The Decadences of the Commentariat: some chattering notes on Piketty, Marx, and faking it

Back in the days when I thought a critique of the left from the left could save it from itself, Ross Wolf, of Charnel House fame, and I were comrades.  In earlier times, we would be accused of spying for a comintern committee, and then there would be a conspiracy about if we were infiltrating lower levels of  a Democratic cabinet.   He and I both “left” the same organization and the normal farce ensues.   The circles of committed Marxists–not the “cultural Marxists” and not left-liberals who are looking for a way to rebrand themselves–are tiny and don´t matter.   Ross remains more devoted than me to trying to do the impossible: awaken people from a-principled leftism and towards an your “grandfather’s grandfather’s Marxism.”

Needless to say, I have written my goodbye to all that more than once, and increasingly do not see myself as even an sympathetic critic, but a critic outright.   However, Ross is still smart and often the best critic of actually existing “Marxism” there is.  Case and point Ross’s sardonic commentary on the mutual recriminations of Marx and Picketty:

Yeah, from the blurb on the back it may seem a tired rehashing of Keynesian commonplaces (now almost a century old). Granted, it might appear that Piketty merely “repackages the commonly known as the expertly known,” as one reviewer has put it, by treating observations of inequality under capitalism as if they were earth-shattering discoveries. But does that really justify all the unlettered pedantry of the Marxish commentariat? Shouldn’t people read Capital in the Twenty-First Century before issuing a judgment?

As it turns out, one needn’t read something in order to dismiss it out right — at least, if we’re to follow Piketty’s own example.


In actuality, this is pretty damning on both the popular characterizations of neo-Keynesians and Marxists.  Much of the contemporary, even high level commentary is vapid.  Jacobin has a point, eve the hipster “Marxists” that they are, that a lot of commentary I see from Marxists, in fact, maybe most of it, that is not in academic monographs, is often commentary on texts they have not even read anything but a summary of. There are exceptions, but one often gets the feeling that the analysis is route.

The contempt for Marx in some of the Neo-Keynesians and even some “Marxists” (Jacobin does claim to be “Marxist”) is done without seriously dealing with Marx. Ironically, neo-classicals and Austrians, whatever you make of their argument, have actually read Marx and read Marx closely.  One can take a look at David Gordon’s writings on Marx,  which cites significantly more Marx than some of the things I used to read printed by Verso (I can think of Benjamin Kunkel’s “Utopia or Bust” which despite pretenses to Marxism is generally commentary on ommentary).   This is not to endorse Gordon’s Austrian take on Marx, but it is point out that paleo-libertarians are often actually willing to do the work with primary sources.

There are distinctions I like in Pitcketty, unlike many I know who think that somehow only distribution matters and thus only focus on income, Pitcketty acknowledges the difference between wealth and income.  But Pitcketty’s analysis of entire schools of micro-economics with what amounts to strawmen arguments I see from grad students in Political Science or Behavioral Economics who actually do not have time to, you know, make a point.

I suppose I do think there is a decadence in all this. At one point Heidegger could admit that Marx’s view of history, while he saw it as dangerous and wrong, was the currently most advanced theory of history.  The average GOP hack must conflate character and theory mix it with the genetic fallacy.   That is to be expected, and it is to expected of the Democratic Party hack when talking about most theories of micro-economics or genetic drift.  What is more worrying is that the academics in this debate are not even being fair with the ideological works that are nearest them.

But then again, actually doing the reading is hard work, and you have avoid your smartphone for a while to do it.


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