[OPE-L] Marx and markets

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Thu Jan 26 2006 - 12:38:15 EST

British economics commentator Phil Mullan makes quite a good point about
markets in a recent article:

"The fashionable notion, especially on the left, that governments of all
persuasions have signed up to liberal free market beliefs is a fallacy. It
is discredited by state practices where market interventionism is less
direct but much more pervasive than in the past."

Here's also a clip from the Dutch social democrat Karen Adelmund (b. 1949)
who in the 1990s was an influential SD
ideologist here. The quote suggests a (post)modern rationale for social
democracy. Adelmund was chairman of the women's union in the Dutch secular
Federation of Labour Unions (FNV) 1978-1985 and subsequently a leader of the
1984-1994, and since 1994 an MP in the Dutch Parliament for the Dutch Labour

 "Society cannot function without political regulation,
legislation, property law, labour law, or without financial, economic and
social policy. As a foundation for social-economic policy, pure liberalism
has been superseded, just as much as the statist economy of the
East-European type (although liberalism is still meaningful and makes sense
in the sphere of individual freedoms, human rights, equal opportunities
etc.). Market economy must go together with a social-economic policy which
sometimes creates conditions, sometimes imposing order, and sometimes
correcting circumstances. But, additionally, the idea of the "social common
denominator" as a substitute for politics is a self-deception. Because the
principle "what can be decentralised, must be decentralised" is an empty
slogan, as long as no substantive argument is given for what exactly can be
decentralised, and what should be centralised.

"Confronting liberalism and the subsidization-principle, is the fact, that
 the social and the economic are interconnected. Thus, the development
of wages- and wage-parity policy, the financial deficit, employment in
enterprises, labour market policy - to mention a few - are all linked
together. Nobody will be very surprised with this obvious insight. But if I
conclude from that, that positively influencing these matters practically
requires, in its main points, a coordinated central policy, liberals and
subsidiarists are suddenly nowhere to be found. "The real world is micro",
[Employer's Federation leader] Van Lede claims. I claim in contrast that the
real world is both macro and micro.

"In his treatise "Welfare and the State" [1989], [sociology lecturer
Abraham] de Swaan describes how the cities in the sixteenth and seventeenth
century suffered an onslaught of hordes of itinerant paupers. By fighting
poverty, that threat could be removed. But not one city was prepared to
invest in care for the poor, so long as the other cities did not also do
that. Because just imagine, that one city would do it, then all the poor
would flock to that city, which then would not not only be unable to pay for
its poverty policy, but also suffer a massive social problem. Urban poverty
policy could only emerge, if a supra-urban and therefore national obligation
came to rest on all cities to care for the poor. But how could such a duty
be established? De Swaan calls this the dillemma of collective action. (...)
Collective dillemma's cannot be solved at a decentralised level".

(translated from K. Adelmund, "Political and social democracy" (1990),
reproduced in J.M. Peet et al., Honderd Jaar Sociaal [A Hundred Years
Social] 1891-1991. Amsterdam: Sdu publishers, 1998).

This is of course a far cry from the original social-democratic slogan about
the "socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange",
and lacks any particular social vision. Rather the idea is, that the "social
domain" must always be managed, and that for this, you require a public
administration which actually does manage it. It is a kind of "philosophy of
social managerialism", which justifies the existence of the state apparatus,
on the specific ground that there are these real problems in civil society,
which must be managed, and there exists no other agency that will manage
them effectively. The debate then focuses more on styles of management, and
there are many styles of management possible course, since the permutations
of the division of labour are potentially infinite. Even if certain tasks
are outsourced to private companies, somebody must pay for them, hence also
the continuing need for an administration of the collective funds
(principally from taxes and levies) that pay for them. In Dutch lingo they
call it "the boel bijelkaar houden" ["keeping the whole shebang together"]
which refers to the maintenance of social cohesion in living, playing and
working space. There's a professional conference on it this year here, with
luminaries such as Anthony Giddens speaking etc. A source of uncertainty and
worry in the debate is that consensual, foundational principles of social
organisation are often lacking of a type that would provide a clear
rationality of means and ends - point is, every attempt to specify them, is
liable to be contested with different values, with different interest groups
trying to centralise this, and decentralise that.

When you are a public servant as I am at present, you can observe more
specifically what all this means - most citizens take for granted that there
are roads, buildings, parks, shops, plus a supporting infrastructure of
electricity, gas, water, social services etc. plus some sort of order in the
totality of all this, rather than a total chaos. We could call this the
"public sphere" in physical terms, regulated by laws. It is only when that
ordered infrastructure suddenly fails, that most people busy with their
individual lifestyles suddenly notice what it means. It's a sort of hidden
social substructure of "the market", which in truth could not exist without
it at all.

In a sense, the controversy about "markets" is rather meaningless though,
insofar as the real issues are property rights, the ability to trade, and
who should get the income from an activity. This is why Marx thought you
couldn't very well analyse distribution in separation from the ownership of
productive assets. But precisely because, as I said before, markets imply no
particular morality of their own, an ideological bifurcation of the
"economic" and the "legal" spheres occurs, the former being treated as a
"technical" issue, and the "moral" dimension becoming a legal matter - even
though they're very much intertwined.


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