Sunday 2 August 2015

Mitchell on Left and Right.

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24 KJV)
Over the years regulars of this blog have seen many favourable references to Prof. Bill Mitchell, so I suppose nobody will be surprised to read that I'm one of his fans.

Prof. Mitchell has recently written several posts on the subject of the Left failings, perhaps as a sounding board for a book on that subject which he plans.

In this spirit I offer here a friendly critique to some of his ideas, particularly those in "There is Still a Meaningful Left-Right Distinction" (July 14).

Mitchell advances the following thesis:
"[T]he [Left and Right] categories remain influential and meaningful but are blurred through ignorance as to how the monetary system operates. Left-wingers fall prey to right-wing policies because they have bought the TINA myth. That is the only way one could explain the Syriza disaster, for example."
For what it is worth, I do not dispute the theoretical validity of MMT (of which Mitchell is a leading proponent) or its importance. Still, I cannot share Mitchell's thesis, particularly on the reason why pseudo-Left parties are a constant disappointment.

Mitchell starts his argument quoting from Knapp and Wright on the historical origin of the Left/Right distinction:
"France invented the terms Left and Right early in the great Revolution of 1789-94 which first limited the powers of, and then overthrew, the Bourbon monarchy. Those noble members of the first National Assembly who wished to limit the powers of the monarch moved to sit with the commoners on the left of the Assembly; those who still supported the absolutism of what was shortly to become known as the ancien re?gime sat on the right, as seen from the chair of the presiding officer."
That quote expresses graphically the distinction Right vs Left. We have two sides in dispute. To be a Leftie is to take one side, to move to sit with the commoners, to become their partisan.

To be a "Rightie" (if that word exists) is to move away from this side, to sit with the other guys, to play for the other team.

Prof. Robert Paul Wolff, another person I admire, put that:
"You must decide who your comrades are going to be in life's struggles. You must decide which side you are on. Will you side with the oppressed, or with the oppressors? Will you side with the exploiters, or with the exploited? Will you side with the occupiers, or with the occupied? I cannot make that decision for you, and neither can Smith and Marx and Durkheim and Freud and Weber." (here)
Like Wolff said, nobody can make that decision for you. But a decision must be made.

One may reproach Keynes many things -- and I, personally, do -- but one cannot reproach him for expressing his own personal choice:
"Ought I, then, to join the Labour Party? Superficially that is more attractive. But looked at closer, there are great difficulties. To begin with, it is a class party, and the class is not my class. If I am going to pursue sectional interests at all, I shall pursue my own. When it comes to the class struggle as such, my local and personal patriotisms, like those of every one else, except certain unpleasant zealous ones, are attached to my own surroundings. I can be influenced by what seems to me to be Justice and good sense; but the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie."
Now, I'm sure Mitchell doesn't need a Joe Bloggs, like yours truly, lecturing him on that. Still, when it comes to a Left-wing government, this is what he has to say:
"A left-wing government would not aspire to be 'pro business' but rather realise that the relationships between workers and capital are antagonistic and the state has to act as a mediator between the two if the workers are to access the productivity gains of the system and enjoy income security".
In other words, Mitchell's normative conception of a Left-wing government implies a rightward shift in its focus: from being a representative of the workers, their partisan, into becoming a mediator between workers and business; from sitting with the commoners, to sitting between them and the monarch; from a player, into a referee. It must serve both God and Mammon.

Mitchell surely would object to this, but one conclusion one must draw is that when in opposition a Left-wing party can afford "radicalism", when in government it must become impartial, pragmatic, centre, technocratic: Keynesian, in one word.

But -- other than in Keynes' over-inflated self-image -- is that level of detachment even feasible? Can one really serve God and Mammon?

In this context, seemingly, the criticism of Syriza and other pseudo-Left parties is not so much that they drifted to the Right, but that they drifted too much, beyond what's technically justified.


MMTers may object that the correct understanding of how a fully monetary economy works empowers government to satisfy both workers and business, at the same time.

Personally, I'm skeptical. The reasons are many, but this is not the place for them. Suffice it to say that it has not worked: if it had, Mitchell and other accomplished MMTers would not have to spend their time teaching the basics of MMT. As Chris Dillow put it:
"It's centrist utopianism - the idea that moderate and feasible tweaks within capitalism can generate big improvements."
After all, if as a matter of positive fact, the "relationships between workers and capital are antagonistic" -- as Mitchell correctly says -- what hope is there for mediation?


Prof. Mitchell, with respect, let's call a spade a spade: a Leftie, as a Leftie, cannot be "impartial", "technocratic", "unbiased", anymore than a "Rightie" could.

But she can try and she will disappoint, as Syriza did:
"I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-17, KJV)
So, there is no middle-ground: you cannot fix capitalism by applying a patch here and another there. Unfortunately, it's either God or Mammon.

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