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Economics: Class War by Another Name

Frank Lee

The terrible case which … socialists are able to make out against the present economic order of society demands a full consideration of all means by which the ownership of property may be … made to work in a manner beneficial to that large portion of society which at present enjoys the least share of its direct benefits.(John Stuart Mill – Essays on Economics – 1824

I recall an old anarchist cartoon which was in the form of a pyramid. The top stratum consisted of Kings and Queens, millionaires, billionaires, high-ranking politicians, the military, ministers and statesmen and various other high-falutin’ members of the ruling elite: the adjacent caption read – “We rule you.” The next tier down, consisted of the Pope, cardinals, archbishops, priests and other members of the clergy: the caption read – “We fool you.” Beneath that there were soldiers and militia and police: the caption read – “We shoot you.” And the lowest, broader and most populous layer was – us, the ordinary folk, the caption read: – “we support you”

In modern times legitimation of the ancien regime is a function of a sophisticated propaganda apparatus which is both ubiquitous and omnipresent. This configuration consists of academics, politicians, journalists, economists, think tanks, and so forth, among what is a huge army of other specialists in psychological warfare and thought control. My choice of economists may seem arbitrary but in fact it is of crucial importance. Economics, or political economy as it was called during the first half of the 19th century, played a pivotal ideological role in the ongoing conflict between classes. What started as an attempt at a disinterested analysis into ‘’An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’’ to quote Adam Smith, ended up as a tool of vested interests which sought to solidify and consolidate the dominant position of the ruling class.

In Marx’s words:

In France and England, the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the death knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested enquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research the bad conscience and bad intent of the apologist.”[1]

This was the first ideological counter-revolution in economics.

Prior to this had been the British classical school of political economy. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill were in a restricted sense disinterested enquirer but, in addition, they were also political and social reformers, champions of a class struggle of the rising industrial bourgeoisie against the land-owning aristocracy. Ricardo’s part in the repeal of the Corn Laws, and Mill’s championing of the poor and dispossessed which included the extension of suffrage to women, Irish reform, and the prosecution of Governor Eyre for atrocities committed during his administration of Jamaica cast them as significant political agitators against the regime. The prevalent hegemony of the rentier class was a formidable impediment to economic development, and the aforementioned trio were on the right side of history in both normative and political senses.

Notwithstanding their progressive beliefs these proponents of nascent capitalism had, as Marx was to point out, their theoretical limitations; their political economy reached its apogee with Mill’s classical reformist liberalism (in the true sense an meaning of the word) but was superseded by the altogether more reactionary and openly class orientation of the neo-classicists, Jevons, Walras and Marshall who provided the theoretical underpinnings and rationale of capitalist rule. This new ‘scientific economics’ was essentially a doctrine of pseudo-scientific twaddle whose axioms were taken to be self-evident.

The appearance of this ideological counter-revolution presaged a grotesque stalling in the capitalist system which has lasted to this day; the bourgeois revolution was never completed in the UK, and industry has always played second fiddle to finance and landed property. This rent-seeking, rentier economy has been complemented with political anachronisms such as the monarchy, with the monarch as head of state, and a non-elected second chamber (The House of Lords) as well as an unwritten (i.e., non-existent) constitution. Britain has been described as ‘Banana Monarchy’ which is not far from being an accurate description.

Neo-liberalism, as opposed to 19th century reform liberalism, has been the direct descendent of the neo-classical school and subsequently the dominant ideological vehicle for the last 150 years, particularly in the Anglo-American world. (As an appendage, a watered-down version of Keynesianism was added on during the post WW2 period 1945-1975).

Such changes in economic, political and social structures always presuppose and are accompanied by changes in the existing status quo and general weltgeist. The post-war boom which lasted from circa 1945-1970 was to founder of the rocks of the US trade deficit, the costs of the Vietnam war and Johnson’s Great Society, the oil crisis which in fact was the function of the dollar’s devaluation, the outflow of gold from the US to Europe, the industrial catch-up and recovery of Japan and Germany and a prolonged stagflation of the early 1970s. The whole system needed rebooting and capital needed to reassert if poll position if it was to regain its vitality and profitability.

Enter the second counter-revolution initiated by the Chicago school, Milton Freidman and ‘monetarism’ a ‘theory’ which was taken up with alacrity by the political establishment in the shape of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; albeit in a crude, populist form, and which has shaped economic policy ever since. Suffice it to say this second counter-revolution was to all intents and purposes a restatement of the first counter-revolution, but with moderate Keynesianism purged out.

From the outset this was a political project; the policy was one of altering the balance of economic and political power between the many and the few; but of course, this was never and could never be openly stated. The movement which began in the early 70s initially carried all before it, subsuming not only the traditional conservative right, but also most gallingly, the clueless and supine social-democratic centre-left – Blair and Blairism in the UK and Clinton in the US who emerged as proponents of a reactionary centrism and confirming the disappearance of the centre left into the black hole of an imaginary ‘Third Way’ where it has remained ever since.

In political and philosophical terms liberal doctrine itself is predicated upon a set of beliefs and values which celebrate the virtues of a militant individualism and an unremitting hostility to any form of welfarism, collectivism and communalism. Another important facet of this project was a type of globalist utopianism envisaging a monocultural world without borders, sovereignty, or democracy which was to be administered by an all-knowing technocratic and unelected elite. A flavour of this type of thinking is to be found in the writings of someone like Ayn Rand, to wit: “Civilization is the is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public ruled by laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting free man from men.”

Or in a cruder form: “There is no such thing as society.” (Mrs Thatcher). Or best of all the French President Emanuel Macron’s contribution to western civilization, to wit: “There is no such thing as French culture.” (sic!)

So, writers like, Camus, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Stendahl, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert had little or nothing to say? How about philosophers? Descartes, Bastiat, Merleau-Ponty, Althusser, Foucault et al, had little of value to say. Composers? Bizet, Debussy, Berlioz, Ravel. Saint-Saens were equally bereft of any identifiable talent? Let’s not even get on to the painters. But I digress. Compare Mill’s view of unrestricted capitalist development with the above mountebanks.

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that of trampling, crushing, elbowing and treading on one another’s heels are the most desirable lot for human kind or for any of the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.”[2]

Could the difference be starker?

In economic terms the neoliberal paradigm consists of a number of key postulates. It is taken as being axiomatic that always and everywhere markets know best; they are the infallible means whereby economic end goals are realised.

An unrestrained capitalism – that is, a system without any public goods, deregulated and flexible product and labour markets, minimal legislation (if any) designed to curtail market failures (negative externalities such as pollution, depletion of natural resources) are all seen as market ‘distortions’ which interrupt the inner mechanisms of a free market* – of course there never has been, isn’t and never will be such an economic arrangement that could be recognised as a ‘free-market’, all markets are regulated, controlled, and organized to a large extent by public authority; the state and the economy are not antipodes, they are twins – and prevent its natural movement towards equilibrium and the maximisation of social welfare. And so, on and so forth.

All of these are simply a type of religious beliefs, utterly remote from scientific methodology. Not to put too fine a point on it – it is mostly claptrap, and was debunked quite easily even by bourgeois scholars like Veblen and Schumpeter.

This, however, doesn’t stop it being trumpeted from on high by academic economists, financial journalists, Central Banks and Treasury Departments around the world, and, in addition by institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and the Economist.

The current stage of the globalist project – austerity – is embarrassingly transparent in its class loyalties and overall effects.

Austerity packages, which are often more eloquently branded as “structural reforms”, are nothing but mechanisms to transfer wealth from labour to capital, with an underlying logic that profits are private, and losses are socialised. When salaries and pensions are cut, when healthcare and education budgets are shrunk, when public services are dismantled, when thousands of workers are laid off, in order to pay back creditors, the people are being sacrificed to safeguard the interests of a handful of shareholders, be they national or foreign.

This transfer of wealth also occurs under the form of privatisations. These can be blatant or hidden under the pretext of the inefficiency of public management, but bailouts and structural adjustment plans have always been tremendous opportunities for capitalists. In the Greek case, important state assets, such as airports or the port of Piraeus, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean, ended up in private hands.[3]

Furthermore, the activities of academic economists have become (perhaps it always was the case – see Marx above) a type of totally opaque, Jesuitical nonsense. Here’s an interesting quote from a hard-nosed business journalist, it’s worth reading.

Academic economics has become a disaster and a disgrace … Not only did most academic economists fail to see the great implosion of 2008 coming, but they weren’t even looking in the right direction. And having been surprised by its arrival they have little to say about its implications…

Although there are shining exceptions, most academic economists, whilst clinging to the idea that the subject is relevant and of interest to the wider world, in fact practice a modern form of medieval scholasticism – of no use to man or beast. The output of this activity consists of articles entombed in ‘scholarly’ journals usually about questions of startling irrelevance, badly thought out, and appallingly badly written, littered with jargon, and liberally dosed with mathematics, destined to be read by no-one outside of a narrow coterie of specialists, and increasingly not even by them.” [4]

Mr Bootle is entirely correct of course, but one is entitled to ask: cui bono? Who gains from such asinine verbiage. I don’t think we have to look very far for the answer. The current economic paradigm is little more than ideology; a rationale articulated and disseminated by the hirelings of the ruling stratum – a stratum which will defend that will defend and justify the power and privileges by all means possible, including economics, both in theory and practice.

To paraphrase Henry Ford – Economics is Bunk.

NOTES:-

  • [1] K. Marx – Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital – 1873
  • [2] John Stuart Mill – Principles of Political Economy, Book IV Chapter 6 p.748. first Published in 1848.
  • [3] Ricardo Vaz – Argentina’s Crisis – 2018
  • [4] Roger Bootle – The Trouble with Markets – 2009

26 Comments

  1. Nigel Hanrahan says

    Paul Romer has written about the misuse of mathematics in economic analysis. “Mathiness” , like “Truthiness” is a kind of flavour- pseudo-scientific but interesting and juicy. It is terminological marketing of “Math-like” subjects, sexed up to look legitimate, etc., but, sadly, just another load of animal droppings, codswallop, etc.

  2. rilme says

    Oh dear! There’s a layer in the middle that I can’t read, and the author has clarified the other layers but not that one.
    We kat for you. (or maybe it’s kay, ray, or rat).
    Please help.

  3. Control of Resources says

    Globalism and Imperialism are the same thing taking various forms.

    Globalism+Neo-Libralism = New Colonialism.

    China understands that the new phase of Colonialism, following Neo-Liberalism, is: Control of Resources.

  4. Learn MMT. That mainstream economics is broken and that neoliberalism is class war aren’t in dispute.
    But there are post-Keynesians doing good work.
    Not that the regulars here want to know.

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    • John says

      We don’t want to hear it. Keynesian shite is still capitalism. That’s why. We want to be able to look out for one another not use a system that would be tossed aside the moment someone with money in an envelope or in a dodgy transaction comes to subvert it. Which would happen in no time.

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      • Well that’s the political issue. Not the economics. Maybe try to stop being so angry, open your mind and learn.

      • MMT is not Keynesianism. It’s a description of the system that currently exists, and the possibilities inherent in it that are not being utilized efficiently.

  5. Kavy says

    Why The UK Lost Its Oil Wealth (And Why Norway Didn’t)

    An awesome video, the Norwegians had a Labour government which kept its high taxes while investing its oil wealth, but Britain spent all its oil wealth on tax cuts (and it doesn’t say here, but also on large dole queues as Thatcher destroyed British industry putting millions out of work).

    Britain’s GDP did grow for a while, but tanked when the oil money run out, while Norway’s economy prospered under socialism and grew steadily rich. Today, Norway is one of the richest counties in the world, while most of Britain, except for London and the South, is one of the poorest countries in Northern Europe.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=b_l3eLhYbVo

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    • grafter says

      Kavy, the oil money has not run out. It continues to pour into the coffers of the Westminster regime in London. Scotland is surrounded by massive oil wealth. It continues to flow 24/7. This situation is hidden and downplayed by the corrupt MSM.

    • Was the UK an energy exporter at any time in that period?
      I suspect not, which renders your complaint moot.
      Norway exports its oil for foreign currency and runs a massive trade surplus.
      Which makes the macroeconomics entirely different and of no worth comparing.

  6. bevin says

    You are far too kind to the Ricardo/ Mill/ Malthus generation of liberal Political Economists.
    They were as guilty as ideologists can be for the crucifixion of the English working class, the appalling treatment of the urban proletariat largely constructed out of dispossessed rural people and the famines of the age, most notably the Great Hunger in Ireland.
    And then there are the crimes of the imperialists who were almost to a man disciples of the liberals…
    To suggest that something sinister happened to Political Economy in the latter part of the C19th is laughable. For the monument of the liberals look around- they gave imperialism its theoretical underpinning, they armed the enemies of the working people with a theory that, logically becomes open fascism whenever the challenge to the right of the ruling class to engage in unlimited exploitation is challenged.
    And there is nothing remote or antique about that tendency to fascism, it lies, clasped like a Benthamite’s purse, at the very heart of liberalism.

    edited by Admin for typo

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    • Francis Lee says

      I have noted your comments and would like you to also take note of the following. The gentlemen in question (Mill,Ricardo et al.) were the proponents of class struggle of the incipient manufacturing bourgeois class against the ancien regime of aristocratic land ownership and rent. What it is necessary to consider is their position in the then class struggle between these contending class forces in order to appreciate who was the progressive force and who was the reactionary. It should be understood that class struggle has been an historical leitmotif, it is just that the class forces have changed. Marx was in little doubt about what was progressive and what was reactionary.

      ”The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part…

      Wherever it has got the upper hand , it has put an end to all the feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motely feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ … The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life ….

      The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce 100 years has created more massive and more productive and more productive forces than have more than all the preceding generations put together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier centuries had even a presentiment of such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour.’

      The Communist Manifesto – Marx Engels -1848

      Obviously Marx was of the view that early capitalism was a progressive, even revolutionary historical development. it therefore follows that the champions of the newly emerging system were precisely Smith-Ricardo-Mill who were to play a decisive ideological role, their ideological and theoretical shortcomings notwithstanding. It might be worth adding in passing that the Labour Theory of Value, was an ongoing and project initiated by Smith, refined by Ricardo and given its final theoretical finish by Marx.

      Thus the yardstick by which we judge the nature of social and political change is who is the reactionary force and who is the progressive or revolutionary force. Make a choice between King Charles 1 or Oliver Cromwell (and the New Model Army) the King or Parliament, not too difficult.

      • Amanda Adlem says

        I doth remember well the rejoicing throngs of people when did our King, Charles Stuart, return and verily was restored to his throne.

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        • Jen says

          This was Charles II, not his father, and he became monarch on a restored throne because the English people resented the autocratic, de facto monarchical rule of Oliver Cromwell and then his son Richard.

          Even then Charles II only lasted as king as long as he knew what his limits as a monarch were; his brother James II didn’t have half his common sense.

    • Jen says

      Dear Bevin,

      I am sure there is a fallacy in your argument, similar to arguments and assumptions people often make about institutions with long histories like Christianity or the Roman Catholic Church. I find myself forever telling people that whatever Christianity is these days, they should never assume it was the same religion 1,000 years ago, or even 500 years ago, even 100 years ago. The basic values and principles may not change, the Bible may not change (much) but interpretations made by people and current Christian institutions and denominations about the nature of Christianity, what Jesus emphasised in his teaching or what the Bible supposedly says do.

      When David Ricardo (died 1823) developed his theory of free trade, and in particular his reasons for free trade (which themselves have developed into the theories of comparative advantage and absolute advantage), he did so to oppose the prevailing notion of mercantilism, based on the idea that nations should pursue trade to amass gold and enrich their elites. His theories on free trade, comparative advantage and absolute advantage were based on certain assumptions he held that were taken for granted at the time he was alive or which were held to be valid then. He could not have foreseen that his theories would be used by certain nations or governments to justify preventing other nations from pursuing economic development.

      No-one condemns Charles Darwin for his theory of natural selection but plenty of people since his time have used it to justify racial discrimination, colonialism / imperialism, eugenics-based programs and policies, and genocide. We should extend the same courtesy we give to Darwin to the likes of Ricardo, J S Mill and even Adam Smith.

      Incidentally it seems that mercantilism, which Ricardo railed against, is really what inspires some governments these days.

      Ben Warwick, “Germany’s Mercantilism Proves Burdensome to Southern Europe”
      https://www.thinkadvisor.com/2012/06/19/germanys-mercantilism-proves-burdensome-to-souther/?slreturn=20180910203815

  7. davemass says

    Just one small comment- Thatcher actually said: “The State is not Society'”
    Other than that, she totally f**ked my country, and my people, workers, who actually make any country run.
    As Marx said, Capitalism needs a pool of surplus labour- Thatcher obliged with 3 million…

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    • Robbobbobin says

      ‘Just one small comment- Thatcher actually said: “The State is not Society”’

      I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look! It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”

      There is also something else I should say to them: “If that does not give you a basic standard, you know, there are ways in which we top up the standard. You can get your housing benefit.”

      But it went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

      — Margaret Thatcher, Interviewed on 23 September 1987 by Douglas Keay for Woman’s Own, Published 31 October 1987 (Thatcher Archive, THCR 5/2/262 (transcript by the Central Office of Information). Emphasis added.

      • vexarb says

        @RoboBobbin. And a very inspiring speech it was too; fair words which inspired the Gospel of Greed.

        • Robbobbobin says

          Not a “speech” by her, inspiring or otherwise, and not any implied comment by me on the intent, content or consequences of her statements in that Woman’s Own weekly print magazine interview was intended by my response, other than a referenced confirmation that she had indeed said, at least once and on the record, verbatim, that “There is no such thing as society.”

          “Facts are sacred but badly driven trolleybuses ‘jack rabbit’.”

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