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John Lanchester on Marx
March 30, 2012 3:05 AM   Subscribe

John Lanchester on Marx in the LRB.
posted by pharm (22 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I took a super heavy class in Marx back in the day. It was only about his thought and economic theories. Apart from a few great insights (like, capital will follow labor to less and less developed countries seeking lower wages), he struck me as the least coherent of the socialist economists and the one who benefitted the most from historical developments (being the economist of choice for the one set of revolutionaries who succeeded. One wonders if things would have turned out differently if the Bolsheviks followed another theorist.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:06 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tend to agree with Harry Cleaver from thirty years back, that Marx came to bury bourgeois economics, not praise it (or participate in it*), so shouldn't be thought of as an economist in the usual sense.
*Thus the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.
Enjoyed the Lanchester piece as he's clearly both engaged with the core of the work and considered its merits and failings in a contemporary context, but I get the sense he's missed the point a bit when it comes to class, particularly how class conflict is playing out in China today; contra his claim that mass incidents or industrial militancy (both rising), plenty of commentators write about a new class formation. Though I do say only get the sense, as I can't recall the requisite bits of Marx and am not going to pretend I know what's really going on.
posted by Abiezer at 5:50 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oops, should read "contra his claim that mass incidents or industrial militancy (both rising) are unconnected with class..."
posted by Abiezer at 5:51 AM on March 30, 2012


This was fascinating, thank you.

I especially liked the bit where he talked about how people could be wage labourers and (through investments, pension funds) owners at the same time. Historians have been talking about the blurriness of class for sometime; I've never agreed, for example, that there was a division between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie in early capitalism (c1600-1850), because the aristocracy themselves were so often the owners of not only land (the most important means of production in a pre-modern world) but also manufacturing. And the aristocracy were a major force behind the consolidation of land ownership which led to the creation of a landless population who relied on wage labour. Owners are owners are owners.

I still think we do have people in modern society who are owners and those who are workers and renters. But they aren't strict class divisions -- in many cases, it's a generational division.

Ironmouth: (for those of us who have not studied economic theory) what other socialist economists are you thinking of?
posted by jb at 5:51 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a Blood Bowl player, my go-to identification of the LRB is the Living Rule Book, an (until recently) semi-regularly revised set of rules for the playing of a weird mix of Warhammer Fantasy and American football.

So I was kind of hoping Marx would be a 1AG/5ST/3MV blodger with Mighty Blow (against capitalism!) and Guard (the proletariat!).

It turns out this is not the case.
posted by Shepherd at 6:12 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is not correct to say that Marx was anti-empiricist. It is rather the case that he opposed the pseudo-empiricism affected by natural scientists when they comment outside their specialty.
posted by No Robots at 6:41 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


So I was kind of hoping Marx would be a 1AG/5ST/3MV blodger with Mighty Blow (against capitalism!) and Guard (the proletariat!).

See, this is the sort of thing that I wonder: WWMT? Debord tried and failed...
posted by ennui.bz at 6:43 AM on March 30, 2012


Excellent and thought-provoking piece; thanks for linking to it. It's full of nuggets like this:
UK life expectancy is now over eighty and rising so sharply that buried in the statistics is a truly strange fact: a woman who is eighty today has a 9.2 per cent chance of living to be a hundred, whereas a woman of twenty has a 26.6 per cent chance. It may seem weird that the person sixty years younger has a three times better chance of making it to a century, but what it shows is just how fast progress is being made.
I'm glad people are actually reading the article before commenting rather than just riffing about Marx!
posted by languagehat at 8:14 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, talking of nuggets, I liked this one:
the average rate of left-handedness runs at about 10 per cent, but seems to be higher in societies that have a higher level of violence. Nobody knows why, but that isn’t surprising since the reason some people are born left-handed isn’t understood.
Although this Economist article seems to think that neither the handedness nor the connection are so very inexplicable.

Definitely interesting to think through what if any differences there are in today's world to that of Marx's. I agree with the author that we have a very different sense of the limits of natural resources now. I find his example of water usage a little strained, though:
the American average consumption of water is one hundred gallons per person per day. There isn’t enough fresh water on the planet for everyone to live like that.
Well ... there's this thing called the water cycle. Water is kinda the ultimate self-sustaining resource. What is wasteful is the energy it takes to process and transport it, but we ain't gonna run out of the stuff. He almost makes it sound like Americans are taking water away from others, somehow.

I think a better example might be the colony collapse issue (recently discussed here). It's interesting because bees really are a limited resource, especially if you poison them, and even utterly evil capitalist monoliths like Monsanto will surely have to change their approach, if only because they too will suffer if there's no more pollination. So that will limit and alter the mechanism of capitalism. And soon, hopefully.

Anyway, great article, thanks.
posted by iotic at 9:04 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


iotic: clean, fresh water is a renewing but not unlimited resource (kind of like trees).

Even up here in well-watered Central Canada and Northern US, we're using water out of the Great Lakes faster than it can be replenished (largely for industrial use). Most of the lake water was laid down at the end of the ice age by the melting of the glaciers - the renewable bit is just a tiny fraction, but we're using more than that and thus the overall levels of the lakes are dropping.
posted by jb at 10:11 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


In trying to think what Marx would have made of the world today, we have to begin by stressing that he was not an empiricist.

Has any thinker from the German intellectual tradition (of which Marx was a product, as was Hegel before him) ever leaned towards empiricism? I thought that favouring empiricism over idealism was an English/Anglo-Saxon peculiarity.
posted by acb at 10:39 AM on March 30, 2012


It is rather the case that he opposed the pseudo-empiricism affected by natural scientists when they comment outside their specialty.

The irony of this statement coming from somebody who consistently claims that Marxism disproves biological evolution is a little bit richer than my stomach can bear.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:51 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a really strong tendency to argue against Communist Manifesto Marx in the present, which is really unfortunate and where a lot of misconceptions stem from, this piece included. I suppose it's what everyone reads in undergrad. Even given the astonishing foresight of that document (go through its list of demands... something like 50% came true), it hardly reflects the later development of Marx's thought, which continued through Das Kapital to change significantly. Plus the Manifesto has Engels' hand in it, who was a very different guy.

Marx wrote the Manifesto at 30 and began Das Kapital at 50, and continued writing it until his death at 65. And typically gets judged based on the equivalent of a blog post he wrote at 30. I mean, obviously his output after the Manifesto is enormously dense... but I think there are some scholars that you could talk to about that...
posted by mek at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


When we say German idealism is anti-empiricist, it's kind of a terrible way of putting it, because then you think Hume and even of some sort of solipsistic retreat, which nothing like what you're actually trying to say.

Most of us are anti-empiricist, metaphysically speaking, even in contemporary modern society, in that we don't believe our everyday experience allows us direct access a transcendental reality. (Some of us might be Kantians in that we believe exercising reason properly can allow us some level of pure understanding, though limited.) For example, you might believe that you can use your senses to make common-sense judgements, but not believe those judgements are absolutely true; and also probably believe the daily reality you experience is subjective, somewhat anthropomorphized by our minds, and potentially unreliable. Skeptics are generally anti-empiricist. In fact I'd say most of us have a healthy distrust of our sense-perceptions... in fact I'd go so far as to say that contemporary Western society is one of the least trusting in sense perceptions historically, partially because we have made so many gadgets which generate so much garbage sense-data which we bombard ourselves with, and minor mistakes in sensing can lead to fatal errors (car crashes etc). Thus, anti-empiricists abound.

Now, some of you might believe that the scientific method is uniquely capable of utilizing empirical data to reach metaphysical truth. Then you are definitely an empiricist. I'd argue you would be wrong, but some people certainly believe that.
posted by mek at 11:31 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


any thinker from the German intellectual tradition (of which Marx was a product, as was Hegel before him) ever leaned towards empiricism? I thought that favouring empiricism over idealism was an English/Anglo-Saxon peculiar

I thought this lead in to the article was embarrasingly naive, like a first year university student at his first philosophy lecture. But then, the whole genre of "bankers discover marx" is rife with naivete, like "retired banker discovers pot." Lanchester, as the son of a banker, stands in well for his peers in the City on this, i feel. I guess the alternative is to stuff your ears and tell everyone that everything is just fine, juast a few blad apples etc...
posted by ennui.bz at 11:47 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


(it's interesting that David Graeber, whose Anthrpological Theory of Value is an anarchist critique of Marx's theory of value, runs into some pseudo-pragmatic philosopher half-way through the book and it, like, blows his mind and the focus for the rest of the book. Maybe by the next century we'll be where the 19th century europeans were wrt sophistication about epistemology, metaphysics, etc...)
posted by ennui.bz at 11:53 AM on March 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well ... there's this thing called the water cycle. Water is kinda the ultimate self-sustaining resource. What is wasteful is the energy it takes to process and transport it, but we ain't gonna run out of the stuff.

That's not actually true, though. Even if water is cyclically renewable, if we start using it more quickly than the cyclical renewal process can bear, the renewal cycle can break. I took the point (and I believe it's an accurate one) to be that, if everyone living on Earth today used water at the same rate we Americans currently do, we would be consuming it too quickly for that natural renewal cycle to keep up, and we would quickly run out of safe, potable water.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:01 PM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


somebody who consistently claims that Marxism disproves biological evolution

After initial enthusiasm, Marx came to see the theory of evolution as the very essence of pseudo-empiricism, a position with which I concur.
posted by No Robots at 1:21 PM on March 30, 2012


Yes, you and Lysenko.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 3:14 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lysenko was a politically-motivated propagandist, not sure what he has to do with the discussion.

Marx was very rightfully critical of his social Darwinist contemporaries, which were taking Darwin's theory and using it as a justification for existing class hierarchy as well as imperialist policies. And neo-Darwinists continue to misapply evolutionary theory in similar ways: see for example (renowned evolutionary biologist...) Richard Leowotin's criticisms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in Biology as Ideology and later books, as well as (biologist) Donna Haraway's even more scathing critiques of the same.
posted by mek at 5:12 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a really strong tendency to argue against Communist Manifesto Marx in the present, which is really unfortunate and where a lot of misconceptions stem from, this piece included.

I thought Lanchester's "cartoonishly compressed and simple" account was drawing on Das Kapital, but my knowledge of Marx is almost entirely secondhand. What misconceptions are you seeing in this piece?
posted by twirlip at 9:51 PM on March 30, 2012


A good starting point for an understanding of Marx's fully-developed thought is this summary of Marx at the Margins. In this piece in particular, there is a definite criticism of the unilinear nature of Marx's conception of capitalism, which is something that he himself discarded later in his work. So the entire "many capitalisms" criticism in the piece is flawed in that sense, but typical of "Young Marx" scholarship.
posted by mek at 11:45 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


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