Sunday, April 03, 2011

DeLong on Marx

Brad DeLong does not have kind words for Karl Marx: He quotes Samuelson's characterization of Marx as a "third-rate post-Ricardian," and he calls Marx's principal contributions as:
  1. An undeveloped philosophy of human liberation.
  2. An oppositional, revolutionary political stance (with absolutely no sense of how revolutions eat their own children).
  3. About ten paragraphs' worth of asides in the "Communist Manifesto" and in the preface to "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" about how economic change creates and transforms social classes which then struggle for political power and how those struggles then shift the path of economic development.

DeLong traces Marx's career from philosopher to political activist to classical economist. DeLong see's Marx's fundamental approach as the attempt to "change the world and liberate humanity by thinking clearly." Having come to economics myself from philosophy, I don't have the same kind of contempt for this approach that DeLong shows. ("As if it were scales would fall from people's eyes and they would see: free from their illusions and their prejudices and their misconceptions they would build utopia.") Unlike DeLong, I don't take for granted the fundamental soundness of the liberal capitalist political-economic paradigm, and unlike DeLong, I don't see the myriad political, economic and social problems as inexplicable manifestations of insanity and perversity.

But the events of the last ten years — and in retrospect the events of the last forty years — have profoundly changed my thinking. And although I have just begun my academic study of economics, everything I have yet discovered hints at substantial philosophical flaws in the liberal capitalist paradigm. Why do we have a national political party, the Republicans, that, as DeLong continuously complains, seem to have abandoned every economic and political lesson we have learned about managing an advanced technological economy? Why do we have a national press corps that seems, as DeLong continuously complains, to treat straightforward matters of factual truth as incomprehensibly opaque? Ordinary stupidity and Gore's incompetence can explain George W. Bush's first election, and rage can explain some of the actions immediately after 9-11. But after Bush's reelection, the Iraq war, the 2007 collapse the Democratic party after its substantial win in 2006, and the weakness of the Obama administration to manage the economic crisis argue for deeper explanations than temporary insanity.

The best explanation I've seen DeLong offer to date is that Milton Friedman magically hypnotized a generation of economists with his anti-Libertarian libertarianism, and mind-wiped all the lessons political economists learned in the two generations after Keynes (10-14). If any one man, however intelligent and charismatic (I imagine economists have... unusual... standards as to charisma) can so entirely wreck a discipline, the fault lies with the discipline, not the man. DeLong is throwing stones from a house with far too much glass.

Sigmund Freud has been revealed as a charlatan and an incompetent and dishonest scientist. Even though it is perhaps his only contribution, Freud deserves credit as a genius simply for believing and promoting the idea that the human mind could itself be an object of scientific study, for simply refusing to take for granted his contemporaries' mysticism and illusions. Freud's incompetence probably cost scientific psychology two generations of progress, but someone had to be the first, and better scientists uncritically accepted the mystical view of the human mind.

I don't think Marx was as incompetent as Freud, but the point still stands. Even if Marx were wrong on every detail (which I do not believe he was), he would still deserve credit as a genius simply for refusing to take for granted the mysticism and illusions that underlie liberal capitalism. The difference is that while their progress was retarded, academic and scientific psychologists were able to extirpate Freud's errors while still keeping the scientific integrity of their discipline intact; indeed their fundamental scientific integrity is what allowed them to overcome Freud's errors. Economists, on the other hand, have so thoroughly and single-mindedly tried to close the curtain that Marx cracked open — and in so doing so lost sight of their fundamental scientific integrity — that they fell victim to the first guy who offered a plausible reason to believe what was behind the curtain was unimportant.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So I say this to the capitalist ruling class and their upper-middle-class apologists: you're in charge; you run the world. Fix the recession. Fix global warming. Fix the political process. Fix the press. Start showing real improvement in the quality of life for the billions of people who do the work. If you can't fix these problems, if they're beyond your capabilities, then stand aside and let someone else try.

I'm not holding my breath for either alternative. A six-month glitch is one thing, but everything's been going downhill for more than three years, and the capitalist ruling class is losing credibility fast. And of course no ruling class ever has simply stood aside when their characteristic virtues no longer proved adequate to the needs of the times.


  1. I find the attitude of DeLong to be very irritating. Everything is simple in his book. He's also quite confused on his own self identity. At one moment he claims to be a Keynesian, then later a neo-liberal, then later a neo-classical economist. His comment on Marx today was sadly typical. As if his "school" has anything to offer.

  2. Well said my friend.


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