Socialism and coats- from Marx to Sanders

Basic commodities have been important to socialists for a long time. And the prosaic coat has featured in debates about nineteenth and twenty-first century socialism. When Karl Marx wanted to understand the inner mechanisms of capitalism in 1867, he turned to the coat:

“The coat is a use value that satisfies a particular want. Its existence is the result of a special sort of productive activity, the nature of which is determined by its aim, mode of operation, subject, means, and result.”

He added the slightly underwhelming observation:

“Coats are not exchanged for coats, one use value is not exchanged for another of the same kind.”

In the modern day, populist Bernie Sanders has been accused of wearing an expensive coat. It may have been a slow news week, but the politician does not seem to have committed the crime of the century. His supporters would probably purchase him an even more expensive coat if it would aid the veteran orator. Backers of Sanders will know that it is the contents of a coat that are significant. As long as a coat has a real use value, we should not worry too much about its exchange value.



Don’t Foucault Iran

“It is often said that the definitions of an Islamic government are imprecise. On the contrary, they seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. “These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary,” I said. “Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led.” But I immediately received the following reply: “The Quran had enunciated them way before your philosophers, and if the Christian and industrialized West lost their meaning, Islam will know how to preserve their value and their efficacy.”

Michel Foucault

One of the most cited academics in the world, Michel Foucault, was misled by the Utopian rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. Foucault was opposed to Marxism, and was desperate to see something that was fresh emerge from the wreckage of imperialism. Decades later, the temptation for Western observers to impose their own thoughts on the struggle in Iran is strong.

The current protests may well have economic roots. But they have serious political implications. It is not for Westerners to understand what these might be. The media is not a reliable source of information about what must be a confused picture on the ground.

There is an imperialist pattern of intervention in the region. Those who see fast profits to be made will always rush to judgement. Reflective people would do well not to be dragged into the position of Foucault. It is easy to misread situations at a distance, regardless of how progressive one thinks one is.

Should economists care about one-shot inflation?

While citizens are affected by any rises in the price level, economists distinguish between different types of inflation. One-shot inflation is not seen by most economists as problematic. This is because it was associated with events such as bad harvests which were unlikely to happen year after year. Nor was it thought that policymakers could do much about such things.

In contrast, continuous inflation is viewed differently by the majority of economists. Neither individuals nor firms can easily thrive if inflation accelerates over a prolonged period of time. While economists may differ over the appropriate policy response to continuous inflation, most of the profession would agree that something has to be done to restore a degree of price stability in the long run.

When it comes to Brexit, some people might view the departure process as having the potential to trigger one-shot or continuous inflation. Much may depend on what the negotiations achieve prior to the departure date. The transition period could also have an influence on the type of inflation which might be provoked.

The point is that Brexit is not a bad harvest. It is a political project which has been launched by an elite. The referendum secured some consent from the people, but Brexit was not the creation of ordinary citizens. If Brexit has the potential to drive one-shot inflation then it would seem inappropriate for economists to take a laissez-faire stance. Even if continuous inflation is not induced by Brexit, economists should learn to walk in the shoes of the public and act accordingly.  Economists can separate natural from unnatural phenomena and consider how tough life is out there.

Respectable: the Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley

This book is about a personal journey. Triumphalist in tone, the text describes how an individual has moved up the social pecking order. It focuses on social mobility, culture and work . While it is neither dull nor dumb, it buys into the idea that the competitive accumulation of cultural capital should be taken seriously. In other words, it suggests that keeping up with the Jones intellectually is a worthwhile project.

When reading this somewhat solipsistic narrative, which is laden with academic jargon, one is taken back to the brilliant class-based satires of the past. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray illustrated the ruthlessness of social climbing and was composed at the peak of the Victorian class system. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend captured the class-based growing pains of the neo-liberal 1980s. Of course, one can take one’s life as seriously as one wishes, but the world is under no obligation to take anything seriously.

Reading Pierre Bourdieu, Friedrich Engels and Juliet Mitchell may help one to understand where one comes from. There is nothing wrong with using academic understandings of class. But to understand class through the prism of one’s own history is to miss the point. Class is about being a tiny part of a contradictory class structure.

Watching the Wrong Bubble?

When it comes to an international fascination with bubbles during 2017, commentators have converged on Bitcoin. The rise in its value has drawn comparisons with the history of the South Sea bubble and tulip mania. Events such as the kidnapping of an exchange manager have highlighted the uncertainty connected with the cryptocurrency. Experts have struggled to come up with balanced assessments of Bitcoin. Economic historian Dr Garrick Hileman hedged his  bets:

“Speculation is a big part of this, but there are signs of growing use.”

Perhaps people should not be so distracted by the Bitcoin drama. The shock of the new always makes news. Could more important bubbles be forming in international stock markets? The FTSE 100 has hit a high, comfortably outperforming wage growth and inflation. This has exacerbated inequality in the UK.

While predicting a stock market crash might be foolish, it seems possible that the UK may be nearer to the next recession than some complacent observers think. Debt-burdened citizens may struggle to cope with the uncertainties of Brexit. The regulatory lessons of the last downturn might not have been absorbed by the elite. Looking at Bitcoin bubbles may be entertaining, but looking at economic fundamentals is always useful.

All that is Solid by Danny Dorling

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848.

Professor Danny Dorling takes a jaundiced view of the British housing market. Dorling shows awareness of the role that housing has played in economic crises in Spain, the United States, Ireland and Iceland, but his focus remains closer to home. Dorling is critical of the fact that housing is widely used as an investment. He connects this individualist behaviour with inefficiency, homelessness and inequality. He attempts to link the volatility of the housing market to the wider difficulties of modern capitalism.

However, Dorling fails to structure his argument effectively. A surplus of facts and illustrations clutter up his rambling text. Furthermore, the book is divided into awkward sections which mean that there is a certain amount of repetition. The reader is treated to some insights into the way some people live now, but a tighter use of theory might have yielded even better results.

Nevertheless, the book is a valuable read for people who have illusions about the nature of contemporary housing associations. The academic rightly puts the transfer of local authority stock to social landlords in the category of privatization. He writes:

“This becomes especially clear viewed alongside all the changes that have occurred to make housing associations less and less socially motivated and more and more profit-driven. Such changes include the increase in salaries now paid to their top officials.”


Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head by Roger McGough

“Patriots are a bit nuts in the head

because they wear

red, white and blue-

tinted spectacles

(red for blood

white for glory

and blue …

for a boy)

and are in effervescent danger

of losing their lives

lives are good for you

Patriotism, nationalism and imperialism have revived in new forms since the financial crash of 2007 to 2009. The central dream of neoliberalism, a border-free world which is made smooth for the development of capitalism, is not being made real. Globalisation is not being powered by technological progress in the simplistic fashion which was once envisaged.

While patriotism cannot be challenged at the level of discourse alone, it makes sense to question it more assertively than normal. The crudity of ethnocentric populism cannot go unremarked. Brexit and the Trump presidency have underscored the responsibility of socialists and liberals to speak up.

Politics and poetry can be uneasy bedfellows. However, all poetry is political in a sense. Even a love poem is composed in a context which shapes its conventions. Roger McGough was part of The Mersey Sound and his lack of respect for authority was underlined by Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head. The sentiment of the poem is captured in the excerpt above. While the message tails off in the latter stages of the work, the refreshing tone makes the poem worthy of appreciation. Political correctness had not been thought of when the poem was constructed and this means that aspects of the content must not be taken seriously. Feminists might not enjoy reading poetry like this, but half a century ago gender relations in the UK were unfortunately somewhat different than they are now.