept the existence of private property and estranged labor. In this sense, they want to improve, but not eliminate and move beyond, capitalism. And, in the third manuscript, Marx credits Hegel with understanding the importance of labor as the source of alienation; but then criticizes Hegelian philosophy for focusing entirely on “abstractly mental labor” (as a question only of “self-consciousness”) and therefore overlooks (just like the classical political economists) economic and political alienation.

***They also announce what, at least at this stage, what they mean by “communism”: “not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

****The seven notebooks were written during the winter of 1857–58 but were only published in 1939. The first English-language translation (by Martin Nicolaus) appeared in 1973. The publication of the Grundrisse was important not only for readers of Capital (and much discussion has ensued about the overlaps and differences between the two), but also for other fields, especially for the new field of cultural studies (in the work of, among others, Stuart Hall and the famous Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham).

*****The lines are from Canto III of “Inferno” (as Virgil’s reply to Dante, who has just read the inscription over the Gates of Hell). The translation is: “Here one must leave behind all hesitation; here every cowardice must meet its death.”

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on three previous ones, here, here, and here) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The necessary disclosure: these are merely drafts of sections of the book, some rougher or more preliminary than others. I expect them all to be extensively revised and rewritten when I prepare the final book manuscript.

Capitalism

As we’ve seen in previous sections, we have to understand three major theoretical and political currents—classical political economy, Hegel’s philosophy, and utopian socialism—in order to understand the path Marx traversed in his writings prior to working on Capital. We also have to keep in mind the larger context, the development of capitalism in the nineteenth century.

It was during the “age of capital,” as the illustrious British historian Eric Hobsbawm aptly called it, that Marx formulated his critique of political economy. By the time he landed in London (in 1849), where (after leaving Germany and spending short periods in first Paris and then Brussels) he would remain based for the rest of his life, England had become the epicenter of capitalism.

Today, we think of capitalism as encompassing the entire world.* That certainly wasn’t the case in the first half of the nineteenth century, when most economic and social life around the globe was organized along decidedly noncapitalist lines. In England, however, by the end of the first Industrial Revolution, capitalism was well established, especially in the burgeoning cities (such as London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham). More or more, both consumer goods and producer goods (from textiles to machinery) were being produced in capitalist factories. In other words, they had become capitalist commodities, created by laborers who received a wage working for the capitalists who owned the mills and workshops.**

Elsewhere, the transition to capitalism, while less advanced than in England, was also taking place and leaving its mark on the existing social order. For example, the conditions and consequences of capitalism were quite evident in France and Belgium, much more so than in Germany; while the United States, as it slid toward civil war, was also creating a hothouse for capitalist industry, especially in the northeast. In all those places, enormous fortunes (accumulated through local and global trade, owning large estates, lending money, putting slaves to work, and so on) were utilized to purchase the ability to labor of workers (many of them former feudal serfs, self-sufficient farmers, artisans, and slaves) as well new technologies and machinery (from the power loom and cotton gin through steam power and iron-making to new modes of transportation, such as canals and railroads).

The age of capital was nothing less than a project for remaking the world, in every dimension. It was a revolution in industrial production that, as Engels wrote in his classic study of The Condition of the Working Class in England, was changing the whole of civil society—from politics and culture to class structure and the organization of work.

Then as now, the captains of industry and supporters of capitalism were confident about their project. It promised to create general prosperity and to universalize the bourgeois individual guided solely by self-interest and rational calculation. And, in many ways, it succeeded. The development of capitalism created gigantic factories, titanic temples of industrial production, and colossal cities, occupied by an escalating number of native and immigrant workers. Traditional ways of life and meaning were cast aside and new habits acquired, with an eye (at least among the middle and upper classes) to accumulate individual wealth and extol the virtues of free and expanding markets.

But, by the same token (and no different from today), the new capitalist order was itself fragile—subject to fits and starts and periodic downturns, and characterized by obscene levels of inequality and widespread misery. The bulk of the population experienced a decline in their living standards, with wages that didn’t keep pace with the prices of necessary consumer goods, plus poor sanitation, inadequate housing, and precarious access to clean water. Moreover, their jobs and skills were threatened by the combination of technological change, embodied in the new factory machinery, and the more detailed divisions of labor that could be instituted once they were collected to labor in one place. In many instances, workers became mere appendages of the machines they once managed. That meant more profits for their employers but, in relative terms, less for their wages.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the capitalist project was contested wherever it took hold. Many readers will have heard of the Luddites, a radical faction of English textile workers that attempted to destroy factory machinery as a form of protest. To be clear, they were not hostile to machinery per se, but were angry with manufacturers who introduced the machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. This period also saw the resurgence of other labor organizations, especially trade unions (such as Robert Owen’s short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) and the demand for more democracy (a working-class suffrage movement led by the Chartists)—which, in their growing influence, led to the repeal of laws that had made any sort of strike action illegal.

The development of capitalism led to even more widespread political upheavals, culminating in 1848, during what Hobsbawm refers to as the “springtime of the peoples.” That year was painted with the colors of revolution across continental Europe (except England and Russia) and beyond. Government after government was overthrown and, in the end, over 50 countries—from Sweden to Colombia—were affected. The revolutions were informed by diverse ideologies, including various forms of liberal democracy and socialism, their banners carried by the new social classes created by capitalism, including members of the grand bourgeoisie, their intellectuals, and the middle classes to the masses of rural landless laborers, urban artisans, and industrial workers. In the end, while the revolutions eventually failed and the old regimes restored started in 1849 (Marx argued, in various speeches and newspaper articles, the revolutions were betrayed by many of the liberal intellectuals, who sought an accommodation with the monarchs and governments on their own terms), it was clear that all that was considered solid was melting into thin air.***

It was in the maelstrom of this age of capital—of the widening and deepening of capitalism and of the revolutionary upheavals it provoked—that Marx pursued his “ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

In the next section, we look at some of his best-known texts of that period, prior to the writing of Capital.

———

*That’s certainly how mainstream economists and many others think of capitalism, as characterizing the entire economy in pretty much all places around the globe. As we will see in a later chapter, what they forget or overlook is that many parts of contemporary society, in rich and poor countries alike, include various forms of noncapitalism. Consider for the moment one prominent example: how many households, where of course a great deal of labor is performed on a daily basis, are based on a capitalist mode of production?

**As we will see later in this book, not every commodity is a capitalist commodity. Goods and services can be bought and sold in markets without the existence of capitalism. It all depends on how they are produced. Thus, there can be communist commodities, slave commodities, feudal commodities, and so forth. The mistake mainstream economists make is to presume that markets are synonymous with capitalism.

***This is a paraphrase from one of the most famous texts of 1848, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, which Marx and Engels were commissioned to write by the Commiunist League and originally published in London just as the revolutions of 1848 began to erupt:”All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” We will discuss the Communist Manifesto in more detail in chapter 9.

James Sanborn, Adam Smith’s Spinning Top (1998)

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post is for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics (following on from the previous posts, herehereherehere, and here).

Classical Political Economy

Marxian economists have been quite critical of contemporary mainstream economics. As we saw in Chapter 1, and will continue to explore in the remainder of this book, Marxian economists have challenged the general approach as well as all of the major conclusions of both neoclassical and Keynesian economics.

But what about Marx, who wrote his critique of political economy, let’s remember, before neoclassical and Keynesian economics even existed?

Marx, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, trained his critical eye on the mainstream economic theory of his day. He read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, as well as the writings of other classical political economists, such as Thomas Robert Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill.

Marx’s critique of political economy can rightly be seen as both an extension of and break from the work of those late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteen-century mainstream economists. So, in order to understand why and how Marx proceeded in the way he did, we need to have a basic understanding of classical political economy.

Before we begin, however, we have to recognize that Marx’s interpretation of the classical economists was very different from the way they are referred to within contemporary mainstream economics. Today, within non-Marxian economics, the classicals are reduced to a few summary ideas. They include the following: a labor theory of value (which mainstream economists reject, in favor of utility), the invisible hand (which, as it turns out, Smith mentioned only three times in his writings, once in the Wealth of Nations), and comparative advantage (but not the rest of Ricardo’s theory, especially his theory of conflict over the distribution of income).

We therefore need a good bit more in order to make sense of Marx’s critique of political economy.

Adam Smith

Let’s start with Adam Smith, the so-called father of modern economics. The author of, first, the Theory of Moral Sentiments and, then, the Wealth of Nations, Smith asserted that people have a natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” In other words, according to Smith, the ability and willingness to participate in markets were natural, and not social and historical, aspects of all humanity.

That’s not unlike contemporary mainstream economists’ insistence on presuming the existence of markets, and thus writing down supply and demand functions (or drawing them on a graph), without any further evidence or argumentation. They’re presumed to be natural.

Smith then proceeds by showing that the division of labor (such as with his most famous example, of the pin factory) has two effects: First, it leads to increases in productivity, and therefore an increase in production. Second, the extension of the division of labor within factories propels a division of labor within capitalism as a whole, as firms specialize in the production of some goods, which they can then trade with other producers in markets. In turn, the expansion of markets leads to more division of labor and higher productivity, thus increasing the wealth of nations.

Again, the parallel with contemporary mainstream economics is quite evident, which is recognized in the “classical” portion of the name for neoclassical economic theory. Using Gross Domestic Product as their measure of the wealth of nations, contemporary mainstream economists celebrate capitalism because higher productivity results in more output, which is then traded on markets. This is the basis of contemporary mainstream economists’ definition of development as an increase in GDP per capita, that is, more output per person in the population.

However, unlike contemporary mainstream economists, Smith analyzed the value of commodities in terms of the amount of labor it took to produce them. With increasing productivity, more goods and services could be produced and sold in markets, each containing less labor—and therefore available at lower prices to consumers. The nation’s wealth would therefore grow, especially as the number of workers grew.

Still, Smith worried about whether capitalist growth would persist in an uninterrupted fashion. The division of a nation’s production into “natural” rates of wages, profits, and rent to workers, capitalists, and landlords was not sufficient. What if, Smith asked, a large portion of capitalists’ profits was used to hire more “unproductive” labor, that is, the labor of household servants and others that did not contribute to increasing productivity? Purchasing labor involved in what we now call conspicuous consumption represented, for Smith, a slowing of the accumulation of additional capital. Therefore, it created a problem, an obstacle to future capitalist growth.

David Ricardo

David Ricardo picked up where Smith left off. He extended the celebration of capitalist markets to international trade. His argument was that if nations specialized in the production of commodities for which they had a relative advantage, and traded them for goods from other countries (his most famous example was British cloth and Portuguese wine), both countries would benefit. Their wealth would increase.*

That’s the only reason Ricardo’s work is cited by contemporary mainstream economists. However ironically, they ignore the fact that Ricardo made his argument based on the labor theory of value—just as they never mention Ricardo’s concern that conflicts over the distribution of income might slow capitalist growth.

In particular, Ricardo was worried that, as capitalism developed, the profits received by capitalists would be squeezed from two directions: an increase in workers’ wages and a rise in rent payments to landlords. Lower profits would mean less capital accumulation and slower growth—and, in the limit, capitalism would grind to a halt.

We can see how this might happen in the chart above. At a certain point (a level of population P, which is the pool of workers), total output (the red line) would be divided into workers’ wages, capitalists’ profits, and landlords’ rent).

It is easy to see that, at any point in time, if the wage rate paid to workers increased (which would mean an increase in the slope of the blue line), that would cut into profits (the vertical distance between the blue and green lines would decrease). That’s the major reason Ricardo supported free trade (and thus a repeal of the so-called Corn Laws): so that cheaper wheat could be imported from abroad, thus lessening the upward pressure on workers’ wage demands.

Even if the rate paid to workers remained the same over time (and thus the total amount of wages rose at a constant rate, with an increase in population), capitalists’ profits would be squeezed from the other direction, by an increase in the rents paid to the class of landlords (the vertical distance between the green and red lines). Basically, as agricultural production was moved to less and less fertile land, the rents on more productive land would rise, siphoning off a larger and larger portion of profits.

At a certain point (e.g., at a level of population P*), the entire output would be divided between workers’ wages and landlords’ rent, and nothing would be left in the form of capitalists’ profits. As a result, capitalists would be forced to stop investing and capitalist growth would cease.

Other Classicals

The Reverend Thomas Malthus was, if anything, more pessimistic than Ricardo. But he foresaw capitalism’s problems coming from the other direction, from the working masses. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, he argued that population would likely grow faster than the expansion in food production, especially in times of plenty. With such an increase in the supply of workers and a rise in the price of available food, workers’ real wages would inevitably fall and poverty would rise. The only solution was for capitalists and landlords to hire all the additional labor, and for workers’ wages to be restored to their “natural” level.

If Malthus focused on the up-and-down cycles of population and wages, and both Smith and Ricardo the potential limits to capitalist growth, the French classical economist Jean-Baptiste Say emphasized the inherent stability of capitalism. Why? Say’s argument was that the production of commodities causes incomes to be paid to suppliers of the capital, labor, and land used in producing these goods and services. And because the sale price of those commodities was the sum of the payments of wages, rents, and profit, the incomes generated during the production of commodities would be used to purchase all the commodities brought to market. Moreover, entrepreneurs were rewarded for correctly assessing the needs reflected in markets and the means to satisfy those needs. The result is what was later coined as Say’s Law: “supply creates its own demand.”

Finally, it was John Stuart Mill who added utilitarianism to classical political economy. Extending the work of Jeremy Bentham, especially the “greatest-happiness principle” (which holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings), Mill argued that the greatest happiness and the least pain could be achieved on the basis of free markets, competition, and private property—with the proviso that everyone should be afforded an equal opportunity, however unequal the actual results might turn out to be. In particular, Mill defended the profits of capitalists as a just recompense for their savings, risk, and economic supervision.*

Marx’s Critique of Mainstream Economics

That, in a nutshell, is the mainstream economic theory Marx confronted while sitting in the British Museum in the middle of the nineteenth century. Marx both lauded the classical political economists for their efforts—especially Ricardo, who in his view “gave to classical political economy its final shape” (Critique of Political Economy)—and engaged in a “ruthless criticism” of their theory.

In this sense, Marx took the classical political economists quite seriously. Even as he broke from their work in a decisive manner, many of the themes of Marx’s critique of political economy stem directly from the issues the classicals attempted to tackle. That’s why the overview provided in previous sections of this chapter is so crucial to understanding Marxian economics.

Still, the question remains, how does Marx’s critique of the mainstream economics of his day transfer over to contemporary mainstream economists? As we will see, although neoclassical and Keynesian economists reject the labor theory of value and other crucial elements of classical political economy, both the basic assumptions and conclusions of their approach are so similar to those of the classicals as to make it a relatively short step from Marx’s critique of the mainstream economic theory of his day to that of our own.

However, before we look at that theoretical encounter, in the next chapter, we will see how Marx’s critical engagement with classical political economy emerged over the course of his writings before, in the mid-1860s, he sits down to write the three volumes of his most famous book, Capital.

———

*Mill did defend various redistributive tax measures, in order to limit intergenerational inequalities that would otherwise constrain equality of opportunity. Moreover, he argued in a later edition of his Principles of Political Economy in favor of economic democracy: “the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves” (Principles of Political Economy, with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, IV.7.21).

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous four posts (hereherehere, and here), is written to serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The text of this post should pretty much finish up the draft of the first chapter.

Is Marxian Economics Still Relevant?

It’s an obvious question for those of us living now, in the twenty-first century. Is Marxian economics still relevant?

After all, Marx wrote Capital in the middle of the nineteenth century, when both capitalism and mainstream economics were quite different from what they are today.

Back in the mid-1800s, capitalism was a relatively new way of organizing economic and social life; having emerged first in Great Britain, it still encompassed a small part of the world. As Marx looked around him, he saw both the tremendous progress and the horrendous conditions of the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of steam power, gigantic factories, growing cities, and increased production. And thus great wealth, at least on the part of the small group of successful merchants and industrial capitalists at the top of the economic pyramid. But also squalor, malnutrition, low wages, and long working hours for factory workers—men, women, and children.

Radically new ideas both prepared the ground for, and emerged as a result of, the emergence and spread of capitalism. New freedoms, such as the possibility of buying and selling people’s ability to work, and the consequent abolition of slavery, the ownership of human chattel. New forms of political representation, like democracy, which entailed the abolition (or at least the curtailing) of monarchies. And new sciences, including evolutionary biology, first elaborated in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (or, more completely, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life).

The world today is, of course, quite different. We take for granted many of the ideas that were once considered radically new. While other ideas, which were barely even imagined at the time, are today considered novel: demands for a guaranteed income, the extension of democracy beyond politics to workplaces, and synthetic biology.

As for capitalism, in some parts of the world, it would be immediately recognizable by nineteenth-century observers. Giant steel mills, workers denied the right to form labor unions, polluted living environments, minds and bodies damaged by demanding and dangerous jobs. Elsewhere, capitalism has changed in many ways, both large and small. Cutting-edge technologies in the twenty-first century include robotics, extended reality, and artificial intelligence. Production of many goods and services is dispersed around the world instead of being concentrated in single factories. And a much larger share of production and of the world’s population—although certainly not all—has become part of capitalism.

And yet. . .The gap between a small group at the top and everyone else is increasing. Workers still labor much longer, even utilizing much more productive technologies, than many had predicted. Squalor, hunger, and poverty are still the condition of many in the world today—to which we need to add the dangers created by the looming climate crisis.

Throughout this book, we will therefore have to ask, is the kind of critique of capitalism that Marx pioneered more than 150 years ago relevant, at least in broad outlines, to contemporary economies? And, following on that, in what ways have Marxian economists changed and extended their theory to account for the many changes the world has undergone since the mid-1800s?

Much the same question holds for the Marxian critique of mainstream economics. In what ways might Marx’s original critique of classical political economy be relevant to contemporary mainstream—neoclassical and Keynesian—economics?

As will see in the next chapter, Smith and the other classical political economists made five major claims about capitalism, which Marx in his own writings then criticized. They are, in no particular order, the following:

  1. Capitalism produces more wealth, and thus higher levels of economic development.
  2. Capitalism is characterized by stable growth.
  3. Everybody gets what they deserve within capitalism.
  4. Capitalists are heroes.
  5. Capitalism represents the end of history.

We’ve already touched on the first three in previous sections of this chapter, and we will return to them in some detail in the remainder of the book. For example, capitalism produces more wealth but, Marx argues, it only does so on the basis of class exploitation. Capitalism is inherently unstable because of the private appropriation and distribution of the surplus. And, even if commodities are bought and sold at their values, capitalism is based on a fundamental class injustice, whereby the producers of the surplus are excluded from participating in decisions about that surplus.

What about the other two claims? Capitalists are celebrated but only if they accumulate more capital and thus create the conditions for more wealth and more employment. If they don’t, and that is often the case, then there’s nothing heroic about their activities. As for capitalism representing the end of history—the problem is, it still rests on class exploitation, not unlike feudalism, slavery, and other societies in which workers produce, but do not participate in appropriating, the surplus. That still leaves the possibility of creating an economy without that class injustice.

Those, in short, are Marx’s main criticisms of classical political economy.

Contemporary mainstream economists, as is turns out, make all five of those claims. They don’t do so in exactly the same manner as the classicals but they make them nonetheless.

  1. Capitalism produces more wealth, and thus higher levels of economic development—and it’s now measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product and GDP per capita.
  2. Capitalism is characterized by stable growth—and the possibility of crises is not even included in contemporary mainstream models.
  3. Everybody gets what they deserve within capitalism—especially when, in the modern view, all “factors of production” receive their marginal contributions to production.
  4. Capitalists are heroes—to which modern mainstream economists add that everyone is a capitalist, since they have to decide how to rationally utilize their human capital.
  5. Capitalism is fundamentally different from previous ways of organizing economic and social life, such as feudalism and slavery—although in one crucial dimension it’s exactly the same: capitalists are just like feudal lords and slaveowners in appropriating the surplus produced by others.

So, while the language and methods of mainstream economics have changed since Marx’s time, many of Marx’s criticisms do seem to carry over to contemporary mainstream economics.

We will see, in the remainder of the book, just exactly how that works.

This Book

The other eight chapters of this book are designed to flesh out and explore in much more detail the issues raised in previous sections of this chapter.

Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics

The aim of this chapter is to explain how the Marxian critique of political economy has, from the very beginning, been a two-fold critique: a critique of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism, the economic system celebrated by mainstream economists. We will discuss the key differences between Marxian and mainstream approaches to economic analysis, both then and now.

Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy

I do not presume that readers will have any background in Marxian economic and social theory. In this chapter, we discover where Marx’s critique of political economy came from—in British political economy, French socialism, and German philosophy—and how his ideas changed and developed in some of the key texts of the “early” Marxian tradition prior to writing Capital.

Chapter 4, Commodities and Money

In this chapter, I will present the material contained in the first three chapters of volume 1 of Capital, perhaps the most difficult and misinterpreted section of that book. Marx begins with the commodity, proceeds to discuss such topics as use-value, exchange-value, and value, presents the problem of “commodity fetishism,” and then introduces money.

Chapter 5, Surplus-Value and Exploitation

The goal of this chapter is to explain how Marx, starting with the presumption of equal exchange, ends up showing how capitalism is based on surplus-value and class exploitation.

Chapter 6, Distributions of Surplus-Value

According to Marx, once surplus-value is extracted from workers, it is then distributed to others for various uses: the “accumulation of capital,” the salaries of corporate executives, the financial sector, and so on. Herein are the origins of the theory of economic growth and the treatment of the role of instability and crises within capitalist economies, as well as the Marxian understanding of the distribution of income.

Chapter 7, Applications of Marxian Economics

How have Marxist concepts been applied to major trends, debates, and events in recent decades? In this chapter, we examine the ways Marxist thinkers, especially younger scholars and activists, have opened up and applied Marxian economics to the theory of the firm, imperialism and globalization, development in the Global South, the role of finance, systemic racism, gendered hierarchies, and the relationship between capitalist and noncapitalist economies in contemporary societies.

Chapter 8, Debates in and around Marxian Economics

Marxian economic theory has, of course, been discussed and debated from the very beginning—by both Marxian and mainstream economists. In this chapter, I present some of the key criticisms of Marxian economics by mainstream economists, focusing in particular on their rejection of the labor theory of value. I also explain some of the key debates among different schools of thought within the Marxian tradition and present their contributions to contemporary Marxian economics.

Chapter 9, Transitions to and from Capitalism

Much to the surprise of many students, Marx (and his frequent collaborator Engels) never presented a blueprint of socialism or communism, either in Capital or anywhere else. However, Marxian economics is based on a clear understanding that capitalism has both a historical beginning and a possible end. In this concluding chapter, I discuss how Marx and later generations of Marxian economists have analyzed both the transition to capitalism (e.g., from feudalism in Western Europe) and the transition to noncapitalism (in the contemporary world).

Before We Dive In

As I wrote above, this book is not written with a presumption that readers have any kind of background in Marxian economic and social theory. Much the same holds for mainstream economic theory. Perhaps some readers will have learned some Marx or mainstream economics in the course of their studies but, if not, everything they need to understand Marxian economics is presented in this book.

Here are some other issues I’d like readers to keep in mind as you work your way through this book.

As is often the case in theoretical debates, the same words often have different meanings. So, for example, the way Marx defines and uses such concepts as markets, value, labor, capital are quite different from what they mean in mainstream economics. To help you make sense of those differences, I have included a brief glossary of terms at the beginning of the book. You should feel free to turn back to it on a regular basis as you work your way through the remaining chapters. In Part 2 of the book (Chapters 4, 5, and 6), all concepts will be carefully defined, while using as little technical jargon as possible. I have also added a couple of technical appendices for readers who want to follow up on the discussion in the main text.

Since we’re dealing with economics, some technical language and illustrations are indispensable. I have kept them to a minimum but readers should be prepared for some statistical charts, a few equations, and a bit of algebra. I’ll pass on the best piece of advice I received as a student: when something doesn’t make sense immediately, be prepared to work it out with paper and pencil.

The context for Marx’s critique of political economy, written in the middle of the nineteenth century, is unfamiliar to many of us in the twenty-first century. How many of us today have read Hegel, after all? The necessary background will be covered later, in Chapters 2 and 3.

While Marx’s name has long been linked with socialism and communism, readers won’t find any kind of blueprint or detailed plan for either idea in Marx’s writings. Nor does any general—valid for all times and places—economic policy or political program follow from his work. That’s a topic we will return to in Chapter 9.

This book is prepared as a stand-alone introduction to Marxian economics. No other texts are necessary to understand the material in this book. However, I have added references (to specific works and chapters) in the event readers want to use this book as a companion text, as they read Capital and other writings by Marx.

Finally, while the book is aimed at students in economics (both undergraduate and post-graduate), it will also be relevant for and accessible to students in other disciplines—such as sociology, geography, history, and cultural studies. My fervent hope is it will also be useful to interested individuals who are not currently college and university students, because a clear and concise introduction to Marxian economics is relevant to their work and lives.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous three posts (here, here, and here), is written to serve as the basis for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

Why study Marxian economics?

One of the best reasons for studying Marxian economics is to understand all those criticisms—the criticisms of mainstream economic theory and the criticisms of capitalism.

Students of economics (and, really, all citizens in the world today) need to have an understanding of where those criticisms came from and what implications they have.

Marx certainly took those criticisms seriously. As he carried out his in-depth study of both the mainstream economic theory and of the capitalist system of his day, his work was influenced by the criticisms that had been developed before he even turned his attention to economics. And then, in turn, Marx’s critique of political economy has influenced generations of economists, students, and activists. While certainly not the only critical theory that can be found within the discipline of economics, Marxian economics has served as a touchstone for many of those theories, not to mention public debates about both economics and capitalism around the world.

Understanding both the broad outlines and the specific steps of Marxian economics is therefore crucial to making sense of all those debates.

Consider a contemporary example. On 26 February 2019, Alexandiria Ocasio-Cortez responded to Ivanka Trump’s attack on her idea of a living wage by explaining that “A living wage isn’t a gift, it’s a right. Workers are often paid far less than the value they create.”

While there’s no evidence that Ocasio-Cortez ever studied Marxian economics (or, for that matter, considers herself a Marxist), certainly the idea that within capitalism workers are often paid less than the value they produce resonates with Marxian criticisms of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism.

Mainstream economists, as any student of contemporary mainstream microeconomics is aware, generally presume that workers’ wages are equal to their marginal contributions to production. The same is true of capitalists’ profits and landlords’ rents. Everyone within a market system, mainstream economists argue (after a great deal of theoretical work, involving lots of equations and graphs), gets what they deserve. Therefore, since capitalism delivers “just deserts,” it should be considered fair.

Not so quick, says Ocasio-Cortez, just like Marx decades before her. If workers are paid less than the value they create, then they are “exploited”—that is, they produce a surplus that goes not to them, but to their employers. And while Marxian economists argue a living wage wouldn’t by itself eliminate that exploitation, it would certainly lessen it and improve workers’ standard of living.

Much the same holds for alternatives to capitalism. They often take their name from some version of socialism (and sometimes communism). That’s why Ocasio-Cortez calls herself a “democratic socialist.” It’s also why so many people these days, especially young people, have positive views of socialism—even more so than capitalism. That represents a big break both from mainstream economists and from their parents and grandparents.

Moreover, many ideas and policies that were once labeled (and then quickly dismissed) as “Marxist” or “socialist” are now accepted parts of the contemporary economic and social landscape. Progressive income taxes, a social security system for retirees, public healthcare and health insurance, minimum wages, labor unions for workers in private industry and public services—all were at one time derided, and now they form part of the common sense of how we think about economic and social policy. Much the same kind of change may now be taking place—for example, with the Green New Deal and the links between contemporary capitalism and the history of slavery.

Marxian Economics Today

So, it’s a fascinating time to be studying Marxian economics. It’s a way of learning some of the main criticisms of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism, now as in the past. It also serves to lift the taboos and learn that there are in fact alternatives to how economics is often taught and used to celebrate the status quo and deny the possibility of other ways of organizing economic and social life.

In the most general sense, studying Marxian economics is a path to learn what it means to be an intellectual. Within modernity, intellectuals are necessarily critical thinkers. Whether professors in colleges and universities or people who work in research units of enterprises or government offices, or really anyone who has to think and make decisions on or off the job, as intellectuals, they have to follow ideas wherever they might go. That means not being afraid of the conclusions they reach or of conflict with the powers that be.

That tradition of critical thinking is in fact what animated the work of Marx (along with Engels). He didn’t have a predetermined path. Instead, he worked his way through existing economic theory, carefully and critically engaging the process whereby mainstream economists produced their extreme conclusions. He then started from the same general premises they did—in a sense, offering mainstream economists their strongest possible case—and showed how it was simply impossible for capitalism to fulfill its stated promises.

For example, capitalism holds up “just deserts” as an ideal—everybody gets what they deserve—but it actually means that most people are forced to surrender the surplus they create to their employers, who are allowed to either keep it (and do with it what they want) or distribute it to still others (the tiny group at the top that manages the way those enterprises operate). Capitalism also pledges stable growth and full employment but then, precisely because of that private control over the surplus, regularly delivers boom-and-bust cycles and throws millions out of work.

So, Marx, following his critical procedure, arrived at quite different conclusions—conclusions that were at odds both with those of mainstream economics and of capitalism itself. And then he kept going—with more reading and more thinking and more political activity. He established some initial ideas, threads that were then picked up and extended by other Marxian economists, right on down to the present.

The implication, of course, is Marx didn’t provide a settled theory, to be simplistically or dogmatically applied, but instead a tradition of critical thinking and action.

And, as we will see over the course of this book, the effects of his work have been felt not just in economics, but in many other academic disciplines, from sociology and anthropology through political science and cultural studies to philosophy and biology. In fact, one of the most famous and influential historians of the nineteenth century, whose books are read by thousands of college and university students around the world every year, is the British Marxist Eric Hobsbawm.

Year 3 of the Trump presidency was absolutely terrific—indeed, record-breaking—for Americans.

At least that’s how things look in terms of the headline numbers from the Census Bureau: median household income was up (by 6.8 percent, a record) over 2018 and the official poverty rate decreased (by 1.3 percentage points, to 10.5 percent, the lowest rate observed since estimates were initially published for 1959).*

And then there’s Kevin Hassett, former chair of Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisers (who returned to the White House to lead its pandemic-response team, downplaying the danger of coronavirus and pushing the administration to re-open the economy amid lockdowns and social distancing) who seized on the report to make another of his wild claims:

If you’re a social justice warrior and you’re looking at the data, you would have to say that the Trump years, through the beginning of the pandemic, were the sort-of best years for advances in social justice since World War II.

The problem is that other data in the same report show nothing of the sort.

The distribution of income in the United States was just as grotesquely unequal in 2019 as it was in 2018 (and in every year both before and now during the Trump presidency). The highest quintile of American households captured 51.9 percent of income in the United States (it was 52 percent in 2018), the fourth quintile 22.7 percent (compared to 22.6 percent the previous year), and so on down the line. The lowest quintile got 3.1 percent, exactly the same as in 2018.

So no, no “social justice warrior” would be able to say the Trump years were the “best years for advances in social justice since World War II.”

In fact, quite the opposite. The economic policies of the Trump administration are both the product of and serving to reinforce the fundamental inequalities that have characterized the United States for decades now.

They’re also the reason why the novel coronavirus pandemic has hit the United States so savagely and unevenly. As I argued back in May, and Nick Hanauer and David M. Rolf recently concurred in Time,

Like many of the virus’s hardest hit victims, the United States went into the COVID-19 pandemic wracked by preexisting conditions. A fraying public health infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies, an employer-based health insurance system perversely unsuited to the moment—these and other afflictions are surely contributing to the death toll. But in addressing the causes and consequences of this pandemic—and its cruelly uneven impact—the elephant in the room is extreme income inequality.

The basis of their claim about inequality in the United States is a new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards [ht: mfa] of the RAND Corporation, “Trends in Income From 1975 to 2018.”

While their general claim is pretty familiar (the pattern of capitalist growth in the United States during the two or three decades after World War II lowered the degree of inequality but, beginning in the mid-1970s, the trend was reversed and inequality rose during every decade), their analysis of the new pattern of capitalist growth reveals just how obscene it has been.

Consider the following conclusions from their study:

  • On average, extreme inequality is costing the median income full-time worker about $42,000 a year. Half of all full-time workers now earn less than half what they would have had incomes across the distribution continued to keep pace with economic growth.
  • The median male worker needed 30 weeks of income in 1985 to pay for housing, healthcare, transportation, and education for his family. By 2018, that “Cost of Thriving Index” had increased to 53 weeks (more weeks than in an actual year).
  • Two-income families are now working twice the hours to maintain a shrinking share of the pie, while struggling to pay housing, healthcare, education, childcare, and transportation costs that have grown at two to three times the rate of inflation.

Basically, according to Price and Edwards’s calculations, the income growth for most groups of Americans—thus, the bottom 25 percent, the median, the bottom 90 percent, and so on—was less than the rate of growth of real per capita Gross Domestic Product. Only the incomes of those in the top 5 percent grew at a faster rate. Thus, for example, the aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile after 1975 would have been 67 percent higher in 2018 had income growth followed the pattern of the first two post-War decades.

The cumulative result over the past 45 years is that the members of the bottom 90 percent lost almost $50 trillion ($47 trillion or $48.6, depending on the price deflator used), which was seized by those at the top, especially the richest 1 percent of Americans.**

That pattern of unequal growth, which was inherited by the Trump administration, has simply not changed in the last three and a half years, no matter what Trump, Haslett, or the other “hacks and grifters” in the White House say.

Moreover, the monstrous inequalities that existed at the end of 2019 have shaped in profound ways both the effects of the spread of the coronavirus across the country and the early stages of the recovery from the Pandemic Depression. American economic economic and political elites have demanded and been able to implement policies that have only served to reinforce the unequalizing pattern of economic growth, which left most Americans vulnerable to the pandemic and to the resulting economic downturn.

The unequal pattern of capitalist growth in the United States documented in the new RAND report is exactly the opposite of what social justice warriors have been fighting for. Everyone, except the tiny group at the top, have been the ultimate losers.

———

*But there is a caveat on the median household income figures: the bureau’s main household survey for the report on Income and Poverty in the United States: 2019 was conducted in March and April of this year, as the pandemic was surging. That lowered the response rate, especially among low-income Americans. Still, the bureau estimates that median income in 2019 was about 4.1 percent higher than in 2018.

**The missing piece in the story told by Price and Edwards has to do with the mechanism of the massive transfer from the bottom 90 percent to those at the top. I have tried to fill in that missing piece, most recently in 2019 (e.g., here and here).