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Notes on Simon Clarke’s Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology

I just finished Simon Clarke’s book Marx, Marginalism, and Modern Sociology. (Clarke passed away recently unfortunately, Jack Copley wrote a nice piece on his thought as an obituary: https://legalform.blog/2023/01/23/simon-clarke-1946-2022-jack-copley/)


The best parts of this book are the account of Marx’s critique of capitalism, how that relates to the history of economic thought, and how Marx’s work differs from liberal social theory of various sorts. It has what to me like a lot detail on figures like Parson and Weber (too much for my purposes but I’m not a sociologist). Most of the book is textual exposition and analysis plus some abstract theorizing about how capitalism in general works (the latter comes naturally as the texts analyzed are all works purporting to explain society in general or capitalism in particular). Around the edges there are mentions of the social and institutional history of ideas, which is really thought provoking. For instance, Clarke argues that certain intellectual consensus in 19th century economic thought became untenable in the face of class conflict, with a new consensus arising in its place after that destabilization. Given the book’s purpose - to explain important developments in the history of sociology, show the roots of the latter in developments in economic thought (the so-called marginalist revolution in particular), and show how Marx’s critique of political economy is superior to both - it’s appropriate that the social history context is compressed. As someone reading the book at a bit of a tangent from its primary purpose (it’s a valid, worthy, even important purpose, I’m just not quite the right audience for that purpose), I wished there’d been more of that social history, a wish that’s unfair given that it would have detracted from the book’s main purpose. I do wish the book had a different, more footnote heavy citation style, as I often found I wanted to read about the elements of social history he nodded toward and I can’t work out where to do so, which limits what I can do with/get from/go from the book. That’s a very minor issue in what is a superb book.

Clarke writes in his Keynesianism, Monetarism, and the Crisis of the State (KMCoS) that KMCoS originated in his study of ideology - his first book having been on structuralism; Marx, Marginalism being on “the ideological dimensions of political economy, marginalist economics and modern sociology as social theories.” KMCoS on the other hand sought to address the issue “of the relations between economics, politics and ideology.” Clarke found that other approaches tended to put forward “a one-dimensional analysis of the crisis of Keynesianism and the rise of monetarism, seeing it alternatively as an ideological, political or economic phenomenon, rather than offering an analysis that can grasp the complex relationship between these different dimensions of the historical process.” His goal in KMCoS was “to develop a more adequate framework within which to grasp both the coherence and the complexity of the relationship between economics, politics and ideology in the crisis-ridden development of capitalism.” (p12-13 in the version of KMCoS on Clarke’s web site.) That effort brought him into “the more complex question of the political significance of economic ideology.” (p13) I don’t know about “more complex,” I’m inclined to see these as just differences of object of analysis, but it’s the glimpses Marx, Marginalism offers of what KMCoS calls political significance of economic thought - and, conversely, the effects on economic thought of political conflict and changes in specific ways of institutionalizing aspects of capitalist social relations - that I was especially excited about in reading the book. I think there’s also something interesting that might be done in distilling some of Clarke’s discussions of ideology across his work.

In Marx, Marginalism Clarke suggests that changes in economic thought sometimes represent improvements in understanding society and sometimes represent ideological changes. That’s an oversimplified presentation on my part of an insightful point on Clarke’s part: sometimes social theory can lose analytical power in a way that is in important respects a feature rather than a bug. He writes in the preface to the second edition that “the main aim of the book was to develop a Marxist critique of liberal social theory, which could identify both the scientific strengths and the ideological limitations of such theories.” (p. viii in the edition on his web site) He argues in effect that some of the time lack of “scientific strengths” make theories more ideologically appealing, and the reverse can be true as well. Ricardo, Clarke argues, helped clarify aspects of capitalist society but the clarification was ideologically troubling and subsequent economic thought largely stopped asking some of Ricardo’s questions. (Other than some Marxists who ended up being largely left-Ricardians.)

This is not to say that economic thought mechanically followed external political pressures. Clarke argues that “the marginalist revolution is not simply an ideological revolution” such that “the orthodox Marxist critique, which reduces marginalist economics to its apologetic function, cannot be regarded as satisfactory.” (142)

Part of Clarke’s implicit point is that ideology is not simply cynical but rather is a matter of making the world make sense as a set of given facts and experiences in light of some set of values and priorities. Clarke writes that “the pioneers of the marginalist revolution were neither disinterested scientists, nor were they mere apologists for capitalism. They certainly posed new scientific questions, which they sought to answer according to the normal canons of scientific procedure. These new questions were not posed in a scientific vacuum, but nor was their motivation purely apologetic. They were primarily an attempt to provide rational solutions to the new problems presented to the state by the maturing of the contradictions of capitalist accumulation, problems presented by the growth of an independent working-class movement, by the growing monopolisation of capitalism, and by the intensification of the crisis tendencies of accumulation. These were real problems, which could not be resolved by a purely apologetic ideology, but which had to be approached scientifically. The ideological limitations of the new economics were no different from those of classical political economy. They lay not in the apologetic character of its answers, but in the restricted character of its questions.” (141)

He adds a moment later “the fundamental change lay not in the motivation of its proponents, or in the scientific status of its procedures, but in the questions which it posed.” The ideological effects are in part a matter of what questions don’t get posed, what gets left out of a given set of questions and what given set of questions takes as given about the world. (Clarke has a great deal to say about what’s left out and taken as given, that’s a lot of what Marx serves to highlight.) That economic analysis occurs via respectable procedures of thought is part of what makes it authoritative and I think more generally the process of working out of ideas via procedures like that helps produce relative sincerity on the part of adherents to ideology. (If ideology was all cynicism and lies it’d have less staying power and efficacy.)

Elsewhere Clarke characterizes the development economic thought as follows: “the transition is neither from science to ideology, nor from ideology to science, but from one ideology to another.” He adds that in this ideological change “the abandonment of the labour theory of value compromised the scientific claims of classical political economy” which at the same time served “only to strengthen it ideologically in the face of the challenge of the working class.” (p. 111 note 1.)

Clarke writes in KMCoS that “monetarism and Keynesianism are not populist ideologies so much as ideologies of the state, giving ideological coherence to the institutional framework and policy decisions of the state. The crisis of Keynesianism and the rise of monetarism did not express a popular ideological revolution, but a crisis of the policies and institutions of the Keynesian welfare state.” (p12) Those are different ideologies in different contexts - the scholarly work Clarke examines in Marx, Marginalism were only sometimes “ideologies of the state” (arguably there were produced in a kind of laboratory out of which contenders for position as ideologies of the state, or ideological resources for the state, could emerge) - but I think analogizing between the two is helpful as it gets at how social context shapes the development of thought as well as indicating elements of how Clarke reads examples of ideology in light of other developments (how he conducts intellectual history in dialog with other kinds of inquiry).

Another implication in Clarke’s account is that while there are some general patterns and trends, and our analysis can certainly be guided by theory, a full account of any particular ideology requires studying that in fairly granular detail, historically, and can’t be just read off of other phenomena - hence Clarke’s writing fairly detailed intellectual histories placed in a relatively rich social history context. (It’s also fitting then that Clarke wrote a defense of socialist humanist historiography.)

Clarke’s cited source materials are largely long-form scholarly writing and changing the sources might change the work, but I’m inclined to say that Clarke’s approach could transition well to (really, I think it offers big resources for!) the study of practical/institutional know how along the lines of what I attempted some of in parts of my book. Arguably Jack Copley’s book could be read as doing similar, I think, though that could be just me wanting to claim my stuff’s similar to Copley’s since I admire his book so much, which itself draws a lot on Clarke’s stuff. By the way I reviewed Copley’s book in a joint review here: https://legalform.blog/2023/01/30/review-essay-economic-power-liberalism-and-crisis-nate-holdren/ Anyway I’d frame the matter as follows: asking a limited set of questions, having a focused kind of practical consciousness is helpful sometimes, sometimes actively incentivized, and also just baked into the kinds of information and analysis that institutions of social management use, create, circulate. Periodically events take place, either large scale crises and uprisings like Clarke alludes to or smaller ones, which scramble some categories and limited set of questions, leading to new ones. But all of those outlooks have practical validity in that they’re good to work with and steer by for the sake of navigating the actually existing capitalist social world that they’re an artifact of. (Again ideology isn’t reducible to cynicism and lies, it is in important respects good to with relative to this terrible type of society.)


I need to get onto other obligations so I’m going to break off here. I’ve unfortunately left out entirely Clarke’s novel reading of Marx, which I think is simply stellar. I learned a great deal and came away questioning what I’d previously thought about the relationship between the early and the late Marx. All of that said, at this point given what else I’ve been reading for me personally I didn’t find most of Clarke’s account of Marx’s value theory in particular to feel like a huge breakthrough. To be clear here, it clearly is a huge breakthrough, I’ve just read things all out of order and so have read a great deal of work influenced by Clarke, so a lot of the value theory sounded to me like good succinct statements of things I’d previously read. People unfamiliar with value theory could do a lot worse than read the chapters on Marx in this book. I may come back later and add some notes or write another post on Clarke’s reading of Marx though, as this is great stuff. No time at the moment unfortunately.

Final thought for now: critique of liberal social theory. Clarke has a lot to say about this making it resonant with Tony Smith’s Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism. I think the books compliment each other well, with Smith placing that critique front and center as his purpose and laying out a wide range of concepts for conducting that critique, while Clarke on the other hand historicizes liberal thought more, tracing its changes, continuities, and continuity-by-change over time. All of this is a longstanding interest of mine, elements of which I attempted to a limited extent in my book and want to attempt further in future work (I also just think this stuff’s interesting!) so I should try to remember to get back to this in Clarke’s work and write a bit more on it. But for now I gotta break off.

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