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May 20, 2016


Handy Mike

" Instead, our Marxism arises from a cool-headed scepticism about whether capitalism really can maximally advance living standards and real freedom for all."

I'm going to make a real effort to be polite about this Mr Dillow.
Taking a good long look into your soul, peering past all those biases and fallacies that fog the thinking of non-Marxists, you're honestly claiming Marxism as the product of a cool-headed, sceptical response to the sub-optimality of capitalism?
Instead of, say, a despairing emotional response to the inevitably tragic structures and outcomes of human interaction, masked as an intellectual method that has struck many other cool-headed, sceptical minds as defeasible very nearly to the point of absurdity?

Dave Timoney

Someone who struggles to control his emotions tends to see emotional responses everywhere. Similarly, those who believe that the world is "inevitably tragic", as opposed to arbitrary and absurd, tend to be oblivious to comedy.

The subject under discussion is the "Nigella Lawson of economics", not a nineteenth century German philosopher.

Luis Enrique

"Marxism arises from a cool-headed scepticism about whether capitalism really can maximally advance living standards "

this is what I have never really understood about your viewpoint. you cannot make claims like that without answering the question "as opposed to what?" otherwise you are left with capitalism being the best realistic option. I would have thought to call yourself a Marxist you need a distinctly Marxist vision of what your alternative non-capitalist system would look like. So what's yours?

I don't think of myself as anti-capitalist because whilst I might have lots of criticisms of the status quo, I still think in terms of improving capitalism rather than overthrowing it. So for example, some of the things that I have read you advocate (which I happen to like the sound of too) more worker ownership of firms, more workplace democracy, citizen's basic income, a government job guarantee etc. still leave you with capitalism. Because you still have private ownership of capital, people being mostly free to decide what they buy and sell at what prices etc.

Do you think of yourself as having a Marxist vision of the alternative to capitalism? that differs from improving but still keeping capitalism?


Would have to agree with some of the comments above, Chris. "Cool-headed scepticism"? You're kidding, right?

Luis Enrique

you can have a cool headed scepticism about capitalism and a Marxist diagnosis of how it works, technology shaping class relations, capitalists enriching themselves and selling the masses a bad deal etc. but you can't go making claims about (some form of) capitalism not maximising (we are talking about constrained optimisation here, not falling short of utopia) without a plausible non-capitalist alternative. Or rather you can, but the position: there are better systems than capitalism, I just don't happen know what they are, is not very strong.


Chris is the rare cool-headed spectical Marxist who knows his economics... but I can't say I know of any others

Igor Belanov

I see, it's impossible to be a 'cool-headed' Marxist is it?

Along with all the fascists with toothbrush moustaches, inscrutable Russians, humourless Germans, romantic Italians and excitable Muslims I suppose.


@ Luis - the problem of counterfactuals is a tricky one. If we have no precise blueprint, we face your objection. But if we do, we'd be accused of Utopianism and social engineering.
My personal anti-capitalist vision is one of a form of market socialism, in which workers have significant owernership and control over management (which'll vary from place to place as appropriate) and greater freedom - arising from the citizens' income. In my ideal soecity, there would be a place for capitalist entrepreneurship. But hierarchical capitalist-run firms would be a minority.
@ Handy Mike - I can turn that point around. I suspect that many centrists who oversell the effects of their favoured policies also under-rate the extent to which the world is "inevitably tragic." One reason why I'm a Marxist is that I'm sceptical of the efficacy of centrist policies.

Dave Timoney

Frederic Jameson (a Marxist) famously said "it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism". His sardonic point was that ideology denies the possibility of systemic change, not that alternatives are literally unimaginable or that capitalism isn't vulnerable to criticism.

One way this ideology operates is by insisting on a higher threshold of credibility for a utopia than a dystopia. This is now a commonplace of politics. You can see it in the derision of Leave's "vision" (or lack of) and the tolerance accorded Remain's "project fear". This allows for incremental (and decremental) change, but denies the possibility of a fundamental reordering.

Ironically, scepticism about utopias owes much to Marxism, which helped replace the linear idea of progress with the dialectical mode of thought. Marxism treats capitalism as a utopia by analysing the gap between what it promises and what it delivers, but concludes that it is potentially dystopian because of its inherent contradictions.

Most Marxists are pragmatic rather than prescriptive when it comes to the future, which means their utopias are often banal (see Chris's comment above). Far from rendering their position "not very strong", this actually makes it both feasible and attractive, which is why liberal critiques of Marxism tend to characterise it as a form of mad religion as much as they harp on about Stalin and Mao.

The heart of Marxism is scepticism, which is why it is furiously denied.


@ Luis - Another thing. We don't necessarily need a fully-worked out alternative to capitalism to ask: what changes would increase the real freedom of working people? Merely asking this question is radical. And I suspect that the changes that it would point to would tend to undermine capitalism - at least its most exploitative forms - by giving workers the option to reject bad wage offers.

Luis Enrique

Chris - good answers but might some Marxists consider you not to be one, because your non-capitalist vision isn't Marxist enough? I guess if you start introducing non-iniquitous-capitalist elements to capitalism it starts becoming, by degrees, something else but what you describe does not sound too different to my 'making capitalism better' formulation, I guess matter of taste whether you wish to call that anti-capitalist or not. Anti-status-quo-capitalism, yes. Also I like to think asking what changes will make life better for the majority is not the preserve of Marxists. Am I allow to think of myself as a radical centrist if I share some of those goals + proposed changes?

Dave Timoney


1. You don't need a certificate of authentication to be a Marxist.

2. Making capitalism better is not an alternative to capitalism.

3. A radical centrist is a category error.

Luis Enrique


1. no, but one could for example call oneself a Tory but not hold views most other Tories recognise as such.
2. right. that was kind of my point was it not?
3. oh, well evidently asking what changes would increase the real freedom of working people cannot be radical then.


"@ Luis - ... what changes would increase the real freedom of working people? Merely asking this question is radical. And I suspect that the changes that it would point to would tend to undermine capitalism - at least its most exploitative forms - by giving workers the option to reject bad wage offers."

So in other words, what would increase workers bargaining power?

Well, by the definition of bargaining, capital is going to oppose a reduction in bargaining power.

So really the question is what strategies would be effective for workers in this fight. And does Marxism actually have any answers? It has the unsound argument for diminishing returns to capital. Some vague hope for "class consciousness". Anything else?

What I find frustrating about such analyses is they are framed as what "we should" do as a society. When the entire preceding analysis is all about class struggle, what sense does it make to address policy recommendations to society as a whole?

Dave Timoney


1. What qualifies one to be a Tory is a matter of circumstance, affection or feeling (Burke) more than reasoning (Oakeshott). Marxism by definition requires an act of intellectual will. You can be born a Tory but you can't be born a Marxist.

2. You concede amelioration but are sceptical of the possibility of an alternative. In other words, you demand that the critics of capitalism provide what you have already ruled unlikely if not impossible.

3. "Asking what changes would increase the real freedom of working people" is only radical (i.e. unconventional relative to the times) if it offends a centrist (i.e. the conventional). For example, a minimum wage is not radical, but a basic income is (you may not be as much of a centrist as you suppose).


LJL at all your 'isms'. You boys need to go out and get some sex.


"This leads to systematic biases in reporting on subjects such as austerity, Brexit or immigration because the consensus of economists is not adequately conveyed"

Since the consensus of economists has been wrong on its predictions of virtually every major policy change, why is under-reporting their group-think considered a bias?

The consensus of economists have demonstrated no relevant expertise. Their performance has been comical. Why should they have any more air time than Boris? For that matter, Thatcher performed a much better analysis of the single currency than the contemporary "mainstream" academics.


It does seem that Chris is not a Marxist as he retains in his ideal policy mix private property and Market relations. Transformed it is true to eliminate the harm caused to society by the negative effects of property.

May be he should call himself a Libertarian socialist?

Off course there is nothing to stop a person with high academic standards being a Marxist and a good historian or journalist. A number of famous people have been clear about their political left wing beliefs and interesting and informative. But I agree that the tendency for ideas to be trumped by personality and party politics hampers attempts at being serious and informative.

Igor Belanov

"Why should they have any more air time than Boris?"

Because they haven't compared the EU to Nazi Germany.

Peter K.

"The man who is easily the most insightful economics blogger in the UK, Chris Dillow, is a proud Marxist."

Kind words from Ben Chu!


An attractive, telegenic woman with no journalistic or TV experience has been appointed as ITV's economics editor. She has been a Cambridge don so that gives her some credibility but by all accounts her business/ economics books are thin stuff. So I don't think Marx is the issue. The big story is "pretty paperback writer gets job on telly". Gosh!


"An attractive, telegenic woman": your paper must have carried different photos from mine.

Wife of former BBC bigwig gets media job; that's showbiz for you.

a random eman

"First, some of us Marxists – unlike many of our opponents – are not spittle-flecked fanatics."

Breaking that down, some Marxists are not spittle-flecked fanatics (but some are). And some non-Marxists are spittle-flecked fanatics (but some are not).

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