Posts Tagged ‘economic determinism’

Franck Scurti, “Homo Economicus” at Cabinet

Franck Scurti, “Homo Economicus” at Cabinet

Maybe I should leave them alone, and just get on my with my grading. But there are certain misconceptions that get repeated so often someone has to step in to correct the record.

Such as the idea that “economists”—without qualification—are “finally taking inequality seriously.” That’s the title of Mark Thoma’s latest essay in which he has the temerity to assert that “Until recently, most questions surrounding the distribution of income were considered out of the realm of serious, scientific analysis.”

Now, that may be true of mainstream economists, who have either ignored the problem of the distribution of income or  attempted to contain the issue by examining it through the lens of marginal productivity theory (according to which, absent market imperfections, everyone gets what they deserve). But it’s certainly not true of generations of nonmainstream, heterodox economists for whom the distribution of income has been central to the dynamics of capitalist economies.

But my more general point is that you should run anytime anyone argues that “economists do this” or “economists say that.” Given the existence of different theories or discourses within the discipline of economics, there is nothing economists in general do or say. There are only neoclassical economists and Keynesian economists and Marxist economists, and so on—and they all do and say different things, about the distribution of income and much else.

The other pet peeve concerns the characterization of Marx as an economic determinist, again without qualification. This canard has returned in Kevin Quinn’s facile attempt to find a symmetry between Marx and the late Gary Becker.

I want to compare them in another respect. Both championed different forms of Rabid Economism. Marx’s economism was holist,  Becker’s individualist, but both forms are equally reductionist and equally  imbecilic. Marx’s materialism reduces the cultural, the political, the ethical to super-structural epiphenomena: all were just distorted reflections of the underlying reality of class struggle. Becker thinks all human agency simply consists of maximizing utility. For neither thinker do human beings have the ability to think and act  “for the sake of the world,” as Hannah Arendt would say. For each, we are deluding ourselves if we think that acting can ever be a matter of  trying to get things right – to do what is called for, to believe what is warranted -independent of what our interests dictate. For both, in other words, the concept of disinterested action – including the disinterested pursuit of truth – is a snare and a delusion.  Finally, in this latter respect, both systems of thought are self-undermining:   neither can make sense of  itself as a disinterested attempt to understand the human condition.

There is no doubt that Becker championed a reductionist conception of individual decisionmaking and therefore of the universe of economic and social interactions—including, famously, the family, suicide, and racial discrimination.* However, where’s the evidence of Marx’s supposed economism? While it’s an oft-repeated assertion, just a little research would have uncovered a nice piece by Peter G. Stillman disputing that myth, as well as an entire tradition associated with the journal Rethinking Marxism that has sought to distance Marx and Marxist theory from that unfortunate characterization.

So, let’s finally put these two shibboleths to rest: there’s no such thing as this is what economists, without qualification, do or say; and Marxism is not economic determinism.


*While we’re on the topic of Becker, permit me one further reflection: while I can’t agree with the praise heaped on him by economists like Justin Wolfers, I will admit to a grudging admiration for someone who was the subject of derision from mainstream economists at places like Harvard and MIT during the 1960s—and yet stuck to his guns and pursued a research strategy that, at least at the time, placed him at the margins of the economics establishment.


Daniel Little wants to have it both ways: on one hand, he wants to argue that the work of Karl Marx, after being buried for the umpteenth time, is relevant once again; on the other hand, his interpretation of Marx’s theoretical framework is so deterministic it’s a wonder Marx is relevant at all.

If this is Marxist theory, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”*

I don’t have the time to go through Little’s interpretation in detail. So, let me choose just his first point: materialism.

Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Here, Little defines materialism as a kind of economic determinism, specifically property ownership and technology. And adds that, in his version of Marxian materialism, ideas and thought play no role.

That certainly is not my interpretation of materialism, which emphasizes historical and social explanation: the idea both that social phenomena emerge historically (and therefore change and develop over time, in a complex and contradictory fashion) and that each and every social event is the conjunctural result of all aspects of society (cultural as well as economic and political). Materialism is therefore counterposed to idealism, which means that social explanation cannot be reduced to an ideal or rational order (such as you get by focusing on the causal primacy of any one order of society like the economy).

In my view, it comes down to a distinction between discursive and causal priority. Marx focuses on the economy—and, within the economy, on class (which, to make a further distinction, is not the same as property)—not as a claim that the economy is the cause of everything else, but instead as a discursive entry point, a way of focusing attention and making a particularly Marxian sense of what is happening in society.

So, there’s a determinist Marx and a nondeterminist Marx, two very different interpretations of Marx’s writings. And Little and I clearly disagree in our interpretations. But that raises a second issue: anyone who puts forward a particular understanding of Marx also has to explain that there’s a large scholarly debate concerning Marx’s method, including a debate between more or less deterministic versions of Marx. Unfortunately, we don’t get any sense of that debate from Little’s list of “key theoretical frameworks.”

All of which leads me to say, if Marxism is reduced without debate to economic determinism, I am not a Marxist.


*According to Friedrich Engels, “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French “Marxists” of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist’.”