Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Andy Merrifield — Marx at his limits

Marx’s dialectic is unique, Marshall says, because it straddles two distinctive ideas of modernization and modernism. Typically, analyses of each have been set apart. Modernization, on the one hand, has meant sustained economic development and industrial expansion, large-scale social planning and urban growth, bureaucratic regulation and rationality, the shattering of traditional cultures, perpetual progress and productivity. On the other hand, modernism suggests something more artistic and experimental, a movement more iconoclastic, sometimes destructive, occasionally destructive to its proponents as well. With modernism, Marshall says, “we find ourselves in the midst of an endless series of spiritual upheavals and cultural revolutions—the death of God, the theatre of cruelty, Dada, jazz, the twelve-tone scale, Existentialism, abstract art, and so on.” 
Enter Marx, the first thinker, Marshall believes, to make these two worlds connect. It was Marx, after all, who wanted to discover the underlying unity of life. Marx’s horizon is vast and his vision packs together an enormous range of things and ideas that nobody had thought of throwing together before, breaking down boundaries, piling things together that seem to clash and totter on the brink. Take one of his central images from Part I of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that Is solid melts into air.” “The cosmic scope and visionary grandeur of this image,” Marshall says, “it’s highly compressed dramatic power, its vaguely apocalyptic undertones, the ambiguity of its point of view—the heat that destroys is also super abundant energy, an overflow of life—all these qualities are supposed to be hallmarks of the modernist imagination.”
I was not aware of this critique before, but it is along the lines of the dialectic between liberal (modern) and traditionalism (historical) that is going on worldwide now and is reflected in Western politics in the liberal-conservative dichotomy within bourgeois liberalism in its latest iteration as neoliberalism.

Marx was a philosopher, litterateur, historian, anthropologist and sociologist who wrote about economics in light of those fields. This makes his economics difficult to pin down. Actually, Marx was writing before the birth of economics as a "scientific discipline," which occurred largely though the influence of Alfred Marshall's attempt to mathematize what was previous called "political economy."

This can be said of Adam Smith and, to some degree, of John Maynard Keynes. Smith and Marx were trained in philosophy and Smith was employed as a professor of philosophy. Keynes was trained in mathematics, and he also had a penchant for philosophy. It might be argued that Keynes "backed into" economics owing to circumstance — the need of the time.
Marx’s prose, says Marshall, hurtles along with the same breathless energy and reckless momentum as the society he depicts. The need for a constantly expanding market has the bourgeoisie settle everywhere, nestle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. A world market rapidly emerges, absorbing and destroying local and regional markets; improvements in communication draw everybody under the sway of bourgeois economy and culture; capital concentrates into the hands of fewer and fewer bigger and bigger producers; “Modern Industry” rationalizes production, in both the factories and on the land; rural labourers are uprooted and pour into ever-expanding cities; a factory proletariat swells its ranks, learning the hard way about machines and modern exploitation.
Before long, “no other nexus exists between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’.” A brave new world of capitalist modernity sprouts. Mountains are moved, railroads laid down, and canals rerouted, all of it done in the name of bourgeois modernity—should the price be right. Everything we once thought solid suddenly disintegrates into air. “By the time Marx’s proletarians appears,” Marshall says, “the world stage on which they were supposed to play their part has disintegrated and metamorphosed into something unrecognizable, surreal, a mobile construction that shifts and changes shape under the players’ feet”:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
This is the reduction of modern life to economics and finance. The age of myth (traditionalism) is over. Cultural myths, which had been the glue of civilizations, is replaced by "the market," whose invisible hand is assumed to act as a natural force that can be compared with gravity. Everything settles into its rght place and all receive their just deserts if only this force is unleashed in full.

See John Foster Bellamy's Absolute Capital, linked to here previously.

Marx had anticipated the development of neoclassical economics in his analysis of what he called "vulgar economy."
Vulgar economy really does nothing else but to interpret, in doctrinaire fashion, the ideas of persons entrapped in capitalist conditions of production and performing the function of agents in such production, to systematize and to defend these ideas. We need not wonder, then, that vulgar economy feels particularly at home in the estranged form of manifestation, in which economic conditions are absurd and complete contradictions, and that these conditions appear so much more self-explanatory to it, the more their internal connection is concealed. So long as the ordinary brain accepts these conceptions, vulgar economy is satisfied. But all science would be superfluous, if the appearance, the form, and the nature of things were wholly identical. Vulgar economy has not the slightest inkling of the fact that the trinity from which it takes its departure, namely Land—Rent, Capital—Interest, Labor—Wages of Labor (or Price of Labor), are on their very face three incompatible propositions. First we have the use-value Land, which has no value, and the exchange-value Rent. Here a social relation is conceived as a thing and proportioned to nature. Two incommensurable magnitudes are supposed to be proportional to each other. Then we have Capital—Interest. If capital is conceived as a certain sum of values independently represented by money, then it is manifestly nonsense to say that a certain value shall be valued higher than its value. It is precisely in the formula Capital—Interest that all intermediate links are eliminated, and capital is reduced to its most general formula, which for this reason is inexplicable by itself and absurd. It is also for this reason that the vulgar economist prefers the formula Capital—Interest, with its occult faculty of making a value unequal to itself, to the formula of Capital—Profit, which approaches more nearly to the actual capitalist relations. Then again, driven by the restless thought that four is not five and that 100 dollars cannot be 110 dollars, he flees from Capital as an exchange-value to the material substance of capital, to its use-value as a material requirement of labor, as machinery, raw materials, etc. By this means he succeeds in putting into the place of the first incomprehensible relation, which makes four equal to five, a wholly incommensurable one between a use-value, a thing, upon the one hand, and a definite relation of social production, surplus-value, upon the other, as he does also in the case of private property in land. As soon as the vulgar economist has arrived at this incommensurable magnitude, everything becomes clear to him, and he no longer feels the need of thinking any further. For he has arrived at what is "rational" in bourgeois conception. Finally we have Labor—Wages of Labor, or Price of Labor. This last expression, as we have shown in Volume I, contradicts on its very face the conception of value as well as of price. Price, generally speaking, is but a definite expression of value. And "Price of Labor" is just as irrational as a yellow leogarithm. But here the vulgar economist is all the more satisfied, because it brings him to the deep understanding of the bourgeois, that he pays for labor with money, and because the fact that this formula contradicts the conception of value relieves him from all obligation to understand value.
— Karl Marx. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III. The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, VII.XLVIII.III (VII.XLVIII.1.2)
So the age of myth is not actually over, after all. Now we are ruled by the myth of the market.

Monthly Review
Marx at his limits
Andy Merrifield


Kaivey said...

Do you know, I'm absolutely sick of it, market this, market that.

We see adverts of some yuppie, looking smart and attractive, using the latest laptop or tablet, on his or her beautiful sofa, in their really smart house, or office apartment with beautiful large glass windows, with opulence, sophistication, and success oozing everywhere, telling us of their new business solutions, selling us a lifestyle.

What happened to a nice walk in the park, or a day out in the countryside, or doing some gardening growing your own food? Being next to nature, that's life. Or spending quality time with your mum and dad talking about everything and anything. Just chatting.

Kaivey said...

What happened to friendship, rather than being one up, at the cutting edge, outsmarting everyone else, where everyone is a competitor.