Tag Archives: Karl Marx

The Vulgarity of Sylvia Nasar’s Beautiful Mind

14 Aug

Sylvia Nasar—author of A Beautiful Mind and, more recently, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius—was interviewed this past weekend by the New York Times Book Review.

This particular exchange made my jaw drop.

What’s the best book about economics you’ve ever read? The worst? 

There are so many great ones, but these are exquisite: “John Maynard Keynes,” by Robert Skidelsky. “Bankers and Pashas,” by David Landes. “The House of Rothschild,” by Niall Ferguson. “Economic Sentiments,” by Emma Rothschild. “Poverty and Compassion,” by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Worst? To be worst it would have to have had a wide following, because otherwise who cares? I suppose “Das Kapital,” by Marx; “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” by Engels; and “Mein Kampf,” by Hitler.

There you have it: Niall Ferguson is “exquisite”; Marx is placed on the shelf next to Hitler.  And since when, by the way, is Mein Kampf a book about economics?

Black Money: On Marxism and Corruption

4 Mar

En route with my daughter to the Purim Carnival, I stopped at my friends Greg and Manu‘s house. Manu’s mother Toshi is visiting from India, and we got to talking about corruption scandals there. Specifically, what people do with money they’ve gotten illegally. Toshi called it “black money”—a phrase I hadn’t heard before. Turns out, it’s a fairly common term.  Here’s one definition:

Proceeds, usually received in cash, from underground economic activity. Black money is earned through illegal activity and, as such, is not taxed. Recipients of black money must hide it, spend it only in the underground economy, or attempt to give it the appearance of legitimacy through illegal money laundering.

Talking about the kind of hoarding people engage in when they have black money—think of the wads of cash you see in Mafia movies—it occurred to me that corruption stands the Marxist theory of capitalism on its head. Or at least two parts of it.

But before I explain how, caveat lector: What follows is the speculation of an amateur. I’ve done no research on corruption, and the Marx I know is the Marx I teach. That is to say, beyond the incidental mention or allusion, I’ve never written about Marx or Marxism, and beyond some secondary reading, I’ve not done any research on Marx or Marxism.

So why do people hoard black money? For the obvious reason that they can’t deposit it in a bank, invest it, or use it for any kind of legal or illegal transaction that would bring it to the attention of the government.

This makes the person who deals in black money similar to a miser, and for Marx, the miser in a capitalist economy is an irrational actor. The proper way to make and accumulate money under capitalism is to put the money one has into circulation. In its simplest form, someone uses money M to buy commodity C and then sells commodity C at a higher price to someone else (Marx’s famous M—C—M′ circuit). As Marx writes in chapter 4 of Capital, Volume One, “It is this movement that converts it [the original money one had and then advances] into capital.”

Movement, or circulation, is the key to profit in capitalism. Where the process of satisfying one’s wants or desires has a discrete terminus—ending with the consumption or use of the desired object—the increase of profit, which depends on circulation, does not. “The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement.”

The miser, by contrast, operates under the delusion—though it’s only a delusion under capitalism—that the best way to increase his wealth is by taking his money out of circulation, hoarding it in a mattress or under the floor. Like the capitalist, he’s engaged in an endless quest for more money. And while he’s often represented in literature as mad—possessed by some malignant daemon, driven by some unfathomable end—Marx makes the point that his madness is purely situational, a failure to match his ends with his means. Unlike the capitalist, who shares the same goal of increasing his money, the miser simply doesn’t understand that best way to make money in a capitalist economy is to spend it.

This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

In corruption rings, men and women are as rational as any capitalist, but they’re forced to act with all the madness of a miser. That is, like the capitalist, they correctly estimate their situation, but their situation, unlike that of the capitalist, requires that they hoard. Even if they were to launder their money, which would put their sums into a kind of circulation, that circulation would not do what circulation does under capitalism: it might make their illicit funds clean, but it wouldn’t increase those funds.

There’s a second way in which corruption turns the Marxist theory of capitalism on its head. In his early “humanist” writings, specifically the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx was obsessed with the ways in which money and its pursuit distorted men and women. We pursue money in order to possess something, but ultimately money possesses us. It turns our weaknesses into strengths, our assets into liabilities. It makes us into what we are not, and makes what we are not into who we are.

The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers—the properties and powers of its possessor. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money….I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid? Besides, he can buy talented people for himself, and is he who has power over talented people not more talented than the talented? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money therefore transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Marx called this power of money to turn “fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence and intelligence into idiocy” the “fraternization of impossibilities.”

Money, in other words, constituted a profound form, or instrument, of untruth. It was the ultimate deceiver, the greatest liar, for it had the capacity to transform that which is into that which isn’t and vice versa.

In the case of corruption, however, money is the great instrument of truth, at least potentially. It is the most tangible sign of some ill-gotten gain, of some illicit or criminal activity. That is why its possessor must go to such lengths to hide it by hoarding or laundering it.

The possessor of black money has something for which he cannot account, at least not legally. If he deposits it in a bank, the government will ask how he came by it, and that is a question he cannot—or does not want to—answer. The law of equivalence in monetary exchange—the rule that for every dollar I possess someone has to have given up one dollar—ensures that the truth will out (a phrase, perhaps not coincidentally, deriving from a play obsessed with money and its equivalences). The equivalences that money engineers, which Marx saw as so much mystification, become in corruption scandals the sources of demystification. The M—C—M′ circuit, which Marx treats as a sign of an almost ontological disorder, a cosmic diremption, becomes, in the case of corruption, the sign, the guideposts, by which order is restored.

Skeptics will point out that Marx is talking about capitalism, not corruption (though it’s clear in his early writings that he sees capitalism as a mode of corruption, at least in the literal sense of the term).  But as Manu pointed out, corruption and neoliberalism—the ur form of capitalism—often go hand in hand. While corruption certainly preceded neoliberalism, it’s also part of the everyday life of neoliberalism.

In fact, one can posit an interesting relationship between neoliberalism and corruption. On the one hand, prior to the onset of neoliberal regimes, corruption is often used to justify the push toward privatization and marketization, on the assumption that the free market would not allow for the kinds of shenanigans that a state-run economy encourages and fosters. (Just think how the classic films about corruption—On the Waterfront, Serpico, Chinatown—color our view of institutions like labor unions and the state; one wonders if such films, particularly the later ones, didn’t ultimately have something to do with the conservative turn of the 1970s.) On the other hand, the loss of state-provided resources that neoliberalism entails often push men and women to make up for that loss through corruption. That, it certainly seems, is what’s happening throughout so much of the world where the state has been downsized.

As Manu also pointed out—this, I think, is an especially acute insight—the hoarding practices of corruption mimic an earlier mode of capitalism, mercantilism, where accumulation and wealth are achieved not through circulation but through stockpiling. I’m not sure where we want to go with that, but it does suggest something I’ve mused on before: neoliberalism doesn’t represent a great leap forward so much as a great leap backward.

So, some questions for you readers:

  1. Are there Marxist theories of or writings about corruption? What are the best ones?
  2. What kind of theorizations have there been about the relationship between neoliberalism and corruption? Am I right—remember, I’m just a piker on these matters—that there’s relationship between the two, or at least that there’s been an uptick with the shift to neoliberalism?
  3. This seems like the kind of thing David Graeber would have a lot of smart things to say about. Has he? (Haven’t read Debt or most of his other writings.)

Love for Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises

15 Feb

From Marx…

In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.

President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.

98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.

…to Mises

Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.

All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.

Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)

But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.

It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.

Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.

Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.

Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”

Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)

Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.

The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it.  Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”

Whenever I read a professional Chomsky-basher…

9 Nov

Whenever I read the work of a professional Chomsky-basher*—you know, the person whose passport to mainstream respectability is stamped with a Chomsky-is-the-most-dastardly-person-on-the-face-of-the-earth visa—or someone who attacks anarchists or leftists in order to maintain his or her liberal street cred, I’m reminded of this passage from Hannah Arendt:

In the following chapter, Karl Marx will be criticized. This is unfortunate at a time when so many writers who once made their living by explicit or tacit borrowing from the great wealth of Marxian ideas and insights have decided to become professional anti-Marxists, in the process of which one of them even discovered that Karl Marx himself was unable to make a living, forgetting for the moment the generations of authors whom he has ‘supported.’ In this difficulty, I may recall a statement Benjamin Constant made when he felt compelled to attack Rousseau:…”Certainly, I shall avoid the company of detractors of a great man. If I happen to agree with them on a single point I grow suspicious of myself; and in order to console myself for having seemed to be of their opinion…I feel I must disavow and keep these false friends away from me as much as I can.”

* This is by no means the most egregious case of what I’m talking about, but in March 2005, The American Prospect ran a cover with the title “Between Chomsky and Cheney.” As if the man who brought us the Iraq War and the man who opposed it were equivalent evils.

My Own Munchings (that’s for you, Mom)

18 Aug

I’m supposedly on vacation this week and next, yet I somehow find myself caught in the interwebs. Anyway, a few things of mine came out recently that you might have missed.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaOnce upon a time I wrote a book on fear. I hadn’t been thinking much about that book  in recent years, but Sasha Lilley, host of the fantabulous radio show “Against the Grain” out in the Bay Area, tracked me down for a one-hour interview about it. Turned out to be one of the most engaging interviews I’ve done, all thanks to Sasha’s excellent questions. It’s every author’s dream to be interviewed by someone like Sasha. You might want to check out some of her other interviews as well.

Fear: The History of a Political IdeaComing on the heels of our roundtable on Obama, the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on the debt ceiling crisis. I’m glad they did because it gave me a chance to step back from the immediacy of Obama’s presidency and take the long view.  The really long view. Like 400 years long. So, by way of Charles I, Louis XVI, and Marx, I reach the conclusion that:

Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

Which prompted a friend of mine to ask: “Did that really take 400 years to prove?”  Tough crowd.

Had I had more space and time, I would have liked to have explored the idea, inspired by a conversation with Alex Gourevitch, whose blog is must reading, that there is a fundamental tension in a democracy between funding government operations through debt or taxes. It’s an old debate, which goes back to Jefferson, Hamilton, and Paine (and before that to the debates between the court and country parties in Britain).  But the current crisis cries out for revisiting those old themes. Alas, no time, no space.

Ten Years On, We’re Still Getting Nickel and Dimed (and Still Can’t Pee on the Job)

9 Aug

Nickel and DimedOn the tenth anniversary of its publication, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is being re-released with a new afterword. Before reading Nickel and Dimed, I considered myself fairly well-versed in the coerciveness of the American workplace. But Ehrenreich schooled me in a whole other dimension of barbarism on the job: that, for example, in the United States workers do not enjoy a basic right, the right to go to bathroom when they need to go. Turns out, that’s a privilege, not a right. And it still is.

I reviewed Ehrenreich’s book, along with Jill Andresky Fraser’s White-Collar Sweatshop, in Dissent.  Based on the two books, I concluded thus:

Against critics—inspired by Michel Foucault—who focus on disciplinary institutions like prisons, hospitals, and schools, these books remind us that the workplace remains the central institution in most people’s lives. Foucault and his followers would have us believe that liberalism and the Enlightenment have vanquished the medieval world, and that discourses of freedom, reason, and individuality are the instruments of contemporary domination. But in the workplace, men and women are disciplined not by an impersonal panopticon but by the all-too personal figure of their boss. Liberalism is nowhere to be found, and Enlightenment might as well be the name of the utility company.

And thus:

Workers inhabit a world less postmodern than premodern, whose master theorist is neither Karl Marx nor Adam Smith but Joseph de Maistre.

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