Misunderstanding Marx: Brad Delong and the Collapse of Neoliberalism

Published on political affairs,net pa, by Thomas Riggins, May 01, 2009.

The blogosphere has lately witnessed some interest in a lecture, “Understanding Marxism” posted by Professor Brad Delong of the University of California and a former Clinton administration official. Delong calls himself a neoliberal economist and his lecture is such a confused jumble of misrepresentations and misunderstandings of even the most elementary rudiments of Marxism that its refutation will serve the two fold purpose of clarifying some elementary ideas of basic Marxism 101 and of exposing the absolute insipidity of neoliberal thinkin …

… Delong thinks Marx was a great thinker, almost as great as he himself, (remember the Three Goods) and now wants to figure out how he could have arrived at the Three Bads (which we have seen are really just another Three Goods, for a total of Six Goods.) All Marx’s mistakes, Delong says, ultimately derive from two sources: Hegel and Engels.  

Lets look at Hegel first. It appears that Delong was bored by reading the first chapter of Das Kapital (he says so) and didn’t understand it all. He was especially driven to distraction by the last section on the “Fetishism of Commodities”. All that Hegelian dialectic was too much for him – especially the idea that it is “value” not real “prices” that “are the elements of the real important reality.”

Delong declares, “Now I have never found anybody who thinks this way.” I am sure that he hasn’t. That is why what passes for “economics” in the US is junk science, and Delong and his tribe were caught flatfooted by the crisis of 2008. They haven’t the faintest idea how the real economy works.

This is one of the reasons Business Week recently asked “What Good Are Economists Anyway?” by Peter Coy. He writes “Economists mostly failed to predict the worse economic crisis since the 1930s. Now they can’t agree how to solve it. People are beginning to wonder: What good are economists anyway.” Coy thinks they have some value yet but you only have to read Delong to realize they are mostly worthless except as propagandists for the failed free market. I agree with the housing blogger on patrick.net, quoted by Coy, who wrote: “If you are an economist and did not see this coming, you should seriously reconsider the value of your education and maybe do something with a tangible value to society, like picking vegetables.” A few days in the fields and Delong would know the difference between “value” and “price.”

Here is how he understands it now. “Things have value not because of the abstraction that socially-necessary labor time is needed to produce them but because of the concretion [?!] that somebody somewhere wants to use it [i.e., a commodity] and has something else that others find useful to trade in turn.” That is just pure idealist hogwash. The whole capitalist system boils down to somebody somewhere wants something I have and I want something they have. This is the Iranian Bazaar Model. Because Marx was led astray into his Hegelian version of the labor theory of value he “vanishes into the swamp which is the attempt to reconcile the labor theory of value with economic reality, and never comes out.”

Why is Delong so opposed to Marx on this issue? Because if Marx is right Delong knows that capitalism, the system he supports, is an oppressive unjust system. If “the system forces you to sell your labor power for its value which is less than the value of the goods you make [then] human freedom is totally incompatible with wage labor or market exchange” [he should have just said capitalism – there are markets in non capitalist systems]. Now if capitalism is unjust “that leads the political movements that Marx founded down very strange and very destructive roads.” As if the capitalist movements which brought us the international slave trade, colonization, two world wars and the present mess have not taken us down some “very destructive roads.” Well, Delong tells us at this point that he has “done” Hegel and now he will take care of the Engels connection.

To make a long story short, Delong thinks that because Engels’ family owned factories in Manchester, and Manchester was indeed a horrible place of dark Satanic mills in 1848, Marx got a bad impression of capitalism. But Manchester was the exception.

If Engels had lived in Birmingham, Marx would have seen a different side of capitalism. Birmingham had few large factories and many workers worked from home and or worked in small establishments with the master. In other words, by looking at Manchester, the heart of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, instead of Birmingham, a backwater that was lagging behind and still representative of the past rather than the future of capitalist development, Marx misrepresented the facts.

Such is how Delong attempts to “understand” Marxism. With “economists” such as this representing contemporary capitalist “thought” is it too much to hope for that we will soon see the speedy dissolution of this out of date and ruinous social formation? (full long text).

(Thomas Riggins is associate editor of Political Affairs).

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