Nitzan and Bichler on “critical discourse” and anti-”economism”

May 22, 2009 by  

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Two leftist political scientists, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, have a new book out entitled  “Capital as Power: A study of order and creorder“  (London and New York:  Routledge, 2009).   I think I’ll disagree with a whole lot of what they say, but their scathing indictment of much “critical discourse” and anti-”economism” on the left (pp. 3-4) is right on the mark, in my view:

“many contemporary critics of capitalism seem to believe that they can challenge this social order without ever asking how it operates, let alone why.

“With some obvious exceptions, present-day leftists prefer to avoid ‘the economy’, and many are rather proud about it. To prioritize profit and accumulation, to theorize corporations and the stock market, to empirically research the gyrations of money and prices are all acts of narrow ‘economism’.  To do these things is to fetishize the world, to conceal the cultural nuances of human consciousness, to prevent the critic from seeing the true political underpinnings of social affairs. Best to leave them to the dismal scientists.

“And, so, most self-respecting critics of capitalism remain happily ignorant of its ‘economics’, neoclassical as well as Marxist. They know little about the respective histories, questions and challenges of these theories, and they are oblivious to their triumphs, contradictions and failures. This innocence is certainly liberating. It allows critics to produce ‘critical discourse’ littered with cut-and-paste platitudes, ambiguities and often plain nonsense. Seldom do their ‘critiques’ tell us something important about the forces of contemporary capitalism, let alone about how these forces should be researched, understood and challenged.

“Most importantly, though, this stale context conditions students to stop asking ‘why?’”

Most of us in Marxist-Humanist Initiative coexisted, in a manner of speaking, with such currents for a long or very long time, and have only recently extricated ourselves from that environment.  I think we need to go deeply into the factors that have caused “critical discourse” and anti-”economism” to became predominant on the Left, and to such a degree that they affected, and infected, an ostensibly Marxist-Humanist organization.  But also, frankly, I think we need to examine the ways of speaking and categorizing to which we’ve become accustomed, which can give the impression that Marxist-Humanism has an affinity with, or even that it’s an instance of, such “critical discourse” and anti-”economism.”  (After all, we do champion critique, and we’re anti-economist! :-) – but can we find a way to formulate this so that it doesn’t capitulate to regressive currents of thought?)


4 Comments on “Nitzan and Bichler on “critical discourse” & anti-”economism”"

  1. 1kmb said at 5:45 pm on May 22nd, 2009:Nitzan and Bichler are very critical of Marx’s value theory (or what they claim to be is Marx’s VT), which they completely reject. In their most recent paper, Contours of Crisis II: Fiction and Reality http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/258/ they discuss this once again at length. Their main line of attack is the problem of “reducing” skilled labour to units of abstract labour, which they state is impossible, thus Marx’s value theory is fundamentally flawed, as its basic unit cannot be measured. (According to them)

    Quote: “Marx treated his own fundamental quantity with much more respect. Unlike the neoclassicists, he truly believed that a unit of abstract labor could be measured – per haps by equating it with a unit of unskilled labor. “A commodity,” he asserted, “may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone.”
    Moreover, in his view, this benchmark unit could be readily observed in the Ameri-
    can free market, where “the abstraction of the category ‘labor’, ‘labor in general’,
    labor sans phrase, the starting point of modern political economy, becomes realized in practice.”15

    The problem with these statements is that, even if we could somehow know what abstract labor looks like – a yet-to-be substantiated proposition – there is still no
    way to convert different forms of labor to units of abstract labor, however measured.
    And, indeed, in practice, neither Marx nor his followers have ever been able to calcu-
    late the abstract labor equivalent of an hour of an English foreman, a U.S. electrical
    engineer, a Japanese brain surgeon or a South African truck driver. [16]

    Needless to say, this inability to measure utils and abstract labor is a make-or-
    break junction. If these indeed are invisible, not to say logically impossible, units,
    they cannot be used to measure the quantity of commodities – including the quantity of “real” capital. And if the magnitude of “real” capital is unknown if not unknow- able, what then is left of the mismatch thesis?”

    Your thoughts on that?

  2. 2Andrew Kliman said at 9:58 pm on May 22nd, 2009:Hi kmb,

    I think this is much ado about very little. I’ve appended a rather long passage from something I (co-)wrote a while back (Ted McGlone and Andrew Kliman (moi), “The Duality of Labour,” in _The New Value Controversy and the Foundations of Economics_, edited by Alan Freeman, Andrew Kliman, and Julian Wells. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2004).

    The first part explains why I think that N&B are confusing and conflating abstract/concrete labor and simple/complex labor. But that’s not the main problem here. The main problem is that they’re blowing up a garden-variety measurement problem into a huge theoretical, make-or-break problem. See especially the two sentences near the end, where we write:

    “government statisticians attempt to quantify how many cars of some base year are equivalent to one 2001 car of presumably higher quality. Guesswork and arbitrary assumptions are involved, but the measurement difficulties cause no one to believe that this calls into question the idea that ‘cars’ exist, as do ‘autoworkers’ who produce them, or the idea that the number of cars increases if more are produced than are consumed.”

    o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o

    Separability and Priority

    In this section, we will show that complex and simple labour are both abstract labour, and that the reduction of complex to simple labour thus presupposes the independent and prior reduction of concrete to abstract labour.

    Imagine two kinds of weaving-labour, simple and complex, and assume one can somehow determine that each hour of the complex counts as equal to 2 hours of the simple. Suppose that 10 hours of simple weaving-labour are extracted, and 3 hours of the complex. Then, by reduction, the amount of simple weaving-labour = 1 × 10 + 2 × 3 = 16.

    Similarly, assume that one can somehow determine that each hour of complex tailoring-labour counts as equal to 4 hours of simple tailoring-labour, and that 12 hours of the simple and 5 hours of the complex are extracted. Then, by reduction, the amount of simple tailoring-labour = 1 × 12 + 4 × 5 = 32.

    Now, how much total labour is done? We can’t add 16 simple weaving-hours to 32 simple tailoring-hours – they are concretely different. We can’t say that twice as much simple tailoring-labour is done as simple weaving-labour – again, we’d be comparing apples and oranges. Nor can we say that the complex tailoring-labour is twice as complex as the complex weaving-labour, or even that an hour of the simple weavers is equal to an hour of the simple tailors.

    The only way to make any quantitative comparison across industries is if we are already talking about abstract labour. If it is the case, for instance, that 1 hour of simple-weaving labour and 1 hour of simple tailoring-labour each equal 1 hour of simple abstract labour, then the weavers do 16 hours of abstract labour, half as much as the 32 hours extracted from the tailors, the total labour extracted is 48 hours, and so on.

    This example shows clearly that the concrete/abstract question is separate from the complex/simple question. Even after one knows the amounts of simple weaving-labour and simple tailoring-labour extracted, one doesn’t have a clue as to the amounts of simple general labour, ‘labour-as-such’, extracted – unless the weaving and tailoring have both been already reduced from concrete to abstract.
    The example also shows that concrete/abstract is ‘prior to’ complex/simple in the sense that one needs the former reduction to say anything about the latter across different kinds of concrete labour, but the converse is not true. When we refer to simple and complex labour, we do not refer to simple weaving-labour or complex tailoring-labour, and so on, but to simple and complex labour-as-such. The commensuration of labours that produce different use-values is already presupposed. When we computed the amounts of abstract labour extracted, however, although we needed to presume a knowledge of skill differences within each industry, we did not first have to reduce complex labour-as-such to simple labour-as-such.

    Complex labour can be compared to, and thus reduced to a multiple of, simple labour, only because they lack any qualitative difference, i.e., only because both are abstract labour. As Marx ([Capital, Vol. 1, Chap. 1]) noted, ‘the magnitudes of different things only become comparable in quantitative terms when they have been reduced to the same unit’.

    Yet although the labours of, say, a doctor and a janitor clearly differ, can’t we nonetheless compare them – for instance, by noting that the former is more skilled? Let us see. Certainly their labours are different insofar as the concrete purposes and nature of their activities differ. Certainly the doctor differs from the janitor, in part because the doctor’s labour-power is more skilled, if skill were to be measured in terms of necessary training-time. When, however, we consider doctoring-labour and janitoring-labour as labours of different kinds, it is meaningless to ask whether one is more skilled or complex than the other. Like can only be compared with like.

    To compare the relative complexity of these two labours, their qualitative differences must thus be set aside. Social relations must also be such that it is meaningful to reduce the two labours to something which is neither the one nor the other, but a ‘third thing’ that is common to both of them, labour in the abstract. (This argument, of course, is virtually identical in structure to Marx’s ([Capital, vol. 1, Chap. 1]) derivation of value as the ‘third thing’ or ‘common element’ to all commodities. Immediately following it, he indicates that abstract labour is derived in the same way, as the element common to all particular types of labour.)

    Did Marx Need to Reduce Complex to Simple Labour?

    The above discussion has made no pretence of having provided a quantitative rule for the reduction of complex to simple labour. It has, however, provided a conceptual basis for specifying such a rule, by clarifying that both complex and simple labour are abstract labour and that the reduction of complex to simple labour presupposes the separate and prior reduction of concrete to abstract labour.

    By disentangling it from the concrete/abstract issue, the above discussion has also helped put the complex/simple issue in proper perspective. Marx did not provide a rule to solve the latter reduction. Much of the literature suggests that many of the conclusions of Capital are called into question until and unless such a rule is found. Because real-world labouring activities are carried out by workers of different degrees of skill, while the value categories of Capital are particularisations of the category of abstract labour, Marx’s value analysis of capitalism is said to lack a real-world foundation in the absence of a determinate complex-to-simple labour reduction. Were that the case, we agree that it would indeed be possible to accept Marx’s abstract labour reasoning only after such a reduction rule were found.

    Once the two reductions are understood as being distinct, however, it is no longer necessary to specify a rule for the reduction of complex to simple labour before one can accept the real-world existence of abstract labour. The complex/simple issue loses the character of a theoretical problem and becomes a measurement problem, specifically an index number problem. For an analogy, note that government statisticians attempt to quantify how many cars of some base year are equivalent to one 2001 car of presumably higher quality. Guesswork and arbitrary assumptions are involved, but the measurement difficulties cause no one to believe that this calls into question the idea that ‘cars’ exist, as do ‘autoworkers’ who produce them, or the idea that the number of cars increases if more are produced than are consumed. Similarly, the measurement difficulties involved in attempting to quantify the relationship between complex and simple labour should cause no one to believe that this calls into question the idea that ‘value’ exists, as does ‘abstract labour’ which produces it, or the idea that value self-expands if more is extracted from workers than they receive.

    Thus, none of Capital’s theoretical results depend on the specification of a rule for the reduction of complex to simple labour. Just as it would be trivial and unnecessary for an analysis of the essential relations and historical development of auto production to solve the car-quality index number problem, for Marx to have carried out the quantitative reduction of complex to simple labour in his analysis of capitalist production would indeed have been a ‘superfluous operation’ (Marx [Capital, Vol. 1, Chap. 7]).

  3. 3kmb said at 9:40 am on May 23rd, 2009:thanks for your answer. I guess I still need to do a lot of thinking about this.
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