Reply to Julio Huato: Getting to the Finland Station

Julio Huato juliohuato at
Sun Jul 13 21:04:17 MDT 2003

Jurriaan writes:

>Of course there is "theoretical system" in Marx in some sense [...] If you
>think Marx provided all the answers already, you are not motivated to
>inquire further into the real problems, the problem of the conduct of
>socialist politics and the problem of the transition to socialism. That is
>not conducive to innovation, to creative, independent thought.

I get your point now.  I was talking about something else.  I agree with
you.  Marx's theory is not to be *directly* applied to the analysis of
capitalist formations.  There are parts, particularly in the vol. 2 and 3
that need updating, clarification -- perhaps revision.  More concrete layers
need to be put in place: the state, the world market, the crises, going back
to wages and capital accumulation at a more concrete level, etc.  And the
critique of modern bourgeois economic thought needs to be carried out -- the
'reframing,' uncovering of hidden assumptions that you mention, but also the
appropriation of their 'rational kernels.'  (This is a task that modern
Marxists have avoided to a large extent.  Some of them are perhaps more
comfortable borrowing ideas from the 'heterodox' crowds.)

Rather I was responding to the claim that new historical information on the
origins of capitalism requires a replacement (or avoidance) of what Marx
already built (the more abstract layers).  I interpreted your
'unfinishedness' of Marx's project in this sense.  A back door for claims
such as these to sneak in: "Imperialism, extra-economic coercion, etc. and
free wage labor are one and the same thing or the theoretical distinction is
irrelevant," "The environmental decay in our time invalidates -- or makes it
irrelevant to refer to -- the law of value," etc.  This is the point I was
trying to make when Rakesh intervened.

That the more abstract layers of Marx's work are obsolete has to be
established, not assumed.  For some reason, some people tend to interpret
new historical information within theoretical frameworks that are not
Marx's.  Of course, there should be possible -- in principle -- to get rid
of the elements of Marx's framework that prove to be invalid.  But the
procedure has to be based on a straightforward marshalling of facts and
logic.  The trick of attributing to Marx views he explicitly -- or
implicitly but clearly -- rejected in order to use Marx's authority as an
argument should not fly.

I don't want to speculate about 'material interests' rationalized by these
theories.  At a 'superficial' level, it is easy to see the strong career
incentives for young Marxist social scientists to present their work as a
radical departure from past interpretations.  The complexity of the
evolution of Marx's thought (a task Ernst Mandel took up seriously) is no
reason to yield.

>If Marx's dialectical theory is working well, then you are simultaneously
>importing new empirical content all the time and developing theory all the
>time. Dialectical theory is not the same as mathemathical formalisation,
>rather, it is a prologue to mathematical systems. Dialectical theory
>provides a method for developing theory in a non-arbitrary way, for
>developing the premises on which mathematical formalisation is based in a
>non-arbitrary way.

I think of cognitive dialectics in a much simpler way.  Of course, the
'presentation' presupposes the "appropriation of the material in detail" --
if we have not previously extracted the signal from the noise, what/how are
we going to present?  Of course, any inferential effort (the so-called
'empirical work') is dependent upon the premises of the procedures used.
But, given the logical (mathematical) tools available, the premises come
from the established best theory available.  In that sense, the premises are
not arbitrary.  And of course, we're talking about an iterative process.

The 'mathematics' or the 'formalization' doesn't come later.  Formalizing is
just another name for theorizing.  We light up our practical clash with the
world by formalizing, doing empirical work, formalizing, doing empirical
work...  Is there direction in the formalization?  Well, that depends on the
practical task, which determines the object of inquiry.  Formalization may
lead to generalize or to deepen into the particulars, or to both.  It
depends on the practical needs.

Do we need -- as you say -- a "dialectical theory" to have "a method" to
develop "the premises" so that we can undertake a "mathematical
formalization" the right way?  That's too long a chain in my view.  I think
of cognitive dialectics as this back and forth between induction and
deduction, between 'empirical work' and 'formalization.'

But isn't dialectics also ontological (the way the objective world moves)?
It must be.  Otherwise (forgive my functional way of arguing) this cognitive
interaction would not be necessary and it would not lead to practical
success.  Objective dialectics is what underlies the back and forth between
empirical work and formalization.  That is why no formal system can be
complete or absolutely decidable.  The dialectics in the objective world
appears into theoretical systems in the form of 'paradoxes' or

Whether the formalization is 'mathematical' or 'discursively logical,'
depends on the subject matter and on the state of 'mathematics' and 'logic.'
  I usually think of mathematics in a tautological (dialectical?) way, as
"mathematics is what mathematicians do."

At least in the fields of economic analysis that I'm most familiar with, my
impression is that mathematics has swallowed logic to a large extent.  With
a suitable definition of mathematics (which is compatible with the practice
of the mathematicians as I observe it), logic appears to me as a subset of

>But a model is only an analogy, not a theory. Modern scientists mostly do
>not work like Marx does. Marx's emphasis is on the assumptions of the
>model. Modern science, at least economics, concentrates more on building
>the model on the basis of plausible analogies.

A model, by the choice of premises, is already theory in the sense you use
the term.  When economists build models, they are building theories.  Given
the constraints imposed by the state of our 'logic' and 'mathematics,' why
would one choose some assumptions and not others if one doesn't think those
assumptions are the ones that best reflect the essential characteristics of
a phenomenon?  (A functional argument again.)  If the deductive structure of
the model doesn't reflect those characteristics, only by chance we'd get
good results.

Formalizing is theorizing.  'Presenting' is spelling out the deductive
structure that goes from the premises to the conclusions.  And this
deductive structure is a formal system.  The conclusions are to be compared
with the observable facts and -- more generally -- with our practical
experience.  (More on conclusions below.)  And the cycle goes on and on.

There is nothing here that gives us the answers ready made.  The struggle
shifting and expands our subject matter continuously.  As we try to extract
the answers, we refine our methods, and we go on an iterative interplay
between 'empirical work' and 'theorizing.'  Everything -- and I mean
everything -- is moving.  There is no universal algorithm.

I insist, theorizing is reducing.  It is extracting the signal out of the
noise.  The acceptable cutoff point between signal and noise depends on the
depth and scope of our practical needs and -- I guess -- the level of
empirical complexity our brains can accept when making decisions.  The
conclusions of a deductive structure have to be calibrated to that level of
empirical complexity as well.  When I do grocery shopping, the level of
empirical complexity that my brain requires to decide whether to put
something on the shopping cart or not is pretty low and my wife has to write
a list for me, in some cases detailing the size and color of the can, etc.

Theorizing is something like computing a 'statistic' -- i.e., a complex
function -- of the 'chaotic concrete' by which we squeeze the 'abstract laws
of motion' out of it, and then use 'logic' and 'mathematics' to derive (with
'intermediate links' if required) conclusions that are verifiable by
observation and practical experience.  We push the theoretical deductive
structure all the way down to the level of empirical complexity we require
to deal with our practical tasks.

An issue is whether there are social phenomena so complex that there is no
way to reduce them to a manageable theory.  The Keynesian tradition in
economics emphasizes this case.  A phenomenon such as 'long-run investment,'
a crucial link in the reproduction of a modern capitalist economy, is in
Keynes' General Theory, chapter 12, not amenable to theoretical reduction
because it is -- as Duncan Foley puts it -- a 'self-referential' process (an
endless loop in an algorithm).  (John Paramo accused me of 'economic
reductionism' because -- perhaps -- he doesn't think that all theorizing is
necessarily 'reductionism.')  But Marxism is not nihilism.  We are driven by
practical needs.  We may even use a ballpark approximation to a 'solution.'
In immediate political decisions, we may use our intuition -- or some
quick-and-dirty trial-and-error decisions rules.

So I think of it more along Lenin's "concrete analysis of the concrete
situation," except that I think of it as requiring a clear articulation with
Marx's most polished results (which happen to be higher abstractions because
that's where he left things).  Either the abstract layers of Marx's critic
of political economy are valid or not, helpful or not.  And if they are
invalid, their refutation needs to be explicit.  As you say, how come he
foresaw with such accuracy the tendencies of capitalism?  (See, you also
give functionalist arguments.)  That _must have_ something to do with his
'theory' (even if still highly abstract) and his 'method.'  But, agreed, we
shouldn't confuse his presentation with what he actually did.

I'd think, based on the way he argues, that Nicholas Siemensma would object
to my talking of the elements or layers of Marx's theoretical structure as
if they could be separated from the whole just like that.  In fact, I
believe that if the question of the relationship between the whole and the
parts is not muddled, then it can be successfully formulated in reference to
Marvin Minsky's "The Society of the Mind."

If we are materialists, then our 'explanation' of the human mind has to boil
down to the properties, functions, etc. of elements that in themselves are
mindless *and* to their mutual relationship.  There's nothing else, unless
we draw some mystical card off our sleves.  Likewise, our 'explanation' of
life boils down to elements that in themselves are lifeless *and* to their
mutual relationship.  The novel properties of the whole spring out of the
mutual relationship between the parts.  Etc.  So, saying that the whole
'overdetermines' the parts (or something like that) things of the sort is
waving your hands at a question, unless you take the time to analyze the
parts independently and then describe their mutual relationship from which
the novelty emerges.  The 'overdetermination' of the parts by the whole
doesn't imply that you leave the parts and their relationship in obscurity.

Our problematization of reality (we can frame our practice as "problem
solving," which is just another name for "meeting our radical needs"), i.e.,
the political struggle decides what area of life to study concretely.  I
believe the highest priority for international Marxism nowadays is to
understand the dynamics of the rich societies (U.S., EU, and Japan).  IMO,
Marx's choice of the capitalist mode of production (not other modes based on
extra-economic squeezing of surplus product or surplus labor) as his subject
matter and of England as his mental laboratory in the study of such mode of
production hints as to what he thought would give him the biggest bang for
the buck.  I know I should qualify this statement a little (I can imagine
someone saying, "Julio Huato believes that South Africans should not study
their society"), but I'll leave it at that.

>The biggest flaw in most of them is that they confuse Marx's method of
>inquiry with his method of presentation, and they do not look
>biographically at what he did.

Right.  Rosdolsky's and Preobrazhensky's point.

>Marx himself had enormous difficulty with finding an adequate method of
>presentation, and this is clear from textual evidence. [...] The circuits
>of economic life can, after all, be approached from all sorts of different
>angles, it is just that they way you decide to abstract, the direction in
>which you abstract, has consequences for your ability to integrate more and
>more phenomena consistently within the same theoretical framework or
>foundation. [...] Of course, you can start somewhere else as well, but then
>at some point you encounter problems which cannot be solved within the
>theoretical framework which you have established.

In a sense, we are much less constrained now than Marx was.  Depending on
the economics of the project, we may want to take a more 'computational,'
trial-and-error approach to this.  In Marx's time, there were no word
processors -- or even typewriters (my gosh, not even that!).  If we don't
have a simple algorithm to find for us the 'best' approach (in your sense of
allowing for further refinement in a coherent way), then use computational
brute force: approach things from as many plausible angles as possible and
let things sort out as they may.  Let one thousand flowers bloom.  To
facilitate that, it would be good if we overcome the tradition of
intellectual intolerance bequeathed by our heroes (the dirty water), but
retain their theoretical discipline (the baby).

>Typical of a dialectical method of research (which I do not propose to
>discuss exhaustively) is to say that a condition, if it exists, has not
>ONE, but SEVERAL mutually contradictory implications. [...] Through
>examining successive contradictory implications, and discovering how they
>are mediated, a theoretical structure is built up.

I don't think mathematics or logic -- as practiced nowadays -- is
incompatible with 'several mutually exclusive implications.'  Because you
also say that/how those 'contradictory implications' are logically

>there is no predetermined path of abstraction which is the only correct
>one, no recipe for success. Therefore, for the purpose of presentation, you
>need to know the conclusion you want to reach already before you plot the
>path of abstraction (the development of contradictory implications and
>their mediation) to get to it.

Right.  The rabbit goes in the hat first.  Marx warns us a few times that
his presentation will leave the impression of being an a-priori construct.
His presentation hides his research and analytical effort to a large extent.
  It's like a Camejo speech -- it seems so effortless.  Try giving an
effortless speech.

I like your description of Hegel's intellectual quest.  Clipped.

I say "we produce knowledge and science because we need it, for survival at
first and later for whatever we humans decide that matters."

>I disagree. Marx says you need science because (social) reality is not
>transparent, if it is transparent and obvious, you don't need social
>science. People are forced to do social science because the inability to
>satisfy their human needs forces them problematise social reality, to
>inquire into it. [...]

I don't see the disagreement.  In another paragraph, I allude to social
science in particular.  I imply that it makes sense to produce social
science when we need to get rid of exploitation, oppression, *and*
alienation.  That is, when social life is opaque.

I wrote:

>>It is no accident that the use of optimization mathematical techniques
>>developed by, say, Newton, Leibniz, et al., are applied in economic
>>analysis and -- if carefully applied -- they work (imply effects that
>>match our observations).  They work, not because economists impose on
>>economic reality a structure that has nothing to do with economic reality.
>>  No.  Social life is -- in a highly mediated way -- a peculiar extension
>>of the evolution of nature.  If optimization models work in mechanics and
>>thermodynamics, they will work in economics too (to some extent, to the
>>extent social processes are, until now, processes of 'natural history').


>If this is true, why then do human beings destroy nature ?

Because, at a point in time, we people don't choose freely the 'optimal'
economic structures.  Our 'choice' of an 'optimal' economic structure is
constrained by the society we inherit historically and -- particularly -- by
our productive force, which cannot be expanded at once.  So, for now, we are
stuck with (opaque) economic structures that don't allow for a socially
coherent optimization exercise.  So, we instead have individual, mutually
contradictory optimization exercises.  The social outcome of these
incoherent exercises is humanly costly.  Our most effective 'controls' or
degrees of freedom are political.  We can and should use them to dynamically
align productive forces, economic structures, laws, etc.  This is a way to
say, "to lessen the birth pangs."

Just in case it is not obvious, I am referring to, say, Newton's variational
calculus (or Pontryaguin's optimal control), as a *metaphor* for Marx's
historical materialism.  I'm not as naive as to believe that the state of
these tools is such that the complexity of history can be fitted in them
fruitfully.  There's the issue of uncertainty that, because of the
self-referential character of social analysis, we may not be able to model
at all with the available tools.  There's the issue of time path dependency,
and a host of other issues.  It is just a figure of speech.  But the very
fact that we can draw these analogies is telling.

Finally, IMHO, a life worth living is both enjoyable and productive (in the
sense of helping others).  Like many things, life comes with different
degrees of enjoyability.  Sometimes our way to increase its enjoyability is
to focus on our productivity.

And no, I don't mean 'economy of time' in a way that sacrifices quality of
life.  It is not 'rational' to spend too much time trying to economizing
one's time.  The flowers are real -- they must be rational.   They must be
the result of an optimization exercise made by this Hegelian nature.  An
exercise aimed to maximize our sensorial pleasure, of course -- which is the
highest realization of the Idea. :-)


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