Value Theory

Julio Huato juliohuato at
Tue Mar 6 13:40:36 MST 2001

Dr. George Snedeker <snedeker at> replies to my post saying that
"it is quite possible for contemporary economics to be both of practical use
to capital and sterol in the scientific sense of providing an understanding
of the capitalist mode of production."

Let's say it is possible.  Still, that was not Phil's claim.  His claim was
that economics is sterile "in the scientific sense."  His is a pretty strong
claim.  Now, I just say that its practical use to capital -- its huge social
influence in general -- suggests that economics can provide deep insight
into the workings of capitalism.  My argument relies on the mere possibility
that Phil's claim is erroneous.  I could state my opinion in stronger terms,
but then I would have to make the case, which would require much more than a
couple of e-mails.  For one, that would require my discussing the actual
content of current economics, while I would like my argument here to stand
without discussing it.

That said, I resist the idea that the practical importance of modern
economics to capital and its scientific sterility can coexist.  Or, to make
it weaker, that they can coexist for a long time.  I know it is standard
currency among Marxists to think that the whole purpose of bourgeois
economic thought after Ricardo has been – is – to provide an
ideological cover-up.  After all Marx stated unequivocally that once the
class struggle between capitalists and workers reached alarming levels
(circa 1830), economists abandoned critical thinking and turned massively
into defenders of capitalism.  Since then, bourgeois political economy was
dead.  But his was less a definitive forecast of the future state of
bourgeois economic thought than a call to arms.  We have to take his
assertion just as we take his many "forecasts" about how near the end of
capitalism was.

But let's address Marx's point seriously.  Why would economists turned into
apologists of capital?  Because the pressure of class struggle induced them
to do so.  It all came from the practical need to support a besieged mode of
production – one challenged (in practice, not in ideas) by organized,
educated, and belligerent workers.  Let's look around now.  At least for the
moment, capitalism seems pretty relaxed to me.  Where are the proletarian
troops assaulting the bastions of capitalism?  Without such pressures, how
can economists stay perpetually aloof from the uncomfortable questions that
capitalist social life poses continuously?

Notice I don't say that modern economics is a revolutionary science.  Nobody
can say that Smith and Ricardo's ideas were immediately revolutionary
either.  It just seems highly implausible to me that an unbreachable gap
exists between the practical economic needs of capital and the need for
scientific inquiry during such a protracted (170 years) and vigorous period
in the history of capitalism.

But what I think should be the proper approach to modern conventional
economics (to bite the bitter fruit and critique it, not to ignore it) is
not entirely unlike Marx's attitude when he undertook his study of political
economy.  And this is what prompted my response to Phil, who -- as far as I
can see – did not provide much evidence that he had carried out a
thorough review of current economics to support his claim.  In fact, his
entire point was that such exercise was to be avoided.

In Marx's time, except for J S Mill and possible a few other interpreters of
Ricardo, not many critical thinkers cared to understand the ideas of Petty,
Quesney, Turgot, Smith, or Ricardo, and use them to critique capitalism.  I
am sure the prima facie appeal these ideas exerted on Marx (and Engels, who
was the first to pick up on its importance) came from their pervasiveness in
public life.  Smith's work was an indictment of mercantilism, the ruling
trade policies of the time.  Ricardo's theoretical effort was prompted by
the parliamentary debate on the repeal of the protectionist "corn laws."
Public prominence and scientific usefulness are not the same – but
they don't seem to be divorced either.

Finally, let me make a weak appeal to what I consider to be the starting
point of a good intellectual tradition.  Whenever he was confronted with
topics of apparent public importance he knew little about, Marx avoided the
trap of quick judgments and took the time to study them carefully, even if
they were beset with intellectual complexities.  This was young Marx's
attitude towards the debate on communism.  And this was also his attitude
towards "the economy."  Marx-Engels correspondence makes it clear that they
both regarded political economy as a subject of utmost technical difficulty.
  Simply said, Capital would not have been written if the presumption that
political economy was sterile had persuaded his author.

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