rational choice theory?

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Mon Apr 3 23:09:28 MDT 1995

On Mon, 3 Apr 1995 fellini at keynes.econ.utah.edu wrote:

> Just a quick observation about Justin's argument. He wrote:
> If I understand Justin's point correctly, he simply repeats Eric Olin
> Wright's (or others' like Elster) argument in, for example:
> Erik Olin Wright, "Giddens's Critique of Marxism," _New Left Review_,
> No. 138 (March-April 1983), pp. 5-35. (for a revised version of it:
> "Models of Historical Trajectory: an Assessment of Giddens's Critique of
> Marxism," _Social Theory of Modern Societies: Anthony Giddens and his
> Critics_, David Held and John B. Thompson, Cambridge UP, 1989, pp. 77-102).

Not at all. Wright's argument is based on a tendency towards increasing
productive efficiency and has nothing to do with class or other group
struggle. My argument is about resistance to domination and has nothing to
do with productive efficiency.

> This is a powerful argument (provided that 'progress' always requires a
> 'vantage point' from which some change is assessed), but what I don't
> like in it is that it is based on Rational Choice Theory (RCT), albeit
> an aggregated version of it. And I believe RCT has nothing to do with
> Marxism; we should get rid of it.

My argument isn't based on RCT, since it turns on the potentials of group
actors and persons essentially identified as members of groups. Moreover
there's nothing about maximizing expected utility. I use the notion of
interests (quite deliberately) and not preferences. The list of
differences between my (essentially Lukacsian) approach and RCT is very

That said, I disagree quite strongly that RCT has no use for Marxists.
In fact, Marx himself quite clearly uses proto-RCT models in his political
economy,a s Elster and Little show, and even if he didn't, Elster, et al.
show that RCT is a useful tool. Of course one musn't make it a
philosopher's stone as Elster does. But one shouldn't dismiss as
"bourgeois." Recall what Marx said about bourgeois political economy: it
has objective validity for a determinate epoch, namely ours. If we live in
a society that tends to make us into RCT actors, we can use the theory to
see how we behave under these circumstances.

--Justin Schwartz

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