The New Heretics
“The Young Hegelians are in agreement with the Old Hegelians in their belief in the rule of religion, of concepts, of a universal principle in the existing world. Only, the one party attacks this dominion as usurpation, while the other extols it as legitimate.” – Marx, The German Ideology
It is now coming up to ten years since the collapse of the world’s financial system. It was the keynote of the modern era, and nearly everything we have heard about since, no matter how seemingly remote, can be made sense of by referring to it, and the subsequent process of attempted recovery and recuperation by international capital. The stagnation of industrial output and wage growth, the proliferation of the gig economy, and a fall in the living standards of the upcoming generation – these are the laments we hear every day in the newspapers and on social media. And every day brings us more news of unrest and discontentment with the existing political and social order.
In such a climate, it becomes evident that faith in old economic orthodoxies can no longer be assumed. The crises of 1847 and the subsequent revolutions brought to the fore various schemes of free credit and cries to eliminate the burdens of debt weighing down on large portions of the population. In his work, ‘The Class Struggles in France’, Marx explains the appeal of Napoleon III to the petty bourgeoisie from the fact that to them, he meant the rule of the debtor over the creditor.
The Great Depression brought about the heyday of Keynesian economics. Keynes, noting the apparent disparity between the promises of laissez-faire to bring the world to a new economic millenium of freedom, property, equality and Bentham, and the stark realities of unemployment, poverty and social collapse in the 1930’s, urged the world not to despair. Prior economic theory (Which he uniformly labelled ‘classical’, and which for him seemed to encompass everyone from Ricardo to Jevons, and including Marx) had promised a set of outcomes which were only valid based on a limited set of premises which didn’t hold in reality, but his more general theory could point the way towards forms of government intervention which could save bourgeois society, and bring about the realisation of the capitalist Eden.
Keynes’ Eden did not come. Capitalism did see a period of extended growth, but only after the unprecedented social catastrophe of the second world war. And this in it’s turn was followed by new crises, and the collapse of the Keynesian consensus. The economics profession, by and large, turned away from the idea of Keynes.
But the dead have not stayed buried. The recent crisis and it’s aftermath has produced an upswing in literature denouncing the parasitic effects of finance capital. In a recent book by a former governor of the bank of england, we read the most apparently radical pronouncements, about how the market economy does not tend towards equilibrium, and the poverty of the economics profession in predicting future outcomes. And in a new article in The Guardian, we even find economics proclaimed as a new form of religion.
Let us examine this proclamation.
We are told that economics is not like other sciences, because it does not observe the laws of nature, but helps make them. We are told that economics is a narrative. A narrative that is failing because of the hubris of it’s prophets. Nonetheless, economics can be saved if it abandons hubris, and recognises it’s own nature as a hubris (It is never stated exactly what economics is supposed to become. All the throwaway references to neoliberalism and markets should give us a hint – it is a call for capitalism to remain with more regulation).
At the heart of this is an account of the relation of the ideas and categories of economics to the world. On the account of the heretics, these ideas shape the world. And this is what we deny.
Ideas are not things existing in some other world, controlling human beings like puppets. They are the products of human activity. Human beings produce. Their production involves two relationships – the relation of the producers to nature, and their relation to one another. A mode of production is a definite mode of relating, both of the producers to the world of nature (a way of regulating the metabolism between humans and nature) and of human beings to each other. In the course of this production of things and social relations, they also produce ideas about these social relations.
In a society based on production by private individuals, the relations between the producers take on the form of relations between their products. This is of course only an appearance. Commodities do not have wills of their own, they cannot enter into any relation which they are not brought into by human beings. But it is a “prosaically real” appearance.
To individuals caught up in a society in which commodities, money and capital appear as facts of life, the social categories which are embodied in these objects appear as eternal, immutable laws of nature. Vulgar economy draws from this appearance its attempts to analyse the economy in the same manner as physics, with complex mathematical modelling replacing any relation to the real relationships of production. The heretics perceive the ideological character of economic categories, but only as a trick of the mind.
More than just a result of a society in which human relations are inherently mystified, economics is an ideology which represents the interests of a specific class. The article itself notes the rise of Milton Friedman due to his endorsement by Thatcher and Reagan. It doesn’t perceive the fact that Thatcher and Reagan were the political agents of a definite class – the capitalist class.
Rather than proceeding from ideological to material production, and showing how the latter forms a totality with the former, they remain within the realm of ideas, and the apparent power of these phantasms to shape the world. They want to overthrow the phantasms, the ideas that they perceive to be the real chains of men, while leaving the world essentially as it is (Although perhaps led by Corbyn and Sanders rather than May and Trump).
But our chains are not ideas. They are the real, practical social relations of production. And no amount of radical phraseology, or proclamations that economics is a religion, can overthrow these relations. Only a real movement, the revolutionary workers’ movement can achieve this.
The End of Alchemy by Mervyn King