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Is Marx (Ir)relevant?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st February 2012

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is an important figure in most social sciences. His works have been translated into several languages. One might not agree with his views, but he cannot be ignored. Some love him. A lot more hate him. Note that the like and dislike are not targeted at his works, which are seldom read, like most ‘classics’. Having recently read the first part of Theories of Surplus-Value, 3 volumes of Capital and a discussion with a friend who works closely with Indian realities has resulted in the following blog post.

Classical political economy, according to Marx, begins with William Petty in Britain and Boisguilbert in France and ends with Ricardo in Britain and Sismondi in France. In the Theories of Surplus-Value, Marx mainly scrutinises the works of these classical political economists. However, Marx does not provide an overall summary of their entire work but focusses on his central question: how did these authors conceptualise and comprehend value? Particularly, he discusses the why and how of classical political economists theorising of ‘appearances’ while forgetting the ‘essence’. In any case, Marx does not have the last word on the theoretical framework on the classical political economists. Hence, reading Marx motivates one to go forward and read the works of the classical political economists.

But, why read Marx or the classical political economists? They did not write in the 20th century. The world is different today. Facts have changed. Are their works relevant anymore? Firstly, ‘progress’ or growth of scientific theories does not follow a linear path; the path could be non-linear. The implication is that what was considered unscientific in the past can resurface (with adjustments) with a greater explanatory strength and challenge the contemporary ‘scientific’ theories, at least in principle. For institutional reasons, this might never happen; mainstream journals, scientific associations, university teaching and textbooks are, what I label, institutions in this context. Thus, a priori, there exists no scientific basis for not reading the works of classical political economists, Marx and other economists. Secondly, a distinction needs to be made between theory and fact. A theory is not (necessarily) a fact. A fact is never a theory. A theory is general while a fact is specific. Theory tells us a way of thinking about facts – in identifying them, classifying them and ascribing relations to them. The classical political economists as well as Marx theorised a capitalistic economy; in this regard, the rate of profit was taken to be uniform across industries through the process of competition. It is obvious and very clear that in a country like India, which cannot be classified as capitalist or non-capitalist (perhaps, 10% capitalist), using Marx’s theoretical apparatus blindly is going to result in perverse outcomes. The reason for choosing 10% and not 20% is because the share of the organised sector in the GDP is 10%. Maybe, Marx’s theory has certain insights to offer to the 10% of India. The remaining has been visualised as pre-capitalist. (Remember the mode of production debates.) But, one wonders whether this is the desirable (or even scientific) way of characterising the remaining 90%. When reading an author’s work, it is not solely for the theory. Often, it is for the method too. There has been and will be many books and articles on Marx’s method. But, whatever the agreements and disagreements are, there are always fresh possibilities. Given this, not reading Marx seems unscientific!

Often, the works of classical political economists and Marx are confined to the class rooms of history of economic thought (HET). Teaching their works in HET classes is not considered irrelevant. One reason for this thought arises from the linear view of scientific progress. The other, perhaps, has to do with the pride every generation possesses over their ancestors in terms of knowledge. Although, this ‘pride’ is not solely our own creation but it has been passed on to us. It is perhaps our responsibility to check whether we have been taught the ‘correct’ theories and facts about our world. This is all the more reason to assess the foundations of our current beliefs and theories. HET is one way to do this, in economics.

Marx has interesting insights to offer contemporary economics on property rights, labour conditions, economic crises, concentration of markets (inter-linked markets?) and so on. To conclude, reading Marx is important to an economist. Secondly, his observations regarding the ‘evil’ nature of capitalism can be addressed so as to improve the existing laws, institutions, markets, morals and values. After all, the objective and aspirations of scientific knowledge is to better the lives of all.

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Posted in Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, History of Economic Thought, India, Karl Marx, Theory of Surplus Value | 3 Comments »

Economics and Karl Marx

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 20th November 2006

History is economics in action.” – Karl Marx

The discipline of Economics has been improved upon by many individuals who have not been economists. One among them is Karl Marx (1818-83). Marx contributed to sociology, history, philosophy, literature and even arts. This article tries to bring out to the fore a few of his contributions and criticisms regarding Economics.

Marx’s theories revolved around the relationship between capitalist and worker. He posited that this relationship is an unstable one, as each sees the other as a rival. During his time, money and bargaining was associated with the Jews and they dominated the society. Marx suggested a reorganisation of society so as to do away with the evils of bargaining, which almost eventually resulted in the worker getting exploited.

The property owning middle class could win freedom for themselves on the basis of rights to poverty- thus excluding others from the freedom they gain- the property less working class possess nothing but their title as humanity. Such was Marx’s view of the exploited proletariat. Marx claimed that ‘total deprivation’ was a universal characteristic of the proletariat. [Singer 2006]

Marx began his critical study of economics in 1844. Marx criticised classical economic theories stating that they characterised worker as a commodity, the production of which is subject to the ordinary laws of supply and demand. [Singer 2006]

Marx contended that the main problems in the economy were caused due to the unequal ownership of private property. He wanted to abolish private property and to also regulate production. The solution he gave was ‘Communism’ in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ written jointly with Friedrich Engels. He also viewed the labourer and their labour as one. And one of the questions he posed was whether the labour was more important than the labourer.

Theory of Surplus value

Surplus-value is the social product which is over and above what is required for the producers to live.

The measure of value is labour time, so surplus value is the accumulated product of the unpaid labour time of the producers. In bourgeois society, surplus value is acquired by the capitalist in the form of profit: the capitalist owns the means of production as Private Property, so the workers have no choice but to sell their labour-power to the capitalists in order to live. The capitalist then owns not only the means of production, and the workers’ labour-power which he has bought to use in production, but the product as well. After paying wages, the capitalist then becomes the owner of the surplus value, over and above the value of the workers’ labour-power.

The capitalists may increase the amount of surplus value extracted from the working class by two means: (1) by absolute surplus value – extending the working day as long as possible, and (2) by relative surplus value – by cutting wages.

On Division of Labour

Marx talked about the ill effects of Specialization. He posited that increasing division of labour eliminates intellectual and manual skill and reduces the labourer to a mere appendage to a machine. [Singer 2006]

Looking at this statement, I feel it holds good even now. If a labourer could learn two or more trades, it is possible for him to perform efficiently in all the trades, except for the fact that, he would not be able to devote his entire time to a single trade. In this age, seldom do we come across people who are economists as well as physicists or historians as well as doctors, etc. ‘Specialization’ is said to be the need for the day.

Taking the case of a manual labourer in India, if he knows two trades, he would be better off. The labourer will be in a better bargaining position than otherwise.

Thoughts

Marx was of the view that we need to produce things for their use-value and not for their exchange-value. This is what he tried to achieve by Communism. But Communism rendered human inventions and innovations as useless. Though, people all had the basic necessities of life, they did not have the motivation or the zeal to bring out the best in them.

His insights of Classical Political Economy are laudable. A science progresses when it is criticized and when it gets defended.

Writings in Economics

1) Das Kapital
2) Critique of Political Economy
3) Grundrisse

References

1] Marx: A very short introduction-Peter Singer
2] Encyclopedia of Marxism

Posted in Communism, Economics, Friedrich Engels, JNU Essay, Karl Marx, Theory of Surplus Value | No Comments »