Posts Tagged ‘critique’

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.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” This, like the previous post, is for chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today.

A Tale of Two Capitalisms

Marxian economists recognize, just like mainstream economists, that capitalism has radically transformed the world in recent decades, continuing and in some cases accelerating long-term trends. For example, the world has seen spectacular growth in the amount and kinds of goods and services available to consumers. Everything, it seems, can be purchased either in retail shops, big-box stores, or online. And, every year, more of those goods and services are being produced and sold in markets.

That means the wealth of nations has expanded. Thus, technically, Gross Domestic Product per capita has risen since 1970 in countries as diverse as the United States (where it has more than doubled), Japan (more than tripled), China (almost ten times), and Botswana (where it has increased by a factor of more than 22).

International trade has also soared during the same period. Goods and services that are produced in once-remote corners of the world find their way to customers in other regions. Both physical commodities— such as smart phones, automobiles, and fruits and vegetables—and services—like banking, insurance, and communications—are being traded on an increasing basis between residents and non-residents of national economies. To put some numbers on it, merchandise trade grew from $318.2 billion dollars in 1970 to $19.48 trillion in 2018. And exports of services have become a larger and larger share of total exports—for the world as a whole (now 23.5 percent, up from 15 percent) and especially for certain countries (such as the United Kingdom, where services account for about 45 percent of all exports, and the Bahamas, where almost all exports are services).

The world’s cities are the hubs of all that commerce and transportation. It should come as no surprise that the urbanization of the global population has also expanded rapidly in recent decades, from about one third to now over half. In 2018, 1.7 billion people—23 per cent of the world’s population— lived in a city with at least 1 million inhabitants. And while only a small minority currently reside in cities with more than 10 million inhabitants, by 2030 a projected 752 million people will live in so-called megacities, many of them located in the Global South.

We’re all aware that, during recent decades, many new technologies have been invented—in producing goods and services as all well as in consuming them. Think of robotics, artificial intelligence, and digital media. And, with them, new industries and giant firms have emerged and taken off. Consider the so-called Big Four technology companies: Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook. They were only founded in the last few decades but, as they’ve continued to grow, they’ve become intertwined with the lives of millions of companies and billions of people around the world.

The owners of those tech companies are, to no one’s amazement, all billionaires. When the first Forbes World Billionaires List was published in 1987, it included only 140 billionaires. Today, they number 2825 and their combined wealth is about $9.4 trillion. That works out to be about $3,300,000,000 per billionaire. Their wealth certainly represents one of the great success stories of capitalism in recent decades.

Finally, capitalism has grown in more countries and expanded into more parts of more countries’ economies over the course of the past 40 years. Both large countries and small (from Russia, India, and China to El Salvador, Algeria, and Vietnam) are more capitalist than ever before. As we look around the world, we can see that the economies of rural areas have been increasingly transformed by and connected to capitalist ways of producing and exchanging goods and services. Global value chains have incorporated and fundamentally altered the lives of millions and millions of workers around the world. Meanwhile, areas of the economy that had been formerly outside of capitalism—for example, goods and services provided by households and government—can now be bought and sold on markets and are the source of profits for a growing number of companies.

But, unlike mainstream economists, Marxists recognize that capitalism’s extraordinary successes in recent decades have also come with tremendous economic and social costs.

All that new wealth of nations? Well, it’s been produced by workers that receive in wages and salaries only a portion of the total value they’ve created. The rest, the surplus, has gone to those at the top of the economic pyramid. So, the distribution of income has become increasingly unequal over time—both within countries and for the world economy as a whole.

According to the the latest World Inequality Report, income inequality has increased in nearly all countries, especially in the United States, China, India, and Russia. In other countries (for example, in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil), income inequality has remained relatively stable but at extremely high levels.

At a global level, inequality has also worsened. Thus, for example, the top 1 percent richest individuals in the world captured more than twice as much of the growth in income as the bottom 50 percent since 1980. Basically, the share of income going to the bottom half has mostly stagnated (at around 9 percent), while the share captured by the top 1 percent has risen dramatically (from around 16 percent to more than 20 percent).

And it’s no accident. Inequality has increased because the surplus labor performed by workers, in both rich and poor countries, has not been kept by them but has gone to a small group at the top of the national and world economies.

So, we really are talking about a tale of two capitalisms: one that is celebrated by mainstream economists (but only benefits those in the top 1 percent) and another that is recognized by Marxian economists (who emphasize the idea that the growing wealth of nations and increasing inequality are characteristics of the same economic system).

But that’s not the end of the story. All that capitalist growth has been anything but steady. The two most severe economic downturns since the Great Depression of the 1930s have happened in the new millennium: the Second Great Depression (after the crash of 2007-08) and the Pandemic Depression (with the outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus). In both cases, hundreds of millions of workers around the world were laid off or had their pay cut. Many of them were already struggling to get by, with stagnant wages and precarious jobs, even before economic conditions took a turn for the worse.

And then those same workers had to look up and see one part of the economy recovering—for example, the profits of their employers and shares in the stock market that fueled the wealth of the billionaires—while the one in which they earned their livelihoods barely budged.

Meanwhile, those stunning global cities and urban centers, the likes of which the world has never seen, also include vast slums and informal settlements—parking lots for the working poor. According to the United Nations, over 1 billion people now live in dense neighborhoods with unreliable and often shared access to basic services like water, sanitation and electricity. Many don’t have bank accounts, basic employment contracts, or insurance. Their incomes and workplaces are not on any government agency’s radar.

They’re not so much left behind but, just like their counterparts in the poor neighborhoods of rich countries, incorporated into capitalism on a profoundly unequal basis. They’re forced to compete with one another for substandard housing and low-paying jobs while suffering from much higher rates of crime and environmental pollution than those who live in the wealthy urban neighborhoods. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, a disproportionate number are ethnic and racial minorities and recent immigrants.

The working poor in both urban and rural areas are also the ones most affected by the climate crisis. A product of capitalism’s growth, not only in recent decades, but since its inception, global warming has created a world that is crossing temperature barriers which, within a decade, threaten ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal areas being flooded into inhabitability.

Meanwhile, the democratic principles and institutions that people have often relied on to make their voices heard are being challenged by political elites and movements that are fueled by and taking advantage of the resentments created by decades of capitalist growth. The irony, of course, is many of these political parties were elected through democratic means and call for more, not less, unbridled capitalism as the way forward.

Clearly, the other side of the coin of capitalism’s tremendous successes have been spectacular failures.

So, it should come as no surprise that there’s more interest these days in both criticisms of and alternatives to capitalism. And Marxian economics is one of the key sources for both: for ways of analyzing capitalism that point to these and other failures not as accidents, but as intrinsic to the way capitalism operates as a system; and for ideas about how to imagine and create other institutions, fundamentally different ways of organizing economic and social life.

Young people, especially, have become interested in the tradition of Marxian economics. They’re trying to pay for their schooling, find decent jobs, and start rewarding careers but they’re increasingly dissatisfied with the effects of the economic system they’re inheriting. Mainstream economics seems to offer less and less to them, especially since it has mostly celebrated and offered policies to strengthen that same economic system. Or, within more liberal parts of mainstream economics, offer only minor changes to keep the system going.

Marxian economics offers a real alternative—in terms of criticizing capitalism and the possibility of creating an economic system that actually delivers longstanding promises of fairness and justice.

[ht: adm]

I’ve just signed a contract with Polity Press to write a new book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The idea is to publish it in late 2021 or early 2022.

My goal is to write a textbook that can fulfill two purposes: first, a stand-alone book for courses that are focused on Marxian economics or survey courses that have a section devoted to Marxian economics; second, it will also be useful as a companion text in a course that is based on reading all of or major selections from Karl Marx’s Capital. While the book will be aimed at college and university students (both undergraduate and graduate) in economics, it will also be relevant for and accessible to students and professors in other disciplines—such as sociology, geography, history, and cultural studies—as well as to interested individuals outside the academy.

Here then is the proposed outline of chapters:

Part 1, INTRODUCTION TO MARXIAN ECONOMICS

Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today

Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics

Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy

PART 2, MARXIAN VALUE THEORY

Chapter 4, Commodities and Money

Chapter 5, Surplus-Value and Exploitation

Chapter 6, Distributions of Surplus-Value

PART 3, EXTENSIONS AND DEBATES

Chapter 7, Applications of Marxian Economics

Chapter 8, Debates in and around Marxian Economics

PART 4, CONCLUSION

Chapter 9, Transitions to and from Capitalism

The content of much of the manuscript is in my lecture notes, since I taught Marxian economic theory for almost four decades. But some of it is not, and will require exploring a few new areas and topics. My plan is to use this blog to compose the new sections, in 1000-1500-word posts—much as I have been doing for my other book, “Utopia and Critique” (see here). I welcome feedback to any and all of the book-related posts that will appear in the coming months.

When the book is done and accepted, I will post the link for interested readers.

And the necessary disclaimer: these are not sections of the final manuscript. Far from it! They are merely first drafts of some of the material that I will edit later on for the book.

OK, let’s get started. . .

Marxian Economics Today

As you open this textbook, you may be wondering, why should I study Marxian economics?

In the United States and in many other countries, Marxian theory, including Marxian economics, is a controversial topic. That’s certainly been true for the past few decades, when the topic was all but taboo. But beginning with the crash of 2007-08—the Great Recession or what some have called the Second Great Depression—the climate has dramatically changed. More and more people, especially young people, have become interested both in Marxian criticisms of mainstream economics and in possible alternatives to capitalism.

Here’s Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the chairperson of Roubini Global Economics, an economic consultancy firm: “So Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct.”

And then, from the other side of the Atlantic, there’s George Magnus, Senior Economic Adviser to the UBS Investment Bank: “Policy makers struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world would do well to study the works of a long-dead economist: Karl Marx. The sooner they recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism, the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.

Many of us were surprised, including those of us who have spent decades studying and teaching Marxian economics. I did so at the University of Notre Dame for almost 4 decades.

Living and working in the United States, we’d just been through a 30-year period in which Marx and Marxian ideas had been marginalized, in the discipline of economics and in the wider society. Marx was declared either dangerous or irrelevant (or, often, both).

Capitalism was humming along (with, of course, the usual ups and downs) until. . .the Crash of 2008, when the world economy was brought to the brink of disaster. And Marx, almost in a blink of an eye, was relevant again.

To be honest, it wasn’t that Marxists could take all, or even much of, the credit (or blame). It was actually the spectacular failure of mainstream economics that led to this dramatic change.

Mainstream economists failed to predict the crash.

Even more, they didn’t even consider a crash even a remote possibility. The chance of a crisis starting with the housing and banking sectors didn’t even exist in their theoretical framework.

And, once the crash happened, they didn’t really have much to offer. The policy that went along with their models suggested letting the banks sort out the problems on their own. Until, of course, the panic that set in with the failure of Lehman Brothers, which brought first the American economy and then the world economy to the brink of collapse.

The kinds of problems building up for decades simply didn’t figure prominently in mainstream economic theoretical models and empirical analyses. Problems such as:

  • The deregulation of banks and the growth of the financial sector within the U.S. and world economies
  • The housing bubble that was supported by bank loans, and then sliced and diced into collateralized debt obligations and other derivatives
  • The outsourcing of jobs and the decline of labor unions, which if they paid attention at all were seen as freeing up markets

The result of these and other changes in the U.S. economy created, for the first time in U.S. history, a growing gap between steadily growing productivity and stagnant real wages.

And, of course, an increasingly unequal distribution of income, reminiscent of the period just before the first Great Depression, when the share of income received by the richest 10 percent of Americans approached 50 percent of total income, and that of the bottom half of the population hovered in the low teens.

Mainstream economics—neoclassical and Keynesian economists, both microeconomists and macroeconomists—either ignored these issues or explained them away as a matter of efficient markets and good for growth.

The financial sector needed no oversight or regulation, because of the idea of efficient markets (which meant that all risk was calculated into prices, and all participants had all the relevant information)

And inequality was either good for growth or, if seen as a problem, just the inevitable result of technology and globalization, which could be handled by workers acquiring better skills and more education.

Not to mention the fact that both economic history and the history of economic thought—the history of capitalism and the history of thinking about capitalism—had disappeared as relevant areas of training for mainstream economists. As a result, not only had they never read Marx; they’d never read Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, or Hyman Minsky.

Then things changed, especially as the problems cited above never really disappeared, even as stock markets entered another boom period. Marxian criticisms of both capitalism and mainstream economic theory became appropriate topics of discussion and debate again.

Reading Marx

While references to Marxian economics have increased in recent years, there’s no indication commentators have actually read the works of Karl Marx. Perhaps they remember reading the Communist Manifesto at some point in their education but not Marx’s magnum opus Capital. And they certainly haven’t read the scholarly work on Marx.

Perhaps they were afraid to or didn’t know how to, or were just too lazy. But the fact remains the time is ripe for a new reading of Marx’s Capital.

If they did such a reading, what would they find?

They would encounter something quite different from what they—and perhaps you, reading this book—expect. For example, you won’t discover a blueprint for socialism or communism. Nor will you find a set of predictions about how the crises of capitalism would lead to socialism or communism. Or much else that is regularly attributed to Marx and Marxian economics.

What readers would find is a critique of political economy, in two senses: a critique of mainstream economic theory; and a critique of capitalism, the economic system celebrated by mainstream economists. That’s what Marx came up with after spending all those hours reading the classical political economists and the factory reports in the British Museum. And what generations of Marxian economists have been discussing and developing ever since.

Marxian economics is organized around five key ideas: critique, history, society, theories, and class. These are ideas you’ll encounter many times over the course of this book.

Critique: Capital (and the many other economic texts Marx wrote) are less a fully worked-out theory of capitalism than a critique of the ideas—the concepts and models—that are central to mainstream economics. In other words, Marx carefully studied the works of the famous classical economists, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He used them as his starting-point but then ended up in a very different place, challenging much of what is taken as the “common sense” within economics. You may find yourself questioning some of the key ideas within contemporary mainstream economics during the course of reading this book.

History: Much of mainstream economics is based on models that never really change. Marxian economics is different; it is focused on history—both the history of economic systems and the history of economics ideas—that change over time. Thus, for example, within Marxian economics, capitalism has a history: it didn’t always exist; once it came into existence, it has continued to change; and, at least in principle, capitalism can come to an end, replaced by a fundamentally different way of organizing economic and social life.

Society: Marx’s approach was always about an economy within society, both affecting and being affected by everything else—social rules, political power, cultural norms, and much else. Therefore, different societies (and, for that matter, different parts of society) have different ways of managing economic life, now as in the past. So, they have radically different ways of allocating labor, organizing production, exchanging goods and services, and so on.

Theories: Not only are there different economies and societies; there are also different economic theories. Marxian economics is one, mainstream economics is another. (And there are many others you may have read or heard about: radical, Post Keynesian, feminist, postcolonial, green, and the list goes on.) And economic theories are different from economic systems. So, for example, Marxian and mainstream economists have different theories—they tell different stories, they arrive at different conclusions—about the same economic system. So, as you will see over the course of this book, the Marxian theory of capitalism is very different from the mainstream theory of capitalism.

Class: One of the particular interests of Marx and Marxian economists is class, the particular way workers (for example, wage-laborers under capitalism or serfs within feudalism) perform more labor than they receive to sustain their lives. The rest, the extra or surplus labor, is appropriated and controlled by another, much smaller group (for example, the class or capitalists or feudal lords). Marx created a special name for this: class exploitation.

So, according to Marxian economics, different societies have different class structures, which have changed historically. And Marx was critical of both the mainstream economic theories that deny the existence of exploitation as well as the economic systems in which the class of workers who perform the surplus labor are excluded from making decisions about the surplus.

You can therefore see how there would be, from the very beginning, an animated debate between the advocates of mainstream and Marxian economic theories.

Ah, the things we end up doing during the lockdown. . .

I stumbled upon this video while searching for something else on my computer yesterday. It’s a talk I gave, “The New Reading of Marx’s Capital,” at the Lattelecom International Conference on New Strategies in the New World Order in Riga on 13 October 2011. So, because it may have some contemporary relevance, I decided to upload it and share it with readers.

Anyone who is interested can download the Powerpoint presentation I used by clicking on this link.

That I know of, there are only five other Youtube videos in which I appear (from 2000, 2003, 2012, 2016, and 2019).

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Motto

In the dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.

— Bertolt Brecht

( trans. John Willett, from the Svendborg Poems)

I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus for the past two months (the last real post, aside from daily cartoons, was back in January). But readers have encouraged me to get back in the game and resume my “occasional” commentary on economics, culture, and society.

Right now, in these dark times—as the number of confirmed cases of and deaths from the novel coronavirus pandemic, in the United States and around the world, continues to soar—we’re focused on immediate measures, individually and socially, to stay safe. And, of course, capitalist economies are in meltdown, not only in stock markets, but with massive unemployment (which the Trump administration wants states to hide from view) and increasing precarity for millions and millions of already precarious workers.

The provision of much-needed medical supplies, school closures and other measures that encourage social distancing (or, my preference, distant socializing), “stay at home” orders, lots more testing—all are desperately required. As well as are funds and policies that protect workers who have few protections against unhealthy and unsafe working conditions and, through no fault of their own, are losing their jobs and being forced to find ways of surviving in the midst of the current chaos.

Immediate measures, then, to keep people safe and financially secure.

But we also need to be thinking about what all this means, for ourselves and for our economy and society going forward. We need to discuss and debate not only the immediate measures being proposed and adopted, but also what this portends for our collective future.

As for myself, I am particularly interested in the way the existing common sense may be shifting—in darker directions, to be sure, but also in opening up new possibilities. As a friend wrote to me just yesterday, maybe there’s some hope in the fact that “at least some governments feel compelled to feed, house, and save people, [which] may be a great lesson in the reality that stands behind property and the ‘laws of economics’: social labour that we can socially allocate.”

That, it seems to me, is our challenge in the days, weeks, and months ahead—to think seriously and critically, perhaps against all odds, about our current situation and to be ruthless in that criticism “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.”

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From Chile to Lebanon, young people are demonstrating—in street protests and voting booths—that they’ve had enough of being disciplined and punished by the current development model.

Last Friday, more than one million people took to the streets in the Chilean capital of Santiago, initially sparked by a sharp rise in Santiago’s metro fares and now uniting in a call for much larger economic and political change in the country.

Near-daily protests in Port-au-Prince, other cities, and the countryside have taken place for weeks now. A deepening fuel shortage in mid-September, on top of spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water, environmental degradation, food scarcity, and mounting corruption have caused Haitians to block roads and highways, demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse and the elite that continues to block fundamental change.

Two weeks ago, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, was forced to strike a deal with indigenous leaders to cancel a much-disputed austerity package and end nearly two weeks of demonstrations that have paralyzed the economy.

In Beirut, protesters say they are finished with their leaders, many of them former civil war-era warlords who rule the country like a series of personal fiefdoms to be plundered, dispensing the spoils to loyal followers. “We need a whole new system, from scratch,” said one protestor.

Meanwhile, voters in Argentina chose the Peronista ticket of Alberto Fernández and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner over incumbent President Mauricio Macri in the first round of Argentina’s presidential election on Sunday, a rejection of austerity of the sort that has sparked violent protests elsewhere in Latin America.

And, as we’ve seen, young people have been marching across the globe—to protest against the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government, the imprisonment of separatist leaders in Catalonia, and the climate crisis in London and around the world.

While it may be tempting to search for a single banner or theme for all these protests and movements—for example, a rejection of neoliberalism or a slowing of economic growth—we do need to pay attention to and keep in mind the specific causes, demands, and forces behind the mobilizations. As Jack Shenker reminds us,

Each of these upheavals has its own spark—a hike in transport fares in Santiago, or a proposed tax on users of messaging apps like WhatsApp in Beirut—and each involves different patterns of governance and resistance. The class composition of the indigenous demonstrators in Ecuador can’t be compared with most of those marching against the imprisonment of separatist leaders in Catalonia; nor is the state’s prohibition of protest in London on a par with the repression in Hong Kong, where officers shot live ammunition into a teenager’s chest.

(Although, truth be told, it doesn’t stop Shenker from falling into the trap of attempting to identify what he considers to be the “common threads” that “bind today’s rebellions together.”)

As it turns out, the symposium on my book, Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis, has just been published by the journal Rethinking Marxism (unfortunately behind a paywall). As I make clear in my rejoinder, I was particularly pleased that all four respondents—Eray Düzenli, Suzanne Bergeron, Jack Amariglio, and Adam Morton (who has just published a blog post on his response)—remarked on how my volume of essays on planning, development, and globalization, written over the course of three decades and published in 2011, remains relevant to the critique of political economy today.

Here, then, is the text of the pre-publication version of my rejoinder:

Changing the Subject: Response to Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton

Mainstream economics cannot be salvaged. But that hasn’t stopped its practitioners from trying—in recent years, just as they have throughout the course of its history.

Sometimes, in an attempt to refurbish their approach, mainstream economists have changed the underlying theory, such as when in the late-nineteenth century they unceremoniously jettisoned the labor theory of value in favor of utility. Or when, in the 1950s, they attempted to produce a synthesis of Keynesian macroeconomics and neoclassical microeconomics. At other times, they thought the problems that bedeviled their project could be fixed by adopting and incorporating a new technique; thus, we’ve witnessed the changing enchantment with and celebration of a long line of novel (at least for mainstream economics) mathematical and statistical methods, from calculus and econometrics to linear programming and game theory. Each was supposed to stop the bleeding and, each time, it didn’t work—or, alternatively, it solved one problem and, in the process, created new ones. All the while avoiding the larger issues that have plagued mainstream economics from the very beginning.

The latest attempt to save mainstream economics and make it more “scientific” comes in the form of the much-vaunted “empirical turn”—the idea that abstract theory can and should be downplayed or set aside in favor of applied or empirically grounded analysis.[1] The celebration of this shift in mainstream research has also led to the designing of new ways of teaching economics, such as Raj Chetty’s introductory course at Harvard, “Using Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems” (Matthews 2019). Chetty (2013) himself has claimed, “as the availability of data increases, economics will continue to become a more empirical, scientific field.”

One of the final topics in Chetty’s course is economic development, which has been subject to salvage operations not dissimilar to the rest of mainstream economics. Since they invented it as a separate branch of economics in the postwar period (Meier 1984), mainstream development economists have sought to rescue their project by introducing new theories (from stages of growth through structuralist rigidities and lags to the existence of institutions to safeguard property rights, contracts, and markets) as well as new techniques (including planning models, input-output analysis, and cross-section growth regressions).

Development economics, like the rest of mainstream economics, has recently been transformed by the supposed turn away from theory to more applied or empirical techniques. As Abhijit V. Banerjee (2005: 4343) put it,

What is unusual about the state of development economics today is not there is too little theory, but that theory has lost its position at the vanguard: New questions are being asked by empirical researchers, but, for the most part, they are not coming from a prior body of worked-out theory.

In fact, Banerjee and his Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleague Esther Duflo (in 2011 and, soon, in 2019) have been at the forefront of this “new development economics.” Their idea is that asking “big questions” (e.g., about whether or not foreign aid works) is less important than the narrower ones concerning which particular development projects should be funded and how such projects should be organized. For this, they propose field experiments and randomized control trials—to design development projects such that people can be “nudged,” with the appropriate incentives, to move to the kinds of behaviors and outcomes presupposed within mainstream economic theory.

It is precisely this approach that has led Duflo (2017: 3) to propose that mainstream economists, especially mainstream development economists, should become more like plumbers:

The economist-plumber stands on the shoulder of scientists and engineers, but does not have the safety net of a bounded set of assumptions. She is more concerned about “how” to do things than about “what” to do. In the pursuit of good implementation of public policy, she is willing to tinker. Field experimentation is her tool of choice.

Here we are, then, in the aftermath of the Second Great Depression—in the uneven recovery from capitalism’s most severe set of crises since the great depression of the 1930s and, at the same time, a blossoming of interest in and discussion of socialism—and the best mainstream economists have to offer is a combination of big data, field experiments, random trials, and a plumber mindset. How is that an adequate response to grotesque and still-rising levels of economic inequality (World Inequality Lab 2017), precarious employment for hundreds of millions of new and older workers (International Labour Organization 2015), half a billion people projected to still be struggling to survive below the extreme-poverty line by 2030 (World Bank 2018), and the wage share falling in many countries (International Monetary Fund 2017) as most of the world’s population are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a relatively small group of employers for stagnant or falling wages? Or, for that matter, to the reawakening of the rich socialist tradition, both as a critique of capitalism and as a way of imagining and enacting alternative economic and social institutions.

If I had the opportunity to revise my book and include an additional chapter on the so-called new development economics, I would make the following points: First, the presumption that analytical techniques are neutral and the facts alone can adjudicate the debate between which development projects are successful and which are not is informed by an epistemological essentialism—in particular, a naïve empiricism—that many of us thought to have been effectively challenged and ultimately superseded within contemporary economic and social theory. Clearly, mainstream development economists ignore or reject the idea that different theories have, as both condition and consequence, different techniques of analysis and different sets of facts.

The second point I’d make is that class is missing from any of the analytical and policy-related work that is being conducted by mainstream development economists today. At least as a concept that is explicitly discussed and utilized in their research. One might argue that class is lurking in the background—a specter that haunts every attempt to “understand how poor people make decisions,” to design effective anti-poverty programs, to help workers acquire better skills so that they can be rewarded with higher wages, and so on. They are the classes that have been disciplined and punished by the existing set of economic and social institutions, and the worry of course is those institutions have lost their legitimacy precisely because of their uneven class implications. Class tensions may thus be simmering under the surface but that’s different from being overtly discussed and deployed—both theoretically and empirically—to make sense of the ravages of contemporary capitalism. That step remains beyond mainstream development economics.

The third problem is that the new development economists, like their colleagues in other areas of mainstream economics, take as given and homogeneous the subjectivity of both economists and economic agents. Economists (whether their mindset is that of the theoretician, engineer, or plumber) are seen as disinterested experts who consider the “economic problem” (of the “immense accumulation of commodities” by individuals and nations) as a transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon, and whose role is to tell policymakers and poor and working people what projects will and not reach the stated goal. Economic agents, the objects of economic theory and policy, are considered to be rational decisionmakers who are attempting (via their saving and spending decisions, their participation in labor markets, and much else) to obtain as many goods and services as possible. Importantly, neither economists nor agents are understood to be constituted—in multiple and changing ways—by the various and contending theories that together comprise the arena of economic discourse.

Changing the Subject

If those points sound familiar, it’s because they’re issues I’ve been grappling with for a long time. And I couldn’t be more pleased that, in their different ways, all four of the other participants in this symposium—Eray Düzenli, Suzanne Bergeron, Jack Amariglio, and Adam Morton—have identified, expressed their admiration for, and then rearticulated those concerns in their generous and insightful reading of the chapters on planning, development, and globalization that make up my book.[2]

Indeed, I am honored that these friends, colleagues, comrades, and former students have taken the time to work their way through my writings on those topics. I’m also flattered they found at least a few of my ideas and formulations to have merit for the ongoing and still-unsettled debates concerning capitalist development and socialist alternatives. I’m especially pleased they’ve found some of the chapters useful in the classes they teach. But, to be honest, I’m not at all surprised. In addition to their being creative and munificent thinkers in their own right, all of us have been participants in the Rethinking Marxism project. For decades now, I have had the opportunity to work with them and to learn from them in the midst of a wide variety of activities, from mundane organizational tasks to spirited intellectual discussions.[3]

Even more, I simply wouldn’t have been able to investigate and criticize the terms of debate in the areas of planning, development, and globalization without Rethinking Marxism. Partly, that’s because, while my interest in the critique of political economy (especially with respect to Latin America) long predates the existence of Rethinking Marxism, the concepts and methods utilized throughout this particular book emerged from (and, I can only hope, contributed to) the wide-ranging epistemological and methodological debates that have taken place in and around this journal. I feel fortunate to have had as my mentors Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff and to have been inspired by the hundreds of other scholars, students, and activists who have been directly and indirectly associated with this journal.[4] It’s also because participating in the collective project of editing and producing Rethinking Marxism over the course of thirty or so years was, for me, a necessary complement to the research and writing that went into the chapters that comprise this book (not to mention the other writing projects I engaged in over the years). I know I wouldn’t have survived in the academy—especially in the all-too-often arrogant, brutish, and mind-numbing discipline of economics—without the personal relations, theoretical challenges, and collaborative labors associated with this journal.

I can’t pretend, in this limited space, to address all the interesting and important issues raised by Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton in their responses. Instead, I want to focus on four themes they’ve identified and that, in my view, remain central to the project of rethinking Marxism.

Contingency of theory

Readers will have noted that all of the respondents raise the “problem of theory.” Amariglio refers to my “interest in shaping debates and altering prevailing discourses,” as defined by both mainstream economics and its heterodox (including Marxist) critics. Düzenli, for his part, notes approvingly the proposition that “the theoretical is always also political, a Marxian position.” Bergeron views the book as in the best sense a “failure,” to the extent that it does not hew “to the narrow disciplinary conventions in economics.” Finally, Morton directs attention to the importance of economic representations and the ways economic sites are “discursively produced.”

I’ll admit that I find it impossible to begin any project—whether writing or teaching—without addressing the problem of theory. That’s the case for exactly the reasons Amariglio, Düzenli, Bergeron, and Morton have mentioned: because it is important to challenge and move beyond the discursive limitations imposed by existing theories; because the different theories that structure those debates have conflicting political conditions and consequences; because the disciplinary conventions imposed by mainstream economics regulate and constrain not only the topics of discussion and debate, but also the ways those topics can be investigated; and finally because the economic landscape is socially, and especially discursively, constituted in diverse ways. Lest we forget, the lines of causality also run in the opposite direction, from the economic and social worlds to the discourses economists and others use to make sense of them, thus reinforcing the contingency of theory.

In my view, those are precisely the kinds of theoretical or epistemological concerns that are central to the Marxist critique of political economy. And they acquire particular resonance for those of us who work in and around the discipline of economics. More so than any other academic discipline, economics is structured by a hegemonic set of theories (the various and changing forms of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) that delimit what economists can and cannot say and do. Mainstream economists themselves are severely constrained by those protocols. All too often so are their heterodox critics, at least to the extent that they accept those constraints and recast their work in a manner that is different from but still runs parallel to that of their mainstream counterparts.

My own way of contributing to the project of rethinking Marxism in the areas of planning, development, and globalization has been to attend to the specificity of individual debates—at particular times, in certain countries—in order to identify their effects, challenge their limitations, and begin to elaborate an alternative way of proceeding. The reason I assembled the various essays that comprise the book was not to announce a set of lessons that pertain to all times and place, but to document a method—of concrete analysis, of ruthless criticism—that might serve as a guide for intervening in discussions and debates in other times and places.

Focusing on the contingency of theory, then, is a way of opening up spaces within particular discursive contexts so that a Marxist alternative—with its radically different theoretical and political conditions and consequences—might be articulated and new paths opened up.

Reading for class

Obviously, class is central to the book. It’s highlighted in the title, it occupies a central place in most of the chapters, and I take it to be a defining characteristic of the Marxian critique of political economy.

Readers of this journal will immediately recognize the way class is utilized in the book, especially the manner in which it is identified, discussed, and further elaborated by Düzenli, Bergeron, Amariglio, and Morton. I certainly give class a priority both in the critique of other discourses and in the various attempts to elaborate an alternative analysis. Other theories—whether in debates about markets and planning, the role of the state in both capitalist and noncapitalist forms of development, and capitalist globalization—tend to downplay or overlook the role class plays. Marxism, at least in the way I understand it, focuses precisely on the class conditions and effects that other discourses generally leave out. Moreover, class is defined in a particular manner; in the way I use it, class refers to the various circumstances whereby surplus labor is performed, appropriated, and distributed. It’s a way of building on the way Marx theorizes class across the three volumes of Capital, beginning with the theoretical “discovery” of capitalist class exploitation in the form of surplus-value—beyond the sphere in which “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” rule—and proceeding to analyze how that surplus is distributed and redistributed across a formation based on the capitalist mode of production.

But, to be clear, it’s a way of “reading for class” (to use Morton’s felicitous phrase) that accords discursive but not causal priority to class. Since there is still a great deal of confusion about this formulation, let me briefly explain. When I raise the issue of class (as against other theories that either “forget about” class or define it in a very different manner), I am not suggesting that class is either the only or most important factor in determining a particular economic or social situation. That would be to attribute to class a causal priority, in a framework that looks for and necessarily then finds a ranking of determinations. I have no interest in either presuming or discovering such a causal ranking. Instead, attributing a discursive priority to class is a way of asking specifically class questions—of other theories and of the economic and social realities for which they are used to analyze.

In that sense, I was interested in finding out what the class implications were of using a particular mathematical planning model that did not “see” or use class as one of its variables. Or the class consequences of making the state the center of accumulation in revolutionary Nicaragua or concluding that one or another macroeconomic stabilization policy had failed in Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. In each case, the Marxian critique of political economy allows one to see—and, of course, then to intervene to mitigate or transform—the class effects of theories and policies that present themselves as supposedly not being about class, in either the first or last instance.

Attributing discursive priority to class is a way, then, of intervening into specific discussions and debates—and of pushing back, especially when it is declared that class (even if it once existed and perhaps was significant) has declined in importance or disappeared altogether from the economic and social landscape. No, the Marxian critique of political economy avers, here’s where class plays a role, here’s where it raises its ugly head, here’s where surplus labor is being extracted from the direct producers by an exploiting class and how it’s being distributed to still others who did not perform it. And, of course, here’s how other class arrangements can be set up whereby class exploitation is eliminated and the direct producers have a say in how and how much surplus labor takes place.

I tend to think of the discursive centrality of class as a way of adding to, rather than supplanting or subordinating, other determinations. Thus, one can ask mainstream economists, “You think introducing markets or planning to a particular situation is just a way of increasing production or consumption, well, what effects does it have on class, that is, with respect to the complex ensemble of class processes in that situation?” Or, for that matter, solving the debt crisis, carrying out a war against the U.S.-backed contras, ending apartheid, or eliminating trade barriers? Or, extending it further, what are the class implications of the theories and policies that are used to make sense of and to deal with the effects of the Second Great Depression, global warming, or for that matter a project to deliver water to poor households in Tangier?[5]

The goal is to add class to the mix, especially when other theories and policies represent determined efforts to keep the discussion as far away from class as possible.

Subjectivity

If the centrality of class is apparent on the surface of the book, then subjectivity is a strong undercurrent. And I couldn’t be more pleased that the respondents, particularly Amariglio and Bergeron, chose to focus their discussion on that theme.

Mainstream economics has, from the very beginning, presumed a given, homogenous conception of subjectivity—of both economists and the agents that populate mainstream economic theories and models. Economists are taken to be scientists (or, alternatively, engineers or plumbers) who use a singular method to arrive at disinterested theoretical and empirical conclusions and policy recommendations. That is supposed to be their singular identity. Similarly, economic agents are assumed to be characterized by and to follow the behaviors contained within and implied by an essential human nature. For example, Adam Smith (22) claimed humans have an innate desire to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (from which he derived the social and technical divisions of labor and much else); today, mainstream economists maintain that view (evident in the presumption, without any further explanation, of supply and demand schedules in markets), to which they have added self-interested utility-maximization (such that all individuals always desire more commodities, more goods and services, for themselves).

In my view, an underappreciated dimension of the Marxian critique of political economy is its radical rejection of the notion of subjectivity held by mainstream economists. There is no essential human nature; instead, subjectivity is conceived to be historically and socially produced. And there is no singular identity but, rather, multiple and changing identities over time and in any particular situation.

The critique of the mainstream view of subjectivity begins, as I have explained elsewhere (Ruccio 2014), with Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism:

The existence of commodity exchange is not based on the essential and universal human rationality assumed within mainstream economics from Adam Smith to the present. Nor can the cultures and identities of commodity-exchanging individuals be derived solely from economic activities and institutions. Rather, commodity exchange both presumes and constitutes particular subjectivities–forms of rationality and calculation–on the part of economic agents.[6]

And, we need to add, in a society characterized by commodity exchange, other identities, including communal subjectivities, are also produced (as I argued in 1992).

My aim in the book was to build on this approach and to interrogate the givenness and homogeneity of the subjectivities presumed within mainstream economists. Thus, I sought to challenge the idea of expertise (particularly that of socialist planners), the existence of a “state subject” (e.g., in socialist planning theory and in revolutionary Nicaragua), of the essential notions of “workers” and “peasants” (especially in Nicaragua when, in the midst of war, austerity was imposed), the disinterested role of intellectuals (most notably in the case of the anti-apartheid thinker/activist Harold Wolpe), and the homogenizing effects of globalization (in favor of the hybridity of local, national, and global subjectivities).

I admit, those specific interventions represent only the first steps in challenging mainstream economists’ conception of subjectivity and opening up a space to think through the production and reproduction of multiple and changing identities—within capitalism and in terms of creating the conditions of existence of socialism. Still, they serve as a reminder that, within the Marxian tradition, subjectivities cannot be reduced to class (or, for that matter, that even class identities cannot be read off the presumed logics of class positions). And they force us to confront the subjectivities of economists (and other so-called experts), which are often obscured by reference to science or common sense. From a Marxian perspective, their identities are constituted by the discourses that interpellate them, forcing them to speak and write like mainstream economists and to attack or ignore heterodox (including Marxian) pronouncements and policies. At the same time, their theories and policies play a performative role in the economy and wider society—perhaps especially when they presume that economic knowledge is out of the reach of ordinary people and needs to be left to them, the so-called experts.

Conjuncture

The Second Great Depression occasioned a resurgence of interest in Marxian theory—because of the spectacular failures of capitalism and of the economic theories that celebrate capitalism, and consequently as a result of the search for alternative ways of organizing the economy and wider society and for theories that might help pave the way for those alternatives. That has given many of us, whom mainstream thinkers inside and outside economics have attempted to discipline and punish for decades, new platforms for teaching, speaking, and writing. However, too many of the versions of Marxian theory that have been invoked, by both mainstream economists and pundits and Marxists themselves, have been characterized by deterministic logics and modernist protocols of analysis that mimic those of mainstream economics.

The method of those versions relies on identifying and spelling out the implications of inexorable logics and underlying laws of motion of capitalism. A good example is the accumulation of capital, a central concern of Marx’s critique of political economy in chapter 24 of volume one of Capital. Except, as I have explained elsewhere (Ruccio 2018b), the famous passage that begins with “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” is actually not Marx’s theory of capitalism, but a central tenet of classical political economy, which “takes the historical function of the capitalist in bitter earnest.”[7] In fact, Marx shows, the accumulation of capital—the use of surplus-value for purchasing new means of production, raw materials, and additional labor power—is but one of many possible distributions of surplus-value. So, there’s no necessity for the accumulation of capital—it is up to the whim and whimsy of individual capitalists, if and when they will accumulate capital—and there are many other uses for that surplus, such as distributing a portion of those profits to all the others who share in the “booty” (such as corporate chief executive officers whose incomes are over 300 times the average U.S. worker’s wage and the bankers on Wall Street whose risky decisions instigated the crash of 2007-08).

In my view, then, there’s no necessity for the accumulation of capital and, in general, no necessary laws of motion of capitalism. If we set aside and move beyond that approach to Marxian analysis, what we’re left with is a method (or what I prefer to call, influenced by Paul Feyerabend [2010], an anti-method) of “ruthless criticism” and conjunctural analysis. In that vein, I was pleased to read Amariglio’s observation that “it is the radical, Althusserian notion of ‘conjuncture’ that threads together the entire book.”

Ruccio’s conjuncture-bound essays, perhaps paradoxically, tend to stick with us. These are the kind of Marx-inspired conjunctural writings that are the most useful and meaningful to the majority of readers, writers, and activists (they are “practical,” in that sense). Ruccio’s essays stick with us because they do not pretend to be written from an eternalist or even universalist, transcendental perspective; the lessons Ruccio wishes to convey are not about forever “laws of motion” or a ubiquitous “dynamic” of an ironclad (one might say, iron-caged) capitalist economy. To the contrary, Ruccio’s essays are steeped in “current analysis” and never lazily settle on “capitalism” as forever and anon lapping the exact same oceanic ebbs and tides. That endlessly-recursive, mesmeric rendition of capitalism-as-same—whether in old-style Marxian orthodoxy or newer-style ‘late capitalist’ totalizations—here sleeps with the fishes.

But, I was not surprised to learn, that endorsement also comes with a challenge: what should we make of the current rise of far-right-wing nationalism across the globe, in countries as distinct as Turkey, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Brazil. I couldn’t agree more with Amariglio that the attempt to subsume all these diverse occurrences as examples of “neoliberal fascism” or some such “essentially suspends conjunctural analysis by reassuring us that, really, we’ve all been here before.”

This is not the place to offer a Marxian conjunctural analysis of the backward-looking, authoritarian, racist pronouncements and policies of the leaders and members of these diverse movements. In recent years, I’ve attempted to produce some of the elements of that analysis on my blog, including a critique of contemporary mainstream economics for having paved the way for the rise of the new right-wing populisms (Ruccio 2017). But, needless to say, much more needs to be done to make sense of these developments, in their historical specificity—especially, from a Marxian perspective, of their particular class conditions and effects in the current conjuncture.

If my book serves as a guide for such an analysis, even as it determinately fails to offer a general method, it may provide at least some concrete examples of what can be accomplished based on the contingency of theory, reading for class, subjectivity, and conjunctural analysis—in other words, with ideas associated with the rethinking of Marxism. The goal, of course, is to change the subject, and thus to contribute to the project of imagining and creating alternative class possibilities and of building twenty-first century socialism.

Acknowledgments

I owe a very large debt to Eray Düzenli for organizing the session on my book at the 2013 Rethinking Marxism conference (Surplus, Solidarity, Sufficiency, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) that has turned into this symposium. I also want to thank Chizu Sato for all her work in procuring the papers from the commentators to be part of the symposium. And finally, I am indebted to Rethinking Marxism’s new coeditors, Yahya Madra and Vincent Lyon-Callo, for their patience and understanding in extending the deadline for my rejoinder.

Notes 

[1] Daniel Hamermesh (2013) is one among many who has argued that today top journals in economics—in other words, the leading journals in mainstream economics—“are publishing many fewer papers that represent pure theory, regardless of subfield, somewhat less empirical work based on publicly available data sets, and many more empirical studies based on data collected by the author(s) or on laboratory or field experiments.” Like Beatrice Cherrier (2016), I find the current celebration of the “empirical turn” to be both oversimplified and mischaracterized, since it misses previous episodes of empirical work within mainstream economics (going back to Wesley Clair Mitchell on business cycles in the 1920s). In my view, it also overlooks the role mainstream economic theory continues to play in setting and defining the agenda of empirical research.

[2] The title of the book was supposed to be “Planning, Development, and Globalization: Essays in Marxian Class Analysis,” but Routledge had already used the shorter placeholder title to list the book and at that point it couldn’t be changed.

[3] The same is true of the coauthors of some of the chapters in the book, including Stephen Resnick, Richard Wolff, the late Julie Graham, Kath Gibson, and Serap Kayatekin.

[4] I have attempted to express at least a portion of the immense debt I owe to Resnick and Wolff in two essays previously published in this journal: “Contending Economic Theories: Which Side Are You On?” (2015) and “Chance Encounters” (2018a). I also want to take the occasion to express my gratitude to my late friend and colleague Joseph Buttigieg, from whom I learned many things, including Antonio Gramsci’s philological method—which “requires minute attention to detail” and “seeks to ascertain the specificity of the particular” and, while it establishes complex networks of relations among the details, eschews any attempt to permanently fix those relations, thus avoiding the “danger of becoming crystallized into dogmas” (Buttigieg 1992, 63).

[5] Permit me, if you will, two other examples. Some years ago, I was asked to teach a course on the political economy of war and peace by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. At the time, the discussion was dominated by Paul Collier’s research on greed grievance with respect to resources. With very few exceptions (e.g., Cramer 2003), there was nothing in the literature about class, which of course made it difficult to discuss either the class causes of war or the class conditions of peace. Much the same holds with respect to health care. There is growing concern in the United States that inequality in health outcomes is rising along with the grotesque and still-growing disparities in income and wealth (Zimmerman and Anderson [2019]). However, in contrast to other countries, such as the United Kingdom (which has issued a series of reports over the years on the relationship between health and class, including the Acheson Report, fully titled the Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report, in 1998), the United States does not collect health data by class. That, of course, makes it impossible to analyze the relationship between class and health, in terms of either the current situation or improved health outcomes.

[6] This interpretation of commodity fetishism relies on the pathbreaking work of Jack Amariglio and Antonio Callari (1993).

[7] This reinterpretation of the role of the accumulation of capital in the Marxian critique of political economy is due to the pioneering work of Bruce Norton (1988), which was published early on in this journal.

References

Acheson, D. 1998. Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/265503/ih.pdf.

Amariglio, J. and A. Callari. 1993. “Marxian Value Theory and the Problem of the Subject: The Role of Commodity Fetishism.” In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, ed. E. Apter and W. Pietz, 186-216. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Banerjee, A. V. 2005. “‘New Development Economics’ and the Challenge to Theory.” Economic and Political Weekly 40 (40): 4340-44.

Banerjee, A. and E. Duflo. 2011. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. New York: PublicAffairs.

———. 2019. Good Economics for Hard Times. New York: PublicAffairs.

Buttigieg, J. A. 1975. “Introduction.” In Prison Notebooks, volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cherrier, B. 2016. Is There Really an Empirical Turn in Economics? Institute for New Economic Thinking, 29 September. https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/is-there-really-an-empirical-turn-in-economics.

Chetty, R. 2013. “Yes, Economics Is a Science.” New York Times, 20 October. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/opinion/yes-economics-is-a-science.html

Christopher C. 2003. “Does Inequality Cause Conflict?” Journal of International Development 15 (May): 397-412.

Duflo, E. 2017. “The Economist as Plumber.” American Economic Review 107 (5): 1-26.

Feyerabend, P. 2010. Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. 4th ed. New York: Verso Books.

Hamermesh, D. S. 2013. “Six Decades of Top Economics Publishing: Who and How?” Journal of Economic Literature 51 (1): 162-72.

International Labour Organization. 2015. World Employment and Social Outlook: The Changing Nature of Jobs. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

International Monetary Fund. 2017. “Understanding the Downward Trend in Labor Income Shares.” In World Economic Outlook: Gaining Momentum? Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund.

Matthews, D. 2019. “The Radical Plan to Change How Harvard Teaches Economics.” Vox, 22 May. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/14/18520783/harvard-economics-chetty.

Meier, G. M. 1984. “The Formative Period.” In Pioneers in Development, ed. G. M. Meier and D. Seers, 3-22. New York: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. 1988. “The Power Axis: Bowles, Gordon, and Weisskopf’s Theory of Postwar U.S. Accumulation.” Rethinking Marxism 1 (3): 6-43.

Ruccio, D. F. 1992. “Failure of Socialism, Future of Socialists?” Rethinking Marxism 5 (Summer): 7-22

———. 2014. “Capitalism.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, ed. B. Burgett and G. Hendler, 37-40. New York: New York University Press.

———. 2015. “Contending Economic Theories: Which Side Are You On?” Rethinking Marxism 27 (2): 273-81.

———. 2017. “Populism and Mainstream Economics.” Occasional Links & Commentary on Economics, Culture, and Society, 2 March. https://anticap.wordpress.com/2017/03/02/populism-and-mainstream-economics/.

———. 2018a. “Chance Encounters.” Rethinking Marxism 30 (1): 84-95.

———. 2018b. “Strangers in a Strange Land: A Marxian Critique of Economics.” In Marxism without Guarantees: Economics, Knowledge, and Class, ed. R. Garnett, T. Burczak, and R. McIntyre, 43-58. New York: Routledge.

Smith, A. 2003 (1776). The Wealth of Nations. Intro. A. B. Krueger. New York: Bantam Dell.

World Bank. 2018. Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018: Piecing Together the Poverty Puzzle. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

World Inequality Lab. 2017. World Inequality Report 2018. https://wir2018.wid.world/files/download/wir2018-full-report-english.pdf

Zimmerman, F. J. and N. W. Anderson. 2019. “Trends in Health Equity in the United States by Race/Ethnicity, Sex, and Income, 1993-2017.” JAMA Network Open 2 (6): 1-10.

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Special mention

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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 it 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. 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.