‘The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics’ reviewed by Tony Mckenna

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The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics

Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 2013. 432pp., £37 pb
ISBN 9781781001981

Reviewed by Tony McKenna

About the reviewer

Tony is a novelist and philosopher, author of Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist …


It is somewhat irregular to begin a review with an admission of failure – but this I cannot evade. The Elgar Companion to Marxist Economics is an admirable collection which contains 61 short articles on a myriad of themes within Marxist economics, and from a selection of experts in the field – but I feel unable to reference and do justice to each. There are, however, reoccurring themes – of which several in particular loom large.

First off – a number of essays examine the ‘transition’ debate. George C. Comninel’s piece on feudalism briefly summarises the Sweezy-Dobb exchange, arguing that, ultimately, both positions were inadequate – though Comninel doesn’t provide details as to why. He moves on to Perry Anderson’s categorisation of feudalism as the ‘parcellized sovereignties’ which obtained in aftermath of the collapse of Western Rome; sovereignties in which ‘extra-economic’ coercion is key to the extraction of surplus product from dependent peasant tenants, a view with which the current writer is highly sympathetic.

However Comninel criticises Anderson for the fact that such a framework can’t ‘account for the survival of large numbers of free persons not living as dependent tenants on lordly estates’ (133). This seems incongruous to me; to outline in abstract the predominant manner in which unpaid surplus labour extraction is conducted within a series of fragmented territories – which is what Anderson has done – should not mean that this model can’t be deepened and concretised to take into account modes of production which linger and persist (and even combine with the former) on the periphery. Comninel’s other main objection to Anderson seems to be the length of time the latter attributes to the existence of European feudalism and the level of crisis it endures therein – ‘and of 1500 years of the feudal mode of production, 1100 are spent in transition or crisis!’ (133) Unfortunately this, of itself, falls short of a cogent argument, even with the addition of the exclamation mark.

Comninel himself locates feudalism in the mid -tenth century, after the collapse of the Carolingian Empire and the legal powers which regional magnates assumed in its aftermath – or in the case of England – as a result of the ‘open field agriculture, with its subdivided fields and manorial courts’ (136) imposed through the Norman Conquest. This appears to be a clear retreat from a criterion of production as the means of comprehending the underlying character of a given social system in favour of an emphasis on the (admittedly not unrelated) superstructural legal forms.

David Laibman’s excellent and incisive article ‘The transition from feudalism to capitalism’ goes a good way to redeem this. Like Anderson, Laibman locates the genesis of (modern) European feudalism in the decay and collapse of the western-wing of the Roman empire, but if anything his analysis is more fundamental for he seeks to show, in a more classically Marxist way perhaps, that the emergence of feudalism was not simply the result of an abstract negation (the fragmentation of Empire) but that it was a ‘positive’ development which was incubated in the heart of the Roman World and developed out of its ever more volatile social contradictions:

Feudalism…is a precise solution to the defining tension of the slave system of antiquity: the crisis of surplus extraction arising from the extensive growth of the productive forces, due to the brutal and primitive slave method of exploitation…The feudal manorial economy, by contrast, is a small-scale, self-sufficient system, combining partial devolution of control over land, tools and animals to the direct producers. (350-1)

Laibman’s approach allows him to establish the historical necessity with which the feudal epoch grew out of the Roman one, which in turn allows him to account for the high level of intensive productive development feudal economies, for certain periods, tended to enjoy: ‘crop and field rotation, contouring, irrigation, use of fertilizer, deep ploughing using draft animals, application of wind and water power to threshing and milling and so on.’ (351) The fact that feudal economies were often anything but stagnant is worth emphasising – neglected as it has been by many contemporary accounts, perhaps because the sheer dynamism of capitalist productive development has tended to overshadow it.

Jarus Banaji’s ‘Mode of Production’ is part of the same theme. He argues that the ‘mancipia of the post-Roman world were not serfs’ (230), which is undoubtedly true, but at the same time he puts forward the rather more contentious suggestion that they were ‘more like farm workers than peasants.’ (230) This seems to me unlikely, for I think again what is being confused here is feudalism per se with serfdom – i.e., its most developed expression where the peasants were bound to the land (and their economic masters) through a complex of legal codes and obligations and the system of vassalage. Nevertheless Banaji’s is an intelligent and intriguing essay, not least because it displays a keen awareness of how elements of capitalism emerge at key points in antiquity.

In a lucid and well-developed article which connects in with the feudalism theme, ‘The agrarian question and the peasantry’, Terence J. Byres makes the fundamental point that the peasantry is not of itself ‘constitutive of a distinct mode of production’ (11) and must be understood as existing within a variety of such modes, before he goes on to outline some of the differences in the material wealth and productive/exploitative social functions within the differing strata of the peasantry. Then finally he provides a tantalisingly brief examination of ‘the agrarian question’, and of the way the study of it developed through the works of Engels, Kautsky, Lenin and Preobrazhensky. ‘Rent and Landed Property’ by Erik Swyngedouw builds on ‘the agrarian question’ and the manner in which the growing impact of capitalism in the countryside was understood, for it examines the classical theories of agricultural land rent of Ricardo and von Thunen, before demonstrating how Marx both critiqued and combined these approaches in his own four-fold theory of rent (monopoly, absolute, differential I and II). Swyngedouw’s article deserves special mention: it is concise but also systematic and profound, and he manages to articulate the way in which differential rent has at its source labour power and therefore operates according to the Marxist labour theory of value (even if, to appearance, this is not the case). He examines how the logic of differential rent can be applied to the urban context, and finally he looks at the manner in which land markets more and more facilitate forms of speculative ‘fictitious’ capital.

‘The transformation problem’– the way in which value is transmuted into price and surplus value into profit – also provides a recurrent motif. Alfredo Saad-Filho’s ‘Transformation Problem’ is thoughtful and systematic, laying out the common criticisms of the Marxist formula – criticisms which focus on the fact that often capitals will produce different surplus values according to a differing ratio in the organic composition of said capitals. The differences in these ‘value’ patterns, it is then argued, are annulled by the competition of capitals which creates a tendency toward an equalization of profit ultimately expressed through price. Price, therefore, is inexorably alienated from value. The situation is further complicated by the fact that constant capital is often purchased by a given capital in the sphere of distribution – i.e. it is purchased at its price – even though it subsequently combines with labour power at the point of production as an input in order to facilitate value reproduction. All of this, argues its critics, makes the Marxist conception unworkable.

Saad-Filho shows that the criticism levelled against Marx is part of an on-going endeavour to extirpate value theory from economics more broadly. With regard to this, Sungur Savran on ‘Neo-Ricardianism’ is also instructive, for it provides a more detailed critique of Piero Sraffa, and his conception of the ‘Standard Commodity’ – an average measure of total value which hopes, therefore, to exclude fluctuations in price systems (or at least render them less problematic) while at the same time abandoning the need for Ricardo’s emphasis on his own labour theory of value.

Both Saad-Filho and Savran argue that the labour theory of value is quite compatible with price, in as much as we understand that the transition from the first to the second involves a movement from the abstract to the concrete: ‘[I]n Marx’s presentation the abstract content of value is being reproduced in a more complex and concrete form as prices of production, preserving the prior analysis and addressing additional (more concrete) aspects of capitalism on this basis’ (342). This quote, incidentally, with its rather Hegelian flavour, comes from Saad-Fihlo, which is why it is more than a little bizarre that, in the very same article, he denounces the tradition which advocates this approach (Value-form Theory – or at least a certain branch of it) as having offered a ‘stunted contribution’ (345) to the analysis of capitalism. His reasons? Because it supposedly claims that ‘separation’ is the essential feature of commodity production’ and ‘subsumes capitalist relations under simple commodity relations of production.’ (345) Both claims are manifestly unsustainable, I think.  

Indeed Samuel Knafo’s article – ‘Value-form approach’ goes a little way to rectify this. Knafo references Geoff Pilling, a much neglected Marxist economist whose work, in turn, was partially inspired by the tragic figure of the great Hegelian-Marxist philosopher Evald Illyenkov. This type of methodology has the ultimate advantage of recasting ‘the transformation problem’ in terms of social relations and the concomitant transformation of a social substance by way of the logic of practical/real abstraction, as opposed to those accounts which remain confined to the level of appearance, and pose the issue purely from the purview of the need to achieve some kind of quantitive parity between fixed and opposed forms of measurement. It seems to me the collection really misses a trick here – for thinkers like Roman Rodolsky, Chris Arthur, Geoff Pilling and Isaac Rubin barely receive mention. And, in a related way, the sections on the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall also seem to revert to a purely empirical explanation at the expense of the logical and systematic necessity which underpins Marx’ own. (I think, incidentally, Michael Lebowitz gives a fine account of the latter in his book Following Marx).

Furthermore, a couple of the articles in the collection strike me as decidedly anti-Marxist in terms of method. Barbara Harris-White’s ‘Ecology and the environment’ is a well-intentioned attempt to place the question of Marxist ecology firmly on the table and to relate it positively to some of the central themes in contemporary ecological struggle; but in so doing she manages to reproduce some awful, errant nonsense. For instance, she cites favourably something called ‘Marxist eco feminism’ which purports to show how ‘women have a grounded relationship with nature through their socio-biological reproductive activity, compared with the alienated relationship with nature in which men are placed’. (108) This is only a hair’s breadth away from out and out biological reductionism; the hippy-esque notion of the woman as earth-mother, as the soft, passive, holistic bearer of life, whereas man, through the immediacies of his own biology, is innately more ‘destructive’. (108) This resembles neither Marxism nor feminism.

Heesang Jeon, in ‘Knowledge Economy’, seems to follow in the dubious footsteps of Hardt and Negri and their nebulous notions of ‘immaterial labour’, for he employs another artificially inflated concept – that of ‘knowledge labour’ which he distinguishes from ‘commodity producing labour’. (183) Admittedly, this distinction has something of a historical basis. In a well written and insightful piece (`Labour, labour power, and the division of labour’) Bruno Tinel observes that the emergence of capitalism, despite the great impetus it provided to technological development, led to the appropriation of the handicraft knowledge once possessed by the individual labourer, so that ‘increasingly, capital dominates all knowledge useful for production’ (191). Technology, and the knowledge which underpins it is, therefore, increasingly experienced as an alien power.

It is from this context that Jeon is able to extrapolate the independent and supposedly objective economic category of ‘knowledge labour’. But the theoretical manoeuvre he performs here is utterly illegitimate – he has simply fetishized a particular aspect of historical development. Jeon gives us the example of car production, ‘a new model requires initial design, building of a prototype, testing and fixing of defects, as well as market research and so on.’ (183) Thus, he argues, so called ‘knowledge labour’ is prior to ‘commodity producing labour’. What Jeon has overlooked is that the designers, testers, researchers, etc., manifest their knowledge and expertise for the most part by selling the use of it to their employers for a given period of time – i.e., they sell it as the commodity labour power. The distinction Jeon has drawn between knowledge and commodity collapses.

However the strengths in this collection by far outweigh the weaknesses. I’d like to conclude by mentioning a few more of them. There is a fascinating on-going discussion about the state – with a contribution from Bob Jessop (‘The state’) which examine the sometimes contradictory role the state plays in the consummation of the capitalist social order, ‘ending feudal privileges, promoting the enclosure of the commons … but the state also … imposes factory laws, responds to the housing question, secures cheap food and so on.’ (335) In a similar vein Daniel Ankarloo’s interesting and thoughtful piece, ‘The welfare state’, examines the way in which the welfare state can both facilitate capital reproduction and weaken it. Gary Slater’s robust and astute contribution, ‘Unemployment’, reconstructs Marx’s concept of the ‘industrial reserve army’ by describing its composite layers, and stressing that, ultimately, unemployment is not an arbitrary aspect of capitalist accumulation but rather one of its prerequisites. Slater also resurrects Marx’s strident critique of Malthus and his overpopulation thesis – highly relevant to many of the reactionary tropes peddled by the media today.

In addition, Simon Mohun provides an accurate account of the difference between productive and unproductive labour in Marxist terms, particularly with regard to the non-productive ‘state sector’ and the domestic sphere. Ben Fine provides an excellent account of the Labour theory of value. Tony Smith offers a penetrating critique of the ‘new economy perspective’. Prabhat Patnaik provides a perspicuous and refreshing take on Lenin which reinstates the libertarian aspect of his thought and provides a clarification of his theory of imperialism. Many of the other articles I have failed to reference set an equally high standard.

23 February 2014

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