Marxian economics MIA?

by John Quiggin on January 6, 2010

The financial crisis has, justifiably, enhanced the reputation of Karl Marx as an economic thinker. Marx was the first economist to treat crises and panics as an inherent feature of capitalism rather than as an inexplicable, but fortunately temporary, departures from a natural equilibrium.

Unfortunately, most of his analytical effort, and even more, that of the school of thought that followed him, was devoted to pointless exercises in value theory[1]. Marx’s discussion of crisis rested mainly on the idea of the falling rate of profit which seemed at the time to be both a theoretical inevitability and an observable trend. But with technological progress, there’s no necessity for the rate of profit to fall consistently, and it hasn’t. There are other ideas in Marx that might be developed to yield a better theory of crisis, but nothing resembling a systematic theory.

And, in the current crisis, Marxian economics seems to be pretty much Missing in Action. I haven’t seen much and what I have seen hasn’t added much, in analytical terms, to the standard left-Keynesian analysis. Perhaps the problem is that just about everyone expects capitalism, in one form or another, to survive this crisis, contrary to the orthodox Marxist view where crises become ever more severe and eventually precipitate the revolutionary overthrow of the entire system. But it’s equally possible that I haven’t been looking in the right places.

Readers of my blog have pointed me here, which has some good stuff, but, as I said, isn’t much different from the standard left-Keynesian analysis[2]. Can anyone recommend a distinctively Marxian analysis of the current crisis?

fn1. If I get time, I’ll write a longer post on this point. In short, the idea underlying debates about value theory was that since the sale proceeds of production are divided between the owners of inputs to production (labour, capital, and land in the C19 division) there must exist some natural way of determining the share of the value of output for which each group is responsible. This is essentially an idea about average values, since averages added across a group are equal to the total for that group. But, as the neoclassical revolution of the 1870s showed, prices are determined by marginal costs and marginal rates of substitution and these don’t equal averages. Subsequent attempts to rescue a substantive role for value theory as opposed to price theory by Marxians, Austrians and Sraffians, not to mention the neoclassical marginal productivity ethics of JB Clark and others, have gone nowhere.

fn2. Except for this piece, which reads more like Cochrane or Fama with some added Marxist verbiage