Posts Tagged ‘critique’

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The argument I’ve been making during this series on utopia is that the utopian moment of the Marxian alternative to mainstream economics is critique.*

Let me explain. All modern economic theories have a utopian moment. In the case of mainstream economics, that moment is a full-blown utopianism—the idea that there is, or at least in principle can be, a perfectly functioning economic and social order. Such an order is both envisioned as a model within the theory (often by stipulating the minimum set of theoretical requirements) and advanced as the goal of economic policies (which move the economy to, or at least toward, the utopia). In this sense, utopia—of sovereign individuals, free markets, and private property—is the fundamental premise and promise of mainstream economic theory.

The Marxian approach is otherwise. Certainly Marxian economists (and social thinkers generally) imagine that the world can and should be radically different from what currently exists. They simply wouldn’t engage in their intellectual and political work if that weren’t the case. But, instead of drawing up a blueprint of what such an alternative might look like, Marxists are engaged in a “ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” It is a ruthless criticism of both mainstream economic theory and of the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists.

This is an argument I’ve made many times, in different ways, over the course of my various talks (e.g, here), papers (e.g., here and here), and posts on utopia in recent years. Here, I want to take the argument one step further. What distinguishes Marxian theory from both mainstream economics (and, for matter, from other criticisms of mainstream economics) is that is based on a materialist critique. That is its utopian moment.

As I see it, the method of materialist critique is both dialectical and historical.** It is dialectical to the extent that it involves the interpretation of economic categories—such as value, productivity, profit and much else—precisely as they are grounded in, deployed and disseminated within, the existing intellectual and social order. It takes those concepts as its own. But it doesn’t simply accept the existing interpretations of those categories but, instead, transforms them into their opposites. In other words, the critical acceptance of those categories is simultaneously their condemnation.

Let me offer a concrete example of what I have in mind. Both mainstream economic theory and capitalism operate on the basis of a notion of free and fair exchange. Each transaction is seen to be a voluntary exchange of goods and services between individuals who offer or receive a sum equal to the value of the commodity in question. A materialist critique starts from that category, not because every transaction holds to the rule of free and fair exchange in the real world (there are many exceptions to that rule, such as monopoly power, which even mainstream economists and defenders of capitalism will acknowledge), but because it is the stated premise of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism (it is their shared utopianism, in the sense I discuss above). Even presuming we’re referring to a system in which every exchange is free and fair, it is possible to show that a tiny minority at the top (the members of the boards of directors of corporations) is engaged in a social theft from workers (who perform but do not appropriate their surplus labor), with all the attendant conditions and consequences of a system based on class exploitation. Therefore, a materialist critique, which starts from the prevailing idea of free and fair exchange, arrives at the opposite conclusion—that capitalist exchange forms part of an economic and social system that is anything but free and fair.***

The method of materialist critique also has an important historical dimension. It focuses on the ways both economic ideas and economic systems change over time, often with radical disruptions between them. Thus, for example, the theories used by economists today (and not only, if we allow for everyday economic representations) are radically different from themselves (in the sense that the terrain of economics is defined by multiple, diverse and incommensurable, concepts and methods) and from theories that have existed in the past (beginning with classical political economy and including the theoretical revolutions within mainstream economics as well as their heterodox counterparts). Similarly, capitalism has changed over time—both within its own history (capitalism today is different from what it was in the middle of the nineteenth century) and as it represents a break from other, noncapitalist systems (such as feudalism, slavery, and so on). A materialist critique focuses on such disruptions and divergences over time, thereby creating the possibility of other radical changes, such as an end to capitalism and the emergence of new, noncapitalist ways of organizing economic and social life.

The most famous example in the Marxian tradition is the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Notwithstanding the wide-ranging debate about the causes and consequences of that transition (among such figures as Maurice Dobb, Paul Sweezy, Robert Brenner, and Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff), the fact is capitalism had a definite beginning as it emerged from the crises of feudalism in Western Europe (and therefore didn’t always exist, as mainstream economists often presume and proclaim), which also makes it possible to imagine an end to capitalism (based, of course, on the accumulation and aggregation of political and social forces that are opposed to capitalism and imagine and seek to create the conditions for noncapitalist economic and social institutions). Much the same is true in economic thought: mainstream economics today (neoclassical microeconomics and Keynesian macroeconomics) represents a radical break from previous mainstream economic theories (such as the classical political economy of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), as well as the various alternatives to mainstream economics that have emerged alongside it from the very beginning (which are often overlooked in “official,” mainstream histories of economic thought). A materialist critique therefore highlights the absence of history—the history of ideas as well as the history of economic systems—within mainstream economics and capitalism itself.

In the way I am defining materialist critique, it does not represent a simple opposition to contemporary thought and society. On the contrary, it is grounded in them, using their categories as starting points with the aim of substantially and radically transforming them.

If materialist critique represents the utopian moment of Marxian theory, it stands opposed to the specialized knowledge of mainstream economics (and, by extension, of the rest of the modern social sciences) as well as to traditional interpretations of Marxian theory. It differs from contemporary mainstream economics in that it seeks to transform—both dialectically and historically—the existing set of categories instead of accepting them as the given parameters of economic and social life. It of course uses those knowledges as raw materials but only for the purpose of turning them into their opposites. And it is distinguished from the precepts and protocols of dialectical and historical materialism in that it is rooted in the categories that pertain to mainstream economics and capitalism, in order to do battle on that terrain, not a set of sui generis categories (often governed by a humanist anthropology or rational discourse) to establish a new and different science comparable to mainstream economics.

And to be clear, materialist critique is not the same thing as economism (with which materialism is often conflated). On the contrary. In fact, materialist critique represents a ruthless criticism of economism not because it gives too much importance to the economy, but because it gives it too narrow a scope. Economism takes the economy as a given, transmitting its effects to individuals and to the rest of the social structure—instead of focusing on the problem of the complex, changing relationship between the economy and individual and social lives.

In the end, the goal of a materialist critique is to denaturalize and thus disrupt the existing common sense—within both economic thought and capitalism—with the aim of radically transforming the existing theoretical and social reality. It doesn’t accomplish this alone, of course. Those who are engaged in a materialist critique as well as their specific objects form a dynamic, dialectical unity with the exploited classes as both an expression of the concrete historical situation and a force to stimulate change. Nor are there any guarantees, from either side of the relationship or in the often-tense unity itself.

Notwithstanding its aleatory nature, the process of materialist critique starts with the categories that dominate economic thought and the economy itself in order to transform them into their opposites, thus creating new intellectual and political possibilities. The new openings created by materialist critique represent the utopian horizon of Marxian theory.

 

*The series, thus far, consists of posts on the Bitcoin bubble, the right to be lazypopulism, the economics of controlutopian socialisminequalityinternational trade, healthcare (here and here), the disaster in Puerto Ricoepistemologyvalue theorymacroeconomicseconomic developmentmarketstechnology, work, and mathematics.

**Besides Marx’s own writings, an essay that serves as the catalyst for some of my ideas in this post is Max Horkheimer’s “Traditional and Critical Theory” [ht: db], reprinted in his Critical Theory: Selected Essays, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell and others (New York: Continuum, 2002).

***Moreover, such a system is neither free nor fair for both capitalists and workers. Each is subject to the compulsions and coercions embedded in such a system, albeit in a different way.

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Maarten Vanden Eynde, The Invisible Hand (2015)*

We hear it all the time. On a regular basis. Having to do with pretty much everything.

Why is the price of gasoline so high? Mainstream economists respond, “it’s the market.” Or if you think you deserve a pay raise, the answer again is, “go get another offer and we’ll see if you’re worth it according to ‘the market’.”

Alternatively, if you want to solve a particularly pressing problem—such as climate change, widespread unemployment, or Third World poverty—mainstream economists’ usual answer is “let markets handle it.”**

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Markets have a magical, quasi-mystical status within mainstream economics. They are both the original starting-point and far-reaching conclusion of mainstream economic theory. What I mean, first, is markets are there at the very beginning, without any explanation of where they come from or how they are formed—although there may be an occasional nod to Adam Smith (who famously invoked a natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”) or Robinson Crusoe (which presents, on one reading of Daniel Defoe’s novel, the model of two individuals who trade to their mutual benefit under conditions of equality, reciprocity, and freedom).*** Otherwise, markets are just there, with the requisite price and quantity axes and supply and demand schedules, as the starting point for economic analysis. Then, after a great deal of theoretical work (concerning the underlying determinants and the final consequences), markets are declared to be the best solution to the problem of scarcity (in finding a perfect balance between limited means and unlimited desires).

After min. wage

The “proof” of the superiority of markets often occurs in two steps (although today, in the usual sloppy teaching of mainstream economics, the second step is left out). At the level of individual markets, mainstream economists’ argue that economic welfare—consisting of the sum of consumer and producer surplus—is maximized at equilibrium. “Consumer surplus” is the extra benefit enjoyed by consumers in a market who pay less for goods and services than they were willing and able to pay for it (areas A + B + C, in the diagram above). Meanwhile, “producer surplus” is the difference between what producers are willing and able to supply a good for and the price they actually receive (areas E + D). At the equilibrium, the sum of the two is at its maximum. In contrast, when the market is not at equilibrium (such as when there’s a minimum wage, a wage rate above the market equilibrium wage rate, the green line in the diagram), there’s a “deadweight loss” (consisting of C + D). As far as mainstream economists are concerned, each market in equilibrium (whether for oranges or labor) creates the most total welfare for market participants.

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What about the market system as a whole? Here, the argument is somewhat different. It’s a theory about efficiency, not welfare.**** Mainstream economists claim that, when taken together (in what is referred to as general equilibrium), markets can generate a set of prices that finds a point—for example, A, B, or C, in the diagram above—on the “production possibilities frontier.”***** That’s the maximum amount an economy, given its technology and resources, can produce. Any point inside the frontier (such as D) represents an inefficient allocation of resources (more can be produced of either or both goods without the kind of tradeoff that occurs on the frontier). Importantly, Pareto efficiency means that no one can be made better off without making someone worse off.

That’s the remarkable, counter-intuitive conclusion of the mainstream theory of markets: everyone—every individual and society as a whole—benefits in a world in which all households and firms make decisions based solely on their own self-interest.

Thus, mainstream economists’ celebrations of the market and market solutions for all economic and social problems rely on both the presumption of markets as the given starting-point of analysis and their sweeping conclusions, concerning individual markets and the market system as a whole.

It is, of course, easy to criticize one or another of the assumptions underlying the celebration of free markets, many of them formulated by mainstream economists themselves. For example, markets may have “negative externalities,” that is, social costs that are greater than private costs (pollution is a common example). Under such conditions, more of a good or service will be produced than is socially beneficial. Monopoly power also distorts markets, since with market power firms will produce less, at a higher price, than if they operated according to the model of perfect competition (and, as mainstream economists are now discovering, it’s likely they will pay lower wages).****** Imperfect and asymmetric information, too, will lead to inefficient market outcomes—such as, for example, when conflicts of interest arise between a principal and an agent in a firm or banks are able to sell more financial products (such as derivatives) if they can conceal the true level of risk.

Thus, we can understand the two poles of debate within mainstream economics. Economists within the conservative or libertarian free-market wing celebrate free markets and criticize any and all forms of government intervention, while those in the more liberal wing focus on market imperfections and call for more government regulation of markets. Once again, it’s the invisible hand versus the invisible hand.

But underlying and informing the debate between the two wings of mainstream economics is a shared utopianism of markets as the best, natural and most efficient way of allocating goods and services—including labor, money, and natural resources. They may and often do disagree about the necessity and effectiveness of freeing-up or regulating markets, which comes down to whether or not they “see” exceptions to the basic model of perfect markets. But they share a belief that the logic of decentralized private markets is the appropriate way of thinking about and organizing the “world of goods.” In other words, mainstream economists debate, often intensely and with no small degree of sneering and sarcasm, the best way of getting markets to operate correctly—but that’s only because they utilize the same basic theory according to which a properly functioning market system is the only appropriate foundation and goal for theory and policy. Market fundamentalism thus represents the utopian horizon of mainstream economics.

The critique of market fundamentalism starts where mainstream economics leaves off—with the idea that the world of goods can and should be organized by markets.*******It highlights the hidden ground of the mainstream theory of markets and calls into question the very possibility of market exchange. The result is a different utopian horizon, which both refuses the self-suturing conception of market value and opens up the realm of possibility for other ways of organizing economic and social life.

When mainstream economists blithely draw the diagram or write down the equations for a market, what they’re doing is presuming—while failing to mention, let alone discuss—a whole host of conditions. Callari focuses on mainstream economists’ “image of the economy as a world of goods, and of the world of goods as a homogeneous field.” Such an image serves as the foundation for the positing of calculable “interests,” which thus become the central code of the economy and society. Within the homogeneous field of goods, every action can be connected with every other action in a measured (that is, analytically calculable) way. Once all the appropriate calculations are completed, “the market”—both individual markets and the market system as a whole—finds its equilibrium, the self-suturing reconciliation of all the competing interests. It also closes off the field of goods to any inspiration or influence other than self-interested rationality—be they traditions, social obligations, or ethical commitments.

Taking up on and extending that point, Amariglio argues that many of the features of non-market transactions involving goods and services (such as the gift) also haunt market exchanges.

There is nothing at all “certain” about any act of exchange, and nothing in it less symbolic or less “about” power, responsibility, meaning, and so forth. Likewise, there is something fundamentally “constituted” and “constituting” about identities and subjectivities in every act of exchange. Leaving aside the question of the multiplicity within selves who enter into trades, the fact remains that exchange is a very overloaded activity, and trading partners not only may be of several different minds about the transaction, but are often uncertain as to what exactly such transactions “mean” in terms of their own or others’ wealth and property, the effects on their well-being, who or what subject positions they occupy, what exactly is being traded, and so forth.

Market exchanges are therefore crosscut—just like any other allocative transaction, be it the gift, planning, or plunder—with a whole host of perturbations and undecidables. Both markets and the interests they are said to represent rely on “external” (historical and social) conditions and are, in different times and spaces, characterized by considerable uncertainty and indeterminacy. And once we begin to investigate those conditions, once we begin to analyze the “openness” of markets, we are forced to confront the ability of any act of exchange—and, for that matter, any economic discourse about markets—to successfully suture itself, at least in any kind of “permanent” act of closure.

The impossibility of market exchange, in general, suggests the need to recognize and attend to the historical and social specificity of individual markets—without any overarching, general theory of price or exchange-value. It also opens the door both to other commitments, whether ethical or political, and to other means of transacting goods and services, as they imply different conditions and consequences for society, for the social relations among persons, things, and nature.

Imagining and enacting those possibilities represent the utopian horizon of the critique of markets and mainstream economists’ theory of the market system.

 

*The Invisible Hand is a rubber copy of the right hand of Leopold II, taken at night from the 1926 sculpture by Thomas Vinçotte, located at the Regentlaan in Brussels, Belgium. The mould was taken to a former rubber plantation in Kasai-Occidental in the Democratic Republic of Congo and filled with natural rubber. The rubber hand was presented at Art Brussels 2015. It refers both to Adam Smith’s theory (as elaborated in the Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations) and to Leopold II’s use of the International African Association (1877-79) and later the Congo Free State (1885-1908) to pillage the available natural resources. The grotesque result is that, by doing so, he “unwittingly” instigated local economic growth but at a high price: more than 10 million people are estimated to have died as a consequence of Leopold’s “Invisible Hand.” The Invisible Hand also points to the custom of chopping off the hands of enslaved people to ensure the rubber quota. To paraphrase Marx, markets come “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

**With one notable exception: healthcare.

***The Robinson Crusoe story has been read in a radically different vein by many heterodox economists, including Stephen Hymer and Ulla Grapard.

****Mostly because of Kenneth Arrow’s “Impossibility Theorem,” which challenged the idea that there’s a procedure for deriving a collective or “social” ordering—a Social Welfare Function—based on individual preferences.

*****While mainstream economists can claim to have solved the problem of “existence” (i.e., that there is such a set of prices consistent with overall efficiency), much to their consternation they have not been able to prove either “stability” (that prices, if away from the equilibrium set will move toward the equilibrium) or “uniqueness” (in other words, there may be many such sets of prices).

******That’s why, as I teach my students, there is such a thing as a free lunch: just abolish monopolies and oligopolies, and the economy can increase production (technically, the economy can move from inside to the production possibilities frontier without any additional resources or new technology, just by eliminating imperfect competition).

*******The critique I present here is inspired by two key essays—Antonio Callari’s “The Ghost of the Gift: The Unlikelihood of Economics” and Jack Amariglio’s “Give the Ghost a Chance! A Comrade’s Shadowy Addendum—both published in The Question of the Gift: Essays Across the Disciplines, edited by Mark Osteen. It is also informed by research that appeared in Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics, by Amariglio and myself.

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From the beginning, mainstream macroeconomics has been a battleground between the visible and the invisible hand.

Keynesian macroeconomics, represented on the left-hand side of the chart above, has an aggregate supply curve with a long horizontal section at levels of output (Y or real GDP) below full employment (Yfe). What this means is that the aggregate demand determines the actual level of output, which can be and often is at less than full employment (e.g., when AD falls from AD1 to AD2, output to Y1, and prices to P2), with no necessary tendency to return to full employment and price stability. Therefore, according to Keynesian economists, the visible hand of government needs to step in and, through a combination of fiscal and monetary policy, move the economy toward full employment (at Yfe) and stable prices (at P1).

Neoclassical macroeconomists, like their classical predecessors, have a very different view of the macroeconomy, which is represented on the right-hand side of the chart. They start with a vertical aggregate supply curve at a level of output corresponding to full employment. Therefore, according to their theory—often referred to as Say’s Law or “supply creates its own demand”—aggregate demand does not determine the level of output; instead, it determines only the price level. Thus, for example, if aggregate demand falls (e.g., from AD1 to AD2), output does not change (it remains at Yfe)—only the price level falls (from P1 to P2). On the neoclassical view, the invisible hand of the market maintains full employment (through the labor market) and reverses price deflation (through the so-called real-balance effect) by boosting aggregate demand (back to AD1 from AD2).

Anyone who has read or heard the intense debates concerning capitalism’s recurrent crises, recently and going back to the 1930s, knows that there are significant theoretical and policy differences between Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists. For example, Keynesians focus on uncertainty (especially the uncertain knowledge of investors) and the important role of government (especially fiscal) policy, while neoclassicals emphasize the supply side (especially the role of correct “factor prices,” particularly wages) and the necessity of getting government out of the way of markets (relying, instead, on rules-driven monetary policy).*

But there are equally significant similarities between the two approaches. For example, both Keynesian and neoclassical economists tend to blame economic downturns on exogenous events. There is nothing in either theory that recognizes capitalism’s inherent instability. Instead, mainstream macroeconomists of both stripes direct their attention to equilibrium outcomes—of less-than-full employment in the case of Keynesians, of full employment for neoclassicals—such that only something outside the model can shift the underlying variables and cause the economy to move away from equilibrium. That’s why neither group was able to foresee the crash of 2007-08, let alone the other eighteen recessions and depressions that have haunted capitalism during the past century. Their theories literally don’t include the possibility, endogenously created, of capitalism’s ongoing crises.

There’s another, perhaps even more important, similarity I want to draw attention to here: their shared utopianism. The premise and promise of both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomics is that, with the appropriate institutions and policies, capitalism can be characterized by and should be celebrated for achieving full employment and price stability. Those are the shared goals of the two theories. And their criteria of success. Thus, each group of macroeconomists is able to claim a position of expertise when the actual performance of the economy achieves, or at least moves closer and closer to, a utopia characterized by levels of output and a price level that corresponds to full employment and price stability.

It is precisely in this sense that the economic utopianism of mainstream macroeconomics conditions and is conditioned by an epistemological utopianism. Because they know how the macroeconomy works—because of their theoretical and modeling certainty—both Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists claim for themselves the mantle of scientific superiority. These are the lords of macroeconomic policy, domestically and internationally, moving back and forth among their positions as academics, corporate advisers, and policy experts. Hence the persistent claim on both sides that, if only the politicians and policymakers listened to them and adopted the correct economic policies, everything would be fine. Not to mention the ongoing complaints, again on the part of both groups of mainstream macroeconomists, that their advice has been ignored.

That, of course, is where the critique of mainstream macroeconomics begins—with a radically different utopian horizon. When the explanations and policies of either side are said to have failed, there’s a shift to the opposing viewpoint. Thus, for example, neoclassical macroeconomics held sway (in the United States and elsewhere) in the run-up to the crash of 2007-08—just as it had in the years preceding the first Great Depression. Leading macroeconomists and their students had moved away from and largely ignored anything that had to do with Keynesian macroeconomics (including, most notably, Hyman Minsky’s writings on financial instability). Then, of course, the tables were turned and at least some mainstream macroeconomists went back and discovered (many for the first time) the theories and policies associated with the Keynesian tradition.

It’s a familiar back-and-forth pendulum swing that we’ve seen in many other countries, in other times. From neoclassical free markets and deregulation to government stimulus and one or another form of reregulation—and back again. But we also need to recognize that the failures of mainstream macroeconomics, when examined from an alternative perspective, have actually succeeded. As I wrote back in 2010, the failure of neoclassical macroeconomists were apparent to many: they

failed to see the onset of the current crises; they have had little to offer in terms of understanding how the crises occurred even after the fact; and they certainly haven’t had much in the way of good policy advice to solve the problems of unemployment, poverty, and inequality. . .

On another level, mainstream economists have succeeded. Not only have they maintained their hegemony within the discipline; their models and policy advice have kept the discussion confined to tinkering with the existing set of capitalist institutions. In terms of policy: a bail-out of Wall Street and a mild set of financial reforms, a small stimulus program, and an expansionary monetary policy. And intellectually: a rediscovery of Keynes and an allowance of behavioral approaches to finance. They haven’t proposed even the public works programs and financial reorganization of the New Deal, let alone an honest debate about capitalism itself.

In this sense, the continued failure of mainstream economists has become a success for capitalism.

That’s why we need to question the shared utopianism of the two sides of mainstream macroeconomics. What has gone missing from much of the current debate, even outside the mainstream, is that full employment and price stability are consistent with the worst abuses of contemporary capitalism. As David Leonhardt recently explained,

The headlines may talk about growth, but we are living in a dark economic era. For most families, income and wealth have stagnated in recent decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. Nearly all the bounty of the economy’s growth has flowed to the affluent.

And if you somehow doubt the economic data, it’s worth looking at the many other alarming signs. “Deaths of despair” have surged. For Americans without a bachelor’s degree, one social indicator after another — obesity, family structure, life expectancy — has deteriorated.

There has been no period since the Great Depression with this sort of stagnation. It is the defining problem of our age, the one that aggravates every other problem. It has made people anxious and angry. It has served as kindling for bigotry. It is undermining America’s vaunted optimism.

In fact, an even stronger argument can be made: the various attempts to move the economy toward full employment and price stability have created the conditions whereby capitalism has both broadened and deepened its presence and made the lives of the vast majority of people even more unstable and insecure.

The utopianism of mainstream macroeconomics represents a dystopia for “most families” attempting to survive within contemporary capitalism.

What’s left then is a critique of the assumptions and consequences of mainstream macroeconomics—of both neoclassical and Keynesian economic theories. The goal is not just to tinker with the theories (e.g., by bringing finance into the discussion) or the policies (such as technocratic changes to the tax code and raising the level of productivity). Recognizing how narrow the existing discourse has become means we need to question the entire edifice of mainstream macroeconomics, including its utopian promise of full employment and price stability.

Only then can we begin to recognize how bad things have gotten under both the successes and failures of mainstream macroeconomics and to imagine and invent a radically different set of economic institutions.

That’s the only utopian horizon currently worth pursuing.

 

*Throughout I refer to two groups of Keynesian and neoclassical macroeconomists. But, of course, both theories have changed over time. Today, the two opposing sides of mainstream macroeconomics are constituted by new Keynesian and new classical theories, with increased attention to the “microfoundations” of macroeconomics. The former emphasizes market imperfections (such as price stickiness and imperfect competition), while the latter dismisses the relevance of market imperfections (and emphasizes, instead, flexible prices and rational expectations). And then, of course, there’s the ever-shifting middle ground, which is the basis of a macroeconomics according to which new Keynesian and new classical are both valid, at different points in the business cycle. Like the earlier neoclassical synthesis, the middle ground of “new consensus macroeconomics” is the approach presented to most students of economics.

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NEWSWEEK FEB. 16 COVER

Just nine years ago, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, Newsweek declared that “we are all socialists now.”

Now, it’s true, editor-in-chief Jon Meacham demonstrated little understanding of the term socialism, identifying it simply with more government spending and regulation in a capitalist economy—something akin to “a modern European state.”

This is not to say that berets will be all the rage this spring, or that Obama has promised a croissant in every toaster oven. But the simple fact of the matter is that the political conversation, which shifts from time to time, has shifted anew, and for the foreseeable future Americans will be more engaged with questions about how to manage a mixed economy than about whether we should have one.

And that may be what millions of Americans—especially young Americans—think of when they express a favorable image of socialism. But I suspect there’s something more to it, and that their interest in socialism also includes a desire for less inequality and more fairness in economic and social outcomes and support for proposals that others (including probably Meacham himself) consider utopian: universal healthcare, free public higher education, large increases in workers’ wages, a guaranteed basic income for all, and so on.

But that still leaves us a large step removed from—and frankly far behind—the trenchant criticisms and ambitious projects of the utopian socialists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteen centuries. I’m thinking of such figures as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. They sought both to radically remake people’s understanding of how human beings and social relations operate and to transform society itself by designing new economic and social institutions, all in an attempt to improve the condition of the working-classes of the time. They criticized everything, from private property and the structure of the family to the role of money and the degradation of workers being forced to submit to their employers and then sought to correct those problems—not just by promoting more government involvement, but by imagining and implementing radically different ways of organizing economic and social life.

There is a great deal to admire, then, in the ambitious theoretical and practical work of that first generation of utopian socialists. And yet today, utopian is a label that is invoked to dismiss any and all suggestions that things could be radically different—that socialism, however defined (beyond, of course, Meacham’s restrictive conception), is simply a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, people continue to hold to the idea that Marx and Engels, still the most important source for contemporary socialist thinking, likewise dismissed the ideas of the utopian socialists as unattainable or fanciful hopes or schemes. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

The main source of that view is, of course, the Communist Manifesto—specifically, chapter 3 on “socialist and communist literature.” There, Marx and Engels do in fact refer to “castles in the air” and the “fanatical and superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.” But they’re only talking about the disciples of the utopian socialists, those who in the middle of the nineteenth century continued to “hold fast by the original views of their masters,” because from the perspective of Marx and Engels they attempted “to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms.”

But the authors of the Manifesto held a much more positive view of the writings of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen. Marx and Engels credited them with attacking “every principle of existing society.”

Hence, they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.

They used the utopian label to refer to the practical measures proposed by the early socialists—”such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the function of the state into a more superintendence of production”—that did not lead to “political action on the part of the working-class,” which by the mid-nineteenth century was beginning to take place.

The voluminous writings of Marx and especially Engels include many other discussions of the utopian socialists, many of them much more flattering than in the polemical Manifesto.

For example, Engels, of scientific socialism renown, wrote a series of articles on the development of radical social movements on the continent, between 1842 and 1844 in, of all places, Robert Owen’s periodical The New Moral World. They include this paragraph on Fourier:

Nearly at the same time with Saint-Simon, another man directed the activity of his mighty intellect to the social state of mankind — Fourier. Although Fourier’s writings do not display those bright sparks of genius which we find in Saint-Simon’s and some of his disciples; although his style is hard, and shows, to a considerable extent, the toil with which the author is always labouring to bring out his ideas, and to speak out things for which no words are provided in the French language — nevertheless, we read his works with greater pleasure; and find more real value in them, than in those of the preceding school. . .It was Fourier, who, for the first time, established the great axiom of social philosophy, that every individual having an inclination or predilection for some particular kind of work, the sum of all these inclinations of all individuals must be, upon the whole, an adequate power for providing for the wants of all. From this principle, it follows, that if every individual is left to his own inclination, to do and to leave what he pleases, the wants of all will be provided for, without the forcible means used by the present system of society.

We also need to take into account a much later text, the three chapters of Engels’s 1878 Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, which were published two years later as the famous pamphlet, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.”

There, Engels explains the appearance of utopian socialism in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by the disappointment with the social and political institutions created by the “triumph of reason” of the French Revolution.

All that was wanting was the men to formulate this disappointment, and they came with the turn of the century. In 1802, Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared; in 1808 appeared Fourier’s first work, although the groundwork of his theory dated from 1799; on January 1, 1800, Robert Owen undertook the direction of New Lanark.

What follows is what can only be considered effusive praise for the ideals and ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier, and especially Owen. Here he expresses his admiration at some length for Owen:

At this juncture, there came forward as a reformer a manufacturer 29-years-old – a man of almost sublime, childlike simplicity of character, and at the same time one of the few born leaders of men. Robert Owen had adopted the teaching of the materialistic philosophers: that man’s character is the product, on the one hand, of heredity; on the other, of the environment of the individual during his lifetime, and especially during his period of development. In the industrial revolution most of his class saw only chaos and confusion, and the opportunity of fishing in these troubled waters and making large fortunes quickly. He saw in it the opportunity of putting into practice his favorite theory, and so of bringing order out of chaos. . .Whilst his competitors worked their people 13 or 14 hours a day, in New Lanark the working-day was only 10 and a half hours. When a crisis in cotton stopped work for four months, his workers received their full wages all the time. . .

In spite of all this, Owen was not content. The existence which he secured for his workers was, in his eyes, still far from being worthy of human beings. “The people were slaves at my mercy.” The relatively favorable conditions in which he had placed them were still far from allowing a rational development of the character and of the intellect in all directions, much less of the free exercise of all their faculties. . .

His advance in the direction of Communism was the turning-point in Owen’s life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. . .But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage.

He knew what confronted him if he attacked these – outlawry, excommunication from official society, the loss of his whole social position. But nothing of this prevented him from attacking them without fear of consequences, and what he had foreseen happened. Banished from official society, with a conspiracy of silence against him in the press, ruined by his unsuccessful Communist experiments in America, in which he sacrificed all his fortune, he turned directly to the working-class and continued working in their midst for 30 years. Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name of Robert Owen.

I could go on. Clearly, Engels admired both Owen and his utopian socialist proposals and projects.

There’s no doubt that Marx and Engels engaged in running battles with other radical (socialist, anarchist, and so on) thinkers of their own time, reserving particular scorn for Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (best exemplified by the Poverty of Philosophy) but, even then, they retain their respect for the utopian socialists, both of which we can see in Marx’s 1866 letter to Ludwig Kugelmann:

Proudhon has done enormous harm. His pseudo-critique and his pseudo-confrontation with the Utopians (he himself is no more than a philistine Utopian, whereas the Utopias of such as Fourier, Owen, etc., contain the presentiment and visionary expression of a new world) seized hold of and corrupted first the ‘jeunesse brillante’ the students, then the workers, especially those in Paris, who as workers in luxury trades are, without realising it, themselves deeply implicated in the garbage of the past.

But we do know, of course, that Marx and Engels did in fact reject “utopian socialism” for their own time, in the middle of the nineteenth century, during the formation and development of the First International. On what basis?

As I see it, their rejection of utopian socialism (and their defense of so-called scientific socialism) rests on two main pillars: the role of the working-class and the project of critique.

There’s no doubt, Marx and Engels envisioned the movement beyond capitalism not in terms of realizing some ideal scheme, no matter how well inspired and worked-out, but as the task of the growing working-class. In other words, the idea was that capitalism produces its own grave-diggers. The growth of capitalism—the widening and deepening of capital—was accompanied by the growth of a class that had both the interest and the means to overturn the rule of capital. A class that could challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to criticize and eventually abolish the wages system itself and lay the basis for a different, noncapitalist way of organizing economic and social life.

Today, as capitalism continues to produce ever more obscene levels of inequality and to leave workers in ever greater depths of despair, we need both to defend utopian thinking—to recover the radical spirit of earlier utopian socialists and their critics—and to take up the challenge of defining what a socialism for our own time will look like.

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I’ll admit, I’m always intrigued by the discussion of utopia, especially in the midst of the current crises of capitalism. Something has to inspire people to engage in a ruthless criticism of the existing order and to imagine that things can be radically different from what they are.

The idea of utopia may be anathema to certain interpretations of Marxism—the more “scientistic” strands that one finds in the Marxian tradition. But for me, the notion of utopia, especially as it is informed by critique, is central to the Marxian intellectual and political project.

That said, I’m averse to various kinds of utopianism—as against a utopian moment or impulse—that characterize a great deal of modern economics. I’m referring, for example, to the utopianism that can be found within neoclassical economics, according to which, in a society based on private property and markets, individual choices can, at least in principle, lead to Pareto efficiency—a situation where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off. That general equilibrium, the perfect balance of limited means and unlimited desires, represents the utopian horizon—in both theory and policy—of neoclassical economics.

You see, the possibility of that perfect balance serves to justify any and all manner of attempts to create the conditions leading to such a utopia. If there are markets, they need to be free of any and all interventions. (Think, for example, of the labor market, which must be shorn of any regulation, such as a minimum wage.) And if there aren’t markets (for example, for financial derivatives), then they need to be created (and kept unregulated) in order to achieve an efficient allocation of resources.

And we know the results of that particular utopianism. Naomi Klein has collected many of the examples—from Pinochet’s Chile to post-Katrina New Orleans—in her Shock Doctrine. And, of course, we’re still living through the devastation of the crash of September 2008. In all those cases, and many more, neoclassical economists and the powers that be outside the discipline of economics have taken as their goal, and sought by whatever means to create the conditions to achieve, the utopia of Pareto efficiency.

Marxism is not such a utopianism. Or better: Marxism as I read it is not based on the kind of utopianism that characterizes neoclassical economics. It does, however, have a utopian moment—a sense that existing forms of capitalism can be and should be criticized and that measures should be taken to move in a radically different, noncapitalist direction.

So, I read with some interest Steven Johnson’s recent discussion of the utopian dimensions of the Bitcoin bubble. His view is that, while Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies “may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism” (they are, as far as I am concerned, which I have explained to my students and many other people), the underlying technology of those currencies—the blockchain—represents the open-protocol ethos of the original internet (before it was hijacked by corporate behemoths like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple).

Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.

Sounds good. The problem with Johnson’s code-based egalitarian promise is that it looks a lot like the utopianism of neoclassical theory. It’s all about “self-sovereign” individual identities and decentralized transactions, exactly the kind of world envisioned by neoclassical economists, from Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Léon Walras through Gérard Debreu, Kenneth Arrow, and Paul Samuelson right on down to Olivier Blanchard, Greg Mankiw, and Richard Thaler. The world they all imagine is populated by individuals who have something to sell: time or goods in the case of neoclassicals, attention according to Johnson. And if property rights are secured and voluntary transactions completed, a free-market utopia can be achieved.

But there are no classes—and therefore no class exploitation or class struggles—in those neoclassical and blockchain worlds. There’s lots of freedom but no freedom from the conditions and consequences of one class exploiting another class. There’s even the utopian promise of equality. But equality among individuals in the world of market exchange and blockchain platforms is perfectly compatible with the extraction of a surplus by one class from another.

Criticizing class exploitation and working to finally eliminate it form the utopian dimensions of the kind of project that interests me.

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We’ve all heard it at one time or another.

Why is the price of gasoline so high? Mainstream economists respond, “it’s the market.” Or if you think you deserve a pay raise, the answer again is, “go get another offer and we’ll see if you’re worth it according to ‘the market’.”

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And then there’s CEO pay, which last year was 271 times the average pay of workers. Ah, it’s what “the market” has determined the appropriate compensation to be.

“The market” explains everything—and, of course nothing.

Chris Dillow argues that invoking “the market” (e.g., to explain the gender disparities in pay for BBC broadcasters) serves to hide from view the role of power.

Talk of the “market” is therefore what Georg Lukacs called reification – the process whereby “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity.’” It obfuscates the fact that wages are set by the power of one person over another. Such obfuscation serves a profoundly ideological function; it effaces the fact that the capitalist economy is based upon power relationships.

Not even neoclassical economists stop with references to the “the market.” That’s just the first step of the explanation. The next step is to analyze “the market” in terms of its ultimate—given or exogenous—factors determining supply and demand. Their story is that “the market” can finally be reduced to and explained by preferences, resource endowments, and technology. In other words, according to neoclassical economists, market prices—whether for gasoline, workers’ pay, and CEO compensation—reflect consumer preferences, households’ endowments, and human know-how, all of which are considered to be prior to and independent of the economy.

That’s the way formal neoclassical economics works. But mainstream economists are also content to let the myth of “the market” persist in the minds of their students and the proverbial person in the street because it protects markets from what they consider to be unwarranted regulation and intervention. “The market” is turned into an abstract entity that merely reflects human nature. And if anyone wants to change the results—to change, for example, the price of gasoline, workers’ wages, or CEO compensation—they face the daunting task of changing human nature.

But there’s another side to the myth of “the market.” It becomes symbolic of an entire system gone awry—and which therefore can be criticized and replaced.

Instead of “the market,” we might refer to individual markets—not just to markets for gasoline, workers’ ability to labor, or CEOs’ skills but to markets for different kinds of gasoline, different groups of workers, or CEOs in different industries. Or, alternatively, we might invoke the different roles producers, consumers, workers, corporate executives, government officials, and so on play in determining market outcomes. All of those individual markets and market participants might then be regulated to produce different outcomes.

But if it’s “the market” that is to blame, then it’s the entire system—not one or another market or market participant—that needs to be radically transformed.

If mainstream economists defend and celebrate “the market,” critics of market outcomes—of which there are many—can then move to a more systemic assessment, to become critics of the economy as a whole.

And once that happens, critics can then imagine and begin to create a different economic system, one that is not governed by “the market.” Such an alternative system might have markets, lots of different kinds of markets. But it would have a different logic, a different way of operating, with very different outcomes.

Such an alternative economy exists on the other side, beyond the myth of “the market.”

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Finally, after years of near-orgiastic celebrations of the internet of things—including, of course, Jeremy Rifkin’s extravagant claim that it would move us beyond capitalism and usher in the “democratization of economic life”—commentators are beginning to question some of its key assumptions and effects. What they have discovered is that the internet of things is, “in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

Nathan Heller, for example, finds that, while the gig economy can make life easier and more financially rewarding for many “creative, affluent professionals,” it often has negative effects on those who do the actual work:

A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.

On top of that, the fact that the so-called sharing economy has become a liberal beacon (including, as Heller makes clear, among many Democratic activists and strategists) has meant the displacing of “commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism” by acts of individual internet-based exchange.

Perhaps even more important (or at least more unexpected and therefore more interesting), Adam Greenfield focuses on the problematic philosophical assumptions embedded in the ideology of the internet of things.

The strongest and most explicit articulation of this ideology in the definition of a smart city has been offered by the house journal of the engineering company Siemens: “Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service … The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”

There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)

As Greenfield explains, “Every aspect of this argument is questionable,” starting with the idea that everything—from users’ habits to energy consumption— is perfectly knowable.

Because that’s the promise of the internet of things (including the gig economy): that what individuals want and do and how the system itself operates can be correctly monitored and measured—and the resulting information utilized to “provide optimum service.” The presumption is there are no inherent biases in the monitoring and measuring, and no need for collective deliberation about how to solve individual and social problems.

The ideology of the internet of things is shorn of everything we’ve learned about both epistemology (that knowledges are constructed, and different standpoints participate in constructing those knowledges differently) and economic and social life (that the different ways the surplus is produced and distributed affect not only the economy but also the larger social order).

It seems the conventional ways of thinking about the internet of things are merely an extension of mainstream economists’ ways of theorizing the world of commodity exchange, allowing a definite social relation to assume the fantastic form of a relation between things.

That’s where metaphysics and theology leave off and the critique of political economy begins.