Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anti-DeLong: Volume 2

According to DeLong, Marx the economist said three good, still important things, and three bad things. However, the three good, important things turn out to be either so qualified by DeLong or so attenuated in their attributability to Marx that DeLong actually gives Marx almost no credit at all. Thus, he commends Marx's insistence on capitalism's tendency towards crisis, but then adds: "However, I don't think that his theory of business cycles and financial crises holds up." He praises Marx for being:
among the very first to see that the industrial revolution was giving us the statues of Daedalus, the tripods of Hephaestus, looms that weave and lyres that play by themselves--and thus opens the possibility of a society in which we people can be lovers of wisdom without being supported by the labor of a mass of illiterate, brutalized, half-starved, and overworked slaves.
But, of course, Marx didn't think this could happen so long as technology served as fixed capital. DeLong ignores the sarcastic conclusion of Marx's discussion of the ancient dream of the statues of Daedalus:
Oh! those heathens! They understood, as the learned Bastiat, and before him the still wiser MacCulloch have discovered, nothing of Political Economy and Christianity. They did not, for example, comprehend that machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working-day. They perhaps excused the slavery of one on the ground that it was a means to the full development of another. But to preach slavery of the masses, in order that a few crude and half-educated parvenus, might become “eminent spinners,” “extensive sausage-makers,” and “influential shoe-black dealers,” to do this, they lacked the bump of Christianity.
Finally, DeLong praises Marx as an economic historian of England from 1500-1850. "Most important, I think, are his observations that the benefits of industrialization do take a long time--generations--to kick in, while the costs of redistributions and power grabs in the interest of market efficiency and the politically-powerful rising mercantile classes kick in immediately. You have to take seriously the idea that the industrial revolution did not make most or even many people better off right away." This renders toothless Marx's discussions of the struggles over the working day, the rise of industrial machinery, and the processes of primitive accumulation. In DeLong's estimation, the point is that industrialization didn't make many people better off right away, and he only nods to "the costs of redistributions and power-grabs." But Marx's point is rather that capitalization and industrialization make most people far worse off right away, so much worse off that a lot of them starve to death or die very young or spend their lives in work-houses. This is more than just tweaking the cost-benefit analysis by emphasizing the long time-lag before the benefits start to kick in.

After this, the Bad Things are rather anticlimactic, and a bit vague. Marx believed:
  1. that "the market system simply could not deliver a good or half-good society but only a combination of obscene luxury and mass poverty."
  2. that "people should view their jobs as expressions of their species-being: ways to gain honor or professions that they were born or designed to do or as ways to serve their fellow-human."
  3. "that the capitalist market economy was incapable of delivering an acceptable distribution of income for anything but the briefest of historical intervals."
The second is just not true, in several ways at once. First, it turns Marx back into an ideologist--since work could never be anything other than an expression of our species-being, the problem is reduced to how people view their jobs; hence, change people's consciousness and voila! Second, DeLong has turned Marx into an advocate of the medieval guilds, which is just bizarre. Third, Marx never argued that work would become beneficence or philanthropy in communism; rather, he insisted that it must become a development of one's individuality.

The first and third are just two versions of the same complaint--that Marx saw capitalism as inherently contradictory, as crisis-prone, and as productive of misery in the same measure as wealth--but they are both confused on important points.

The first version subliminally folds the state into "the market system" as not merely an endogenous development but literally as an organ of the market. This is odd, to say the least. The problem with number three is that he turns Marx's theory of classes into a theory of income distribution. But class has nothing to do with income for Marx, except via a whole series of mediations. What makes you a member of the working class is not your income level. Certainly Marx did think that wages for the mass of workers would always gravitate towards subsistence wages, but DeLong says nothing to indicate why this is not true. Certainly, as above, state action can raise the minimum wage locally, but that is very different from raising the real minimum wage globally.

But this distinction between local and global wages pushes DeLong into the libertarian corner. If "technological progress and capital accumulation" alone are capable of raising the minimum wage and distributing wealth at the global scale, beyond the jurisdiction of any state, then why is this not also true at the local level? Or, if wages only rise globally because of the concurrence of local regulations, then what is to prevent capital flight to those jurisdictions with the lowest labour costs (precipitating a race to the bottom)? Or is everything dependent upon the good will of governments entrusting economic policy to enlightened Keynesian technocrats? If so, then Lord help us! That's not a mechanism, but a daydream, painted on the wind.

But DeLong saves the best for last. Having muddled his way through the good and bad of Marx's economics, he now gives himself the task of explaining the "intellectual origins" of Marx's errors. I'll deal with this in the third and final volume.