On the assassination in Woolwich

Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Continue reading “On the assassination in Woolwich”

Book Review: Michael Heinrich, “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital”

The first thing to note about the recently much discussed An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital is that it is no such thing. What Michael Heinrich has done in this work is not give an introduction to the book for the new reader, but provide a critical summary of its contents seen from the point of view of the so-called ‘new critique’, also known as the ‘value-form’ analysis of Marxism. This particular analysis focuses, as Heinrich says in the introduction, on a particular interpretation of Marx’s value theory. This is not illegitimate: there are various major interpretations of Marx’s value theory, not least because of its complexity and opacity, and it makes sense for an author to be clear about his or her commitments to a particular one so that the reader knows what is going on. However, throughout the book the structure of the argument is more often than not polemical, explicitly or implicitly, against rival interpretations of Marx – both the attempts to make Marxism into a more general theory than Heinrich finds warranted, which he describes as “worldview Marxism” or “traditional Marxism”, and rival interpretations of Marx’s value theory specifically. While polemicizing, however, he declines to identify any of his opponents or opposing currents by name, making the exercise both fruitless as an effective counterargument – because a newbie would not know what it was a counterargument against – and as a contribution to the debate. Attacking opponents without naming them or explicitly citing their viewpoints is a dishonest strategy, but one sadly common in Marxist polemics, even about such seemingly abstract topics as value theory.(1)

The risk of such an approach is that it either agitates against straw opponents, making the author seem more convincing by arguing against views that his main interlocutors do not really hold, or that it creates any number of false dichotomies: making the author’s viewpoint seem strictly contrasting to those of others, when it is by no means certain that they cannot be compatible or reconciled. Heinrich does both of these to some extent. Now this may also follow somewhat from the generally philological style of argument that pervades the book, and is not a reflection on Heinrich’s ill intent or conscious deception. But it does further take away the purpose of the book as an ‘introduction’, rather suggesting it should be read more as a polemic in the form of a restatement or reinterpretation of Marx’s theories. That is of itself fair enough, and happens plenty; but it would be better to explicitly advertise it as such, certainly in a time when many are newly seeking out radical understandings of economic theory and may encounter this as a guide to Marx’s magnum opus, which it simply is not. Of course, with a work of this type, one can always find any number of expressions and formulations of issues that one would have written differently. Nitpicking such things is not helpful; I will therefore not mention all of the minor points of disagreement or different emphases I would have, but outline a few of the central issues. Continue reading “Book Review: Michael Heinrich, “An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Marx’s Capital””

A Plaque for Rainsborough

Tower Hamlets Council have announced that the church of St. John, Wapping, will finally receive a heritage plaque for the gravesite of Thomas Rainsborough (1610-1648).(1) As acknowledged leader of the Leveller cause within the Putney Debates, he became known as Colonel Rainsborough in Cromwell’s New Model Army, where he served with great courage and distinction, finally being killed in a commando raid to seize him at the siege of Pontefract (1648). At the Putney Debates, held in 1647, the constitutional structure of the England that was to come was decided – it represented the fighting out of the different ideological positions among the coalition that formed the rebel forces of what kind of cause they were truly fighting for. As has often been remarked in the historiography of the English Civil War, like with any revolutionary cause the rebels soon split between a radical and a more reformist wing. Unlike in the case of the later French or Russian Revolutions, it did not wholly come to force to decide the matter between them, but the Putney Debates foreshadowed the dominance of the reformist wing against the radical – perhaps inevitable given how much some of the radical demands were ahead of their time. Continue reading “A Plaque for Rainsborough”

Book Review: Paul Cantor & Stephen Cox (eds.), “Literature and the Economics of Liberty”

It has often been remarked that if Marxism is still dominant somewhere, it must surely be in cultural studies and in literary criticism, especially in academia. For whatever historical contingencies have made it so, it is undeniable that, at least within the Anglosphere, these disciplines have proven particularly pervasively and stubbornly Marxist in their approach since that body of thought was introduced within them. While the methods have been very divergent, between cultural materialism and the New Criticism, and by no means all of the scholars in these fields have been Marxists, it seems that Marxism left a bigger and more lasting stamp on them than on any other. One may wonder what Marx would have made of this – while he was fond of literature and he and his family often discussed novels, poetry, and theatre, surely he would have found the scientific conquest of history and what is now called economics more important. However that may be, one interesting product of this influence of Marxism has been the school of literary criticism interested in ‘economics and literature’ – in a broad sense, both the application of economic ideas to the study of literature or its production as well as the reflection of such ideas in the content of the literary works themselves. This, too, has often been Marxist in its approach, or at least socialist in its sympathies.

For this reason, it is interesting to see something quite rare: a work of literary criticism, explicitly with an economic mode of interpretation, written from the political-economic right. It is rare enough to have economists who read anything, as is easily revealed by the profound lack of humane imagination that prevails in the charmed circles of neoclassical economics disputes (as for example Philip Mirowski has observed). It may be for this reason that such a book has been written by a series of economically informed literary critics: all but one of the contributors to Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s volume, Literature and the Economics of Liberty, are professors of English lit. It also seems suitable that they are not, in fact, writing from a neoclassical point of view, but explicitly with the purpose of promoting the Austrian School of economics in and through their analysis of literature. This school distinguishes itself in several respects from neoclassical economics, and is properly considered heterodox: mainly because, while it is even much more strongly free trade in orientation, its epistemology and methods are vastly different. It rejects modelling, econometrics, and quantification as the guiding principles of economic theory, and rejects equilibrium ideas, preferring instead to understand markets as inherent results of human activity, naturally created heuristics for the discovery of information under conditions of uncertainty. It sustains such an approach through some strong axiomatic notions of human nature, and much of the Austrian School literature is a working out of the philosophical consequences of this view of human nature: the Smithian person – with the natural tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ – writ large. All the accoutrements of modern capitalism are merely the result of letting this natural habitus of humanity do its thing, and therefore the more free the markets, the more free the people. Continue reading “Book Review: Paul Cantor & Stephen Cox (eds.), “Literature and the Economics of Liberty””