Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anti-DeLong: Volume 1

Brad DeLong is a successful academic economist. He is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley. Before Berkeley, he was an economic adviser to the Clinton administration, and before that he was an untenured associate professor* at Harvard. (You can see his CV here.) He is one of the more prominent liberal economists in the US (he refers to himself as a "neoliberal").

So when Brad DeLong writes a lecture entitled "Understanding Karl Marx," it does not represent just some guy's opinion. DeLong's understanding of Marx can be taken to be representative of elite academia, of liberalism, of contemporary economics as a discipline. Not perfectly so, of course, since theses domains are chock full of disagreement and contention, but representative enough that one can say with some confidence that whatever DeLong thinks about Marx is at least a respectable take on the fellow. And when DeLong says early in his lecture--"Let us go back and look at the thinker, Karl Marx, and what he actually wrote and thought"--one has every reason to expect a careful, scholarly examination of Marx, even if it is one with which one might have disagreements.

One would then be extremely disappointed.

DeLong's lecture is stunningly and doggedly wrong, and betrays a callous ignorance of both Marx's texts and the scholarship on those texts, all in the service of trying to convince the reader (or listener) that Marx was a silly, wrongheaded, and dangerous thinker who is dead, dead, dead so far as philosophy, politics, and economics are concerned.

I want to wade through this piece by piece. This will take a while. I'll try not to be too tedious or too humourless.

DeLong begins the substantive part of the lecture by telling us that "Karl Marx had a three part intellectual trajectory"--philosopher, political activist, economist. He doesn't have much of anything to say about Marx the philosopher, but what he does say is pretty egregious:
At the start of his career he believed that all we had to due to attain true human emancipation was to think correctly about freedom and necessity.
I would love for DeLong to point to a single text where Marx writes anything that can be construed this way, or to a single secondary source that attributes this belief to the young Marx.

He has more to say about Marx as political activist, but it's not any better. He claims that Marx had "three big ideas" as a political activist:
  1. that capitalism replaced masked domination with naked exploitation,
  2. that the bourgeoisie would never appease the proletariat with income-redistribution, even though it could, and
  3. that factory work would lead to proletarian class consciousness and revolution.
DeLong doesn't think much of any of this: "I see very little in Marx the political activist that is worthwhile today." I have four rejoinders:

First, it seems pretty obvious that DeLong is basing his entire portrait of Marx's political activism upon The Manifesto. Hey, it's a great text. Still, the claims made there are: a) manifesto-esque, in that they have a hortatory and polemical thrust that make it problematic to read them simply as descriptive claims about how the world is; and b) based on an as yet immature critical appraisal of political economy, and are therefore revised and qualified in many ways by what Marx writes elsewhere. Now DeLong may think he has foreclosed this second complaint by claiming that Marx is sequentially a philosopher-activist-economist. In fact, I think my complaint points up the uselessness of the sequential narrative. Marx began his critique of political economy in 1844, and both it and his political activity persisted right up to his death. they were always inseparable, and so any serious examination of the Manifesto has to take into account Marx's shifting approaches to the questions addressed there. This is not to say that a careful reading of the Manifesto would not be a valuable and defensible way to approach Marx's political activism. But DeLong does not give us that. This can be seen from the specific claims he attributes to Marx qua activist.

Hence, second, let's look at the first of those claims:
that while previous systems of hierarchy and domination maintained control by hypnotizing the poor into believing that the rich in some sense “deserved” their high seats in the temple of civilization, capitalism would replace masked exploitation by naked exploitation. Then the scales would fall from people's eyes, for without its masking ideological legitimations unequal class society could not survive. This idea seems to me to be completely wrong. Cf. Antonio Gramsci, passim, on legitimation and hegemony. See also Fox News.
Marx certainly claims in the Manifesto that:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
But to understand this "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" as the end of ideology is just silly. The nakedness of exploitation in capitalism is not equivalent to the nakedness of power. This points to an underlying confusion about just what exploitation is.

Third, there's "could" and there's "could." The redistribution DeLong suggests that the capitalist class engage in to secure its own perpetual domination is either one that allows most wage-labourers to acquire the means of production or it is not. If it is then it spells the end of capitalism, if it is not, then it just increases the cost of labour-power, increases unemployment, and undoes itself. Certainly the 20th century saw a vast array of state interventions into trade and labour markets in order to ameliorate the class struggle and forestall revolutionary movements. Whether or not such efforts will have the necessary traction in a NAFTA-ized world market remains to be seen, but Marx's point is that within a world of free trade capitalist nations stand in the same relation to one another as competitor firms, with the same incentives to raise productivity and decrease labour costs. So long as capital is more mobile than labour--which is to say, always--local jurisdictions will compete to attract capital, and this competition will be bad for workers.

I also think that DeLong's faith here betrays his belief in something like independent state action. Marx wanted to trace all state action back to the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie because he believed that the state would only protect the workers' interests when they forced it to. Nothing about the history of Keynseanism stands as an obvious counterexample.

Fourth, and finally, DeLong thinks Marx's optimism about factory work leading to organization and class-consciousness was mistaken. He writes:
Active working-class consciousness as a primary source of loyalty and political allegiance was never that strong. Nation and ethnos trump class, never more so that when the socialists of Germany told their emperor in 1914 that they were Germans first and Marxists second.
This is a classic case of mistaking hortatory rhetoric for objective analysis. That Marx talks at times as if the revolution will be the inevitable outcome of capitalist development did not prevent him from advocating and taking part in the political work that takes nothing for granted. What DeLong fails to understand is that preaching inevitable working-class unity and revolution is a political tactic for forging working-class unity and promoting revolution. It's a performative speech act. And it was an incredibly important--and effective--one within the European social democracy movement in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

And I can think of a whole slew of instances that "more so" demonstrate other allegiances trumping class--like when the head of the German Social Democrats ordered the fascist shock troops of the Freikorps to assassinate Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, or when Stalin did just about everything Stalin did.

Still, this is all side-show--why would anyone take seriously an academic economist's judgments of Marx's political activism?--to the main concern: the assessment of Marx qua economist. I'll start looking at that in the next post.

* The original version of this post erroneously claimed that DeLong had tenure at Harvard.


LFC said...

This has no bearing on the substance of your post, but your reference to DeLong as having been a "tenured associate professor" at Harvard is wrong. There is no such thing as a tenured associate professor at Harvard; only full professors have tenure there.

Will Roberts said...

Thanks for the correction, LFC. Duly rectified.