A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

by John Q on April 27, 2010

My last post, arguing that the left needed to offer a transformative vision as an alternative to rightwing tribalism has drawn lots of interesting responses, and generated some great comments threads, both here and elsewhere (Some of them: Matt Yglesias,DougJ at Balloon Juice, Democracy in America at the Economist,Aziz Poonawalla at BeliefNet,Geoffrey Kruse-Safford |, and Randy McDonald).

Since my idea was to open things up for discussion, I don’t plan to comment on particular responses. I do want to respond to one theme that came up repeatedly, a combination of discomfort with words like ‘transformation’ and ‘vision’, and a feeling that a politics in which such words are employed is inconsistent with the pursuit of incremental reforms. Even though I stressed the need to learn from such critics as Burke, Hayek and Popper about the need for reform to arise from organic developments in society and to avoid presumptions of omniscience, the mere use of words like ‘vision’ set off lots of alarm bells.

To me, the difficulty of getting this right reflects my opening point in the previous post. After decades of defensive struggle, we on the left no longer know how to talk about anything bigger than the local fights in which we may hope to defend the gains of the past and occasionally make a little progress. But the time is now ripe to look ahead.

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world. (I’ll link back here to my earlier post on Hope, which might be worth reading at this point, for those who have time and interest.)

The liberal and social democratic reforms of the New Deal and its counterparts in other developed countries were incremental changes. But they weren’t presented as mere technocratic adjustments to social and economic mechanisms. FDR’s New Deal and Four Freedoms, the Beveridge Report, the Swedish Folkhemmet, Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill”, Michael Savage in New Zealand, all presented their reforms in the context of a broader vision that could inspire mass support.

Combining day-to-day advocacy of immediately feasible reforms with mobilization for a broader vision of a better world implies some constraints. Most obviously, the kind of vision I’m talking about needs to be realistic rather than utopian. As I said in my post on Hope, the goals

ought to be feasible in the sense that they are technically achievable and don’t require radical changes in existing social structures, even if they may set the scene for such changes in the future. On the other hand, they ought not to be constrained by consideration of what is electorally saleable right now.

On the other hand, the kinds of incremental change we should be looking for must be informed by these goals.

An example, one of the few topics where Obama has maintained the rhetoric of hope that inspired support in his campaign is his advocacy of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Obviously, this can’t be achieved at a stroke, and it may never be fully achievable. Nevertheless, (as I plan to argue in more detail soon) we seem more likely to make incremental steps away from the precipice on which we are standing if we have such an ultimate goal in mind than if we think in terms of adjustments to a balance that depends, in the end, on mutually assured destruction.

Conversely, articulating a goal like this (as compared, say, to non-proliferation) implies the need for much sharper questioning of the positions of the long-established nuclear powers. Are essentially frivolous considerations of national pride sufficient to justify Britain and France in maintaining a capacity for genocidal war? Assuming the perceived need for a strategic deterrent is going to persist for some time, can the US and Russia justify keeping tactical nuclear weapons. And so on.

Similar points can be made about the other goals I suggested in my ‘Hope’ post as well as those put forward by commenters and other bloggers. A moral imperative to end extreme poverty in the world seems more likely to overcome parochial tightfistedness than a desire to promote economic growth in less developed countries. But it also implies different policies, with more focus on action that will directly meet human needs for better health, education and nutrition, and less on large-scale development projects, which might be better left to the market sector.

I’ll repeat the endings of my previous posts. Writing this kind of thing, I can sense the feeling that it’s naive/utopian/pointless. But I think it’s precisely this kind of feeling, hammered into us by years of retreat that we need to overcome. And I’m keen for better ideas and analyses than what I’ve offered. So, comments please.



Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.27.10 at 5:56 am

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with utopian thought and imagination, indeed, I think it’s a necessity for any Left politics (as Michael Harrington appreciated in his last book on socialism). It in no way precludes “realism,” incremental change, and so forth and so on any more than the Platonic Forms rule out degrees of embodiment, instantiation, or realization, such Forms by definition always being elusive and never exahusted by such realization. It is rather analogous to William Godwin’s definition of perfectibility:

“By perfectible, it is not meant that he [i.e., man] is capable of being brought to perfection. But the word seems sufficiently adapted to express the faculty of being continually made better and receiving perpetual improvement; and in this sense it is here to be understood. The term perfectible, thus explained, not only does not imply the capacity of being brought to perfection, but stands in expression to it. If we could arrive at perfection, there would be an end to our improvement. There is however one thing of great importance that it does imply: every perfection or excellence that human beings are competent to conceive, human beings, unless in cases that are palpably and unequivocally excluded by the structure of their frame, are competent to attain.”

Please see here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/11/utopian-thought-imagination.html


sg 04.27.10 at 6:51 am

I sense some hope in Australia, from the centre-right leftwards, at least, that there may be some hope for indigenous affairs – that we could hope to see an end to significant inequality within a generation or two. It’s not quite Bob Hawke’s “no child in poverty by 1990” level of hopeyness, but it’s nice after so many years of refusing to look at the problem, or blaming it on dodgy lefty historians/drunken ungrateful Aborigines.

Maybe I’m too optimistic in that regard, but I think it’s an important change, and I think once Australians recognise that the land is stolen, certain changes will occur in environmental outlook too. It opens the way for the country to develop a real sense of itself as a post-genocidal (?!), multi-cultural nation, independent in a new world that needs new ideas. And I don’t think that the right will ever be able to offer such a unified vision of a new world. Keating started it with his “part of Asia” shtick, but I think an even bigger vision is possible, if one looks at our Aboriginal, new world, multi-cultural history in the light of an attempt to forge a new, shared future.


Kaveh 04.27.10 at 7:18 am

Since I responded maybe a bit late to the previous thread, I will repeat my observation here, somewhat refined:

While we rightly feel a lot of frustration about progress on many economic and policy issues, the left has had slow and incomplete, but growing success in the culture wars, in areas like marriage equality, despite being badly outgunned in terms of funding, media access, &c. In some sense this is unsurprising, as the left tends to be a lot more well-endowed with cultural capital than the right. Then how can we repeat or broaden this success?

As the left has waged an effective culture war against homophobia, it needs to wage a similar war for multiculturalism. The left’s success in the culture war not only deprives the right of a key means of distraction, it also gradually aligns people with a certain basic moral vision which can be the guide for later, more specific political programs. Even where the right has succeeded in culture war-related conflicts, for example in undermining reproductive rights, they hurt their own long-term viability by alienating people from their cause. Rather than seeing the path to success for the left, as many Americans seem to do, as being to deliver on economic issues for “regular Americans”, while thinking of cultural issues almost as a liability, only important to “cultural elites” (or to people directly affected by a particular issue), we should try to sell people on a more encompassing leftist cultural vision characterized by cosmopolitanism, of which greater economic equality and social welfare are a key part. (When I say vision, I don’t mean that as something omniscient and encompassing, but as a particular way that our values and morality are characterized, which starts out vague and takes on a more specific, precise character over time as details are worked out in practice.)

In the culture wars, the left has been most successful where it has been united, as it has against homophobia. It has the most trouble WRT issues like foreign policy and the persistence of the GWOT framing in American public discourse, where people are easily pitted against each other because of various fears. Islamophobia in particular is a major asset to the war party, and its pervasiveness is closely related to particular conflicts, especially (at least in the US) the Israel-Palestine conflict. Major American Jewish organizations (e.g. the ADL and Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations) along with informal networks of the like-minded in, e.g., media outlets like the NY Times, strongly color discussion of foreign policy in a way that favors the war party. The aforementioned organizations have continued to editorialize in favor of belligerence–in favor of war against Iraq and now sanctions on Iran. This kind of pro-war lobbying is not merely an inevitable structural feature of late capitalism, it has a particular historical cause that can be addressed. Making progress on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least by educating the public better and thus weakening the ability of these interests to shape the discussion, but ideally, eventually, by actually resolving the most serious issues in the conflict (that is, by bringing about a viable Palestinian state), would eliminate the motive for much of this pro-war lobbying. People don’t just do it because Raytheon pays them to, there are real feelings of insecurity that motivate the back-and-forth over whether Comedy Central should have censored South Park, while Apple much more quietly censored political cartoons from the i-pad; real feelings of insecurity motivate the lobbying for sanctions on Iran (which could become a pretext for violence in the future, as they did with Iraq). The distorting effect on American public discourse of people who are (or claim to be) skittish about the security of Israel is truly pervasive. Philip Weiss and others at Mondoweiss have done some excellent journalism on this. Luckily, though this is one particular area where the left has not been active or united enough, the terrain is quickly shifting in a way that makes progress on the issue a lot easier.

Xenophobia seems to be a major long-term cultural issue that the left will face, which will continue to hinder any broader agenda of fighting poverty or nuclear disarmament, even if the left ends up being relatively successful on issues of domestic economic policy in the medium-term, and thwarts the conservative tactic of distracting people with other kinds of culture wars. It will always be possible for the right to drum up fear of the Other in the form of foreigners and immigrants, more so if multiculturalism is not embraced as a positive ideology by the left.

So we need a more generally inquisitive posture by the left, taking an interest in issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than, as I think Americans are wont to do, seeing it as a kind of family quarrel within the Middle East, where people are all just violent and fanatically religious and are always going to have problems getting along (and where various types of US involvement are denied or ignored). A big problem for Democrats in the US is that they lack any compelling brand of foreign policy, other than just not being crazy warmongers like the Republicans. There needs to be a much better dialog between the left and center-left on foreign policy than there has been. That requires the left to get its own house in order in terms of specific knowledge about major international issues, and then, to develop a more compelling vision of a multicultural world in which the wealthy countries or great powers operate more as equals, which I think can really be attractive to people if it effectively appeals to their sense of fairness and their empathy. In the case of the US, this means educating people about the realities of American empire, not as a general concept but as a collection of specific relationships (we support Mubarrak in Egypt…) In general, in matters that concern the world outside of Europe, Australia, and the US, we need to give a lot more attention to specifics than what I usually see, and as with the general approach of waging a culture war, make that attentiveness our calling-card, our strength.


Alice de Tocqueville 04.27.10 at 7:35 am

I too would like to say that to hope, and, perhaps more strongly put, to wish and desire, and yet more strongly, to say we are determined, to feed children, and to step back from the precipice of nuclear war, is not utopian, or naive. It’s certainly not pointless. At this point, when all we do may not be enough, to dream and to hope may be the only thing that’s not pointless.

For, all Obama’s cynicism does not erase the hopes and dreams and beliefs of those who voted for him. That’s what I believe in.

“What are we fighting for, Sam?”
“That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”


Hidari 04.27.10 at 7:48 am

What can intellectuals do? For me, the two major shibboleths of intellectual thought in the West at the moment are

a: Eurocentrism and

b: neo-liberal economics. And these are, to put it mildly, not discrete entities.

As far as the first goes, I am quite convinced that if it had been common knowledge (e.g.) what Iraq was and is (the birthplace of modern civilisation) and what we did to it (in, for example, the 20th century) the Iraq war simply could not have happened. Works like Frank’s ReOrient and Hobson’s The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation are a beginning but it’s all a bit academic (pardon the pun) until these, and books like them, are widely read in the Universities and (more importantly) the schools. (or at least until that information is widely accepted).

Likewise: neo-liberalism. Again, it has started to be attacked, especially after the recent financial cataclysm. But until new approaches are actually taught in the Universities again it’s all a bit besides the point. Otherwise the whole ‘infrastructure’ of Western economic thought (private good, public bad, markets are ‘good’, trade unions are ‘bad’, capitalism ‘creates wealth’, a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’) which are is taken for granted in our Universities our schools and (not least) our media will remain in place and we will be guaranteed further economic catastrophes in the future. Genuine progress (for example, repeal of the UK’s vicious anti-union laws) won’t happen until the whole structure of intellectual life has changed.

The next stage after that, and I must admit I have no idea how to go about this, is to plan and implement some kind of reform of our media, to make it more democratically accountable. As one previous poster pointed out: the media, is, increasingly, the problem. It controls our minds and our political options in a historically unprecedented way, and as long as it remains in the hands of the Right, real progress will be slow and piecemeal.


alex 04.27.10 at 9:15 am

What sort of multiculturalism, Kaveh? The sort that asks all people to understand that a secular society comprised of people from many different backgrounds has to have a ‘culture’-neutral set of rules for civic discourse, or the sort that says that racism, homophobia and misogyny can be condoned if they have a suitable ‘cultural’ shine on them? What can we do, in other words, to stop those filthy evangelical christianists pulluting the republic with their crazy medieval ideas? [Lest you thought I was talking about something else.]

And on the socioeconomic side, I’d like to see people facing the long-term psychological consequences of unemployment helped to reinvent themselves through cooperation, rather than succumbing to the idea that if someone can’t ‘give them a job’ they are useless.


Jack Strocchi 04.27.10 at 9:41 am

Pr Q said:

My main point in this new post is to reject the idea that there is a necessary inconsistency between incremental progress and the vision of a better society and a better world…
The liberal and social democratic reforms of the New Deal and its counterparts in other developed countries were incremental changes. But they weren’t presented as mere technocratic adjustments to social and economic mechanisms.

This is more or less another way of repeating the old distinction between tactical moves and strategic goals. One could also visualise this, pace economic graphs, as a strategic shift of the whole function (to the Left) rather than tactical sliding movements along the function.

Tactical politics uses policy as a weapon in the tactical battle for partisan advantage in the current electoral cycle. Strategic politics requires policy to be used as tool for fundamental institutional reforms leading to social transformation.

Its interesting to view the post-Vietnam War Right’s political trajectory in this light. I suggest Left-wing transformationists study the Right’s playbook and learn from it.

They began with inspirational leaders (Reagan, Thatcher & Pope John Paul). I guess Obama is a start. Who welded together a movement fusion of social conservatives and economic liberals.

The economic liberals dangled the carrots to elites. They rallied them through privatisation and contracting out which changed the balance of power in the state. They also used mass participation in the stock market and later the property market to diffuse bourgeois interests and habits throughout the populus.

The social conservatives fashioned the sticks for thee populus. The man in the street is more concerned with enemies, either within (crime and drugs) or without (communism, terrorism and illegal immigrants). He is, after all, the one who will have to fight them for turf.

I dont know if the Left can fashion a broad-based movement. The so-called “rainbow coalition” is a non-starter. Average working families regard such groups as, at best, harmless oddities. At worst they tend to be reviled as deviants, parasites or vermin.

The link between economic statists and ecological conservatives might have more legs. Public services are reasonable popular. And so is Nature. But it obviously needs strong leadership, a strategic political coalition and some kind of positive theoretical program that Leftists enjoyed with Marxian socialism and then Keynsian social welfarism.

So you have your work cut out for you.

If it was my call I would focus on Emerging Fundamental Technologies since they will make most social reform schemes look out-of-date. Just as steam technology made feudal social arrangements look like quaint heirlooms.

Its only a question of time…


alex 04.27.10 at 9:55 am

“Emerging Fundamental Technologies”. Nice phrase, and really ahead of the game – only 4 hits from google, 2 of which are to the same powerpoint presentation. What is it that you think these mysterious things will do? I presume it isn’t about us all turning into grey goo, eating power-pills, or existing in a virtual nirvana while robots tend our emaciated frames?


Jack Strocchi 04.27.10 at 10:10 am

Just to reinforce the point above, it would do no harm to both look at the successes of the modernist Left and failures of the post-modern Left-liberalism. (Contrasting these with the failures of the modernist Right and the successes of the anti-post-modernist Right.)

The modernist Left enjoyed its greatest successes when various supporters adopted a fairly uniform economic viewpoint. Initially it was Marxian socialism which rallied the workers to the Left up until WWI. This then morphed into Keynsian social welfarism which rallied citizens to the Left after WWII.

There was also some kind of broad consensus about ethics, which was an egalitarian form of utilitarianism. I am not a big fan of Charters of Rights, on philosophical grounds. But they are useful politically, as a lode star for the troops on the march. The Atlantic Charter served this function, with its Four Freedoms slogan.

But the Vietnam War and the concurrent cultural revolution shattered the Old Left coalition consensus. Its general world view has splintered into various specialised ideological fragments, clumsily stitched together by the New Left into a “rainbow coalition”.

The world view, if it can be called as such, of these groups is a more or less warmed-up form of post-modern Left-liberalism. With a focus on cultural, rather than economic, issues.

The New Left policy strategy did enlarge the welfare state to deal with the new-found problems of single mothers and urban blight, which generated “overload”. The New Left political strategy was as divisive, and managed to alienate the general populus, which was expressed as “backlash”.

Post-modern liberalism also did much to shred the Left’s intellectual credibility between the years 1965-1995. Unkind souls like me got endless malicious pleasure poking fun at post-modern cultural theorists grotesque ideological contortions. Made worse by the clumsy attempts of political correctors to cover up the mess.

A friendly word of advice: get the economics right. And ground that in an ethic that gets broad democratic consent. Don’t try and smuggle an ideological agenda in through the back door of spurious “rights charters” or long marches through tax-payer funded institutions.


Jack Strocchi 04.27.10 at 10:40 am

alex@#7 said:

“Emerging Fundamental Technologies”. Nice phrase, and really ahead of the game – only 4 hits from google, 2 of which are to the same powerpoint presentation. What is it that you think these mysterious things will do? I presume it isn’t about us all turning into grey goo, eating power-pills, or existing in a virtual nirvana while robots tend our emaciated frames?

Google lists Emerging Technologies with 8,520,000 pages. And it has its own http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_technologies“>wikipedia entry, which provides a handy summary of the various technological strans. Will that do?

I am thick-skinned enough not to be put off by the inevitable chorus of scoffs and derision at the mention of innovations that have not yet gone through the formality of being invented. Technological revolutions are the one form of progressive constructivism that I whole-heartedly support. One cannot know today what will only be discovered tomorrow. So I will try to not rise to the bait.

It is also not a good idea to make bets against technological progress. Its is sobering to think that not very long ago – no more than twenty years in fact -the very device we are communicating on – the Internet – was once an Emerging Technology.* Nowadays its the first thing we consult in the morning and the last thing we check in the evening. Our personal and professional lives are unthinkable without it.

Undoubtedly there will be other technological innovations of comparable scale and power over the course of this century. Think about it, we now have the world’s largest and oldest civilization of nerds – the Oriental Chinese – more or less on-line and geared up for technological innovation. They are gadgeteers par excellence so its a sure bet that something shiny and useful will come out of that lot.

Once upon a time the Left was quite good at fostering technological innovations, firstly with the Renaissance, with the Enlightenment being the paradigmatic case. Although it must be conceded that no one could match the Right-wing futurists for their technological enthusiasm.

Progressives who want to maximise political horsepower should always try to yoke sociological institutions to technological instrumentations. I am not particularly fussed by Left-wing or Right-wing labels. Just get gadgets that work and the teams that work them.

* BTW, the Internet, and the satellite system which facilitates it, were largely the creation of the Cold War military. Something to ponder the next time Lefties go through ritual denunciations of “McCarthyism”.


John Quiggin 04.27.10 at 10:45 am

Jack, please don’t flood the thread. I’ll be reposting at my blog shortly.


gerard 04.27.10 at 10:54 am

BTW, the Internet, and the satellite system which facilitates it, were largely the creation of the Cold War military. Something to ponder the next time Lefties go through ritual denunciations of “McCarthyism”.

Denunciations of McCarthyism are about how debate is shut down and freedom of speech threatened when critics of government policy are dishonestly smeared as being Communist/Terrorist/Disloyal etc… It has little to do with government expenditure on technological research, whether through enormous military budgets or otherwise. Google “Joe McCarthy” for further clarification.


alex 04.27.10 at 10:57 am

It was rather my point that “Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science” have been emerging technologies for quite a while now, without as yet fundamentally transforming anything – in the sense that people still die of preventable diseases in poor countries and suffer manifold forms of political oppression – and frankly my concern would be that, as currently configured socially and politically, these things are rather more likely to be used to create something that veers between a totalitarian surveillance-state and a genetic caste system, than to actually liberate anyone currently in need of liberation.

And BTW, what technological innovations did the Enlightenment bring about? Even if you roll Adam Smith in under the label, I wasn’t aware that Boulton and Watt needed to read him to perfect the steam-engine.


Salient 04.27.10 at 11:02 am

BTW, the Internet, and the satellite system which facilitates it, were largely the creation of the Cold War military.


…I knew Al Gore was a special ops robot superhero.


jdw 04.27.10 at 11:31 am

I would like to echo and support what was said by Kaveh in #3 and Hidari in #5, particularly in their points about trying to come to grips with xenophobia and a narrow Euro-centrism. Kaveh explained this well in his paragraph beginning “So we need a generally more inquisitive posture by the left…” and ending “make that attentiveness our calling-card, our strength”.

And Hidari’s observation about Iraq I think carries a lot of weight: “As far as [Eurocentrism] goes, I am quite convinced that if it had been common knowledge (e.g.) what Iraq was and is (the birthplace of modern civilisation) and what we did to it (in, for example, the 20th century) the Iraq war simply could not have happened….”

Of course to talk about cultural broadening via educational institutions and so on; and personal change in the eradication of xenophobia and the promotion of inquisitiveness about the world (including the Middle East) is to talk about aims and not specific means, but I think a good first step would be to get clear on the crucial importance of this part of what the left should be focusing on.


ajay 04.27.10 at 11:49 am

BTW, the Internet, and the satellite system which facilitates it, were largely the creation of the Cold War military. Something to ponder the next time Lefties go through ritual denunciations of “McCarthyism”.

There is an awful lot wrong with this.

1) Yes, the internet was largely descended from a US military project. ARPANET, and so on.

2) But it’s not facilitated in any meaningful way by a satellite communications system. It could and does work quite happily on normal phone lines. The international phone system has very little dependence on satellites these days: it’s all about the fibre optics – though it’s true that satellite broadband is useful for more remote areas.

3) Even in the days when international telephone calls did depend on satellites, the satellites were put up by civilian bodies like INTELSAT – not by the military.

4) You seem completely confused about what McCarthyism was. McCarthyism describes the sort of fervent, destructive and often ill-directed anti-Communist sentiment demonstrated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy against, primarily, the US State Department, the US Army and various other targets in the 1950s ‘witch hunts’.
You seem to think that it means something like “supporting the US armed forces”. In fact, given that McCarthy is generally regarded as having overreached himself when he started going after Gen Marshall and the Army, it’s almost the reverse.
5) Suggesting that the Renaissance is an example of the Left fostering technological innovation is frankly silly.
6) Describing China as “the world’s largest and oldest civilisation of nerds” is also silly, and racist to boot.

Given your ignorance of technology and history, I would suggest that you take a long hard look at your views on economics and politics, as these may well also be non-load-bearing.


bob mcmanus 04.27.10 at 12:02 pm

Well, not to initiate an argument or make any strong assertion, but I am not a fan of incremental change as a model for praxis. The alternative may not necessarily be revolution in terms of storming the Basyille or Winter Palace but, to use an analogy from economics, the abandonment of equilibrium models. Minsky cycles, Taleb’s black swans, macrodynamic disequlibrium, tipping points, chaos theory, or punctuated equlibrium may be more useful as models for understanding politics. Kuhn and Lakatos have something to tell us. Does Kuhn provide a model for scientific revolutions?

It just strikes me as more than a coincidence that we have equilibrium economics and incremental liberal politics as our guiding paradigms, and that these may be normative or utopian in themselves, the way we want the world to work rather than the way it actually works. And of course, the dangers of the comforting illusion of incrememtal liberalism were demonstrated in the 1st half of the 20th century.


alex 04.27.10 at 12:36 pm

Indeed, Bob, but people die in non-incremental change, and not necessarily the right people. Do you really want a revolution in a society that has forgotten how to stockpile food?


Barry 04.27.10 at 12:51 pm

Jack Strocchi: “BTW, the Internet, and the satellite system which facilitates it, were largely the creation of the Cold War military. Something to ponder the next time Lefties go through ritual denunciations of “McCarthyism”. ”

Just for sheer intellectual vacuity (not to mention flooding the comments), perhaps Jack should take a vacation from commenting. Just until he can figure out the difference between his posterior lower excretory orifice and terrestrial cavities.


jdw 04.27.10 at 1:05 pm

re incremental vs non-incremental: Doesn’t it make sense to agree first on a set of aims and objectives, and then consider “incremental vs non-incremental” according to changing circumstances? For instance, if you said: (1) Let peoples and regions be, for instance in the post-Mubarak Egypt, let it happen, take a position of knowledgeable non-interference [leaving out quite a bit here, just for the sake of illustration] so that taken together these policy-changes yield substantial savings from the military budget; and (2) work for the eradication of poverty and everything that goes with it, using, obviously, resources that have been freed up by the de-militarization. If you advocate for this, probably an initial major obstacle will be xenophobia/islamophobia, and the struggle here will have a lot to do with cultural change and attitudes and so on. I don’t see how, in any of this, you have to first decide whether you are for incremental change or for non-incremental change. You are for change and you work with the tools available to do what is possible.

For instance, if there is another war in that region (and by the way, recent threats against Syria and Hezbollah make this seem more of an immediate issue to people in the region than of course to us), then the obstacles and the possibilities will change, and with it the balance of “incremental vs non-incremental”.


bob mcmanus 04.27.10 at 1:18 pm

18:Read me more carefully. Leaving revolution aside, a disequlibrium macrodynamics model of politics, for just one alternative, would not have just two or four dependent variables.

We usually consider the parties and their platforms as dynamic, but interest groups and factions (pro-choice, finance, xenophobes) fairly fixed or changing linearly. The political role of finance in current American politics may be a discontinuous change, and not yet understood.

For another, doesn’t Kuhn say that paradigms are inertial unto collapse, and radical change (innovation, scientific revolution) unpredictable and uncontrollable?

What I am saying is that our ruling ideas from the ruling class still feel to me, on a profound or unconscious level, to be based on half-baked 19th century evolutionary metaphors.

But mostly I am flailing incoherently.


engels 04.27.10 at 1:19 pm

I wonder if there is anything more utopian than the belief that incremental reform will one day lead to a form of capitalism fit for all human beings…


Ben Alpers 04.27.10 at 1:23 pm

Here’s my by-now-ritualized comment that, while visions and hope are necessary, the left is currently at lot better at them than we are at actually changing things, incrementally or otherwise. While we can always do better at hope and vision, what we most desperately need is a better tactically and strategic sense of how to change things given our current political system and political culture. To put this in terms that hearken back to a time when the left did change things: what is the 2010 equivalent of the sit-down strike?


Ben Alpers 04.27.10 at 1:25 pm

(excuse the grammatical errors above….I shouldn’t comment before finishing my first cup of coffee!)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.27.10 at 1:43 pm

To the “incrementalism” discussion I’ll add the following (from a comment at another blog last year):

In Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (1983) Jon Elster notes a few conspicuous problems with Burkean “incrementalism” and its philosophical ally, (Popperian) “piecemeal social engineering” by way of methodological lessons gleaned from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

i) One must look at the consequences that emerge when the institution in question is widely used rather than marginal. [Note: Here and throughout I have omitted Elster’s examples.]

ii) Any given institution will have many consequences, some of them opposed in their tendency. It is imperative, therefore, to look at their net effect.

iii) One should not evaluate a given institution or constitution according to its efficiency at each moment of time, but rather look at the long-term consequences.

iv) One should not confuse the transitional effect of introducing an institution with the steady-state effect of having it.

As he explains in a note, “Moreover, it will not do to argue with Edmund Burke or Popper that trial-and-error or piecemeal social engineering can be a substitute for well-founded predictions, since these methods fail to respect the [above] principles. By requiring initial and local viability of institutional reform, the incremental method neglects the fact that institutions which are viable in the large and in the long term may not be so in the small and short term. This is, in fact, the main objection that Tocqueville makes to Burke’s evaluation of the French Revolution.”

I agree with Robert E. Goodin who argues, in Political Theory and Public Policy (1982), that “the lack of a proper theoretical basis for policy studies is probably due less to methodological error than to the perverse and pervasive doctrine of incrementalism,” an ideological benefactor of Burkean blessings. “That doctrine is an undeniable success, in purely descriptive terms. Most policymaking surely does proceed incrementally, if only because the power relations and organizational routines underlying it themselves vary slightly from one period to the next.” For the full argument, see Ch. 2, “Anticipating Outcomes: Overcoming the Errors of Incrementalism,” pp. 19-38.


Pat 04.27.10 at 2:00 pm

The liberal and social democratic reforms of the New Deal and its counterparts in other developed countries were incremental changes. But they weren’t presented as mere technocratic adjustments to social and economic mechanisms. FDR’s New Deal and Four Freedoms, the Beveridge Report, the Swedish Folkhemmet, Ben Chifley’s “light on the hill”, Michael Savage in New Zealand, all presented their reforms in the context of a broader vision that could inspire mass support.

I said this on the other thread, so I apologize for repeating myself, but I see these all, in a sense, as reactionary incrementalism, if that makes sense, since many other countries overthrew their governments in reaction to the same “Great Evils” that these incremental socialist improvements addressed. Perhaps this is overly cynical, but they don’t seem to stem from inherent moral rightness as a desire to not be first against the wall.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.10 at 2:03 pm

Incrementalists need to concentrate on decreasing the rate of speed of their losing ground.


Pat 04.27.10 at 2:16 pm

To restate myself, political stability depends on either increasing quality of life or increasing repression, right? Although neither can continue infinitely, it’s much easier to do the former than the latter.

And for the last, what, 20-30 years, the increasing quality of life has been driven by one-income households becoming two-income households, which clearly has an end, so we need to do something. The part that gets me about the Tea Party people is that they think attempts to increase their quality of life are repression, and that increased repression improves their quality of life.


alex 04.27.10 at 2:33 pm

@26, 27 – see, now that could give the impression that what you really want is violent unrest. And if you do, why not just say so? Why not say “What the West needs is more dead capitalists”? If you don’t mean it, don’t imply it. if you do mean it, face the consequences.


Mitchell Rowe 04.27.10 at 2:35 pm

Perhaps the belief that revolution will actually improve the situation? The 20th century provides plenty of examples of why incremental change is preferable. It is my opinion that the problem lies in the fact the kind of people who are good at leading revolutions tend to be bad at running governments.


JoB 04.27.10 at 2:37 pm

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with utopian thought and imagination

Well, there ís nothing wrong with imagination. With utopian thought, on the other hand, almost éverything is wrong.

Utopian thought basically determines how things should be – not in which direction they would be better – no, how they should end up being. From there, it tries to ‘make’ people conform with that vision; no further imagination allowed, no nimble footwork to creatively cope with how the things happen to be: elimination of design faults, mostly in the direction of a romatically simple past in which people were still ‘true’ to what the Utopian thinks is essential to their being.

All of this is in strong contrast to the imaginative creation of new directions that will allow each individual’s creativity to be maximized. Utopianism is pessimistic, it assumes we have to ‘force’ things into a certain direction – or else!; being progressive is optimistic, it relies on spontaneity, and the trust that, when people are properly educated and sustained, they will get progressively to a better situation. I’m not the first to say this: utopianism is reverse conservatism.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.10 at 3:01 pm

Why not say “What the West needs is more dead capitalists”?

Why “the West” and why “dead”? Expropriated, perhaps. In the US the top 1% owns more wealth that the bottom 90%. How can any incrementalism be possible where the power relationship is so lopsided.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 3:11 pm

If you try to think about civilization ever progressing beyond what seemed to be achieved in the West by the mid-20th century, you’re obviously a crazy utopian verging upon totalitarianism, because everyone knows that all important things have already been achieved and we just need to tweak things here and there.


alex 04.27.10 at 3:14 pm

Ok, and your plan for expropriating them all without some of them ending up dead is what, exactly? You think they’ll let you take their money without a fight?

Not to mention that people who agree with capitalism are actually IN A MAJORITY in all of the countries with a large wealthy class – so you’d be the dead one, not them, if it came to a fight. Unless you have epic ninja skillz you’re not sharing with us?

Why oh why must discussion on these topics become so patently silly? Do some of us lie awake at night imaging that it’s 1917 all over again, and this time we’re going to get it right?


Substance McGravitas 04.27.10 at 3:16 pm

Ok, and your plan for expropriating them all without some of them ending up dead is what, exactly? You think they’ll let you take their money without a fight?

Absolutely. They already pay taxes, have them pay more.


Western Dave 04.27.10 at 3:20 pm

I’ve always liked (and strictly in a US context):

“Equal opportunity for all” – It nicely encapsulates Americans’ leveling tendencies and passion for class mobility with out redistributionist overtones that tend to make most Americans freak. Opportunity to marry, to get a job, education etc. is broad enough to be construed to cover lots of contexts. Why something like No Child Left Behind was initially so popular. And probably the key towards achieving a guaranteed minimum income.

“I believe in a politics of love and not a love of politics” Where Huckabee granola, christian conservatives (ya hear me RAF?) meet the Kennedys ca. 1968. The key here is the identification of all citizens as being within the family nation. And has the potential to be patriotic without being militaristic. To the extent that we draw “the circle of we” widely, the US is remarkably effective at delivering services/goods. But it’s a hard line and those outside it fare disastrously. (Hello, working class single mothers). So a key is to draw that circle as wide as we can.


jdw 04.27.10 at 3:24 pm

Ben Alpers @ 23: The following is entirely exploratory:

(1) Given that “[the] vision [thing]” and “hope” were made famous respectively by Bush Sr and Obama, no doubt there is a need to come up with something with a little more heft when it comes to indicating and outlining a coherent set of ideals. And the fact that there isn’t such a phrase in the left lexicon at the moment indicates perhaps that the shared ideals have little substance to them, or that they aren’t shared.

(2) “The equivalent of the sit-in” reminds me of this: In those days, there was a sense of a shared set of ideals (thinking for instance of Martin Luther King “I have dream…”), and given the widely-shared character of that, things like sit-ins were effective because they drew attention to a lot of people deep down inside knew to be right and just. We don’t have that.

(3) Where this sense of justice and right is most blatantly lacking is in the foreign sphere, where for example Gazans should be allowed to import their daily requirements, building materials and so on, without being forced to use tunnels. Let them be. Let them thrive. And so on in many countries and regions wherever US military force is behind the propping up of unjust systems. And use the freed-up resources for the alleviation of poverty. Somehow this “let them be” idea has to be made powerful in the way that the King leadership was powerful. Therein, I think, lies a bigger part of the problem than you are suggesting.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 3:25 pm

Is there an operating assumption that the political-economic system which has been dominant in the West for the past, say, 150 or so years, will continue forever?

It’s one thing to get tired of predictions of the imminent end of capitalism just around the corner, etc., etc., but it’s also kind of absurd to assume that the current system is simply the pinnacle of what can be achieved and will be continued as long as civilization continues.

Maybe there will be no more significant achievements in, say, the deepening and expansion of cooperative democracy into the economic sphere; but there’s little evidence to assume that this can never happen.

A couple hundred years is a long time, but it’s not an eternity.


Rich Puchalsky 04.27.10 at 3:25 pm

Not entirely sure why JoB seems to think that anarchists were all wrong when he or she is concerned with “the imaginative creation of new directions that will allow each individual’s creativity to be maximized”. That appears to me to be an anarchist ideal. But whatever: I think that there is a broad commonality between that and something like, say, Yglesias’ post linked to above — where he talks about how conservatives want people to work, and are outraged that people have more time for retirement, more time for (by implication non-job-related) school, more time for non-work culture creation of all kinds.

After recommending Bakunin in the last thread, I’ll recommend Bob Black in this one. Yeah, he’s not exactly respectable in any way, including by the standards of respectability of anarchism. But The Abolition of Work really does help to get at what I think is an important problem from a lot of directions. If distribution was not done in a way designed to force people to work or starve, we already have enough to support everyone, and really people want to work for various reasons — social status, extra benefits, needing to have something to do — ever when not coerced by necessity. At that point, we really don’t want more work, because that part of economic activity that involves making and consuming physical things can’t be sustained by the planet if it’s ramped up indefinitely. The Third World is going to need more physical resources (hopefully, with infrastructure built with low-ecological-damage technology), of course.

Incrementally, that involves a number of classical social-democratic things. A shorter workweek. Universal health care, so people can leave their job without dying. Progressive taxation used for income support. Rebuilding the planetary infrastructure so we can support everyone in less desperate circumstances but with a smaller footprint.

But that ideal also involves a number of “cultural” things that are sometimes ignored by parts of the left. There are a number of structures that the right uses to keep people in line that are not economic. For instance, America is a massive prison state not because of debtor’s prisons, but because of drug crimes. The right also attempts to suppress sexuality in various ways, especially through anti-gay laws. Some version of this ideal allows all of that to be brought in without the tiresome insistence that economy is everything.

It also involves dropping the whole Marxist thing about valorization of the proletariat, and labor as the source of value, and so on. Which shouldn’t be hard as none of that was true in any case.


chris 04.27.10 at 3:27 pm

The so-called “rainbow coalition” is a non-starter. Average working families regard such groups as, at best, harmless oddities. At worst they tend to be reviled as deviants, parasites or vermin.

Platonism rears its stupid head again, I see.

A substantial fraction of the population is *in* one of “those” groups, or at worst, has personal friends who are. You’re putting far too much weight on the average-in-every-respect family with 2.3 kids. Real populations vary, and because *most* individuals are “deviant” in one respect or another, deviant-bashing has limited play outside the circles of people who *like* to enforce conformity.

The idea that people don’t have to conform in every respect in order to have rights is a powerful one for people who don’t want to conform in every respect. *Which is most of them,* even if a majority do conform in any *particular* respect.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.27.10 at 3:29 pm

JoB, ‘

It would be a prudent if not wise act on your part to at least acquaint yourself with the relevant literature on utopian thought (such as I referenced in the aforementioned post at Ratio Juris) before making extravagant and incorrect characterizations on the order of “it tries to ‘make’ people conform with that [utopian] vision.” What utopian thought and imagination are should not be reduced to what some have done with the products of such thought and imagination. Or perhaps you’re one of those likely to hold Marx liable for the Stalinist gulags, Rousseau responsible for the Chinese Cultural Revolution…and Nietzsche for Nazism (and no, I don’t judge Burke by Curzon or the two Mills by those who invoked ‘oriental despotism’ to oppose political progress on the subcontinent of India), in which case my comment falls on deaf ears.


JoB 04.27.10 at 3:39 pm

Rich, I didn’t say all anarchists were wrong, I said anarchists of the Bakunian denomination are wrong. I kind of like anarchism for its optimism and its anti-Utopianism – but I hate it when it is violent and overbearing and nostalgic for ‘innocent’ times.

Patrick, with all due respect: perhaps it would be prudent not to surmise what I would likely be holding, if not wise to check what I actually do say.

As to the logic of Utopianism. Clearly Utopia is what should be. Whatever is at odds with that is to be eliminated. Voilà! I’m so sure there are Utopians that fail to derive the logical conclusions from what they think, but that does not make the entailments any less unavoidable.


engels 04.27.10 at 3:52 pm

Capitalism is not perfect but nobody is getting killed, nobody suffers violence or serious hardship and the large majority will always favour it over any alternative. And I know all this because I am a comfortably off, middle-aged white man living in North America or Europe who spends his spare time spouting off on the internet.


Pat 04.27.10 at 3:53 pm

If we’re veering into sloganable platformaneering, how about this: I would like to be surrounded by smart, healthy people. Perhaps this is overly utopian, but there you go. Which is not to say The Right doesn’t also have the same goal, but theirs is a different scope. I look on a society-wide scale; everyone should be smart and healthy: co-workers, potential employees, customers, shoe shine boys, not just my friends and family. So this needs to be accomplished through social programs.

The Right, by contrast, has such a narrow scope that they can accomplish this by amassing enough money to build walls and hire goons to keep the riff-raff out. Unfortunately for this tack, your message has to be some form of “You are the riff-raff,” which doesn’t come across well in America.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 04.27.10 at 4:03 pm


Re: “Clearly Utopia is what should be. Whatever is at odds with that is to be eliminated. Voilà! I’m so sure there are Utopians that fail to derive the logical conclusions from what they think, but that does not make the entailments any less unavoidable.”

Again, your failure to read (or understand) the relevant material is appalling and, now, inexcusable. Cf., for example, the following:

‘Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:
· First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.
· Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.
· Third, utopias exist in speech; they are “cities of words.” This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This “counterfactuality” of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.
· Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.
· Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.
· Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]
Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.’—William A. Galston

So, the relevant pelluicid point is that this is not simply a question about deductive, logical “entailment” nor is it rightly characterized as a matter of deontic or modal logic (i.e., about what ‘should be’), hence a statement like “I’m so sure [sic] there are Utopians that fail to derive the logical conclusions from what they think, but that does not make the entailments any less unavoidable,” betray an utter lack of basic comprehension of the nature of utopian thought and imagination.

So ends my attempt at persuasion.

Best wishes,


Kaveh 04.27.10 at 4:04 pm

alex @6 Where is the latter type of multiculturalism seriously considered an option, and also considered “multicultural”, nowadays? Do you mean places where women are allowed to cover their hair with a scarf while working in government jobs?

re Hidari @5’s point about Eurocentrism and neoliberalism being shibboleths, and that these are “not discrete entities”, it’s significant that they don’t overlap to the extent that the capitalist world = the West, and that India, much of East Asia, and, I think, a good bit of the Middle East, (and also Latin America?) have increasingly substantial wealthy middle classes. We need to take into account different forms of patriarchy and different understandings of globalism, and different approaches to dialog/propaganda. Where do the increasingly educated publics of the Gulf states, for example, fit into all of this? I don’t know as much as I’d like about the left in India, Japan, or S Korea. Work we need to do…

A lot of the current debates over multiculturalism have a strong taste of manufactured controversy. Very few people in the world wear burkas. And let’s not fool ourselves that debates over religion/secularism don’t have a very strong ethno-national component. See for example the recent case of a German government official, a Muslim who believes the hijab has “no place in the classroom”, and who is upsetting members of her own Christian Democratic party because she intends to implement a ban (ordered by Germany’s Constitutional Court) on crucifixes in schools.

However these particular issues resolve themselves (or don’t) in Europe, racism can be confronted by aggressively asserting multiculturalism as a cultural value, not in an overtly didactic way, e.g. by preaching tolerance, but by showing, through art and otherwise, how a multicultural society is better to live in. In more than a few large cities, I can eat almost literally whatever I want. Big cities tend to have a great international film and music scene. Rather than all but apologizing for these things as elitist (or as the kids say, “hipster”), they should be enshrined as part of the-society-we-want-to-be.

Ben Alpers @23 To put this in terms that hearken back to a time when the left did change things: what is the 2010 equivalent of the sit-down strike? What we’re good at now is changing the frame by changing the culture. Effective organizing is a lot easier when most people agree with us. Richard Puchalsky @39 also brings up drug laws, another important example where the left is slowly but surely making progress in the court of opinion.


Rich Puchalsky 04.27.10 at 4:09 pm

“While we can always do better at hope and vision, what we most desperately need is a better tactically and strategic sense of how to change things given our current political system and political culture. To put this in terms that hearken back to a time when the left did change things: what is the 2010 equivalent of the sit-down strike?”

The primary contested from the left.

In the U.S., that is. I don’t have the knowledge to say anything useful about elsewhere, and I don’t see any point in pretending that I do. But in the U.S., the electoral system is a double-edged sword. It suppresses any third party, and hitches the left to the just-left-of-center, whether they want to be attached or not. But the same non-democratic characteristics that let it be unduly influenced by any economic interest also let it be unduly influenced by a group of activists. The center is unable to break the tie to the left from its direction.

Look at what the right has done with the GOP, for example. The Tea Partiers never win anything, but they can never be ignored or driven out. The situation on the left is different, since we have an actual legislative agenda. Hollow out the current Democratic Party internal power structures, push our stuff through with a electoral minority, and then — just as with health care — once it’s actually implemented, the Overton Window will shift. The right only gets one chance to stop things, unless something goes very wrong. Once we e.g. start converting to carbon-neutral technology, and people see that there’s no economic catastrophe, what’s the right going to do later on? Tell people to rip in all out and rebuild the coal plants?

Unfortunately, Obama. But next cycle people will hopefully see through that.


Sebastian 04.27.10 at 4:21 pm

“Richard Puchalsky @39 also brings up drug laws, another important example where the left is slowly but surely making progress in the court of opinion.”

The left is doing that? That is much more an important example where libertarian thought is slowly but surely making progress in the court of opinion? The arguments about drug laws are mostly “adults have a right to do things to/with their bodies that don’t hurt other people.” That seem to me to be more a libertarian strain of thought. Leftists sometimes make social injustice arguments (black people get hurt by drug laws more than other people for example), but I’m pretty sure it is the former arguments that are making progress in the court of public opinion a lot faster than the latter.


Kaveh 04.27.10 at 4:32 pm

@48 The leftist, libertarian, and liberal positions overlap here, as they do with acceptance of homosexuality. WRT drug issues, they overlap completely. WRT LGBT issues, has the progress of (distinctly non-libertarian) anti-discrimination and anti-bullying laws significantly lagged very far behind the progress of marriage equality?


someguy 04.27.10 at 4:35 pm

If already nominated, I second the end of borders. If not, I nominate the end of borders.

I think I am more in agreement than most commentators. But I don’t see liberalism and conservatism as mutually or even mostly exclusive.


Salient 04.27.10 at 4:59 pm

To put this in terms that hearken back to a time when the left did change things: what is the 2010 equivalent of the sit-down strike?

Folks. That is a damn good question. And jdw’s lonely response to it, no fault to jdw, doesn’t seem to even scratch the surface of what can be explored there.

Not that I can do any better, but it would be lovely to hear some of you all take a crack at it.

I think it’s relevant to this thread. Incremental reform happened, throughout the 20th century, because a group of people acted drastically — thereby garnering sufficiently broad sympathy in our population to force incremental change, generally as a response from those in power. The response was usually issued either to head off more drastic change, or out of genuine sympathy and desire to see justice served, or a paradoxical mixture of both.


Salient 04.27.10 at 5:00 pm

Note in particular that whoever uses violence loses popular support over time; successful incremental reform is obtained by revealing existing suffering or inciting irrational and disproportionate violence from one’s enemies through means that society broadly recognizes as legitimate (like sitting on a bus seat or at a lunch counter). The latter emphasizes the former, really, and isn’t persuasive in the absence of the former.

Because I want to be provocative, in the sense of getting others to respond to the original question — and because the assertion seems true to me — I’ll go further and assert that does not exist any other means for a grassroots group to accomplish large-scale incremental change. But really, I’m wondering: what means are available?


Mitchell Rowe 04.27.10 at 5:17 pm

“Tell people to rip in all out and rebuild the coal plants?”
Interestingly enough, and not to take anything away from your point, but didn’t Regan do exactly that with the solar panels Carter has installed on the White House?


geo 04.27.10 at 5:20 pm

Substance @35: They already pay taxes, have them pay more.

Though just tossed off in an attempt (successful, I’d say) to squelch a frivolous objection, this sentence seems to me to harbor a profound strategic insight. That is: take attitudes, practices, principles, ideals, etc. that already have substantial legitimacy within a society and show that their implications are radically different from present practice. Eg., progressive taxation is generally accepted in principle, but under the present tax system, the overall effective tax rate is essentially flat. Equal opportunity is an almost universally accepted value, which should make guaranteed access to Head Start and day care a no-brainer. Voting is a civic sacrament, so what can we do to get the turnout up to 75-80 percent? We all swell with pride singing “America the Beautiful,” and say, did you know that the two most beautiful places in America (by some accounts, at least), the Hetch Hetchy Valley and Glen Canyon, were destroyed for the sake of Los Angeles sprawl and Las Vegas casinos? And more generally, what about the Sermon on the Mount — wasn’t that Jesus fella on to something?

In other words, we should start where people are, with the values we and they already agree on, and point out the implications of our shared beliefs. That won’t get us all the way, but it might help.


JoB 04.27.10 at 5:21 pm

Patrick, your utopia is clearly more flexible than most but I admire your enthusiasm – I kinda dig your Third. I do not doubt that there is an important place for this in actually improving life (it is one of the good things about Obama that he is willing to and can shift the discourse in the right direction, even if most people would call it ‘bla-bla-bla’).

But the thing is that I have heard too many socialists talk about the perfectability of man (this is the best attempt at translation from Dutch I can muster) when it’s just the case that they want everybody else to think and behave exactly as they do. In no way I want to offend any good reasons you have to defend Utopianism but it is not uncommon for people to convince themselves they mean well when they are on paths to disaster.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 5:30 pm

…..it is not uncommon for people to convince themselves they mean well when they are on paths to disaster.

But that is just as true of people advocating no or little change in the face of actual problems as it is of people advocating greater changes.


alex 04.27.10 at 5:40 pm

@35: expropriation is paying more taxes? I will charitably presume that you are being funny. If you intend to tax the rich as a sustainable level, you have to presume they will remain rich enough to continue to pay the taxes indefinitely [and not mobilise opinion against them, as happened so successfully in the 1980s]. if you intend, on the other hand, to use taxation as a force for real expropriation, why do you suppose they would stand for it peaceably?

People here have continued, as Engels does above, to insinuate that what they really want is a situation of increasingly violent confrontation out of which can emerge, butterfly-like, a better world. Thus every essentially peaceful gain of the post-1945 social-democratic movements is cast aside in favour of a vision of a world where the forces of the left will magically prove stronger than those of the right when confrontation erupts. Yet, unless there’s a secret plan I’m not party to, the American left isn’t the political force in that country stockpiling guns and ammunition – and neither is the left anywhere else.

I say, again, if you really mean that violence is the solution, have the courage to say it out loud, and accept the consequences.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 5:51 pm

It’s entirely possible that no fundamental changes in the operation of modern economies in a more democratic and just direction can come without the super-rich calling upon the forces of formal or paramilitary violence.

This isn’t the same thing as declaring it to be the only and inevitable option, nor to assume that people thinking that it’s possible that this isn’t the inevitable result are hiding their desire for violence.


Substance McGravitas 04.27.10 at 5:53 pm

if you intend, on the other hand, to use taxation as a force for real expropriation, why do you suppose they would stand for it peaceably?

Because they stood for it peaceably before. The assumption of violence is a he-who-dealt-it-smelled-it sort of thing.


Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 5:53 pm

-What do we want?
-Don’t know

-When do we want it?
-Not now


Kaveh 04.27.10 at 5:55 pm

Again @23 Ben Alpers, @51 Salient, and @37 jdw, I think the strategy Richard Puchalsky pointed out @47, the primary from the left, is a great one.

The general strategy Salient described, or the cry of “let them be”, these are great for confronting a very overt system of oppression, like an apartheid system–it even works against very powerful entrenched interests, how much more so with something like the clusterf**k that just happened in Arizona, where they are already starting to get slammed with boycotts.

It’s much harder for such tactics to be effective against violence that is sufficiently normalized, like the American prison state system. For that, and for issues like climate change and sustainability, primarying from the left, as Richard Puchalsky described it, is the way to go, at least in the US.

But for primarying from the left to work, you need a sizable far left-left coalition to rally around any given issue, which is where public outreach and honing and developing our “brand” comes into play.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.27.10 at 6:08 pm

Alex, suppose a society decides to expropriate the capitalists, and the capitalists (as you predict) put up armed resistance – in this scenario, who is the perpetrator of violence? Why do want the expropriators to admit that “violence is the solution”, and not the expropriatees?


bob mcmanus 04.27.10 at 6:10 pm

56:I say, again, if you really mean that violence is the solution, have the courage to say it out loud, and accept the consequences.

Some things are not discussed in mixed company. Some things are actionable under law.

I honestly, sincerely, and passionately believe that without Republicans, a just America could help the world get to a very good place. Most remaining problems could be addressed effectively. Simple as that.

With Republicans, the human race will possibly go extinct.


Rich Puchalsky 04.27.10 at 6:35 pm

“Interestingly enough, and not to take anything away from your point, but didn’t Regan do exactly that with the solar panels Carter has installed on the White House?”

There’s a big difference between taking down one tiny system that was put up as a gesture, and between taking down multi-billion-dollar renewable energy plants and replacing them with multi-billion-dollar coal plants.

People are, to a large extent, locked in to their built infrastructure, and it takes a strong political motivation to change it. That works against us. But if we ever win once, it flips over to the other side. The GOP talks a lot about culture war issues because they are cheap, and about cutting taxes because in the short-term, cutting taxes is cost-less for them. Are they really going to raise taxes to replace newly built infrastructure that is actually working?


engels 04.27.10 at 6:40 pm

Alex, you’re the only one going on and on — again — about violent confrontation, bullets, billy-clubs, dead capitalists, etc, etc. I’ve made precisely two comments on this thread (#22 and #43) neither of which is it remotely reasonable to read as advocating the view that ‘violence is the solution’, far less that ‘what the West needs is more dead capitalists’. I do try to write as clearly as possible but I am afraid I can’t be held responsible for people who use others’ comments as a kind Rorschach inkblot for their own obsessions.


Mitchell Rowe 04.27.10 at 6:43 pm

I agree with you. I just wanted an excuse to tell that story.


Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 6:59 pm

JoB: The, er, ‘imaginative creation of new directions that will allow each individual’s creativity to be maximized’ is what should be. Whatever is at odds with that is to be eliminated. ELIMINATED!


Glen Tomkins 04.27.10 at 7:02 pm

The Left doesn’t do revolutionary change, so there really is little point to discussing what such changes leftists should get behind. We only make more than incremental progress when the Left has to pick up the pieces after some revolution from the Right has cleared the field of the old baggage. In successful societies, at least, it’s always the Right that goes in for revolution.

The mention of Burke brings up the classic case, and the systematic historical misunderstanding whereby conventional thinking accepted Burke’s revisionism and inverted the relationship of Left and Right to revolution.

Burke started out enthused over the very doctrinaire revolution from the Right that the Parlementaires made in 1788. Forcing the the king to call back into existence the long-dead Estates General (all to defeat the tentative steps toward beginning to think about taxing the wealthy that Neckar had proposed), was the step that made a clean break with the ancien regime inevitable, precisely because it put the govt of the country in the hands of an institution that had no organic, ongoing, role in the civic life of the country. The country had had its capacity for self-governance, all the habits required on all hands for self-governance to work, killed off by the century and a half during which the Bourbons had ruled without need to consult the Estates. Once brought back, and the keys to the kingdom forced into its hands, the Estates had no choice but to invent itself as the new regime, in order to pick up the shattered pieces of the ancien regime.

Something organic and ongoing might still have arisen rapidly from this process of self-invention, except that the Right which had started this process, promptly defected from it when it became clear that a timocracy of the great nobles was not going to be the end result. The Right either went into open rebellion with the foreign armies invading France, or raised internal openly rebellious armies, or it became the obstructionist bloc surrounding the king. The left of that time and place did its best to find some place in the new constitution for a king and a Church and a nobility that had no natural, organic place left in governance, however artificial and theory-driven that place that they carved out had to be. But they found in the Right of that time and place no more reliable a negotiating partner than the Republicans of our own time. There was no place the Right would accept, no new growth of institutions of governance that they would agree to participate in.

In the end, of course, the Left had to acknowledge that the Right had left the field, and that the new regime could not be gerrymandered to have any role for players who would not play. So France had its First Republic, an embattled republic that rhetorically made revolution a glorious end in itself, so as to rally the people to the defense of their country. And so Burke discovered a horror of Revolution, of discontinuous, non-organic change of the sort that he had cheered in 1788. And since then, the Left (because it wants to be feared) and the Right (because it wants the Left to be feared) have each found it convenient to go along with that alibi, that fiction that Revolution is the natural tool and ultimate weapon of the Left.

The truth is that, in an at all successful society, the poor and downtrodden are the most averse to uspetting a system that at least allows them to get by somehow. Only the entitled demanders of great privilege can never be satisfied with even the outsize benefits that the ancien regime of the day bestows on them. No level of taxation on their wealth, or public control over how they obtain that wealth, can ever be low enough. And so they turn, in this country, to doctrines of state interposition, and state nullification, doctrines as long dead to practice as the Estates General, because even such a pathetically weak reform as Obamacare simply cannot be allowed to stand. It threatens their whole way of life to even propose that the current ancien regime/crony capitalism solution, for health care financing or the financial markets, stands in any need of public governance. They cannot see such weak tea govt supervision as anything less dire than an assault on sacred liberties, more than justifying nullification and disunion.

I am no prophet, and cannot say whether Obama will prove to be our Neckar, a mild, incremental reformer, someone desperately trying to save our ancien regime from its own worst instincts, in an effort that will be doomed by the Right’s intransigeance. Maybe the Right’s attempts to end-run the system as it now stands will fizzle as they did in the 50s, the last time state interposition was tried.

But maybe they will get their Constitutional Convention, or perhaps their Federalist Society/original intentionalists on the Supreme Court will deposit us back in 1798 by refusing cert in the suits seeking to affirm the right of states to interpose against federal laws — and we’ll end up with an at least partially violent revolution. Or perhaps their antics, their constant and ever-more shrill appeals to end-run politics as usual, will so discredit them with the electorate that we will have a less violent, New Deal, sort of revolution.

Either way, I think that we on the Left do not get to clear the field of outmoded institutions so that there can be progress, in health care finance, in financial markets, in anything. In a successful society, only the people at the top of the food chain get to do that. Only they have the, thoroughly undeserved, heft and clout to destroy public respect for the way our society is currently governed. Our business elites, like the Parlementaires of 1788, will have to themselves destroy the institutions that so inordinately benefit them. They seem eager for the task right about now.

The only thing that progressives can do in this situation is try to nudge events more towards the New Deal than the French Revolution. The less violence in the inevtiable revolution, the better. And then we pick up the pieces that are left after the Right has made its revolution and cleared away the dead wood of the ancien regime.


Tim Wilkinson 04.27.10 at 8:05 pm

What would be best? Is it possible to get there? How feasible is it to get there? Can it be done by steps which are each improvements, in case we can’t get all the way there? Etc.

OK then, what would be second best? etc.

(And what kind of thing one is enviaging as ‘best’ might be all kinds of things, specified in all sorts of ways.)

I don’t see why generalisations about incrementalism should be thought to have any force at all. Some things can be achieved in steps, some can’t. And some things can only be achieved in a single step, but it is an acceptable one.

In fact ‘incrementalism’ seems in many cases to mean making a changes in one step – it’s just that the changes are very small, and uncoordinated. Deliberately restricting oneself to unambitious plans without giving proper consideration to long term possibilities and contingency plans seems a poor way of going about things to me – unless there is no more ambitious goal to aim for at all. And that’s not incrementalism, it’s quietism.


bob mcmanus 04.27.10 at 8:44 pm

68:Very good.


JoB 04.27.10 at 9:04 pm

Cid@56- maybe so but it’ss not very common for those advocating small steps to have the fanaticism to propose a step that leads directly to disaster.

Tim@67- that was an awful piece of writing I did and I deserve to be slapped for it, but that doesn’t make your remark right; Utopian thinking is pretty definitive in how such a society and people in it should be – my (admittedly opaque) formulation is so open it is difficult to be at odds with it. In fact, the opaqueness of my formulation is a result of it needing to be open enough not to open the prospect of quick elimination.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 9:28 pm

maybe so but it’ss not very common for those advocating small steps to have the fanaticism to propose a step that leads directly to disaster

That depends on how large and dangerous a threat faced by a society is, and whether or not inaction or small steps approaches make that threat more likely.


Jack Strocchi 04.27.10 at 9:40 pm

ajay@#16 said:

There is awful lot that is wrong with this.

We’ll see about that.

ajay said:

1) Yes, the internet was largely descended from a US military project. ARPANET,
2) …it’s true that satellite broadband is useful for more remote areas.

Not off to a good start when you concede my main point and subsidiary point from the get-go. How do you thing Google Earth and sat nav got their leg-up? On the strength of those concessions I’d say “there is an awful lot” right “with this”

ajay said:

4) You seem completely confused about what McCarthyism was.

No, you are “completely confused about” what my views on “McCarthyism” are. I did not say I was a fan of McCarthy or the spurious persecution of Left-wingers. I’m just fed up with lop-sided interpretations of history. Many Left-liberal intellectuals insinuate that “McCarthyism” was the be-all and end-all of the Cold War effort, using the failures and follies of the former to discredit or ignore the successes of the latter. Particularly the spectacular achievements of the National Defence Education Act.

BTW McCarthy did have half a point, the Venona Project proved that communist spies did penetrate the highest reaches of the US government and give away state secrets. That was no excuse to pick on Left-wing playwrights though.

More generally its a fact that paranoia can often spur peoples to useful efforts, false positives and all that. The Cold War arms race drove the Space Race to put long range rockets and spy satellites up into orbit. Lots of other useful tech innovations were hastened by this effort, integrated circuits, material science, the internet. I am suggesting that this irony is “something to ponder next time Leftish intellectuals go through the ritual of denouncing McCarthyism” and, by implication, Cold War paranoia.

ajay said:

5) Suggesting that the Renaissance is an example of the Left fostering technological innovation is frankly silly.

No, your cultural-political history is as shoddy as your interpretation of technological history. The “Left” is a relative, not absolute, designator. The Renaissance was broadly a Left-wing period when the newly empowered lower-status challenged established higher-status groups. City states challenged the Roman Church. Republicans challenged monarchs. Secular humanists challenged religious fundamentalists. Merchants challenged landed estates. Artists sought parity with established professions.

And of course a key aspect of the Renaissance was the Renaissance man and his patron who indeed “fostered technological innovation”. Anyone marvelling at Il Duomo’s load-bearing capacities (!), Massacio’s pictorial perspective or Leonardo’s military inventions can see that for themselves.

ajay said:

6) Describing China as “the world’s largest and oldest civilisation of nerds” is also silly, and racist to boot.

It might be “racist” to characterize China as a “the world’s largest oldest civilization of nerds”, but its true nonetheless. You can sort through this seemingly endless list of ancient Chinese inventions to see for your self.

ajay said:

Given your ignorance of technology and history, I would suggest that you take a long hard look at your views on economics and politics, as these may well also be non-load-bearing.

“Given you own ignorance of technology and history” I would suggest that you take your own advice and and “take a long hard look at your” own views before going off half-cocked at the “load-bearing” capabilities of mine.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 10:08 pm

As dangerous as it may be to yield to what may be seen as “radical” or huge scale societal changes, and there certainly are risks, it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are a lot of people in the world who will have to suffer and even die unless some huge changes occur around them. There are a variety of reactions one can have to that reality, but a lot of those people might think that big changes are needed.


El Cid 04.27.10 at 10:18 pm

And finding out that the Soviet Union was attempting spying at the highest levels of U.S. government had nothing to do with Joe McCarthy — he didn’t find who it was, after all, and the U.S. wartime and post-war intelligence agencies assumed the same thing, and occasionally uncovered them. Likewise, the Soviets knew that the U.S. was attempting to turn officials at the highest Soviet levels. But unless they found them out, that went on. It’s not like McCarthy was introducing some fascinating, revolutionarily new idea. Really? The Soviets were trying to have agents within the U.S. government? Gosh! you don’t say!


Current 04.28.10 at 2:18 am

It’s interesting that the folks here think that the left are losing ground, also conservatives generally think the the right are losing ground and libertarians think that they are losing ground. I’ve read recent discussions online from all three groups.

I guess it’s because each group has such a different idea about what “losing ground” entails.


KFB 04.28.10 at 3:49 am

Incrementalism: couldn’t that mean developing a community on a small scale, as a practical experiment–let’s say a seven square mile area in a city in the United States with sufficient complexity–through which one could demonstrate the effectiveness and truth of one’s comprehensive vision? Incrementalism and comprehensive vision go hand in hand. The vision should respect the context that is given; the vision would aim to reduce the cost of living for the individual–yes, we are a Green Community–while demonstrably enhancing the quality of life for the members of the community, and empower them. The vision would rely on the market forces to gauge and score the effectiveness of the endeavor. The vision ought to be transferable to other contexts (cities, countries, communities) and generate in each context a unique and genuine expression of community and tradition,drawing–naturally–on the traditions and history and environment of the context, as we find it.

The experimental community would serve as an inspiration to the surrounding context and the larger world, even if the communities’ vision were not necessarily deeply comprehended. While this community, as a first experiment, would quickly differentiate itself from the surrounding urban context the experimental community itself would be pluralistic and multi-cultural. The poverty, the sameness of existence in many cities and communities might make the notion of a “standard of living” quantifiable and meaningful in a sort of perverse way, but it surely shows us that the poverty of the poor is only such relative to the context. If the minimum wage worker could, after punching her clock, beam Star Trek like some distance to a vibrant community some distant in both time and space where the standard of living is considerably lower, would that not be great. Sure would. But let’s not engage in such foreign thoughts. Interestingly, in my community in Florida, the further one lives away from the Urban core the less expensive housing becomes. And what about those retirees that move too Mexico or Costa Rica to live better on their money. But we all know this. So is it all a problem of transportation? Only in part.

Our experimental community will be truly pluralistic and multi-cultural. It must be. Are we speaking about Cubans, Chinese, and others living side by side. That too; but more. We are not only thinking spatially, but also temporal. The contemporaneity of the non-comtemporaneous–to borrow a phrase from of the art historian Wilhem Pinder–is what our vision aims for. Why should the Amish be the only ones to be shielded from “progress” and the assault of modernity. Our progressive vision is of the different sort. We are not anti m0dern; we just put modernity in its’ place and turn away from that limiting metaphor of the leading edge of a river called history–perpendicular, I suppose, to gain some perspective on a boundless ocean.

Our experimental community, than, wholeheartedly espouses the deeper meaning of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, and we extent its’ meaning. We align our community’s interest with those of the Amish, with a particularly skeptical eye at two of the rationalizing and homogenizing expressions of modernity: the large corporation and the state, from the national to the local level. They are “to big to fail”. Naturally, as we start building our community we’ll have to modify building codes and zoning ordinances, always respecting the environment in which we are building–a minimum floor-area-ratio of 1000 square feet for a free standing residence just want do.We will need the greatest degree of freedom as we responsibly tackle housing, transportation, education(including child care), work and health care, keeping in mind that we have all of history, and some, to draw from. We will create a community of cultures, a city, in which the Amish would feel at home and other, even stranger and more wonderous, creatures. And like so many orphans, they shall find a home, be respected and flourish in our community; and everyone shall be near the center, if they wish to be.

What kind of progessive are we–we, who are committed to conservation, the empowerment, and the cultivation of differences and perspectives. We are community organizers and builders, as is our President. We are incrementalists in that we believe in demonstration projects and experimentation. We built from the ground up. We let the context tell us what it wants to be. We are like John Quiggin, inviting others into the conversation.


JoB 04.28.10 at 7:15 am

72- ah, you were talking about the imminent Apocalypse! Yes, if you invert Utopia to Apocalypse you get more or less the same — DRASTIC MEASURES ARE OUR ONLY WAY FORWARD!


El Cid 04.28.10 at 2:54 pm

72- ah, you were talking about the imminent Apocalypse! Yes, if you invert Utopia to Apocalypse you get more or less the same—DRASTIC MEASURES ARE OUR ONLY WAY FORWARD!

Well, this is an actual, measurable, empirical world. Occasionally there are real problems which are not the result of apocalyptic thinking or ideologies, but due to real world conditions.

For example, perhaps if global warming were to continue and worsen severely, such that existing social and economic systems simply did not appear to measurably alter social conditions so as to survive successfully. Nations may be at risk not only of water shortages but deep and sustained suffering or even famine due to drought, or emerging diseases not dealt with before.

This is not fantasy apocalypticism, it’s at least a hypothetical example of threats to societies so severe that middling and incrementalist responses — as always, depending upon how terms like ‘incrementalist’ or ‘gradual’ or ‘rapid’ are employed — may be argued logically and/or empirically as being inadequate.

Should we expect a lecture from cautious ideologues on how any rapid or large scale changes would threaten us with rich people shooting us? Or a response to real world conditions based upon rational arguments and available empirical evidence?


chris 04.28.10 at 2:57 pm

BTW McCarthy did have half a point, the Venona Project proved that communist spies did penetrate the highest reaches of the US government and give away state secrets.

The concept that governments have spies and some of them are competent was not original to McCarthy, so I don’t know that you can really credit him with it.

The concept that anyone with leftish political views was probably a communist spy or helping communist spies wasn’t exactly *original* to McCarthy (see “paranoid style”), but it was somewhat distinctive to him. It was also utter rubbish.


James Kroeger 04.28.10 at 5:27 pm

It’s an interesting thing about hope… For some individuals, merely hearing a description of desirable goals is enough to put them in a very hopeful mood. For these people, the most important achievement is to simply get everyone to agree that the goals would be desirable/worthy. They basically assume that if/when ‘everyone’ can agree on the worthiness of the goals, they are as good as already achieved.

And yes, that is precisely how Karl Marx saw things: get rid of the bad guys, and everyone lives happily ever after. Put the good guys (who are good because they were the victims of the bad guys) in charge, and they cannot help but make all the right decisions, because…well, they are the good guys.

For the ‘realists’ out there, hope is something that only makes a rare appearance when some significant obstacle to goal-achievement has been removed. That is the kind of hope that I think left-leaning political parties could offer the electorate, if only they were smart enough to discredit with ridicule and reasoned argument the Number One Economic Myth that the Republicans have been pushing for many decades.

I am speaking of course of the utterly false claim that tax-cuts—when they are given to rich people—provide an economic stimulus to the economy In truth, exactly the opposite is true. Income tax cuts, when they are given to rich people, are always contractionary in their direct effects on the economy. Income tax increases, when they are imposed on rich people, are always expansionary, not contractionary. The ‘jobless recovery’ that resulted from Bush’s huge tax cuts for wealthy people provides a good example of this fundamental economic reality.

If, however, the tax rates of rich people are increased, at least some of the tax money then collected by the government would otherwise have been saved by the rich taxpayers, had they not been required to use the money for taxes. When this happens, money that would have been removed from the economy by rich people is spent by the government, instead. Result: increase in AD = direct and powerful economic stimulus.

The WORST thing that could happen to the economy if the government were to raise taxes during a Recession: no net increase in Aggregate Demand. That’s what would happen if the government were to raise revenue by taxing people who would have spent ALL of the money they handed over to the government. The economy wouldn’t contract, but neither would it expand. That [expansion] only happens when the government taxes rich people.

I argue that a nation of educated skeptics can be led to embrace hopeful goals, not by reciting lists of desirable outcomes, but by removing obstacles to the achievement of those outcomes. One giant step in that direction would be taken if ‘left-leaning’ economists would begin to inform the educated class re: the false claims of Republican Economic Mythology.

Yet another obstacle would be removed if the wealthiest members of society were to realize that even if they were taxed at steeply graduated/progressive rates, it would still impose no real sacrifice on the wealthy, in terms of lost purchasing power. In real terms, they would discover that their smaller disposable incomes are buying them just as much as their much larger [nominal] incomes bought for them previously.

The basis for new hope is there; will the educated leftists of the world recognize the opportunity that lies before them?


James Kroeger 04.28.10 at 5:31 pm

Once again, the link I provided didn’t work, so here it is:



JoB 04.28.10 at 7:48 pm

Cid- “perhaps if” but not yet so not good enough; by the way, if perhaps the thing were known to be irreversibly leading to global flooding people would not die of flooding as before the flooding they would have been shot by others that ‘defended’ their rights to live in high places. Luckily it seems that there’s hope still, so people don’t go in for the apocalyptic vision just yet.


chris 04.28.10 at 8:11 pm

And yes, that is precisely how Karl Marx saw things: get rid of the bad guys, and everyone lives happily ever after. Put the good guys (who are good because they were the victims of the bad guys) in charge, and they cannot help but make all the right decisions, because…well, they are the good guys.

I suspect a straw Marx, but I don’t know as much about Marx’s actual views as some people here. Anyone?


bob mcmanus 04.28.10 at 8:39 pm

84:There were not only a lot of different flavors of Marxist, bit Marx himself had varying positions say pre- and post- Commune.

get rid of the bad guys

“Change the mode of thinking of the very few dedicated capitalists at the top when the means of production have become fully socialized.”

But we are all victims and tools of the Capitalism. Ain’t no good guys, ain’t no bad guys.
That’s the nice Marxism.

But much of the time I am channeling Saint-Just.


Black Mage 04.29.10 at 2:14 am

Yesterday I bought Mungo’s Canberra (Mungo MacCallum’s contemporary reflections on the Gorton and Whitlam governments) and James Walters’ new book, about ideas in Australian politics. And together they’re an interesting read.

We consider Whitlam something of the epitome of the visionary in Australian politics, yes? A coherent vision, capable of inspiration — hope, even — of social and economic change? I know you’ve written about Whitlam as the first economic rationalist but that’s certainly the way he’s been assimilated into the public discourse — and certainly the way Walters reports on him, as an inspirational figure with a coherent liberal-progressive-social democratic outlook.

Well, at the time, Whitlam was considered, by many on the left at least, as basically Kevin Rudd with a cockatoo hairstyle. Opportunistic. Compromising. Conservative, naysaying, and frequently using appeals to xenophobia and prejudice to try and shore up support amongst the ‘Bazza McKenzie’ voters.

So maybe ‘vision’ only makes sense in hindsight. Maybe we try to rationalise away the past in terms of hectoring the present — the Whitlam discourse’ as we understand it is largely a series of anti-Hawke discourses, whereby this past ‘inspirational’, ‘radical’ figure was built up to attack Hawke’s manifest failings thereof.

So maybe our problem is one of perspective — we’re still so close to Rudd that he doesn’t make sense unless we draw back a bit. Maybe in 20 years we’ll see, in things like national healthcare reforms, and the BER, and the Apology, that he was a mite more inspirational and possessed a more over-arching ‘vision’ for social change — even one badly sold to the public, as arguably Whitlam’s was — than we think at current, as events flood by.


Glen Tomkins 04.29.10 at 2:21 am

85: However much our malefactors of great wealth cry out for the guillotine, were things to play out in a fashion similar to the events of two centuries ago, they would all be long gone by the time we got to the point of setting up a guillotine on the Mall. There would only be front men, fall guys and bit players left to take the rap. We’ld get Dubya and Yoo, but Murdoch and Blankfein would get away clean.


Martin Bento 04.29.10 at 4:53 am

I’ve had no time to comment here for a couple of days, and haven’t yet read the whole thread, but I hope it is not too late to chime in:

Taxing the rich is not adequate for reducing inequality as much as needed. In our globalized world, it is too easy for the wealthy to simply redomicile, renouncing citizenship if necessary. In the 50s, a rich man who wanted to become a citizen of Paraguay for tax purposes would be very isolated, face a lot of inconveniences, and not be able to still run a corporation. This is no longer true. If we decided to tax Larry Ellison at Eisenhower-era levels, marginal rate of 90% or so, he would simply move to Malaysia or somewhere, gradually taking Oracle and its jobs with him. And how could we prevent this? A place you cannot leave is a prison and turning countries into such prisons is the hallmark of police states.

So we need to go after the structures that generate the inequality in the first place. Agenda item one is to return to taxing corporations. For real, I mean, not just in theory. Oracle will always want access to the US market and the protection of US laws, wherever Ellison lives.

Going beyond this to more fundamental change, we should revisit state and worker ownership of companies. There have been a lot of forms tried, mostly in Europe, with a mixed but largely promising record. We need to draw some conclusions about what forms work and under which conditions. I’m sure there are many people here in a better position than I to speak to the successes or failures of French state corporate ownership or Mondragon.

Let me offer some specific suggestions for how to get from here to there:

1)Tax stock options (or stock issues) to employees above a certain per capita threshold as compensation. Currently, stock options are a way for corporations to pay their employees – mostly their executives – without having to actually spend money. By diluting ownership, they’re taking the money straight from stockholders, rather than corporate accounts, but in a low-visibility way. And because it is not officially money, it is not taxed. Even The Economist thinks stock options should be taxed as compensation or did think so back when I used to read it. Making a per capita exemption gives companies an incentive to dilute ownership towards their general body of employees, rather than the top dogs. It’s basically putting the government in the position of subsidizing slightly the gradual transfer of ownership to the employees. Employees who work a long time and then get laid off still have their accumulated stock if they have not sold. That’s a nest egg or a claim on future profits. If the layoff brings up the stock price, as usual, well, that’s some compensation too.

2)The government should go in the venture capital business to encourage enterprises that are socially desirable, but need funding beyond what the market will supply in the short term. Currently, this means, primarily, the sustainability industry, comprising alternative energy, carbon sequestration, countering soil depletion, and the like. The government should put money into firms that finance these kinds of projects, alongside private money. The government cannot pick which technologies and companies are going to be the best, not because government is intrinsically incompetent, but because no one can. Venture capitalists back a lot of high-risk ventures, knowing most will fail, but the successes will more than make up for them. Currently, government support for start-ups comes primarily in the form of loan guarantees, which is silly. Those will either go to low-risk ventures or borrowers or are a net loss to the government. Anything highly innovative will be high-risk, but if the government gains equity for its investment, this can more than pay for itself. If all the government gets from the rare successes is reasonable interest, it can never cover the failures.
And the viability of this concept is shown by the fact that this is exactly what the US government does when trying to achieve something it really cares about. The CIA has its own, acknowledged, venture capital firm for encouraging technology that it finds useful. There have long been rumors in the Valley about spook money in less open forms as well.
Also, the government can make this countercyclical. A huge surge in energy investments collapsed with the financial meltdown. The government can keep that going during the bad times when the economy needs it, laying a foundation for a better recovery. Though the stimulus did some of this, it was mostly demand-side and short-term neither of which are optimal for spurring innovation.

3)Also, we have to look for the problems that unbridled Capitalism cannot solve well. That is where we have an opportunity to step in. And I don’t mean moral problems, I mean efficiency and other practical problems. A huge one is staring us in the face: treating purely abstract products as salable property requires restricting their propagation, which diminishes their value to society. Music is the case where this conflict is most developed, but it applies intrinsically to movies, software, or anything where the product is purely digital, which is increasingly where the economic and cultural action is. The value of music could be created more efficiently by subsidizing production and letting the product be free, than by constraining and charging for the product, even assuming the latter is technically feasible. Yglesias talks about how great it is that volunteerism is taking over so much of what used to be paid work, but having a professional creative class outside the academy has served us quite well overall, and it is worth maintaining the ability for artists, writers, and programmers to survive as professionals, rather than do their work as hobbies supported by other funds. It produces better work and more of it. If the market can’t do it, it requires government intervention.


Martin Bento 04.29.10 at 5:26 am

Some quick points:

On utopianism. as Jacques Barzun has pointed out, virtually all the liberal ideas that have worked out – to approximate the list from memory: unemployment insurance, government aid for children, the elderly, and disabled, equal rights for women, regulation of business for the common good, income guarantees, environmental protection – had their origins in utopian thought, long before social democrats or new dealers got a hold of them. You need vision as well as theory, and that is what utopianism provides.

On the drug war. I’m no libertarian, but I have to agree with Sebastian on this one. The liberals may agree philosophically with the libertarians, but it is the libertarians who have been willing to make a fight of it. Milton Friedman, George Schultz, The Economist, The Cato Institute, the Libertarian Party: all have made full-throated calls for drug legalization. What comparable liberal or leftist figure or institution has done this? The Nation? Ralph Nader? Noam Chomsky? Michael Moore? Paul Krugman? The Green Party? None that I know of.


Kaveh 04.29.10 at 7:08 am

@88 I don’t know if you can chalk it up to any one thing. Certainly the libertarians taking up the issue is important, but also an awareness of the racism involved in the War on Drugs has given the issue urgency for the left. I’ve mainly heard the leftist arguments (though, damned if I remember exactly where). Probably more than anything else, it comes down to a fading of the hysteria that began with the War on Drugs, quite apart from any particular arguments against it. I think people are more approving of cannabis than they used to be, not merely more tolerant.


James Kroeger 04.29.10 at 2:40 pm


And yes, that is precisely how Karl Marx saw things: get rid of the bad guys, and everyone lives happily ever after. Put the good guys (who are good because they were the victims of the bad guys) in charge, and they cannot help but make all the right decisions, because…well, they are the good guys.

I suspect a straw Marx, but I don’t know as much about Marx’s actual views as some people here. Anyone?

One does not need to be an expert on Marx to be able to recognize that he did not have the kind of answers that would have saved his vision down the road as an attractive economic alternative. If such answers had been provided by Marx, then they would have undoubtedly been employed during the last few decades of Communism’s reign in Russia.

What is clear to me is that Marx was a good guy, a guy with the right kind of sentiments (admirable) and he was right about how necessary it was for the working class to develop a class consciousness, ’cause the wealthy had already done so, and they had done it at the expense of the working class.

IMO, the basic flaw of Marxism was its obsessive focus on (1) power and (2) property. Marx was basically a romantic who saw the world as a morality play. In society you had the good guys, who were good because they were victims of the really bad guys, those greedy capitalists. Marx simply predicted that eventually the goods guys would get fed up with their plight and would rise up and overthrow their oppressors.

What to do then was not completely figured out by Marx, for he was relying on the good intentions of the good guys to lead to the right decisions re: the economy. Property was taken away from the wealthy because it was seen as the key means by which the wealthy were able to exploit the poor and desperate.

In reality, it really doesn’t matter who owns the property, so long as it is being employed to serve the needs of society, generally. Markets do a lot of that without much direction, so it is and always has been a good idea to use them. The Chinese know this quite well.

I don’t really have a problem with the “bad guys” running the show, so long as they are responsive to the moral pressure of the loyal opposition, and/or the alternative is civil war. The wealthy generally need to fear something, but I don’t think violent attacks are necessary. Loudly expressed criticism should be sufficient to bend them to the public’s will. Especially if you can get large numbers of bodies out in the streets.

This all assumes that left-leaning intellectuals wake up to the opportunities they have to stir up a large and enthusiastic following. The single biggest lesson that Democrats need to learn is that the Swing Voters can only be won over through identity politics, which is something the Republicans have realized since forever. This means that they need to hear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

Perhaps more on this later…


engels 04.29.10 at 2:46 pm

‘Marx was basically a romantic who saw the world as a morality play.’

Oh dear.


Alice de Tocqueville 04.29.10 at 4:04 pm

Current 04.28.10 at 2:18 am

“It’s interesting that the folks here think that the left are losing ground, also conservatives generally think the the right are losing ground and libertarians think that they are losing ground. I’ve read recent discussions online from all three groups.

I guess it’s because each group has such a different idea about what “losing ground” entails.”

Maybe the truth is that we all are.


Alice de Tocqueville 04.29.10 at 4:07 pm

Current’s quote above is at #76. I think that’s a very perceptive observation.


Current 04.29.10 at 6:58 pm


I think maybe we are all “losing ground”. I’ve being considering this recently and I think there are two main reasons: Crony Capitalism and status-quo biases within government and electorates.

Nobody with any honesty or sense really supports Crony Capitalism (certainly dishonest politicians, businessmen and pundits support it). But, it has become a much stronger force in recent years. It is often that force that rightists, leftists and libertarians have been losing too.

Secondly, often the status-quo is unacceptable to us all. Take welfare dependence for example. I live in Ireland where the welfare is very generous, I know many people who have no intention of ever getting a job if they can possibly avoid it, even if though they could work. Now, the rightist solution to this is often some program of moral indoctrination or campaign of persuasion to convince the feckless proles to do their duty for their country. The leftist solution is training, and also often some sort of campaign of persuasion for the unemployed to become “empowered” or something. The libertarian solution is for the state to get out of that activity and leave it to insurance companies, cooperatives, charities and other local organizations. None of us are getting what we want because each of our positions is politically unacceptable. So, what we are getting is a welfare system that all of us agree is unsound.

Fannie and Freddie provide an example of both. Anyone from left or right who had studied them considered them dubious. The left would say that they should be fully nationalised, the right and libertarians that they should be fully privatised. Neither were politically acceptable. And, the course of keeping their existing structure where the public hold liabilities and profits are private was useful to rent seekers within government and within Fannie and Freddie.


Current 04.29.10 at 7:00 pm

If you reply to this I may not be able to reply back. Last time I tried to reply back I found the thread had closed. Discussion threads seem to close quickly on this blog.


chris 04.29.10 at 7:35 pm

If such answers had been provided by Marx, then they would have undoubtedly been employed during the last few decades of Communism’s reign in Russia.

Unless some guy named Joe was more interested in becoming a dictator than in actually promoting the interests of the working class. Or are you counting him as after the end of “Communism’s reign”?

The potential for revolutions to be hijacked by power-seekers who don’t share the revolution’s original goals is not new, but because of that tendency it seems a bit unfair to blame Marx for what was sold under the label “Marxism”. It’s not like he was around to prosecute a trademark infringement suit, even if that had been possible, or even to yell “That’s not how I said to do it!”.

Revolution hijacking is, of course, something to think long and hard about before starting any *future* revolution.

In reality, it really doesn’t matter who owns the property, so long as it is being employed to serve the needs of society, generally. Markets do a lot of that without much direction

No, they don’t. Markets do a lot of employing property to serve the needs of *people with money* generally. People and people with money are two different categories (although obviously one is a subset of the other), and different people have different amounts of money and therefore markets are differently responsive to them.

Furthermore, some of the needs of society do not identifiably belong to a particular person and no particular person can effectively buy them (or would want to try). Environmental issues, for example.

And, of course, unwatched markets will create any form of fraud which is profitable, whether it’s dog sausages sold as pork, snake oil, or CDOs full of NINJA loans. (Actually, fraud isn’t necessarily quite the right word — sometimes the people selling it are believers too — but the point is that the buyers have failed to realize that the product or service they’re buying isn’t as beneficial to them as they think it is.)

It’s true that ownership as such is only a formality, and the use to which property is put and who receives the benefits of that use are more important, but markets have serious and important limitations that must be remedied by some sort of nonmarket institution. (And, in any case, control and usufruct are two of the chief traditional aspects of ownership. A sufficiently strong public servitude, such as a highway, can make someone’s “ownership” of the underlying land little more than a formality.)


Alice de Tocqueville 04.29.10 at 8:56 pm

Yes, you’ve cited some good examples, and there are others, but I need to be brief. (Time constraint.) I was actually thinking of a deeper (wider?) problem, which is climate change and environmental destruction.

I won’t be posting again for a while, as I’ll be traveling.


Martin Bento 04.29.10 at 9:06 pm

Well, I have to differ both with the “Marx as morality play” and “Marx is not answerable for Stalin positions”. Marx saw the classes as in irreconcilable conflict because their interests were in conflict, and he did see human beings as basically self-interested, though he was less uncompromising on that than many economists. Once economic production had developed to the point that only communal ownership of the means of production made sense, there would be a revolution to achieve that, after which class conflict would end because the economic interests of society as a whole would be unified. The proletariat being “good guys” doesn’t come into it. After the revolution, they would be pursuing their self-interest as all parties had been before, but their self-interest would not differ from that of mankind as a whole.

However, it is also untrue to say that Marx could tell Stalin “That isn’t how I said to do it.” Marx didn’t substantially say how to do it. This is because Marx, as he loudly and correctly insisted, and as much as contemporaries seem unaware of this, was adamantly not a utopian. Utopians create a vision of how they would like society to be and then try to figure out how to bring such a thing about. It is a Hegelian project in the precise sense Marx objected to – it works from the ideal to the real. Marx did his famous dialectical inversion of Hegel, which was also an inversion of the utopians. He began with rigorous economic analysis of Capitalist and pre-Capitalist forms of society, showed (he believed) that they will eventually collapse of their internal contradictions and conflicts, and that Communism would be the logical solution to these. To sketch out in any detail how Communism would work would violate his premise, which is that the underlying economic realities shape human ideologies, not the reverse. To assume that we today could understand how a communist society would work without having experienced the conditions of such a society would violate Marx’s premise.

As far as Stalin goes, there is no sense distinguishing in theory between Lenin and Stalin, since Lenin created the system Stalin used, and Lenin did everything, or almost everything, Stalin did, just not on the same scale. Also, if, as a Marxist, you believe that history is shaped by the interplay of impersonal historical forces and not by human intention or personality (and in the contemporary intelligentsia, this view is hardly limited to Marxists) , you cannot say Stalin ruined the Soviet experiment. The USSR was part of history too, and a Marxist account of its development should have as its protagonist impersonal historical – chiefly economic – forces.

Probably the biggest difference between Lenin and Marx is that Marx was a populist and Lenin was not. When Marx said “the proletariat”, he actually meant those people, not someone else speaking on their behalf. Lenin was elitist and concluded that the common people were too stupid, ignorant, and reactionary to actually be allowed to take power. Rather an intellectual elite representing their interest – “the vanguard” – would rule until that distant “someday” when the consciousness of the common man was properly prepared. Said elite took power, with a heavy concentration on “consciousness preparation” in the population. We all know the outcome.

In my view, Marx’s rejection of idealism in the Hegelian sense and of utopianism was a fatal flaw, and the left has hurt itself mightily following his lead in this.


James Kroeger 04.29.10 at 10:48 pm


To assume that we today could understand how a communist society would work without having experienced the conditions of such a society would violate Marx’s premise.

Yes, it is true that I—like many others—have made the mistake of attributing to Marx ideas that were actually Lenin’s. I thank you for your insightful contribution to this discussion.

In my view, Marx’s rejection of idealism in the Hegelian sense and of utopianism was a fatal flaw, and the left has hurt itself mightily following his lead in this.

Really? Please continue…


engels 04.30.10 at 1:21 pm

Marx saw… human beings as basically self-interested

Fwiw this isn’t true either.


chris y 04.30.10 at 1:29 pm

Lenin was elitist and concluded that the common people were too stupid, ignorant, and reactionary to actually be allowed to take power. Rather an intellectual elite representing their interest – “the vanguard” – would rule until that distant “someday” when the consciousness of the common man was properly prepared.

As far as I’m aware, Lenin’s views on the ‘vanguard’ and the masses were taken wholesale from his interpretation of Saint-Just and Robespierre. It was common among late 19th century Marxists to hark back to the French Revolution in seeking models for their own activity, and Marx and Engels did so themselves. Lenin was simply more reckless with the analogy than most.


chris 04.30.10 at 1:47 pm

#98: Also, if, as a Marxist, you believe that history is shaped by the interplay of impersonal historical forces and not by human intention or personality (and in the contemporary intelligentsia, this view is hardly limited to Marxists) , you cannot say Stalin ruined the Soviet experiment.

Hmm, this is an interesting point. If Marx was that kind of radical anti-Great-Man-ist, then if Stalin mattered at all, the very fact that Stalin mattered refutes Marx, and if Stalin didn’t matter, then the corruption of the revolution was somehow inevitable and not a result of Stalin’s hijacking. (Also, given the rest of your post about Lenin, it’s possible that this whole analysis should substitute Lenin for Stalin. But either way, the point is the same: if the man in charge matters, Marx was wrong about men in charge not mattering, and if he doesn’t, then the revolution was doomed to both happen *and* betray the actual workers on the way to inventing totalitarianism.)

Actually, I think you can go further — if Marx is that much of an anti-Great-Man-ist, then *Marx* can’t matter either, by his own theory. So he isn’t responsible for anything because nobody is. We’re just bits of driftwood with delusions of controlling the tides.


Rich Puchalsky 04.30.10 at 1:50 pm

The important thing about Marx, as far as I’m concerned, is that what Martin Bento above refers to as his “rigorous economic analysis” is wrong, not true. That being so, his vision of class conflict and more or less inevitable historical development is also wrong. It’s not so surprising or blameworthy that someone writing in the 19th century got things wrong — how much science of that time is still considered to be true? — but it’s nothing that people can seriously base anything on now.

I mean, anyone can read Marx for inspirational purposes, if that’s what they like to be inspired by. Sort of how I read Bakunin: yes, wrong about lots of things, but I like some of his ideals. But since I’m writing about Marx and Bakunin again, it may be worth pointing out that authoritarianism wasn’t something that Lenin and Stalin later grafted onto Marxist thought. Marx personally participated in authoritarian guidance of the movement. His ideals aren’t anything that personally find too inspiring, but to each his own I guess.


engels 04.30.10 at 2:11 pm

Martin, if you really think that anti-Stalinist Marxists defend the kind of ‘one bad apple’ theory of Stalinism you appear to believe they do then may I politely suggest that you should read a bit more widely?

his “rigorous economic analysis” is wrong, not true. That being so, his vision of class conflict and more or less inevitable historical development is also wrong.

Why? What exactly do you take to be his claims about economics, class or historical development? What makes you think they are ‘wrong’? Have you actually read any Marx, or more recent Marxist economics, history or sociology?


Rich Puchalsky 04.30.10 at 3:24 pm

Well, the labor theory of value is not true. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall is not true in the sense usually held. Marx’ potted history, which shoehorns everything into stages of class conflict, is not true.

I don’t intend to refresh all of the standard arguments, but only point out one salient one for the current moment: Marx got it completely wrong about environmental limits. That was all right for the 19th century, but not now that environmental limits are actually beginning to apply. No amount of human labor is going to help once the amount of solar energy useable by the biosphere is overshot significantly enough. The whole concept of labor as the source of value isn’t just wrong, it’s wrong in what is now a very harmful way.

As for the “have you read any recent Marxist economics” bit, I’ll answer in kind: not really, but I haven’t read very many recent Flat Earth tracts either.


engels 04.30.10 at 3:33 pm

The use values, coat, linen, &c., i.e., the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements – matter and labour. If we take away the useful labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. The latter can work only as Nature does, that is by changing the form of matter. Nay more, in this work of changing the form he is constantly helped by natural forces. We see, then, that labour is not the only source of material wealth, of use values produced by labour. As William Petty puts it, labour is its father and the earth its mother.

Capital, Chapter 1


engels 04.30.10 at 3:39 pm

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessor, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of household]

Capital, Vol.3, p. 911)


Rich Puchalsky 04.30.10 at 3:53 pm

Uh huh. And in those quotes, there is no suggestion that the bodies of commodities are furnished by nature in globally limited amounts, that in fact the commodities of food, water, and even the composition of air can run short without anything that human labor can really do about it. Labor is valuable under certain circumstances, of course, but Marx’ theory truncates the most basic source of value, or considers it only in the most casual way as a sort of bromide. Christianity also has quotes that say that we hold the Earth in trust etc. but that doesn’t mean that I’m really to sign up for it.

Once someone is ready to consider the biosphere as the real, ultimate source of value, not merely as a sort of constant, ever-ready ever-expandable platform to work on with perhaps a bit of maintenance, the idea of singling out labor as having a special significance just doesn’t seem merited. Many things produce value in the same sense as labor does. And once that’s admitted, huge chunks of analytical Marx just fall away.


engels 04.30.10 at 4:00 pm

Many things produce value in the same sense as labor does. And once that’s admitted, huge chunks of analytical Marx just fall away.

But seeing as you admit you haven’t actually read any Marxist economics, are you sure you know this?


Rich Puchalsky 04.30.10 at 5:05 pm

engels, I said I hadn’t read any recent Marxist economics. You wouldn’t be doing that thing that e.g. global warming denialists do where you can’t just say that you’ve read the IPCC report, it’s not good enough unless you’ve also read whatever their latest non-peer-reviewed white paper is, would you?

I mean, if there was any evidence of success of Marxist economics — if the remaining supposedly Marxist countries were not either dictatorships or state-capitalist in all but name — then maybe I’d feel like I had to read the more recent things. But given that it’s an analysis that failed the left, failed in the world, and failed in understandable ways according to contemporary consensus economics (yeah, I know, not a science), I don’t really feel I need to do my historical dotting and i’s and crossing of t’s. I don’t really need to read up on Phlogiston Theory either, despite it being pretty close to the observed truth in some ways.


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.30.10 at 5:40 pm

What about the most basic stuff: relations of production constitute the foundation, social being determines consciousness, the transformations, etc. Are you buying into these at all?


Henri Vieuxtemps 04.30.10 at 6:14 pm

In my view, Marx’s rejection of idealism in the Hegelian sense and of utopianism was a fatal flaw, and the left has hurt itself mightily following his lead in this.

I don’t understand your objection. Society evolves, similar to the biosphere, by mutations and adaptations. Individuals can help produce a mutation (like Bolshevism), but obviously they can’t foresee or force the outcome.


subdoxastic 05.01.10 at 1:17 am


Okay, how do we attempt to enact a global scheme (I’m blessedly no expert on extreme poverty, but I have to believe that any prescription includes the active ingredients of basic education and sanitation, and a host of other tinctures) while still managing to protect the autonomy of individual cultures and individuals. And is this achievable without altering existing social structures?


This might be biting off a little too much to chew for the developed world. Arguments for their inclusion in global plans for social ills run the gamut from the “we’ve eliminated it, let us show you how we did it!” (with their contra-indications to be found in the Eugenics and Progressives thread) to “Technological change makes these aims viable” (though volcanoes it seems can dilute its efficacy temporarily) and finally resting at “Well, the Haves are to help the Havenots. Everybody should be a Have and we’ll notice how much better off we will be.” Which of course sounds suspiciously like a Health Promotion model (which interestingly increases the morbidity rate among Libertarians) and not the Medical intervention model more conducive to a leaner diet of freedom. Leading us to the last line on the warning label. “Not to be taken on an empty stomach.”

Colonialism and exploitation seem capable of occurring just as well whether promoted from the right or left. One poster lamented the paucity of language skills and cultural knowledge among would be “leaders” or “organizers.” This is required if cooperation and representation are to be achieved. It is also part and parcel of the thinking that sees the developed world as necessary to the process. Perhaps this is an achievable goal. Perhaps we can treat it a bit like a make-up test, or better yet a second opinion. Perhaps the first couple times were false positives. I see absolutely no reason not to extend the same philosophical charity to Western Leaders as I have to the possibility shown by the Leaders and Organizers of the World’s poorest country. And yes, I’m including the ones most “dizzy”—often a side effect of overzealous bloodletting practices.

The environment as a global issue seems like a ripe possibility. Unilateral steps on the nation level would have noticeable effects on emissions globally and locally. The environment as a common cause might better cut across cultural boundaries. At least until the “tragedy of the commons” folks start secreting their bile. Proving that they’re not entirely “humor”-less.

I eagerly await your discussion of nuclear disarmament. Perhaps it is here that reform can first be achieved. In a sphere where states are still the primary (and hopefully only) agents, enlightened self-interest might not be as splintered. Radiation treatment while one of the most aggressive, has been proven effective enough that it is recommended for about half of all diagnosed persons.


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 5:50 am

Engels, I did not say anti-Stalinist Marxists categorically subscribe to a “one bad apple” theory. I was responding to a comment by Chris, wherein he said:

“Unless some guy named Joe was more interested in becoming a dictator than in actually promoting the interests of the working class. Or are you counting him as after the end of “Communism’s reign”?
The potential for revolutions to be hijacked by power-seekers who don’t share the revolution’s original goals is not new, but because of that tendency it seems a bit unfair to blame Marx for what was sold under the label “Marxism”.”

This sentiment is not unusual. One hears “Stalin ruined the Soviet experiment” even now, and I heard it a lot when I was a kid, even from public school teachers., But I did not state or imply that anti-Stalinist Marxists generally make this argument, and taking a response to a specific individual as a categorical assertion so that you will have a basis for being snide about it is basic intellectual dishonesty.

And Marx did not believe people were basically self-interested? Really? Why is there class conflict then? If the bourgeoisie were shown the superiority of Marxist organization, would they simply embrace it, according to Marx? Just add Capital to the curriculum of Harvard Business School, problem solved? If they are not basically self-interested, why not? Marx does acknowledge the possibility of exceptions, as I granted by saying he is not uncompromising on this point, but seriously I cannot believe you are disputing this. Or is it that the bourgeoisie are basically self-interested, but the proletariat are a different species, naturally virtuous? If that is the case, I owe James an apology: Marxism is precisely the sort of juvenile Morality Play he suggested it was. I’ve never read Marx saying anything so silly though. Do you have a quote?


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.10 at 7:37 am

Talking about individuals and their motivations is meaningless. You personal “self-interest” is superficial, product of your socio-economic environment.


engels 05.01.10 at 9:50 am

For Marx relations between _classes_ in any _class society_ are antagonistic. It doesn’t follow that ‘people are basically self-interested’. That’s a Friedmanism.

There’s no assumption that people are basically virtuous _or_ self-interested. Marx did think that humans are essentially creative, productive beings. But ‘human nature’ is strongly conditioned by the society in which you live.


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 9:59 am

I spoke of class not individual motivations. I think that is a stupid way to view motivation, but we’re talking Marx’s views, not mine. Do you suppose Marx does not believe in motivation? Does he have no ideas on why people do things? He does not think the elite are pursuing their interest? Why, then, does he think capitalists go to the trouble of expropriating surplus value? What is the point?


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.10 at 10:16 am

The elite as a class is pursuing its interests, but what exactly motivates people like George Soros and Bill Gates is not in the scope of his analysis. That’s Zizek’s territory.


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 10:46 am

engels slipped in, but you’ll notice my comment did speak of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and in the previous comment, I spoke of “people” a collective term that can include people as classes as well as individuals. Unless you think classes are comprised of something else.


JoB 05.01.10 at 11:35 am

Henri, zo you’re not Zizek?


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.01.10 at 12:13 pm

Why, no, in this always-already symbolic superimposed reality that covers the underlying pure fantasy, I’m afraid I’m not.


JoB 05.01.10 at 4:05 pm

Aha, but that’s just what Zizek would say!


Tim Wilkinson 05.01.10 at 10:16 pm

Yes they can – however imperfectly. That’s one of the reasons why ‘memetics’ has so little theoretical power. (And what are these ‘adaptations’ you speak of, as distinct from mutations?)

(probably a bit late)


Tim Wilkinson 05.01.10 at 10:26 pm

(that was a response to Henri : Individuals can help produce a mutation (like Bolshevism), but obviously they can’t foresee or force the outcome.)


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 10:27 pm

OK, since we seem to be discussing Marx, let me get into some of what I think is wrong with it (I’d rather talk about the proposals I laid out in #88, but I don’t seem to have any takers). Since we’re quoting Capital, let’s go to the very beginning:

“A given commodity, e.g., a quarter of wheat is exchanged for x blacking, y silk, or z gold, &c. – in short, for other commodities in the most different proportions. Instead of one exchange value, the wheat has, therefore, a great many. But since x blacking, y silk, or z gold &c., each represents the exchange value of one quarter of wheat, x blacking, y silk, z gold, &c., must, as exchange values, be replaceable by each other, or equal to each other. Therefore, first: the valid exchange values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.”

The fact that these various things are interchangeable in various quantities does not prove an equivalence of value but the opposite. This is true even if the ratios in which they are all traded are held constant and the set of ratios is internally consistent (i.e., all transitive properties hold), which is not necessarily the case IRL. The reason is because there are always transaction costs (which, to anticipate the argument a bit, consist of socially useful labor and therefore of exchange value, by Marx’s reasoning). If x wheat and y blacking are equivalent in value, at least one and usually both parties lose from making the exchange because of transaction costs. Trade is not going to occur unless at least one party benefits from it. What happens when I exchange x wheat for y blacking is that I hold y blacking to have more value than (x wheat plus transaction costs) and the other party holds x wheat to have more value than (y blacking plus transaction costs). If x wheat and y blacking have a single objective value measured one in another, this is mathematically impossible. What’s happening here is that the value is subjective and therefore can vary from one person to another. The value in exchange is a subjective estimate of value, which can differ from person to person. It has to be because no objective value can be internally consistent and consistent with the fact of self-motivated exchange.

Marx tries to get around this by positing two kinds of value – use and exchange. Use value is the utility – the qualitative value that commodities have because they fulfill human needs. The parties are exchanging commodities that differ in use value, use values not being comparable, but are the same in exchange value, according to Marx. This doesn’t get around the problem, however, because we can abstract out use value, as Marx does, and are still left with the problem that no sortable estimate of relative values held constant between parties can motivate exchange. The estimates must vary. But how, then, does Marx maintain the separation between use and exchange value? We get there are the end of section 1:
“Lastly nothing can have [exchange] value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.”

This is a fudge, and it sets aside some very important questions. Just before this excerpt he 1) argued that exchange value is completely independent of use value 2) started using the term “value” explicitly to mean exchange value, and 3) said that exchange value is a pure function of the quantity of labor socially necessary on average to produce the commodity. But above he just said that if the good has no utility – that is, no use value – the labor “does not count as labor”. But if the fact of labor alone creates this value, how come it is still use value that says whether the labor counts? Use value is still determining exchange value, because use value has a veto. Absent use value, one labors mightily without producing exchange value. Therefore, one cannot get from labor to exchange value without passing through the use value on which exchange value supposedly does not depend., But it gets worse. Is it really the case that an item is either an object of utility or not? Are there not degrees of utility? But if that is so, use value determines exchange value after all, since the creation of exchange value by labor only counts to the precise degree that the result has utility, that is, use value. Of course, utility in reality means utility to whom in what situation, which brings us back to subjective determinations of value.

Without exchange value, Marx has nothing, economically speaking. Without the theory of exchange value, his theory of surplus value is without foundation, for example. What are the bourgeoisie taking from the proletariat? Surplus value? What is that? The exchange value the proletariat produce minus what they are paid. And what is this exchange value of which we speak? An incoherency.


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 10:54 pm

Marx set out to develop a theory of value, and of history based on it, that was materialist in a specific sense. That sense was the dialectical inversion of Hegel: seeing material conditions as driving consciousness, rather than the other way around. Now I don’t want to suggest that Marx believed this in so absolute a sense as to defy common sense, but he believed it fundamentally and in his thinking tried to minimize the role of human intention, imagination, will, or hope. Rather, he tried to understand society scientifically, that is to say, so much as possible as a machine, as something that operates as it does because of its nature and the forces acting upon it, but not as a result of human intention. Hegel saw in history the manifestation and development of ideas (in a broad sense), whereas Marx saw in the history of ideas the manifestation and development of economic conflicts, which he further theorized.

The problem with that economic theory is the problem of the whole method. The attempt to abstract out consciousness as a causal factor fails. He cannot understand the causal mechanisms of the economy or history without regarding the human mind as a decisive causal factor – that is, without being to some degree a Hegelian idealist – for the following reasons:

Without recognizing the role of subjectivity in determining value, there is no coherent theory of value possible. The reason is because if exchange is considered to express an equivalence of value – whether generated by labor or not – all trade would be a negative-sum game because of transaction costs. Trade is clearly not a negative-sum game. Trading A for B can only make sense for two parties, if value(A) > value(B) for one party, and the reverse for the other. But this can only be so if value(A) and value(B) are different for the two parties, i.e., are subjective.
A consequence of denying subjectivity is that Marx has no adequate theory of demand. He is the ultimate supply-sider, thinking value is a straightforward result of production, and treating demand as reflecting need in some simple way. In fact, a great deal of the effort of modern Capitalism is in generating demand – the entirety of the advertising industry, for one thing, and the most significant aspects of Keynesian economics for another. Demand is human subjectivity imposing itself on the economy and it does so with a voice suitable to Zeus.
The attempt to abstract out consciousness as a causal factor also fails as an account of historical causation, and this problem is hardly limited to Marx. Let’s consider a recent event of which we have rich historical data and which changed the subsequent course of US history: The Vietnam War. What caused the US to escalate from the use of military advisors, such as it routinely imposes on various countries, to major direct combat? The proximate cause was the Tonkin hoax. That is, a small group of people in the Johnson administraton – probably with Johnson’s knowledge, though I don’t know whether that is proven – decided to misrepresent a minor incident so as to mislead the public that North Vietnam had launched an unprovoked attack on US ships.
Now, let’s take a little detour to talk about causation. It is always possible to push a chain of causation back further, but this does not necessarily mean that you are achieving greater understanding of a phenomenon. In a trivial sense, everything that happens in our universe is an effect of the Big Bang. All other causes chain back as effects to that one. If our answer to “why did Vietnam happen?” is “because of the Big Bang”, we clearly have not said anything meaningful, though there is a sense in which it is not exactly false. The reason is that the fact of the Big Bang is consistent with many other outcomes than the Vietnam War. So the mere fact that a causal account is more general and more remote in the causal chain does not mean that it provides a “better” or “deeper” explanation.
There is obviously a context within which the Johnson administration made its decision, and if that context had been different in certain ways, it seems unlikely they would have made such a decision. The context includes the Cold War, the decolonization of the Third World, Johnson’s electoral situation, and such. But is the context necessary and sufficient to account for the war? Suppose the Cold War and the rest has been the way they were, but McNamara balked and Tonkin did not occur. How without Tonkin or something like it does Johnson escalate in Vietnam? He had just trounced Goldwater by painting him as a war monger, and by specifically accusing him of wanting to escalate in Vietnam. How could he turn around and launch a huge war for which the public had no appetite? The context is not sufficient; Tonkin or something like it is necessary to make the transition.
If Tonkin is necessary, is it sufficient? Yes, it is. Suppose the context were dramatically different. Suppose, for example, the Russian Revolution had turned out differently, so that there was no Soviet Union in a hostile posture vis a vis the United States. But Johnson or whoever decided, for whatever reason, to pick a fight with Vietnam by faking an attack by them on the US. Does the US go to War? In this very different world, of course, one would have to make many stipulations to even get a sense what the overall situation would be, but within a very wide range of possibilities the answer is yes. The alternative would be to suppose the US would simply withstand such an attack, perhaps with diplomatic reprisals. It is possible to imagine such a US, but it is a much different beast than the one we know. There are a wide variety of fictional histories one could construct in which the US emerges just as prone to reprisal as it is, or more so, and with comparable capacity. In those situations, however different from the sixties otherwise, the War is on. After all, the US government has done similar things with similar results in very different situations, whether we’re remembering the Alamo or blubbering about Kuwaiti babies in incubators. Falsely accusing the other side is a widely-applicable tactic. With Tonkin or a reasonable substitute, you have a Vietnam War; without it, you do not, regardless of broader factors.

This doesn’t mean that examinations of the Vietnam War should not look at the context and the reasons Johnson did what he did. And, yes, the broader forces do constitute “reasons”. Johnson was not acting capriciously. I’m not denying that it is possible and legitimate to push the causal chain back further, but had a few neurons fired differently in McNamara’s head, the whole thing could easily have gone otherwise. History is highly contingent, among other things on human decisions. This is not a revival of Great Man theory. I’m not suggesting Johnson and McNamara are “great” in any sense, but they did, indeed, force the outcome.

Our intuitive sense of how physical processes work depends crucially on scale. There are major phenomena and minor ones, and the major drown out the minor in causal significance. We can admit of many variations or fluctuations, but they become overwhelmed by something like the law of large numbers. Within this paradigm, one can believe that individual human decisions do not matter much because they will average out statistically. Therefore, one has to look at large-scale tendencies, such as what classes do. Within certain parameters, physical phenomena do work like this, but not always. Sometimes causes can have effects out of all proportion to their own magnitude. And the things that make this happen – e.g., positive-feedback loops and scale-free network structures – are commonplace in human society and culture. An account of the dynamics of human civilization would have to use non-linear dynamics.

For someone who wants to develop general theories of history, this is very bad news. Though we have some theoretical understanding of non-linear dynamics, tracing causal factors is more difficult. To the extent they are in the mind, understanding them requires a much more thorough understanding of the mind than we have. For someone who wants to make claims about the likely future course of history it is also bad news. For those who want to change the world, though, it is good news. You need not make changes on the scale of the whole to eventually change the whole. You just need changes that are self-reinforcing.


Kaveh 05.01.10 at 11:21 pm

Martin, jumping back to #88, your point 3) suggestion about subsidizing the production of public goods is a really good idea. A while ago, I had thought it would be a good idea to replace the record companies as we know them with a kind of public system where people can download songs freely, and a pool of tax money is set aside and distributed to artists by a transparent formula based on how much they are downloaded–that is, based on the fraction of total downloads that a given artist represents. This wouldn’t have to be the only way artists make money, and the formula doesn’t have to be simply percentage of total downloads = percentage of the pool you get. But I think the basic model would work if a transparent system can be devised for measuring how much a given artist’s content is downloaded. There could be a nominal per-download fee to keep people from downloading songs repeatedly to game the system. As for what the formula is, of course, no formula would be perfect, but then, neither is the current system of paying the same high price for every song, and this way people would be able to access a lot more music than they can currently afford to.


Martin Bento 05.01.10 at 11:34 pm

Kaveh, I had a similar notion. In my scheme, each taxpayer would ante up a minor amount, say $10. They would choose how to allocate that money to artists. If they didn’t bother, that money would go to NEA type “elitist” music projects- symphonies, experimental music, and whatnot – as I do think those are worth supporting. If they strongly object, they can put out a record of fart sounds or whatever, and allocate their money to themselves. They can be jerks, but they have to be somewhat public about it, as their fart sounds record would have to be publicly available.


john c. halasz 05.02.10 at 3:08 am

Martin Bento @126:

Your “criticism” of Marx there is completely garbled. It’s not that I think Marx is wholly adequate and should be immune from criticism, but there are hermeneutically adequate readings and inadequate readings, (though since Marx adopted an Hegelian dialectical idiom, reading him can be quite thorny). At any rate, criticizing Marx in terms of neo-classical marginalist conceptions virtually guarantees misreadings, since Marx was involved in the approach of classical political economy oriented toward analyzing the sources of productive surpluses, all the while criticizing that approach in the work of his predecessors, and regarded marginalist approaches, oriented toward a simplistic account of nominal price formation in terms of equilibriating supply-and-demand, (which only began to be mathematicized in the last decade of his life, though the basic ideas were already found in a number of economic writings long since), as “vulgar political economy”.

The passages you cite are directed at a pretty basic question: how is it at all possible for utterly different incommensurable “things” to be exchanged as equivalent values in price/quantity terms, which is odd and not obvious. Hence those opening section of “Capital” are aimed at explicating the commodity *form*, use-value and exchange-value are the two “contradictory” moments, held together in opposing tension: i.e. they are not atomic, separate items. More generally, one of the basic thrusts of “Capital” is to specify the historical-logical conditions of possibility for the emergence of industrial capitalist economies and to limn the potential dynamics of their subsequent development/unfolding, (as a crisis-prone process of long-run dynamic disequilibrium). One of those basic conditions is “free” labor, as commodified labor-power, (which contrasts with more direct forms of exploitation and domination, oriented toward the expropriation of productive surpluses, such as slavery and feudalism). And the other key point is that industrial capitalism is virtually defined by the production of commodities solely for the purpose of exchange, as opposed to being appropriated directly for use, (which in turn makes it a monetary exchange economy ueberhaupt). Use-values, in turn, form networks which undergo transformations “as a whole” with the further unfolding and proliferation of the system of market exchanges. But Marx is always keen to emphasize that commodities are always exchanged in capitalism at equal values. Both labor-power and capital goods are paid for at “fair” value, but also only have value insofar as they produce exchange-values that can be realized on the market. (One can’t eat a machine when its products can be sold; rather it gets sold for scrap. Unemployed labor-power can’t eat itself; it starves.) The problem then becomes how to explain the sources and distributions of productive surpluses within a system of equal exchanges. Marx is not so much deploying the Smith/Ricardo LTV as criticizing it: abstract average socially necessary labor time is not so much embodied in commodities as extracted/abstracted from them through the system of market exchanges. But at the same time, surplus-value is generated from the hiring of commodity-labor at “fair” wages, as determined by reproduction costs, and it is the need to reproduce surplus-value to maintain the valorization of capital stocks that is the key dynamic driver of the whole system. At the same time, neither natural resources lying in the ground, nor capital goods can accrue any value unless activated by labor processes. (Land rents don’t exist except within some system of production that deploys labor and capital).

“Value” then is an set of relations and ratios of exchange “internal” to the cross-secting constraints of a given economic system. One could attempt a purely physical measure of value: say, energy return on energy investment expenditure. With a very high price of energy, hence high rents on other sources of energy, a EREI of 9 units expended for 1 unit produced might be economically viable. At extremely low energy prices, with such abundance that there are no rents, a 9 to 1 EREI might also be viable, (because other resource costs than energy might be high). In the middle ground, a 9 to 1 EREI might not be at all economically viable. Hence, the question of “value” is an economic one, measured in the exchange of commodities and their generation of productive surpluses, as mediated and measured through that fetish-cipher, money. The question as to the “motives” of exchange can be answered readily here, without recourse to subjectivistic/psychologistic accounts of “utility”: it has to do with the division of labor within an ever-expanding system of markets and the differential improvements of technical means within various productive sectors. That’s an objective social fact, roughly in Durkheim’s sense, embedded in social conventions, not a matter of idiosyncratic personal preferences, which are imaginary, non-explanatory in terms of what drives the cross-secting constraints of the system “as a whole”, not least the profit-seeking dynamics, which are not a matter of personal preferences and interests, but of ever-shifting dynamics, and the variables of distribution of productive surpluses, which are a source of constant contention.

Now it’s not as if marginalist analysis is completely mistaken and devoid of insight. A commodity such as oil has several different sources of demand which get aggregated in markets, and subject to a bidding process, (even if we ignore the sort of financial speculation that currently contaminates such markets). But that’s not really a matter of subjective preferences, as opposed to “objective” underlying productive constraints. If there’s a poor distribution of “resources”, then a series of trades can be readily transacted which would be “Pareto improving”, but, once a market system of exchanges is in place, the number of “Pareto improving” trades diminishes and the system converges toward static equilibrium, “secular stagnation”. That’s non-explanatory. The “marginalist revolution” in economics was actually just a piece of late 19th century positivism, attempting to eliminate the questions of “value” in favor of an account of nominal price formation, (which, for a number of reasons, is not a particularly good one), as the mere appearances that can be subjected to purely formal analysis/explanation, in accordance with positivist dogma. But individual utility-preference functions, which originated as an attempt to explain consumer behavior, can’t be generalized systematically to explain the dynamics of the economy “as a whole”. (That was the considerable burden of Sraffa’s work). Especially the reduction of production systems to “as if” market transactions and the obfuscation of the profit-motive and its distributive consequences and self-undermining dynamics via the non-sensical doctrine of “consumer sovereignty”, (a bizarre use of the notion of “sovereignty”), veer off into sheer ideology. Behind the supposed perfectly market-clearing equilibrium of the supposed law of supply-and-demand , (with- cough- “perfectly competitive markets”), lie the costs/prices of production, in ever shifting dynamics and with the distributional struggles they entail. Mathematical tractability is a piss-poor substitute for actually explanatory conceptions, however difficult.

Your @127 is no better. Why would you assume that Marx abstracted consciousness completely out of the “equation” in the name of some sort of determinist materialist causality, when the critique of ideology and the counter-appeal to “class-consciousness” was a key component of the systematic architectonic of his thinking? Marx thinking is peculiarly entangled with Hegel and his “critique” of the latter is rather murky, (taking place mostly in tedious polemics with other Left Hegelians, in which Marx often played the “more Hegelian than thou” card). His materialist turn concerned the infrastructure of social practices, not any appeal to prior causal determinism: the shift to the nexus of social activities, as opposed to the way that consciousness imprints/is imprinted by its ideas of the world, is just a matter of emphasis.

More generally, the “object domain” of social “sciences” concerns the structuration of (“systems” of) social action, including the structural constraints on the formation of social agents. There’s no notion that human agency and its intentionality could be eliminated from the “equation” here, rather than accounting for the conditioning and limits of any individual intentional capacity. In terms of economics particularly, the domain of activity concerns the seeking out, realization, and distribution of productive surpluses, across various markets and positions. There’s no claim that that is the only form of constitutive/structural social constraint, but likely economic resource limitations transfer onto other social domains and their structural constraints, if only because everything has a budget.


Martin Bento 05.02.10 at 5:16 am

John said:

“At any rate, criticizing Marx in terms of neo-classical marginalist conceptions virtually guarantees misreadings, since Marx was involved in the approach of classical political economy oriented toward analyzing the sources of productive surpluses, all the while criticizing that approach in the work of his predecessors, and regarded marginalist approaches, oriented toward a simplistic account of nominal price formation in terms of equilibriating supply-and-demand, (which only began to be mathematicized in the last decade of his life, though the basic ideas were already found in a number of economic writings long since), as “vulgar political economy”.”

It is not legitimate to reject criticisms of Marx on the basis that they reflect ideas Marx himself “regarded as vulgar”. If it is possible that Marx is wrong, it is possible that he is wrong in rejecting those ideas. Mr. Behe, of “intelligent design” fame, addresses Darwin’s arguments, rejects them, believes he has transcended them, and is engaged in an intellectual project to which Darwinians are unsympathetic. It is, nonetheless, perfectly legitimate to criticize Behe in Darwinian terms. A convinced Behian (to coin a term) might say that attempting to understand Behe in terms of Darwinian notions virtually guarantees misreadings because Behe rejects such notions and builds an alternative causal model, and, indeed, Behe looks incoherent to most Darwinians. This does not mean Darwinians have to grant Behe, well, anything, for the sake of understanding him, and it is perfectly legitimate for them to attack him from their paradigm, rather than from within his.

I am also using ideas that post-date Marx. Transaction costs were theorized by Coase in the 1930’s, so it is not fair to expect Marx to have responded to the concept. But it is fair to bring it up in terms of evaluating whether Marx’s ideas are valid, just as arguments against Behe deploy a lot of biological knowledge that Darwin did not have, and, perhaps, that Behe does not have either.

So, yes, I agree with your rendition of what Marx means, pretty much. That doesn’t mean I have to stipulate to any part of it as valid. Nor does stating his position constitute an argument for it. Criticism from a marginalist or classical economic perspective is not rendered moot simply from the fact that Marx rejected such ideas.

I’m starting where Marx did (in Capital). With the fact of exchange. This is a common human activity we have all experienced. You seem to think that the notion that articles
of different kinds can be exchanged constitutes some conundrum and that positing an equality of value (of some kind) solves it. I hold that the fact of exchange shows that there is no such equality, just differing subjective views. Now, Marx is reaching for an objective, not a subjective, definition of value, but that what’s he’s setting out to prove, so it cannot be stipulated as part of the argument that it exists. I agree that Marx is using equalities of value throughout his argument. In my view, this is a crack throughout his thinking. I could be wrong, but simply stating Marx’s view does not constitute an argument that I am.

Subjective value need not be stipulated. It is part of what we experience when we make an exchange. We have all decided to buy or trade for things, to prioritize, etc. Subjective estimates of value are part of the data. Marx wants to argue that there are objective values behind these. That needs to be established, and the notion that exchange requires an equivalence of value is the premise he uses to go there. But, as I said, if that were true, trade would be negative sum because there are transaction costs. No, it is not a Marxist concept, but I need not be constrained by that. It is a real phenomenon. Possibly, there are counters to that argument that I have not considered but 1) Marx considered and rejected classical and marginalist conceptions is not one 2) Marx used this conception of value equivalence broadly in his work is not one, 3) Marx was attempting to develop a general theory of the creation of economic value in society is not one, and I do not even have to stipulate that such an understanding is possible.

You also said this:

“use-value and exchange-value are the two “contradictory” moments, held together in opposing tension: i.e. they are not atomic, separate items.”

I assume this is addressed to my point that the constraint on labor-power that it must be useful labor or it “does not count” as labor means that labor is not, in fact, the sole source of exchange-value. It doesn’t matter whether one considers them “separate” or “contradictory values held in tension”. Marx is trying to isolate labor as the sole source of exchange value, and to say that the quantity of (average socially-necessary) labor determines the magnitude of value. This caveat kills his argument. It’s not even a purely theoretical concern. One of the problems Communist economies have consistently had in practice is that they would produce things people did not want and fail to produce things they did, despite having the theoretical capacity. How to determine what is a useful application of labor is a very non-trivial question with huge consequences, and the answer that Capitalism provides is response to demand. I’m not seeing an alternative answer here. I’m seeing the question waved off.

As for the question of agency, I refer you to what Henri said in this very thread:

“Talking about individuals and their motivations is meaningless. You personal “self-interest” is superficial, product of your socio-economic environment.”

I don’t see how that statement does not constitute a diminution of the attribution of agency in favor of impersonal environmental factors.


John Quiggin 05.02.10 at 5:31 am

I’ve been meaning to do a post on value theory for a while, but haven’t worked out the details. So here’s a very rough draft, full of claims I can’t fully justify. Feel free to set me straight.

My starting point is the observation that (most) Marxists and Austrians regard the concept of value as being critically important, with Marxists advocating a labor theory and Austrians a subjective theory. By contrast, on the rare occasions marginalists/neoclassicals use the term, they just mean “price”, as in Debreu’s Theory of Value. That is, there is no marginalist theory of total value, only a theory of price expressed in terms of marginal utility and marginal cost.

My take is that the value theory debate posed a problem which, on the basis of the marginal theory is insoluble/ill-posed, namely how to relate the market value of a good to the inputs used to produce it, in a way that goes beyond the simple accounting identity that the market value must equal the sum of factor payments (including profits). Marx was clearly trying to do this, in a way that divided everything into labour input and surplus value, but did not succeed. Sraffa took it a little bit further, but only for a linear technology, which is, I think, where this can be made to work, more or less. If subsequent Sraffians have made substantial progress, I’m not aware of it.

The marginalist answer is that, in equilibrium, all prices, including factor prices are jointly determined, in such a way, that the accounting identities hold, and there is really nothing more to say. Austrians and advocates of marginal productivity ethics, try to claim that something more can be said to justify the income distribution derived from market prices, but again, do not succeed.


Martin Bento 05.02.10 at 6:48 am

I look forward to that post when you are ready to actually make it. In terms of this post and its two predecessors, it seemed to me you were asking for concrete proposals. Some general goals and ways to get there. I gave it a shot (in #88), but few people here seem to be interested in having that discussion.


Martin Bento 05.02.10 at 7:03 am

By the way, is there a reason you credited the critique of comprehensive planning to Hayek instead of Von Mises? Maybe Hayek took it further, but it seems to me that argument is present in Von Mises’ Socialism.


John Quiggin 05.02.10 at 8:07 am

@133 I’ve derailed my own thread a bit there. I am paying attention to suggestions and hope to come back with some responses soon. As for Mises and Hayek, I find Hayek the more sensible of the two, so I tend to cite him, at the risk of stumbling into intra-Austrian crossfire.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.10 at 8:14 am

“Meaningless” is a wrong word, but it seems to me that individuals are simply not very relevant on this level of abstraction, with a systematic approach.

Ralph Nader now has these fantasies about a few enlightened super-rich individuals saving the world. That’s the kind of nonsense you get from elevating individual agency.


Sebastian 05.02.10 at 8:47 am

“Certainly the libertarians taking up the issue is important, but also an awareness of the racism involved in the War on Drugs has given the issue urgency for the left.”

I hate to beat a dead horse, but it is my nature (and/or the result of my socio-economic upbringing), but what “urgency” are you talking about? It might be fair to say that the subject of the War on Drugs occasionally shows up on the left (as measured by websites, tracts, magazines, or political actors). But to say that the left has shown any urgency to the matter seems ridiculous to me. The urgency is almost exclusively libertarian in origin and action. Where is the Radley Balko of the left? To echo Bento, who is the left-leaning thinker with the in-group stature of Milton Freedman or even George Shultz? What leftist magazine with the in-group stature of Cato spends comparable time/print on it?

And frankly I think the left overlooking the issue is deeply mysterious. As far as I can tell, War on Drugs is one of the most pernicious ways in which the government directly hurts the lower classes. It contributes greatly to the hyper-incarceration of black people. It subjects even innocent people in lower class neighborhoods to constant police pressure. Enforcement is extremely uneven (an upper class white murderer still faces prison time, but an upper class drug user faces none of the problems of a lower class drug user). Yet it seems at most an afterthought in most leftist analyses of practical steps that could be taken to make things better and more just for the lower class in the US.


Walt 05.02.10 at 10:45 am

John, I think that you might be holding a theory of value to too-high of a standard. It’s hard to really justify cost-benefit analysis with recourse to GE, for example, but no one would say that cost-benefit analysis is _impossible_ — it’s a tool with limitations. Likewise, the partial equilibrium theory of monopoly doesn’t work well with GE (why would firms maximize nominal profits in a situation where they manipulate the value of prices themselves), but people use it because it’s better than nothing.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 12:11 pm

That’s the kind of nonsense you get from elevating individual agency.
where ‘elevating’ something means going crazy with it?


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.10 at 12:43 pm

It’s just that social phenomena transcend individual actors and their quirks.


Kaveh 05.02.10 at 1:24 pm

@137 Maybe “given urgency” should have been just “kept it an important issue”, but it was at least important. As for who has spent more time/words on the issue, I would guess that’s mainly a matter of very different political consequence for leftists vs libertarians to be supporting drug legalization. It’s an issue that plays to the strengths of the libertarians, but for the left, the opposite. It’s one of a few issues on which libertarians can clearly distinguish themselves from the right, plus economic theory offered some good, new arguments for it. Whereas with the left, drug culture has been used as part of stereotypes to demonize them. (And libertarians are supposed to represent interests of the wealthy/upper middle classes, and rich people using drugs is okay, while poor people using drugs is “dangerous”.) So while there has been a pro-legalization consensus on the left, it’s been seen as impractical to be too vocal about it–it wasn’t an issue where the left felt it could make much progress, compared to, say, a national healthcare plan, or ending certain wars.

And all that leaves aside efforts to defend the status of medical marijuana, or legalize altogether, on the state level, I don’t know who’s been more active there, but I think there has been a lot going on.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 2:26 pm

Actually I think it’s right that (proper, decent) libertarians have drug legalisation as a central concern – becuase they are attracted by the ‘liberty’ side of libertarianism – i.e. the bit that deals with what people may and may not be prevented from doing with their bodies. And that is much more uncompromisingly liberal than many left-wing approaches.

The problem is that those people also buy into the fundamental libertarian mistake (a feature, for those who want to get them into the right-wing fold) of imagining that matters of property-entitlement have the same character as those of personal freedom.

Sebastian also seems to be a bit unclear about the rigidly proprietarian nature of libertarianism, drawing as he does on apparently consequentialist considerations which consistently applied would undermine most of the economic side of Libertarian doctrine, leaving something more suited to the name ‘libertarian’, but unrecognisable as Libertarianism.


Dan 05.02.10 at 3:43 pm

imagining that matters of property-entitlement have the same character as those of personal freedom

Well, many libertarians would say that that “the bit that deals with what people may and may not be prevented from doing with their bodies” is precisely a matter of property-entitlement, namely the entitlement that each person has over their own body. After all, self-ownership is a very plausible necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for personal freedom – how can you rightly be called free if, as Chris Bertram put it in an earlier thread, “sometimes or in some respects others (beside yourself) have the right to control your person and powers for the common benefit, where their having that right is not a consequence of you having voluntarily transferred it to them”?

It’s very much more difficult to distinguish between matters of property-entitlement and matters of personal freedom than you seem to suggest it is.

(Also, I don’t think Sebastian is himself drawing on consequentialist considerations at all. He’s pointing out the oddness of the fact that liberals, who are – or at least say they are – exercised by such concerns, don’t appear to care very much about an obvious way in which they could be better realized.)


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 4:10 pm

how can you rightly be called free if, as Chris Bertram put it in an earlier thread, “sometimes or in some respects others (beside yourself) have the right to control your person and powers for the common benefit, where their having that right is not a consequence of you having voluntarily transferred it to them”

You’ll have to ask Chris about what he means by ‘control your person and powers for the common benefit’, but it sounds as though stopping you from punching people would fit the description.

self-ownership is a very plausible necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for personal freedom no it’s not. Not being owned will do just fine. But in any case, if you wanted to use ‘self-ownership’ – as the right to extensive freedom from physical force – to derive some particular kind of entitlement over external objects (which is what I’m talking about), you’d have to argue for it, without equivocating on the meaning of ‘self-ownership’.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 4:17 pm

Quite right on Sebastian’s consistency though. Insufficient care in reading.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 4:32 pm

Henri: The elite as a class is pursuing its interests the trouble is that withoiut some microfoundations in individual behaviour, it’s utterly mysterious how this happens, or indeed what kind of a thing these interests are.

(You can say this is an unrealistic, unuseful, unnecessary or misguided step, because microfoundations are absent for what we call individual behaviour – but I don’t think that works, because the fact that individuals do things for clear and often observable reasons is just too certain to be undermined in that way. We understand individual behaviour in a way we don’t understand irreducible class action – obviously this is a whole nother can of worms though…)


Sebastian 05.02.10 at 5:04 pm

Yes, to be clear, I’m not trying to delve into the deep philosophical differences between libertarian and liberal thought in raising the issue. Unless one of the deep philosophical differences explains it I guess.

I’m merely pointing out that the Drug War as it plays out in the US, is one of the very strong direct influences on making the day to day life of much of the inner city very miserable (including making police interactions with lower class innocent people much more charged than they have to be, and much more frequent). It is also much more amenable to direct policy change than many of the more indirect influences (like the hundreds of indirect ways of maybe kinda sorta messing with inequality) that liberals and leftists in the US seem to spend vast amounts of time and political energy on. Further it has been a big factor in the militarization of the routine police force and the communities that they ‘serve’ (see especially Los Angeles)–a development that has also fallen almost exclusively on the lower classes in the US. So it seems ripe for people who are concerned about class justice issues. Yet it is mostly ignored–the only time I really see it on the left is as sort of a side note when the speaker wants to attack the prison population in the US with a shout out to the powder/rock disparity. But the nasty effects of the drug war go far beyond the actual imprisonment of lower class and/or racial minorities. It is the routine citizen/police interactions. It is in the hyper-militarization of the police force. It is in the ease of corruption in planting a random bit of dope to threaten someone with. It is in intrusive pat-downs that aren’t for weapons. It is in the harassing investigation that can be justified by the statement “I thought I smelled pot”, whether true or not. It is in the hugely corrosive effect on the 4th amendment, justifying routine use of no-knock warrants, routine searches for small baggies, routine stops for ‘loitering’, and routine use of spying on people in ‘certain’ neighborhoods.

The way this plays out is frankly teeming with interactions which seem (to an outsider) to invite the kind of class justice analysis that leftists employ in other contexts. But they pretty much don’t.

And it seems weird to me as a matter of tactics, because the injustices propagated by the Drug War are much more concrete and much more easily fixable. Explaining small differences in the GINI index is one thing. Explaining that the Drug War has made it much more likely that completely innocent poor people will have the police sweep in paramilitary style, late at night, shoot their dog, terrorize their grandmother, and fail to pay for the broken door if they don’t actually kill some random housemember who wakes up from a deep sleep and shouts “what the hell is going on” in a way that the police find threatening, is a totally different thing.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.10 at 5:29 pm

@146, I don’t think it’s that mysterious. Your social situation (as a member of the elite) imposes significant constraints on your behavior, and you either operate within these constraints, or you’ll drop out.

Here’s one of Nader’s enlightened billionaires, Warren Buffett:

OMAHA, Nebraska – Warren Buffett on Saturday launched a forceful defense of Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs Group Inc and the investment bank’s embattled chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

Speaking at Berkshire’s annual meeting, Buffett said he did not hold against Goldman the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil fraud lawsuit against the bank.

See, he invested $5 billion in Goldman, and now, regardless of how enlightened he is, he has to defend them.

Now, of course as a human being with agency, he doesn’t really have to defend them. But then he’s going to lose billions, lose his reputation, and soon enough he is just an enlightened middle-class guy. Either way the elite (as an institution) survives intact.


Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 6:43 pm

Unless all of them do that – why don’t they? Why would the consequences described occur? I’m not disagreeing that they would, it’s just that without at least implicit appeal to individual motivations and interests of the members, this may as well be a non-explanatory description of cloud formations or something. The notion of class interests has no traction unless these are also the interests of at least some of the individuals involved.

That’s quite apart from the empirical fact that there is actually some elbow room for members to depart from the constraints placed on them should they wish to. Also, plenty of members of the elite do what they do quite consciously, meet to discuss strategy, make decisions with real consequences. The system is not perfectly rigid nor its operation entirely outside the conscious control of at least some of its participants.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.10 at 7:21 pm

The notion of class interests has no traction unless these are also the interests of at least some of the individuals involved.

Well, I believe this is a category mistake; you shouldn’t attribute characteristics of institutions to individuals (even if they both are called “interests”). Except, of course, when individuals achieve what’s called “class consciousness”, if you believe such thing exists.


Martin Bento 05.02.10 at 7:42 pm

But Warren Buffet’s behavior here is an individual interest. it’s debatable whether it serves his class as a whole, and, even if so, that is not why he is doing it . Motivations are things that exist in human (and other animal) brains. If a class motivation is not held the members of that class, where does it reside? Marx assumes materialism, so it has be to physically manifest somewhere. Now one can, and I do think Marx is doing this though I am stating it in more contemporary language, treat a class interest as an emergent phenomenon of human minds acting in social and economic relations to one another. Fair enough. But I don’t see how you get there without self-interested individuals. If the individuals are not, on average, pursuing their own interests, I don’t see how the class interest emerges. To be clear, I’m not saying self-interest is a necessary condition of any emergent properties of social groups, but I do see it as a necessary condition of intrinsic class conflict with an economic basis. Why would altruistic individuals be selfish in groups? Yes, there are mob effects where inhibitions can be lowered and conformity enforced in a short-term high intensity situation, but that is not what we are talking about here. I suppose one could invoke tribalism, where people are often altruistic in group, but not out, so the class interests are basically tribal. But I don’t think tribalism is inconsistent with the notion of basically self-interested individuals.


john c. halasz 05.02.10 at 8:11 pm


Your citation of Behe is an irrelevant distraction, (presumably meant to imply that Marx is an atavistic thinker who doesn’t understand modern standards of rational and scientific thinking). The basic point is this: there must first be adequate understanding before there can be adequate criticism. And your understanding of Marx is completely garbled, and relies on projecting notions onto Marx that he didn’t hold. Leaving aside whether there are some sort of pure timeless abstract validities, by which all things can be judged, it is generally not a good idea to assume Marx made gross and obvious errors and didn’t at all understand what he was talking about and didn’t understand the parameters of the project of inquiry he was undertaking. He was a rigorous and systematic thinker and at least had some good reasons for putting matters together in the way that he did. The ideas that Marx didn’t understand that there are economic frictions or thought that economics was a negative sum game are ludicrous and sheerly of your own devising. Marx was specifically analyzing the sources and processes of the generation and increase of productive surpluses, frictions, obstacles, breakdowns and all. (The surplus product is the total product minus that portion used up in the process of its production. That real distributable wealth and endemic conflicts over its distribution between wages and profits was part, though not all, of what Marx meant by “class struggle”. That all societies beyond the minimal subsistence level generate appropriate and distribute material surpluses, though in terms of differing social structures, was the core insight behind “historical materialism”. Max thought capitalism was an especially effective and “revolutionary” way of generating ever increasing surplus, compared to all prior social formations, hence was its ambivalent champion). It was not Marx, but rather Adam Smith who made that invidious distinction between productive and unproductive labor. The intuition is simple: something must first be produced, before it can be exchanged. It’s “ultimately” producibilities or ratios of productivity that are being exchanged, which implies some standard or measure of “value” in common, to be translated into ever-shifting nominal money-prices, to maintain the systematic coherency of the economy and its dynamics, (with the ever-changing ratios of productivity in investment cycles). The point is that “value” can and does deviate from nominal prices, (as when, e.g., output can only be sold for less than its production-cost, or when financial asset prices inflate beyond what can be realized from profits-of-production). I already compared a EREI standard to a labor one to make the point about a common measure in differing conditions. But what is not the case is that an industrial capitalist economy could be modeled in terms of exchanges between independent petty commodity producers, as if it were a barter economy, a la “Say’s law”. Money and credit are crucial to its operation and it’s a monetary production economy with vastly more complex dynamics than a mere motive to “truck and barter” as a supposed invariant feature of “human nature”. (That point is already there at the beginning of “Capital” in the discussion of the M-C-M’ vs. C-M-C’ circuits).

The fact that all commodities, including capital goods and labor-power, can be exchanged as equivalents, despite their incommensurable qualities, suitabilities and uses, is a social fact (again in roughly Durkheim’s sense) that requires explanation. But Marx merely starts there and one can’t stop there to grasp his explanation. The exchange of equivalents leads on to the crucial issue,- ( and here any distinction between classical and neo-classical thinking is moot),- of the allocation of investment between different firms and sectors through the tendency to equalize rates-of-profit, which supposedly equilibriates and optimizes the system “as a whole”. But if both capital goods and labor-power are exchanged at equivalent “fair” values, as a rule, what then accounts for the existence of profits and the increases in productive surpluses? It’s less the LTV that matters to Marx than the explanation of surplus-value, the vagaries of which drive the dynamics of the system, with its long-run accumulation of disequilibria and “non-linearities”, resulting in periodic realization crises due to the over-accumulation of capital and deficient demand, and mass unemployment, at which point the economy needs to be restructured through the “destruction” of excess capital and the resetting of “value” formation. (Marx did toy with math in his private papers at the end of his life, but the math for these sorts of issues, which to this day is difficult and intractable, largely didn’t exist back then and he realized as well that there was no source of reliable empirical data to test it against, since NIPAs were only developed in the 1930’s). The bottom line here is that one can’t simply pick at a few initial conceptual rudiments in Marx, replace them with your own preferred concepts, and claim to have understood, let alone effectively criticized, him or his work: that’s not valid intellectual procedure. Though, of course, it’s perfectly O.K. to let sleeping dogs lie and take no interest in Marx or adhere to different conceptions about the same or different matters.

At any rate, the capitalist owns a factory, which he can not eat, and the worker owns her labor-power, which she can not eat, so the exchange-contract between the two is not merely a matter of individual subjective preferences and purely voluntary agreement, but a matter of mutual need and social “necessity” in a systematic structural context. Further questions about who produces what for who and who decides and what investments will determine the subsequent development of society and its aggregate output start from there. Your “explanation” by means of subjective preferences is non-explanatory and tautological: you’re explaining an effect of functional-structural differentiation as if it were its cause. And your appeal to subjectivity, qua individual differences and preferences, offers no account of how such “subjects” and their preferences are formed, hence why they should be the first “cause”: it’s not just arbitrary and positivistic, but weirdly idealistic. (Though AFAICT you have no considered account of social structure: it’s all “environmental” causality through and through back to the Big Bang and then it’s individual agents, no doubt divinely endowed with “minds” and “freedom”. I don’t see how one could derive any coherent and realistic view of the social world from such rudiments).

As for demand, for some explanatory purposes, it can be abstracted from, for others it’s crucial. But it’s not something Marx ignored. Final consumption demand is primarily wage-based, since, though an individual capitalist can sell his factory and live off the surplus, they all can’t do so, since that would crash the value of capital stocks and render them poor. Assuring adequate distribution of surpluses to wages is crucial, since it motivate further technically improving investment, which underlies growth, both because it ensures adequate demand for the sale of output and because wage-cost pressure incentivizes productivity improving investment. But that’s a function that’s entirely “contradictory”.

As to Coase’s transaction cost account of the firm, there’s some problems with it. For one, once production is vertically integrated within a firm, there are not transaction costs to be compared with. (That’s a general problem with neo-classical explanations: assuming a logical-mathematical idealization that’s counterfactual, but them must “empirically” be measured against). For another, firms generally emerge at a conjunction between different markets and prosper by at least partly controlling one or more of them. In fact, firms emerge into markets that might not exist yet, but are created by innovative firms themselves. Then again, the simple mathematical model of “perfect” competition with constant returns, not only is a counterfactual idealization to which only some instances empirically approximate, but entails that profits will be competed to zero, that profits = cost-of-capital = rate-of interest. And indeed profits do get competed away over time. But that logically implies that firms “compete” by excluding or blocking of competition, by hook or by crook. But then the existence of technical economies of/increasing returns to scale tend toward the increasing concentration of capital in industrial markets dominated by oligopolies. The quasi-rents accruing to oligopolistic market-power help to subsidize the high, long-run, uncertain fixed capital costs that such firms require to maintain the high technical efficiency of production that ensures their competitive dominance. Such market-power also offsets the tendency for profit rates to fall. But it also means that the own demand production supply curves of such firms are largely increasing throughout, such that MC never actually = MP. And also that costs are largely allocated and prices manipulated administratively, as firms pursue rent-seeking strategies rather than simple profit-maximalization, so there’s no Walrasian auctioneer superintending price-formation. One of the reasons to continue to pay attention to Marx’ work is that it offers as good an understanding of the independent dynamics of production systems and of the tendency to concentration of capital in ways that can’t be reduced to as-if market exchanges, as anyone. Another contribution of continuing relevance is the Vol.3 account of over-financialization and the accumulation of stocks of fictitious capital as an extention of endemic tendencies toward over-accumulation and mal-distribution.

BTW your account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident was slightly off. IIRC the U.S. destroyer was there because ARVN was conducting commando raids on the North Vietnamese. So likely some such incident/excuse would have been found anyway, just as, if Credit Anstalt or Lehman Bros. hadn’t failed, it would have been some other banks. History might be riddled with contigencies, but it also exhibit regularities of structure and conjunction, if not of the breakdown or transformation of structures.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.02.10 at 8:31 pm

@151, the way I see it, “interest” here is just an abstract concept; personification of the internal logic of the phenomenon. It doesn’t reside anywhere. Individuals, otoh, are human beings; they are self-interested, and altruistic, and who knows what else.


engels 05.02.10 at 8:46 pm

‘Motivations are things that exist in human (or other animals) brains’

Do you know where exactly? What size are they? how much do they weigh?


Hidari 05.02.10 at 9:15 pm

‘Marx assumes materialism, so it has be to physically manifest somewhere.’

Oh really?



Tim Wilkinson 05.02.10 at 10:03 pm

Henri: but part of the point of calling them interests is that they are pursued: that the behaviour of the class is (standardly – or even, it appears, invariably) explained by the consequences of that behaviour, isn’t it? That is the mysterious bit, if the personification is merely metaphorical, and individual motivation has no part to play.

Gerry Cohen formulated a schema for functional explanations which applied to this case would render: ‘the fact that (an X [or to use Elster’s variant, Xs in general] would be ‘good for the ruling class’) explains this X’, and pointed out that this seems to require further elaboration: how does the counterfactual about X being good for the ruling class cause, explain, or allow us to predict this X? In the absence of good ways of directly confirming the functional thesis, this amounts to the challenge: why should I believe that it does? An answer couched in Darwinian terms – blind mutation and selective reproduction – is one possibility, but it’s going to be very hard to devise one that’s at all plausible, I think.

That’s the conceptual bit. The matter of empirical support, and the generation of contentful predictions, is an issue too.

(This btw relates to JQ’s previous post, by way of the tiny nugget of good sense to be found in Popper’s relentless pop-theoretical propagandising; related, unlike his particularly gormless remarks on the topic of ‘conspiracy theory of history’ etc, to his good work in philosophy of science. Popper doesn’t of course turn his criticism on the faith-based nostra of his own preferred ‘invisible hand’ theories.)


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 5:32 am

First Tonkin. You know, John, I anticipated that maneuver, but you apparently didn’t spot it. Once you move into the realm of counterfactuals, it is always possible to stipulate that things could have been different in various ways not germane to the argument. Had Tonkin happened at another location, we would not call it “Tonkin”. Had it happened a week later, it would not, strictly speaking, be the same event. That’s why I said “Tonkin or something like it” more than once and “Tonkin or a reasonable substitute”. I felt a little silly saying it – surely it was obvious that I was not arguing that Vietnam would not have happened unless the Tonkin incident occurred in every detail exactly as it had? What I said is that the decisive factor in the escalation was the agency of the Johnson administration and your assertion that absent Tonkin they would have found some other way to assert that agency hardly contradicts it.

“It was not Marx, but rather Adam Smith who made that invidious distinction between productive and unproductive labor.”

I never said this was original to Marx, which does not matter, nor that it was invidious. In fact, I think the distinction is perfectly obvious and correct. Given that distinction, however, and even granting for the sake of argument the existence of something called “exchange value”, Marx cannot say that exchange value of a commodity is solely a function of the magnitude of labor power socially necessary, on average, to produce it. It is, at a minimum, a function of that and the utility of the item necessary to make the labor “count as labor”. And if utility is not binary, and it is not, then labor can be attenuated by utility in any number of degrees.

This is why I said Marx has no adequate theory of demand. I didn’t say he didn’t address demand. But he has set aside the question of how it is determined what is and is not socially useful labor and simply stipulated that labor that is not useful does not count. What labor is useful is not a trivial question, and the classical answer basically is that it is labor that satisfies demand.

And what is the notion of a EREI theory of value supposed to prove? Yes, one can base estimations of value on objective criteria. This can produce estimations of value that are sortable and that permit for equivalences. And one can make economic decisions based on these valuations.

Suppose I decide to value commodities by their “greenness”. I don’t mean the ecological sense; I mean the color. The following is my empirical definition of “greenness”: the ratio of the excitation of the green cones of the eye to the average of the other two color cones produced by the average of the light waves emitted or reflected by an object. Not perfect, but good enough for this purpose. On this basis, I can objectively rank items in “value” by how green they are. It is possible for two items to rank exactly the same. Sortability and equivalence. Is this an “objective” measure of value simply because it is based on an objective criterion? If someone decides to place greater value on a red object, are they “wrong”? Within my value system, they are, of course, but are they objectively wrong? Even if I base my value system on objective criteria, the selection of that value system over others is still a subjective judgement. What I have done is to define value as greenness, and what you did was define value as high EREI. The fact that we can each adopt either of these definitions supports the contention that the “value” of which we speak has no objective meaning. The fact that you can devise a coherent value system based on objective criteria means nothing,

I’ll get to the rest later.


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 7:06 am

“It’s less the LTV that matters to Marx than the explanation of surplus-value, the vagaries of which drive the dynamics of the system, with its long-run accumulation of disequilibria and “non-linearities”, resulting in periodic realization crises due to the over-accumulation of capital and deficient demand”

If the LTV is not essential, then it is not the case that the surplus-value is necessarily value generated by labor, correct? I mean, setting aside the LTV, there’s no basis for that assertion, right? And if that is not true, then how can it necessarily be the case that the Capitalist is exploiting labor in the specific sense Marx argued – by appropriating the value of their labor? Are you saying that the notion that Capitalists necessarily extract value created by workers is not a core Marxist contention? If it is, what, supports it in the absence of the LTV?

It is perfectly admissible in criticizing Marx to use ideas he did not subscribe to. That is the point of the Behe analogy. I’m not attributing these ideas to Marx. I’m saying these ideas have greater truth than his do, or are true and show up problems in his thinking. For example, I’m saying the economic friction means that an equivalence of value cannot be derived from the fact of exchange without making trade negative-sum. That is not the same as saying Marx thought the economy was negative-sum; it’s saying Marx was wrong in his derivation of exchange value. Saying Marx could not have been wrong about that because he was too smart to be wrong about anything so basic is not an argument. Attributions of smartness to Marx have to rely on the quality of the arguments, so they cannot be used to defend the arguments from attack. And neither can the conclusions. Answering attacks on Marx’s premise by pointing to his conclusions doesn’t cut it. Those conclusions require the premises, and if they are wheeled in to support it, the argument is circular. This is actually the same trick Friedman uses in trying to defend premises he cannot defend substantively in terms of the theoretical claims they enable him to make about subjects on which he would otherwise have to be silent. The premises have to stand on their own two feet.


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 7:08 am

Your polemic against Coase is irrelevant. I just brought up transaction costs, not the whole theory of the firm. In the simple model of exchange that we are discussing, the theory of the firm does not apply.

I’m not offering a coherent account of social structure because I’m not presenting an alternative theory of society in this discussion. I don’t need to propose an alternative theory to criticize Marx’s theory.

The capitalist and the worker both want to eat because they both want to live, rather than die. This is still a subjective preference. It is not objectively true that it is better that you live than that you die; the cosmos doesn’t give a damn. Subjective estimations of value are consistent with notions like coercion and with necessity in the sense of this example, but they are none the less subjective for that.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.03.10 at 7:13 am

@156, I think “class interest” is easy to define in clear terms, for example as “distribution between wages and profits” from 152.

But individuals… Take the Buffett guy, for example. He is 80 yeas old, he’s worth $45 billion (wikipedia), and still he operates that hedge fund, goes to shareholder meetings, makes dishonest speeches.

Martin (151) says that “Buffet’s behavior here is an individual interest”, but to me it’s pure insanity. Who knows what’s going on in that brain. Nevertheless, the fact that we can easily perceive this behavior as “individual interest” is a good illustration of how our consciousness is shaped by the socioeconomic reality (and not vise-versa).


JoB 05.03.10 at 7:20 am

Yeah, that’s true – people like Buffett think they are on a mission and they cannot be understood psychologically as having individual interests, because they see themselves as something bigger than anything individual. That being said, we’re not necessarily all like him.


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 8:21 am

Insanity is also an individualistic explanation. But there are lots of people who do things I don’t think are rational. Does this mean they are all reflecting socioeconomic realities? By these behaviors are various and don’t necessarily map to consistent general tendencies. Perhaps a better answer is that people operate according to what they value and what they value is subjective and will not therefore necessarily make sense to others.


Hidari 05.03.10 at 9:54 am

‘If the LTV is not essential, then it is not the case that the surplus-value is necessarily value generated by labor, correct? I mean, setting aside the LTV, there’s no basis for that assertion, right? And if that is not true, then how can it necessarily be the case that the Capitalist is exploiting labor in the specific sense Marx argued – by appropriating the value of their labor? Are you saying that the notion that Capitalists necessarily extract value created by workers is not a core Marxist contention? If it is, what, supports it in the absence of the LTV?’

As a previous poster on a previous comments thread pointed out, the full title of Capital is most instructive: Capital a critique of political economy. Marx was, as Engels pointed out at Marx’s funeral, neither an economist, a sociologist or a philosopher. He was a revolutionary. The basic point is not whether or not Marx ‘believed’ in the LTV. He probably did. But that’s really not the point. Marx wanted to show the hidden assumptions behind ‘orthodox’ economics, which he saw, not as a natural science, but as an ideology. At the time he was writing the basic assumption of orthodox economics was the LTV. Later on, of course, the assumptions changed. But pace the fantasies of Hayek, there’s no evidence that in the face of this new approach, Marx would simply have thrown up his hands and gone ‘I was wrong! It’s a fair cop. And I’d have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky marginalists.’ After all, Engels didn’t ‘change his mind’ in the face of the same evidence.

Instead, had Marx lived, all the evidence is he would have adopted the same critical approach to marginalism. So it is important whether or not the LTV is ‘true’. But it’s probably not quite as crucial as some anti-Marxists think.


Tim Wilkinson 05.03.10 at 10:29 am

Schmarksi’s truth schema: S is ‘true’ iff S is true


Sebastian 05.03.10 at 3:32 pm

“Nevertheless, the fact that we can easily perceive this behavior as “individual interest” is a good illustration of how our consciousness is shaped by the socioeconomic reality (and not vise-versa).”

You are assuming the question–that there is no individual interest. If there is in fact an individual interest, than the fact that we perceive “individual interest” is a good illustration of how we are perceptive. And of course there is the strong likelihood that there are both individual interests and class interests. And that there are public, private, and individual interests in a person.

I really don’t see why it has to be an all or nothing proposition. Yes there are probably things that you could usefully label ‘class interests’ or ‘class behavior’. And often, in those areas, you will find that people act differently than they would prefer in their individual behavior. Or that often they aren’t fully aware of the difference.

But that kind of insight does not demand that we agree ALL such interests or behaviors are class behaviors. It is kind of like the nature/nurture debate, which is ridiculous in absolutist terms. The answer is “a very strong dose of both”.


Philip Fontana 05.03.10 at 3:43 pm

Is there any work being done to change the way we go about the formation of public policy?

In our advanced technological & global environment, many issues defy progress & solution by the “business as usual” approach of compromise & legislate. A higher level of sophistication & expertise, both technical & legal, is needed to address these issues.*

To provide the White House & the Congress with the kind of legislation necessary, a bipartisan
public policy institution is needed. Such an institution could be fashioned similar to the National Defense University & its 5 sub-colleges; a “National Public Policy University,” if you will. Experts on all sides of a given issue –theoretically, politically, technologically, & legally– would come together. They would define the problem, select the problem solving model/paradigm, describe the various alternative solutions, & recommend a public policy to get us from “point A to point B.”

And that is the crux of the problem; e.g., how can we have a viable energy policy drifting from one presidential administration to another with a patchwork of Congressional legislation with no coherent approach that we stick to? That is only one issue & so it goes for each & every problem we face as a nation.

There is no political glamour in this discussion of public policy formation. It would put the average voter to sleep. Yet, if we are the Super Power we claim, we must harness our destiny by addressing each issue & setting a course. There still would be ample room for compromise in our legislative process. Further legislation might be needed to “tweak” our course. Indeed, there might be occasion to drastically alter our approach should it not be working. But we will have raised the bar to a higher level of thinking & public policy formation. And, hopefully, the results will show steady progress to bring our ship of State from “point A to point B.”

* From biotechnology to global warming/environment/energy, a coherent foreign policy, terrorism/homeland security, the world-wide web, & more, to “bread & butter” issues of the economy & trade, education, healthcare, social security, & immigration, to name a few.


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 4:53 pm

Hidari, are saying Marx has no positive content, but is simply tearing down the ideas of others? Why, then, is he building an argument, rather than primarily presenting the arguments of others and showing where they are wrong? The important question isn’t whether Marx believed the LTV is true; it is whether it is true. Whether Marx would have, or Engels did, believe that marginalism undermines their ideas doesn’t matter. Marx does not get to be the arbiter of whether critiques of his ideas hold water.

It may be possible to construct a model of the political economy that doesn’t use Marx’s premises, but comes to conclusions in the same neighborhood within certain parameters. Rather like Newtonian and Einsteinian physics are very different fundamental views, but reach similar conclusions within certain parameters. This could be a worthwhile project, perhaps, but it is different from actually-existing Marxism, so far as I know.


john c. halasz 05.03.10 at 10:26 pm

Martin Bento @ 157-159:

Once again, the problem is that you evince little, if any, conceptual grasp of the matters that you would purport to be criticizing, that it’s hard to attribute coherent sense to what you’re trying to say: lack of understanding does not amount to valid criticism.

The question of what would “motivate” exchange of commodities, if not sheer arbitrary subjective/psychological preferences has already been answered: the institution of a division of labor and the differential skills and technical productivity involved in such specialization, such that each party not only realizes a gain in productive surpluses/”value” from the exchange, and the system of divided production realizes vastly greater productive surpluses than could be achieved ad hoc by individuals alone, but all participants are in fact required to produce for exchange and acquire the full complement of their needs from the product of others, as a matter of objective social “necessity”, given the “power” of the instituted system. Unless there is a set of cross-secting constraints on the productive activities of all participating social agents, so as to form a system with dynamic effects on its “own” which variably effect and subject all its participating agents, depending on their positions and the state of the system at any given time, then there is no concept of an “economy” at all. It’s not something that can be derived ad hoc from the addititive relations of atomic individuals.

Once there is a system of such productive exchanges in place, there needs to be an explanation for what is common to otherwise qualitatively or functionally heterogenous, incommensurable things, such that they can be exchanged consistently at “fair”, equivalent price/quantity ratios, “value”. Why does 1 bushel of wheat = 1 Bible = 1 bottle of whiskey? The answer behind the supposed law of supply-and-demand, (of which marginalism is just the analytic unfolding and elaboration), is the costs-of-production accruing to the various productive surpluses of the various sectors. “Resources” must be gathered together, allocated and worked up to generate productive surpluses available for exchange, and, in the first instance, that is not a matter of individual preferences, (which are highly influenced by socio-cultural conventions anyway), but of the resource availabilities and productive capacities of the state of the economic system as an objective social “fact”. At any rate, whatever goods are desired,- (and it’s a good question as to whether we can desire what can’t be produced),- they must be traded off against the effort required to produce them. Hence that “resource” which gathers together and reworks resources is identified as labor, and the needs of the laboring producers, rather than the desires of consumers, are held to be paramount, (as productive self-activity, in Aristotleian fashion, is held to be the mark of the good life, and as the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few). Hence labor-power, as “abstract average socially necessary labor time”, is held as a standard of value, a numaire, to be traded off with other capital and consumption goods.

The basic point is that any attempt at a basic system of economic explanation must posit some sort of standard of “value” as a measure for its explanatory framings. To avoid prejudging the question of what that standard should be, I’ll call it generally “the principle of least effort”, (almost as an inversion of the thermodynamic definition of “work”), which provides a measure for preferring more to less by which the system “economizes”, i.e. optimalizes some notion of efficiency in the generation/production of real wealth, the distributable surplus product. I mentioned the notion of EREI precisely to show that such a purely physical measure would not do as a measure of “value”, which concerns the relations and ratios “internal” to the system across its various states, which EREI can’t consistently “measure”. Neo-classical accounts to reduce the question of “value” to nominal price formation, not only don’t offer an especially empirically realistic account of prices, but miss the ways in which “values” can and do deviate from nominal prices, as manifested in non-clearing of market prices of various sorts in different sectors, and in constantly shifting equilibia which don’t amount to a comp stat GE., since the generation and circulation of “value” is an ongoing, dynamic, but “contradictory” process. And opportunity costs, though not a negligible concept, don’t account for what “fixes” a distribution of opportunities and costs, which is not simply the “sovereign” decisions of individual agents. On the other hand, those who claim that Marx attributes all value to labor and thereby neglects or denies the role of technical improvements of capital stocks, “the forces of production”, in generating increased physical surpluses/distributable surplus product. since all capital goods, like labor-power itself must be exchanged at “value”, are simply missing the point. Labor is constantly being trade off with capital, in cycles of increasing employment and unemployment, and the “tendential law of the falling rate of profit” is in large part a story about the ever increasing technical improvement and scale concentration of capital stocks, which, since capital is always accounted at value, means that newer improved capital stocks are constantly destroying the value of older stocks and are themselves accounted at value in terms of replacement costs, not initial historical cost, eventuating in an over-accumulation of capital stocks/productive capacity in relation to available wage-based demand, due to the rooted asymmetries of the process, and thus in economic crises. (Though Marx does not have just one theory of crisis in the business cycle, but rather a family of implicit models). The upshot here is that Marx’ deployment of LTV is somehow a perfect and unalterable economic account, only that it is not an entirely implausible one, in fact a rather effective one, in addressing some of the basic questions of economic explanation.

But then Marx called it “Capital” and not “Labor”. One of the core points is that capital is not a thing, a set of production goods, but rather a social relation, or, better, an ensemble of social relations, tying together a nexus of social activities. The ideological illusion that the economy is merely a fixed set of relations and trade-offs among things, which Marx termed the “fetishism of commodities”, and which was later more extensively elaborated as “reification”, was one of the prime “objects” of Marx’ demystifying critique. But then “labor value” is not itself a thing or anything. It is not produced by labor, but extracted/abstracted from labor, as commodified labor-power, as AASNLT, by the system itself. Hence I said LTV wasnot all that important, since “labor-values” amount to an accounting convention within Marx overall system of economic explanation. Labor-values are not “embodied” in commodities, as if they would endow them with a soul. Marx satiric use language of theological parody is constantly making the contrary point. What Marx is more interested in is the extraction of surplus-value and its circulation, reproduction and accumulation as the prime driver of the economic system and its dynamics. “Exploitation” in Marx is more a functional than a normative concept in Marx. (The normative core of Marx’ thinking is rather “alienation”, which has already occurred when labor is commodified). Marx is not especially concerned a la Proudhon that workers don’t receive their “fair” share of their output. Rather labor-power as a commodity is always paid at “fair” equivalent value, and Marx is quite commonsensical and empirical here, if one reads him carefully, taking “hard” commodity-money as in the first instance a good approximation of value, from which wages, among other things, are paid, and only in the further elaborations and adventures at more complex systematic levels do deviations between prices and values do their work. Marx, in fact, is rather in favor of the extraction and reinvestment of productive surpluses, since it leads on to technical development and the increasing potential for the enjoyment of material wealth and the emancipation of productive self-activity from the dudgery of alienated labor. Socialism itself would just be a different way of organizing, extracting and managing the investment of productive surpluses, one that conduces to the commonweal of the broad majority of workers and the public goods, rather than to the increased wealth and power of the capitalists. And, of course, to due the ever-increasing technical improvement and concentration of capital in large-scale production, Marx thought the efficacy of a system driven by the private appropriation of surpluses would erode, such that the increasing contradiction between the “forces of production”, i.e. the work force and its technical means, and the prevailing “relations of production” would drive a transition toward transcending the capitalist mode of production. Else there would be stagnation, mass unemployment and “civilized barbarism”.

Your appeal to the primacy of demand is non-explanatory per se. Wanting or wishing or willing something to be so, doesn’t make it so, obviously. So there is no other source of demand than that which can be generated by the production of the economic system, which, as I said, is primarily wage-based and constrained by current productive capacities. Marx explains the asymmetries that result in deficient demand. It’s true that the Keynes/Kalecki principle of real aggregate effective demand is partly a game-changer, though only partly. (And Kalecki was a Marxist economist and the real Keynes has been watered down, if not completely ignored). “Revealed preferences” is little more than a tautology, and whereas it might seem to work for carrots and peas, it breaks down for more complex and discontinuous sets, such as different production technologies or differing choices and commitments concerning ways-of-life. And insofar as demand can be deliberately “programmed”, it can be done so by the capitalists, (since nowadays culture is not a quasi-organic outgrowth of inherited traditions and historical experiences, but an industrially planned and produced commodity), or by the workers, through public deliberation in a participatory republic. At any rate, I don’t see at all what point you think your making by the appeal to “transaction costs”, since they are just a cost and simply are included in as a component in prices. So your question amounts to why would anyone incur a cost/pay a price to exchange commodities. And the answer has been clearly given: to realize increased value qua productive surpluses. But your claim that Marx somehow made an elemental mistake, because labor/workers can be deployed to produce useless or, better, unsaleable, commodities remains ridiculous. That’s not a bug, but a feature: Marx is all too aware that workers are threatened with the constant possibility of unemployment through the failures of realization in capital investment. Again, the commodity *form*, (which is a value-form, not a concrete thing), is the “dialectical unity”, held in contradictory tension, i.e. constantly forced together while pulling apart, of exchange-value and use-value, which are not discrete atomic items. (Use-value is not neo-classical, nor utilitarian psychological “utility”, but rather is jointly determined by the objective suitabilities of the “thing” and the social context in which it is deployed). In effect, the fatal flaw you claim to have uniquely espied is the very point Marx is making: how uses, become commodities, become exchangeable, and thereby transformed in their uses. The opening chapters of Capital are an explanation of the commodity form, (on a logical/conceptual basis, and not as an historical model of a petty producers economy or of market exchange with constant organic compositions of capital), and the whole rest of the book spirals out from there, in increasingly systematic elaborations of implications and levels. You can’t plausibly be claiming to criticize it, if you so evidently fail to grasp the conceptual basics and the problems hat they are addressing.

“The capitalist and the worker both want to eat because they both want to live, rather than die. This is still a subjective preference. It is not objectively true that it is better that you live than that you die; the cosmos doesn’t give a damn”

So just what is this magical all-determining explanatory property called “subjectivity” that you appeal to so bracingly. Does it even exist, (as opposed to, say, embodied human existences)? Or is it some half-chewed theological remnant? As far as I can make out your views, they seem to be some confused, incoherent amalgam of Von Mises and Bishop Berkeley.

Finally, as to the agency of the Johnson Administration, that too is a complex and conjunctural social fact, not a singular intentionality. But then it’s more the delusions than the intentions of that “agency” that matter in this case. You might pause to consider that conundrum of historical explanation: why so much history is determined not by the intentions of agents, but by social delusions.


Martin Bento 05.03.10 at 11:28 pm

Saying that the exchange of commodities is motivated by a constructed system of relationships simply pushes the question back further. What motivates the construction of the system of relationships? Evidently, it is that the relationships make possible the existence of productive surpluses, which enable people to have surplus-value. What motivates people to seek to capture surplus-value? Self-interest? Subjectivity? How can you deduce from the fact that a productive surplus can potentially exist the fact that they are something towards which human collective behavior will be directed? You can deduce this by postulating self-interest (or other motivations, but they will be motivations that exists in human skulls) and looking at what actually motivates people to engage in actions, but it is not there in the structure, because the structure does not provide a reason for the behavior, ultimately by people, of generating surpluses.

Subjectivity? As a human being, I do things because I choose to do them. It is possible that I choose to do them because external forces, obvious or not, are influencing me. But those external forces still have to be mediated by my mind before they influence my action, and it is difficult to see how such a transformation from external influence to neural conjunction that motivates action can be perfect, so that the same influence always produces the same conjunction in various people. So to some degree people’s actions are always motivated by things that are inside their heads, or by their internal neural structures in its current state, if you want to use that language.


john c. halasz 05.04.10 at 12:48 am


Here’s a recent treatise of Post-Keynesian macro-economics with a Marxian bent:

The point: Marx’ work, whatever its flaws, (which I don’t think you’ve begun to limn), remains of some considerable heuristic interest.

A “subject” is an epistemological ground of knowledge, usually associated with consciousness and human interiority, qua thought, intention or volution. It’s “discovery” is generally attributed to Descartes, though he never actually used the term. But a) epistemology is an outmoded, failed project in modern philosophy, ever since Wittgenstein’s PI, and b) if anything is a general basis of knowledge, it’s language, not consciousness, which former is an “objective” and not “subjective” medium, i.e. not generated through individual intention. So why continue to use the word “subject”, when it no longer really has any operative use? Why not existent human beings, who, yes, are conscious and embodied and have certain limited intentional capacities as agents, but actually exist “objectively” in the world and not just in their own “minds” or as determined by their own intentions? “Subjectivity” is constituted, not constitutive, which was part of the point of Marx’ “materialist” inversion/critique of Hegel. And such “subjectivity” only exists through nexuses of social relations with others. So it’s non-obvious that it should constitute a starting-point.

Further, why should you assume that your factitious sense of your intentions in focal consciousness, your “freedom”, is a real, and not an illusion? Otherwise put, how is human agency, “freedom”, possible in a causally determined world? It’s not impossible to give such an account by any means, but it should put into question the self-evidence of the first-person perspective. And it would require, (in addition to suitable accounts of neuro-physiological causality, as sufficiently stochastic and “open”), an account of the socio-linguistic structuring of such agency, i.e. how it is governed and constituted through operative “systems” of rules, which it does not of itself spontaneously generate. Once you’re there, it becomes evident that such agency, “freedom”, is a limited, finite “thing”, which doesn’t of itself generate a world. And “freedom” is at least as much a collective as an individual matter.

Motives are always murky and mixed. Intentions can be identified, but motives are largely just inferences from intentions and actions. It’s not a good starting point. Of course, existent human beings have needs and desires and act upon them. But a) the generation of such needs and desires are bound up in relations with others and b) are not ahistorically fixed or given. Nor do they suffice to explain the generation of social structure. Marx actually never talked in terms of “interests”, which is a utilitarian notion, and there was perhaps no one he made more merciless fun of than Jeremy Bentham. He only ever talked in terms of “powers” or “capacities” (“Vermoegen”, not “Kraft” or “Herrschaft”) and their realizations. He was utterly indifferent as to whether behavior and its motives were “self-interested” or “altruistic”. He simply had no explanatory need to refer to motives to account for constraints of characteristic social actions. And much of what is attributed to him as “determinism” is actually dialectical irony, i.e. the way that systemic constraints reverse the intentions of agents.

But sorry, I just can’t construe what your account of economics is, nor why you think an “infinite regress” objection needs a final chicken-or-egg answer. AFAICT, your account of economics resembles a South Park business plan.


Martin Bento 05.04.10 at 3:14 am

A response to that is going to require more time than I have right now. And I think this thread is closing soon. so I guess that’s it.


Henri Vieuxtemps 05.04.10 at 7:01 am

@161 Yeah, that’s true – people like Buffett think they are on a mission and they cannot be understood psychologically as having individual interests, because they see themselves as something bigger than anything individual. That being said, we’re not necessarily all like him.

Oh yeah? And what motivates you (and me) to post anonymous comments on this page? Shouldn’t you, instead, be out there desperately trying to procreate, or doing something altruistic (helping others to procreate?)?

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