May 8, 2013
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.
It should not come as a surprise to the reader that my views are quite diametrically opposite to these, and if any doubt remained, this review should help dispel them. That said, this book is an intriguing approach to the discussion of economic theory. There is no question about it that that is its purpose: literary criticism is important, but it is clearly presented as a means to an end. The main target of the criticism, as often with Austrian School thinkers, is Marxism, which in some respects is that school’s mirror image and its perpetual object of hostility. The introduction by Paul Cantor, who holds the chair in English Literature at the University of Virginia, is from the get go addressed at the perceived dominance – far past its prime, of course – of Marxism in academe. The suggestion is that while the economics and literature approach rightly puts economic ideas central, it, and by implication cultural studies generally, could be much improved if everyone jettisoned the old baggage of Marxism and adopted the favored principles of Austrian economics instead. As Cantor and Cox write: “His materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic view of reality stamps him as very much a man of the mid-nineteenth century. A great deal has been discovered in the sciences since Marx’s day, including the science of economics…”(1) This science, we are to understand, is that of the Austrian School, not that of any of its rivals. We should choose the latter over the others because of its emphasis on spontaneous order by the interaction of chaotic micro-elements, something fitting the modern age of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. “Austrian economics, with its emphasis on chance, uncertainty, and unpredictability in human life, is far more in tune than Marxism with these trends in modern science.”(2)
In fact, something can be said for this. It is true that what has often been lacking in the apparatus of Marxist economic thought is a substantive understanding of systems theory, in particular organizational theory and the generation of various ordered systems through the random or arbitrary interaction of different elements, allowing for various possible equilibria. Neoclassical economics has much made use of this, through (evolutionary) game theory and developments in microeconomics, and it has formed a major theoretical bulwark for the development during the Cold War of what became known as the ‘military-industrial complex’ underpinning the postwar liberal order, as Adam Curtis has argued in his documentary reconstruction.(3) However, it remains to be seen whether these ideas, or concepts of evolutionary economics, will prove incompatible with Marxist ideas altogether, and to the degree that the latter must be abandoned. The epistemological notion of spontaneous order may not play the role Austrian economists think it does. It is all the more a shame therefore that in their engagement with Marxism on this basis, the Austrian-inspired thinkers make such a hash of their representation of Marxist ideas and approaches themselves. Instead of informing themselves about their opponent, they consistently prefer to knock down straw men, and their criticisms are therefore often quite beside the mark. That the discourse is laden with references to ‘freedom’, the ‘individual’, and the supposedly humane nature of Austrian thought serves no more than a decorative purpose, a way to keep up the morale of the fans. In this way, an opportunity for fruitful engagement on the relatively neutral terrain of literature was missed.
Austrian economics seems to rest mainly on strong assumptions. Not just about human nature, and what this may imply – in which it indeed differs strongly from Marxism – but also about its opponents’ views. In his introduction, Cantor and Cox outline what they perceive the prevailing Marxist approach to literary criticism to be: “Marxist critics often practice what is known as the hermeneutics of suspicion—that is, they question the motives of authors and seek to explain why some would ever choose to support capitalism.” Against this, this collection is supposed to offer the opposite viewpoint, that is to analyze whether particular authors were socialists and if so, why that may be. But I venture that few Marxist literary critics would recognize themselves in this description in the first place, making the contrary enterprise appear spiteful. Another major target of the Austrians is to depict Marxism as ‘reductive’ and ‘collectivist’, making economic analysis about the operation of macro-level forces on the interests of individuals. In contrast to this, Austrian economics supposedly offers a more contingent and humane vision of individual freedom. No doubt this has a strong romantic appeal. But if this boils down to the statement that “our analyses are based on detailed, careful readings of individual texts treated in their integrity—in sharp contrast to the Marxist tendency to disregard authorial intention and, in the style of Fredric Jameson, to seek to ferret out the “political unconscious” in literary works”, Jameson as well as other literary critics of a Marxist bent (such as, say, Raymond Williams or Aijaz Ahmad) may rightly protest that this depiction of their views will make the present collection stand out a little bit too easily couleur de rose. The authors would have done better to actually read some Marxist literary criticism, beginning with Marx himself, in order to understand what it is they want to argue against, and to do so with the same care and as “worthy of being taken seriously and treated with respect” as they claim is appropriate for the literary authors themselves.(4)
Paul Cantor’s first chapter continues in this vein. Here, the general notion of Marxism seems to be derived from the most skeptical works in the early Frankfurt School, as in Adorno and Horkheimer’s wariness of ‘the mass’ in the wake of fascism. Counter to this, he suggests taking the wishes and demands of consumers seriously, and opposes the Frankfurter picture of a mass culture artificially imposed as a vehicle for false consciousness, preferring to see cultural production as responding to legitimate market demands. Hayek already remarked that one cannot meaningfully distinguish ‘real’ from artificial tastes, and the implication is that attempting to do so in the name of Marxist theory risks being condescending and misunderstanding the popular culture itself. This criticism, again, has some genuine merit, and I share its wariness of the elitism that is the consequence of especially Adorno’s distancing from mass activity and interests (Marcuse, for all his faults, at least did not report the 1968 student movement to the police.)
But again, the sneering tone and the triumphal assaults on straw opponents Cantor indulges in weaken my ability to take this seriously as an Austrian critique. Marxism is accused of “crudeness”, of having “lost prestige” everywhere, of having “done damage to our understanding of literature.” Yet what is this based on? A number of total misreadings of Marxist economic theory, just as the rest of the collection tends to misread Marxist cultural criticism. This is surely a serious flaw in a work of literary scholarship. Cantor, for example, offers the following argument: “It is one of the many ironies of literary criticism today that postmodernists, who deny all objectivity, have linked up with Marxism, a form of economics rooted in the labor theory of value, which seeks to determine value on the basis of an objective factor. The fact that Austrian economics clearly acknowledges that all economic value is purely subjective is one reason why it should be more attractive to literary critics than Marxism as an economic theory.”(5) One does not have to know very much about Marxist economic ideas to see the spuriousness of this line of reasoning. The use of ‘value’ in the sense of value theory in classical economics is by no means wholly the same as its colloquial meaning (or else no notion of labor value could possibly be entertained); conflating the two to argue that Austrian economics, supposedly having a ‘subjective theory of value’, is more amenable to (postmodern) literary criticism because postmodernism prefers subjectivity is surely a triple equivocation of terms! Similarly, we are invited to prefer Austrian approaches because Michel Foucault, at the end of his life, recommended his students at the Collège de France to read Hayek and Von Mises as examples of the ‘will not to be governed’. This is surely an odd kind of argument. One cannot escape the impression that many of the attacks on Marxism, and the elevated language of ‘freedom’ and ‘individualism’ used throughout the book, are designed to emotionally appeal to academics to gain their approval the Austrian thinkers desperately crave more than it is to seriously argue against Marxist conceptions.
The first chapter also contains the only serious attempt at explaining the prevalence of Marxist approaches in cultural studies, surely important if it is so evidently wrong. “[The] materialist approach to culture is the distinctive Marxist contribution to the understanding of human history”, Cantor tells us. “Contemporary literary critics carry on the Marxist polemic against the “great man” theory of history, the supposed bourgeois propensity to overrate the importance of individuals in historical developments.”(6) In practice, this means that “In classic Marxist literary criticism, authors operating in a market system are routinely portrayed as captives of capitalist ideology.”(7) One may doubt whether there is much truth to this last statement – it certainly does once again little justice to the nuanced, detailed, and closely read interpretations of literature and its authors offered by figures such as Terry Eagleton, who himself defines the Marxist approach as “to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history”.(8) This, of course, must be rejected. Marxism, we are told by our editor, “involves a fundamental category error—it tries to understand economic and social phenomena on the model of events in the physical world, that is to say, human events on the model of non-human events.” Moreover, “Marxism compounds the error by trying to understand cultural phenomena in terms of economic, and thus it becomes doubly reductionist in its treatment of art. In short, in the longstanding conflict between the natural sciences and the humanities, Marxism leans toward the former…”(9)
If this seems a strangely philosophical, perhaps even ethical critique, this is less odd than it may seem – this is precisely the mode of criticism most favored by Austrian thinkers. “As a form of historical determinism, Marxism undercuts the idea that the artist is free as a creator… [it] works to efface the distinction between the great author and the ordinary run of humanity.” And this, of course, the Austrian school cannot countenance. The cardinal assumptions of this school rest in its view of human nature and its unflinching commitment to methodological individualism, to the point of absurdity. Indeed, it emphasizes the axiom of ‘consumer sovereignty’, by which is meant taking the individual with her preferences, values, views, and actions as something of an uncaused cause: any attempt to inquire as to what forces determine or shape human values and preferences is explicitly forbidden. Only on this basis can the ethical-philosophical critique of Marxism as ‘collectivist’ (because concerned with macro-level phenomena) and ‘reductive’ be sustained. Reduction to classes is bad; reduction to individuals good. Promoting the historical is bad; promoting individual genius, independent or contingent with respect to time, is good.
The unstated assumption throughout all Austrian critiques of Marxism, including in this book, is then that Marxism is really just a stalking horse for the denial of the ethical significance of the individual versus the state, and of the value of freedom. Literature seems a clear terrain to illustrate the significance of both these phenomena, so Cantor et al. cannot be blamed for exploring it (indeed, it is testament to the narrow economic theory emphasis of most Austrian thinkers that it has not much been done before). But neither assumption is true, and therefore such critiques fall flat. Marxism is, in fact, not dedicated to the proposition that the state is more ethically important or superior to the individual, nor is Marxist economics a study in the achievement of total state control – as the final contributor, LSE political theorist Chandran Kukathas, better recognizes. Marxism is also before everything else a philosophy of freedom, seeking the direct social control over the total productive forces of society in a cooperative manner as the fulfilment of freedom: in other words, freedom as self-determination. This is not so far from the Austrian idea of the individual as the basis of freedom, except it is not oriented towards the private, but the fully social determination of freedom. This is the basis of its critique of private property in means of production, not the notion of “equality of wealth” as the ultimate socialist principle, as Cantor suggests in his essay on Shelley.(10)
These misconceptions pervade the discussion of the literature itself as well, which I will consider somewhat more briefly. A typical case is Dario Fernández-Morera’s discussion of Cervantes, whom he argues, supposedly against the grain, was a defender of free trade and ‘free markets’ against feudal and mercantilist impositions. This is possible, he reminds us: the Salamanca School of Spanish economic thinkers – considerably predating even the Physiocrats, let alone the classical economists like Smith – already established canonical arguments for free trade in commodities, abolition of high imposts and restrictive licenses, and so forth. Moreover, Cervantes’ own active involvement in state activities (as a tax collector, for example) and his military adventures that saw him enslaved by North Africans for several years may have given him a strong sense of liberty, which for the Austrians naturally tends towards the market.
This is explicitly presented as a literary reading contrasting with the Marxist: Fernández-Morera “[wants] to examine Cervantes not so much as a capitalist avant la lettre but as a writer whose works present situations, statements, and ideas that illuminate sympathetically important aspects of the market economy, while providing material for a critique of collectivism, statism, and redistributionism.” Not a word is breathed of the fact that Marx himself considered Cervantes one of his favorite writers; that he read him in the original Spanish; and that in Marx’s own literary interpretation, he explicitly considered Don Quixote to be a satire on feudalism and mercantilism on the part of the newly rising bourgeoisie, showing the foolishness and outdatedness of the old feudal holdovers and mentality.(11) Indeed, this fact was used profitably by Graham Greene in his contrasting of Catholic and Communist ideas and values in Monsignor Quixote, proving Greene a more astute reader of Catholic literature than Fernández-Morera.
Paul Cantor’s essay on Shelley is more interesting. Here, Cantor makes a plausible and intriguing reading of Shelley, whose radicalism of political and economic views was notorious in his own day and whose reputation as a left-wing figure has persisted since. Cantor suggests that rather than being a forerunner of socialism, as is often suggested, Shelley’s overriding concern was actually with combating the mercantilist economic structure of absolutism. In particular, his works after the early Queen Mab (which Cantor admits as more socialistic) are aimed at the aggrandizement of the public debt caused by the warmongering of the ruling class, and its consequences in the middle class support for aristocratic rule – in exchange for interest – and the heavy taxation of the ‘productive’ population. Cantor ascribes this to the influence of William Cobbett; in particular his obsession with the gold standard as a friend of working people rather than its later perception as an imposition by a ruling class, as with W.J. Bryan’s ‘cross of gold’. The Austrian viewpoint is also in favor of metallic currencies, generally, as this prevents government power over banking, which they see as an illegitimate monopoly. For this reason, Cantor’s case would make Shelley appear more favorable to the Austrian viewpoint rather than the socialist.
But here again, a misreading of the Marxist idea of socialism mars the analysis. Far from being a question of opposing pure equality to capitalism, as Cantor seems to suggest, Marxists would readily recognize in figures such as Shelley the type of the ‘bourgeois radical’, aimed at the furthest extension of liberal principles against the ancien régime, wherever it may be – not dissimilar to the Jacobins in the French Revolution. The latter, too, preached revolution and yet emphasized free trade. It is that tradition that Shelley works in via Cobbett, and it is no strike against Marxism. Marx was a fan of Cobbett and recommended his Rural Rides to his correspondents. It also does not establish that Shelley’s radical liberalism could not have extended in a socialist direction, given his associations and ideas of the ‘productive’. Indeed, Michael Scrivener has shown the mutual influence between Shelley and “radical artisan poetry”, the work of self-taught craftsmen whose political radicalism tended towards ideas of freedom as increase of leisure and an opposition to the coercion to labor the market generates.(12) By the end of the 19th century, this early radical liberalism – satirizing monarchism, religion, and poverty – would morph into the anarchism of Swiss watchmakers as well as the Marxist idea of the reduction of necessary labor time.
Another essay of Cantor’s considers H.G. Wells, in particular his successful novel The Invisible Man (1897). One can tell that Cantor’s abilities as a literary critic are greater than the others in this collection, in terms of style, engagement with alternative readings, and empathetic understanding of the potentialities of meaning within the book. Indeed, perhaps even more so than the Shelley article, this piece is worth reading quite aside from the question of the right economic interpretation of literature. The interpretation of Wells’ book is based on a very Marxist-like reading of the relationship between Wells’ own position and intentions and the final product of the work, examining the contradictions produced in the book as reflections of those in Wells’ own social and economic ideas. If this seems contrary to the spirit of romantic individualism promised early on, it makes the critique all the better for it, perhaps inadvertently proving the opposition right. Indeed, with reason Cantor in the introduction is said to “turn Marxist ideology critique back on itself”.(13) This essay is perhaps the most successful of the critiques, as it demonstrates serious problems with Wells’ conception of his socialism, as revealed in The Invisible Man. As Cantor describes it, the book operates at two levels: the titular invisible man is the force of capital itself, pervading everything and disturbing all social order without being accountable to anyone or even directly visible as a force, and in this form Wells depicts him as the enemy of society. But the invisible man is also the lone hero-scientist who is neglected and unrecognized, despite being smarter than all others, and whose role is to prove his superiority through some invention (invisibility) that will force the urban crowds of modern life to recognize his individuality and genius.
This Nietzschean streak, and Wells’ positive depictions of the powers of the state and police in pursuing the invisible man, give an elitist and authoritarian streak to his ‘socialism’, one that makes it at times sound more fascist than socialist. Cantor notes Wells opposed fascism, but sees in his interest in Stalin’s USSR a reflection of the same ideals. Whatever that historical judgement may be, there is something striking about Cantor’s depiction of Wells’ interest in socialism mainly as a mechanism for the elevation of the underappreciated intelligentsia over the power of money – the parallels with G.B. Shaw and similar figures are strong, as is supported by various quotes by Wells to that effect. As Cantor writes: “If, then, I seem to have given a contradictory account of The Invisible Man, the reason is that a fundamental contradiction lies at the core of Wells’s thinking. He upheld a socialist ideal of community, and yet at the same time he saw a form of heroic individualism as the only way to bring about socialism… Wells’s socialism is ultimately aesthetic and aristocratic in nature; it is rooted in his conviction that, as an artistic visionary, he is superior to the ordinary mass of humanity.”(14) As a critique of the common aesthetic defenses of socialism, often so eerily similar to the aesthetic appreciations of fascism (say, by Pound), this is good stuff, and something many socialists can in fact find agreement with. Indeed, Wells’ and Shaw’s socialism seem quite akin to the ‘feudal socialism’ or ‘true socialism’ Marx and Engels already decried as ineffective or outright reactionary in the Communist Manifesto.
The last essay I will consider is the final chapter of the book, a reading of Ben Okri’s classic The Famished Road by Chandran Kukathas. This in some sense illustrates the book. Kukathas is, of all the authors, by far the best informed about Marx’s own writings and ideas, and avoids some of the silly interpretations of Marxism that Cantor and others maintain (such as the role of freedom in Marx’s work). As a Professor of Political Theory at the LSE, one would expect this of him. Yet his reading of Okri seems weak proportional to the degree that he attempts to establish the correctness of Austrian economic thought through it. Indeed, for those who complain of Marxism as an overly reductive reading fitting literature into a socialist scheme, the readings in this book, especially of Okri, are themselves sometimes remarkably simplistic. What’s more, any notion of chaos, contingency, or individual diversity in literature is immediately enlisted in the service of the concept of ‘spontaneous order’, underpinning the free market. Markets play a major role in Okri’s book, as Kukathas rightly notes, and the general tendency of the work is to outline the chaos of the market and the chaos of the political world as related phenomena. Indeed, since the protagonist is a teenage boy, it is no surprise chaos should reign. Much of the stuff of maturity consists in coming to comprehend the structures, regularities, and expectations of life, patterns which seem radically contingent when one is a teenager.
But there is more to it than that. As the protagonist, Azaro, is a spirit child, he is granted the ability to perceive the elements of this chaos – this-worldly and otherworldly – transparently in a manner normal people cannot, and it is through this lens that the world of the market, the world of consumption, the world of labor, and the world of politics are described. For Kukathas, the defining point of the book is to illustrate that these are all separate realms, with no necessary connection, and characterized by conflict emerging from human nature – therefore no historical materialism can make sense, and no socialism can work. It is a shame therefore that this collection was published in 2009, as in 2011 David McNally in his Monsters of the Market – itself a major work of contemporary Marxist literary scholarship – provided a lengthy reading of the same work by Ben Okri. Contra Kukathas, for McNally the very ghostly essence of the market, the place where Azaro repeatedly is swept away into the otherworld by the powers of the normally Unseen, and the unfolding reality of the this-worldly through his growing awareness of his father’s exploitation by back-breaking labor both combine to form a radical reading of the power of capital as money to subvert the settled patterns of life and to operate behind the backs of individuals.
As with Wells, the otherworldly power of capital is precisely that it does not depend on individuals, but acts as a social relation between them, into which they are born and which determines their incentives, behavior, and indeed whether they live or die. As Kukathas does not seem to be aware of, such Gothic novel elements in capitalism are already identified by Marx, when he writes about the process of commodification that makes money seem to command objects: “[a] table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”(15) In Okri’s context, this power of what Marx called ‘exchange value’ and the related fetishism of commodities expresses itself supernaturally in the market: “The market is a night-space, a world of violence and danger. The daylight world of ordinary perception obscures the true nature of the forces that inhabit the market. But, for those able to see in the dark, the market emerges as what it truly is, a forest world dominated by malevolent spirits of the night.”(16)
I leave it to the reader to judge which of these rival interpretations of markets in literature best reflects the reality of these social institutions.
1) p. x.
2) p. xi.
3) Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011).
4) p. xvi.
5) p. 9.
6) p. 13, 15-16.
7) p. 17.
8) Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London 1976), p. 2.
9) p. 17.
10) p. 250.
11) See: Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1, Ch. 1, n34. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm
12) Michael Scrivener, “Shelley and Radical Artisan Poetry”. Keats-Shelley Journal 42 (1993), p. 22-36.
13) p. xvii.
14) p. 321-322.
15) Marx, op. cit., Ch. 1, section 4.
16) David McNally, Monsters of the Market (Leiden 2011), p. 239.
April 3, 2013
I have been doing an email interview with comrade C.D. Varn on new ideas and developments in Marxist theory and prospects for the future. It can be seen on the website of The North Star, here.
March 17, 2013
There are books which are of such kind that upon reading them, one immediately knows one is dealing with a future classic. Such a book is Neil Davidson’s How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions?. A sprawling, immensely erudite, and deeply impressive work spanning a good 650 pages of text, this work is a great exercise in Marxist historiography. It deals, as the title suggests, with the famous question of ‘bourgeois revolution’: what it is, when it does and does not apply, how it has been used, and what its political implications may be. The better part of the book is taken up with discussing the concept in the history of the historical discipline, both among Marxists and the mainstream, and with discussing the core examples that have served as ‘ideal types’ for bourgeois revolution: the French Revolution, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, the Dutch Revolt (which we call the ‘Eighty Years’ War’), and finally the American Civil War. Davidson has an almost unprecedented grasp of the immense amount of writing on the subject, from the reflections immediately after the French Revolution onwards to current-day historiography, and this book is invaluable alone for the overview it provides on the subject of how the concept of bourgeois revolution has been used and abused in history-writing during that span of time. Read the rest of this entry »
February 21, 2013
This is the transcript of a paper held at Brunel University, London, UK, at 07.02.2013.
The world is a vampire. That is to say: the world as it appears today, the capitalist world, is a kind of society uniquely oriented towards the accumulation of labor time for its own sake, and the production and exchange of commodities is the means through which this is achieved. In the classical economics of the 19th century and even more so in the neoclassical economics of today, much effort has been expended on naturalizing this type of society, that is, on making it seem like the inevitable structure of human society once a certain level of technological advance or social sophistication has been reached. Economic history has often been derivative of this view, that it is mankind’s lot, in Adam Smith’s words, to “truck, barter and exchange”. The transformation of all goods into commodities produced for and sold in the market appears then as a natural outcome of the progress of society, and history of the economic in turn appears as merely a casting off of those restrictions on natural liberty which prevent the full flourishing of the market pur sang.
Now it is well-known that this view was strongly contested in the thought of Karl Marx, whose critique of political economy was devoted to the denaturalization of capitalist society. For Marx, it was of the utmost importance to show that capitalist society had its own logic, with a historical origin, and therefore also, at least potentially, a historical end. That which has originated at a definite point in history as the result of conscious and unconscious political and economic transformations is something which can also end by such means. Marx’s theory of value, often called the ‘labor theory of value’ (although Marx did not call it that), is often and rightly understood to have served the purpose of describing the logic of capitalism as its own unique system in this light. Although the classical economists had theories of value, at least for capitalism, and although arguably neoclassical economics has a hidden value theory as well, the idea is most generally associated with Marxist thought. For this reason I will start there, with its historical and ontological status. Then I will talk about the possible meaning of this concept of value for precapitalist societies, how we could define it, and what this might mean for our understanding of economic history as a discipline.
Now there is much to Marx’s theory of value, his theory of crisis and so forth, but these I do not want to go into – my purpose here is not to elucidate what Marx’s theory of value is, nor to defend it as correct. It has often been criticized and from many different political angles, and while I personally think it stands up very well in the latest economic theory literature, that is not what this lecture is about. For many, Marx’s theory of value often seems to be the sticking point keeping them from accepting his general analysis: people just can’t wrap their heads around what it is supposed to be, what purpose it is supposed to serve. It is clear Marx found it important, and tried to make political points with it, but it seems too elaborate and abstract a system to be merely a cover for a number of moral and political criticisms of capitalism – after all, many have been formulated that had no need to refer to a theory of value. In the Marxist economic literature, there is an extensive amount written on defending, elucidating, improving, and applying his theory of value. However, my feeling is that this literature is lacking in one significant dimension: there is very little explanation or defense of the theory of value itself. By this I mean, not even just Marx’s theory of value, but the need for any theory of value at all: what kind of thing a theory of value is, and why economic historians, in particular, might need one. This is what I want to analyze today. My remarks on this are preliminary, and should be taken as such: I am merely attempting to explore some, to my mind, fairly unexamined ground here.
So what kind of beast is a theory of value? Is it really merely a rhetorical device, a mere metaphysics, as so many critics from the economic mainstream have suggested throughout the years? To my mind, if Marx’s theory of value is to work as a theory, it should not just have a certain explanatory or political value right now, but it should also be understandable and applicable in a historical context. At the same time, this requires a careful examination of what aspects of economic history should be taken as specific to capitalism, and which as transhistorical, and therefore also a necessary part of the logic of other economic formations.
It was highly important for Marx to differentiate capitalism from pre-capitalist societies. The theory of value of capitalism he outlines in his famous work Capital applies to capitalism only, for this reason, and takes as premise the development of, in Marx’s terminology, “generalized commodity production” as well as the predominance of “free wage labour”. The resulting universal commensurability of commodities, and of the labour power which makes them, is where Marx starts his analysis of capitalism in Capital. This is what makes capitalism what it is. The expression of this universal commensurability is the all-pervasiveness of money in the process of exchange. It is this attribute of money that makes ‘the economy’ seem a separate thing, operating on its own strength entirely separate from the ‘thick’ substance of the rest of society – the clearest example of this being the ability of financial capital to induce crises in the whole of society by its activities. It was for this reason that Karl Polanyi and other economic historians have suggested that capitalism is unique precisely in having the economic logic be divorced, or disembedded, from wider society.
But what could this practically mean? We know now that Polanyi was wrong to think markets and money exchange were nonexistent in precapitalist societies. It is not as simple as that. We must seek something more fundamental to all forms of production and exchange in our recorded history. Marx himself attempted to do so: in the Communist Manifesto as well as in later works, capitalism itself as a mode of production is placed in a larger economic history context, as succeeding other economic formations such as feudalism, slavery, the so-called Asiatic mode of production, and so forth. What characterizes all these modes of production? It is that all these were societies in their own way producing and distributing goods in order to reproduce their existing social relations. To cite the anthropologist Maurice Godelier, this means that society exists as “an articulated ensemble of relations and functions, all of which are simultaneously necessary for its existence as such, but whose importance for its reproduction is variable. (…) There exists a hierarchy of social relations depending on the function each assumes in this process.” Moreover, each of these societies in its reproduction is capable of generating a surplus sufficient to allow the existence of a state and their own ruling classes, whatever they were.
We need not accept all Marx and Engels’ precise classifications today to understand that the significance of this is to suggest that precapitalist societies were sufficiently different from the capitalist one to have their own logic, their own social relations reproducing that kind of society through the production of material goods, and what’s more, that we can understand this logic through the lens of reproduction. It has been said that Marxism inaugurated the discipline of economic history by this idea, and indeed, the very premise of economic history must be that the material reproduction of past societies, in whatever way they worked, must be intelligible to us today. I want to argue then that from a historical comparative perspective, a theory of value such as Marx developed for capitalism appears as a way to describe the logics of present and past economic formations in a way that makes intelligible to us how they reproduce themselves materially, that is to say, according to what logic a given society produces and distributes the goods necessary not just to reproduce that society in its existing form, but also to permit, where applicable, the surplus that allows the existence of people who do not work, of leisure, of war, of arts and culture, and so forth.
This approach to the ontological question of what a theory of value is suggests to me strong commonalities with the methodologies of anthropology, in particular the subdiscipline known as economic anthropology. Whereas Marxists and non-Marxist economic historians have made great contributions to our understanding of the empirical details of the historical production and exchange of particular goods, of the economic institutions and organizations of the past, and so forth, few have put this in the context of the need to understand the value logics of these societies. Even the Marxist debates about the transition from one ‘mode of production’ to another have by and large focused on at what point and in what historical societies we’re allowed to use the word ‘capitalism’; but this is not what I mean. What I intend is to suggest an economic anthropological approach to the value question. It is, or should be, I believe, no coincidence that the word value (wert) was chosen by Marx as the core term for the thing that capitalist society eternally seeks to accumulate and that organizes its reproduction. Many people have found this, too, confusing: after all, doesn’t value suggest a moral judgement? Aren’t values things more similar to judgements about virtues, priorities , and what a society is about socially and culturally, rather than economically? Using a term like that in what purports to be an objective, scientific analysis of capitalism seems fallacious, or a way to smuggle in moral judgement through the back door. But for me, this makes sense when understood in an anthropological manner (and I must admit here, I am not a trained anthropologist).
What thinking about present and past social formations in terms of value helps us do is to overcome precisely this separation between ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’, or in the economic history literature, ‘the cultural’; where the latter tends to function as the remainder category for everything that could not be explained in terms of the former. As I have mentioned before, this division is itself a product of the appearance of our own society, and therefore risks anachronism as well as superficiality. Both Marxist and non-Marxist economists and economic historians have often been accused of economic reductionism, of wishing to explain and reduce everything to terms of material production and gain. This may be unfair to some extent, but this division between the economic and the sociocultural in economic history lends reason to this criticism, especially as the division is always made in favor, in scientific terms, of the ‘economic dimension of life’. I think if we are to understand economic history properly, we cannot so easily divorce whatever elements the discipline has determined as its own terrain from the wider societies they are and were part of, as is too commonly the practice now.
What this requires is a level of abstraction that can accommodate, when analyzing the social relations of past economic formations, both the processes of production and distribution of goods themselves, as well as the ideas that people have about these processes and these goods that are constitutive of the relations themselves. Put in clearer terms, what this means is that when people make or distribute certain goods, they have a view of themselves, their role in society, and the role of other people and goods in that society, which determine which goods are made, who obtains them, whether and under what conditions they are exchanged, and so forth. As Maurice Godelier has emphasized in his underappreciated work of economic anthropology, The Mental and the Material, the mistake has hitherto often been to see the processes of production and distribution as one thing and their mental representation and content as another, similar to Marx’s so abused metaphor of the ‘base’ and the ‘superstructure’. Both in Marxist and non-Marxist economic history, it has tended to be production and distribution themselves that count, through analyses of guilds, price lists, trading depots, land markets, and so forth, and the question of people’s values, beliefs, and representations of society are left to the cultural and social historians. Or where they are examined, they are examined precisely as a superstructure – they are not understood as constituting part of the way a society organizes its production and distribution itself, except as a mere reflection.
But in the real experience of society, these two domains cannot be separated. The mental perception of society (what Godelier calls ‘idéel‘), at least insofar as it concerns the processes of production and distribution of goods (the matériel), is an integral part of these processes themselves. They are what allows these societies to exist as they do. Without this understanding, even if we can explain in purely technical terms how exchange and production worked in a particular society, we cannot explain why it worked like that and no other way, and more importantly still, why people put up with it. As Godelier wrote: “What we need to be able to explain… is how social groups and individuals can in some measure co-operate in the production and reproduction of their own subordination, even exploitation. (…) We must therefore seek to use our theoretical imagination to penetrate the black box of those mechanisms which goven the distribution of the same representations among social groups with partially or profoundly opposed interests.”
If we want to take such an analysis beyond a Voltairian ‘bad priests’ sort of explanation, where ideology is simply a layer imposed on top of society by a ruling class to deceive everyone to their own benefit, we must see such representations as constitutive of people’s self-perception in the reproduction of society. In other words, the question is not just what goods people make and who gets them, but what these goods mean to them, and why certain people are considered entitled to them. This cannot be separated from the processes themselves. As Godelier emphasizes: “There exists in every social relation a mental part that is both one of the actual conditions for the birth and reproduction of this relation, and at the same time its internal organizational schema.” This goes beyond Marx’s own theory of value itself, and into areas I think generally left unexamined by approaches relying entirely on it.
Economic anthropology furnishes us with a great number of different systems of production and exchange, both with and without money, with or without commodity production, using gifts, potlatches, hereditary and ancestral power, magic and taboo of all sorts; unfortunately I simply do not have the time to go into these in detail, so I must speak in fairly abstract terms. What is decisive here is to understand that societies are rarely, if ever, constituted explicitly in terms of the ‘economic’. As Durkheim and others have observed, the imaginary constitution of society is usually in terms of some divine order and dispensation, something justified and constituted by the gods and requiring the constant placating of the gods to maintain; but even in modern societies, the elaborate apparatus of political theory and philosophy has served to find justification for society in terms often not immediately economic, such as in the work of the social contract theorists, old and new. The Athenian polis was, despite its advanced and almost modern-seeming political and economic activities, first and foremost a covenant with the gods for the perpetuation of society on the basis of a complicated system of heredity, obligations towards the gods as well as their institutions, and the relations to other Greek city-states.
In ancient Egypt, the rule of the Pharaoh was based on his ability to control the Nile floods (by communicating with the gods) and thereby make possible the harvest, for which in return he was to be placated with tribute in the form of goods or labor, and so on. An economic historian might reduce this to speaking merely of a geographically encaged peasantry captured by a “hydraulic state”, as Karl Wittfogel did, but this is to miss the significance of the view of the Pharaoh. This was not merely a ruling class legitimation of the extortion of the Egyptian peasants, but for the Egyptian peasants, the reproduction of Egyptian society actually did depend on distributing a certain amount of surplus goods and labor to the Pharaoh and his retainers; without this, the very logic of Egyptian society would not have been possible, and therefore there would not have been an Egyptian society in the first place. This is not a conservative argument to justify all forms of class rule, but it is to understand the significance of the particular social relations of Egyptian society – social relations which, as Godelier says, “dominate when they function simultaneously as social relations of production, as the social framework and support for the material process of the appropriation of nature.”
What I want to suggest then is that this is the first aspect of value that is essential for comparative economic history: value in the sense of the values people hold about society, their representation of their society’s purpose and their role within it, and the obligations and debts this places upon them. As David Graeber has described at length in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, relations of exchange have throughout history often taken the form of a debt relation, not least the eternal and irreducable debt owed to the gods and/or divine rulers for the constitution and perpetuation of society itself. Debt, as we know, is in and of itself merely a claim on distribution of goods; but if it comes to dominate the value system and representation of a society in the minds of those producing goods, it becomes part of the system of production and exchange itself. It is what the production and distribution of goods is seen as being ultimately for, and it is this, not the mere day-to-day political needs of a ruling class or the technical requirements of factories and markets, that determines the form and nature of the processes of production and exchange. As Graeber suggests in Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, it is this ability of value theory to (I paraphrase) “suggest the possibility of overcoming the difference between theories that start from social structure and theories that start from individual motivation” that constitutes what economic anthropology could be seen as contributing as a discipline. Certainly within economic history this seems of enormous importance.
The second aspect I want to suggest is a closely related one, which I have alluded to before: commensurability. I think an important part of Marx’s need to explain capitalism as a historically unique social logic is his observation, not understood by the classical economists, that capitalism is a society in which there is a generalized commensurability of goods and labor. In the vast majority of historically existing societies, various goods and various kinds of labor have been sometimes commensurable, sometimes not. Often certain objects are sacred, or hereditary, and cannot be traded for or compared with other objects; certain kinds of production are intrinsic to themselves for their ritual meaning or their political purpose; and divisions of gender, caste, age, and so forth can be so strong as to make any comparison not just impossible to express in market terms, but in fact altogether inconceivable. Moreover, there are always a number of goods that are commonplace and for common purposes, and do not have any higher social or cultural status, and these are for that reason often interchangeable in a market sense, allowing measurements of simple accumulation in that sense. Such mental, representational systems create or oppose commensurability between goods, which in turn determines the nature and processes of production and exchange; they are an essential part of the value logic of a given society’s economy.
Yet every society needs to reproduce itself and its social relations, and therefore must have a yardstick, or perhaps multiple, by which it measures its success or failure at doing so – a yardstick that is expressed within these mental representations of what society is about. These could conceivably be expressed in terms of divine favor, political success, territorial expansion, or other things, but there must be some way in which this yardstick relates to the material production and exchange of goods by whatever means – for example whether the size of the chief’s potlatch is sufficient to feed the tribe and more impressive than that of the rival people. I would venture that it is only in this sense that it makes sense for Marx to say that the social relations, including their mental content, can come into conflict with the development of technology. This yardstick (and of course there can be more than one, and more or less conscious) is what I would call value in the analysis of that society.
Having made these two observations about the significance of value for economic history, I want to draw this argument to a close. As I have said, a theory of value like that of Marx has often been discussed purely in terms of its significance in economic theory or in politics, but it has not often been asked what value itself could mean and what kind of historical-ontological status it has. My argument is that the idea of theories of value, applied to past societies, is or could be a tremendously useful concept for economic historians. It allows us to talk about mental representations, ideas, and religious and cultural logics if and when they become a functional part of the social relations of production. By this I mean that these mental conceptions become material and part of economic history when they, at least in part, determine the nature of the production of goods and their distribution in a given society. From economic anthropology we can learn not just a great deal about the different ways in which precapitalist societies have organized these processes, but we can also fruitfully apply the rich body of theory on social facts, obligation and debt, and commensurability to economic history itself. This, in turn, I hope will allow economic historians more generally, whether Marxist or otherwise, to overcome the dichotomy between the economic and the sociocultural in examining past and present societies, and thereby remove some major obstacles for a more holistic and integrated understanding of how societies actually work.