Rorty on Marx on value (with applications to subjectivism)


This is in the paper A Spectre is Haunting the Intellectuals: Derrida on Marx. reminded me very much of people who make a lot of hay out of "radical subjectivism":

"But is there anything mysterious, or spectral about commodities? One will find a mystery here only if one has a pretty primitive idea of value, or if one finds it weird that a thing should have the property it does by virtue of its relations to other things. There are, I suppose, some hick logocentrists who still think that some things or properties (the 'natural' and 'real' ones as opposed to the 'cultural' and 'artifical' ones) are what they are apart from any such relations. Such simple souls may stil be impressed, or indignant, when the line between the natural and the social, the substantial and the relational, or the essential and the accidental, is blurred. But only such naifs are still susceptible to the line of patter which we antiessentialist philosophers have developed. ('Ha! Fooled you! You thought it was real, but now you see that it's only a social construct! You thought it was just a familiar object of sense-perception, but look! It has a supersensible, spectral, spiritual backside!")

There is not, in fact, much naivety left these days. Tell a sophomore at an American college that something is only a social construct, and she is likely to reply, Yeah, I know. So are you, Mac.' It's not really news that everything is what it is because of its difference from everything else. So it is hard to know who is going to be intrigued by the following deconstruction of Marx's distinction between use-value and commodity-value..."

He then goes on to quote more from Derrida.

I remember (and it was as a freshman or sophomore sociology major) first getting introduced to Berger and Luckmann and the social construction of reality. It resonated with the way my economics professors had talked about utility, but it was still a scales-falling-from-my-eyes moment. I'm not quite sure it's as prevalent as Rorty suggests, but certainly among his audience it is. And there may still be work to do in terms of applications. Just because most people who think about it are anti-essentialists doesn't mean there's not a lot of rote essentialism in the world. Then, of course, the pragmatist has to ask himself whether a little rote essentialism is useful for some purposes. Maybe it's a convenient fiction. Still, I think good points are made here.

I think many "radical subjectivists" talking about Hayek or Lachmann are like Derrida talking about Marx. They think they are making a mysterious point, but if they asked the average economics sophomore they'd respond "yeah, I know".

One bad part of the essay: Rorty calls Marx the greatest political economist of the 19th century, but questions what value his philosophy had (Dewey is alleged to have separated the wheat from the chaff in Hegel, so what does one need Marx for?). I don't even think my macro political economy professor - who is about the most pro-Marx economist I know of that I take seriously - would go that far.

A slight redemption: He later says that Keynes is better than Marx, so we don't really need Marx's political economy either. This is the only reference to Keynes from Rorty that I've ever come across (which is a shame because I think Rorty would have liked him).