Saturday 25 August 2012

Niall Ferguson Goes Red (!?)

or, two red-faced big-shot professors

Transcribing a debate with arch-conservative pop-historian, big-shot Harvard professor and TV celebrity Niall Ferguson, in apparent pseudo dialogue format, Matthew O'Brien includes the following bit:
"11. I [O'Brien] said the government had helped created [sic] our middle-class society thanks to pushing mass education.
"NF: Fact checked and--oh no! I really did get that wrong. It was the government that created the middle class, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge! Remind me to tell Karl Marx about this. It will come as news to him that, contrary to his life's work, the superstructure in fact created the base. (Come to think of it, this is going to come as shock to a lot of American liberals too. Imagine! The state actually created the bourgeoisie! Who knew?)"
(See here)
My God! Did Ferguson just go all Marxist!?

Attentive readers would be probably saying as tactfully as possible:
"Ah... sorry Magpie, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but... hmmm... maybe it's a bit too early to call Ferguson a comrade. Mmmm... It seems to me, he was sort of... uh... being sarcastic? And maybe he was also doing a bit of red baiting?"
That's when I fall down to my knees and yell, arms outstretched, my eyes looking at the sky, as if clamoring to the Almighty: "NOOOOO!"

My heart is broken. Imagine the disappointment: the darling of American conservatives citing Marx... not in support, but only to pour scorn into "American liberals".

But at least I am not alone! No siree bob.

Ah! You don't believe me, right? Only silly ole Magpie could fall for that.

Well, no. Not really. Ask UC-Berkeley big-shot Prof. Brad DeLong, scourge of Marx and conservatives alike:
"Niallism Watch: Robert Waldmann Wonders Why Niall Ferguson Believes in the Inerrancy of Karl Marx
"Good catch from Robert Waldmann. Perhaps--but probably not--there are still people on the PEN-list who believe that appeal to the authority of Karl Marx is an argument because he is inerrant. But, otherwise, Niall Ferguson is AALLLOOOONNNNNEEEEEE!"
(See here)

As a good logical thinker, but apparently bad reader, DeLong does not approve of Ferguson for his appeal to Marx's authority...


Without denying the existence of genuine, honest (hell, maybe even well-founded!), criticism, I've long suspected that most of the criticism against Marx is due to dishonesty or unadulterated dumbness.

I'll leave readers decide which category best describes Ferguson and DeLong.


Dear Prof. Ferguson,

I understand you are a professor, and not just any professor, but a Harvard professor. People pay good money to attend your classes, presumably to learn. Pretty please, with sugar on top, for your employer and students' sake, try to make it worthwhile.

Read your books before teaching: the bourgeoisie in Marxist-speak is defined by its ownership of the means of production (say, the guy who owns the factory). When you talk of the middle class, you are talking about income "classes" (those who earn more, but not much more, thanks to the policies you support, than the downright poor).

Let me spell it out for you: bourgeoisie is not the same as middle class. To make it even easier: you are confusing apples and oranges. The middle class has little to do with structure, base or Marx.

One thing is to be an apologist for the rich, another is to speak of things you don't know.


  1. You raise the possibility that Ferguson (a) does not believe in the naive base-superstructure model, but (b) thinks that an appeal to such a model ought for some reason to persuade Matt O'Brien. I really don't get that.

    Brad DeLong

  2. To answer your question: (a) is true (Ferguson doesn't believe in the base-superstructure model and doesn't really know what he's talking about), but (2) is false: he doesn't want to persuade O'Brien, he wants to embarrass him by accusing him of that most nefarious crime: being a commie.

    To his credit, O'Brien did not fall for it: "If thinking that public goods can help the economy makes me a communist, then I'm a communist. And so was Adam Smith." (In O'Brien's original post, just under the quote reproduced above)

    To explain this: what I say, and O'Brien understood, is that Ferguson was being sarcastic and calling O'Brien a communist; while Waldmann and you appear to have taken Ferguson's words as a "confession" of Marxism.

    Waldmann, who made the "catch", mistook Ferguson's comment and misinterpreted it as an appeal to Marx's authority, not as red baiting and sarcasm. However, the only commentator to his post also seemed to have noticed Ferguson's sarcasm:

    "Ah, but this is clearly Ferguson's way of telling leftist critics (such as that commie Krugman) to shut up because they are deviating from their marxist party doctrine. Watch as in the next round of ripostes Ferguson accuses liberals of hypocrisy (y u no follow Marx?)." (Under Waldmann's post)

    And in your own comment thread, some commentators also appear to have understood that Ferguson is not really claiming Marx in support of his position; and that, instead, he is insinuating that American liberals are communists:

    Cant remember (August 24, 2012 at 02:45 PM):

    "This is just misplaced sarcasm.
    "The real reveal is that Feguson thinks he has cleverly mocked the opponents barking at him by red baiting, but there are no reds to bait or people that get the mockery in america."

    To paraphrase "Cant remember": You and Waldmann did not "get the mockery".