Comment on Simon Clarke

Just finished reading Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology by Simon Clarke (MacMillan, 1982). It’s flawed but interesting.

On the negative side:

  1. Clarke doesn’t really refute marginalist economics or prove the labour theory of value; he merely repeats Marx’s arguments while showing the ideological utility of marginalism.
  2. To make his case for Marxism vs. sociology, Clarke writes as if Parsonian structural-functionalism were still the dominant paradigm, ignoring huge swaths of conflict sociology like Mills, Dahrendorf, Collins, etc., not to mention all of feminist sociology, and even the Frankfurt School sociologists.
  3. And of course the book’s argument against sociology  is very dated now that Foucaultian poststructuralism has essentially taken over the discipline.
  4. Clarke’s writing is repetitive and padded; he takes too long to say too little.

But in the final chapter Clarke makes some excellent points against Weber and interpretive sociology generally. These points apply to the conceptual foundations of structural functionalism, systems theory, institutional sociology, and maybe also Giddens’s structuration theory — in other words, to the most prominent sociological attempts at theorizing social formations on a national or global scale. The final chapter is worth a read on these grounds.

Essentially Clarke argues that interpretive sociology cannot explain the social origins of people’s motivations, and by extension cannot explain the social relations and institutions which arise from motivated social action. The motives of social action are presumed to arise either from pre-social psychological processes or from the objective, as in extra-social, imperatives of the institutional order. Social forces are reduced to being nothing more than individual’s actions, specifically the choices we face and the meanings we experience within established relations and institutions.

Interpretive sociology cannot explain institutional change; it lacks the basic conceptual equipment to even attempt this. At best, interpretive sociology can only describe the shifting choices and meanings entailed in particular institutional transformations, while mistaking those descriptions for explanations.

On the other hand, Marx’s materialist method of history establishes a conceptual basis for understanding the origin of human motivation and subjective meaning by asserting that consciousness arises from practical life-activity. And our practical activities, what we do, are organized into and by material social relations. From this starting assumption we can begin to theorize social forces as reflexive processes in which objective structures and subjective motivations continually condition each other in endless ongoing nonlinear feedback loops.

In other words, the motivations, meanings, and choices that individuals face in contemporary society are products of their being situated in capitalist social relations. Our motives are not simply a product of universal human nature, nor is capitalism simply the realization of a universal rationality as applied to economic life. Both individual and system are products of historical social relations.

Clarke’s critique of interpretive sociology makes the final chapter of Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology worthwhile reading. The book as a whole, however, is full of rich detail which is interesting only if you care about the history of political economy and the emergence of marginalist economics.

The main problem with the thesis of this book is that it doesn’t go far enough. Pointing out the bourgeois ideological function of marginalist economics isn’t the same thing as really critiquing it. Clarke dwells far too much on the usefulness of marginalism as a legitimating narrative for capitalism in the face of challenges from socialist ideology. In this respect he fits in to the pattern of Western Marxists generally, who focus on the role of cultural hegemony in maintaining capitalism. This focus misses an important point.

Marginalist economics doesn’t hold the sway it does because it helps convince workers to give up their struggle for socialism; it holds sway because it helps capitalists make profits and because it helps states promote continued profitability. In other words, marginalism helps capitalists and their allies make successful strategic decisions in the context of class struggle.

Marx’s use of the labour theory of value serves the ideological function of delegitimating capitalism by showing exploitation to be inherent in the system. But has it been useful as the basis for an alternative economic practice? For it to do so would be the real refutation.

In the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.

To argue that the labour theory of value is superior to marginalism because it serves the ideological needs of workers rather than capitalists is circular because it presupposes the validity of Marxist theory. To break out of this circle we need proofs that do not depend on our theoretical assumptions.  Predictive or retrodictive claims would be a step in the right direction. But the ultimate proof would be theories that are useful for something more than rallying the troops, theories that can demonstrably lead to success in the complex tactical and strategic decisions faced by actors working to build socialist economic systems.

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