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March 24, 2014

Marxism: My Part in Its Downfall

Writing about web page

The news has been so grim on many fronts that I begin to long for something a little lighter. To help things along, here is a story I began to write a long time ago, but never finished until now. It tells how it happened that in 1976 I published a 20,000-word pamphlet called The Economics of Capitalism.

Another stimulus to go back to this was that I got drawn into a discussion about Marxian economics. Not everyone with whom I was debating with would give me credit that I knew much about Marxism in the first place. In that context I mentioned that one day I intended to put my pamphlet on line. Now, here it is -- in two versions. One is the original, scanned as images(therefore large: 30Mb). The other is OCR'd and so 99 per cent searchable(much smaller: 4Mb). (Or, if you insist, a few copies are still available in the second-hand market.)

In the searchable version I've taken care to conserve the original illustrations and page layout. The illustrations were by Richard Hill, whom I never met, so I never got around to telling him what I thought of them. Are you out there, Richard, or anyone who knows you? I just loved the illustrations as soon as I saw them, and I still do.

The origins of the pamphlet were like this. I joined the communist party in 1973. This was for reasons I've discussed elsewhere so I won't go into them here. I was soon drawn into various activities as a student and then as a young lecturer. It wasn't long before I met Betty Matthews, who ran the communist party's education department. This meant she was responsible for producing education material for the party members and their branches.

I certainly wasn't the party's only economist. Others, such as Maurice Dobb and Bob Rowthorn (Cambridge), Ron Bellamy (Leeds), and Pat Devine and Dave Purdy (Manchester) were of longer standing and greater eminence. Dobb was a world-famous scholar. I recall that the party had an economic advisory committee to consider its economic policies. I wasn't a member of that, and I've no idea who was on it, but probably some of these. Anyway, unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, somehow or other I was the one Betty persuaded (or maybe I was the one who offered) to write an economics pamphlet for the purposes of party education.

The previous material that was out there for party members was Sam Aaronovitch's Economics for Trade Unionists, published in 1964. In its time this was a solid introduction, and Sam was a good scholar, but Betty felt it needed updating. So I got to work and The Economics of Capitalism was the result. If you read the acknowledgements, you'll see I had some help, with comments and advice from Pat Devine (see above), from Betty Matthews and Bert Ramelson (see below), and also from Keith Cowling and Ben Knight who were sympathetic colleagues at Warwick. I remain grateful to all these people.

I'd like to break the narrative for a moment to say how much I valued getting to know Betty and meeting and talking with her (and her assistant Deanna, whose family name I've forgotten). Betty always seemed like a thoroughly cheerful person and a kind soul. According to Sarah Benton's obituary she was "unique in the communist world in having no enemies." I'm not surprised. Betty spent her childhood in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). I'd recently read Doris Lessing's account of a similar childhood. Lessing was sent to church, where the message was brotherly love, and then came out and saw the hypocrisy of the colour bar. She decided that the colour bar must be wrong. I asked Betty if her experience was the same. She laughed and said: "Oh, no. I decided that the church must be rubbish!" Anyway, I thought Betty was a good person and that made her hard to refuse.

As for the substance of what I wrote in the pamphlet, I'm not going to review my own work here. Anyone can read it and decide what they think for themselves. I'm just going to comment on a couple of aspects of the writing. One is about the history in it; the other is about the party and its sensitivities.

First, the history. One question I've sometimes asked myself is: Where on earth did I get the history from? There was a lot of freedom in writing without footnotes, and I am not sure I used that freedom wisely. When I re-read what I wrote then, the history now seems pretty slapdash to me. Probably it was a mishmash of stuff I half understood and borrowed from Dobb, Rodney Hilton, E. P. Thompson, and a few others that I've forgotten. They might not appreciate what I did with their work. I'm pretty sure that today I'd follow a different style of writing, with more respect for facts, including the ones that did not fit. Nowadays even my lecture notes have footnotes for everything.

In contrast to my cavalier approach to history, I tried to be careful with the economic facts. I even put in a statistical appendix.

Second, the party. As a young party member, and at the same time a professional scholar, I was always watchful and curious to find out whether at any point the party would start telling me what to write. I didn't know how I would react if that happened. I felt a commitment to the truth. I felt a commitment to the cause. Politics being what it was, I half expected that at some point these two commitments might clash, and I did not know how I would manage it if that came.

As it turned out, the only aspect of the pamphlet that anyone in the party (other than an economist) really cared about was how it would explain inflation and the role of trade unions. This was bitterly controversial in British society in the 1970s, and the issue was contested within the labour movement and even within the communist party.

Since the 1950s, successive British governments had taken the view that the cause of rising inflation was increases in wage costs, which arose from the excessive wage demands lodged by the trade unions. The appropriate remedy to inflation was therefore wage controls, voluntary or statutory. In recognition that wages were not the only cost of production (although the largest proportion in the economy as a whole), this became known as "incomes policy." From the 1950s through the 1970s, successive governments tried and failed to use incomes policy to control inflation.

At the time I was writing, the British economy was experiencing its greatest inflationary crisis. We didn't know it yet, but it would pave the way to Margaret Thatcher's historic 1979 election victory. Trade union power and wage pressure were huge issues. The "official" position of the communist party at the time, as far as I recall, was that inflation hurt the workers, but wage pressure was not the cause of inflation. A class struggle was in progress in which the organized workers were fighting the employers using the weapon to hand: wage demands, backed up by strike action. Price-setting was the weapon in the hands of the capitalist employers, so inflation was the counter-attack of the capitalist class. Anything that weakened wage pressure favoured the enemy.

This line was much debated. I've probably forgotten a lot of nuances that were important to others, so I'll speak for myself. My own view was something like this: There was a distributional struggle in progress. Suppose the initial distribution of the national income between wages and profits was 70 per cent to 30. The workers wanted to increase their share at the expense of the employers, and would try to achieve this by pushing up nominal wages. The capitalists wanted to raise profits at the expense of the workers, and would aim to achieve this by raising prices. As a result, the implicit claims on the national income would exceed 100 per cent. The workers wanted 75 and the employers wanted 35. If you added up 75 and 35 the sum was 110 percent, so the outcome would be 10 per cent inflation -- a self-defeating wage-price spiral.

Put like that, it was a non-monetary theory of inflation. Nowadays absolutely nobody believes you can understand inflation without thinking about money. Even then, the party's economists had surely all read Milton Friedman, who told us that inflation was "always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon." While we didn't buy this completely, we understood that inflation had to have a monetary dimension. For myself, I thought that the inflation process was contingent on some sort of government commitment to full employment. This was the commitment that enabled workers and employers to push up their incomes against market pressure. A later generation would call this the "soft budget constraint," a term that Janos Kornai developed to analyze Soviet-type economies. In capitalist Britain, the soft budget constraint meant was that the government's fiscal and monetary policies were being relaxed continuously to maintain real demand and keep down real interest rates, and this would also be an essential permissive condition of the inflationary process.

In the trade unions, many communists were not particularly keen on this line of argument. It seemed to give away too much to the idea that trade unions caused inflation. They wanted to say that the capitalist class was on the offensive and the wage struggles of the time were basically workers' self-defence. In other words it was capitalism that caused inflation, not the workers. In my view, even at the time, this was somewhat implausible. The share of profits in British GDP had been declining since the 1950s (and the contribution of domestic trading profits had fallen even faster) so wage militancy looked more offensive than defensive. On that basis, it was very hard to maintain that trade union militancy was not at all complicit in the inflation of the time.

In this context, there was a lot of focus on what my pamphlet should and shouldn't say about inflation. Betty Matthews told me I had to meet Bert Ramelson and talk it through with him. Bert ran the communist party's industrial department. He had played a key role in many episodes of the struggle of Britain's organized workers, most famously the seamen's strike of 1966 and the miners' strike of 1972. The last thing he and other communists involved in the trade unions wanted was that a publication by the party's own education department would be quoted in the media saying that striking for higher wages would end up hurting the workers.

My one and only meeting with Bert took place in Coventry railway station where we talked over a cuppa in the cafeteria off platform 1. I was nervous about it. Bert was a legend of the labour movement; I was a nice middle-class boy who had never done anything much outside school and college. I had the academic qualifications, but Bert had the steel that was tempered in the furnace of the class struggle. I could not anticipate how he would respond to me; I did not know what criticisms he might have, and I did not expect he would swallow them easily.

In fact, our conversation was amicable. I had insured myself to some extent by being even-handed: I wrote in the pamphlet that the causes of inflation were controversial, and I outlined various perspectives, and I suggested that they all contained some unspecified measure of truth. I also wrote that wage militancy was not enough to transform society; this was something that no one would have disagreed with, even then, although there would have been a lot of dispute over how and by how much it fell short. There were certainly those party members that behaved as if they believed wage militancy was 99 per cent of the revolutionary struggle -- at least.

Bert turned out to be concerned more with what I would write about the future of trade unionism than trade unions in the present. Tighter restrictions on trade union rights were in the air. The party was opposing them vigorously. In order to give credibility to the party's defence of unfettered trade union rights in the present, it was also party policy to promise that trade unions would continue to be free and independent, with entrenched rights, in the transition to socialism. Bert wanted me to make this clear.

The result was a passage that read:

Our path will encounter many problems. For example, in the process the state must acquire far more power than ever before. But we seek power for all working people, not for bureaucrats and civil servants. And in fact the struggle for democratic rights is an integral part of challenging the state power of monopoly and ultimately replacing it. Thus if the outcome is to mean more democracy, and not just more bureaucracy, the autonomy of the working class, and of its sectional mass organisations the trade unions, and of its allies, must be strengthened and extended. That is why the freedom of collective bargaining today is a guarantee for tomorrow.

For example, in a socialist economy, for the progress of society as a whole, one group of workers or another may sometimes have to be asked - not ordered - to moderate wage demands, or change jobs. But in a socialist state, for the first time, these processes will be open and subject to democratic control.

Today it may read like wishful thinking. It didn't at the time. at least, not to me; there was nothing there that it was hard for me to sign up to. Bert had been persuasive but not heavy handed or confrontational; he treated me very correctly and I did not feel that I had compromised anything in writing those words. Just in case, however, I concluded with a libertarian flourish:

The most important of society’s productive forces is the working class itself. The British working class today has skills, understanding and aspirations available to it as never before. Capitalist relations today hold back its development, and face it with low wages and stultifying labour discipline at work as the only alternative to unemployment. Beyond it lies the vision of a world in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

Anyway, the pamphlet was finished, went to the printer, and came out. I was very proud of it (and delighted by the illustrations, as I've said). What impact did it have? I've absolutely no idea. Looking back, I think it's remarkable (and not in a good way) that I never had any idea of how many were printed or sold or how widely it was used for its intended purpose, that is, for discussion as educational material. I think I did one or two meetings around the Midlands, based on the pamphlet, but that was all. For all I know, the rest of the stock was packed up and warehoused, or sent out to the branches where it was stored in cupboards up and down the country, and finally ended up in a hundred skips when the party branches closed down.

There's a final question that I'll pose: What would have happened to the British economy if that party programme had been implemented? It's not a completely idle question. In 1976 the late Tony Benn, then a government minister, put something pretty similar to the British cabinet as an alternative to the IMF loan that Denis Healey was after. It was rejected -- but what if it had been put into effect? How would the economic effects have worked out? Not well, I now imagine. Most likely the experience of Belarus or Venezuela would give a few hints.

The moment when my pamphlet appeared, as it happens, was just about the peak of popularity of Marxian economics in the English-speaking world. After that, everything went downhill. This should not be a surprise because the world of the 1970s was about to move strongly to the right. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became British prime minister, and in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected US president. Everyone moved on, including, eventually, me.

To prove my point, here's the evidence. This chart uses the Google Ngram Viewer to show the changing relative frequency of three terms that no one would ever use except in connection with seriously discussing Marxian economics: "monopoly capitalism," the "rate of surplus value," and the "organic composition of capital." The what? Yes, it's in my pamphlet.

And here is a link to the same chart in its native location, where you can play with it as you like.

As you can see, everything was going up until my pamphlet came out, and afterwards everything went downhill and never recovered.

November 15, 2013

Which Dead Economist Must I Follow?

Writing about web page

I contributed recently to the Politics at Warwick blog, which I thank for its hospitality. My post elicited a comment to which I'd like to respond; my response is longer than my original post so I decided to include it here. First I'll put up my original post, dated 13 November 2013. Then I'll quote the comment and respond to it.

How should the economics curriculum respond to the global financial crisis and ensuing recession? Community activists and students have become vocal in this discussion, as recently described by journalist Aditya Chakrabortty and Matthew Watson.

Events have prompted questions about economists’ understanding of financial markets; the same events have generated a deluge of new data. How should economists respond? Economic research has already responded; hundreds of new articles have analysed global imbalances, market efficiency, corporate behaviour, regulation and deregulation, policy rules, the politics and economics of past crises, and the relative fragility of economic and political institutions in history.

The core curriculum has been slower to change. Here are two reasons. The first is that we no longer teach from handwritten notes and a chalkboard; students and teachers demand comprehensive textbooks with instructor manuals, PowerPoint slides, and websites. These take years to develop (and revise). Although slow, change is already visible. Because change is slow, there is more to be done. Change will probably accelerate through initiatives like the CORE (Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics) project.

A better reason for inertia in the curriculum is our foreknowledge that the full meaning of recent events will take decades to establish – although many people believe that they are already obvious. To illustrate, today we continue to make new findings about the last Great Depression, which began in 1929, although many who lived through the 1930s were so certain of the answers that they were willing to kill and die on that basis.

How should the core curriculum change? A common complaint is that economics is dominated by a single school of “neoliberalism” or “market fundamentalism.” There are calls for more diversity in economics; some students want more access, specifically, to Keynes and Marx.

It is simply untrue that mainstream textbooks reflect principles of market fundamentalism. I can’t think of a principles text that doesn’t follow the initial explanation of market equilibrium with an immediate, detailed discussion of the varied sources of market failure and the regulatory interventions that might follow.

While one may learn from both Keynes and Marx, what is to be gained from taking them outside their historical settings? A Keynesian model focuses on flows (of income and employment) while neglecting stocks (of capital and debt). Yet capital and debt are very important! Keynesian principles are linked to a model of household behaviour (the “marginal propensity to consume”) that half a century of applied research has comprehensively invalidated. A Marxian model simplifies the continuum of capital ownership into a two-class society; additionally it throws out efficiency and substitution, so distribution is all that remains. In the context of today’s mainstream, each of these is now a stagnant, oxygen-starved backwater.

The importance of competing traditions is much overrated. Those that wish to organize the curriculum around them seem to believe that the major decision each economist must make is “Which dead economist must I follow?” and after that her research findings and policy recommendations will follow. This may be a natural reaction to the fact that mainstream economists are often unenthusiastic about policies that gather widespread popular support, for example rigid immigration controls, employment protection, and double taxation of corporate income. It might be easier for the supporters to say “Oh, those economists are all neoliberals who are ignorant of Keynes and Marx” than work patiently back through the evidence that fails to confirm their biases.

“Economics ought to be a magpie discipline,” writes Chakrabortty. But Economics is a magpie discipline. Most non-specialists – and most journalists – think public and private finance are all we do. They are amazed when I describe the sheer diversity of research that is done just in my department (here and here). We suck up topics and data from any time and place; we don’t care what discipline claims to own them. Then they backtrack and say, “Of course, I didn’t mean to criticize you (or Warwick), I meant Friedman (or Chicago).” The fact is there are no clear intellectual boundaries among schools of thought; we should all mingle in the same fluid mainstream, which is broader, deeper, and faster than you think.

Concluding, Chakrabortty reports a lament for the good old days. Tony Lawson recalls the Cambridge economics faculty in the time of Nicky Kaldor and Joan Robinson: “There were big debates and students would study politics, the history of economic thought.” I remember; I was there too, as a student. The big debates were an exercise in identity politics, not economics. Hostile clashes between intolerant armed camps ended in a war of attrition that benefited no one, least of all students. There is a warning here: be careful what you wish for.

On the day that my post appeared, the anonymous blogger Unlearning Economics posted a comment which you can read in full here after scrolling to the bottom. Here's my response, with excerpts from the comment inset.

Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:

“A Keynesian model focuses on flows (of income and employment) while neglecting stocks (of capital and debt).” First, Keynes didn’t ignore capital or debt at all; that is simply false ... Keynes carried over some silly marginalist concepts like the efficiency of capital (clearly he mentioned capital once or twice).

My response: It is useful to distinguish between “things Keynes wrote about at various times” and “things that are core principles of the Keynesian model.” Of course we could argue about the division, but it seems to me capital and debt belong to the former, not the latter. The point is exemplified by Keynes’s model of consumer behaviour (more below), in which capital and debt play no role, although they were fundamental to other models available at the time. As for the marginal efficiency of capital, Keynes introduced this to rationalize his discussion of investment (a flow), not to understand the behaviour of the capital stock.

Again, Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:

“Keynesian principles are linked to a model of household behaviour (the “marginal propensity to consume”) that half a century of applied research has comprehensively invalidated.” Which research would this be? “People don’t consume all of their income” is hardly a false statement.

My response: Yes, it's true that “people don’t consume all their income,” but that isn’t the issue. The issue is whether the main thing in consumption is a stable proportion between household consumption and current income at the margin, as Keynes believed. I should add that he not only advanced this idea in theory but also applied it in practice, for example in his writing about how to pay for World War II. Franco Modigliani, Milton Friedman, and others investigated this idea after the war and failed to find it in the data. They did identify a stable relationship between consumption and wealth, or lifetime (or "permanent") income, to which changes in current income make a small or negligible contribution. Because permanent income is uncertain, the future (including expectations of inflation and the real interest rate) are fundamental. Modern new-Keynesian models drop the marginal propensity to consume (and the multiplier) and focus exclusively on intertemporal substitution intended to smooth consumption over time. Which takes me on to our next point.

Unlearning Economics adds:

Second modern post-Keynesian is *all about* stock-flow consistent models ... people like Godley, Keen etc have updated [Keynes’s] work.

My response: Yes, certainly. Here another distinction arises, between Keynes and the post-Keynesians (or Marx and the post-Marxists). Naturally, there is development in the Marxian and Keynesian traditions. I could not dispute that, when a great economist produces an insight that turns out partial or incomplete or defective in some respect, it may be fixable. There is evolution. Evolution has produced neo-Keynesians and post-Keynesians (and Marxists). Evolution is better than stagnation. At some point it generates new species. Every year I help teach a “new-Keynesian” model of the macroeconomy to Warwick undergraduates, and every year I (and I hope they) learn something new. Yet the label “new-Keynesian,” like George Box’s economic models (more below), although useful, is also wrong. Would Keynes recognize it as his? It’s debatable. Does it matter? Only if you want to claim ownership over Keynes’s legacy.

Unlearning Economics quotes me and comments:

“A Marxian model simplifies the continuum of capital ownership into a two-class society; additionally it throws out efficiency and substitution, so distribution is all that remains.” Marx spent a lot of time talking about the difference between financial capital and industrial capital; Lenin updated his work in the context of ‘globalisation’ (imperialism). I also have no idea how you got that Marx “throws out efficiency and substitution”: he continually praised the efficiency of capitalism, and substituting capital for labour is the main driving force behind the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

My response: I considered proposing that “efficiency of capitalism” belongs to “things Marx wrote about at various times” rather than “things that are core principles of the Marxian model.” On reflection, however, I am not convinced that Marx had a concept of efficiency at all, not in the sense that economists use it today (when you can’t reallocate resources without using more of some input or consuming less of some output). Marx did write a lot about the productiveness of capitalism, but I do not think he was thinking about total factor productivity.

Similarly, I do not think Marx had a concept of substitution in the sense of a choice between alternatives that varies with their relative price. Yes, it’s possible to rewrite Marx’s idea of the organic composition of capital (the constant/variable capital ratio) as capital/labour substitution, but that is not at all how Marx described it. His idea (Capital III, chapter 13) was that over time the ratio of constant and variable capital in value terms will tend to rise, but that seems to be driven by the accumulation of capital, not by relative factor prices. What is described is a process that piles capital up faster than labour; there is no process that allows substitution between them along a frontier. With labour the only source of surplus value, the rate of profit on capital must tend to fall.

Since Unlearning Economics charges me at the outset with “complete ignorance of Keynes and Marx,” I thought I had better come up with a test of Marx’s understanding of substitution. When I teach the subject of economic warfare I put a lot of emphasis on substitution. People who are not mainstream economists (military commanders, for example) often make biased predictions about the effectiveness of blockades and sanctions, and this is because they lack a concept of substitution. They expect a blockade to curtail production and so to cause the rapid downfall of the blockaded economy. In history, the curtailment of trade has generally brought about relative price changes that stimulate substitution and in turn this will make the blockade less effective than expected. So I looked to see how Marx wrote about blockades.

In 1861 the American Civil War led to a blockade of the Southern ports. The Confederacy responded with a cotton embargo; they thought this would trigger such a crisis in Britain’s textile industry that London would have no choice but to intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. In the autumn of 1861 Marx wrote (in several places including here, for example) predicting that the stratagem would succeed: “England is to be driven to break through the blockade by force, to declare war on the Union, and thus to throw her sword on the scales in favour of the slave-owning states.”

It did not happen. In Britain the price of raw cotton shot up (which Marx could see), and this stimulated a search for alternative supplies, soon found in Egypt and India (which Marx entirely discounted). He had made the characteristic error of someone who does not get substitution.

Back to George Box, who wrote that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The models you can find in Keynes and Marx are no different; they are all wrong in the Boxian sense. Are they useful? Sometimes, yes. Marx’s idea of surplus extraction is useful for understanding societies with closed elites and extractive economies, although not modern capitalism. Keynes’s idea of animal spirits gives insight into modern capitalism as a nice corrective to the idea of rational expectations. But, why should I, or you, or anyone confine themselves to the limits of any “wrong” model by declaring that I am a Keynesian or a Marxist? When scholars do that, it surely tells us more about the politics of identity than about their scholarship.

In fact, I fear that the tone of this discussion may exemplify my final point: when social science is polarized into schools of thought, s/he who is not with me is against me and personal rancour is the likely product.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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