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Tuesday, April 6, 2021


LFC makes the following comment: “Prof. Wolff has said that one of his aims is to "put the irony into the equations," but where is the irony here? I get the mocking language ("moneybags") and the element of mystification, but mockery and mystification aren't the same as irony. So where is it?” Once again, I am afraid that by rushing through my ideas too quickly I have neglected to include essential points, so instead of the next episode in this soap opera I will directly address LFC’s question. That will actually set things up for what I wanted to say next.


The central ironic utterance whose true meaning Marx seeks to expose is the phrase “free market.” In the era preceding the development of capitalism there was a complex network of constraints on economic activity. Guilds controlled the actions of master artisans and of the apprentices and journeymen in their establishments. Where a cabinetmaker could ply his trade, what prices he could charge for what he produced, what he paid to those working under him, these and many more aspects of economic activity were regulated by a mesh of laws, customs, and guild regulations. It was the elimination of these constraints that unleashed the enormous productivity of capitalism.


Thus the actions of entrepreneurs were free in the sense of being freed from traditional and other constraints. The workers too were free, or at least so it was said by the theorists and apologists of the new economic order. The workers were free to travel wherever they wished in search of work. They were free to bargain for wages in any way they wished, demanding more, refusing to accept the job that paid less, moving from city to city and from employer to employer without legal or other constraint. So it was that Marx described the marketplace as “an Eden of the innate rights of man… (where) alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”


Thus far the apparent or superficial meaning of the phrase “free market.” But although the superficial meaning applied truly to the capitalists it was for the workers bitterly ironic. The deeper meaning was that the workers were indeed free – they were freed of the land on which they grew their food or tended their sheep. They were indeed free – they were freed of the tools of their labor. They were indeed free – they were freed even of the skills which they had acquired over long years of practice, for those skills were now built into the machines that they or their children tended. The workers were freed of everything save their capacity for labor and having nothing else with which to get their food, clothing, and shelter they were thus compelled to accept the wages offered by entrepreneurs or starve.  Their “freedom” was in fact slavery – wage slavery as it came to be called.


But Political Economy perpetuated the myth that workers, like their employers, were free men and women engaging freely in the production of commodities which they then freely brought to market and freely offered at any price they freely chose. Indeed, this myth was endorsed by the legal system, for just as the law forbade entrepreneurs to join together forming a “combination (of entrepreneurs) in restraint of trade,” so the workers were forbidden to join together into unions which the law construed also as “combinations (of entrepreneurs) in restraint of trade.”


There are other ironies in the standard descriptions of capitalism, including one that will play a central role in my mathematical analysis of the situation but it is this characterization of capitalism as a Free Market system that is the central unconsciously ironic utterance of all classical and neoclassical economic theory. In Capital, especially in the early chapters, Marx struggles first to give voice to and then to expose as meretricious the myth of the free market.  


I hope that these remarks begin to respond to the question posed by LFC. In the next one or two chapters of this saga I hope to enrich and deepen these insights and connect them up with the modern mathematical reinterpretation of the classical and Marxian Political Economy.


LFC said...

Prof. Wolff, thank you for the response.

(I'll defer further comment/questions until the next "episodes.")

David Palmeter said...

Interesting news about a capitalist who has been mentioned a few times on these threads. Jeff Bezos has come out in favor of a corporate tax increase to finance infrastructure.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

On the subject of irony, a current example can also be found. In the arguments against ObamaCare, opponents repeatedly used the seemingly rational argument that they wanted to protect the right of every individual to "freely" choose a health insurance plan against government regulation. The irony of this argument is that for most of those directly affected by Obama-Care, the choice is between Obama-Care or no health insurance.

In the former German Democratic Republic, there was a joke that conveys this form of irony very well:

A hiker is thirsty, so he sets out for a town to buy milk. Arriving at the town's market, he finds a store, goes in and asks for a bottle of milk. The shopkeeper looks at him and says to him: Sorry sir, we are the store without vegetables, the store without milk is on the other side of the street.

Enzo Rossi said...

Professor Wolff, thank you for this brilliant series of essays.

Would you agree that Marx's critique of capitalism employs a form of epistemic normativity (rather than moral or prudential or aesthetic normativity)? To clarify: it seems to me that on your account what is wrong with capitalism is that it obfuscates how things really work, and so the wrong is not that capitalism exploits or oppresses people, but that it does so while making it look as though everyone is a free and equal participant in the marketplace.

Maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, but anyway that's a thumbnail sketch of the sort of vaguely Marxist type of non-moralistic ideology critique I've been trying to develop of late. Were it to chime with your own views, I'd be quite encouraged.

[Sorry about the duplicate comment -- I realised I'd posted this under an older thread, whereas the conversation had moved on]

Robert Vienneau said...

I once had something to say about government "intervening" in the economy that I think similar. Does this reading of Marx have implications about current mainstream economics?