Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Marxist "critique" of MMT

I'm both a Marxist and a professional economist, and I very much like MMT. I think there are good Marxist arguments to be made against it, but in Marxism vs Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), Adam Booth does not offer one. Instead, Booth just repeats every American Enterprise Institute canard against MMT. It's no surprise that neoliberals and reactionaries just offer lies and bullshit to "critique" Modern Monetary Theory, but I expect a lot more — more perspicacious analysis and especially more basic intellectual honesty — from people who call themselves Marxists. Sadly, this expectation is honored yet again in the breach than the observance.

Headline MMT scholars (Kelton, Tcherneva, Wray, Mosler, Mitchell, etc.) are capitalists, not Marxists; of course they're not going to take a completely Marxist line. But Marxism, at least to me, is not about the "correct" ideological line; it's about a ruthless critique of everything existing. And MMT scholars are at least ruthlessly critiquing a central element of 21st century capitalist ideology, the private ownership of the financial system; they argue that we should socialize not just the losses but the gains from this central element. Does the MMT critique go far enough? Of course not. Does it go in the direction a good Marxist would think it should go? I say it does.

Booth uncritically reproduces the neoliberal critique of MMT, which relies almost entirely on outright lies about what MMT scholars actually say. The theme of this critique is that if we do not subject the production of money to market discipline, which requires private ownership of the production of money, then the economy will crash and burn. To reproduce and approve of the neoliberal critique first relies on outright falsehood. All truth is in favor of communism, or so I've been told; even if a lie seems convenient to the Marxist agenda, we should not use it. But the neoliberal critique is not even convenient to the Marxist agenda: if socializing the production of money is a Bad Idea, then why whould more socialization be a Better Idea?

Marx wrote on economics in the middle of the 19th century, when the gold standard was close to absolute canon in capitalist economics. It took repeated financial crises and the near-complete collapse of the Western international economy, but capitalists were finally forced by circumstances to abandon the gold standard partially with Bretton Woods and completely when Nixon ended convertibility in 1971. The core features of capitalism — exploitation, alienation, the falling rate of profit — are still there, but important technical details of how these features work today is almost, but not completely, unlike how they worked in the 1860s, when Marx was writing Capital. Marx understands the gold standard, but it is too much to expect even a person of his genius to anticipate how money would work a century after his death.

One of the persistent tropes of modern Marxist scholars is that because the gold standard was central to capitalism in Marx's era, it therefore must be an ineluctable essence of capitalism. Because we still do have a capitalist international economy, therefore there must be a gold standard lurking under there somewhere. I completely disagree with this trope. Money has a radically different character in 2019 than it did in 1867.

MMT theorists, I think, understand how money actually works today. And if we want to understand capitalism, we have to understand how money actually works, which means, I think, that honest, sincere, and curious Marxists should study MMT, and incorporate it, somehow, into the theoretical basis of action today. Make an honest critique of its truth and applicability. Argue that no matter how we slice and dice it, using money, be it commodity money, or fiat money, whether or not we pretend is a creature entirely of the market, to motivate economic behavior is not and never will be enough to deliver justice and prosperity.

But please, don't use lies intended to undermine the principle of socialism.

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