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October 10, 2015

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Posted: 01 Oct 2015 12:15 AM PDT
Daniel Little:
Marx on peasant consciousness: One of Marx's more important pieces of political writing is the The Eighteenth maire of Louis Bonaparte (1851) (pdf). Here is his analysis of the causes of the specific nature of peasant political consciousness leading to the election of Napoleon III:
The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France's poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants. Their field of production, the small holding, permits no division of labor in its cultivation, no application of science, and therefore no multifariousness of development, no diversity of talent, no wealth of social relationships. Each individual peasant family is almost self-sufficient, directly produces most of its consumer needs, and thus acquires its means of life more through an exchange with nature than in intercourse with society. A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. Insofar as millions of families live under conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests, and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. Insofar as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.
This a particularly interesting analysis of the social psychology of group solidarity, and one that has contemporary significance as well. It sheds a lot of light on how Marx thinks about the formation of class consciousness -- even as it significantly misunderstands the agency of rural people.

What are the limitations of the French peasantry, according to Marx here? They are isolated, burdened, unsophisticated, primitive, apolitical, and ignorant of the larger forces around them. Therefore, Marx says, they cannot constitute a unified and purposive political force. (The photo of a battalion of Vietnam Minh troops in Indochina just a century later refutes this conception.)

From this description we can draw several positive ideas about the foundations of collective solidarity. Here are the elements that Marx takes to be crucial in the formation of collective consciousness in this passage:
  1. The group needs to possess "manifold relations" to each other.
  2. There needs to be effective communication and transportation across space, not just local interaction.
  3. There needs to be a degree of economic interdependence.
  4. There need to be shared material conditions in the system of production.
  5. There needs to be an astute appreciation of the social and economic environment.
  6. There needs to be organization and leadership to help articulate a shared political consciousness and agenda. 
And Marx seems to have something like a necessary and sufficient relation in mind between these conditions and the emergence of collective consciousness: these conditions are jointly sufficient and individually necessary for collective consciousness in an extended group.

There are several crucial ideas here that survive into current thinking about solidarity and mobilization. So Marx's thinking about collective consciousness was prescient. It is interesting to consider where his thoughts about collective solidarity came from. How did he come to have insightful ideas about the social psychology of mobilization and solidarity in the first place? This isn't a topic that had a history of advanced theory and thinking in 1851.

Two sources seem likely. First is the tradition of French socialist thought in which Marx was immersed in the 1840s. French socialist thinkers were in fact interested in the question of how a revolutionary spirit came to be among a group of people. And second is Marx's own experience of working people in Paris in 1843-45. He writes of his own observations of working people in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts in 1844:
When communist artisans associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need – the need for society – and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies.
Here Marx gives as much importance to the substantive relations of friendship and everyday association as he does to shared material interests in the formation of the class consciousness of French workers.

Marx's misunderstanding of the political capacity and consciousness of peasant communities has been noted by many scholars of rural revolutions. James Scott once opened a public lecture on the revolutions of the twentieth century by saying that his lecture would only treat the peasant revolutions of the century. But he then paused and laughed, and said, this isn't much of a limitation, because they were all peasant revolutions! Marx's assumption that only urban workers were capable of revolutionary consciousness was a serious misreading of the coming century of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles. (Here is an earlier post on Scott's studies of peasant politics. Scott's accounts can be found in Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. Eric Wolf's Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century picks up similar themes.)

Also interesting in the Eighteenth Brumaire is Engels' statement on the law of history as class struggle in his preface to the third edition of the book:
In addition, however, there was still another circumstance. It was precisely Marx who had first discovered the great law of motion of history, the law according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions, too, between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and of their exchange determined by it. This law, which has the same significance for history as the law of the transformation of energy has for natural science -- this law gave him here, too, the key to an understanding of the history of the Second French Republic. He put his law to the test on these historical events, and even after thirty-three years we must still say that it has stood the test brilliantly.
Engels plainly endorses the idea of laws of motion of society and the idea of class conflict as the primary motor of historical change. "History is a history of class struggle." There is not much room for contingency or conjunctural causation here! But this is a dimension of Marxist theory that is plainly incorrect. Far better is to understand history in a more multi-factoral way in which contingency, conjunction, and agency all play a role.
Posted: 01 Oct 2015 12:06 AM PDT
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 11:23 AM PDT
Paul Krugman:
Jeb Goes Galt: This is amazing:
"I think the left wants slow growth because that means people are more dependent upon government," Bush told Fox Business' Maria Bartiromo.
Remember, this is the establishment candidate for the GOP nomination — and he thinks he's living in Atlas Shrugged.
Back when Romney made his "47 percent" remark, Rich Lowry of the National Review Online responded:
...The contention is that if people aren't paying federal income taxes, they are essentially freeloaders who will vote themselves more government benefits knowing that they don't have to pay for them. As NR's Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, there's no evidence for this dynamic. ...
Fear of the creation of a class of "takers" can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video.
Bush didn't learn a thing from Romney' venture down this road. "There's no evidence" for the charge itself, it's a political loser except with a certain population that would vote Republican in any case, and it falsely asserts that Democrats are opposed to policies that spur economic growth (hence our repeated calls for things like infrastructure to provide jobs, get the economy ready for a highly competitive international economy, and avoid the potential for secular stagnation?).
What we are opposed to, or what I am opposed to -- guess I should speak for myself -- is growth where all the benefits are captured by those at the top. Imperfections in economic institutions along with changes in the rules of the game pushed forward by those with political influence have caused those at the top to be rewarded in excess of their contribution to economic output, while those at the bottom have gotten less than their contribution. It's not "taking" to increase taxes at the top and return income to those who actually earned it, to the real makers who toil each day at jobs they'd rather not do to support their families. It's a daily struggle for many, a struggle that would be eased if they simply earned an amount equivalent to their contributions. That's why it's so "politically unattractive", people explicitly or implicitly understand they have been, for lack of a better word, screwed by the system. The blame is sometimes misplaced, but that doesn't change the nature of the problem. They don't want "free stuff," they want what they deserve, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.
The other thing I'm opposed to is tax cuts for those at the top that make this problem even worse without delivering any corresponding benefits. These tax cuts redistribute income upward and cause the income received by workers to fall even further below their contribution, and there's no corresponding benefit to economic growth (or if there is, it's very, very small). We keep hearing that putting money in the hands of the "makers' at the top will produce magical growth, but the reality is that these are the true takers, the ones who are receiving far more from the economy than they contribute, while those who actually work their butts off each day to make the things we all need and enjoy struggle to pay their bills.
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 10:13 AM PDT
Curious to hear what people think of this:
On the Ethics of Redistribution, by V. V. Chari and Christopher Phelan, The Region, FRB Minneapolis: When evaluating economic inequality, economists frequently employ the ethical principle referred to as behind-the-veil-of-ignorance. Originated by Nobel Laureate John Harsanyi and philosopher John Rawls, this criterion imagines the social contract that would be developed by a society of risk-averse people who don't yet know where each of them will end up in that society's distribution of income.1 ...
From behind the veil of ignorance, no individual could know into which country (or economic class) he or she will be born. Behind-the-veil, risk-averse people would therefore want to ensure that people born in rich countries do not adopt policies that hurt people born in poor countries. Nevertheless, analysts almost invariably ignore the effects of domestic tax policy on those in other nations. But consistent use of the behind-the-veil criterion would mean that analysts cannot treat people who live in rich, developed economies differently than they treat people who live in poor, less-developed economies. ...
Increasing world trade is an example of the tension between policies that help those in developing countries versus those that help those lower in the income distribution in developed countries. According to a World Bank Study, in the three decades between 1981 and 2010, the rate of extreme poverty in the developing world (subsisting on less than $1.25 per day) has gone down from more than one out of every two citizens to roughly one out of every five, all while the population of the developing world increased by 59 percent.8 This reduction in extreme poverty represents the single greatest decrease in material human deprivation in history.
But this decrease in extreme poverty in the developing world has coincided with a marked increase in income inequality in the developed world, and the latter has received much more attention, at least from policy analysts in these richer nations.
One possible cause of both trends has been the increase in international trade, which lessens the market value of less-skilled labor in developed countries while increasing its value in developing countries.9 If one uses a behind-the-veil criterion focused only on developed countries, then the increase in trade has made things worse. If instead one considers the entire world, then the trade increase has made the world phenomenally better. ...
We conclude that using the behind-the-veil-of-ignorance criterion to advocate for redistributive policies within developed countries while ignoring the effect of these policies on people in poor countries violates the criterion itself and is therefore fundamentally misguided.
Many economic analysts use social welfare functions in which, implicitly, only the well-being of domestic residents matters. This type of analysis is acceptable as long as the analyst acknowledges that such a social welfare function is not developed from deeper ethical considerations. A giant literature in public finance justifies such social welfare functions by appealing to the veil-of-ignorance. Our point simply is that those who use this criterion should weight the welfare of poor people in Chad, the world's poorest nation, very heavily. To our knowledge, very little if any of the relevant research does so.
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 08:54 AM PDT
I think I buried the main point on this one for MoneyWatch. There has been quite a bit of criticism of the Fed's messaging on the timing of a rate liftoff. But while the messaging has been far from perfect, the bigger problem is the Fed's overly rosy forecasts. The Fed's forecasting models generally impose what is known as a stationarity assumption in response to demand-side shocks -- that is, the models have a relatively fast return to full employment baked into them. The rosy forecasts lead the Fed to adopt a relatively hawkish stance that has to be adjusted as more sobering data arrive. Thus, observers see the Fed continually revising its message, putting itself on a different "data dependent" path each time, and the succession of revisions causes observers to conclude that the Fed's messaging is off-base. But if the forecasts had been better, messaging wouldn't be so much of a problem:
Is communication the Fed's big problem?, Commentary: The Federal Reserve has gotten plenty of criticism for its recent communications about its monetary policy intentions. For example, Mark Gilbert at Bloomberg complained that "...the forward guidance policy adopted in recent years by many central banks is in tatters, and is probably doing more harm than good in telling companies and consumers when borrowing costs are likely to rise and at how fast."
Edward Luce at the Financial Times had similar sentiments, concluding that "Ms Yellen has juggled with different types of communication. They call this learning by doing. As the next countdown begins, her goal must be to share her thinking more clearly."
Is the Fed guilty as charged, and why is this important? ...

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