Alan Carling accuses me of ‘everythingism’—that is, of believing that ‘you need a complete explanation of something before you can have any explanation of something.’ Do I really? I thought I was stating a rather more modest requirement, namely that a ‘paradigm’ like rcm, which claims to improve on, indeed to replace, ‘classical’ Marxism, ought to add more than it subtracts from existing explanations. It was, after all, not I who made extravagant claims for rcm, that ‘it is now only within the rational-choice context that some of the leading questions on the classical agenda of Marxist theory—historical explanation and the delineation of social form, the collective dynamics of class struggle, the evolution and evaluation of capitalism—can be fruitfully discussed.’footnote1 If Carling now wants drastically to modify those claims, by effectively conceding my principal argument that all the important theoretical and empirical work needs to be done in advance of applying the rcm model, then that’s fine with me.
I do not think, however, that Carling realizes the extent of the concessions he has made. He writes that he is ‘happy to second’ my criticism that rational-choice explanation ‘does not,’ as he puts it, ‘explain what it treats as a presupposition of its explanations.’ He continues: ‘and since the presuppositions often include (1) the preferences of the actor and (2) the social context in which the actor acts, rational-choice explanation often does not explain either the preferences or the social context of the actor.’ Surely this is a huge concession which leaves very little of rcm’s pretensions intact.
Rational Choice Marxism, if it is to make good its claims as something more than a very modest and limited parenthesis in the large corpus of Marxist theory, must be distinguished by more than the simple assumption that people (often) act reasonably. This much is assumed by classical Marxism—as is clear from Marx’s own analysis of capitalism, for example. But the core of any social explanation that centres on rational agency must then consist of specifying and explaining the social structures which set the terms of what is reasonable and preferable in any given context, and illuminating the different criteria of reasonableness or eligibility established by different systems of
Carling might claim that rcm has the advantage of giving higher priority to the individual, but is that really true? rcm’s characteristic procedure is to impute preferences and structures, in the form of ‘resources’ or ‘assets’, to abstract individuals, in effect deducing their motivations from the structures or ‘macroprocesses’ themselves. The individual thus becomes, as I argued before, little more than an embodied structure. In fact, rcm explanations are even further abstracted from individual rationality and agency by the tendency, especially visible in Roemer (in contrast to ‘classical’ Marxism) to impose a transhistorical ‘rationality’, derived from capitalism, on all actors irrespective of their specific historical contexts. Even at lower levels of abstraction, in the study of particular empirical phenomena, rational-choice explanations typically derive whatever explanatory power they have not from the application of the rational-choice model but from a specification of the context in which the relevant choices are made.
One major question I set out to answer in my text was whether, even if we grant Roemer his moral argument against capitalism, the price he exacts for it is worth paying. What effect, I ask, does it have on Marxist theory as a whole? Carling simply misreads the question. ‘Are you kidding?’ he asks indignantly. Would it not make a big difference if every neoclassical economic textbook contained a proof of capitalism’s exploitative character? Evidently he takes my question to be a rhetorical one, meaning that I am denying the huge effects of Roemer’s moral argument—when, of course, my contention is quite the opposite: that Roemer’s argument does indeed, and profoundly, affect his whole project of reconstructing Marxism, by undermining its explanatory power.