In his latest essay (and companion introductory piece) Robin goes one step further: there are striking similarities, he argues, between the marginalist (also known as neoclassical) and Nietzschean theories of value. Among other similarities that Robin outlines, both theories are strictly subjective and both lead to highly hierarchical views of society.
Personally, I find his reasoning compelling, intriguing and full of important implications; but not being acquainted with Nietzsche's thought, I can't say whether Robin made his case beyond any possible objection. I'd recommend interested readers to read Robin's essay (warning: it's long, and it would be better to read the introductory post first).
Predictably, the essay generated a number of rather critical responses from the "conservative, centre right, libertarian" blogosphere. (See here, here and here, h/t Mike Norman Economics)
Much more surprisingly, perhaps, it also generated a critique from the "progressive" side of the spectrum.
Philip Pilkington ("a writer and research assistant at Kingston University in London" and frequent contributor of Naked Capitalism), after a brief acknowledgement of Robin's work (to the extreme of awarding Robin an interview!), goes on to say:
"His latest piece is grossly misguided and reflective of the fact that, when it comes to theoretical economics, academic critics on the left simply do not know their enemy [Austrian and neoclassical economics] at all".However harsh these words might sound, those who have followed Pilkington's output will recognize that he is often much less nuanced. So, that's the first surprise.
Pilkington then sums up his case:
- "Robin does not quite grasp the essence of either modern neoclassical or Austrian economics"; and
- Against Robin's thesis of a commonality between marginalist (particularly Hayekian) and Nietzschean doctrines, Pilkington asserts that "it is Nietzsche's critique of all theories of value and, by implication, all systems of morality that lay the ground for the most effective critique of the marginalist toxin".
"It would also appear that, lying in the background somewhere, Robin assumes that the only antidote to the scourge of marginalism is the dusty old labour theory of value - as problematic and discredited as it is. This is something of a guess on my part but if I'm correct it is but another indication that the left are fighting battles that have long since been thoroughly and completely lost".
To substantiate his claims, Pilkington first undertakes to show how Robin misread Nietzsche.
Robin quoted the following passage from Nietzsche ("The Gay Science", 1882), as evidence that the German philosopher's thought parallels marginalism:
"Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature-nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present - and it was we who gave and bestowed it".Robin goes on to compare Nietzsche's quote with an older quote from Menger:
"That was in 1882. Just a decade earlier, Menger had written: 'Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being'."As Robin indicated, one can find matching quotes from the other first-generation marginalists:
"Repeated reflection and inquiry have led me to the somewhat novel opinion, that value depends entirely upon utility. Prevailing opinions make labour rather than utility the origin of value; and there are even those who distinctly assert that labour is the cause of value." (W.S. Jevons, 1871. "The Theory of Political Economy", chapter 1, Introduction)At the risk of being repetitive: Jevons and Menger's works, both marginalist, predate Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" by some ten years.
Referring to Nietzsche's quote, Pilkington, who claims a deeper, superior understanding of the problem, says:
"In this passage [Nietzsche's] Robin sees an anticipation of the pseudo-subjectivist marginalist theory of value - that is: the theory of marginal utility."
After demonstrating his understanding of written language, Pilkington moves to show his knowledge of neoclassical economics:
"I shall not here get into too many concrete examples having provided them elsewhere before, but take the standard marginalist exercise in 'showing' that a perfectly competitive firm in a perfectly competitive market will always equate marginal revenue with marginal cost. (…)The "standard marginalist exercise" Pilkington is referring to is indeed standard: it's the problem of a firm's profit maximization.
On the one hand, it tells the student the morally purifying tale that they should make optimal use of scarce resources - this is based on the fantasy of 'utility'".
Beyond the reproaches Pilkington makes, on which I agree, the example of a firm that equates marginal revenue (i.e. $!) with marginal costs ($!) is equating dollar measures, not utility.
Pilkington, it seems, confuses the textbook consumer's utility maximization problem with the firm's profit maximization problem. It's telling that he seems oblivious to the difference.
But, for argument's sake, let's forget about all that. Let's assume Pilkington made his points: Robin misread Nietzsche, which Pilkington knows very well; furthermore, Pilkington has a vastly superior economic knowledge.
Pilkington justified the "pseudo" attached to the label "pseudo-subjective" marginalist theory of value, which he opposes, anyway. On top, there is no point in looking to the "dusty old labour theory of value" for an answer: it is discredited.
What next? How does one build a theory of value from Nietzsche's "true" subjective views:
"Nietzsche's subjectivist theories of values and morals are completely different. Indeed, they are quite the opposite. Nietzsche's theories, as those philosophers that developed them recognised well, were all about flux and change - the movement of people, their wills and their desires through time. These theories were about the mysterious forces that lay inside each individual, forces which they themselves do not properly understand, that push them to and fro, dictating their whims and desires. These forces, for Nietzsche, were above and beyond anything that could be objectively conceived in any rationalistic manner. Because these very forces determined our very ability to reason and hence our very impulse to try to determine things objectively, they could not be conceived of through the frame of objective knowledge. Such would be like an eye trying to look in upon itself".It falls upon Pilkington to answer this question.
Ultimately, it is regrettable that a writer who has gained some prominence by railing against mainstream and Austrian economics (rightly so, in my opinion, although apparently for all the wrong reasons) seems entirely unawares of how ironic this is:
"Robin assumes that the only antidote to the scourge of marginalism is the dusty old labour theory of value - as problematic and discredited as it is".Menger, quoted by Corey Robin:
"The most momentous consequence of the theory is, I take it, that it is false, with the socialists, to impute to labor alone the entire productive return."
We, the unwashed, the uneducated, the workers, cannot expect much from "progressives" like this.