Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Creature from the DeLong Lagoon

Professor Brad DeLong:
I have long thought that Marx's fixation on the labor theory of value made his technical economic analyses of little worth. Marx was dead certain for ontological reasons that exchange-value was created by human socially-necessary labor time and by that alone, and that after its creation exchange-value could be transferred and redistributed but never enlarged or diminished. Thus he vanished into the swamp, the dark waters closed over his head, and was never seen again.
Brad forgot to add that Karl Hussein Marx was born in KENYA

Brad DeLong or Karl Marx?
Just a few pages from Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy are enough to show that DeLong's "long thoughts" about Marx must have emerged from a swamp with waters darker than anything even the creature from the black lagoon would deign to wallow in. In a section titled "Historical Notes on the Analysis of Commodities" Marx surveyed a century and a half of thought in classical political economy "beginning with William Petty in Britain and Boisguillebert in France, and ending with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France" that dealt with the concepts of labor time and exchange value and their relationship. Of particular pertinence to refuting DeLong's ontological fantasy is Marx's discussion of the contributions of James Steuart and David Ricardo. 

In Marx's account, Steuart was the first to make a "clear differentiation between specifically social labour which manifests itself in exchange value and concrete labour which yields use values..."  Furthermore, Steuart was "interested in the difference between bourgeois labour and feudal labour," and consequently shows "that the commodity as the elementary and primary unit of wealth and alienation as the predominant form of appropriation are characteristic only of the bourgeois period of production and that accordingly labour which creates exchange-value is a specifically bourgeois feature [emphasis added]." In other words, the relationship between labour time and exchange value was viewed by Steuart (to Marx's approbation) as historically contingent, not as some ontological certainty, as Delong claims.

Ricardo, according to Marx, "neatly sets forth the determination of the value of commodities by labour time, and demonstrates that this law governs even those bourgeois relations of production which apparently contradict it most decisively." Does this imply that after its creation this exchange value is "never enlarged or diminished," as DeLong asserts? Marx notes the following qualification by Ricardo: "the determination of value by labour-time applies to 'such commodities only as can be increased in quantity by the exertion of human industry, and on the production of which competition operates without restraint.'"

Whatever one thinks of the labour theory of value, DeLong's claims about "Marx's 'fixation'" are so utterly groundless and fantastic as to make one suspect that perhaps Brad mistakenly thought his commentary was scheduled to be published on April 1st. Especially foolish is his account of Marx's alleged beliefs about the impossibility of re-employment of workers displaced by machinery:
Karl Marx in his day could not believe the volume of production could possibly expand enough to re-employ those who lost their jobs as handloom weavers as well-paid machine-minders or carpet-sellers. He was wrong.
Obviously DeLong is not aware that Marx devoted a section in Capital to precisely this question, "The theory of compensation as regards the workpeople displaced by machinery," the conclusions of which are more in accord with Keynes's 1934 radio address, "Is the Economic System Self-Adjusting?" than with DeLong's foolish caricature:
The labourers that are thrown out of work in any branch of industry, can no doubt seek for employment in some other branch. If they find it, and thus renew the bond between them and the means of subsistence, this takes place only by the intermediary of a new and additional capital that is seeking investment; not at all by the intermediary of the capital that formerly employed them and was afterwards converted into machinery.
Marx reserves his most caustic retort to "the theory of compensation," however, for the first paragraph of the succeeding section:
All political economists of any standing admit that the introduction of new machinery has a baneful effect on the workmen in the old handicrafts and manufactures with which this machinery at first competes. Almost all of them bemoan the slavery of the factory operative. And what is the great trump-card that they play? That machinery, after the horrors of the period of introduction and development have subsided, instead of diminishing, in the long run increases the number of the slaves of labour!
Was Marx wrong, yet again? I leave the last word to DeLong who smugly, albeit inadvertently, confirms Marx's prediction to the letter by playing what he imagines is the great trump-card of the worst-case scenario:
The pessimistic view is that some pieces of (3)* will be (a) mind-numbingly boring while (b) stubbornly impervious to artificial intelligence, while (4)** will remain limited and for the most part poorly paid. In that case, our future is one of human beings chained to desks and screens acting as numbed-mind cogs for Amazon Mechanical Turk, forever.
*"use our hands, mouths, brains, eyes, and ears to make sure that ongoing processes and procedures stay on track"

**"via social reciprocity and negotiation try to keep us all pulling in the same direction"


Magpie said...

The photo has this caption: "Brad DeLong or Karl Marx?"

Well, I'm not sure it is DeLong... I mean, it's at least 30-40 kg underweight. :-)


DeLong and his ilk write this kind of crap because they have impunity: with few exceptions, like yourself, nobody says anything, either because they don't know any better, because they think it's useless or because, even if they know it's false, they still hate Marx, so WTF.

If you ask me, there's more than a little hidden anti-Semitism in that shit.

Wallfly said...

I assume you are probably right about DeLong's obtuseness on this. I am not sure it particularly matters though. While Marx had many crucial insights (or syntheses) concerning social and economic life, I don't think there is such as thing Marxist economics. A la Mike Beggs, I think Capital it is a brilliant critique of 19thC political economy but that is not the same thing a modern econ (which to some extent shared some of Marx's critique - or at least dissatisfaction-of earlier p.e). I think it would be much more useful to use the term socialist or progressive economics which would be heavily informed by Marxian ideas and values and stop pretending there was a well developed alternative economic science that sprang out of the 1860's. Modern heterodox econ people who even call themselves Marxist seem to refer to Keynes as much as Marx (and with good reason). Defending Marx's ideas/values is great, defending Marxism as a coherent, philosophically superior system is mostly useless (not that I think you were doing that in this post). Best -pjm.