In a 2011 article in Jacobin magazine, the Australian political economist Mike Beggs accuses the defenders of ‘orthodox’ Marxist economic theory of creating a ‘zombie Marx’. What matters, Beggs seems to suggest, is not really whether this or that economic theory is correct in its foundations, about which the neoclassical economists of today’s orthodoxy are just as dogmatic as the Marxists are about theirs. Rather, the significance of economic ideas rests in the practice. This practice consists of what he, citing David Harvey, calls “casual empiricism”: “for example, in analyzing the relationship between the US federal government’s deficit and long term interest rates.” The search for foundationalism, being able to found any given economic finding along such empirical or econometric lines on a well-defined and general theory, is the province of a rigid minority of neoclassical economists, and has little to do with the everyday practice of economics. Or so Beggs would have us believe.
He then goes on to conclude from this that it is the Marxists who have a problem, not the neoclassical economists. Unlike their mainstream neoclassical counterparts, Beggs suggests, the Marxist economists have a tendency to prefer ‘going back to the text’ to advancing economic knowledge, and this process has to do with the political commitments of Marxism outside the mainstream. Essentially, Beggs argues that Marxism as a rival school of thought in economics fails, and must fail, precisely because it is not mainstream and does not reconstruct itself along the lines of the methods of the mainstream: “The pursuit of a separate system of economics as something wholly other from mainstream economics isolates us from the political and ideological space where these things take place: better, instead, to fight from the inside, to make clear the social and political content of the categories.” Continue reading “Zombifying Marx”
The annals of Marxist political economy, c.q. the critique thereof, show a great deal of abstruse, opaque, and downright remote argumentation about minutiae. Much of this can be blamed on the persistent habit of Marxist arguments to take the form of disputes about the ‘true Marx’, about what Marx ‘really said’, rather than being arguments on the merits of theories in their own right. This substitution of philology and exegesis for direct debate cannot fail to make already quite abstract arguments even more confusing and distant from everyday political concerns, and thereby even less accessible to the average activist or intellectual interested in developments in Marxist theory. That’s deplorable, and it is incumbent on all those concerned to end this sorry tradition.
That said, the latest round of such argumentation is that between Michael Heinrich and Andrew Kliman and his collaborators on the nature and meaning of the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’.(1) Heinrich is the main exponent of a German school of interpretation of Marx, known as the Neue Marxlektüre, that is heavily philological. Various members of this school including Heinrich himself are involved in the project of the new scientific complete editions of Marx and Engels’ works in German (and the other original languages), known as MEGA2, which perhaps furthers this exegetic mindset. Kliman and his colleagues, on the other hand, are more prominent in the Anglosphere and represent a particular school of Marxist political economy there, best known for developing a powerful critique of prevailing assumptions about the ‘transformation problem’ that has obstructed Marxist economic thinking for so long. This approach, known as TSSI, has made quite an impact and has contributed to clearing the way for actually moving ahead with more novel and empirical work in Marxist economics, in lieu of the repetition of moves that had been the norm for most of the 20th century. Continue reading “Kliman vs Heinrich: An Exercise in Marxology”
One of the core principles of scientific theory is that all theory is specific and limited in its domain. A theory which attempts to explain everything, explains nothing. Equally, the mere observation that ‘everything depends on everything else’ is, while undoubtedly true, useless for scientific inquiry – the virtue rests in identifying the specific and causal connections where possible, or at the very least a model or theory that can explain some subset of the totality of connections in a way that helps us solve problems. To point this out may seem banal, but Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick would have done well to keep it in mind when writing their book, Contending Economic Theories: Neoclassical, Keynesian, and Marxian. As the name implies, this is a work of comparative economic theory, presenting the elementary (say, undergraduate level) versions of each of the theories in a way that allows novices in economics to compare and contrast their methods and approaches.
Such a book is a great idea, as there is a real shortage of clear and accessible comparative material that gives an overview of the different theoretical conceptions and methodological justifications that exist in economics, both orthodox and heterodox – not least because the interaction between method and content is perhaps nowhere as important as in that discipline. Moreover, as Marxist economists of some recent popular renown – at least in the case of Richard Wolff, as Stephen Resnick sadly died earlier this year – you’d expect the authors’ heterodox view of economic theory to make such a comparison more fair and useful than it would be if undertaken by an orthodox neoclassical historian of economics. Continue reading “Book Review: Wolff & Resnick, “Contending Economic Theories””
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””
After a long period of being virtually a lone voice in the non-Marxist wilderness railing against neoclassical economics, its structure, assumptions, and ideas, Professor Steve Keen appears to finally be heard. The current crisis has dented much of public and scientific confidence alike in economic orthodoxy (as it should). Nothing illustrates this better perhaps than the story of the British Queen, Elizabeth II, writing to the colleagues of the London School of Economics and asking them the pointed question: how did you not see this coming, and if you could not, what are you being paid for? This is perhaps somewhat unfair, as the specifics of any particular crisis depend on many specific and contingent factors that the more general and imprecise nature of neoclassical (macro-)economics is barely equipped to address, and few other theories fare that much better. But Keen has rightly pointed out that he did predict this crisis, and also in its form as the collapse of a speculative bubble in real estate and finance, as he did in the previous edition of his excellent best-selling critique of political economy, Debunking Economics. This Cassandra position, now perhaps turned into one more akin to Tiresias, has given him occasion to publish a new and expanded version of this book – one I recommend all readers to buy for its excellent and systematic critiques of the inconsistency of much of the neoclassical framework beyond the sphere of mere applied mathematics.(1)
However, this is not to say one should not also examine Keen’s work itself with a critical eye. As a supporter of the contemporary (neo-)Marxist theories of economics, and since this blog has the purpose, among other things, of promoting a Marxist outlook on politics and economics suitable for contemporary conditions, it is a serious fact that in the book mentioned above Professor Keen rather sharply dismisses the contribution of Marxist economics to understanding modern political economy. (He explicitly subtitles a paragraph: “Why most Marxists are irrelevant, while most of Marx is not”).(2) While he seems inclined to rhetorically praise Marx, he quite explicitly dismisses Marx’s economic theories as inferior to his own approach, which appears based on an understanding largely derived from Piero Sraffa. To go into the specifics of Sraffianism, post-Keynesianism and so forth would require a lengthy narration of the history of economic thought, one that would interest few people. More to the point, the average intelligent layman reading Keen’s book will want to know: who is right? And quite justly so. Now in chapter 17 of his book, Professor Keen provides, after a brief overview of classical economics, essentially three arguments against what he takes as Marx’s theory of value (often called the “labor theory of value”). Therefore, I shall endeavour to rejoin these arguments Keen advances against Marx’s theory of value in due order. –I must warn the reader that this will contain a considerable amount of complex and very abstract discussion, based on Marx’s conceptual understanding and terminology as applied to his pure theory of capitalism. Although I have endeavoured to write it so it is maximally understandable for people not much used to Marx’s terms and way of thinking, one may find it boring and confusing, as I cannot summarize the entirety of his theory as well as address Professor Keen’s critiques. Therefore, one may want to skip this article, or focus only on the sections dealing with the implications of all this theorizing.– Continue reading “Steve Keen’s Critique of Marx’s Theory of Value: A Rejoinder”