A recent post by LSE based International Relations scholar, Nick Srnicek, asked ‘Has the Left given up on economics?‘, arguing that in spite of living through one the greatest economic depressions in history the left has notably failed to incorporate economic analysis or alternatives into its program for change. What we have, instead, is the usual focus on racism, police brutality, defending the welfare state, and such like issues – a repetition of the kind of lowest common denominator politics of resistance little different to what the left focused on during the boom time. Of course, the reasons for this state of affairs are just as much political as to do with the collective psychological state of the left. A counter post here makes a few important points on the institutional reasons for the weakness; the most important of which I consider to be the lack of support by union structures for developing and disseminating alternative economic analysis. As a supplement to this, I would also add that the current predominance of (neo) anarchist ideas in activist communities – with the valorisation of sponteneism, horizontal (non) organization, and a focus on means rather than ends (so called prefigurative politics) – serves to reinforce the irrelevance of expert, technical analysis of economics. Ultimately, the end game of this kind of extreme democratic politics cannot tolerate analysis that would privilege the scientific knowledge of a minority. But in any case, the above political argument is not the focus of my present commentary, so I will leave that aside for another day.
Here, I want to present what I believe to be one possible reason for the seemingly minimal influence of economics on left wing politics: the fact that the Marxian economic project has stalled on a number of levels. As a Marxist myself, I feel at liberty to place at least some of the blame for this at Marx’s feet, even if, of course, contemporary Marxists should shoulder most of the weight of responsibility for the state of affairs. In brief, there are two levels at which I think Marxian economics has stalled:
- Failing to work through the categories elaborated in Capital to more adequately conceptualise transitionary structures to post-capitalism.
- Not bringing Capital up to date in terms of economic model theory, hence leaving it as a limited ‘fundamental structural model’ of the economy, unable to incorporate enough variables and economic objects into its analysis.
1. Capital and post-capitalism
There is a persistent tendency within Marxism to reduce the economic to the political, as if none of the economic laws under one system carry across even during a period of transition to another system. This is reflected in the somewhat endless debates regarding to what extent Capital represents simply a critique of capitalism or a work of positive economics? One could certainly make arguments both ways. My personal view on this matter is that by the time on reaches Vol. III it becomes indisputable that Marx had, whether intentionally or not, created a work of positive economics with tendential predictions unique to the Marxian economic paradigm. That is, the exploitation labour theory of value leads to a theory of tendencies within the profit rates not found elsewhere in other economic theories, dependent upon historically variant relative composition of capitals, and also leading to a theory of tendencies in employment levels.
Now, none of this fits very neatly with Marx’s political philosophy, which is all about the real, historical political movement. One of the mysteries during my research into Marx as part of my PhD thesis is why, if Marx felt his own analysis mostly useless for thinking a post-capitalist society, did he seemingly invest so much time in it? And why, at the end of 20 years study, did he abandon his economic studies to learn Russian and focus almost exclusively on events there, even to the point of ditching the thesis that communism would preserve the best of capitalism to endorsing the populist idea that peasant communes could act as a direct launch pad for communism?
My feeling is that Marx never really resolved these issues intellectually. You see the same thing in his mathematical writings, where he never really reconciled himself with abstract mathematical entities, trying to shoehorn the whole of calculus into the study of variable magnitudes. So the legacy of this Marxian reduction of abstract logics to the real is the presumption – common across most of the left in fact – that a revolutionary political upheavel would be sufficient to create a new historical dynamic to reconfigure the economic. What follows from this presumption is the idea that left wing economics may be able to analyze capitalism and critique it, but – and this ‘but’ is what I want to contest – the categories it uses to do so are no use to us in thinking what an alternative, transitionary structure might look like. Lenin repeated much the same line in State and Revolution where, despite a chapter nominally devoted to economic transition, the focus is unrelentingly political. For two reasons I believe that today such a position is untenable.
Firstly, because after the experience of 20th century communism, post or anti capitalism has been fully associated with the command economy. It may be the case that workers’ self-management is held out as a potential model that never received a proper test, but the fact that this never materialized seems to suggest that it would not, alone, hold out promise for transcending capitalism. Secondly, and surely as a result of the first point, today the left seems to lack any positive economic vision; and this lack of ideas is now part and parcel of the problem the left has drawing people in under a program for radical change. Most of the unpoliticised general population are not willing to put their faith in political upheavel necessarily leading to a better economic state of affairs, and they associate, in the absence of any countervailing evidence, the leftwing economy with simply a return to the state run, command economy. So ideas for post-capitalist changes are needed. Even simple, single policies that would begin a transitionary process would be welcome.
2. Capital out of date?
Marx’s Capital has recieved a rough ride ever since its publication. Even in the late 19th century it must have been percieved as antiquated, relying upon an unfashionable Hegelian mode of exposition and a radicalised Ricardian labour theory of value that would soon be superseded by the marginalist neoclassical thinkers. Things got no better once the critiques of inconsistency rolled in; critiques that only recently seem to have been laid to rest with the TSSI interpretation pioneered by Andrew Kliman, Alan Freeman, and others. So only today, almost over 150 years after Capital Vol. I was published, do we have a workable Marxian paradigm shared by a community of scholars, and used to conduct econometric work – generally focusing on the long term tendency for a declining rate of profit in explaining crisis.
Why do I believe TSSI Marxism is not enough? The most glaring problem seems to be because there is no clear epistemological reasoning as to why this consistent economic set of laws represents reality most accurately. This allows critics to accuse it of being out of date, and solely reflecting a mode of accumulation associated with Victorian era industrial production, of no relevance to IT, finance, the service sector, and immaterial labour in general. In this context reliance on Hegelian reflection theory as a grounding epistemology is obviously completely inadequate.
Moreover, its dialectical construction seems to leave just too many holes, or residual, undelineated categories. The entire financial edifice, for one thing, is simply lumped into an undifferentiated sphere of exchange. Marxian economics does not seem to extend much further than looking at underlying profit tendencies and capital compositions within a limited, fixed number of categories. The problem thus appears to be how to expand it from simply a posited set of fundamental structural laws to become a complete model able to incorporate more variables and levels of analysis. The impedimenta to this progress appears to be Capital‘s generally dialectical structure (and I write this with a few caveats – for example, I do not believe it is an irrevisably dialectical theory) which makes it very hard to add more variables and levels of analysis. For Capital to become a more serviceable model of the economy it needs to rest on a foundation that would allow it to add more levels of analysis that would ultimately be able to be fed into an econometric model – not, that is, circumscribed to only intuiting very long run tendencies simmering beneath the surface of economic phenomena.
In order to achieve this, I believe a model of Capital needs to focus on its strongest aspects. This would ditch some of the philosophical baggage around commodity fetishism and any unworkable categories, and focus on where it does best – namely on the hypothesis of long term profit tendencies being responsible for more short run economic phenomena such as crisis and financial movements. The model would need to be explicitly a temporal model of how various structures in the economy interact. We also want this model to be revisable to the introduction of new variables and structures. It has to be an open model able to incorporate all relevant structures and phenomena. The axioms of geometry provide a good example here. Euclid’s axioms are consistent, but when placed in an ‘inner model’ on the surface of a sphere they break down, leading to proofs of the independence of some of the axioms and the need for revision. We need to be able to do the same thing for economic theory – we need to be able to test our fundamental structural model to make sure it does not rely on dogmatic assertions.
What I have sketched above is no small task. Indeed, from my initial research into economic models there appears to be very little out there to begin with – there is no off the peg model structure into which Capital‘s categories could simply be dropped. At present it thus feels like something of a tabula rasa effort, and to be successful it will no doubt need to be a collective project conducted amongst colleagues, some of which will have to be more technically and mathematically proficient than I.
The ultimate point of this endeavour is based on the wager that there is a structural truth to the economic crisis to be discovered (in the realist sense), and that a correct diagnosis will help the project to conceive a determinate economic project on the left, and give us tangible ideas to fight for.