Saturday, September 01, 2018

Theses For Debate In Reading Marx

I present four claims about Marx's Capital. I strive for topics more general than, for example, squabbles about the transformation problem. I suggest that some of these claims present a useful focus for reading Marx's book, even if part of your focus is arguing why the claim is wrong. If this were more than a blog post, I would need to cite various Marxists and scholars that inspired me.

Thesis I: Capital is organized around a model of a pure, two-class capitalist economy.

I think the above claim is helpful in making sense of the opening chapters of Volume 1 and of Volume 2. In Volume 2, I am thinking of the analysis of the analysis of various circuits, as well as the models of simple and expanded reproduction.

This claim separates out the historical material and the analysis more sharply than some commentators on Marx accept. I guess it is consistent with some of Marx's use of Blue Books filed by factory inspectors in Britain. Historical material that goes beyond a model of pure capitalism includes the analyses of primitive accumulation in pre-capitalist formations and of the development of machinery and manufacture. I think of the replacement of the putting-out system, handicraft, and domestic industry by factories.

Thesis II: Capital continues the tradition of classical political economy; it does not represent a sharp break with this tradition.

One can argue Marx saw William Petty, Francois Quesnay, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo, for example, as having applied a scientific method of abstraction to identify essences that lie behind the surface phenomena of market prices. Of course, Marx had many criticisms of his predecessors. He thought Smith had not sufficiently distinguished labor that was and was not productive of surplus value. Even Ricardo did not distinguish (abstract, social) labor from labor power. Marx argued his distinction between constant and variable capital was more fundamental, in some sense, that the classical political economy distinction between fixed and circulating capital. And the classical did not talk about surplus value in general, instead of manifestations in the form of profits, interest, and rent.

This claim of continuity can also be argued to be consistent with Marx's contrast of vulgar and scientific political economy. Not everybody in the time of the classics, including Adam Smith, were thoroughgoing in the application of their scientific method.

But some of what Marx has to say about illusions generated by competition is in tension with this claim of continuity. He was interested in what social conditions made possible the development of political economy. The classical political economists championed the rising bourgeois before the social question became sufficiently biting. And what about the sarcasm and irony in Capital.

Thesis III: The system of labor values is a reality behind the appearance of freedom in market transactions.

In some sense, labor values provide a sub-basement underlying a building more obvious to our sight.

A counter thesis would be based on a Wittgenstein-like reading of Capital. Nothing is hidden, but markets, like languages, are befuddling. Marx is presenting arrangements in a therapeutic treatment to dissolve confusions. This also gets into some readings of Sraffa's work.

Thesis IV: One can accept the analysis in Capital as a way of understanding the world, independently of a any position on the desirability of changing it, either through a revolution or otherwise.


Emil Bakkum said...

It may be interesting to interpret Das Kapital in terms of games theory.

Anonymous said...

Those make sense. I would also add:

Thesis V -- Volume 1 of Capital is at a high level of abstraction, ignoring differences in capital size as well as competition. This is to show that labour is exploited under capitalism by selling its labour power and its product to capital. Volume 3 includes both these ignored factors, hence "prices of production"

Thesis VI -- Marx shamefully distorts Proudhon's ideas while also appropriating the theory of exploitation the latter expounded in "What is Property" (collective force) and "System of Economic Contradictions" (surplus of labour, law of value).

In terms of the last thesis, may I suggest my "Proudhon’s constituted value and the myth of labour notes" (Anarchist Studies, Spring 2017).

Does not mean that Marx did not make important contributions, just that he was human and sought to undermine those whom he considered as competitors...

An Anarchist FAQ

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments.

I have started on rereading John Roemer's Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, which uses game theory to explain the emergence of classes. By the way, Marx's explanations, in Capital and in the essay on free trade published with The Poverty of Philosophy, are inconsistent. Both can be formalized with game theory.

Neither Marx nor Proudhon, in my opinion, was the first to explain the source of profits in the exploitation of labor. Ricardian socialists, drawing on Smith and Ricardo, did this.

Iain might like Stanley Moore's Marx versus Markets (1993). Moore shows Marx ducking and weaving in his arguments with predecessors - not so much Proudhon. Marx would explain why one set of ideas was wrong, when attacking one, and then adopting them in a later essay, without ever explaining why he changed his mind.

Emil Bakkum said...

Thanks, I was not aware of this work of Roemer

Robert Vienneau said...

I think there may be more about game theory in some article Roemer wrote for the New Palgrave, as well - maybe on exploitation. There is not as much in Free to Loose as I thought I had recalled.

Emil Bakkum said...

Inspired by your reference, I bought Analytical Marxism, edited by Roemer. It seems that especially Jon Elster applied game theory (and more generally, rational choice theory) to marxism. I knew that Elster is left-wing, but was not aware that he sympathizes with marxism.