Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dorman on Ideology.

One may learn something from Peter Dorman … in his better moments.

An example? "Taking a Stand on Standpoint" is a good post (mostly).

Prof. Dorman describes the relationship between one's position in the pecking order and one's beliefs system (ideology) in terms of proclivities or predispositions:
"Any differentiated social position, such as one’s national background, religion, subculture, age, etc., could be the basis for ideological proclivities. This wider conception of ideology begins to appear in Karl Mannheim and his program for a sociology of knowledge."

Not bad. However, Marx's conception was narrower, as Dorman again correctly writes:
"For Marx, the relevant identities were classes defined by their relationship to the means of production, such that class position predisposes a person to thinking about the world in one way or another."
Speaking more generally, one's material circumstances influence one's perceptions and beliefs. And that is true for everybody: for the riff raff and the elites. Put like that, few would disagree; indeed, some might even claim it's commonplace (until, that is, one sees mainstream economists explaining why they see things going so well for everybody and yet, those benefiting from that reject the economists' expert advice).

Is that to say that relativism in economics is inevitable? Dorman doesn't think so:
"The theory of ideology was never properly about what is true about the world; it is a theory of belief, not truth. In his better moments, Marx recognized the validity of any particular analysis of the economic order depended on objective criteria—logical consistency and the weight of empirical evidence."
I couldn't agree more. It's poor form to quote oneself, but in this case I have an excuse:
"MMT, in fact, does a lot more in my opinion: whatever the normative/advocacy considerations (which it seems are more important to you), it shows how a monetary capitalist economy works. It is what economists call a positive theory.
"From this you may guess an initial difference between you and I: I do believe one can understand reality. There is such a thing as positive economic theory. It's just that the economic theory sold as positive does not fulfil its specification. It's a case of misleading advertising (more on this below).
"Not everything, for me, is a matter of opinion. There are facts: one can have one's opinions, but not one's facts."
That was yours truly, a Marxist, defending Dorman's position -- before he wrote about it -- not against another Marxist, but against a post Keynesian. Biased perceptions are no excuse for not trying one's best.

Marx himself recognised the merits of previous economists, like Adam Smith and David Ricardo.


This is where faults appear in Dorman's good but brief moment. Judging by his post, for him that confusion between belief and truth is a phenomenon limited to "vulgar Marxism":
"It regarded ideological status as equivalent to truth status, or more crudely, claimed that there are no objective criteria for assessing truth claims, only the interests of different classes. If an argument could be shown to be consistent with proletarian ideology, it was 'wrong' from a bourgeois point of view and vice versa."
While "vulgar Marxism" cannot plead not guilty to that charge, and Dorman is in his right to prosecute it, his zeal seems unilateral -- ideologically so.

One doesn't need to appeal to an exchange between an otherwise anonymous Marxist blogger and an obscure internet post Keynesian to support my claim. There's plenty better evidence.

Take prominent post modern economist Deirdre McCloskey. Writing in her 1996 column Other Things Equal ("Keynes Was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too"), Prof. McCloskey describes Keynes as a sophist and his work as sophistry. I've written about this before (with relevant links). She aims to rescue the word sophistry:
" 'Sophistry' in Plato's sense means 'mere verbal trickery,' as against Really Knowing, the sort of thing a true philosopher Knows. (…)
"The contrary view, that of the sophists themselves (…) is that we humans must get along on exchanges of words, and had better learn to use them well."
It's hard to believe McCloskey fits Dorman's "vulgar Marxist" profile: a former assistant professor of economics from the University of Chicago, McCloskey gradually drifted to Austrian economics! Peter Boettke would be horrified to hear her described in those words; I suspect McCloskey herself wouldn't feel flattered, either.

Post modernists believe things are "unknowable", which is something McCloskey shares. Lacking objective knowledge, public debate is a matter of rhetoric and advocacy: the two areas Keynes excelled in. Post Modernism -- which was notorious a couple of decades ago -- is usually considered anti-Marxist, as Marxism, in their opinion, embodies everything wrong of Modernism.

I'm astonished Dorman seems to have forgotten all that.


Did Prof. Dorman commit the crime of "vulgar political economy" and is a "show trial" in order? Nah. There's a better explanation, I think: he is writing about things he knows little about and assuming unexamined stuff to fill in the holes. It's a matter of ideology: professors of economics aren't immune to that, unthinkable as it may sound:
"You’re not listening to me because you have not questioned a social framework in which my perspectives are ignored or even made unthinkable according to your unexamined assumptions."
Should he, at least, be placed in an Index of forbidden authors? After reading him, it would be contradictory to recommend that. Read him, but engage your brain: a pinch of salt is required. It may be a useful exercise in critical thinking and, occasionally, something good can come out of it.


  1. Thanks for the nice remarks. However: all vulgar Marxists deny independent truth criteria, but not all deniers of independent truth criteria are vulgar Marxists.

  2. Not at all, thank you for your comment, Prof.

    However -- like you say -- not all Marxists are vulgar Marxists. :-)