Monday, April 17, 2017

Experiences of an Ageing Marxist: Commodities.


Although I often stray away from Marxism and write about other subjects, I'm writing this post as a Marxist, confident that Marxist readers have shared similar experiences. I address myself to them.

Although non-Marxist readers are welcome to read on, they may well find the subject uninteresting. If you are a non-Marxist you might want to skip this (trust me, I'll understand). If you decide to stay, do so at your own peril. :-)

As a Marxist I have found all sorts of critiques of Marxism, ranging from the evidently illiterate to those crafted to look scholarly, authoritative. My personal experience is that no matter the appearances, virtually all of them, without exception, reveal a scandalous ignorance of the matter.

Let’s deal with a real-life example (think of it as a case-study). Consider exchange value. Why should a unit of a commodity (a produced good, like a shirt) someone owns exchange in the market for X units of another commodity (like a loaf of bread) someone else owns? Note the words "commodity", "produced", "owns", "exchange", and "market": they are there for a reason.

Without going into specifics, a number of thinkers explained that rate of exchange on the basis of the labour time required to produce the commodities, plus other considerations. Since the 19th century the label "labour theory of value" has been applied to describe such approach.

We are talking about people ranging apparently from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in the west to Ibn Khaldun in the Islamic world.

Back in the west, Ben Franklin and William Petty approached those questions similarly.

Adam Smith, David Ricardo, McCulloch, Torrens, James and John Stuart Mill, and virtually every other early 19th century British economist did the same. As far as I know, they did something more: unlike Aristotle and the earlier writers, they all adopted the word "commodity" as a standard, to mean a good privately produced for commercial exchange in the market. They adopted standard terminology to avoid silly confusions (initiative commonly credited to Malthus).

Karl Marx also adopted that word "commodity" with that exact same meaning; so did the 20th century post Keynesian/Marxist Piero Sraffa. I am not sure, but I believe the French Pierre-Joseph Proudhon did the same.

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I went to some lengths on that because a young post Keynesian critic once lambasted Marx's LTV -- among all LTVs -- on the grounds that it cannot explain why he (the critic is a he) doesn't like red-headed women.

Yes, that’s right: women! (Discarding self-imposed courtesy, I point to that discussion)

Believe it or not, Marx missed the Fundamental Economic Problem: some bozo's sexual preferences. Oh, Marx, how could you (together with every single economist who ever lived) consider preferences as psychological data outside of economic theorising? How? HOW??

Adding insult to injury, once explained the most basic notion of commodity, entirely new to him, and the for him apparently earth-shattering revelation that women are not commodities, the critic not only refused to acknowledge his error, but had the gall to claim he had a broader criticism. Apparently, that Wunderkind would subscribe to the idea one doesn't need to know basic arithmetic to disprove Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

You see, this critic wanted to claim the high intellectual ground: he couldn't admit ignorance of what he criticised. His way out? To bullshit you to death, in a childish attempt to save face in public. To resort to cheer dishonesty, to double down.

I've found those same basic ingredients in a number of online economic discussions, often involving critics of Marxism, but sometimes involving other subjects (MMT, for example). Chiefly among them:
  1. critics posturing as competent but lacking a basic grounding on the subject they criticise (Dunning-Kruger effect),
  2. the stubborn refusal to acknowledge basic errors (and/or the unstated refusal to read counterarguments!),
  3. the claim that there is a "broader criticism" which you left unanswered,
  4. garden-variety dishonesty (arguments from authority, pre-emptive accusations of dishonesty among them).
My advice to younger Marxists engaging in this kind of debate: demand critics to define basic terms in advance. Don't let your questions go unanswered. Keep your eyes peeled for those "ingredients".

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