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.
But since Carling has asked me a question, let me briefly try to answer it. Economists, it is true, tend to lag behind the rest of the world in acknowledging social realities, preferring to deal with abstract and formalistic models which have little to do with the substance of social life. In that sense, it would, of course, be very nice if economics textbooks contained a Roemerian proof. But would it make as much difference as Carling thinks? Conventional sociology, for example, has long been ready to acknowledge that inequality breeds inequality. Max Weber, after all, knew all about the consequences of unequal
There are now many even on the left (see Göran Therborn’s article in Marxism Today some time agofootnote2) who question the relevance of ‘exploitation’ as an organizing category in the analysis of advanced capitalist societies. They are hardly likely to be convinced by formalistic mathematical proofs. Indeed, they would probably dismiss the relevance of the concept precisely on the grounds that in prosperous Western capitalisms exploitation has little meaning except as an abstract mathematical formula. This is, to be sure, an inexcusably sanguine view of capitalist prosperity, given the current, and growing, extent of poverty, homelessness and despair in advanced capitalist societies (not to mention the wastefulness and destructiveness of capitalism even at its best); but the proponents of this view are unlikely to be shaken by yet more mathematics—and apologists for capitalism even less so. If theories of exploitation are to be convincing, they need to be capable of explaining something—for example, the systemic logic and crises of capitalism which produce not only poverty and degradation but also waste, destruction, despoliation of the environment, the debasement of culture, and other consequences that deeply affect the lives even of those who are not materially disadvantaged by the system. Whatever Roemer’s model may tell us about exploitation as a moral problem, it detaches the theory of exploitation from any explanation of capitalism as a specific social system of production and accumulation; indeed it discards the very features of Marxist theory that allow it to deal with exploitation as a social relation and the driving mechanism of the capitalist system.