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Archive for May 6th, 2009

Matt Yglesias (h/t Ezra) has a guest post at Foreign Policy on how Marx is now being discussed in light of the financial crisis. He makes some good points:

Under the circumstances, it’s perhaps natural that we’re seeing something of a resurgence of interest in the work of Karl Marx, both in the form of a recent Atlantic article by Christopher Hitchens written mostly to amuse, and in Leo Panitch’s more serious take in Foreign Policy.

It should be noted that there’s something a bit parochial about this. In the English-speaking world in general, and in the United States in particular, there’s thought to be something a bit naughty about mentioning Marx or letting slip the “s-word.” But in the rest of the world, it’s extremely common for the main left-of-center political party to have “socialist” or “social democratic” in its name…

Meanwhile, the pop art depictions of Marx that accompany both articles suggest to me an intention to undermine the nominal commitment to the idea that we ought to take Marx more seriously. They suggest that to raise fundamental doubts about the capitalist enterprise is actually quite silly.

Further re-enforcing this sense is the heavy emphasis currently being placed on Marx’s argument that periodic financial crises were endemic to the capitalist system..Everyone, from followers of John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman’s monetarists to the “Austrian School” of extreme libertarians agrees that periodic episodes of crisis are endemic to the system. This is not to take anything away from Marx, who got to the point quickly. But bringing him up only to cite him making a now-banal point seems almost as if we’re exhuming the corpse in order to demonstrate to the village that it’s still dead…

I would suggest on the contrary that there’s no time like the present to learn from Marx’s theory of ideology — the idea that wealth and power have a tremendous ability to gin up self-justifying narratives. Global elites’ curious passivity in the face of the growing housing bubble was an excellent example..But during the bubble years, prominent policymakers on both sides of the aisle found themselves in the grips of an extremely naive rationalism that held that there couldn’t possibly be a bubble, since the market should be magically self-correcting.Naturally, nobody believes that now. And, indeed, it seems like a slightly ridiculous thing to have ever believed. Marx can be helpful in letting us understand how it ever came to be so widely believed and how it is that, to this day, the voices of a small clique of extremely wealthy financiers continue to speak so loudly in Washington. Understanding the process of ideology and self-justification can help us to dispel its power and see our way through to a better resolution of the crisis and a more just society.

Unfortunately, attention to the specific issue of Marx’s account of financial crises seems mostly to inspire a curious kind of passivity. “Reformist politicians who think they can do away with the inherent class inequalities and recurrent crises of capitalist society are the real romantics of our day,” writes Panitch, “themselves clinging to a naive utopian vision of what the world might be.”…Re-reading Marx ought to be a spur to reform — to cast off the illusion that policy decisions made in the interests of the few represent nothing more than neutral technical expertise — rather than a further source of complacency.

OK, so Yglesias calls for a deeper engagement with Marx. That’s great. He even quotes Panitch, who brings up the class inequality issue. However, I think his final point (which I bold), which is mostly referential to the financial cabal theory of (de)regulation, still leaves something wanting. If we want to engage Marx’s largest critique, then we don’t look at how entrenched power leads to self-sustaining capitalist domination. Instead, we first need to look at exploitation as Marx defined it, the appropriation of surplus value by capitalists. Again, not holding my breath here.

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