Friday, February 8, 2013

Marx is no Fred Astaire.

Fred Astaire, 1941. [A]
While I don't agree with everything he writes, I can honestly say I am a fan of Prof. Robert Paul Wolff.

His writings are interesting, accessible and enjoyable and he has an extraordinary sense of humour (often, self-deprecating, too).

Wondering about Marx's unusual literary style, particularly in Das Kapital, full of metaphors and literary allusions, drawing on thousands of years of Western literature, and abounding in religious echoes, Wolff concluded that it has not gained Marx many readers among later economists:
"Needless to say, this [Wolff's own view] was not then, nor is it today, the common view of Marx's ideas and their literary form. The majority opinion, as I observed in Moneybags [Must be so Lucky, one of Wolff's books], has always been what might be thought of as the public health or childhood polio interpretation of Capital. According to this reading, Marx as a young man contracted a nearly fatal case of the particularly virulent strain of Hegelism that raged pandemically throughout Germany during the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century.  Although he somehow managed to survive the illness, he was intellectually crippled for life. Hence it is simply bad manners to mock him as he drags himself painfully, awkwardly from concept to concept in the realm of Ideas. Rather we ought to marvel that he can traverse the distance from the premises to the conclusion of an argument, and we ought scarcely to expect him to ascend a ratiocinatio polysyllogistica like Fred Astaire tip-tapping his way up a flight of stairs. The British version of this rather curious literary theory, put forward most notably by the doyenne of English Marxists, Joan Robinson, simply has it that Marx was German, and hence was unable to achieve the clarity and simplicity of Locke, Hume, Bentham, Smith, or Ricardo".

Beyond the hilarity, what Wolff writes goes a long way into explaining this from an eminent economist like Prof. Mark Thoma (with whom I often agree, whose blog I visit frequently and, frankly, enjoy):
"I understand the idea the Marginal Product (MP) theory is an apologetic for the distribution of income within the neoclassical model. But for me, the important question is why laborers have not received the share of income that the MP theory of distribution says they should have received. What went wrong? Why, relative to the MP benchmark, did too much flow to the top, and too little to the working class (and it seems to me you have to go beyond skill-based technical change to answer this question because SBTC seems quite consistent with MP theory)? There may very well be a theory of exploitation here that a Marxist can love, but why not cast it in these terms, i.e. why not explain why income flows have been distorted? Why not base it upon a MP theory of value rather than the incorrect LTV, and then explain how exploitation -- distortions to income flows toward the top -- works within this framework?"
So, we have that MP is an apologetic for unequal income distribution and more importantly fails to explain why the labour share of national incomes flows to the top, but Marx's LTV and exploitation theories, which answer these more important questions, are incorrect, and should, instead, be based on MP.

And, let's be fair, neither is Thoma alone, nor is his case the most extreme; further, to his credit, he doesn't try to spin a clear contradiction into some "deeper" truth. God knows that many, after stumbling like that, don't have the moral fortitude.

And, no, before you ask, I don't find Marx an easy read. To me, it's a challenge that I try hard to face... That's the difference.

Damn you, Karl Marx! Why did you have to write so much and about economics, sociology, philosophy, political science, politics and history, at the same time, and, on top, sprinkle everything with artsy references, literary criticism and other heady stuff?


Image Credits:
[A] "Studio publicity portrait for film 'You'll Never Get Rich'." (And he means you). Public domain. Wikipedia.

Update:
Another comment on Prof. Wolff's work: "And Now for Something Completely Different", by Matías Vernengo.

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