Saturday, September 7, 2019

Some comments about Marx’s epistemology — Prabhat Patnaik

Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feurbach: “the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it”, has been often taken to mean that interpreting the world and changing the world are two separate and disconnected activities….
In my view, in drawing this distinction, Marx was not referring to two separate activities, but to two separate ways of interpreting the world: one is interpreting the world from the perspective of changing it, which means interpreting the world from a point of view that entails the construction of the image of an alternative world different from it; and the other is interpreting the world from a point of view that does not do so, that continues to remain trapped within the vision of the world as it exists....

An example will make clear what I have in mind. One can argue in the context of a slave society that it is in the interest of the slave to be obedient to his master, for otherwise the master will lose his temper and whip him; and one would not necessarily be wrong in arguing in this manner. On the other hand, one can say that a slave society is itself dehumanizing and must be replaced by a society of free men, and that it is in the interest of the slave to work for achieving such a society, even though he would inevitably incur the wrath of the master; and one would not certainly be wrong in saying so either.
The difference between the two positions really lies in the fact that the second position is from a perspective that transcends the slave society, i.e. from a perspective that is epistemically exterior to the slave society, while the first position is from a perspective that is epistemically interior to the slave society. In arguing for changing the world rather than merely interpreting it, Marx was really arguing for interpreting the world from a perspective that is epistemically exterior to it.

The importance of the difference between these two positions is particularly great today in the context of neo-liberal capitalism. The argument which says that there should be “labour market flexibility”, that wages should be kept down, that trade union activities should be restricted, and that social wages should be cut, all in order to attract investment, so that the growth rate of output and employment in the economy could be increased, is exactly analogous to the argument that said that the slaves should remain meek before the masters for their own good. It represents an epistemically interior perspective, which is being assiduously promoted at present by much of “liberal opinion”. An epistemically exterior position in contrast will recognize the necessity for transcending neo-liberal capitalism for human freedom.

II
When we see Marx’s remark in this way, his criticism of Classical Political Economy also falls into place. Marx says apropos Classical Political Economy in The Poverty of Philosophy, that, according to it, “hitherto there has been history but not from now on”; this corresponds to the perception of Classical Political Economy that the bourgeois order is in conformity with the laws of nature. This is why the categories of bourgeois economy according to it are christened as “natural”, such as the “natural price”, the “natural rate of profit”, the “natural rate of wages”, and so on.

In saying this about Classical Political Economy, Marx was in effect asserting that Classical Political Economy which had taken a position of epistemic exteriority vis-a-vis all preceding social formations did not do so vis-à-vis capitalism. By contrast, the hall-mark of Marx’s own analysis of capitalism was that he adopted a position of epistemic exteriority vis-à-vis this system. This was how he could accord centrality to the phenomenon of exploitation and class struggle within capitalism, and thereby see the necessary incompatibility between capitalism and human freedom.

Because of this epistemic position, all the categories that Marx used for analyzing capitalism, were, as Georg Lukacs had pointed out long ago, class categories, i.e. categories informed by a class perspective, in contrast to those of Classical Political Economy....
Marxists criticize MMT economists along these lines, that is, for describing the world as it is, implying acceptance of the current world order based on  bourgeois liberalism manifesting economically as capitalism.

Marxists hold that thinkers as change agents should show the weaknesses and failures of the present system that have led to the precarious state of the world in which humanity now lives.

The appropriate task is envisioning a new order based on a classless society, class structure being the chief cause of the present dysfunctional order. Marxist analysis show that this dysfunctionality results from the current mode of production being based on private ownership of the means of production, This arrangement gives the ownership and top managerial classes that overlap control of the commanding heights and the ability to extract rents exorbitantly.

In the Marxist view, this is a system based on expropriation based on rent extraction justified economically by claims of "naturalness" and spontaneous natural order, with all problems accounted for by government intrusion in otherwise free markets. They point out that Marx and subsequently those working in this school of thought showed that this is not natural at all, but the result of historical processes that can be changed in the course of time. They view now as the time. MMT and other reforms simply delay that historical wave but cannot stop it.

As institutionalists, MMT economist are in agreement that the world that conventional (neoclassical) economics is not describing a natural world that exists but rather a possible world that does not exist, since the assumptions on which the modeling is based are unrealistic compared with data.

So the economic analyses may not be too divergent, but the strategy and tactics are with respect to policy. Even Marxists do not agree completely with how Marx's works should be interpreted. That is somewhat arcane and of historical interest. The issue now is what in Marx remains relevant to analysis and action based on it. In my view as philosopher, a lot.

Generally, Marx is not considered one of the greats in the history of the Western intellectual tradition. When I was a graduate student in philosophy in a department that specialized in history, Marx was not prominent although one cannot study social and political philosophy without accommodating him.

Conversely, Marx exerted as much influence on the course of the world events as any of the great thinkers, and perhaps more, since there are many more people and his influence is global. IN a sense this surprising, since Marx wrote like an academician rather than a popular author, even though he could do so, since he sidelined as a newspaper columnist. And his influence was not damaged by his not completing his project. Das Kapital was completed by Friedrich Engels from notes and conversations. The published work is only half the work that Marx had projected, so a lot of Marx's project will never be known.

Even more ironically, Marx is scarcely mentioned in the study of economics in the US other than in specialized areas. Marx is still studied assiduously outside the US, and in the non-West in particular. Prabhat Patnaik is an Indian economist, for example, and he worked at the core rather than in the periphery.

We are far from hearing the end of Marx, even though those that the control the narrative under bourgeois liberalism have tried to bury him. I believe that Marx deserves a lot more attention and recognition in the history of world thought as one of the pioneers of a more expanded concept of social, political and economic freedom than had appeared in the past. And this has been progressively realized globally through class struggle, bolstering his assertion that the proper philosophical method involves changing the world.

This project is far from complete, however, since the mode of production has not changed substantially. Yet, the assumption that bourgeois liberalism constitutes the end of history seems premature. Humanity has a way to go before Marx's expanded concept of social, political and economic freedom is concretized in world of universal values and rights derived therefrom.

This requires a considerable expansion of the level of humanity's collective consciousness, which means on the abstract level the expansion of the appreciation of universality, while on the concrete level it manifests as universal unconditional love as in "love thy fellow as oneself." Marx never got to mentioning this, but who knows where he was headed when his passing cut his work short. Yet, it seems clear from early writings that he was basing his work on an "enlightened" humanism that in a sense sacralized the dignity of the human person.

We see this sacralization the American Declaration of Independence, but the founding documents established a country based on bourgeois liberalism, where universal suffrage had to be fought for later, and slavery was included in the constitution. Marx's writing on America show his admiration of the ideal and disappointment in the real. He believed we could do better.

MR
Some comments about Marx’s epistemology
Prabhat Patnaik | Professor of Economics (retired), Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
Originally published: IDEAS (August 30, 2019)

No comments: