Towards a Marxian Economics: note 1

We need to note that although Marx supplies us with no ontologically fundamental, transhistorical archetype for human being, he does offer an immanent critique of such archetypes. When political economists stray too far from empirical observation and modeling, Marx faults them for failing to adequately ground their assumptions immanently; that is to say, he shows how they ascribed divine attributes, both to the phenomena they purport to be modeling, to the categories they are deploying, and, often, to themselves. This is not least the case when neo-classical economists import transcendental ethics into their interpretive frameworks. We see this, for example, when neo-classical economists consider what they count “market failure,” by which they do not mean that their models no longer hold good, but, rather, that market forces fail to give rise to a “satisfying” equilibrium; for example, when markets stabilize at a level where large segments of the workforce are “underutilized” or large quantities of goods remain in inventories. In fact, both of these “failures” should instead be counted market successes. We also, however, see this transit from economic theory to ethics when neo-classical economists consider “negative” externalities; for example, catastrophic climate change. When value is determined by supply and demand, not for any specific good but for all goods in their differential relationships with all goods, it stands to reason that the ratio ΔQ/ΔL cannot rationalize parts per million of carbon except as a variable introduced politically. But, even here, as we well know, such a variable will only be introduced when policy makers believe that it is more valuable for them to do so than not, and even then only marginally. Marx’s point is therefore a negative one. He simply calls attention to the less than fully rigorous character of political economic practice and theory. There is, as Jevons noted, absolutely no ethics in it. As an ethical system, it is reducible to a ratio.

There is, however, a second point we note about Marx’s economics. He is aware that other social formations and other practices give rise to different ways of being human. This means that when neo-classical economists transhistoricize or universalize capitalist social being, Marx exposes the historically determinate character of their ruse. That is to say, the “universal” they settle upon is not unrelated to the social formation in which it takes shape. It is, of course, not universal; but it is the “universal” for this particular.

Finally, Marx is therefore not eager — or grew increasingly less eager — to ground his critique in an ideal human being, whether at the dawn or the end of time. The active, constructive, and constituted character of social being did not trouble, or no longer troubled, Marx. What Lacan calls juissance, therefore, could not for Marx be fundamental or transhistorical or determinative.

If there was something non-negotiable for Marx it was social logic: not the logic of this or that social formation, but social logic. Grasping social logic, however, offers no answer. It is the precondition for meaningful discourse, not in the transhistorical sense Jürgen Habermas credits to it, but in the immanent, flexible, transposable sense more familiar to us from Derrida.

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