[Marxism] Ecological Economics vs The Misevaluation of Value by the Traditionalists

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Mon Aug 16 00:06:40 MDT 2004

I don 't think Tony Abdo understood what I was saying. I am not saying at
all that things have no value, unless you can count them out in dollars and
cents. If that was the case, I would have lived differently.

What I was saying is that capitalist markets only value economically, what
is compatible with or conducive to capitalist markets (and seeks out those
social norms suitable with their self-perpetuation), but apart from that
markets do not imply any particular ethics, and have no morality of their
own, beyond what is required to settle market transactions. That is both a
source of freedom and a source of misery.

Because markets have not just positive effects, but also serious negative
effects for human life, one sort of critique is to suggest that economics
needs some new value-criteria, some new valuations, some new morality. That
might well be true. But this sidesteps the whole question of why people hold
the actual morals that they do hold, why particular valuations are
systematically generated, encouraged and perpetuated, and how morals could
change and do change.

The basic reality of capitalist civilisation is that it systematically
values human work and work-time as a means for accumulation of private
capital, and that is what, for better or worse, Marx sought to theorise the
implications of. He does have a clear moral critique of that, in terms of
the oppressive and exploitative effects this has.

I don't deny that a new ethics for resource allocation is required, in fact
I have previously argued that in several posts. The problem however is that
while it is fine and good to elaborate such an ethics, getting people to
believe in such an ethics and live accordingly, is quite another story. That
is a question of politics and popular culture, and of the contest of power
between social classes who seek to impose their own scheme of moral values.

Marx and Engels refer to this problem in their satirical preface to "The
German Ideology" which was aimed at the new crop of critical Hegelian
moralists: "Hitherto [it is claimed] people have constantly made up for
themselves false conceptions about themselves, about what they are and what
they ought to be. They have arranged their relationships according to their
ideas of God, of normal man, etc. The phantoms of their brains have got out
of their hands. They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations.
Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings
under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule
of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for
thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up
a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their
heads; and -- existing reality will collapse. (...) Once upon a time a
valiant fellow had the idea that men drowned in water only because they were
possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of
their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept,
they would be sublimely saved from any danger from water. His whole life
long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all
statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was
the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany."

Marx's own point of view was that philosophical prescriptions had to be
transcended, and replaced with empirical, scientific knowledge about how to
change things, reducing the field for philosophical inquiry to epistemology,
logic and possibly ethics. But ethics for Marx could not be discussed in
abstraction from the real practical activity of people, and consequently
could not be discussed in abstraction from class interests and real clashes
of moralities in political life; an ethics elaborated in abstraction from
the real practical activity and life of citizens, he considered essentially
an "ideological" discourse. Consequently Marx's ethics is an empirical
(experiential) ethics, in which the emphasis is on how an ethics is, or can
be, formed in human life, and under what conditions it can be formed. Some
of the issues involved are discussed by Ernst Bloch, Gyorgy Lukacs, Agnes
Heller and so on.

I am all in favour of integrating basic ecological truths into economic
science, but the real question is why it doesn't really happen, and why many
Greens see capitalist markets as perfectly compatible with ecological
objectives (Green capitalism). The paradox is that selling ecologically
sound products goes together with the massive despoilation of living and
working environments anyhow, and the destruction of flora and fauna.

I have said what I think the problem basically is: economics assumes that
allocation of resources through markets is the best, only and most efficient
method of allocating them, and therefore the only way personal values can be
expressed is through prices. If something has a human value, but no price
(or no price can be attached), then that is fine but it is ruled out of
economics, because economics is about the allocation of scarce resources
through the price-mechanism. One way to see it is that modern economics is
the "self-understanding of markets".


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