Posts Tagged ‘Eric Hobsbawm’

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.

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Wednesday’s story about the Hydronic Lift, the Italian company that closed its doors while workers were on vacation, forces us to ask the following question: whose uncertainty are we talking about?

In recent years, neoclassical economists and right-wing politicians have focused exclusive attention on employers’ uncertainty in the face of changes in taxes and government regulations. Their idea is, the economic recovery is being held back by the high degree of uncertainty on the part of the nation’s “job-creators.”*

But what about workers’ uncertainty? In Italy, they don’t know if, when they go on vacation, their jobs will be available when they return. In the United States, workers don’t know if their incentive pay will be reduced or, more generally, if benefits will be cut, their wages reduced, their jobs eliminated, or their hours cut back.

Workers’ uncertainty is, of course, nothing new. It begins the moment their ability to work becomes a commodity. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, during the Age of Capital (p. 258),

If any single factor dominated the lives of nineteenth-century workers it was insecurity. They did not know at the beginning of the week how much they would bring home at the end. They did not know how long their present work would last or, if they lost it, when they would get another job or under what conditions. They did not know when accident or sickness would hit them, and though they knew that some time in middle age—perhaps in the forties for un-skilled laborers, perhaps in the fifties for the more skilled—they would become incapable of doing a full measure of adult physical labour, they did not know what would happen to them between then and death. Theirs was not the insecurity of peasants, at the mercy of periodic—and to be honest, often more murderous—catastrophes such as drought and famine, but capable of predicting with some accuracy how a poor man or woman would spend most days of their lives from birth to graveyard. It was a more profound unpredictability, in spite of the fact that probably a good proportion of workers were employed for long periods of their lives for a single employer. There was no certainty of work even for the most skilled: during the slump of 1857-58 the number of workers in the Berlin engineering industry fell by almost a third. There was nothing that corresponds to modern social security, except charity and relief from actual destitution, and sometimes little of either.

And now, of course, those economists and politicians who are most concerned about employers’ uncertainty want to dismantle the same “modern social security” that has mitigated at least some of the “profound unpredictability” faced by those who are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work.

*What they’ve done, of course, is take a fundamentally Keynesian proposition—that investors cannot know what is going to happen in the future, and therefore make rational calculations about expected profitability, which makes investment demand unstable—and transform it into the idea that the government is to blame for the Second Great Depression.

Update

As if on cue, one reader [th: db] directed me to a blog post about the current depression in Harlan County.

While many working Americans enjoyed a paid day off from work Monday, Labor Day meant nothing to many residents in Eastern Kentucky, where the coal industry is shrinking. Harlan County had the state’s highest unemployment rate in July, 17.2 percent. The national average was 7.4 percent. In Harlan County, where 29,000 people live, 1,906 were out of work and actively seeking employment, but there are hundreds more who are unemployed but have exhausted their jobless benefits, says an editorial in the Harlan Daily Enterprise.

“As a result, it is well documented that our entire community — whether you are working in mining, health care, education, private business or any other occupation — is suffering,” the editorial says. “It goes without saying that many are frustrated. Miners who have worked long, hard years have no prospects for jobs at this time. Many of these same miners have, or will soon, exhaust their unemployment compensation benefits. We shudder when thinking of what is next for them and their families. The support industries are seeing the same scenario.”

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There may be lessons of the “springtime of the peoples” in 1848 for the coup in Egypt in 2013. But they’re certainly not the ones drawn by Sheri Berman.

No, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the radical democratic workers’ movements that took power, if only briefly, across Europe in spring 1848. The last thing workers were demanding back then was a new theocratic regime. And it’s not that the radicalization of the nineteenth-century socialist movement created the rift between liberals and workers. It was the liberals who betrayed the democratic aspirations of European workers.*

But there are two lessons from 1848 for the present situation. First, liberals—then as now—will more often than not join forces with conservatives (including authoritarians) to keep workers and the Left out of power. And second, workers and their allies do need to develop their own common senses and institutions in order to gain and hold power.

And that includes Egypt today. It’s a false choice to look to any of the three contending parties—the Brotherhood, liberal opponents of the old regime, and the military—as the route out of the current crisis. Egyptian workers, peasants, and young people have everything to lose, and nothing to gain, by expecting any of those groups to be the one to loosen their chains.

*And, finally, if Berman had actually read Eric Hobsbawm’s magisterial The Age of Capital, from which she borrows the phrase “springtime of the peoples,” she would have understood that, in the wake of the 1848 defeats, Marx and most Marxist socialists adopted a much more long-term and non-insurrectionary strategy of defending themselves and of eventually gaining power.

 

Eric Hobsbawm was, as readers know, not only one of the world’s leading Marxist historians; he was for generations one of our best historians of any sort, especially of the long nineteenth century.

Hobsbawm was also one of the first scholars in the English-speaking world to understand the importance of the work of Antonio Gramsci. Joseph Buttigieg, a world-renown translator and scholar of Gramsci’s writings (including the first complete English-language edition of The Prison Notebooks), kindly assembled for me a bibliography of Hobsbawm’s publications on Gramsci (which he culled from the massive bibliography that is regularly updated by the Gramsci Institute, a project that was begun by the late John Cammett).

Buttigieg notes that Hobsbawm gave a brief paper at the first ever Gramsci conference, which was organized by Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Communist Party of Italy, and which Hobsbawm notes in the video above. Hobsbawm paid attention rather early on to Gramsci’s thinking on subalternity. His review essay for the New York Review of Books was hugely influential. And, finally, Hobsbawm often emphasized Gramsci’s political thought as his special contribution to Marxism.

Eric Hobsbawm on Antonio Gramsci

“Ce lo ha fatto conoscere la guerra” in Vie nuove, n. 4 (January 25, 1958), p.15

“Il Principe e il suo doppio” in L’Indice dei libri del mese, n. 2 (February, 1993) p. 42

“[Intervento]” in Studi gramsciani. Atti del convegno tenuto a Roma nei giorni 11-13 gennaio 1958, pp. 535-36, Roma: Editori Riuniti – Istituto Gramsci, 1958

“Per lo studio delle classi subalterne” in Società XVI (1960), p.436-49

“Para un estudio de las clases subalternas” in Pasado y Presente, n. 2-3 (1963), p.158-67

“Introduction to Gramsci” in The Nation, n. 8 (1967), p.249-50

“The Great Gramsci” in New York Review of Books, n. 5 (April 4, 1974), p.39-44

“Dall’Italia all’Europa” in Rinascita – Il contemporaneo, n. 30 (July 25, 1975), p.15-17

“Note su Gramsci” in Id., I rivoluzionari, pp. 327-50 , Torino: Einaudi, 1975

“O grande Gramsci, das lutas à prisão” in Cadernos de Opinião  [Rio de Janeiro], n. 1 (1975)

“Nella ricerca della sinistra inglese” in L’Unità [Interview by Antonio Bronda] (April 24, 1977) p. 8

“L’eurocomunismo e la transizione lunga dell’Europa capitalistica” in Rinascita [Interview by Fabio Mussi and Giuseppe Vacca], n. 12 (March 25, 1977) p. 11-13

“Gramsci and Political Theory” in Marxism Today XXI, n. 7 (1977), 205 -13

“La scienza politica” in Rinascita, n. 50-51 (December 23, 1977), p.17-20

“Gramsci es a politikai elmelet [Gramsci and political science]” in Világosság, n. 1 (1978), p.38-45

“La ciencia política de Gramsci” in El Pensamiento revolucionario de Gramsci. Puebla, Mexico: ICUAP – Editorial Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1978

“De Italia a Europa. Gramsci e la teoría política. El gran Gramsci” in El Pensamiento revolucionario de Gramsci. Puebla, Mexico: ICUAP – Editorial Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 1978

“Gramsci and Marxist Political Theory” in Approaches to Gramsci  Edited by Anne Showstack Sassoon., pp. 20-36 , London: Writers and Readers, 1982

“L’Inghilterra lo studia” in Il Corriere della sera (April 25, 1982), p.3

“Per capire le classi subalterne (In Gran Bretagna – gli impulsi vitali trasmessi alla storiografia in questo cinquantennio)” in Rinascita – Il contemporaneo, n. 8 (February 28, 1987), p.23

“Storie senza Storia”: E. Hobsbawm commenta le attuali polemiche socialiste su Gramsci in L’Unità  [Interview by Letizia Paolozzi] (March 19, 1988)

“Introduzione” in Gramsci in Europa e in America. A cura di Antonio A. Santucci., pp. v-x , Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1995

“Introduction” in David Forgacs, ed., The Gramsci Reader. First edition, 1988. New Edition., London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1999

“Gramsci e la teoria politica marxista” in Politica e storia in Gramsci. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi gramsciani. Firenze, 9-11 dicembre 1977. Vol. II: Relazioni, interventi, comunicazioni  A cura di Franco Ferri., pp. 37-51, Roma: Editori Riuniti – Istituto Gramsci, 1977 [but 1979]

Santucci, Antonio A., Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937  a cura di Lelio La Porta, Premessa di Eric J. Hobsbawm, con una nota di Joseph A. Buttigieg, Palermo: Sellerio, 2005

Gramsci, Antonio, An Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916-1935  Edited by David Forgacs. New Introduction by Eric Hobsbawm, New York: New York University Press, 2000

“Hobsbawm: la cultura è incontro” in Queer [supplemento di Liberazione]  Intervista di Derek Boothman (April 29, 2007) p. 24-25

“Grazie ai quaderni sono uno storico” in Repubblica  (April 27, 2007) p. 57

“Caro Nino, compagno di lotta e di pensiero” in L’Unione sarda  (April 24, 2007)

Santucci, Antonio A., Antonio Gramsci  Preface by Eric J. Hobsbawm. Foreword by Joseph A. Buttigieg. Translated by Graziella Di Mauro with Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010

“De Italia a Europa” in Revolución y democracia en Gramsci.  p. 25-38, Barcelona: Fontamara, 1976

Eric Hobsbawm RIP

Posted: 1 October 2012 in Uncategorized
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Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95. (Other obituaries can be found here and here.)

The late British historian A.J.P. Taylor said Hobsbawm’s work was distinguished by precise explanations of what happened and his interest in ordinary people.

“Most historians, by a sort of occupational disease, are interested only in the upper classes and assume that they themselves would have been numbered among the privileged if they had lived a century or two ago — a most unlikely assumption,” Taylor wrote. “Mr. Hobsbawm places his loyalty firmly on the other side of the barricades.”

I never met him but, over the years, I have often turned (and returned) to his historical work in my teaching and research. Particularly important, at least for me, have been his four-volume Age of. . . series, his early Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, the later Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day, and his presentation of Marx’s Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. 

Hobsbawm was also a participant-observer in the Golden Age of jazz. Under the pseudonym of Francis Newton, he wrote The Jazz Scene, which in my view is more memorable and insightful for his analysis of the prehistory and commercial side of jazz than for his reviews of the music itself.