Posts Tagged ‘Marx’


Just a few years ago, students at Oberlin College protested the college’s decision to fund a talk by Jeffrey Sachs, whom they considered to be a “neoliberal imperialist liar.”

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite sympathetic with the Oberlin students’ concerns. I have called Sachs to task on many occasions (e.g., herehere, and generally here).

But it’s also true Sachs is changing his tune, at least on some issues. Here he [ht: ja] is on interventions by the United States in the Middle East:

It’s time to end US military engagements in the Middle East. Drones, special operations, CIA arms supplies, military advisers, aerial bombings — the whole nine yards. Over and done with. That might seem impossible in the face of ISIS, terrorism, Iranian ballistic missiles, and other US security interests, but a military withdrawal from the Middle East is by far the safest path for the United States and the region.

And then Sachs ups the ante: “America has been no different from other imperial powers in finding itself ensnared repeatedly in costly, bloody, and eventually futile overseas wars.”

That’s right: Sachs is accusing the United States of acting today as an imperial power—in a long line beginning with the Romans and continuing in modern times with the British, the French, and the United States itself in previous periods, from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines through Vietnam and increasingly in the Middle East. In fact, in all these cases, the United States took up the preceding wars of other imperial powers, including Spain, Britain, and France, thereby extending imperial adventures that have been “both futile and self-destructive.”

Sachs is led therefore to conclude,

The United States should immediately end its fighting in the Middle East and turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It’s time to let the locals sort out their problems, supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Just recently, the Arabs once again wisely and rightly reiterated their support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel withdraws from the conquered territories. This gives added reason to back diplomacy, not war.

We are at the 100th anniversary of British and French imperial rule in the Mideast. The United States has unwisely prolonged the misery and blunders. One hundred years is enough.

I can only agree.

Even more: give Sachs another decade or two and he might actually become a Marxist.


Those of us of a certain age remember the right-wing political slogan, “America, love it or leave it.” I’ve seen it credited to journalist Walter Winchell, who used it in his defense of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt. But it’s heyday was in the 1960s, against the participants in the antiwar movement in the United States and (in translation, ame-o ou deixe-o) in the early 1970s, by supporters of the Brazilian military dictatorship.*

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that slogan in reading the recent exchange between the anonymous author of Unlearning Economics and Simon Wren-Lewis (to which Brad DeLong has chimed in, on Wren-Lewis’s side).

Unlearning Economics puts forward an argument I’ve made many times on this blog (as, of course, have many others), that mainstream economics deserves at least some of the blame for the spectacular crash of 2007-08 (and, I would add, the uneven nature of the recovery since then).

the absence of things like power, exploitation, poverty, inequality, conflict, and disaster in most mainstream models — centred as they are around a norm of well-functioning markets, and focused on banal criteria like prices, output and efficiency — tends to anodise the subject matter. In practice, this vision of the economy detracts attention from important social issues and can even serve to conceal outright abuses. The result is that in practice, the influence of economics has often been more regressive than progressive.

Therefore, Unlearning Economics argues, a more progressive move is to challenge the “rhetorical power” of mainstream economics and broaden the debate, by focusing on the human impact of economic theories and policies.

Who could possibly disagree?

Well, Wren-Lewis, for one (and DeLong, for another). His view is that the only task—the only progressive task—is to criticize mainstream economics on its own terms. Even more, he argues that we need mainstream economics, because there should only be one economic theory, on which everyone can and should agree.

Now imagine what would happen if there was no mainstream. Instead we had different schools of thought, each with their own models and favoured policies. There would be schools of thought that said austerity was bad, but there would be schools that said the opposite. I cannot see how that strengthens the argument against austerity, but I can see how it weakens it.

The alternative view is that the discipline of economics has a hegemonic economic discourse (constituted, at least in the postwar period, by an ever-changing combination of neoclassical and Keynesian economics) and a wide variety of other, nonmainstream economic theories (inside the discipline of economics, as well as in other academic disciplines and outside the academy itself). Reducing the critique of austerity (or any other economic policy or strategy) to the issues raised by mainstream economists actually impoverishes the debate.

Sure, there’s a mainstream critique of austerity: cutting government expenditures in the midst of a recession reduces (at least in most cases) the rate of economic growth. But there are also other criticisms, which don’t and simply can’t be formulated by mainstream economists. From a Marxian perspective, for example, austerity (of the sort we’ve seen in recent years in Europe and even to some extent in the United States, not to mention all the other examples, especially as part of IMF-sponsored stabilization and adjustment programs, around the world) often serves to raise the rate of exploitation. Feminist economists, too, have lodged criticisms of austerity, since it often shifts the burden of adjustment onto women. Radicals, for their part, worry about the effects on power relations. And the list goes on.

They’re all different—perhaps overlapping but not necessarily mutually compatible—criticisms of austerity policies. They raise different issues, precisely because they’re inspired by different, mainstream and heterodox, economic theories.

Wren-Lewis, in his response to Unlearning Economics, wants to limit the debate to the terms of mainstream economics, which is the disciplinary equivalent of “love it or leave it.”


*There’s also the awful song by Jimmie Helms, recorded by Ernest Tubb:

It’s alive!

Posted: 29 March 2017 in Uncategorized
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The debate about our ecological predicament is heating up and, as it turns out, the Marxian critique of political economy is at the center of that debate.


Much of the discussion right now concerns the Anthropocene, the idea that the current geological age—overlapping with or, increasingly, after the Holocene—is a period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

However, as Benjamin Kunkel [ht: ja] explains, “two of the most formidable contributions so far to the literature of the Anthropocene come from authors who reject the term.”

Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital have overlapping criticisms of what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. An Anthropocene that begins ten thousand years ago sheds no light on the ecological dynamic of recent centuries; modern Anthropocenes – usually conceived as more or less coeval with mercantile, industrial or postwar capitalism – either ignore the specific origins of the period or, at best, acknowledge but fail to analyse them. A concept attractive in the first place for its periodising potential thereby forfeits meaningful historical content. Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’

Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. Anthropological invariables like ‘tool use, language, co-operative labour’ and so on may furnish preconditions for accelerating climate change, but do nothing to establish it as a predestined episode in the history of the species: ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species … exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For both Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.

Kunkel doesn’t consider the terminological dispute—Anthropocene or Capitalocene?—to be particularly important. I do.

As I wrote back in 2011,

Human beings have, of course, transformed the planet from the start of agriculture and the beginnings of class society. But it is as a result of the rise of capitalism that the most significant changes—from rising carbon dioxide levels, population growth, and consumption—have been produced.

The real question for the International Commission on Stratigraphy is, should the geologic timescale be changed to include the Age of Capitalism?

I therefore suggested we might begin using Capitalocene as an alternative to Anthropocene.*

A concept only matters in terms of its effects. As I see it, Capitalocene has a number of advantages. First, it recognizes a longstanding literature (which, unfortunately, Naomi Klein, among many others, fails to recognize and credit) on the relationship between capitalism and the remaking of the natural environment—the long tradition of attempts, sometimes referred to as green-red alliances, to develop a relevant intellectual and political program. I am thinking of the line of eco-socialists, from William Morris in the late-nineteenth century and the members of the Proletkul’t movement during the Soviet Revolution to Rudolf Bahro (the East German dissident), James O’Connor (who founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism), Joel Kovel (who cowrote with Michael Lowy An Ecosocialist Manifesto and the next year his famous book, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), Vandana Shiva (who writes about and fights for changes in the practices and paradigms of agriculture and food, in India, Bhutan, and elsewhere), and many, many others.

Second, Capitalocene points to the ways capitalism—the particular tendencies and dynamics associated with the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value, the accumulation of capital, and much else—has both made the despoiling of the natural environment (e.g., through the use of fossil fuels) central to the production and distribution of commodities and shifted its effects onto poor people and minorities, who bear higher levels of water, air, and other kinds of pollution than anyone else.

Finally, the term Capitalocene carries with it the possibility of imagining the end of capitalism, and therefore a radical change in the way human beings relate to the natural environment. To be clear, I am not suggesting that global warming and other environmental problems would be automatically eliminated with a radical transformation of the way the economy is currently organized. That’s partly because, as Kunkel explains, “the outsized role of human societies in determining the complexion of earthly existence will persist long after the capitalist mode of production—on even its partisans’ most optimistic assumptions—has expired.” It’s also because there’s nothing necessarily “green” about other modes of production (including, as we know, the state capitalism of the Soviet Union). Environmental concerns will require particular changes in thinking to be made central to whatever noncapitalist economies are imagined and enacted as we move forward.

I do, however, maintain that eliminating capitalism will be an important step in setting aside and overcoming many of the obstacles to creating a different, better relationship in and with the natural environment.

Therefore, I agree with Kunkel that “the question of modern humanity’s past and future ecological trajectory can’t be intelligently posed except as a question about capitalism.”

*In fact, Moore (p. 5) credits me as being the first to publicize the concept:

The first thing I wish to say is that Capitalocene is an ugly word for an ugly system. As Haraway points out, “the Capitalocene” seems to be one of those words floating in the ether, one crystallized by several scholars at once—many of them independently. I first heard the word in 2009 from Andreas Malm. The radical economist David Ruccio seems to have first publicized the concept, on his blog in 2011 (Ruccio 2011). By 2012, Haraway began to use the concept in her public lectures (Haraway 2015). That same year, Tony Weis and I were discussing the concept in relation to what would become The Ecological Hoofprint, his groundbreaking work on the meat-industrial complex (2013). My formulation of the Capitalocene took shape in the early months of 2013, as my discontent with the Anthropocene argument began to grow.


It comes as no surprise, at least to most of us, that corporations are getting larger and increasing their share in many different industries. We see it everyday—when we buy plane tickets or try to take out a loan or just make a purchase at a retail store.

We know it. And now, it seems, economists and the business press have finally taken notice.

According to recent research by Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely,

More than 75% of US industries have experienced an increase in concentration levels over the last two decades. Firms in industries with the largest increases in product market concentration have enjoyed higher profit margins, positive abnormal stock returns, and more profitable M&A deals, which suggests that market power is becoming an important source of value. In real terms, the average publicly-traded firm is three times larger today than it was twenty years ago.

That’s right. As Figures 1-A and 1-B above show, the level of concentration (measured by the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index) has been steadily increasing over the course of the past twenty years, together with a decrease in the number of public firms.


And the average size of firms, as shown in Figure 1-C, has also been growing.

The business press may have changed the language—they like to refer to such corporations as “superstar firms”—but the problem remains the same: corporations are growing larger, both absolutely and relative to the industries in which they operate.

What mainstream economists and the business press won’t acknowledge is those tendencies have existed since capitalism began. The neoclassical fantasy of perfect competition was only ever that, a fantasy.

Certainly one mid-nineteenth-century critic of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism understood that:

Every individual capital is a larger or smaller concentration of means of production, with a corresponding command over a larger or smaller labour-army. Every accumulation becomes the means of new accumulation. With the increasing mass of wealth which functions as capital, accumulation increases the concentration of that wealth in the hands of individual capitalists, and thereby widens the basis of production on a large scale and of the specific methods of capitalist production. The growth of social capital is effected by the growth of many individual capitals. All other circumstances remaining the same, individual capitals, and with them the concentration of the means of production, increase in such proportion as they form aliquot parts of the total social capital. At the same time portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals. Besides other causes, the division of property, within capitalist families, plays a great part in this. With the accumulation of capital, therefore, the number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent. Two points characterise this kind of concentration which grows directly out of, or rather is identical with, accumulation. First: The increasing concentration of the social means of production in the hands of individual capitalists is, other things remaining equal, limited by the degree of increase of social wealth. Second: The part of social capital domiciled in each particular sphere of production is divided among many capitalists who face one another as independent commodity-producers competing with each other. Accumulation and the concentration accompanying it are, therefore, not only scattered over many points, but the increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the sub-division of old capitals. Accumulation, therefore, presents itself on the one hand as increasing concentration of the means of production, and of the command over labour; on the other, as repulsion of many individual capitals one from another.

This splitting-up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the repulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction. This last does not mean that simple concentration of the means of production and of the command over labour, which is identical with accumulation. It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals. This process differs from the former in this, that it only presupposes a change in the distribution of capital already to hand, and functioning; its field of action is therefore not limited by the absolute growth of social wealth, by the absolute limits of accumulation. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many. This is centralisation proper, as distinct from accumulation and concentration.

Those of us who have actually read that text are not at all surprised by the contemporary reemergence of the concentration and centralization of capital. We have long understood that the forces of competition within capitalism create both the incentive and the means for individual firms to grow in size and to drive out other firms, thus leading to the concentration of capital. The availability of large amounts of credit and finance only makes those tendencies stronger.

And the limit?

In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company.


I’m always pleased when Marx’s critique of political economy and the theory of value are topics of discussion, especially since students are rarely exposed to those ideas in their usual mainstream economics courses. Their professors generally don’t know about any theory of value other than the neoclassical economics they learned and preach—and, as a consequence, students aren’t taught that there is a fundamental critique of the neoclassical theory of value that stems from Marx’s work.

The result is, in fact, quite embarrassing. When I ask students to compare Marx’s theory of profits with the neoclassical theory of profits, they have no idea what I’m talking about. The way they learn economics from my neoclassical colleagues, profits are competed away. “So,” I ask them, “what you have is a theory of capitalism according to which there are no profits”? Then, of course, I have to start all over, teach them the neoclassical theory of profits (as the normal return to capital, rK, where r is the profit rate and K the amount of capital) and only then explain to them the Marxian critique of neoclassical profits (based on s, the amount of surplus-value that arises through exploitation). I am forced to make up for mainstream economists’ poor understanding and explanation of their own theory.

So, good, we now have a new discussion of Marx’s approach—first in the form of Branko Milanovic’s “primer” and then in Fred Moseley’s response to Milanovic. Both are well worth reading in their entirety—and I agree with many of the ideas they put forward.

But I do have a few major disagreements with their treatments. Milanovic, for example, insists that Marx develops his theory through three kinds of production: non-capitalism, “petty commodity production,” and capitalism. I read Marx differently. My view is that Marx starts with the commodity and then proceeds to develop, step by step (across volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Capital), the conditions of existence of capitalist commodity production, which is the goal of the analysis. These are not different historical stages or kinds of production but, rather, different levels of abstraction. So, conceptually, Marx starts from one proposition (that the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the amount of socially necessary abstract labor-time embodied in their production), then proceeds to another (where the value and exchange-value of commodities are equal to the value of capital, both variable and constant, and surplus-value embodied in the commodity during the course of production), and finally to a third level (where value and exchange-value can’t be equal, since the price of production, p, now includes an average rate of return on capital).

My other two concerns pertain to both authors. Milanovic and Moseley assert that Marx’s focus was mainly at the macro level, “the determination of the total profit (or surplus-value) produced in the capitalist economy as a whole.” I didn’t understand that idea back in 2013 and I remain unconvinced today. As I see it, Marx focused on both the micro and macro level and in fact worked to make his theory consistent at the two levels. Starting with the value of individual commodities (as I explained above), Marx concluded that, at the aggregate level, two identities needed to hold: the total value of commodities equaled the sum of their prices, and total surplus-value equalled total profits. That’s both a micro theory and a macro theory, a theory of value, price, and profit at both levels.*

The second, and perhaps most important, idea missing from Milanovic’s and Moseley’s interpretations of Marx’s approach is critique. Both authors proceed as if Marx developed his own theory of labor value, instead of seeing it as a critique of the classicals’ theory of value (which, we must remember, is the sub-title of Capital, “A Critique of Political Economy”). In my view, Marx begins where the classicals leave off (with an “immense accumulation of commodities,” Adam Smith’s wealth of nations) and then shows how the production of wealth in a capitalist society involves the performance, appropriation, and distribution of surplus labor.

That’s Marx’s class critique of political economy, which pertains as much to the mainstream economics of our time as to his.


*I don’t have the space here to explain how, for any individual commodity, the amount of value embodied during the course of its production won’t generally be equal to the amount of value for which the commodity exchanges. It is conceptually important that individual commodities have both numbers—value and exchange-value—attached to them, especially when they are not quantitatively equal at the micro level. It speaks to the fact that surplus-value is both appropriated (by capitalists from workers, through exploitation) and redistributed (among capitalists, within and across industries).


The Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney has posted the text of the talk I delivered at Gleebooks, 19 October 2016, as part of a “Class Acts in Political Economy” roundtable with Katherine Gibson and Adam David Morton.