Monday, April 7, 2014

Was Marx Right? Are You?

Last week The New York Times asked Brad DeLong, Tyler Cowen, Doug Henwood, Michael R. Strain, and Yves Smith whether Marx was right.

The New York Times in its characteristically meretricious style:
"In the golden, post-war years of Western economic growth, the comfortable living standard of the working class and the economy's overall stability made the best case for the value of capitalism and the fraudulence of Marx's critical view of it. But in more recent years many of the forces that Marx said would lead to capitalism's demise - the concentration and globalization of wealth, the permanence of unemployment, the lowering of wages - have become real, and troubling, once again." (Emphasis mine)
Well, two can play that game, so why should the NYTimes' editors have all the fun?

Anyway, as David Ruccio observed, it's interesting that the editors of this most global of global newspapers "felt the need at this point in time to host a debate on the question 'was Marx right?' and, then, that most of the participants admit that Marx did in fact get a great deal right".

Ruccio is right: if Marx is so evidently dead, why must people keep killing him all over again?

However, "most participants" is not the same as "all participants". Brad DeLong didn't admit that Marx had anything right: he has long thought Marx was wrong, wrong, wrong, on everything. In fact, Marx is deader than dead (even alive he was already dead), so let's kill him once more, just in case:
"I have long thought that Marx's fixation on the labor theory of value made his technical economic analyses of little worth. … Thus he vanished into the swamp, the dark waters closed over his head, and was never seen again."
A few lefty bloggers took him specifically to task for that. Others penned a more general response to all five commentators.

In my opinion, by far the best takedown was a focused one (aiming at DeLong) due to the blogger colourfully known as Sandwichman.

Quoting Marx, Sandwichman shows that DeLong managed the remarkable feat of being wrong in every single case (which is quite an achievement, even for a history of economic thought buff as DeLong).

In particular, Sandwichman demonstrates that Marx did not arrive at the labour theory of value for "ontological reasons", as DeLong (who seems to be reading PoMo PoKe bloggers lately) would have us believe:
"Marx surveyed a century and a half of thought in classical political economy 'beginning with William Petty in Britain and Boisguilbert in France, and ending with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France' that dealt with the concepts of labor time and exchange value and their relationship. Of particular pertinence to refuting DeLong's ontological fantasy is Marx's discussion of the contributions of James Steuart and David Ricardo."
Matías Vernengo (one of Marx's modern Sraffian grandnephews), while more of a generalist, also noticed, like Sandwichman did, that in DeLong's writing, if not in his mind, Marx appears as the only classical economist who ever used the labour theory of value.

Moreover, Vernengo adds, DeLong seems to admire Adam Smith…
"And yet Adam Smith did use the labor theory of value, which should make his analysis of little worth, one would imagine. … One is forced to assume that [DeLong's] reasons for dismissing Marx are not related to the LTV, and are political, or are based in a misunderstanding of the LTV"

As DeLong, I too have long thought about these things and I have come to believe Vernengo has a point: something other than academic reasons must be behind DeLong's evident bad blood towards Marx.

To the two alternative explanations Vernengo advances, I think I can add a third, rather obvious, one.

The elephant in the room, the one nobody (not even Vernengo) seems to notice, is Marx's Jewish background, which never endeared him to the powers that be. For one, it didn't endear him to John Maynard Keynes. His lordship, it turns out, had a well-documented but seldom acknowledged anti-Semitic streak, which, together with his also well-documented but seldom acknowledged elitism, apparently were enough to make of Marx and his work the targets of Keynes' disparaging, but not enough to induce his lordship to read Marx.

Would it be possible that in that DeLong follows Baron Keynes?
"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

Finally, Michael Roberts, one of Marx's TSSI grand-kids, also adopted a generalist approach and briefly replied to the five original commentators, plus a particularly incompetent onlooker who decided to crash the party without being invited.

You can't blame that party crasher, though. After all, is there anything more fun and safe than bullying a dead Jew?


  1. Your comment on Keynes is utterly wrong.
    It is true that Keynes was "alergic" to Marx, but not because Marx were Jewish.
    As a matter of fact, another Jewish in Cambridge as Sraffa and Kahn where very close friends of "his lordship"

  2. Is it wrong, then?

    Keep an eye on this blog, because it seems I'll be forced to go further into this.