Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Comes Before Capital?

"The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.'"

Everyone knows that line. If your intellectual formation is like mine, it has approximately the same status as "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

The rabbis, I'm told, used to like to point out that in Hebrew the first letter of "In the beginning..." looks like a box with three sides, and only one opening. This was to convey the message, don't ask what happened before, or what might be happening somewhere else. The only story we care about starts here.

We all have our rabbis. But we keep asking anyway, what comes before? What comes before that first sentence of Capital, what's happening elsewhere? What form does wealth (claims on the good life) take in societies where the capitalist mode of production doesn't prevail? And apart from how it appears, or presents itself, what can we say about what it really is?

I think the biggest problem with how people read Capital is, they don't take the subtitle seriously: It really is a "critique of political economy." There's an overarching irony, the whole thing is written under the sign of the hypothetical. (In general, I think this irony is one of the most important, and hardest, things that students have to learn in any field.) The whole book is written to show that even if everything Ricardo said was true, capitalism would still be an unjust and inhumane (and unstable, though that doesn't come til later) economic system. But that's not the same as saying that everything Ricardo says really is true. In my opinion -- people I respect disagree -- everything Marx says about the Labor Theory of Value is preceded by an implicit "even if..." It shouldn't be interpreted as a set of positive claims about the world.

So what does Marx positively believe? For this, I think we have to turn to the early writings. I know these are deep waters, on which I am innocently paddling about in my little water wings. But in my opinion, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 are the essential "before" to Capital.

In Capital, exploitation is defined in terms of the share of the product (already quantifiable; the transformation of the infinitely heterogeneous content of human activity into a mass of commodities has already taken place) to which claims accrue as a result of wage labor. But in the Manuscripts, he says
A forcing-up of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that the higher wages, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would ... be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labour their human status and dignity.
Or equivalently, “The alienation of the product of labour merely summarizes the alienation in the work activity itself.” What's important is exhausting one's creative powers on alien ends. How many channels you have on tv afterward doesn't matter.

Alienated labor means (to take various of Marx's definitions):  “the work is external to the worker”; the worker "does not fulfill himself in his work”; the worker “does not develop freely his mental and physical energies”; “work is not voluntary, but imposed, forced labour”; work “is not the satisfaction of a need, but a means for satisfying other needs”; the worker “does not belong to himself but to another person.” This is the non-quantifiable fact about life under life under capitalism for which questions about the distribution of commodities are a stand-in. Everything that happens in Capital, happens after this.


  1. I agree some people do not take the subtitle seriously, but the bigger problem among those of us reading this blog is that we understand 'critique' differently. I think there is a bunch of 'even if' in Capital (i mention this in a blog post recently). Nonetheless, I do think that through the critique of PE Marx produces his own LTV. Volume 1 has strict assumptions but those can be relaxed to produce a theory of value that is more than an 'even if' in my opinion.

    1. Well you for sure know this stuff better than I do. At some point maybe if enough of us have time we can set up some kind of virtual reading group and discuss this properly.

      But setting aside the question of whether the LTV is adopted in a positive way or only as "even if", what do you think of the other claim I'm making here, that for Marx the coercion and alienation inherent in wage labor is prior to any quantitative analysis of exploitation?

    2. I think it depends on what you mean by "prior."

      Given the way this post opens I thought this was going to be about primitive accumulation, and first read "before" and "prior" in that sense. If that is the case, I'm not sure what your other claim is.

      However, I don't think that is what you mean. I think you mean "prior" in political-ethical terms. This claim is important in undermining the idea that Marx's critique of capitalism depends on some iron law of wages or immiseration. You can be fairly well-off in use-values and incredibly alienated. That being said, I don't see any priority between the two (the qualitatives of the younger Marx and the quantitatives of Capital).

      The "better payment of the slave" quote suggests that the specific rate of exploitation is not the issue - I agree with you on this absolutely - but presumably that rate is still positive. I think you have the alienation of both the products and process of labor, and I'm not sure I'd give priority to either.

    3. You're right, I wasn't very clear. There are actual four possible means of prior here:

      1. Coming earlier in time, historically.
      2. Coming earlier in time, in terms of the development of Marx's thought.
      3. Politically/ethically prior, i.e. more important, more central.
      4. Logically prior, i.e. a necessary precondition.

      I was thinking of 4 primarily, and 2 and 3 secondarily; not 1 at all. Well, you understood what I meant.

      I also agree that alienation of the product and of the process are two sides of the same coin, or at least that formal subsumption tends to become real subsumption. (Do you ever read B. Traven? His short story "Factory" is a nice little parable of this.) Where I am not quite sure I agree is that the rate of exploitation has to be positive. Aren't various vision of market socialism or pension-fund socialism really just models of capitalism with zero exploitation? Even if there are good reasons why such systems can't exist in practice, it seems to me it is useful to ask, if they could exist, if they wouldn't still preserve the most important features of actual capitalism.

    4. I will hunt down Factory.

      When I said the rate of exploitation was positive I was thinking of standard capitalism with higher wages. My first impression is that the socialist-ish systems with important capitalist features you mention would have some exploitation as well. I need to think it through more however.

      One problem I might have with "prior" #4 is that I think it is possible for a capitalist to exploit someone who is not completely alienated in the earlier-Marx sense. In other words, you could have alienation of the product without necessarily having an alienated labor process. People can have real meaningful experiences of labor, as a satisfaction of the need to craft/produce, in an otherwise shitty capitalist firm. I used to run a very very busy Sunday breakfast with two friends at a restaurant. Eventually our coordination was so fine tuned that we could overwhelm the manager in charge of finishing the plates with toast and passing them onto the waitresses. Part of it was standard workplace resistance, but part of it was also the craft and game of it. I've never been so exploited in my life but those moments were relatively unalienated in terms of my relationship to the labor. In this case alienation doesn't seem prior in the logical sense.

      Now of course, the critical social scientist would read such an account with skepticism - you were so alienated you didn't know it! This might be true, but where does the skepticism come from? If an exploited worker must be an alienated worker, because if they feel otherwise they are suffering from false consciousness, it seems were are in practice making exploitation prior.

      To be super clear, I'm not arguing against the idea that one of the absolutely worst features of capitalism is that it takes one of the more wonderful aspects of being human and turns it into a "job." I also don't think a few cases of "happy workers" (happy with respect to their actual experience of laborers) suggests anything about the overwhelming tendencies of capitalism. However, with respect to logical necessities I think the cases do matter.

      Personally, if these two alienations go together the real "prior" might be - what are the conditions under which people are willing to engage in unrewarding labor despite having part of the products of that labor taken from them? And now we are back to primitive accumulation, which is where I originally thought you would go.

      Anyhow, I think I'm nitpicking. It was a beautiful post.

    5. I think I agree with Joe's examples, but because of a more general reason. I'm one of those that believes that “theoretical status” of alienation changes (it doesn't disappear as some Althusserians might believe). It is still considered an important problem, but itself “has to be explained by more fundamental theoretical concepts and analytical tools like mode of production, class structure, etc.” (Georg Fromm, Hegel y el joven Marx: Análisis del Trabajo Enajenado).

      Now, there are various explanations for this, but I'm convinced by the one Fromm advances: Marx's analysis of alienation is contaminated by Hegelian idealism (see for example Marx's intent to draw a parallel of the "slave/master dialectic" to try and analyze capitalism)-it seems to be no coincidence that Marx's manuscript on the subject in the manuscripts ends abruptly on this topic.

      The hypothesis is that he noticed the problems. The evidence provided is then to see how alienation is used in the 1845-46 German Ideology and after.

      And well, he also says that Marx “wouldn't have been able to develop his theory of surplus value within the narrow and limited theoretical framework of his juvenile analysis of the phenomenon of alienation as the key to comprehend and explain the capitalist system”.

      I find all of this extremely interesting and of course it would be great to read all of this together so I'm in!

  2. JW, read and have an opinion Mike Beggs piece in Jacobin on DK?

    1. I like Mike's stuff a lot, he's a very smart & interesting guy. (Despite our disagreement about Debt.) But I'm not sure what piece you're referring to. Do you mean Zombie Marx?

    2. Yes, ZM. For those who haven't read it, it takes the point of view that DK really should be understood of as a historically specific critique of political economy, e.g. Ricardo, that while perceptive (and, ironically, anticipating some aspects of the marginalist revolution) is not a full-blown basis of an alternative "science" of economics. So one should take, as you do, the positive ideas from Marx and apply them to the debates and methodologies that occur after DK, and not think that DK makes the rest of economic thought invalid/irrelevant.

      Lots of fairly smart Marxists who are not trained in econ (and some who are) do believe this. And though politically sympathetic, I've always been at least a little skeptical of that idea (or any strain of Marxist narrative that seems to shut the last 150 years of intellectual history).

      Your post seems to be more about the distinction between critique and positive ideas, which I think is really important since Leftist politics always seem to abound with the former and not enough of the latter.

    3. OK. My problem with that piece is that I felt like it was saying something useful insofar as it was talking to Marxists (or at least Marx-sympathizers), but it seemed to really be, or at least was received as, reassuring non-Marxists that they don't need to worry about any of that stuff. Tone and intended audience do matter, I think.

      That said, I completely agree with him/you on the two big questions. First, that Marx was responding to the economic (and social and political) theory of his day, and so continuing that project today means engaging with the mainstream social science of our own time and not rehashing the arguments of 150 years ago. And second, that Left intellectuals, maybe especially in economics, spend too much time critiquing established ideas and not enough developing a positive alternative.

      So while that piece did bug me on some gut level, I think it made some important points.

    4. "any strain of Marxist narrative that seems to shut the last 150 years of intellectual history"

      I can't think of any Marxist that fits this description. Just literally none.

      The example he gives is Kliman, who is a labeled a Zombie Marxist for using the word "correctly" and for thinking there is a solution to the transformation problem. Given 100 years of people dismissing Marxian economics based on a weird interpretation to produce a "transformation problem" I do not see this as Zombie behavior.

      I mean, even if you imagine the crudest, most orthodox Marxist you've ever had the displeasure of attempting to engage with, this person is always much more influenced by 20th century figures than Marx himself.

      I read that piece as a case of just-rightness. On video game forums you'll notice a common theme. Anyone who plays less (or is worse) than is a noob who sucks; anyone who plays more (or is better) has no life and needs to get out of their mom's basement. We all think the compromises we make are just right. Everyone who takes Marx "more seriously" than me is a zombie Marxist; everyone who takes him "less seriously" me is a neoclassical tool.

      I'm not sure whether I agree with the first point - depends on what we mean by engaging with the mainstream. On the second point I agree entirely, although I do think there is sufficient labor available to critique established ideas. Unfortunately, I think there are a number of institutional hurdles to that positive project.

    5. JW, I did think it was aimed at Marxists while affirming that what they bring to the table in terms of theory values, sympathies and perspective was valuable (even crucial).

      @joseph, the 150 years language is mine not Beggs, and I am not referring to economists. Personally I am wary of "philosophic" Marxism
      (perhaps dialectical materialism, a term not of Marx's invention) which (seems to me) often takes the position that it possesses superior epistemology (i.e. operationalized in dialectics). Bertell Ollman (perhaps unfairly) comes to mind. Personally, I think the attitude to regard Marx's work as a collection of important ideas and insights rather than an integrated "system" is the most useful.

      As to whether Beggs was serving up straw men, I am not qualified to comment (and specifically, not familiar with Kliman), but the tone of his straw man sounded familiar.

    6. I read that piece as a case of just-rightness. On video game forums you'll notice a common theme. Anyone who plays less (or is worse) than is a noob who sucks; anyone who plays more (or is better) has no life and needs to get out of their mom's basement. We all think the compromises we make are just right. Everyone who takes Marx "more seriously" than me is a zombie Marxist; everyone who takes him "less seriously" me is a neoclassical tool.

      Yes, this was exactly my reaction too.

      As I said above, tho, I think the piece did make some valid points. It was mostly the tone that bothered me.

    7. I realized these can be touchy subjects, so apologies in advance if I offend:

      JW and josh, I reread the Kliman comment. Either or both of you may be sympathetic to Kliman's project, but my gut tells that general type of project is a dead end. Even if successful, you are likely to end up with an unwieldy model(s) which may be hard to analyze/test or even tweak, because Kliman is not just digging for gold in DK, he is trying to raise an intact treasure ship. That seems very unlikely, let alone from a book that is largely a critique, not a completed system - as JW agrees.

      On the other hand, if someone came along and said, well there are tantalizing clues that keep reappearing from other schools of economics (institutionalist, Keynesian, etc) as to why this really might be worth it, i.e., it might address concerns other than those are disproportionately ideological, that might be interesting. [Maybe my point is best simplified as saying, the choice of hermeneutics over empiricism has to have a really strong argument in its favor.]

      My imagination may be limited, but that is the only way I can see why someone would take up Kliman's project as described by Beggs. The ethic of modern science is that if you are going to erect complex theories or methodologies, the pay-off has to be worth it (and in general, the size of the pay-off is inversely correlated with the probability of success).

      My political orientation (as a socialist) just doesn't depend on Marxism being "right" or that any of the Marxian theories (plural was deliberate) are always useful. Personally I value many of the insights, but it is just a far too common attitude on the Left to be emotionally invested in the "correctness" of Marxism (whatever that is). If a "Marxist science of economics" was the only way to counter Panglossian neo-liberalism, it might be a different story, but I really doubt it
      requires artillery that heavy.

      I mean how much energy has been wasted intellectually on the Left trying to revive, post-Bernstien, a heavily dertiminstic theory of History (i.e., some version of the inevitable Revolution, social or political)?
      To pursue that in the current context, I think, takes a somewhat oblivious frame of mind, no matter how plausible a conjecture it was in Marx's day.

      You might respond, if this type of grand project rooted in "getting Marx right" is pointless, where does that leave Marxian econ. It leaves it as a set of practitioners with common concerns/values, research agenda and some shared language/methodologies but lacking a grand theory. I think Beggs's point is that is not such a bad thing. My gut responds favorably to that.

    8. Actually, from what I've read of the TSS guys, they are thoroughly versed in the formalisms of logic and mathematics as well as in philosophy of science. (I'm not going to get into minute internecine disputes over interpretation between them and Duncan Foley, Anwar Shaik and others, which is a bit beyond my ken or interest). But their point is anything but an antiquarian revival of fundamentalist "orthodoxy", even if that is often the terms by which they are dismissed. TAhe neo-classical criticism of the "transformation problem", which demanded that labor-values be "transformed" into cost-prices of production, given different "organic compositions of capital" between sectors, (when In Marx, actually both prices and values needed to be "transformed" together), underwrote a claim that Marx' LTV was fundamentally inconsistent in logical terms, thus refuting the entire Marxian enterprise. Since the 3 equalities between values and prices, total output, total profits, and rates of profit, allegedly couldn't hold at once, Marx must be guilty of double-counting, and since the cost=prices of production are the actual determinants of capitalists' decisions, Marx' value theory is not only inconsistent, but redundant and thus nugatory.

      But the point isn't simply to refute the neo-classical "refutation" of Marx, which has bedeviled the matter for 80+ years, by demonstrating a coherent reading of Marx is possible and that the neo-classical account is a mis-reading based on their own assumptions rather than Marx', whereby they are in fact doing the double counting. In fact, the neo-classical account is actually a complete inversion of what Marx is actually getting at and the Marxian account is itself of interest. Of course, accounting for the competitive equalization of profits across inter-sectoral differences in the "organic composition of capital" is required to complete Marx' version of LTV. But boiled down, what Marx is saying is that cost-prices of production can not be determined without first determining distributions of surplus-value, (between profits, interest, taxes, rents, etc.), which applies in both price and value terms. In other words, market processes will re-distribute extracted surplus-value from direct production sites across sectors and enterprises. Given tendencies toward the concentration of capital, that implies an account of oligopoly rents accruing to capital intensive sectors and firms. Further, given constant technical change due to competitive pressures (and increasing returns), which disrupts any simple reproduction scheme, it implies a complex and dynamic account of (output) price formation, in contrast to the truism of supply-and-demand equilibrium auctioneering. One of the reasons, Marx seemed to have a fairly relaxed attitude toward the alleged "transformation problem" is that, though cost-prices of production in nominal terms are indeed the determinants by which capitalist investment decisions would be made, their "equilibrium" determination is largely beside the point, given the account of long-run dynamic disequilibrium he was after.

  3. "In my opinion -- people I respect disagree -- everything Marx says about the Labor Theory of Value is preceded by an implicit 'even if...'"

    On the one hand, it's evident that Capital is intended as imminent criticism of political economy -- to show that even allowing its chosen premises, it fails. And the first volume in particular is quite rhetorical, to call attention -- as I read it -- to the irony of Locke and sundry Whigs appealing to "labor as the source of wealth", in defense of property.

    However, it is hard to square the notion that Marx didn't see /any/ of it as a positive contribution with his detailed criticisms of other economists, both those he respected (Ricardo, the Physiocrats) and those he didn't (the "vulgar" economists, the utopian socialists). He seems to believe that classical political economy offers a useful conception for examining production and distribution, if only its authors would get their logic and their numbers right. However, it is true that Marx wrote Theories of Surplus Value and his other economic manuscripts well before he wrote Capital, so it's possible that the arch tone of the latter reflects a change of opinion. Or it may be that the former show him simply grappling with the subject in order to master it. Capital is much more difficult to interpret than Marx's earlier publications.

  4. “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.”

    Hmm. Is that really true? The wealth entirely “presents itself” as lumps of pig-iron and bolts of cloth?

    Doesn’t part of the wealth present itself as the means of production—steam engines and locomotives and power looms? Are those just commodities?

    Isn’t part of the wealth the accumulation of expertise by literate craftsmen and engineers and scientists, their physical tools and analytical models, and their rationalist mental habits?

    Isn’t part of the wealth political and judicial rules that make an economy function smoothly—settled contract law, efficient bureaucracy, consensual politics, public goods?

    Marx’s pronouncement seems obtuse. It’s disturbing that you accord it “approximately the same status as ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”—a statement of religious devotion rather than critical reflection.

    --The Marxian critique of alienated labor quoted in the OP also feels unconvincing. It’s less an analysis of labor relations under capitalism than a jeremiad against the fallen state of man.

    It’s the nature of reality that work is often going to involve intrinsically unpleasant tasks that don’t stimulate or gratify us, done at the behest of others to likewise get them to do what we want (like pay us), that it will usually be a means rather than an end. As for “The work is external to the worker”—I don’t know what that means; it’s just mystic mumbo-jumbo, of which there is quite a lot in Marx.

    It’s hard to imagine any regime of cooperative labor that would not entail the compromises with self-actualization that Marx bemoans (none has ever existed). Not to say that there is no such thing as inequality and exploitation in labor relations, certainly there is. But to lump all the disappointment and drag of capitalist labor in the same category as slavery once again shows the dogmatic obtuseness at the core of Marx’s thinking.

    I really can’t understand why so many leftists are obsessed with rehashing Marxist holy texts. To me they seem confused, romantic, mystical and therefore intellectually stultifying. (And reading his prose—talk about alienating labor!)

    1. WB, there is an unhealthy tendency to treat Marx as scripture, but focusing on that misses some key points.

      1) Marx is pretty foundational to modern social science and modern politics. Sure his language derives from 19th century Hegelian culture, which makes it heavy, even painful, going. But lots of non-Marxist intellectuals still find him an insightful, even brilliant analyst.

      2) The importance of Marx only partly derives from his work as an stand alone intellectual. It is his role as intellectual embedded in what was the most important social movement of its time that is just as historically signficant, as is the his influence among dozens of extremely important European intellectuals and politicians identifying with him. Even those who didn't (and even may have been politically ambivalent, such as Weber) are thoroughly influenced by many of his ideas. Furthermore, the political parties in Western Europe (and many other places) which trace their lineage back to Marx and his comrades are pivotal to the making of the modern world.

    2. Put another way, I think the Great Books approach to Marx, or any other intellectual figure, is bull shit. You can't understand any intellectual without understanding their historical context.

      The biographical playing out of their intellectual beliefs in their non-literary life can be illuminating too. With political figures, the debates of their own time and how/why they chose sides is particularly relevant.

      For this purpose, I recommend Harrington's Socialism (I would not read his stuff on Marx's corpus The Twilight of Capitalism - which I admire - without first doing the historical/political reconnoiter).

      If you haven't read it, Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers is a good intro to 19thC political economy (goes beyond that too).

      In general, I would recommend this to a broad audience because the politics of the modern world are significantly tied up with what happened to Marx (and his comrades and followers) 150 years ago, but in ways that are counter-intuitive and/or highly distorted by political interest.

      Many current debates, have their roots back from that era as well. It is also the period in which modern social science is beginning to emerge and distinguish itself from philosophy, a process in which Marx is actually key figure.

    3. Wallfly, yes, many intellectuals, even non-Marxists, have found Marx an insightful and brilliant analyst. I think they are wrong. (I suppose not entirely wrong; even Marx could get off a decent insight, as in his writings about the American Civil War.)

      Josh, for example, clearly considers Marx insightful and brilliant. But the passages he’s offered here as evidence seem anything but. To me (and others), they sound obtuse.

      So it’s at least possible that Marx may not be a brilliant thinker despite being regarded as one.

      Has Marx been a tremendously influential thinker in the West? Maybe, but only if we substitue “influence” for clearer concepts of originality and cause and effect. There were lots of socialists before Marx, and lots more competing with him contemporaneously. Would the “softer Marxian” ideas taken up by social philosophers and social scientists like Weber never have occurred to them without Marx? Or were they ambient intellectual tendencies flowing from a broad, partly socialist critique of capitalist modernity that gelled during the 19th century, one in which Marx was just one node in a network of mutual influences? Without Marx, would we really not have Weber, nor anything approximating the modern European social-democratic parties and welfare states? Would we even remember Marx had he not been taken up by Lenin?

      Here’s what you can pinpoint as Marx’s own particular ideas.

      -The specific economics, the M-C cycles and all that, which not even many Marxists paint as a useful contribution to economics.

      -The “scientific” conceit of social change, whereby capitalism succeeds feudalism and then gives way to socialism according to laws of historical development, as ineluctable as the evolution of stars.

      -The notion that change must come about through violent revolution, spear-headed by an authoritarian vanguard party and implemented by an explicitly dictatorial state using terror to suppress political and class opponents.

      -The idea that the economy must be entirely owned and planned by the dictatorial state until the anarchist millenium arrives in some indistinct future.

      None of these canonically Marxist precepts seems especially insightful, benign or even constructive. They have been discarded after much disastrous experimentation.

      There’s one other specific contribution of Marx, and that’s his persistent “mood” of militant, bloody-minded jeremiad. That mood was influential in mobilizing generations of revolutionaries to fight for change, and it still appeals to left romantics.

      Marx indeed wrote that the point isn’t to understand the world but to change it. Unfortunately, if we don’t understand the world then we are likely to change it for the worse. That was the monstrous legacy of Marx’s wrong-headed ideas as they played out in the communist states where he really was influential.

    4. shoot... a longer response just got munched, but
      to summarize, WB you seem well acquainted with what some call "vulgar marxism". My reading recommenations still stand (and I think now are more appropos).

      One quick point I will reiterate, the Marx you describe is not the Marx you would ecounter in an undergrad sociology course. I do think vulgar is an appropriate term, it is widely propagated by sectarian Marxists (i.e. members of Marxist-Leninist micro-grouplets).

    5. Obviously, I don't agree with WB's summary of Marx's contributions. To put it mildly.

      Unfortunately, I don't have time right now to make a proper list. But off the top of my head, I would say the specific contributions of Marx are (in no particular order):

      - Capitalism is a system organized around the accumulation of value in the form money, not the satisfaction of human needs. (Keynes -- who in general had about the same view of Marx as WB does -- acknowledged that most economists get this fundamental point wrong, and gave Marx credit for seeing capitalism as a monetary system rather than a system of "real exchange.")

      - Capitalism combines free transactions between equals in the marketplace with coercion and hierarchy in the workplace.

      - There is a strong tendency of capitalist societies to polarize into two homogenous groups, a small group of capital-owners and a large mass of wage-earners.

      - Changes in technology and the organization of production have more to do with extending the range of human activity that is organized around the expansion of money-value, and with strengthening the power of capitalists in the workplace, than with the solution to the "objective" problem of better satisfying human needs.

      - The division of output between wages and profits is an irreducibly political or social-historical question, that can't be understood in terms of allocation via supply and demand.

      - Politics is fundamentally about conflict between classes.

      - The reproduction of capitalism requires the solution of complex coordination problem, which can and does break down in various ways.

      There's no specific vision of an alternative, beyond the general principle that productive activity should be organized on the basis of rational collective choice rather than the external coercion implicit in wage labor. And it is simply false that Marx believed violent revolution was necessary to get there -- he explicitly discussed the possibility of an organic evolution toward socialism, either from independent commodity production as in the United States or from village communism as in Russia.

    6. Good answer, JW Mason, but I still have misgivings.

      --Capitalism a system of accumulating exchange value, not use value: Isn’t it both? There are tulip bubbles, but most of what happens under capitalism is pretty squarely aimed at satisfying human needs. The Marxist formula of capitalism being “about” the accumulation of money and “not about” the satisfaction of human needs seems a false opposition.

      --Capitalism features free markets and unfree workshops: Was Marx really the first to notice that?

      --Capitalist society tends to polarize into capitalists and proletarians: Maybe a distinctive Marxian idea or maybe an inappropriate extrapolation from pre-capitalist systems where classes—estates--were conspicuous juridical constructs. In any case, it’s again kind of obtuse, because the actual class structures of capitalist societies are infinitely more complex and continuous.

      --Technology is about increasing money value, not satisfying human needs: Again, a false opposition and an odd accusation to make against capitalism, with its patently need-satisfying technological dynamism which often erodes old money.

      --Capitalism tends towards collective action crises: yes, that is a good insight—score one for Marx.

      --“Politics is fundamentally about conflict between classes.” A simplistic truism, far too vague to be actionable, as old as the Pyramids, not a Marx original.

      --Opposition between “rational collective choice” and the “external coercion implicit in wage labor.” Way too simplistic caricatures of both. The notion that “rational collective choice” does not also involve systems of external coercion imposed on individuals and minorities is anarchist moonshine.

    7. Yes, to any particular idea one could respond with one of the following dismissals: (1) true but unoriginal; (2) too abstract to apply to the concrete; (3) too specific to apply in general; (4)obtuse; (5) too simplistic; (6) obvious.

      I don't think that is a productive way of evaluating any tradition.

      On the point of use and exchange value I think Will makes a substantial point. Of course use-values are important to capitalism. Marx starts with the commodity as a combination of both use-value and exchange-value. Both. Of course technology can increase our ability to satisfy human needs. This is one of the reasons capitalism was seen as historically progressive.

      What is unique about Marx (and Keynes) is that instead of thinking that the drive for exchange-value will always harmoniously coincide with the fulfillment of needs/wants based on some invisible hand type assumptions, they showed ways in which that harmony breaks down. How you can have both overproduction and poverty. Too much house production and homelessness. Incredible technology and people starving to death.

      I don't think Marx and Keynes are the only people to notice these unfortunate features of capitalism. (Marx was not the first person in the world to recognize factories may be oppressive.) However, they are of the very few to produce a theory of political economy that makes sense of it.

      To me, the important point is that I know of no alternative tradition outside of Marx (and/or Josh' Keynes) that better represents a capitalist economy.

    8. On the point of use and exchange value I think Will makes a substantial point. Of course use-values are important to capitalism. Marx starts with the commodity as a combination of both use-value and exchange-value. Both. Of course technology can increase our ability to satisfy human needs. This is one of the reasons capitalism was seen as historically progressive.

      I agree, I overstated the case on that point.

    9. WB, the point about capitalism's class structure is not "obtuse". It may be wrong or rather a failed prediction, but the class structure of Marx's day was significantly less continuous and complex than it became in the 19C and later.

    10. Wallfly, I think "obtuse" may be the right word. Some contemporaries of Marx, like Tocqueville, had a considerably subtler and shrewder understanding of how class structures were evolving.

      But I'll accept "wrong or rather a failed prediction" as a serviceable description of Marx's sociology.

  5. I think that Marx's "before" is the idea that some people are submitted to others.
    In the "feudal" system, peasants are submitted to their masters officially; in the "burgoise" system, workers are nominally free, but in reality are submitted to the owners of the means of production they (the workers) use. The bourgoise system is better than the feudal system, but is not enough.

    In this sense, the "positive" for Marx is some sort of egalitarian (anarchist?) utopia that will happen in the future, in ways that Marx doesn't believe he knows.
    The alienation of labor is thus just the "mean of oppression", not the oppression in itself.

    Also note that while we use the term "class" in various ways, Marx's "classes" are mostly defined by the dialectic of oppressor/oppressed.

    And besides, the LTV rocks.

    1. RL-

      Yes exactly, you put it better in a few sentences than I did in in a long post.

      Except, we may have to disagree about the usefulness of the LTV...

    2. [blushes]

  6. There were lots of socialists before Marx, and lots more competing with him contemporaneously. Would the “softer Marxian” ideas taken up by social philosophers and social scientists like Weber never have occurred to them without Marx? Or were they ambient intellectual tendencies flowing from a broad, partly socialist critique of capitalist modernity that gelled during the 19th century, one in which Marx was just one node in a network of mutual influences? Without Marx, would we really not have Weber, nor anything approximating the modern European social-democratic parties and welfare states?

    If Marx had never lived, some broadly similar set of ideas would still have been developed. That should go without saying, but I guess doesn't. It's just a historical accident that it was this guy who happened to offer the first critical analysis of capitalism as a system -- if it hadn't been him, it would have been someone else. So to that extent, Marxism is just a convenient shorthand, like saying Newtonian dynamics or Darwinian evolution.

    Of course there is one important difference. Because physics and biology are genuinely progressive sciences, there is not much reason now to read the actual writings of Newton or Darwin except out of historical curiosity. Social sciences, unfortunately, are not progressive in the same way, so Marx's ideas have not been subsumed into later work in the way that Newton's and Darwin's were. In that sense, the greatest success "Marxism" could have, would be if we reached a point where there was no longer any reason to read Marx.

    To quote your favorite communist Aesop, "Why should the baker be asked for if there is enough bread?"

    1. I’m not sure that a science that’s not “progressive”—capable of being redacted, distilled, built upon and superceded by later practitioners—is really a science at all. A discourse that asserts objective truth but is also backward enough to require immersion in original texts should properly be called a religion.

      Marx’s writings are much worse in this respect than other works of social science. No one insists that students read Wealth of Nations to grok mainstream economics, because there are standard modern texts that concisely explicate and mathematize Smithian economics while incorporating revisions.

      The reason Marx fares so badly in comparison is because he does not traffic in the lucid, precisely conceived and empirically testable principles of science. He is a product of the fundamentally mystical tradition of German romantic philosophy. Scientific reasoning can get no purchase on his ideas.

      Take Marx’s notion of “alienated” labor. People have always known that labor can be unpleasant, dreary, stultifying, unintelligible and subject to tyrannical task-masters. It took Marx to mystify those plain observations under the opaque metaphysical rubric of “alienation.” This allows him to make nonsense of the whole business, so that labor which is actually pleasant, stimulating, meaningful, well-compensated and supervised by sympathetic bosses still counts as heinously “alienated” from the standpoint of Marxist dogma.

      To twist your irony further: the fact that Marxists still read Marx proves that he is not worth reading. Leave him to the intellectual historians.

    2. I’m not sure that a science that’s not “progressive”—capable of being redacted, distilled, built upon and superceded by later practitioners—is really a science at all.

      Agreed. But the point is that social "science" is not progressive in general. It's not a specific claim about Marxism.

    3. JW, on social science, spot on. Social science lives in the realm where facts and values are inextricably intertwined.

    4. One of the ways in which Marx put a stamp on European social democracy, is that Marxism (in a way you wouldn't get because your take on Marx's idea of revolution is the "vulgar" one, that's not meant as a put down but an observation) is Marxism really provided the glue between middle class radicals (liberals and socialists) and the emerging workers movements.

      Had Marxism not so heavily influenced that historical nexus, European workers movements might have evolved in a more populist direction, perhaps the result being more anti-Semitism. The point I don't think you really understand about the historical Marx is the degree how his ideas of Revolution really encompassed the notion of mass movement organizing, electoral democracy, the parliamentary road to the welfare state, etc., and why the radicals should support those things and not try to drag the proletariat off into supporting one or another insurrectionary schemes.

      (Btw, by the end of the 19th C, Social-Democratic really was widely understood as code for Marxist/Socialist)

      I.e., Marxism had a fairly deterministic theory
      theory of historical change based on the homogeneity of a growing proletariat (i.e. the bespoke erroneous sociology) which would not only become the "vast majority" but be socially situated so as to be easily organized and physically near the heart of industrial production. In short, the revolution was quite easily conceivable as an electoral or a relatively bloodless turnover of power. While the prediction failed it did deliver the historical form of social democracy in Europe.

      The alternative to Anarchism that Marxism offered was really the ballot box. Now you could say well wouldn't people have pursued the ballot box anyway? To some extent, but in the 19C, even Liberals were deeply wed to the idea of political revolution. Marxism offered a vision of political change based in the sociological dynamics of capitalism (of which workers activism was held up as the chief evidence). In a sense Marxism really acted as foil a hedge to other more violence-oriented political movements (one of the counter-intuitive facts from the viewpoint of conventional "wisdom", which is mostly derives from the Cold War, actually stemming from both East and West)

    5. "your take" refers to WB not JW

    6. And the historical Marx didn't just start to lean this way as a result of becoming involved with the trade unions. In his early writing, e.g. German Ideology, Marx is pretty clear you have to let capitalism development material abundance otherwise socialist revolution just redistributes poverty and you get authoritarian rule.

    7. @ Wallfly,

      Marx the apostle of parliamentary reform and the welfare state? The bridge between the workers’ movement and liberals? The partisan of the ballot against the anarchist’s bomb? The theorist of proletarian dictatorship who nevertheless dreaded a possible socialist turn towards authoritarianism?

      You have read a lot more Marx than I have, Wallfly, so no doubt you can find many passages to support that picture of a democratic, prudent, ecumenical, liberal Marx. Any thinker as capacious and imprecise as Marx will support any number of contradictory interpretations. And yes, compared to anarchists even Marx is a paragon of realism and accommodation.

      Still, that’s not why people consider Marx important. Marx is important because he’s vulgar.

      What you tag as “vulgar Marxism” would be better termed “programmatic Marxism.” It’s what every Marxist up to about 1956 thought of as the canonical project of Marxism, whatever their disagreements on timing and strategy. Because it failed so disastrously, the non-sectarian left now ostensibly distances itself from that program. Instead, well-bred leftists embrace “analytic Marxism”—the (allegedly) urbane, sophisticated Marx whose sociological critique of capitalism is palatable precisely because it is not so distinct from that of more resignedly bourgeois progressives.

      But as hard as academics work to rehabilitate Marx as a social analyst presentable enough for the seminar-room, it’s still the caustic vulgarian who resonates.

      Because in fact, the social sciences are not devoid of progress; whatever original insights Marx may have come up with—meager, in my estimation—they have long since been digested, redacted and superceded by later, abler thinkers. The notion that yet more Talmudic exegesis of this manuscript or that treatise is going to yield new insights into modern economic and social problems is fanciful. No one really reads Marx for his foreshadowings of Weber or his grudging strategic endorsement of parliamentary initiatives and trade-unionism. If that were what he was about he would be nothing but a footnote to a few dissertations in intellectual and labor history.

      Championing analytic Marxism is just a way of quietly reinserting programmatic Marxism back into polite company. What people really crave in Marx is his thrilling vulgarity and nothing but: his insistence that capitalism and liberal demcracy are but spectacles of theft and fraud and degeneracy; his confidence that they are always teetering on the brink of collapse; his promise that just beyond the horizon a storm is brewing that will not just reform but sweep away entirely the rot of bourgeois society and its corrupt politics. Vulgar Marx is the Marx who mobilized armies and demolished empires; his is the vanguard to march in. Dress him up in a tweed jacket, he’s the same prophet of revolution that left romantics still yearn for.

    8. WB,
      If I were just stringing quotes together that would be indefensible, but I am not. This interpretation is pretty consistent with the historical record of what Marx (and his followers) did politically in their lifetimes and the debates surrounding his theories up until 1918. Btw, if you are the Will Boisvert writing for ITT and Dissent, both those publications have political cultures substantially in agreement with the view of Marx that I have been presented (or at least they did for many years and it is a view widely shared among in Europe - even self-described European conservatives occasionally will agree that that is the more accurate version of Marx).

      I don't really care if I convert you to the "quasi-liberal" (small l, not big L) Marx or not. I am merely pointing out in a comradely way, that there is lots of World political history you are going to misinterpret if you don't understand why pre-1918 conception of Marx is so different from the one that emerges in the Cold War. I think you will find the paradoxes and contradictions intellectually illuminating. You don't have to embrace Marx politically or intellectually (though you are likely at the least the to be more politically sympathetic, given a more full understanding of Marx's contribution to European socialism - as opposed to big "C" Communism).

      I mean the following without any rancor or intention to offend: The problem I have your viewpoint is not that you choose to reject Marx but that you are doing so on grounds that are properly viewed as superficial and erroneous. Take up some of my reading suggestions, you may still enthusiastically reject Marx as you do now, but I am pretty sure you will feel some benefit from the effort.

  7. Your basic point that alienation is the normative-philosophic core of Marz' work/thought is IMHO correct, (though it does contain some perplexity as to how something so "negative" could nonetheless be normative). And it is prior, in a mixed temporal/logical sense, to the notion of exploitation, which is more of a functional than a normative notion, (addressing a question that Ricardo couldn't solve and that Smith didn't even recognize, as to how profits could exist, if all commodities are exchanged at equivalent values). The reason that "alienation" doesn't appear in "Capital" is that it has already occurred, is presupposed, as the historical-logical condition for "exploitation". Such that "Capital" is a portrait of an already entirely alienated society, not just for workers, but for capitalists or bourgeois too, which is lodged in the prevailing tone of epic satire, and encapsulated in the sub-chapter on the "fetishism of commodities", which is the kernel which the entire vast work unfolds.

    However, the Paris Manuscripts account of the "alienation of labor" is a bit to simple and rudimentary to underwrite the whole issue, (though the "Grundrisse" confirms that alienation remained a central pre-occupation of Marx' thinking and the continuity of its gathering complexity, as opposed to any claim of an "epistemological break" between "humanistic" and "scientific" perspectives). The simple conceptual model of the Paris Manuscripts basically involves a conception of craft labor, in which the laborer 1) realizes a whole object through the labor process, in which 2) he can recognize himself and his developing capacities, and 3) thereby come to understand his contribution to producing and transforming the world, while 4) obtaining recognition of an ethical role and standing within his community, as contributing to its vital uses, needs and capacities. (In Addition to Hegel, there is a considerable influence from Schiller here: in producing the object of labor, the worker not only realizes his own capacities and transforms the external world, but in transforming the world, he transforms himself as well and thus embarks on a process of bildung, of collective self-formation of both self and world). But, needless to say, that simple conceptual model of craft labor is at considerable variance with the utterly alienated, fragmented, and reified conditions of mass industrial labor. And just how Marx conceives of its recuperation through the course of development of the industrial capitalist system is a matter of considerable perplexity.

    1. The reason that "alienation" doesn't appear in "Capital" is that it has already occurred, is presupposed, as the historical-logical condition for "exploitation".

      Right, that's the argument of the post. I'm reassured to hear you agree.

      the "Grundrisse" confirms that alienation remained a central pre-occupation of Marx' thinking

      I'm trying to think of the relevant parts of the Grundrisse. What did you have in mind here?

      that simple conceptual model of craft labor is at considerable variance with the utterly alienated, fragmented, and reified conditions of mass industrial labor. And just how Marx conceives of its recuperation through the course of development of the industrial capitalist system is a matter of considerable perplexity.

      Yes, this is the question -- whether it's possible for production to have the kind of division of labor of modern industry and still be experienced as a kind of fulfillment of one's capacities and active engagement with the world in the way that craft labor is. What do you think?

  8. But a further step back into the basic conceptual structure is needed here. For Marx, just as for Hegel, whom he considerably drew upon and wrestled with, the world is a human objectification. At some point, it matters little whether the source of the objectification is said to be supra-personal, collective spirit or the system of social labor, (which difference is just a matter of emphasis and weighting, not a conceptual break). Objectification, alienation and reification form a consequential conceptual sequence, whereby the alienation of human objectifications comes to form a reified objective world in which those very objectifying achievements come to form an alien power that rules over the activities of its human agents. (Which is something that "Capital" explores in extensive depth, in terms of a basic dialectic of "appearance" and "essence", as the ensemble of social relations and activities that produce and define "capital" come to seem to be a set of deterministic "natural" laws, deriving from fixed relations between things). It's important to emphasize that this conception of the world as a human objectification is not nuts, nor any simple conceptual error. If one comes from a tradition in which consciousness is held to be the root of reason, knowledge and activity and one attempts to develop one's basic intuitions into an extensive synthetic/synoptic understanding of the world "as a whole", based on available conceptual means or equipment, then such a conception of the world as a human objectification has much to recommend it, which available alternatives do not. Simply seeking ad hoc empirical understandings of particulars without any integration not only might seem to fail to satisfy the requirements of "reason", but would only serve to blindly re-produce the status quo ante. (People who come at Marx from the tradition of logical empiricism, and thus try to "straighten him out" by ironing out all those dialectical loop-de-loops, not only fail to understand him on his own conceptual terms, but also fail to effectively criticize him). But nonetheless both the strengths and weaknesses of Marx' thought are bound up in this basic conceptual structure of objectification.

    As to LTV, Marx didn't bother to attempt to "prove" it, as opposed to working out its implications at elaborate length, through the "transformation problem" and the account of fictitious capital. (And it is an account of economic value, not nominal prices, since money and nominal prices are part of what need to be explained. Explaining nominal prices in terms of nominal prices, which is basically what neo-classical economics attempt to do, is tautological). Whether he regarded it as an analytic truism or a synthetic a priori, the basic point was that he attempted to construct a system of economic explanation from the point of view and for the sake of labor, whereby capital, aside from being revealed as an ensemble of social relations, rather a pot of gold or a set of machines, was not the driving, activating element, as it is for bourgeois economics, but rather merely "dead labor". Though it is the adventures of labor-value, after it is extracted through the alienation/exploitation of labor, which determines the unfolding dynamics of the system to the point of recurrent crises, which is the main focus of investigation. But it is that very "law of value" which he hoped, however murkily, to abolish/supercede.

    1. The last part of this comment is really nicely put. I think you get at exactly the qualitative importance of the LTV -- it's the link between the two central elements in Marx's thought, coercion and domination in the workplace, and the endless self-expansion of value. (I think this is how David Harvey talks about it as well.) I am not sure, however, that the transformation problem and all that was as important to Marx as it has been to a lot of later Marxists.

    2. John C. Halasz, that’s a good exposition of Marx’s concept of alienation. It shows how mystical his thinking is.

      The fundamental precept of mysticism is an assertion of “The Oneness of All Being,” and a consequent abhorrence of that which divides the Whole. It is opposed to the mechanistic worldview that sees wholes as assemblages of distinct parts interacting through mechanisms.

      We see the mystical concept of oneness all over Marxian thought, and especially in its foundational notion of alienated labor. Capitalism degrades and perverts labor, which should be a holistic process that flows seamlessly from raw material to whole finished products, by dividing it up into specialized tasks which are coordinated mechanistically. The worker’s consciousness, which should be one, is similarly divided because the creative aspect of labor is externalized—“alienated”—and because contradictions arise in the workers motivation, between what he wants to do to fulfill himself and what he feels he must do to get paid. Human motives in general are divided between the goals of provisioning use value and amassing exchange value, and between satisfying individual desires and furthering communal interests. At the level of society capitalism affronts the oneness of all being by generating class divisions, which will be healed in a classless society that restores social holism.

      And, as you write, Marx’s alternative to alienated labor is a state of unalienated labor that is a “collective self-formation of both self and world”—an ecstatic vision of the oneness of all being in which the very distinction between self and non-self is erased.

      Like all mystics, Marx has a specific jargon—of objectification, etc, as you put it—but those details are unimportant. While he’s reacting to real failings of industrial capitalism, his analysis is standard-issue mysticism. Capitalism is bad because it is mechanistic: it violates the principle of oneness by taking what should be whole and dividing it into parts.

      So you’re right that “People who come at Marx from the tradition of logical empiricism [aka “science”] to understand him on his own conceptual terms.” There is no way the mechanistic worldview of science can “understand” his mystic holism.

      But science can still critique Marxism by observing that, like all mysticism, it is incoherent. Mechanistic reasoning makes the world comprehensible. It even makes seemingly holistic consciousness comprehensible by revealing it as a mechanistic construct of disparate unconscious neural processes. Mystic holism, by contrast, makes the world incomprehensible, as in “a conception of the world as a human objectification.” It’s just not possible to understand anything that way.

      So Marxists should be aware of exactly what tradition it is they are following. It’s mysticism, pure and simple—no different from devotion to the Trinity or the Omega Point or any other formulation of mystic oneness. Intellectually, it’s a blind alley that leads nowhere but to incomprehension and incoherence, which is where Marxist discourse inevitably ends up.

    3. W.B.:

      There are so many mistakes in judgment and understanding there that I won't be able to deal with them all.

      But, for one, the dispute between atomism and holism is ages-old, not peculiar to Hegel and Marx, and not obviously reducible to one side or the other. "Reason" and "truth" are always torn between the two, and there are bad versions of either reduction. If you want to read an accounting with the issue from an "uncontaminated" source, I'd suggest you wrestle with this work:

      The "objectification" viewpoint derives from Kant's insight that coherent cognition of the world or the objects in it can't simply be derived from blind experience, but requires a synthesis to "produce" any rational truth about the world and the objects in it. On a certain Fichtean reading of Kant, it follows quite "naturally" or consequentially. But also rational truth about the world isn't reducible to an enumeration of the objects in it, but requires an accounting of the relations between those objects and thus the larger context of the world into which they fit, in order to count as "rational truth". There is no crude "mysticism" or "irrationalism" involved here, nor any dissolution of the reasoning self into any imaginary "Whole". Nor is "romanticism" anything but a crude epithet.

      Integration of disparate elements or phenomena into a broader framework of understanding is one of the hallmarks of "reason". If you want an example from natural science, consider Maxwell's theory of electro-magnetism. And, in fact, Hegel reflects upon the notion of "science" in just such terms. What's more,- (and, in this respect, he's somewhat better than Marx),- he specifically recognizes the crucial role of "difference" in any rational integration or synthesis: the truth of the whole must be an "identity of difference and identity". Nowadays we might be a bit more alert to the fact that any "whole" of truth-in-the-world is virtual and incomplete, rather than final and "absolute". But we can readily recognize that prior efforts at hazarding a grasp of truth in the world, (and about it, though without assuming any extra-worldly immunity rather than implication in it) were rationally motivated and discerned differentiated understandings.

    4. Reductionism can be a fruitful research strategy, but is hardly an "ontological" truth. On the other hand, you're dealing here with a tradition of thought oriented since Kant by inquiring into the limits of "reason". And that necessarily entails that there must be something beyond "reason" and its limits: call it unreason, irrationality, madness, or just plain existence. Any "mysticism" involved is rational "mysticism". To quote another famous "mystic", not how the world is, but that it is, is "mystical". The intelligibility of existence is not simply granted by a demand for "clarity", least of all in a complex world.

      The task of understanding does not reduce to gathering together bits of deterministic causal mechanisms. The world as historically formed by socio-culturally induced human activities, (of which natural science is an instance), exceeds such simplistic terms.

      Nor is "logical empiricism" simply "science". To the contrary, it a specific philosophical position ( or tradition of positions). And it offers a poor understanding of the methodology, philosophy, and historical formation of science(s), or, more broadly, methodically rational studies or inquiries.

      Of course, I said that the thinking of the world as a human objectification makes a certain amount of sense, while imparting a peculiar skew to its understandings, which must be grasped if one is to effectively criticize, if, as determined by prior tradition, "consciousness is held to be the root of reason, knowledge and activity". But of course, that hypothetical isn't exactly "true". If such a "root" is to be discerned, it is not consciousness, but rather language. And some of the impasses of Marx' thinking could be traced to that inevitable "mistake". No one here, I think, is claiming that Marx can be taken out of the box and wound up and is ready to go. Rather the claim is that his work remains of considerable heuristic value and contributes to current understandings, if in de-constructed and re-constructed ways. Which has nothing to do with simplistic and uncritical accounts of the "progress" and "autonomy" of technocratic "science".

      But then I don't get the sense that your really interested in engaging with such matters, rather than just repressively denouncing them in terms of shop-worn cliches. You strike me as a disciple of the sort of philosophical philistinism promulgated by Karl Popper, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

    5. John C. Halasz, yes, the dispute between atomism and holism is age-old. The two are resolved by “mechanism.” Mechanistic science explains how seemingly holistic phenomena arise from the rule-bound interactions of subordinate parts.

      It’s true that the assertion of unexplained universal laws in science may derive inspiration from a mystical bent. But the subsequent program is to mechanize them. Thus, the quasi-holistic phenomenon of Maxwell’s electro-magnetic field was eventually shown to operate by the mechanistic exchange of elementary particles (photons). And mechanistic reasoning is mainly how we integrate reality into a broader frameworks of understanding—by demonstrating that disparate phenomena are outcomes of a common underlying mechanism.

      But you’re right that there’s an unresolved epistemological quandary in mechanistic science, since each mechanistic advance simply refers the question to a lower level of wholes. Objects are the mechanistic interactions of atoms, which are the mechanistic interactions of protons and neutrons, which are the mechanistic interactions of quarks. Then what?

      So maybe—or perhaps certainly—science will arrive one day at some fundamental whole that cannot be reduced to mechanism. But when we find that irreducible essence, that indivisible something-that-is-not-nothing, we will have reached the end of science, the point where reason must indeed bow to mystic reverence. To go there before we absolutely have to is a mistake that impedes understanding and progress.

      That’s clearly borne out by Marx’s notion of alienated labor.

      The question is, how do we explain the brute fact that labor is often horrible and exploitative? We could do so by analyzing the mechanisms that generate horrible, exploitative labor—exhausting, stultifying and dangerous work processes; laws that consign certain castes to certain occupations; inequalities of wealth that yield poverty and desperation; violence against striking workers by elites and the state; etc.

      And we could then work out mechanistic remedies: labor regulations; mass unionization; transfer payments so the poor are more equal and less exploitable; liberal democracies that let workers organize politically, etc. We might even conclude—I wouldn’t—that the mechanisms of capitalism inevitably give capitalists so much tyrannical power over workers that we have to abolish the system entirely.

      But that mechanistic treatment of the ills of labor isn’t ultimately where Marx goes. Instead, he locates the problem in the alienation of the worker from his work and from himself. That’s a fundamentally mystical analysis: the problem is not mechanisms gone awry, but the division of a mystic whole into parts.

      That style of mystification obfuscates far more than it illuminates, and leads the Marxist tradition astray. For one, it makes Marxist discourse opaque: Marx is so often unreadable not because he’s a bad writer—he’s not—but because he’s trying to convey incoherent mystical ideas. For another, it leads Marxists to disparage mechanistic ameliorations of labor, and liberal democracy itself, as just a more comfortable form of alienation. Most tragically, the fixation on an abstract concept of alienated labor led Marxists to mistake the mechanistic brutality and exploitation in communist countries for a kind of teleological progress towards liberation.

    6. Crap I wrote an ultra long comment then deleted it accidentally.
      Expanding on JCH:
      The reason the approach WB calls mechanicistic doesn't work well in social sciences is that while the physical world isn't culture dependent, the social world is.
      To analize our culture through itself is tautological.
      Hegel's theory of the spirit is an attempt to solve this problem (though with different language) , Marx attempts to give a materialistic foundation to this.
      An example of this problem is that the idea that there is no involuntary unemployment, while it sounds stupid, cannot be negated without some fairly complex (and culture dependent ) assumptions of value.

  9. t I know of no alternative tradition outside of Marx (and/or Josh' Keynes) that better represents a capitalist economy.

    It's Jim Crotty's Keynes. I've just borrowed him. :-)

    1. JW, any recommendations of Crotty for non-econ people?

    2. Sadly, the key work is his book, which he never published. I and others have been pushing him to pick it up again and it may yet happen.

      In the meantime, check out the papers here, especially "Was Keynes a Corporatist?" and the 1985-1990 ones.

  10. I basically agree with Wallflower above. I do not think the TSS project is useful. Marx's engagement with the LTV was bound up with its place in the "scientific" (his word) economics of his time. To take it as an absolute, quantitative claim about social reality is, I think, a misunderstanding of Marx's use of it and, much more importantly, an intellectual dead end.

    Apropos of nothing in particular, but its my blog and I can indulge myself:

    I had a dream once where I met Karl Marx. He told me, "How could I believe in the labor theory of value? That would be like confusing the robber with the gold."

  11. I'll repost this long comment about the LTV here, even if it's a bit OT.

    I have three unrelated points:

    1 While I think Marx took the LTV seriously, you are right when you say that in DK he is wrestling against it. It just is an "even though " instead of an "even if ".

    2 The LTV has been discarded because it poses logical problems, not because it fails empirically.
    In facts browsing the web yesterday I found a research that tested Marx 's formulae against input / output tables of the USA in the 70s and found that the LTV predicts actual prices with more than 90% accuracy . More about this in another comment.

    3 But why did Ricardo and Marx believe in the LTV in the first place ?
    In my opinion, the most intuitive theory of value is that price is determinated by utility. According to this logic, if I can find a way to produce twice as much stuff as yesterday, I'll produce twice as much value as well.
    But Ricardo and Marx lived through the industrial revolution and they saw that technical improvements in the wool industry didn't make textile workers rich, it was the price (exchange value) of textiles that fell instead.
    As such, the LTV is a theory about the price structure vs technical change, and not a stupid one at that.
    For this reason, I think that the LTV in Marx is a theory about empirical prices, not about some mistycal concept of value, and Marx handwaving about the fact that singular prices may diverge from it just mean that Marx is speaking of equilibrium prices, but lacks the word to express this concept.

  12. Here is the research:
    Anwar M. Shaikh
    The Empirical Strength of the Labour Theory of Value
    (this file looks like an ocr of a paper chapter of the book, I couldn't find a better source online).

    1) It's too math-heavy for me, can someone tell me wether he is cherrypicking or not?
    2) I don't understand very well but he says he calculates labor quantities for "vertically integrated" industries, that I think menas he is only calculating final (consumption) products, not inter-business sales of non-finished goods?
    3) At some point the author speaks of the "reswitching" problem, but says that this happens very rarely and with minimal effect, because, as far as I can understand, of the economical structure of production (and in particular because of the various average levels of capital utilisation across industries). This sounds like an important empirical trove, but I can't understand what it means.

  13. RL-

    The Shaikh article is an intervention in a quite different debate, against Sraffa. In this debate, Marxist and mainstream economics are on the same side. Both claim that both the profit rate and profit share can be derived from the physical conditions of production. The idea is, we can reduce all produced goods to one or more primitive nonproduced goods (usually just labor, for simplicity) applied at very dates in the past. In other words, a "capital-intensive production technique is one that requires less total labor, but requires more of that labor to come at earlier dates. (This is not controversial.) Then we see which techniques will be chosen by profit-maximizing producers; profits will be the difference between total output and the wages of the labor that went into it.

    The argument of Srafa (and other Cambridge School economists, like Joan Robinson) is that this procedure will not in general give a determinate result. This is because to combine al the labor into a single quantity, we need to apply a discount rate to compare later-dated to earlier-dated labor. But the appropriate discount rate depends on the rate of profit. So we can't actually know which technique is the profit-maximizing (or cost-minimizing) one unless we already know the profit rate. A further implication is that capital-intensive and labor-intensive cannot be taken as descriptions of physical processes; given the same two physical techniques, it may be that one is more capital-inensive at a low rate of profit and the other is more capital-intensive at a high rate of profit, because the value of the same physical capital good depends on the profit rate.

    The immediate target of Sraffa was the idea -- going back to at least Jevons and overwhelmingly dominant today -- that distribution can be derived from the technological conditions of production. But it is just as destructive of Marx's efforts to derive the rate of surplus value from the conditions of production. So that is why Shaikh is arguing against Sraffa.

    It's important to understand that NOBODY disputes that Sraffa's results are formally correct. Mathematically, it is simply not possible to derive distribution from production technology in the way that both the mainstream and value theory do, except under very restrictive conditions. This was Samuelson's famous concession in the "Cambridge controversies" of the 1970s, and I am pretty sure that nobody has question it since. Nonetheless, everyone pretty much carries on just like before, with the excuse that pre-Sraffian theories, while strictly speaking false, still work as reasonable first approximations. This is what Shaikh is doing here. I have a nagging suspicion this is not really a sufficient response...

    Anyway, these are all EXTREMELY interesting (tho also rather tricky) questions, but they don't realy have anything to do with arguments like those on this thread. Again, in the context of this article, Marxists and the mainstream are on the same side.

  14. Just one further point on this stuff, since it's cool. Everyone agrees that when wages rise, profit-maximizing producers will shift toward more capital-intensive techniques. One of Sraffa's results is that you cannot say this, because which techniques are the most capital-intensive ones itself depends on the wage rate. In fat, it is possible to write a down a perfectly-well-behaved set of production techniques such that technique A is the profit-maximizing one when wages are low, techniqueB is profit-maximizing when wages are moderate, but technique A is again profit-maximizing when wages are high.

    Again, mainstream people always brush this off by saying their story is almost always true in practice. but that misses the point. It's not that the conventional claim is wrong. It's that it's meaningless, because there is no consistent way to measure "capital-intensiveness" independent of wages.

    But again this has nothing to do with the rest of the conversation.

  15. Well, I might be a bit out of my depth here, but... Sraffa replaced Ricardan labor-values with technical co-efficients of production, "physical" recipes, which dropped out labor-costs, and provided only a highly abstract static-equilibrium "model", the point of which was to show the fundamental inconsistency/incoherence of neo-classical marginalism when systematically deployed, especially with respect to the "marginal products of the factors of production" providing an account of income-distribution, (and thus investment and demand). And the further point of the whole exercise was to re-raise the core question of economic "value", without necessarily claiming to definitively answer it.

    Whether that effects the Marxian account is unclear. His version of LTV being an extracted rather than embodied account of "labor-value". And far from laying claim to any "physically" fixed rate-of-profit, the variability of the latter is precisely its focus. (I'm assuming you already know this, but the "organic composition of capital" isn't the same as "capital-intensity", but rather the ratio between wages advanced, "variable", and other capital outlays, "constant", and it is not a matter of an infinite regress in ever diminishing amounts to determine the labor-content of capital as "dead labor", but of the way that labor-values reset under technical change in order to reproduce the labor-capital relation). Some Sraffans sought to deploy the criticism against Marxian LTV, (though it is unclear what Sraffa himself thought, since he was still mulling it over at the time of his death), but that is precisely the "dual system" interpretation, between "physical" and nominal capital, that the "temporal single system" interpretation rejects. Precisely because the separation between "physical" and nominal capital can't be made out and because the temporal dimension, (and thus the constant resetting of labor-values against profit-extractions in long-run dynamic disequilibrium), is the key point, not captured in a static-equilibrium framework.

    I have no interest in antiquarian or monumental concerns here. But I think the question of economic "value" remains at issue for any coherent economic theorizing, precisely because nominal prices (and their distributive and decisionistic effects) are part of what needs to be explained. And because the limits of economic value in an increasingly resource and ecologically constrained world need to be addressed.

  16. Thanks for the explanation.
    I'll try to explain my beef with the LTV in a way that is more relevant for the OP.
    There is a tradition that says that "values" in Marx are something different from prices. I think that this is wrong and that Marx is speaking of prices, implicitly in a situation of "competitive equilibrium".
    In other words, the market is the way society organises labor, and there is a small bit of Hayeck in the LTV (I know it sounds strange).
    This is important because for Hegel, for what I can understand, the individual is just a reflection of the "spirit" of the whole mankind. Marx takes this concept and basically substitutes "society" to the spirit.
    Thus there are IMHO four levels in Marx:
    1) at the first level, there is mankind that is not completely developed or self conscious, and thus lives in a continuous war against itself (class conflict).
    2) at the second level, the individual experiences this conflict as alienation, including religion that is an alienated projection of society (Feuerbach).
    3) at the third level, Marx theorises about how society becomes conscious of itself (dialectic materialism )
    4) at the fourth level, Marx analizes the specific way the current stage of society works and is organised (marxian economics).

    The common interpretation where "values" are something different from prices sees exploitation happening at the individual level, skipping the idea that economics is the way society organises itself.
    Incidentally this is the point where marxism diverges from liberal keynesianism, since keynesians believe that the purpose of the economy is to produce stuff, while Marx believed that the purpose of the economy is in large part to perpetuate a class system, and only incidentally produces welfare.
    Going back to the OT, I think that alienation is not between the producer and the product, but between the producer and the purpose of the product, or the producer and his / her role in society, so there is no need to go back to subsistence economics to avoid alienation, at least in theory.

  17. Sorry, it was 4am here when I wrote that comment.
    The point about competitive equilibrium and Hayeck means this:
    While apparently the LTVers didn't get the purpose of the price system, in reality they just suppose that in the long run the supply of every good is very elastic, so that changes in demand are reflected in an increase in quantity produced, not in prices.
    This means that, under LTV, the market allocates labor power efficiently, and thus is a way to organize society.
    This reminds me of that point of Heinlein 's "Stranger in a strange land" where the protagonist, who is an alien, after living for some years on earth is flashed with the understanding of how the price system organises ultra complex activity on earth. Heinlein was obviously a libertarian, hence the connection to Hayeck.