Monday, March 31, 2014

Marxism: So great before it went mainstream

Supermarx. Via Inciclopedia.
Well, glory be, the Revolution must have been and triumphed without anybody noticing it, because here's the New York Times seriously running a debate as to whether the theories of the noted economist Karl Marx could have some contemporary relevance—
many of the forces that Marx said would lead to capitalism’s demise – the concentration and globalization of wealth, the permanence of unemployment, the lowering of wages – have become real, and troubling, once again. The fall of communism discredited Marx’s political vision. But, as observers have wondered before, is his view of our economic future being validated?
featuring commentary by actual leftists of somewhat differing views, Doug Henwood and Yves Smith, a little like finding two different kinds of chili on an East Side French menu, something that may never have happened since the paper's origin (when Marx himself was helping to cover international politics for the rival Tribune). As well as the totally unexpected resurfacing of the traditional 1950s anti-communist liberal in the form of J. Bradford DeLong deliberately misunderstanding the theory of exchange value in order to condemn it:
Marx was dead certain for ontological reasons that exchange-value was created by human socially-necessary labor time and by that alone, and that after its creation exchange-value could be transferred and redistributed but never enlarged or diminished. Thus he vanished into the swamp, the dark waters closed over his head, and was never seen again.
DeLong is a lot smarter than me by any reasonable standard (it's true I know more about Baroque opera or Japanese grammar or what have you, but only because he doesn't care about these things), so I know he's just making fun of me here, but
  1. Exchange value is an artifact of the theory, so complaining that it always conforms to Marx's definition of it is like complaining that feet always have 12 inches ("Really? You're telling me I could never find an 11-inch foot?" );
  2. it is perfectly clear, though perhaps not very well thought through, that different kinds of labor requiring different kinds of "human capital" produce different kinds of use value, and since training is part of the time-cost of labor produce different quantities of exchange value as well; and
  3. it is sometimes convenient to ignore it (I know the idea of simplification-for-the-sake-of-argument must be deeply shocking to a neoclassical economist), but it is never denied that exchange value is added to, or conversely lost, between the initial sale of labor and the final sale of commodity, in all sorts of ways, to say nothing of the other things that can affect price.
Also, I just learned that the vulgar-Marxist theory of value as nothing but undifferentiated labor-time is actually a theory that Marx accused Adam Smith of, complaining that Smith
confuses the measure of value as the immanent measure which at the same time forms the substance of value [i.e., labour-time], with the measure of value in the sense that money is called a measure of value.
Thanks, Wikipedia!
Image via Black Star Rujabes.
Anyway what's really priceless (or should I say free of use value?) is Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute channeling the anti-Communism lessons of my 10th-grade history teacher, Mr. Gallucci, who always seemed to be saying, "Imagine a little C-minus schnook like me tearing apart a major Jewish professor!—Is America great or what?"
Marx was a brilliant thinker and writer, but economists who have meticulously studied his writings easily find its flaws.
He must have meant them to be discovered, huh?
In 1970, 26.8 percent of the world's population lived on less than one dollar per day. In 2006, only 5.4 percent did — an 80 percent drop in this extreme poverty measure in less than four decades. What economic system was responsible for this accomplishment? It wasn't "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." It was free enterprise. Far from exploiting workers, free enterprise liberated them from deep poverty.
Oh, right. Or as Marx put it in the 1848 Manifesto, capitalism
has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades....It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
Remember, you have to get through capitalism to get to the other side. This was why Marx insisted, as we all remember (talk to me after class, Vladimir Il'ich!), that there could be no workers' revolution in Russia or China. Uh-oh, incoming:
as devastatingly wrong as Marx was about the most important questions he tried to tackle (see also: "Union, Soviet")
Hm, now, what did he say wrong about the Soviet Union? And of course the theory of exchange value gets into the mix too:
An obvious [flaw] is central to his theory, that the value of an object is determined by the labor required to produce it. This is obviously false: I could spend hundreds of hours writing a song; Bruce Springsteen could write one in 15 minutes worth far more than mine. Q.E.D.
(See also: "Capital, human". Don't you think Springsteen might have put in that 10,000 hours, and somebody has to pay for it?) He could probably write a better Op-Ed too, but unlike you he'd take more than 15 minutes to do it. But look how you can increase your productivity by using "obvious" twice in two consecutive sentences! There's an alienated proletarian trick for you!

In any case, Strain's got a big surprise in store for us:
Likewise, the flipside of communism is mistaken: The economy is not a holy, untouchable, object. In fact, both Marxism and pure laissez-faire elevate the economy above its proper station, ignoring the ability (Marxism) and the duty (laissez-faire) of culture, and through it politics, to soften the rough edges of the free enterprise system.
In the bowels of the American Enterprise Institute, a stealth Social Democrat! Did you ever? What on earth is going on?
Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
MARX: A HERO FOR OUR TIME? — Suddenly, everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone seems to be talking about Karl Marx. Louis Proyect delves into this mysterious resurgence, giving a vivid assessment of Marx’s relevance in the era of globalized capitalism. 
Image via anticap.

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