Monday, April 2, 2012

Marx - The Spectre

A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on a desert island. Hungry, they are walking along the beach when they notice a can of soup that has washed ashore.

The Physicist grabs the can and says 'I'm going to find a rock and smash it open'.

'No!' says the Chemist. 'Let's make a fire and we'll explode the can'.

'Don't be silly,' says the Economist, 'Let's just assume a can opener'.

The joke comes from a fascinating talk on Marx from John Lanchester (novelist, journalist and contributing editor to the London Review of Books) . He makes a great point about economists (he cites Paul Krugman) who say a particular model shows us something. Models, of course, don't show us anything. They might suggest interesting or helpful things, but they don't show us anything.

Worth remembering that. (I'm thinking particularly of Modern Monetary Theorists, here)

Marx didn't create models..... 'he was looking deep into the heart of reality and discerning its fundamental truth' (as John Lancaster puts it).

During the talk Mr Lanchester utters the immortal words 'What is Money?' Marx, of course, did try to answer this question. Look at The Power of Money for example. It's nice to hear the question. Who knows one day an economist might ask it.

Check out the podcast on the London Review of Books Website together with his 6k word essay (which forms the core of the talk).

This bit resonated with me;

'it looks very much as if Marx’s omission of the word ‘capitalism’, because he foresaw no alternative within the existing social order, was an instance of his crystal ball functioning with particularly high resolution.'

And also this, the closing statement;

As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.

Much of my own thought and reading for the past year has been around the relationship of Money to this human/animal boundary, the role of Money in the development of abstract thought etc.

I've studied some Marx in the past. I think I need to revisit him and pay particular attention to his philosophical writings. I'm halfway through reading Joel Kaye's Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century. The relationship between thought and money is on my mind and I think Marx may provide some illumination on what is a very difficult thing on which to get any perspective. I seem to be at the dark edge of the subjective and the objective.

I'd recommend this talk to anyone, though. Whether you have an intellectual interest or not, and whatever your political persuasion. Like all these powerful ghosts from the past - I'm thinking of Freud in particular - Marx can be very misunderstood. Mr Lanchester helps you hear the resonance of Marx's ideas, whilst underscoring them, quietly and modestly, with his own misgivings.


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