Sam Bowles has a nice piece in the FT on the case for pluralism in economics by integration – “marshalling the insights of differing schools of thought and academic disciplines into a common paradigm.” I’d add only that the points at which the marshalling should occur must be determined by the facts. We learn about economics from the real world, not just from schools of thought.
I want to suggest something that some of you might think paradoxical – that Marxists are well-placed to do this because we are, in a sense, less ideological than others.
Take, for example, the question: do higher minimum wages destroy lots of jobs? As a Marxist, I can accept either answer. If they do, we have (more?) evidence that actually-existing capitalism is incompatible with decent living standards. If they don’t then we have a way of making workers better off. Either way, I’m happy. I can allow myself to be guided by the evidence in a way that either free marketeers or their social democratic opponents might not be.
Or another example: could fiscal policy not just stabilize aggregate demand but increase trend growth? If it does, then fine: we’ve a way of making people better off. If not, then my prior that capitalism is prone to stagnation and crisis is strengthened.
Here’s a third example. Are financial markets informationally efficient or not? I can accept either answer. If they’re efficient, then fund managers are ripping people off and we have another example of the exploitative nature of capitalism. If they’re inefficient then we have another mechanism whereby capitalism can generate instability. (In fact, both might be true, as markets might well be micro efficient but macro inefficient). Being a Marxist has, I suspect, made me less bad at my day job than I otherwise would be.
A fourth example is Brexit. Being in or out of the EU is orthogonal to my Marxism. Again, therefore, I’m happy to be guided by the evidence on whether Brexit will make us better off or not.
There’s another thing here. As a Marxist, I haven’t invested my human capital in only one paradigm. Marxist economists must be pluralists simply because we must run our Marxism alongside the orthodox/mainstream/whatever economics we learn at university and in my day job. Integrating different perspectives – which might of course mean ditching large parts of some – does not therefore threaten the destruction of my human capital as much as it does specialists in one paradigm.
On a lot of issues, then, we Marxists can be intellectually flexible simply because there are a lot of fights in which we have no dog.
But, you might ask, if this is the case, isn’t your Marxism just an unfalsifiable pseudo-science?
No. There are some claims which – if true – would weaken my Marxism perhaps to the point of refutation, for example: if capitalism could deliver sustained full employment with good working conditions and satisfying jobs; if it could be shown that capitalism were non-exploitative; if the capitalist state were genuinely neutral; or if capitalistic relations of production were never fetters upon growth. These claims, however, have not been satisfactorily established.
I’ll turn the question around to centrists, Tories, libertarians or social democrats. What equivalent claims (if they could be established) would falsify your political position?
What I’m trying to do here is weaken the prior of many anti-Marxists. Many of you have traditionally seen Marxism as a fanatical ideology opposed to the cool-headed rationality of mainstream politics.
I’ll concede that there might be something in this: the worst advert for Marxism has often been those who profess to be Marxists.
For me, though, the opposite is the case: in some respects, Marxism takes the ideology and fanaticism out of some debates.