Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Anti-Delong: Postscript

In my last post I didn't touch on DeLong's other "explanation" for Marx's errors. I'll do this quickly--it's a minor thing, in some ways, but telling.

DeLong thinks Marx and Engels were led astray by the spectacle of hardship in pre-1850 Manchester, which he claims was not representative of England as a whole. He then writes:
Parliament began to regulate conditions of employment in the 1840s. Parliament began to regulate public health in the 1850s. Parliament doubled the urban electorate in 1867, just as volume 1 of Capital was published. Parliament gave unions official sanction to bargain collectively in the 1870s.
Has DeLong read--heck, has he even heard of--Chapters 10-15 of Capital? Marx was hardly unaware of these developments. Moreover, he even has a theory about their cause. He chalks them up to the working class getting organized! Parliament did not swoop down from on high bearing gifts--working class struggle predates and motivates all legislative victories, on Marx's account.

This goes back to what I previously called DeLong's belief in independent state action. It must be nice to be a neoliberal Keynesian who believes that intelligent and benevolent legislation will be the salve and the salvation of the worker--so long as it is directed by neoliberal Keynesians.

The final, ironic coda on DeLong's worship of the benevolent state is his closing line, in which he attributes Marx's late-born interest in Russia to, among other things, "the failure of the Paris Commune and the founding of the French Third Republic," without bothering to mention that the "failure" of the Paris Commune was its failure to withstand bombardment by the French Third Republic! After which, the French Third Republic demonstrated its benevolent feelings towards its working class citizens by summarily executing an estimated 30,000 of them (while arresting, deporting, and/or executing perhaps another 50,000 in the aftermath).

Anti-DeLong: Volume 3

DeLong explains the "intellectual origins" of Marx's errors:
Marx's beginnings in German philosophy, and the fact that he hooked up in the 1840s with Friedrich Engels whose family owned textile factories in Manchester. German philosophy, or perhaps rather Hegel.
Oh, goody. An economist riding the Hegel hobbyhorse. This should be fun.

DeLong produces a long quotation from Chapter 1, section 4 of Capital, on the fetishism of the commodity. He proclaims that he doesn't understand it at all. Then he conflates his own lack of understanding with lack of intelligibility, and attributes it all to Marx coquetting with the modes of expression peculiar to Hegel. Uh, no. Marx does use some Hegelian terminology in Chapter 1, but most of it is earlier, prior to section 4. I don't see a single Hegelism in the quotation DeLong proffers. But ignorance is not the limit of DeLong's special powers of not understanding. To wit:
To say that "the value relation[s] between the products of labour ... have absolutely no connection with their physical properties" is simply wrong: if the coffee beans are rotten--or if their caffeine level is low--they have no value at all, for nobody will buy them.
Marx does not deny this--he says explicitly and repeatedly that commodities must be use-values in order to bear exchange-value. But he denies that the use-value has any real connection with the exchange value, in the sense of determining it. We'll come back to this.
Nobody I talk to believes that "values" are objective quantities inherent in goods by virtue of the time it took to produce them.
Brilliant methodology. First of all, the whole point of Marx's discussion of fetishism is to say that when we exchange goods in the market we don't think to ourselves, "I'm exchanging a quantity of socially average labour for an equivalent quantity of socially average labour." As Marx puts it:
Men do not [...] bring the products of their labour into relation with one another as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true; by equating their various products to each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. (Capital, Fowkes translation, pp. 166-7)
In other words, Marx doesn't think that values are objective quantities inherent in goods, nor does such a belief constitute the fetishism of commodities. And he says as much repeatedly. Rather the reverse. Values appear to be subjective, to be based on our individual, idiosyncratic preferences. In fact, according to Marx, they are outcomes of the social production process, which goes on behind our backs, as he puts it repeatedly. Back to DeLong:
If the combination of my wealth and its usefulness to me makes me value it the most, then I use it--it is to me what Marx calls a use value.
Use-value in Marx means the concrete functionality of a thing--what it does, in a very Aristotelian sense. There is a persistent tendency in economic discussions of Marx to identify his "use-value" with "utility" when in fact the two are radically divergent. Use-value is function, while utility is, depending on who you're reading, pleasure or preference. DeLong seems to avoid this particular error, at least here, which is admirable. But this does not put this passage beyond criticism, since he seems to imply that I regard a particular thing as a use-value only because I do not regard it as an exchange-value. But use-value is the primitive condition, not the derived condition. Moreover, he drives this home by saying that a thing is a use-value to me only if I value it the most. This is simply not true, both according to Marx and according to, I think, any fair minded consideration of affairs. I might relate to something as to a use-value even if I don't particularly want to use it. The only consideration here is that I treat the thing as a concrete particular, and not as an equivalent to a bunch of other things. The market is not the primary human horizon. Things are useful before (ontologically speaking) they are exchangeable. Indeed, DeLong seems to recognize this in the very next sentence:
But what Marx calls exchange values are really use values to others:
Exchange-values are really use-values to others. Of course DeLong thinks he's criticizing Marx here, when Marx says the same thing. For example, at the beginning of Chapter 2, Marx writes:
For the [commodity] owner, his commodity possesses no direct use-value. Otherwise he would not bring it to market. It has use value for others. (Fowkes trans., p. 179)
DeLong detects here a toehold for The Economists' Criticism of Marx (TM):
Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion that somebody somewhere wants to use it and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn.
DeLong thinks that the latter condition is more concrete than the former, and that they are mutually exclusive. I think he's wrong on both counts.

That somebody somewhere has a use for what I sell is abstract in two senses. First, this "somebody somewhere" is both general and futural. The items on the shelves in the grocery store don't lose their value simply because no customer is currently in the act of buying them. Value refers, in DeLong's story as much as in Marx's, to an expectation grounded in a social division of labour, an expectation about what "people" want, need, etc. Second, the exchange of some goods for other goods posits the equivalence of the goods in question, an equivalence that abstracts from the particular functions of those goods. A sandwich is for eating (this is its use-value). A book is for reading. You cannot eat a book or read a sandwich. Hence, when we say that a book and a sandwich are equivalent as values (they each cost $4.95), we are grounding value in an abstraction, whether we consider this abstraction to be "utility" (Hegel's "need in general") or socially necessary labour-time.

Moreover, there is an equivocation in DeLong's use of "because." As I mentioned above, Marx does not deny that commodities must be use-values; on the contrary, he insists that every commodity must be a use-value, and that every commodity proves that it is a use-value, and that the labour that made it was useful labour, by being exchanged. But being a use-value does not explain why something has value, or why it has as much value as it does. As Hegel says, "man, as a consumer, is chiefly concerned with human products, and it is human effort that he consumes" (Philosophy of Right, s. 196). Or, if you prefer Smith's phrase, through commerce, we all come to rely upon "the assistance and co-operation of many thousands" (Wealth of Nations, I.1). Commodities have value, from this perspective, because the represent a certain amount of effort, effort conditioned, again, by the social division of labour and the development of the means of production. Recognizing that value is conditioned by need does not prohibit recognizing that value is also conditioned by socialized labour.

But this has been the realm of honest discussion, which we must now depart for the realm of hackery. Delong continues:
The distinction between use-value and exchange-value is not something invented by or peculiar to the capitalist mode of production: it is found in all human societies, no matter how large or small, no matter what the glue that holds them together.
Marx doesn't say that the distinction between use-value and exchange-value is peculiar to capitalist society, and you cannot have paid the slightest attention to Capital and come away with this opinion. He says right away on the first page of Chapter 1 that this distinction is definitive of commodities. Commodities existed before capitalist production--I should hope that DeLong recognizes this--and so did the distinction, therefore. However, that does not mean the distinction exists "in all human societies" indiscriminately. It exists only where commodity exchange of some sort goes on. As Marx writes in Chapter 2 of Capital:
Objects in themselves are external to man, and consequently alienable by him. In order that this alienation may be reciprocal, it is only necessary for men, by a tacit understanding, to treat each other as private owners of those alienable objects, and by implication as independent individuals. But such a state of reciprocal independence has no existence in a primitive society based on property in common, whether such a society takes the form of a patriarchal family, an ancient Indian community, or a Peruvian Inca State. The exchange of commodities, therefore, first begins on the boundaries of such communities, at their points of contact with other similar communities, or with members of the latter. So soon, however, as products once become commodities in the external relations of a community, they also, by reaction, become so in its internal intercourse. The proportions in which they are exchangeable are at first quite a matter of chance. What makes them exchangeable is the mutual desire of their owners to alienate them. Meantime the need for foreign objects of utility gradually establishes itself. The constant repetition of exchange makes it a normal social act. In the course of time, therefore, some portion at least of the products of labour must be produced with a special view to exchange. From that moment the distinction becomes firmly established between the usefulness of an object for direct consumption, and its usefulness in exchange. Its use-value becomes distinguished from its exchange-value. (translation slightly modified; my emphasis)
Then, from the misty-reaches of anthropological generalities, DeLong ricochets to the concerns of a contemporary academic economist:
...the labor theory of value [...] is simply not a very good model of the averages around which prices fluctuate. Socially-necessary labor power usually serves as an upper bound to value--if something sells for more, then a lot of people are going to start making more of them, and the prices at which it trades are going to fall. But lots of things sell for much less than the prices corresponding to their socially-necessary labor power lots of the time.
He's not even trying anymore. Marx says the magnitude of value is determined by socially necessary labour-time, not labour-power. Labour-power is a commodity, and hence has a value, and therefore cannot be the determiner of value, since what would explain its own value?

Finally, we come to the punch-line:
This matters because one conclusion Marx reaches is that markets and their prices are a source of oppression--that they aren't sources of opportunity (to trade your stuff or the stuff you make to people who value it more) but rather of domination by others and unfreedom: the system forces you to sell your labor-power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make. And it is that conclusion that human freedom is totally incompatible with wage-labor or market exchange that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads.
There's a funny conflation of "markets" and "wage labour" going on here, which is telling. Marx is not so much concerned with markets in general as he is with the market in labour-power. Capitalist production--and hence a society of generalized market relations--doesn't get off the ground (or stay in the air), according to Marx, unless there are a whole lot of people who don't have any "stuff" to sell, and so have to sell their labour-power. Their ability to do so on the labour market is most certainly a "source of opportunity" not to starve to death--Marx does not deny this--by selling their labour-power to those who "value it more" in the precise sense that they have a use for labour-power (since they own the means of production) that its bearers do not (since, not owning the means of production, their labour-power is useless to them).

DeLong has quite simply missed Marx's entire argument. And as convenient as it might be for him to blame this on Hegel, I think he amply betrays a real unwillingness "look at the thinker, Karl Marx, and what he actually wrote and thought."

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.

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.

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!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Univ. of Louisiana-Lafayette to Lose Philosophy BA

The Louisiana Board of Regents is recommending terminating the degree program in philosophy at the "second ship" University of Louisiana. It is one of a mass of "low-completer" degree programs facing the axe. The Committee of Regents agenda is here (WARNING: PDF). The University recommended keeping the program unconditionally:
The B.A. in Philosophy is one of only three such programs in the state. Philosophy, by its very content and essential relationships with other disciplines, is fundamentally a core discipline in any comprehensive, doctoral granting institution. As the Board of Regents Academic and Student Affairs Committee staff stated in its report at its meeting of August 25, 2004, regarding the then low-completer status of the Philosophy Program at UL Lafayette: The staff notes that ULL is ranked by the Carnegie Foundation as [a] Doctoral Intensive Institution; hence, the B. A. in Philosophy program should probably be considered as a core undergraduate offering for the University. Accordingly, the staff recommends that the program be maintained unconditionally.
The University recommendation also notes that the number of majors has tripled since 2003-04 (the last time the program was under review for its low-completion record. There are also a number of considerations of the program's instrumental value: It's cheap! It raises LSAT scores! Professional ethics!

But the Regents aren't buying it:
The staff is sympathetic with the University desire to retain this program; it is, indeed, a traditional core program of a broad-based liberal arts and sciences institution. Yet, one cannot help but recognize that Philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students. This is reflected in decreasing numbers not only in this program, but others across the country. The issue is not whether Philosophy as a topic of study is an essential component of a broad undergraduate program of studies, but whether a separate and distinct degree in Philosophy is needed. To that question, the staff cannot ignore the statistics. This B.A. program has been a low-completer four out of the five times over a twenty-two year period. Repeated past efforts by the University to enhance student enrollment and completers, while well-intentioned, have not been successful and there is no compelling reason presented here why that pattern should change in the near future.

Accordingly, the staff recommends immediate termination. Currently enrolled student shall be allowed to complete their program of studies within a reasonable frame of time.

I notice three things:
1. One of only three philosophy BA programs in the whole state! (Tulane and LSU must be the others.)
2. The Regents completely ignore the statistics--which do indeed show an increase in enrollment and in majors, both at ULL and nationwide--in order to say that the centrality of philosophy has "lost some credence" among the students.
3. On the other hand, the University doesn't help by hanging its case so heavily on instrumental and service functions. The Regents want to turn Philosophy into a purely service department, so the University is just helping them make their own case.

Istvan Berkeley, of the ULL Philosophy Department, suggest the following:
I politely suggest that the Board of Regents be made aware that their assessment of philosophy, as a declining academic discipline, is incorrect. Any other related thoughts might also be useful. Probably the best method of doing this is to send messages to Dr. Sally Clausen, who is the Commissioner of Higher Education. Her e-mail address is sclausen@uls.state.la.us. The last time they tried to take away our major, we were able to generate a petition with over 1,500 signatures from people around the State of Louisiana. This time we do not have the time to organize such an effort. So, support from philosophers around the world would be very much appreciated. However, as the time is short, please act as soon as you can.
There you go.

CFP: Immanence and Materialism


Date: 23 June 2009
Venue: Queen Mary, University of London
Call for papers deadline: 22 May 2009
All papers and enquiries to: s.j.choat@qmul.ac.uk

Keynote speakers:
Professor James Williams (University of Dundee) Dr Ray Brassier (American University of Beirut) Dr Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London)

The concepts of immanence and materialism are becoming increasingly important in political philosophy. This conference seeks to analyse the connections between these two concepts and to examine the consequences for political thought. It is possible, as Giorgio Agamben has done, to make a distinction within modern philosophy between a line of transcendence (Kant, Husserl, Levinas, Derrida) and a line of immanence (Spinoza, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault). If we follow this distinction, then the "line of immanence" might include Spinozist interpretations of Marx, Althusser's aleatory materialism, and Deleuze's superior empiricism. But what is the value of this work and is it useful to distinguish it from "transcendent" philosophies? Distinctions between materialism and idealism are equally complex: Derrida, for example, might as easily be classed a materialist as an idealist. And where can we place more recent work like the critiques of Deleuze by Badiou and Zizek, or Meillassoux's speculative materialism?

Papers may wish to consider the following questions:
  • What is materialist philosophy? How can it be distinguished from idealist philosophy, and is it useful to do so? Are all philosophies of immanence necessarily materialist?
  • Is it legitimate or useful to make a clear distinction between philosophies of immanence and philosophies of transcendence?
  • How have the concepts of immanence and materialism traditionally been conceived within political philosophy?
  • What, if any, are the political consequences of pursuing a philosophy of immanence?
Paper titles and a 300-word abstract should be sent by Friday 22 May 2009 to Simon Choat at s.j.choat@qmul.ac.uk, Department of Politics, Queen Mary.

Graduate papers welcome.

ME: What are people thinking when they announce conferences on such short notice?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mad Skillz

A recent list-serve post:
I am trying to help a recent recipient of a BA in philosophy get a job as a research associate in a USA policy think-tank. He needs to explain how the study of philosophy has granted him strong research, proofreading, and editing skills. Perhaps someone could suggest materials available online dealing with this?
Apparently this philosophy student learned to outsource all of his research to others who, in turn, outsource all of their research to others. I would assume that a basic operation for research associates at policy think tanks would be to use such arcane resources as libraries and "the Google" to, y'know, find shit out.