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Thursday, July 31, 2014


I have often quoted a line from Freud that I have never been able actually to find in his writings, leading me to wonder whether I made it up.  It goes something like this [assuming he really wrote it]:  "If there is one subject that the patient will not permit to be discussed in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that one subject."  Usually I quote this line when I am talking about progressive, intelligent, thoughtful Jewish writers who have an ineradicable blind spot about Israel.  But Freud's observation [I persist in my belief that he actually said it] has other applications as well.  This thought occurred to me as I was reading Paul Krugman's blog earlier today.

Krugman is everything that one could want in a progressive liberal.  He is wicked smart, witty, very broadly read and educated, on the progressive side of every social issue, seriously concerned about economic inequality, a bulldog when it comes to harrying his less enlightened colleagues in the Economics profession, and, I would imagine, fun to spend some time with.

There is really only one subject that he cannot ever bring himself to talk about, despite the fact that you would think it was staring him in the face every moment of his professional life:  CAPITALISM

Now if you have read Krugman at all, you might suppose that I am totally, comically wrong.  I mean, he talks about capitalism every day of his life, right?  But not really, if you think about it for a moment.  He talks about growth rates, interest rates, unemployment rates, Phillips Curves, quantity easing, and inventory levels.  He talks about the evils of austerity hawks, the inability of conservative economists to admit that they have been wrong for five years, about the failure of inflation to develop, and endlessly many other things.  But he never actually talks about capitalism.  He treats capitalism in roughly the way fish treat water or birds treat air -- as the medium in which they swim or fly, omnipresent, inevitable, necessary.

Krugman is a smart man, and I would bet that he has read Das Kapital [although he probably has not read Marx's doctoral dissertation, which I actually have.]  So if I ever met him and had a chance to engage him in a serious discussion, I am willing to bet that he would be completely unfazed and unimpressed were I to bring up Marx's claim that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.  I am not sure what he would say.  [I really hope he would not start talking about workers earning their marginal product -- he is smarter than  that.]  But he would have something smooth and even thought out to counter.  Nevertheless, I am dead certain that he feels no need whatsoever to work up a sophisticated knowledgeable defense of capitalism, any more than a sentient fish would feel the need to offer a rationale for water.

Maybe Krugman wouldn't be so much fun to spend time with.


Chris said...

Richard Wolff claims to have met him, and says he thinks any theories about value, or surplus value, are nonsense, and refuses to talk about them.

And what Krugman has written on Marx suggests he's never actually read him:

Here's the article in short:

“What [Marx] never managed to do was offer either a comprehensible explanation of why such [economic] upheavals happen or any suggestion about what to do with them (except abolish capitalism)”.

He remarked:

“By my reckoning, Karl Marx made about as much contribution to economics as Zeppo Marx made to comedy. Or as john Maynard Keynes rather more elegantly put it: “A Marxian Socialism must always remain a portent to the historians of opinion –how a doctrine so illogical and so dull can have exercised so powerful and enduring an influence over the minds of men, and through them, the events of history”


“harsh words –but Keynes earned the right to say them. For it was Keynes, not Marx, who cracked the code of crisis economics –who explained how recessions and depressions can happen. And as Japan and the rest of Asia have gone into an economic tailspin, it is Keynesianism, not Marxism, that offers useful guidance about how they might save themselves”.

You're right, he never talks about capitalism in general. And probably because, like Piketty, he never read Marx, he really does see capitalism the way a fish sees water.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thanks, Chris. That really is depressing. I mean, he is really not stupid, but those comments are major league stupid. He seems not to have noticed that Marx was not interested in figuring out how capitalist economies could "save themselves."

Sigh. I think my concluding sentence was correct after all.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Karl is one thing, but to diss Zeppo is completely over the line....

Magpie said...


"Richard Wolff claims to have met him, and says he thinks any theories about value, or surplus value, are nonsense, and refuses to talk about them."

Sorry to interrupt you, gentlemen, but I was wondering if Paul Krugman has ever explained why he thinks that theories about value are nonsense.

After all, neoclassical and new keynesian economics have their marginalist theory of value.

Chris said...

Let me clarify that comment. That's what I remember from a lecture Wolff gave on his website regarding marxian economics.

I believe it was either this one:

Or this one:

I listened to the lecture at 4am, while I had a fever and couldn't sleep over a year ago.

So my memory could be incorrect.

Chris said...

Can you recommend any books, essays, etc., that discuss the truth content of Freudianism and/or psychoanalysis? Specifically, is it really a science? Is it really therapeutic? Are its claims epistemologically worthwhile, or illuminating but no more true than new age thought and/or religious beliefs?

Magpie said...



Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, back in the day, the question of the scientific status of Freudian theory was a hot topic. The big name in the debate was Adolf Grunbaum, who took a strongly negative position. I am in no way up on the question, but you could start there and follow Google to see what else has been said.

Will said...

Chris, this article on the "Scientific Legacy of Sigmund Freud" addresses your question:

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