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Wednesday, April 8, 2015


One of the happy consequences of my intense engagement with the text of Capital this semester is that I tend, more even than usual, to see everything through Marx's eyes.  Today, I shall try to develop a somewhat ambitious interpretation in this fashion of an Op Ed column by Paul Krugman which in turn is a comment on something written by UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong.  Since DeLong's piece is written for economists in what I might call macro-speak, a dialect with which I am only glancingly familiar, I may be getting some things wrong.  I invite corrections.

Let me begin with one of Marx's most famous statements, this one not from Capital itself but from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859 when Marx was hard at work on his hauptwerk.  In the Preface, Marx writes:

" No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

This is an extremely profound and important observation with far-reaching implications for anyone interested in the prospects for sweeping social and economic change.  I have tried to explore some of those implications in my essay "The Future of Socialism," and these remarks are an extension of that essay.

Marx of course had in mind the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe, a process unfolding over many centuries that he had studied as deeply as the available historiographical materials permitted in the mid-nineteenth century.  In my essay, I tried to figure out what developments maturing in the womb of capitalism might be understood as "higher relations of production" preparing the way for socialism.

The first thing to recognize is that such fore-runners of socialism can be expected to appear in the most advanced sectors of capitalism, not in backwaters or pre-capitalist holdovers like universities or farmers' markets.  The central purpose of my essay was to identify internal, structural features of modern corporations that could plausibly be understood as at least creating the possibility of the collective ownership and control of the means of production, the true hallmark of socialism.  Rather than rehearse what I said there, I invite interested readers to go to from the link at the top of this page and consult the essay.

In his discussion of the transition from feudalism to capitalism [and, indeed, in his comments on the prior transition from ancient slavery to feudalism] Marx rather mordantly observes that as structural changes in the social relations of production begin to percolate up from the base, philosophers and theologians perched high up in the superstructure miraculously find objective, eternal, universal, a priori grounds for enunciating new principles of justice and new theories of economic behavior to justify the ways of capitalists to the unwashed.

I sense from Krugman's column that something rather like that is taking place along the forward cutting edge of economists.  Let me explain briefly.  The original ideological rationalizations of capitalism were designed to justify the overturning of the late feudal restrictions on the unfettered economic activity of early capitalist entrepreneurs and the equally unrestricted movement of legally free laborers.  The rational pursuit of self-interest by  all concerned, it was argued, would result in the maximally efficient use of scarce resources and the corresponding maximization of the satisfactions of producers and consumers alike.  The moral and political theories of Locke, Rousseau, Kant and others were devised, whether consciously or not, to provide ideological cover for these beliefs.  A clear implication of this set of convictions, embraced and urged by the defenders of classical capitalism, was that the role of the state could be no more than that of referee and enforcer of contracts.  Left to its own devices, capitalism, as the only rational form of economic activity, would flourish.

The Great Depression constituted a counter-example to this faith impossible to ignore.  And so we were given Keynes, who argued that the state should take an active role in dampening the amplitude of the business cycle by direct fiscal intervention, engaging in deficit spending during shortfalls of effective demand and recapturing what had been socially advanced, through taxation, during the ensuing boom years.  This proposal presupposed a level of knowledge and of institutional fine-tuning impossible during the earliest stages of capitalism, but by the Thirties well within the scope of possibility as a consequence of new social relationships of production growing in the womb of capitalism.

Now, in the Op Ed by Krugman and the essay by DeLong, we see a theoretical defense of a new stage in the evolution of collective control over the economy.  Krugman summarizes DeLong's essay, as follows: "First, he argues that we should not only expect but want government to be substantially bigger in the future than it was in the past. Second, he suggests that public debt levels have historically been too low, not too high."

I leave it to those who are interested to follow the links to the essay and Krugman's comments on it.  What I am wondering is this:  How much further can DeLong, Krugman, and others like them go in drawing out the implications of their macroeconomic theorizing before it finally occurs to one of them that perhaps what they are really arguing is that the time has come for socialism?

Alas, my guess is, forever.  But it is nice to see the smartest of the rationalizers of capitalism recognizing that the logic of their argument drives them toward greater collective control over the means of production.






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