Friday 7 June 2019

Getting all Tied Up (5)

This series considers Paul Mason’s “Risks are ‘a Thing’… and so is the Death of Capitalism”, a critique of MMT.

In the previous post I argued that Mason’ s choice of Prof. Ferguson’s views as emblematic of the theoretical differences between Marxism and MMT was problematic.

Thus, so far in this series I’ve focused on things I believe Mason got wrong. But it’s time to go into the things he got right.

There may not be a theoretically “irreconcilable split” between Marxism and MMT, as Ferguson claims. However, to me and in terms of policy recommendation, things look different. Mason pointed to this passage in Ferguson’s article
“Rather it [MMT] implicitly de-prioritizes gravity’s causality in political and economic processes, showing how the ideal conditions the real via money’s distributed pyramidal structure”.
That was a good choice.


In Ferguson’s assessment (evidently intended as a provocation) a key difference between Marxism and MMT is that the former “adopted a literal and curiously pious relation to physical gravitation”, which the latter eschewed. To ensure his readers could not miss it, his article contains several references.

Mason certainly didn’t miss that and turned it against MMT (i.e. “MMT looks like an anti-gravity machine”) but did not dispute the part referring to Marxism. That was unfortunate because it misses an opportunity to facilitate a more correct understanding of Marxism and where it differs from non-Marxist thought.

If one pays attention (perhaps a little more than Ferguson did), one finds strewn in Marx’s writings (more so in Engels’) references to many scientific fields, including the natural sciences; among them, Marx’s references to Newtonian gravity.

By 1867, when Das Kapital was published, Newton’s mechanics and gravitation were almost two centuries old (Principia Mathematica appeared in 1687) and, therefore, no longer the preserve of the scientific avant garde, but part of the knowledge expected of educated laypeople.

In fact, at least another educated layman had already referred to gravitation, in ways surprisingly similar: Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776). I’ve written about that, incidentally. The official stance among historians of economic thought (HET) is that those references, in Smith’s case, did not imply he “adopted a literal and curiously pious relation to physical gravitation”. The term “gravitation metaphor” may not be popular outside of the HET community, but it isn’t entirely unknown either.

It’s not obvious to me why the same kind of reference should denote in Marx’s case anything deeper than that, particularly when Marx never made a secret of Smith’s influence on his work.

Although perhaps he should have been much more cautious, one may not fault Ferguson for not being current on points of HET, maybe arcane. One should be grateful, I suppose, he surprisingly never remarked on Marx’s “chemistry”, when Marx himself referred to empirical chemical formulae.

More disappointing is that Prof. Ferguson, whose field of expertise is the arts, seemed to have difficulty identifying a metaphor.


It’s puzzling that critics of Marxism go to great lengths attempting to find evidence of a hidden and perhaps unconscious intellectual influence of Newton on Marx, when Marx, who never himself acknowledged said influence, was greatly and famously impressed by his contemporary Charles Darwin, the natural historian and naturalist who (together with Alfred Russell Wallace) discovered evolution by natural selection and whose On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Marx openly acknowledged as influential: it provided “the basis for our views”.

Indeed, in the preface to the first German edition of Das Kapital (1867) Marx warns his readers
“To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.” (emphasis added)
This is my reading and, therefore, I can’t force it on other Marxists (Paul Mason included): the job of Marxists is primarily to observe reality and prepare -- to the extent preparation is possible -- for that evolution to socialism and communism. That’s our final goal. Intervention is secondary and only to facilitate, accelerate said evolution. Our job, in other words, is not to find solutions for the problems of capitalism, because those problems are inherent to (and unsolvable within) it; at best symptoms can be ameliorated at the cost of delaying a cure.

If readers grant me that, however, they’ll have to accept that that’s not how non-Marxists, especially non-Marxist economists, see their job. They try to find solutions to capitalism’s problems, under the assumption definitive solutions are possible: for them, capitalism is perfectible. Their policy interventions’ goal: to perfect capitalism.

That’s a Sisyphean task, Marxists would counter: beyond completion and human strength. Neither Newton nor Darwin would have even dreamed -- like non-Marxist economists do -- that human efforts can twist the path of planets or direct evolution.

This may sound tendentious, but Marxists are humbler than that, I think.

Some may disagree (I am thinking of those more radical among MMT founders), but I believe the views Irving Fisher expressed in his address as president of the American Economic Association and published in 1919 apply singularly well to Left-leaning non-Marxist economists, particularly those acknowledging Keynes’ authority (including MMTers):
“If we [economists in public service] jealously guard our independence and impartiality we shall gain for our profession the enviable position of being the logical arbiters of the class struggle now beginning -- arbiters which both sides can trust. We may, and should, take sides, but only as a just judge takes sides when he renders his decision and only after a fair weighing of the evidence.”

Mason (and indirectly Ferguson) is right. There is a difference between Marxism and MMT. But it is not so much a matter of philosophy, but of goals.


  1. Hi Magpie,

    Kaivey at Mike Norman Economics just linked to an interview of Bill Mitchell in Morning Star (June 3, 2019) that I had not noticed before. In it, Mitchell describes how surplus value is created by surplus labor in production, at which point he is asked point blank:

    "So MMT accepts the labour theory of value?"

    Mitchell's response:

    "Nothing we have done in Modern Monetary Theory, a macro theory, is inconsistent with it. That’s not to say that MMT is Marxist or of Marxist origin: of the core developers most don’t come from Marx, I’m the only one who does, they mostly come out of Keynes. But MMT is not inconsistent with Marx."

    FWIW, and as you know, I share this view.

    PS: Really appreciating all your recent good work on the climate crisis.

  2. Hi Pete

    Thanks, Pete, for the kind words and for the quote. And apologies for not replying earlier. I've had my plate full these last few days.

    I didn't know of that interview either but I'm going to give it a good, careful read. And, for what it is worth, like yourself, I can't see any fundamental inconsistency between Marx and MMT (much to the chagrin, I imagine, of many rabid anti-Marxist MMTers and fellow travellers, at one hand, and obtuse Marxists, at the other).

    I regret you closed the comment threads of your own blog, although I suppose you did that for a good reason and I can even imagine the reason. I am sorry if in any way I contributed to that.

    But I do urge to keep posting, even if you don't get much feedback.

  3. Thanks for your response, Magpie.

    Please don't think you contributed in any way to the closing of the comments. Completely the reverse.

    Your comments, along with the comments of a handful of other regular contributers, were the biggest reason to keep the comments open. Your contributions were always highly valued by me.