Monday, May 5, 2008

Marx misunderstood

A book review from the February 2008 Socialist Standard

Economics Transformed. By Robert Albritton, Pluto Press, 2007

Classical economics began with the publication of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations in 1776. It continued with John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, which was to remain a standard textbook on the subject for nearly a century. After the Second World War, neoclassical economics became the new orthodoxy in academia. The main difference with neoclassical economics is a much greater emphasis on mathematical formulas. However, what unites classical and neoclassical economics, together with all its various sub-divisions, is a theory of price with explicit or implicit policy recommendations for running the economy – unemployment levels, interest rates, cures for inflation, and so on. Where does Marxian economics fit into all this? The short answer is – it doesn't. Marxian economics provides a theory of profit and doesn't presume to tell the capitalists and their governments how they should run their system.

Profit-making is the life-blood of capitalism, though you wouldn't guess it from the news reports that economic well-being is threatened by a lack of "consumer confidence" – in other words, you're not buying enough stuff from the shops. Capitalist economics is there to explain that profit is untouchable as the reward for waiting for investments to pay off for the capitalists, and as a reward for risking their capital. But these are an attempt at justification of profit, not an explanation of the source of profit, which is what Marxian economics is concerned with. Waiting and risk in themselves do not create profit. There is only one way that vast personal fortunes and the social accumulation of capital can be satisfactorily explained: as the result of the unpaid labour of the working class being appropriated by the capitalist class in the form of profit.

And then there are the consequences of the profit motive: crises, recessions and mass unemployment; and all the other effects which create human and environmental degradation in its wake. Albritton doesn't deal adequately with any of this, which is unfortunate in a book which claims we can be "Discovering the Brilliance of Marx" in economics. Moreover, Albritton's understanding of Marx is undermined by his claim that we can "democratically manage markets so as to serve the needs of social justice." Firstly, Marx never made that claim and in fact specifically argued against the use of markets of any sort. Secondly, markets presuppose private or class ownership of the means of production and distribution. Students of Marxian economics will need to look elsewhere.


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