Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Pilkington, Hegel and Rumba: The Quote.

"I can't call what David Harvey does pointless intellectual masturbation because what David Harvey does, does not feel good at all". (J. Bradford DeLong)

Economist, philosopher, journalist, op-ed writer, hedge-fund manager, think-tanker, and Pope, movie star, quantum physicist, hipster, statistician, rock god, Nietzschean Übermensch and _____________ (you fill in the blank) Philip Pilkington found the definitive reason why Marxism totally sucks and is out, all guns blazing, to set things straight:
"I'm going to here quickly lay out why the LTV requires Marx's materialist dialectic to function philosophically. In order to understand this we must first understand how 'value' functions in Hegel."
Like, wow. After that readers would perhaps have expected with trepidation a lesson, profusely supported on Hegel quotes, about how value really, really functions. Shock and awe stuff. Makes sense, yes?

You would have been mistaken. Philip's ways, like the Lord's, are mysterious: he quotes from Post-Modern historian Michael S. Roth, who explains French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève's ideas about what Hegel really, really meant. If you try it slowly you'll get the idea. Otherwise, try this diagram:


Readers may be asking now, why so convoluted? No idea. Ask Philip.

But here comes the best part: The Quote! I took a screen capture, so you dear readers won't accuse me of lying. Without further ado, in all its PoMo glory, I give you, The Quote:

(right click to open in a separate tab for a larger image)

So, "human desire is the desire…", tautology, anyone? "… for recognition (reconnaissance), which, according to Kojeve's Hegel, alone can lead to self-consciousness". Yadda yadda. "Desire, Kojeve says (following Hegel) is the presence of an absence". Evidently, right? It couldn't be the absence of a presence… Or just the opposite, or… something.

After half an hour struggling (Ah! Prof. DeLong, how I appreciate your wise words now!) I gave up and attempted to move on, just to stumble upon this:
"I highlight the above examples not because they are particularly important with regards to Roth's excellent analysis but because they serve as a simple departure to discuss a properly dialectical analysis of value as against a crude Marxist so-called "dialectical materialist" analysis" (emphasis mine).
Simple?! Not particularly important?!

A little digression: do you, dear readers, remember the episode where the Simpsons travel to Japan? At one stage, Homer yells in frustration "modafuka mi", which, although it may sound like cursing, it is not; the subtitles helpfully instruct us, is Japanese for "D'Oh!"

Well, that was my exact reaction. I too exclaimed "D'Oh!" in Japanese, even though I can't speak that language.

After that philosophical preamble and paraphrasing DeLong, Philip finally came to the "suggestion of a shadow of an argument":
"As we can see, for Kojève and Hegel value is attributed to objects due to our desire for them. This desire, in turn, is inter-subjective …
"This is similar … to that posited by … Thorstein Veblen … It is also similar to James Duesenberry
"It is, in its very structure, interdependent; that is why, for example, people are more inclined to buy Nike runners when they see Michael Jordon
[sic] wearing them".
Now comes the tricky bit. I suppose I should start my counter-argument, but… what kind of argument to choose? Something abstract wouldn't work any better here than it did in the comments thread to that post (more on this below).

So let me try, instead, a more concrete approach. Take something as unglamorous as toilet rolls: do people buy toilet rolls for the (A) "symbolic positions they [i.e. the toilet rolls, not the people, I think] occupy in the inter-subjective network of desires" or (B) because people just want to buy it after learning how Philip swipes his ass after taking a dump (which is the creative result of the "satisfaction of a human desire": to eat)?, or (C), well, people need to swipe their own asses?

The Michael Jordan's sneakers thing Pilkington periodically resurrects apply only to a limited set of goods. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious: it couldn't be otherwise! Not all final goods, or even consumption goods, can be luxury goods.  It doesn't apply to toilet rolls. What about intermediate goods? How do you price them?

But then, don't firms buy stuff? Say, does Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal buy iron ore because it "will win recognition in the eyes of our [i.e. their] peers"?

But Pilkington proposes his "Nike-Jordan theory of value" as a general theory of prices, in place of Marx's theory of value and of the marginalist theory of value. Veblen himself never meant his ideas as a general theory of value: how on earth would he explain prices? This was evident to Veblen, is evident to me and I bet is evident to the readers (well, maybe not to Will and "Felipe"), but, boy, is evidently news to Pilkington.

Moreover, why do employers pay their workers? Because they desire (as in The Quote) their staff and want "the loved ones to return the love"? That's called sexual harassment.

To make a long story shortish, after that pseudo-intellectual farce ended, a fairly abstract discussion between commenter Hedlund and Pilkington ensued. That's probably the most entertaining part of the post, but I won't chronicle it: check it by yourselves. The discussion soon became heated (almost unilaterally, I should add, with Hedlund mostly on the receiving end) and finally, Hedlund gave up, leaving Pilkington the final word:
"Insults and rudeness are not equivalent to Unhappy Consciousness and ressentiment. I might be an asshole; but at least I'm an epistemologically correct asshole. And I'll take that over being a cult follower and a shabby philosopher any day."
I disagree on his alleged epistemological correctness, but that won't surprise you, dear readers. What might surprise you is that I actually agree with Pilkington on something fundamental: he is a rude asshole.

He's also many other things, including an imbecile and a wanker, but you fill in
the blanks, _____________


Being totally serious now: this creature gives Post Keynesian economics a bad name, and that's something Post Keynesian economists cannot afford. You guys look the other way when he goes bananas with Marxists and mainstreamers, perhaps thinking that so long as he leaves you alone, things don't matter. But they do: he claims to be one of you and this is what people perceive.

Mark my words: you've been warned.


  1. Thanks for writing this, I thought I was alone in finding him obnoxious.

    1. Believe this, even if you should doubt everything else I write in this blog: I relate to that feeling.