Home > political-economy > #OtMA: Wolff’s and Resnick’s “Marxian Interpretation” of the Crisis

#OtMA: Wolff’s and Resnick’s “Marxian Interpretation” of the Crisis

February 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have been contemplating these two paragraphs for a week now, because they seem to me to sum up the disconnect between Academic Marxism and the actual problems facing the working class today. The quote is taken from an article written by Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick in 2010, titled “The Economic Crisis: A Marxian Interpretation”.

Indeed, the repeated oscillations between the two theories and their associate policy prescriptions emerge also from a fundamental perspective both sides share. They largely agree that the market system is the best of all known mechanisms to allocate resources efficiently. Many would add that markets also allocate resources equitably. They claim that fully competitive markets enable those who contribute to wealth production to receive rewards (incomes) exactly equal to the size of their contribution. Where the two sides differ is in how to insulate and protect the market system from the criticisms and movements for state economic interventions that flow from citizens who suffer from the economy’s recurring recessions and inflations. Against the criticism and movement, one side argues to ‘‘leave the market alone so that it can find its way to a new, efficient, and just solution.’’ ‘‘No,’’ says the other. ‘‘We need state intervention to help guide the market’s search for a new and efficient solution.’’ Capitalism-defined as private enterprise and free markets-remains the optimum system for both sides in terms of wealth creation and social welfare.

Both sides thus share a profound conservatism vis-a`-vis capitalism, despite holding radically different views on the need for state intervention. The oscillation between them serves their shared conservatism. It prevents crises in capitalism from becoming crises of capitalism, when the system itself is placed in question. It does this by shaping and containing the public debate provoked by crisis-caused social suffering. When serious crises hit a deregulated capitalism, the two sides debate whether the solution is regulation or letting the system heal itself. When serious crises hit a regulated capitalism, the two sides debate whether the solution is deregulation or more or different regulation. This effectively keeps from public debate any serious consideration of an alternative solution to capitalism’s recurring crises: namely, transition to an economic system other than and different from capitalism.

The argument Wolff and Resnick are making is not particularly original; in fact it simply repeats, without any critical analysis, the received wisdom of the two alleged competing views of fascist state economic policy — Keynesian and neoclassical — regarding their policy differences. The Keynesian school wants to regulate the economy, while the neoclassical wants to deregulate it. The neoclassical school wants to leave the market alone, while the Keynesian school wants the state to intervene in the market.

Wolff and Resnick then tell us that the two schools share a common belief in “private enterprise and free markets”, that makes them conservative capitalist alternatives, because they prevent crises from developing to the point where “the system itself is placed in question”, “by shaping and containing the public debate provoked by crisis-caused social suffering”.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of this “Marxian interpretation” of the division within fascist state economic policy pundits.

First, even if Wolff and Resnick were correct that there is indeed two wings within fascist state economic policy pundits, it is not at all clear to me that these differences amount to “Regulate, regulate” versus “Deregulate, deregulate”. Wolff and Resnick never even bother to discuss whether there even is “private enterprise and free markets”.

Second, Wolff and Resnick argue these differences play merely an ideological function of containing the debate in society within certain tolerable limits. Their argument seems to suggest the point of the division itself is to serve as a safety valve that allows dissent from placing the “system” in question by redirecting public debate. Are there really no policy differences of material significance between the two schools? Is the debate over fascist state policy really all just misdirection?

Third, the last question gets to the heart of what is wrong with this “Marxian interpretation”: Wolff and Resnick offer an argument of sorts the explains the prescription differences within fascist state economic policy, but it does not explain fascist state economic policy itself. Why is there fascist state economic policy? Why was it necessary for the state to undertake a more or less continuous intervention in the economy since the Great Depression?

By contrast, Engels, speaking from the grave fully fifty years before the state undertook this continuous intervention in the economy, described it as the inevitable result of the working out of the historical materialist law of value:

In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into State property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication — the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.

If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies, trusts, and State property, show how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first, the capitalistic mode of production forces out the workers. Now, it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus-population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.

But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine — the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.

Not to be misunderstood, Engels emphasizes in a footnote that this intervention would mark a new and different stage for the mode of production and would not just be a policy preference designed to play some ideological function:

I say “have to”. For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.

Engels argues the continuous intervention in the economy forced on governments in all countries, beginning with the Great Depression, was the inevitable result of economic laws, having nothing to do with containing public debate within tolerable limits. He stated it would mark the displacement of the capitalist class by the state, which would from that point itself function as the capitalist exploiting labor. His argument suggests the debate between the camps within fascist state policy pundits is not merely playing the role of misdirecting public opinion. Instead, these two wings are arguing among themselves over the best policy the fascist state should adopt to maximize the exploitation of the working class.

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  1. internationalist
    February 15, 2012 at 3:59 am | #1

    I agree that Resnick/Wolff’s analysis is limited and confused, and it seems as if they’ve never actually read Marx, even though they call themselves “Marxian”. That’s why they call themselves “Marxian”, I think — they readily admit that they are realizing Marx’s ideas “in spirit” rather than to the letter; they acknowledge his regrettable mistakes with thinking that labor determined value or that socialism was “inevitable”, and put forth a new theory, which combines Marx’s best insights with the best insights of contemporary math-economics and/or academic philosophy. In other words, they understand nothing of Marx…they’re not really “Marxists”, that is, people who try to understand Marx by A) Actually paying attention to what he says and B) political action. The “spirit” in which they realize Marx is the spirit of confused liberal progressivism, not the spirit of Marx.

    I didn’t read the whole article, but this suspicion is borne out by what I skimmed, and what I’ve skimmed of Resnick/Wolff before. They have a preposterous, vague idea of “transitioning to a different class system” — not revolutionizing away the very existence of classes, but politely transitioning somehow or another to a different approach to class. They imagine that workers could become the board of directors — that is, things could be just like they were before, but now “workers” could get the positions instead of “bureaucrats”, rather than things being fundamentally different, as they would be if workers truly ruled themselves. Then they imagine that the workers would appropriate the “surplus-value”, and give it to themselves. Rather than revolutionizing away the very existence of surplus-value and value.

    Nonetheless, I disagree with you on one point. You’re bothered, I take it, because they don’t pay enough attention to how government intervention is just a way to enable capitalists (or one faction of capitalists) to make profits. They’re concerned just with how “Keynesian rhetoric vs. pure market rhetoric” as the commonly accepted form of “what argument about economics looks like” makes people not even conscious of alternative (“Marxian”) analysis of/solution for the current economic crisis. In that respect, you’re right. If you want to rally people with progressive tendencies to the revolutionary cause, it’s a good idea to work on this bit about capitalism’s need for government intervention. It’s helpful for people who deify the New Deal, or think Obama nationalizing health care would solve everything, or who think that capitalism is mostly good BUT there are bad greedy capitalists who should be regulated by benevolent dictators like Obama. It’s also helpful for vulgar libertarians, who deify capitalism — show them how the prosperity and productivity of capitalism as it presently is and ever was has been dependent on the willful assistance of the state.

    But it’s limiting to say that government intervention/Keynesianism is JUST an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s need to desperately leverage its privileged access to the power of the state to preserve its own existence. The Rooseveltian New Deal response wouldn’t have happened at all if there weren’t significant uproar from the working class. New Dealism was in one respect an attempt to appease the demands of the working class, like Resnick/Wolff say. Around Roosevelt’s time, the idea of communism was much more popular than it was now — the Communist Party actually had a meaningful number of members, unions actually mattered, etc. But CP America became a mouthpiece for the needs of Stalin; Stalin became a state capitalist and imperialist in temporary fellowship with Roosevelt; Stalin also became hostile to the rise of genuine socialism in other countries; and so CP America were encouraged to support Roosevelt, and whatever war-time consolations he may offer, and forget about all their radical demands for now. So began the proud tradition of confusing Rooseveltian interventionism with anything worth a damn for the working class. In this respect, it is absolutely right and helpful to characterize the Keynesian vs. pure market debate as existing to shut socialist ideas out of the discussion. Rooseveltianism convincingly gave off the appearance of helping the workers; it also was allied with Stalin and the CP; so it convincingly perpetuated the idea that “socialism” = “New Deal, but a little more” for a good 80 years so far. In this respect the Keynesian vs. pure market debate absolutely does exist to shut genuine socialism out of the debate. Granted, what you or I mean by “genuine socialism” is a long ways away from what Resnick/Wolff mean by it, but at least it’s a start, for some confused liberal/progressive academic or intellectual who reads them. Insofar as they succeed at starting a few people on the way to revolution, great; insofar as they don’t, nobody really gives a shit about them anyway. (Not even in academia — I think your idea of “academic Marxist” is restricted to a particular strain of economists and maybe now and then an analytic philosopher. There are much better ways to do Marx even within the abstract/theoretical limitis of academia.)

    • February 15, 2012 at 6:47 am | #2

      Thank you for your reply. I enjoyed reading it. It is a thoughtful presentation of ideas that deserve further debate.

      I want to be clear on one point: Engels’ argument is not “the state acts on behalf of the capitalist”, or “the state is an instrument of the capitalists” — his prediction argues the state IS the capitalist now. I think this has real world repercussions for historical materialist analysis. The idea that the state is the capitalist has consequences for the entire reproduction scheme of capital; it is not simply a political fact.

      I want to tentatively suggest that the category (k), which is capitalist consumption, is now almost entirely composed of fascist state expenditures. Capitalist consumption, as you no doubt realize, is the portion of the surplus product which does not reenter circulation as capital but is consumed unproductively by the capitalist. This means roughly 4 trillion dollars (this is only direct federal expenditures) each year are being removed from capitalist reproduction and consumed unproductively. (The figure is higher if we include the great mass of state and local expenditures plus indirect government expenditures.) This completely inverts the operation of the law of value, where the longer the social work day the less value created. The fascist state essentially is consuming the surplus product of an ever longer social work day, and simultaneously, creating paper profits for an unproductive stratum of coupon clippers. The labor time which, in normal circumstances, would be destined for capitalist reproduction is destroyed and labor power simultaneously devalued continuously.

      At least, I think this is how the scam works — and, I think, it will crash suddenly and without warning, like a massive global pyramid scheme. We historical materialist need to delve into this problem without the blinders of ideological mystification created by more than a century of indoctrination by the marginalist school. I am going to outline this idea more fully in another post.

  1. March 3, 2012 at 4:36 am | #1
  2. March 16, 2012 at 6:20 am | #2

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