As Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, sticks his head into the mouth of the neoliberal euro lion, we’re learning all kinds of things about him, from his preferred mode of dress (no tie, untucked shirt. . .) and transportation (“muscular Yamaha motorcycle”) to his academic training (as a mathematician) and curriculum vitae (including teaching stints at various British universities, the University of Sydney, the University of Athens, and most recently the LBJ Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin).
We’re also now learning about how Varoufakis became an “erratic Marxist.”
The entire piece is worth a read but I was intrigued by a few key ideas: First, Varoufakis mentions the importance of Marx’s dialectical perspective, “where everything is pregnant with its opposite, and the eager eye with which Marx discerned the potential for change in what seemed to be the most unchanging of social structures.” That idea, which runs directly counter to mainstream economists’ focus on stasis, equilibrium, and the transhistorical nature of the “economic problem” of scarcity, is crucial for carrying out a critique of political economy and keeping alive the idea that another economic and social system is possible.
The second idea is the contradiction inherent in the capitalist commodification of labor. Unlike other commodities, such as oranges, labor is both treated as a homogeneous quantity (as labor power, the ability to work) that is available for sale (after a long historical process, and with a great deal of ongoing social effort) and comes at a price (the value of labor power) and, at the same time, resists commodification (because, as the value-creating activity of human beings, it can never be quantified in advance).
If workers and employers ever succeed in commodifying labour fully, capitalism will perish. This is an insight without which capitalism’s tendency to generate crises can never be fully grasped and, also, an insight that no one has access to without some exposure to Marx’s thought.
If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.
When Marx was writing that labour is the living, form-giving fire; the transitoriness of things; their temporality; he was making the greatest contribution any economist has ever made to our understanding of the acute contradiction buried inside capitalism’s DNA. When he portrayed capital as a “… force we must submit to … it develops a cosmopolitan, universal energy which breaks through every limit and every bond and posts itself as the only policy, the only universality the only limit and the only bond”, he was highlighting the reality that labour can be purchased by liquid capital (ie money), in its commodity form, but that it will always carry with it a will hostile to the capitalist buyer. But Marx was not just making a psychological, philosophical or political statement. He was, rather, supplying a remarkable analysis of why the moment that labour (as an unquantifiable activity) sheds this hostility, it becomes sterile, incapable of producing value.
At a time when neoliberals have ensnared the majority in their theoretical tentacles, incessantly regurgitating the ideology of enhancing labour productivity in an effort to enhance competitiveness with a view to creating growth etc, Marx’s analysis offers a powerful antidote. Capital can never win in its struggle to turn labour into an infinitely elastic, mechanised input, without destroying itself. That is what neither the neoliberals nor the Keynesians will ever grasp. “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery”, wrote Marx “how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”
The third idea is the irony that it has fallen to the Left to save capitalism from itself and to build a modern state. The existing European elites (and, in my view, the elite in the United States) have failed to stem the tide and have allowed capitalism, in its ongoing crises and lopsided recoveries, to undermine democracy and the project of a unified Europe (and an inclusive United States)—although, of course, the Left cannot stop there. If it is going to play that role, it also needs to put additional issues on the table, such as the creation of economic democracy.
Europe’s elites are behaving today as if they understand neither the nature of the crisis that they are presiding over, nor its implications for the future of European civilisation. Atavistically, they are choosing to plunder the diminishing stocks of the weak and the dispossessed in order to plug the gaping holes of the financial sector, refusing to come to terms with the unsustainability of the task.
Yet with Europe’s elites deep in denial and disarray, the left must admit that we are just not ready to plug the chasm that a collapse of European capitalism would open up with a functioning socialist system. Our task should then be twofold. First, to put forward an analysis of the current state of play that non-Marxist, well meaning Europeans who have been lured by the sirens of neoliberalism, find insightful. Second, to follow this sound analysis up with proposals for stabilising Europe – for ending the downward spiral that, in the end, reinforces only the bigots.
Let me now conclude with two confessions. First, while I am happy to defend as genuinely radical the pursuit of a modest agenda for stabilising a system that I criticise, I shall not pretend to be enthusiastic about it. This may be what we must do, under the present circumstances, but I am sad that I shall probably not be around to see a more radical agenda being adopted.
All of those are important ideas, which have inspired Varoufakis and which the Left needs to discuss and debate. But, to my mind, the most intriguing idea is his mention—without a great deal of additional elaboration—of the fact that Marx was the “the scholar who elevated radical indeterminacy to its rightful place within political economics.” Theoretically, the idea of radical indeterminacy (or what others have called “overdetermination” and “aleatory materialism”) means resisting the temptation to formulate general laws and to focus instead on teasing out the contradictions of mainstream economics, carrying out conjunctural analyses, and establishing the basis of indeterminate outcomes. It also carries political implications: of arriving at provisional conclusions, making conditional pronouncements, and engaging—both sympathetically and critically—with other political forces on the Left.
Varoufakis likes to call himself an “erratic Marxist.” For me, those ideas are central to a tradition that can proudly call itself Marxist today.