Posts Tagged ‘modernity’

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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We’re ten years on from the events the triggered the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression (although read my caveat here) and centrists—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to peddle an ahistorical nostalgia.

Fortunately, people aren’t buying it.

As Jack Shenker has explained in the case of Britain,

one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it. . .

Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

Much the same is true in the United States, where centrists in the Democratic Party watch in horror as the Republican Party falls in lockstep with Donald Trump and the only energy within their own party comes from the Left. All the while, they ignore their own role in creating the conditions for the crash and the fact that their technocratic promises to American young people—university or community-college education leading to a stable and prosperous worklife, the dream of a thriving middle-class democracy, the claim for capitalism’s economic and ethical superiority—lie in tatters.

As it turns out, Jürgen Habermas sounded the warning of just this eventuality back in the mid-1980s.* His argument, in a nutshell, is that western cultures had used up their utopian energies—and for good reason, because

the very forces for increasing power, from which modernity once derived its self-confidence and its utopian expectation, in actuality turn autonomy into dependence, emancipation into oppression, and reality into the irrational.

In particular, the social welfare state—based on Keynesian economic policies and democratic politics (with a social basis in independent labor unions and labor-oriented parties)—had lost “its capacity to project future possibilities for a collectively better and less endangered way of life.”

The reactions to this crisis are well known: on the Right, the rise of neoliberalism associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; on the Left, the celebration of non-party social movements. And, in the center? “Those who defend the legitimacy of industrial society and the social welfare state”—such as the more conservative wing of the Social Democrats (he mentions the Mondale wing of the Democrats in the United States and the second government of François Mitterand in France)—who “have been put on the defensive.”

I would make it even sharper: the center refashioned itself in the mould of the right-wing neoliberals, at least in part to isolate and contain the criticisms from the Left, by emphasizing individual (not collective) initiative and market-based (not social or solidarity) solutions to economic and social problems. As a result, the center lost its utopian impulse and settled for a meek defense of what remained of the social welfare state.

Habermas’s view is that society has been reoriented away from the concept of labor toward that of communication, which requires a different way of “linking up with the utopian tradition.” The alternative approach would be to rethink the concept of labor in terms of class and analyze the ways in which the forces of capital that were supposed to be regulated and contained by the social welfare state were left with both the interest and means to undo those regulations. And it’s the center that put itself in the position of responding to and representing the progressive dismantling of the economic side of the social welfare state—in deregulating finance, pursuing globalization, and helping to unleash new digital technologies. The result was, not surprisingly, the growth of obscene levels of inequality, increasing precariousness for large parts of the working-class, and finally the crisis that broke out in 2008, which has led not only to economic but also political breakdown.

However, as Shenker correctly observes, “the breakdown of any political order can be both emancipatory and revanchist.” And it now falls to the Left to reharness and reinvigorate the utopian impulses and energies that the center has squandered in order to chart a path forward.

*The English-language translation of Habermas’s article, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” was first published in Philosophy & Social Criticism. The article, with a slightly different title (“The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies”) and translation, was reprinted in On Society and Politics: A Reader. According to a friend and colleague who is a Habermas expert [ht: db], the essay is typical of his thinking that issued from what most people still consider Habermas’s most important work, The Theory of Communicative Action. “I would characterize Communicative Action as his middle period, which follows his earlier, more Frankfurt-styled emphasis on ideology critique (especially positivism) in books like Knowledge and Human Interests and Theory and Practice. In this middle period, he moved way from negative dialectics à la Adorno and Horkheimer toward developing a positive social theory of his own, one he would say was a “reconstruction” of Marxism but I would call a “replacement,” in which he develops a theory of communicative action to avoid what he sees as productivism and economism in the Marxist tradition.” And he adds:  “I find his means of doing so, evolutionary theory, unacceptable.”