Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Capital and Imagination

I really enjoyed the opening lines of something Yves pointed to this morning, an introduction to the work of Marxist Historian Robert Brenner.

For even the most ardent critics of today's distributions of power and wealth tend to accept reflexively the pervasive reality of prices, markets, and money. We cannot really see these institutions that govern our lives as anything other than givens, and thus our grasp of the role of place, of history, of culture and power in shaping these institutions has indeed almost entirely loosened.

In this sense, despite the ease with which one can poke fun now at theorems such as Modigliani-Miller and Black-Scholes that underpin orthodox modern finance theory, [1] the hegemony of capitalism is complete, to paraphrase Gramsci. We can no longer conceive in any visceral concrete manner of different arrangements ordering our lives. We may be aware that our financial system has failed us; that our ways of doing things threaten to despoil irrevocably the water we drink and the air we breathe; that hundreds of millions of people live in unnecessary misery – unnecessary because we have the technologies at our disposal to feed, clothe, and shelter everyone alive in reasonable comfort and dignity. And yet our proposed "solutions" amount to tinkering – a little more regulation here, a bit more welfare spending there, turning over governments and supra-national organizations to the high-minded who will see to good educations for all, strict environmental standards, and a gradual reduction in armaments.

The rest of the piece is also worth reading, and contains some interesting reflections on Japan's and China's paths to economic development.  I don't agree with all of it -- either in theory or in terms of the facts.  There's been no systematic decline in profitability as he suggests, and as Paul Krugman points out very well in Pop Internationalism, nations don't really compete the way companies do, so you have to be very careful in making that analogy.  I also completely fail to understand why Marxist thinkers can't get it together to differentiate between capitalism and markets, so as to make their best point much more clearly and without an inevitable stream of soothsayingly apocalyptic rhetoric one might expect out of the local fishmonger.  But at least we have here some of the imagination we so sorely lack.

If you want another example, you can also go watch George Soros, the only multibillionare Marxist I know of (depending on how you define Marxism).  Those who have no patience for how atrocious a speaker he is might prefer the short version, or even the really short version.

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