Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Re: Brad DeLong critique of Marx

Here is my summary of the liberal fallacies and legitimate grounds for debate in DeLong's critique of Marx:
a) The assertion that historical materialism has not had a permanent and profound effect on historians just reveals that economic history is not Dr DeLong's favorite subject. Its hard, in fact to find a recent history, including the best of American history, that does not draw its strength from the accurate understanding of the economic and material foundations of social life, and vice versa, the bindings/opportunities that social structures in turn impose on the further development of material and economic conditions. Its hard to explain this aversion by DeLong, other than a general underestimation of classes in the realm of intellectuals and ideology. He may need to study the post Keynesians and the behavioral economists even more than he currently is, or just live on mfg wages for a while.
b) "And when Marx and Engels's writings became sacred texts for the world religion called Communism, things passed beyond the absurd into tragedy and beyond tragedy into horror: the belief that the logic of development of the economy was the most important thing about society became entangled in the belief that Joe Stalin or Mao Zedong or Pol Pot or Kim Il Sung or Fidel Castro was our benevolent master and ever-wise guide."
  • Here DeLong deserves a serious answer. Exactly how did we become "entangled" with Stalin? More important -- can we ever win over any significant number of people if we do not become "un-entangled" with his legacy? Why do we feel more comfortable (tell me if I am wrong) with Fidel's leadership than we do with Lula's? Is there any evidence that one will get to "true socialism" faster than the other? I do not think so. Is dictatorship a feature of paticular industrial, international and institutional historical conditions obtaining in certain underdeveloped societies (from a Marxist point of view) or are they truly permanent and inseparable features of Marx's economic analysis of capitalism, even in its advanced forms?
  • The unarguable successes of working class led social-democracy in its various forms raising the standards of life for working people through wage and hour standards, child labor, health and saftety, retirement and medical insurance, and collective bargaining rights, alongside the striking ability of China to retreat from the dictatorship -- at least in economic terms -- into an NEP--mixed style socialism, are two very powerful arguments that the former is the case, and that Marx's statements on this matter in the Gotha Program are seriously incomplete, at best and thus completely wrong to accept as doctrine.
  • The decision of Vietnam to follow its own path of mixed economic innovations, and the example of the emerging "socialist-leaning popular democracies" in Latin America also add strength to the former interpretation. I am one who is sympathetic to the urgency of Lenin's arguments in the dire circumstances workers faced in WWI Tsarist Russia as the autocracy literally collapsed with NO institutions available to realize the minimum worker requirements of a "bourgeois-democratic-republic". However, regardless of sympathy, one must, in hindsight, measure that urgency against the risk of catastrophe that dictatorship implies, and that in fact was fulfilled not long after his death. A risk that Lenin himself became acutely aware of immediately following the civil war, and which inspired the serious rethinking of socialist economics, at least, that resulted in the literature and speeches published defending the NEP.
  • The NEP, in simple terms mandated the return of state - monopoly capitalism as the only viable economic system for developing much of Russia. Lenin died before this struggle had hardly begun, it was ditched by Stalin, and the Russian Communist Party, much of the communist movement, and "Leninism" became bound with chains to a culture and vision of socialism that in fact had no foundation in materialist economic science. The NEP was eventually rescued by Deng Chou Peng and employed to defeat a different economic fantasy born of dictatorship -- even more bankrupt than Stalinism -- Maoism. Delong has a point -- the "science" in decades of "scientific socialism" had nothing to do with Marx. The latter can be forgiven his skepticism regarding bourgeois democratic institutions, and DeLong erroneously tags him for this: In 1848, and even 1875, the level of advance in working class democracy was so marginal as to be laughable to all but capitalist sychophants whose true interest in democracy never extended much beyond property rights in that era.
  • In either case, as long as legal means of struggle for the advancement of workers' interests are available then they must be the primary consideration and the entire concept of dictatorship -- while justifiable in every nation's history in periods of extreme crisis -- convincingly repudiated as a transition to the communist or socialist ideal of society.
  • As Americans we have the example of our own history to guide us in consideration of the questions of democracy and dictatorship. Without question, the period of our history from the Revolutionary War through the Constitutional Convention, and throughout large parts of the Civil War coincided with an effective dictatorship. Yet we were not crippled by centuries of feudal relations. Despite the evils of chattel slavery democratic participation of the population in governing advanced. Republican institutions became stronger. Many argue that reconstruction would have been less cruel had Lincoln lived; and that the caricature of socialism embodied in Stalinism could have also been averted had Lenin lived. But we are where we are. For the US --the mixed-economy model with an ever increasing advance of working class empowerment -- that has to be the vision for mobilizing and unifying left trends among all sections of workers. The rest, everything that does not serve that vision, must be set aside -- convincingly.
c) "The bourgeois period of history has to create the material basis of the new world... universal intercourse founded upon the mutual dependency of mankind... the development of the productive powers of man.... When a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch... and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain..." DeLong ridicules this writing as "prophetic..utopianism". The economist knoweth not himself here. He himself is virtually an icon of one who "shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch", have succeeded largely on his intellectual merit rather than the exploitation of others, is liberal enough in his own social views, and respect for his peers, to consider subjecting himself " to the common control of the most advanced peoples". But extending DeLong's personal rights and opportunities to all who labor is no more Utopian than the declaration of independence that founded this nation. Less so, for it foresees in more material terms how this may indeed be achieved. So again, this "Utopian" accusation against Marx is more an instance, as Jack London once offered in his own defense: "some people were born with an outlook -- I have an "uplook"!
d) "...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." Again, terribly short-sighted. Probably a case of simple professoritis in neo-classical economics -- which always shortchanged history. The communist and socialist movements, revolutions and governments, even the social-democratic gains within capitalist led nations, did not grow to embrace nearlly half of all world society, which they STILL do, without capitalism shedding its varous "freedom" disguises in every crisis. Decades of loans and propaganda did not save neo-liberalism in Latin America. In relatively short periods, by any previous historical standard, capitalism is forced to reveal its weaknesses and failures by its own market discipline. Fox news frauds took from the Lewinsky affair to the election of 2006 to exhaust its fortune in manufactured hot air.
e) "...that even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so. They would be trapped by their own ideological legitimations--they really do believe that it is in some sense "unjust" for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would collapse or be overthrown. The *Wall Street Journal* editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx's prediction come true. But I think this, too, is wrong."
  • The first sentence of this critique is absurd, and shows, among other things, that DeLong never participated in negotiating a labor agreement -- where the "injustice" of paying a "factor" (like labor) of production more than its marginal product was precisely the "moral" defense of management. Nonetheless, DeLong is right that Marx's skepticism on the potential of social democracy was incorrect. The foundation of his error, in my view, is that, despite the fundamental humanity, and soundness, of Marx's vision of what the marriage of technology and labor could ultimately accomplish, he miscalculated the multiple reproductions of capitalist and social relations that advancing technology would impose. In fact, to obtain the ever higher and broader skills that technological revolutions require, and that ultimately true socialist labor relations require, social democracy MUST advance in kind, in fact must lead. To this extent the charge of an element of utopianism in Marx is justified. But cripes -- the guy was supposed to see a 100 years into the future and work it ALL out for you!! Come on Brad!
f) "...that factory work was the wave of the future, and factory work--lots of people living in cities living alongside each other working alongside each other--would lead people to develop a sense of their common interest. Hence people would organize, revolt, and establish a free and just society in a way that they could not back in the old days when the peasants of this village were suspicious of the peasants of that one, and peasants formed not a class for themselves but, rather, a sack of potatoes which can attain no organization but simply remains a sack of potatoes. Here I think Marx mistook a passing phase for an enduring trend. 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..."
  • Here again, Delong shows he has never wandered very deep into the working class movement, since he attempts to criticize Marx apparently unwittingly (?) quoting Lenin's critique of Right wing social democrats support for their nations' imperial ambitions at the 1912 Basel conference of the Second International as being anti-Marxist. However, Delong is really only making a poorly worded argument that Marx's characterization of the proletariat as the special, and most enduring creation of capitalism, was not true, but was actually a feature of a phase in capitalist development. This really mirrors the discussion that took place at the Chicago conf on manufacturing. Statistically, DeLong is right. The working class -- considered as all those whose primary means of survival is selling their labor plus whatever compensation or protection is socialized for all -- has grown immensely. But the proletariat -- homogeneous labor-power concentrated in massive means of production -- that class is a smaller and smaller component of all working people in all advanced capitalist economies. We need to think as creatively about the emerging new worker occupations and ways of live as Marx thought in the 1860's about the emerging and rapidly growing proletariat. Doctrine and dogma will not help here.
g) "Marx believed that capital is not a complement to but a substitute for labor. Thus technological progress and capital accumulation that raise average labor productivity also lower the working-class wage. Hence the market system simply could not deliver a good or half-good society but only a combination of obscene luxury and mass poverty. This is an empirical question. Marx's belief seems to me to be simply wrong". While DeLong oversimplifies Marx's mature position, he is essentially correct. The vision Marx saw as inevitable is one outcome, but not the only one, nor necessarily the climatic one. Delong's oversimplification consists in the fact that capital accumulation and technological progress re-invent all production relations and over time redivide all labor again and again. DeLong seems to completely ignore history here. It does not happen all at once, but incrementally, in waves. Marx's intuition is closer to being right -- there will be collisions, huge ones arising from the contradictions in capitalism he observed. Delong has little intuition or vision -- but he has the benefit of 150 years of record however to study. And Marx's schema was incomplete on this.
"Marx the economist did not like the society of the cash nexus. He believed that a system that reduced people to some form of prostitution--working for wages and wages alone--was bad. He saw a society growing in which worked for money, and their real life began only when the five o'clock whistle blows--and saw such an economy as an insult, delivering low utility, and also sociologically and psychologically unsustainable in the long run. Instead, he thought, 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."
I am pretty sure DeLong views his job as exactly an expression of his "species-being: to gain honor or professions that they were born or designed to do or as ways to serve their fellow human." So this is just the jealous arrogance of professoritis again: He enjoys it himself but disregards objections that the pleasures of his kind of work ought to devolve to all!
The rest of DeLong's argument is, as Scott says, a wordy digression into the theory of value that only again shows that DeLong is not much of a student of philosophy -- at least he does not write very coherently on this to me. In his discussion of Hegel, for example, he misses the actual Hegelian component in Marx's analysis of value: exchange value -- "socially necessary labor" is indeed the only QUANTIFIABLE, NUMERICAL abstraction amenable to price computations. How can an elephant hide and windows vista be compared numerically. They have no innate features by which they could be universally compared, and assigned a price, except by quantities of various kinds of labor or embedded labor inputs. Yet consider how one might actually calculate this "value" -- exchange value -- in Marx's capital. In theory, labor is expended in time units; and wage labor is paid in time increments. However the kinds of labor can differ not only in quantity but also nearly as much in quality as the elephant hide and windows vista differ. And qualitative differences multiply as technological revolution and redivision of the workforce evolve. Once labor becomes, as it is indeed for Professor DeLong's workday, almost entirely intellectual or creative and its product intangible (economic ideas) as well, the ability to quantify, and thus actually measure or converge "socially necessary labor" to a NUMBER becomes even more difficult. Since quantities and qualities of labor are constantly changing in time, scale and complexity, the task of ever assigning that "Number" -- almost like the mysterious IQ "NUMBER" -- are impossible. In fact, Marx's exchange value is very much an Hegelian category. But it is not, as DeLong asserts, a tautology. Socially necessary labor "exists" surely as long as there is a cost to production and a material social division of labor; and it is certainly different from the particular utility an elephant, or windows Vista, might have. Lenin made a profound observation on the concept of the IDEAL becoming REAL: that in the remaking of societies and worlds, the action of multitudes of humans might indeed -- through their mastery of a part of the material world -- perform that magic as science.
So, I assert the following: In a debate between Professor DeLong and myself on the value in studying Karl Marx, in which I concede the points of value he has made, and raise the objections I do to his weaknesses from shortsightedness, and the class bias (or blindness) of his experience and conditions of work and life, I win a lot more support for socialism from ANY group of working people than a) calling him "silly", or b) resorting to the ideology of the Greek CP.