Reflections on Say, Keynes, and Anarchy
By Matthew Green at Feb 04, 2008
Today I found myself reading parts of Robin Hahel's book Economic Justice and Democracy. I sat in contemplation while watching a television show about the Green River killer and all of the women, mostly prostitutes, that he murdered. I found myself wondering- what is it that drives women into prostitution? As a socialist, I would probably start with economic factors: income inequality, broken homes resulting from it, a broken education system, and social services which have let these women slip through the cracks rather than doing what they can to empower and embolden women, so they can live healthy and productive lives. While I wouldn't want to make prostitution illegal, I couldn't imagine any woman voluntarily chosing a life of prostitution. Illegalizing prostitution is a "band-aid" solution to a larger social problem that has its roots in economic factors. To do so, I believe, would be treating the symptoms of a larger problem while ignoring the key roots of the problem and solving the problem. Many of these women come from broken homes, if my understanding is correct, and therefore chose to make a living off of providing men with an hour or more of physical pleasure in exchange for cash. Maybe some women don't mind. Maybe some women hate it but figure that it beats starving to death. I kept wondering how many women in a city north to me, Stockton, are prostitutes. What is their history? Are they doing this in an attempt to escape a broken home? Have they done this to escape an alcoholic father who abuses them? An emotionally-distant mother who is physically present but gone mentally? Why does this problem persist? I think of these women and I want to tell them that a better way is possible and that there is a greater vision is worth reaching for. They may think I am delusional, and perhaps even eccentric, to an extent or some pushy street Evangelist trying to convert prostitutes into women of Christian faith.
That prostitution exists and that some women feel compelled against their better wishes to enter into it is very sad. I think of it as another sign of the market's failure. A cold, material world of physical pleasure, hedonistic sensation, and market incentives. Is that all that this world is? Is this all reality is? A world of physical processes and human social relationships that are shaped and molded by market forces, each of us just mere machines, playing our parts, like cogs, in a machine that just runs for no apparent reasons? I grieve for these women. I grieve for what drives them to these horrid conditions. I grieve for the broken families, the psychological and emotional scars that people carry with them, the horried conditions that break us down and cause some people to lose it all in an emotional breakdown! I am reminded of something Michael Albert once said. He recalled the words of a famous baseball coach who once said "Nice guys finish last" and everyone started chuckling and laughing. Albert responded to that by saying "I think it's a horrific condemnation of society to say 'nice guys finish last'. I am not as gentle as the baseball coach but I say 'garbage rises'"
When I think of a cold, material, heartless world of consumption, of impersonal market forces that shape people's lives, of the social Darwinist mentality of "market competition", when I think of the fact that "market competition" and class struggle have left their effects on the dating scene, causing resentment of the sexes, causing women to stay in abusive relationships, of men who use women like property, to be discarded after use, to think of women coming from broken families and going into prostitution, to think that market competition requires people be aggressive, ruthless, callous, and in vicious, cutthroat struggle for success against others, of a horrific, ego-driven, consumption-based societies where the jerks finish first and nice guys finish last, I feel as though an inner voice in me is screaming "Stop it! I can't take it anymore!" I am not the sort of fellow who would go into a shopping mall or a building armed with guns and killing people because I feel screwed by life and people. I believe that is immoral and goes against my Humanist values. Rather, I want to inspire people to live differently.
I take comfort in knowing that a better world is possible, in knowing what my values are, and in believing that there is a vision which ties a better world to my values. I believe in a participatory society, economically based on participatory planning, in which people participate in an equitable democracy. A society without class, privileges, and without struggle, where we cooperate together as social, political, and economic equals. I read Hahnel's book Economic Justice and Democracy. I read other books and materials such as the Anarchist FAQ. But even then, I struggle with my own thinking. Is this better world a postcapitalist one? I would hope so but I am not as confident as I would like to be. I sometimes struggle with doubts in my mind whether or not Parecon is the best, working hope for the future. I want to elaborate on the source of my doubts.
Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel argue for a libertarian socialist economic model known as "Participatory Economics". They argue that capitalism is exploitative and that it wrong rewards people according the the contribution of property and labor and that a truly equitable reward would be based upon effort and sacrifice. This would probably mean, then, that past anarchist critiques of capitalism are flawed, especially those which argue that capitalism is a form of economic hierarchy resulting in "wage-slavery" and generating "surplus value". In personal correspondence to me, Hahnel argued that capitalism is exploitative and that the "law of marginal utility" or the J.B. Clark's "law of wages" is flawed as a law. This is important because capitalists will appeal to this "law of wages" or "marginal utility" as a proof that capitalism is not exploitative because we basically get what we deserve in the market economy.
But there is a strong issue in which I disagree with Hahnel. Hahnel wrote a book called ABCs of Political Economy and argued that Say's Law of Markets is flawed and it fell to John Maynard Keynes to point out the flaw. Actually, I disagree here. I have been reading Stephen Kates' book Say's Law and the Keynesian Revolution and I am convinced that not only did Keynes not refute Say's Law but even misunderstood it. I currently believe that Hahnel is just wrong here. But here's the thorny question for me and hence a source of great struggle- if Hahnel is wrong about Keynes refuting Say's Law, what if he's also wrong about Clark's "law of wages" which I take to be another name for the "law of marginal utility". If Hahnel is wrong about this, then maybe capitalism is not exploitative and participatory economics of any sort is unnecessary. Should we go about trying to reform capitalism?
I consider myself an anarchist because I believe that I have a moral imperative to operate on anarchist principles until I see how the economic hierarchy of capitalism is justified. The onus of proving it legitimate is on the capitalists who assert it to be legitimate, not on those who would question it. If I was to conclude that economic hierarchies are indeed legitimate, that would not be the death of progressive politics or economics for me. I would still be devoted to FDR's vision of a second bill of rights. My goal in life is to become a biblical scholar and a political activist. If I wasn't into biblical scholarship and didn't plan on devoting my life to it, I would probably become an economist in addition to being a political activist. I have recently flirted with thougths of both. I have considered going for a second bachelor's degree, this time in economics, and going to a graduate school and getting advanced degrees in economics. Perhaps even so far as to obtain a Ph.D. in the subject. I am pretty good at math although I wouldn't describe myself as being particularly excellent or a mathematical wizard by any stretch.
Economics involves a lot of mathematics, particularly theoretical economics. Given my deep love for mathematics, this might seem a legitimate subject to major in. But I don't see the point. It would always and only be second to any advanced degrees in biblical studies, which is my first love. Maybe I will get an advanced degree in economics down the road so I can firmly cement my political activism. I haven't decided yet. One thing is for certain- I plan to eventually take courses in economics and perhaps even audit classes in economics. I am thinking of getting a minor in economics but I don't want to be pursuing any more time than I have to getting my first M.A. which is going to be in philosophy, studying the philosophy of religion. I do plan to cement my understanding of political economics.
Readers can probably get a sense of my struggle and why it feels so thorny these days.