Thursday, April 23, 2009

In Which I Am Obliged to Comment Upon the Sudden Upsurge in Mentions of Marx

According to Matt Yglesias, "Everyone's Talking About Karl Marx!" And so they are, if by everyone you mean a few folks scattered across both the ideological spectrum and the internet.

Mostly (and I freely acknowledge that this is a bit lame as an excuse for a post) I guess I want to push back against all the--what I consider to be--recycled errors and confabulations about Marx that inevitably well up in these instances. In part I'm motivated by scholastic fealty to My Man, but I'm also a bit skeptical about the utility and propriety of trotting old Moor out whenever economic growth goes negative as if to say, ah, yes, I knew this would happen, because I was forced to read Marx as an undergraduate...

Hence, I won't say anything about Leo Panitch's (rather pedestrian) piece in Foreign Affairs, since Panitch is an actual, card-carrying socialist, and so hardly needs an excuse to say "Well, you know, Marx said..."

Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand... Isn't this guy supposedly an ex-Trotsyist or something? If Hitchens is representative of Trotskyism, then I say Leon deserved that ice-pick for muddying the waters with so much "been-there-done-that" and pig ignorance. Three examples:
The term exploitation, for example, should be not a moralizing one but a cold measure of the difference between use value and exchange value, or between the wages earned at the coal face and the real worth of that labor to the mine owner.
This literally makes no sense. It starts off promisingly enough, since, indeed, exploitation is not a moralizing concept in the way it is usually taken to be by undergraduates and analytic philosophers. But how do you measure the difference--coldly or warmly--between the specific (and hence qualitative) function (use-value) of a thing and its exchange-value (quantitatively measured in some equivalent, like money)? How do you measure the difference between quality and quantity? His second attempt is a bit better, in that it replaces nonsense with vagueness. Exploitation is the use of labour (which has as its own end the production of some useful thing) for the purpose of making a profit (its "real worth" to the employer). It has nothing to do with wages, except by circumlocution.

The chapter [in Capital] on new industrial machinery opens with a snobbish quotation from John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy: “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” This must have seemed absurd even at the time, and it appears preposterous after the third wave of technological revolution and rationalization that modern capitalism has brought in its train.
Snobbish? Huh? Absurd? Uh, no. Hitchens thinks this song is about him: "I sure don't seem to work very hard, and my computer does make things so much easier," and then exprapolates to the whole population. I hate to break it to him, but humans work more since the industrial revolution than they did at any other point in history. Even the "beneficiaries" of "the third wave of technological revolution and rationalization" are those lucky folks who basically work all the time--knowledge workers who take their work home with them and are always on call via e-mail, SMS, pager, etc.

Third (and finally): According to Hitchens, one canot overlook the "critical shortcoming of Capital—no pricing policy." This takes two standard complaints and conflates them into one really bizarre complaint. The two standard complaints are 1) that Marx's "labour theory of value" does not predict market prices, and 2) that Marx criticizes capitalism without offering any positive program or political theory. I'm not particularly hot on either of those criticisms, but to combine them as Hitchens has is truly weird. Marx called Capital a critique of political economy. Why would anyone expect such a thing to contain some sort of scheme for setting prices?

I don't have much to say about the Yglesias post or the Crooked Timber post, but there are a couple things of note in the comments. Yglesias' post brings out the standard issue sorts of things, like "the operational details of Marxism economics are nonsense," but it also inspires some real gems. My favorite: "The most notable historical materialists in American politics today are probably the libertarians."

The CT crowd is more academic, and there's a pretty spirited back-and-forth about the merits or lack thereof of Delong's approach to teaching Marx to undergrads. Much of this hinges on Marx's effects a) within economics and b) on the political history of the 20th century. I would actually love to wade into the grass here and respond to just about everything, but I'll restrain myself to making a couple comments.

1. On commenter claims that "whereas Locke had a big impact on theory and the real world, at the end of the day Marx had just a big impact on the real world, not theory." I think this only makes a lick of sense IF you restrict "theory" to economics (and restrict that, moreover, to the Anglo-American academy). Marx had a huge impact in theory: just try understanding 20th century French or German philosophy without understanding Marx--Benjamin, Adorno, Sartre, Beuauvoir, Merlou-Ponty, Bataille, Fanon, Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas, Arendt...every one of them was massively shaped by Marx. Mainstream economics was not very influenced by Marx...but then neither was mainstream patriarchalism very influenced by Locke. The object of a philosopher's criticism rarely takes the criticism to heart and reforms itself to meet the philosopher's criteria.

2. To take the other side of the coin now, I'm always bothered by this talk about theory's impact on the real world. It is especially problematic when we're talking about Marx, since, if you're taking Marx seriously at all, you have to entertain the idea that there is no such "impact." That is, insofar as theory is not already part of the real world, it can have no effect in the real world. Theory does not come to the real world from outside somewhere. People like Marx write books. Those books are read by others, in all sorts of contexts. Those acts of reading are more or less decisive for the other actions of the readers. Etc. I think it is interesting to ask what in Marx's texts allowed them to be taken up into theoretical and politcial practices so alien to the milieu in which Marx was writing, and so alien to the developed object of his theory (capital). What in Marx allows Mao to think of his practice as Marxist? That is an interesting question to me. But I don't think it is helpful to talk about the Chinese revolution as one among a series of impacts that Marx's ideas or theories had in the real world.

3. Finally, another commenter complained about the intro lecture on Marx outlined in Chris Bertram's post as follows: "How about an evaluation of Marx’s ideas? Instead of just describing certain features of Marx’s arguments, how about grappling with them – I thought this is what philosophers were supposed to do? As in, are his arguments convincing? What are their flaws, what are their strong points? To what extent did they pan out, and to what extent didn’t they?" I think this notion of "grappling with" Marx's arguments is precisely what philosophers should avoid doing in the classroom. What "grappling with" means here is "evaluating." Setting oneself up as the evaluator and judge of the past and of thinkers of the past seems like a bad way to do philosophy, especially in the classroom. It's likely to lead not to critical thinking but to self-righteousness. Let Locke and Marx evaluate us--a class that does that is a thousand times more interesting and educational, in my opinion.

This has turned into a long, rambling set of not-so-coherent musings. Brad Delong will have to get his own post, cuz there is just so much wrong it won't fit here!


unemployed negativity said...

God, that Hitchens quote is idiotic. As a published author shouldn't have someone to check this stuff for him. However, that is not what I want to write about. I just want to say that the line "Mainstream economics was not very influenced by Marx...but then neither was mainstream patriarchalism very influenced by Locke" is brilliant. It is right up there with "In America even the Marxists are liberals." I got to start collecting these.

Will Roberts said...

Thanks UN--I think you have started collecting them!

And it seems that editors and fact-checkers and the like are as dead in periodical/newspaper publishing as they are in academic publishing.

LFC said...

Since I read the Crooked Timber thread on Marx as well as the Hitchens piece, I found this post interesting. I am not entirely in agreement with your third point about not "evaluating" thinkers. To "evaluate" X is not necessarily to conclude that X was wrong; you can "grapple with" X and come to the conclusion that X was mostly right or was a genius but not completely right about everything, or whatever. To let Locke and Marx evaluate us and stop there sounds potentially like a recipe for adulation: they were geniuses, we aren't, period. Isn't that more or less what Straussians do in their own somewhat weird way?

Will Roberts said...

It would not be the first time I've been accused of having Straussian tendencies! But, in my own defense, I would say two things.

First, since Locke and Marx, say, fairly obviously disagree about lots of things, allowing yourself to be evaluated by both of them seems to be a good defense against adulation--it's hard to worship two gods. Multiply by the number of really standout texts in the history of philosophy and you get, i think, a robust critical discourse, not worship.

Second, I'm loathe to describe things in terms of "being right" anyway. It seems to me that "being right" is a criterion for little claims, but that the major works of philosophy make big claims, or big systems of claims, from which it is very difficult to isolate interesting little claims about which one could be right or not. That is, I guess I'm a bit of a coherentist about thinking, and am more interested in the whole Gestalt that produces such-and-such a claim, and that makes it seem true. I'm interested in the history of philosophy because it is a series of ways of thinking differently, and thinking differently is interesting.

LFC said...

Fair enough.

Tom Frome said...

Michael Hudson (Kucinich's economic adviser) has interesting things to say about Marx and surplus value and classical economics here, a little way past the midpoint: