Working hard in Harrisburg, working hard in Petersburg

He’s probably just saying this to be contrarian but I find a lot to agree with in Matt Yglesias’s Marx-curious post:

In honor of May 1, Brad DeLong reposted a very interesting 2009 talk he delivered on “Understanding Karl Marx” that offers a number of criticisms of Marx that I would have enthusiastically endorsed in 2009 but which look weaker four years later. In particular, DeLong says that Marx the political activist was too pessimistic about the idea that the ruling class would agree to make economic growth pareto optimal within the context of a market economy:

[T]hat even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so. They would be trapped by their own ideological legitimations–they really do believe that it is in some sense “unjust” for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would collapse or be overthrown. The Wall Street Journal editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx’s prediction come true. But I think this, too, is wrong.

To me that unquestionably looked wrong as of 2009. But in the interim, those Wall Street Journal editorial page tendencies have grown much stronger. You see a rising tide of Rand-inflected moralism about market outcomes and a reduced emphasis on Friedman-style pragmatism. You also see a sharply reduced emphasis on belief in any kind of macroeconomic stabilization policy, in favor of a “let them eat cake slash move to North Dakota” moralism about unemployment.

[….]

In summary, I’m not a Marxist. But I worry that political conservatives are going to turn me into one.

If the choice is between Marx and FDR, I’ll take FDR every time, but if it’s Marx and Rand…well, that’s a different story.

47 replies
  1. 1
    Short Bus Bully says:

    If it’s Rand, give me my torch and pitchfork.

  2. 2
    quannlace says:

    Hey, May 1st is for bonfires and fairy wells.

  3. 3
    Linda Featheringill says:

    Disclosure: I am a Marxist.

    However, I don’t think that Marx was supernaturally correct about everything. I just think that he was often quite correct. I think that he really did understand capitalism and capitalists.

    Of course, he lived in England in the 19th Century, when capitalism displayed all of its dirty tendencies proudly and openly. But the Fat Cats aren’t really so much different now.

    I do believe that capitalism is a vast improvement over feudalism and I am grateful for the increased ability to produce things that we need. But do we all have to act like Ferengi?

  4. 4
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @quannlace:

    Haymarket Square.

  5. 5
    Eric Wilde says:

    I have to agree with the sentiment of the post. Over the last ten years I’ve become increasingly sympathetic to socialism primarily as a response to the overbearing laissez faire capitalism of conservatives and the readily apparent failure of conservative economic policies.

  6. 6
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    May Day.

    International Worker’s Day, the day selected because of an event (the Haymarket Massacre) that took place in America.

    Think about that, for just a moment.

    Nearly every other country on this mote of dust celebrates labor on a day different from the country that gave inspiration to the international labor movement.

    Marx’s analysis is pretty good. His remedy for the situation, however, leaves a great deal to be desired, as he assumes that a workers movement will be bereft of those who seek power for the sake of power.

    C’est la vie, c’est la guerre, I guess.

  7. 7
    Amir Khalid says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    Disclosure: I am a Marxist.

    Of the Groucho tendency?

  8. 8
    brantl says:

    Somebody tell me where Marx was fundamentally wrong. I don’t see it.

  9. 9
    Trollhattan says:

    Is today the day I’m supposed to denounce broccoli?

    Cubby, I denounce the Roger Moore Bond movies!

    Have a hard time wrapping my brain around Rand v. Karl, but I do think Rand has a lot in common with Mussolini. Other than the whole being an effective orator thing.

  10. 10
    Chris says:

    [T]hat even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so. They would be trapped by their own ideological legitimations–they really do believe that it is in some sense “unjust” for a factor of production to earn more than its marginal product. Hence social democracy would inevitably collapse before an ideologically-based right-wing assault, income inequality would rise, and the system would collapse or be overthrown. The Wall Street Journal editorial page works day and night 365 days a year to make Marx’s prediction come true. But I think this, too, is wrong.

    I don’t think this is necessarily true everywhere. However, I think it is true of American elites. The country had to be brought to near-revolutionary conditions before the system finally broke down and created a welfare state that in France, Britain and Germany had already been up and running for decades. And you see the same kind of blindness nowadays. Our society legitimizes it because of the sheer amount of boot-lickers and professional serfs telling them that they are demigods carrying the rest of us on their shoulders and that we’re not even fit to shine their shoes.

  11. 11
    Poopyman says:

    It looks like this is the thread to totally endorse this tee shirt. Which of your acquaintances crack up when they see it will tell you a lot about them.

  12. 12
    Ben Franklin says:

    This is an empirical question and I continue to believe that Marx’s belief is wrong. But the fact is that profit margins are high and rising while wages are at best stagnating. My view is that this is a cyclical phenomenon that represents a failure of the technocratic apparatus of macroeconomic stabilization.

    Marx took Hegel’s dialectic (the swinging pendulum) which Hegel has propounded as a cyclical back and forth, and stated that once his ideology was enacted, it would simply stop.

    ‘Nuff said.

  13. 13
    Trollhattan says:

    This should be good.

    Ever wonder how it is that the same bill pops up simultaneously in statehouses across the country? One way is through the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that promotes business-friendly model legislation for state lawmakers to introduce in their respective Capitols.

    The organization known as ALEC gets the Bill Moyers treatment tonight during a free screening in Sacramento of the documentarian’s investigation called “The United States of ALEC.” The film illustrates how the group brings together corporate executives and state lawmakers to craft policies that benefit business.

    “Politicians and lobbyists at the core of this clever enterprise figured out how to pull it off in an organized, camouflaged way — covering their tracks while they put one over on an unsuspecting public,” Moyers says in opening his piece.

    http://blogs.sacbee.com/capito.....rylink=cpy

  14. 14
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @Amir Khalid:

    Well, Groucho was a cool guy, but Harpo was the sexiest.

    :-)

  15. 15
    the Conster says:

    If the peasants didn’t revolt in 2009 after the MOTUs stole their savings and their jobs and their houses, then they never will. Did Marx ever contemplate the ability of the media to willfully create and nourish false consciousness of almost half the voting population? I guess it took Orwell to provide the rest of the puzzle pieces for us to see what’s been wrought.

  16. 16
    LGRooney says:

    @Linda Featheringill: This is exactly right. Marx was wrong about communism and its ability to work – just like Randianism – it requires too much fidelity and honesty for humans to be able to carry it out successfully. He was spot on regarding capitalism.

  17. 17
    Linda Featheringill says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Marx’s analysis is pretty good. His remedy for the situation, however, leaves a great deal to be desired, as he assumes that a workers movement will be bereft of those who seek power for the sake of power.

    Power corrupts, etc.

    Which is the underlying principal of the many anarchist movements.

  18. 18
    Anoniminous says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    Can’t remember if Harpo was a Situationalist icon.

    But he should have been.

  19. 19
    patroclus says:

    @brantl: Marx thought that there were only three components of the means of production: land, labor and capital and he ignored entrepeunurial ability. Marx believed in historical determinism and that things would always proceed to a better situation – history has disproven him. Marx thought that the state would wither away after the introduction of a purely Marxist state – this was idiotic. Marx actually believed that “to each according to his needs and from each according to his ability” would work – ignoring basic human greed and a desire to game the system and be corrupt.

    Marx’s critique of the then-prevailing 18th century capitalism was spot on – his proscriptions and his faith in humanity were weak and riddled with errors.

    Now, why don’t you tell us what you think Marx got right?

  20. 20
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Chris:

    In Germany, that welfare state was created by an arch-conservative to steal the thunder from the left, and preserve the Junker.

    As it turned out, a right wing movement did the Junker in, by inviting, nay, demanding, the destruction of the Germany state.

  21. 21
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Linda Featheringill:

    The state will always be here. It’s a manifestation of the human tendency to create a social order.

    The key is checks and balances, and this is the part that our Founders focused on.

    Marx didn’t provide for that in his proposed solution.

    Thus we got Stalin.

  22. 22
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Er…”German state”.

    /shakes fist at self for allowing that through and seeing the problem after the five minute grace period for oopsies was up.

  23. 23
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @brantl:

    The analysis of captialism is pretty good.

    The proposed remedy sucks the balls of Kropotkin.

  24. 24
    Short Bus Bully says:

    @patroclus: Thank you for that spot on analysis. Agree eleventy billion percent.

  25. 25
    Haydnseek says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Balls of Kropotkin. Now that’s a great name for a band.

  26. 26
    Calouste says:

    @the Conster:

    Didn’t Marx address that in his famous quote “The mainstream media is meth for the masses?”

  27. 27
    Linnaeus says:

    @patroclus:

    Marx’s critique of the then-prevailing 18th century capitalism was spot on…

    I’d say his critique is still quite relevant today.

  28. 28
    Chris says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    Sure, and in America it was done to save capitalism, not destroy it. Even if our elites had to be dragged kicking and screaming and had to pretty much literally have a gun pointed to their head before enough of them would relent, the principle of the welfare state has always been to save the system and its elites.

    Agree with the consensus here, also too – Karl Marx had a great diagnosis, but a shitty prescription. Then again, as DougJ said, if the center disappears completely and the only choices are Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, I’m not convinced his prescription is the shittier one.

  29. 29
    Linnaeus says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    The proposed remedy sucks the balls of Kropotkin.

    Maybe, but I’d offer two points:

    1. Marxism & Marxian economics aren’t static entities – they’ve been edited, modified, etc. in the years after Capital.

    2. Modern liberalism owes a significant debt to socialism (both Marxist and non-Marxist varieties) in that it had to confront the problems of capitalism that classical liberalism either rationalized or ignored.

  30. 30
    Linnaeus says:

    @Chris:

    the center disappears completely and the only choices are Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, I’m not convinced his prescription is the shittier one.

    Marx’s prescription is definitely not the shittier one compared to Rand. Maybe Marx underestimated the influence of things like greed and ambition. Rand promoted those things as unalloyed virtues.

  31. 31
  32. 32
    Calouste says:

    @Chris:

    At least Marx had a great diagnosis. Rand is just fiction. I’d rather go with the prescription based on research rather than the one that’s based on fairy tales.

  33. 33
    kc says:

    the system would collapse or be overthrown

    That won’t happen as long as half the population thinks it deserves to be fed shit sandwiches.

  34. 34
    p.a. says:

    Marx was a classical economist. They tended to be interested in the concept of value; how the production process instilled value in a product, and how that value was distributed in the economy. Most issues of some intrinsic value have been (rightly) superseded by modern marginal economic theory. Marx is now much more pertinent as a sociologist than an economist. I don’t know the history of value added taxes, but it sounds like they are based on classical economic thought.

  35. 35
    Chris says:

    @Linnaeus:
    @Calouste:

    Yeah, that tends to be my instinct too.

  36. 36
    EconWatcher says:

    Big picture:

    Neoclassical economists posit “equilibrium” as the natural tendency of a capitalist economy, with markets allocating resources to their highest uses according to their relative scarcity, and perform all kinds of analysis and draw all kinds of inferences from that.

    Marx posits capitalism as a dynamic, chaotic, self-contradictory system that promotes bursts of innovation and production but is also prone to constant crises. He performs analysis and draws inferences from that.

    Which vision do you find more compelling?

  37. 37
    DougJ says:

    @EconWatcher:

    Marx, obviously.

    I tend to think his analysis was right-on, but that his prescriptions were lacking.

  38. 38
    Waldo says:

    There is no choice between Marx and Rand. With one you will always get the other.

  39. 39
    Barry says:

    If the choice is between Marx and FDR, I’ll take FDR every time, but if it’s Marx and Rand…well, that’s a different story.

    Doug, I’d ask you to think about the fact that you can’t even say: if . . .(the choice were between) Marx and Rand, I’ll take Marx every time.

    Anti-communism is a disease and this entire country is infected.

  40. 40
    Sad_Dem says:

    @LGRooney: Agreed. Marx understood capitalism and capitalists quite well, but he tended to wander off into mysticism with the “what to do about it” part.

  41. 41
    Chris says:

    @Barry:

    Anti-communism is a disease and this entire country is infected.

    This one is. Others aren’t.

    Curious to see where the foulup in Europe ultimately leads: unlike America, the public over there doesn’t have a knee-jerk allergy to left wing (or otherwise statist or anticapitalist) politics.

  42. 42
    Cygil says:

    So a week ago Yglesias is a neoliberal who thinks 410 dead Bangladeshis is just swell because Desis don’t value their owns lives like we do and they are happy to sell them for sweet, sweet America cash, and now he’s sympathetic to Marxism?

    Yggy: “Please please PLEASE let me back into the fake progressive gravy train. I’ll be good. You’ll still invite me to Netroots Nation and TED, won’t you? I have my list: 10 top ways Obama is still secretly a progressive.”

    Then again, I guess if anyone is still gonna quote this clown prince of privilege, it’s the crowd at Balloon Juice.

  43. 43
    Pooh says:

    Another A+ post title, Matt Yglesias, what are we gonna do now?

  44. 44
    Lurking Canadian says:

    Someday, somebody is going to have to explain “Pareto-optimality” to me. As I undertstand it, a situation is Pareto optimal if you can’t make any actor better off without making some other actor worse off.

    So: David Koch has all the money: Pareto optimal outcome!

    Everybody has exactly the same amount of money: Pareto optimal!

    In fact, any distribution of wealth at all: Pareto optimal!

    It would make sense if it were a constraint on optimizing something else, but as a goal…kind of meaningless, right?

  45. 45
    Baud says:

    @Lurking Canadian:

    From wiki:

    For instance, if a change in economic policy eliminates a monopoly and that market subsequently becomes competitive and more efficient, the monopolist will be made worse off. However, the loss to the monopolist will be more than offset by the gain in efficiency. This means the monopolist can be compensated for its loss while still leaving a net gain for others in the economy, a Pareto improvement.

    I read this to mean you can’t look at allocation statically, but how it affects production over time.

  46. 46
    Bruce S says:

    The problem we’re facing today is the George Romney v. Mitt Romney transformation. Back in the day the economic elite were still part of society – George Romney lived in essentially the same broad social space as the UAW members who worked for him. He was the rich guy, but he was the rich guy “down the street” so to speak. And there was an interdependence on things like public education to provide the workforce that a George Romney’s enterprise needed to succeed.

    With the rise of the Mitt Romneys, the economic elite essentially live on another planet from the rest of society – their profits are largely derived from financial schemes, take-overs and a global supply of cheap labor. If they DO have a stake in an enterprise that we little people can actually see, it’s probably a large retail chain that doesn’t rely on particularly skilled labor and is immune to unionization. Even the banks are a weird conjunction of a shitty retail network with a sales force running scared selling crap products to hapless consumers like their jobs depend on it – which they do – and the totally abstracted world of mega-capital financial manipulation.

    This new economic elite is pretty much just a cancer on society – sucking off as much as it can with little-to-zero restraints. I’m not sure that understanding the facts of this landscape are dependent on a reading of Marx – but I share his sentiment that a certain class of capitalists deserves nothing less than total elimination from the equation (by peaceful, democratic means of course.)

  47. 47
    Bruce S says:

    Marx was a brilliant critic but a lousy prophet.

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