Garneft and Cullenberg on Postmodernism, Value, and Overdetermination

By Brown, William S. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Garneft and Cullenberg on Postmodernism, Value, and Overdetermination


Brown, William S., Journal of Economic Issues


I cannot be the only non-Marxist heterodox economist who still remembers Marxism as the study of laws of motion, class struggle, and the labor theory of value. Like many of us, I read some Marx in graduate school and have referred to him occasionally in my work since then. But until I heard and then read in this journal (December 1999) the papers of DeMartino, Cullenberg, Garnett and Waller, I was unaware of contemporary post-Marxist thought. This new variant of Marxism borrows as much from postmodernism as it does from Das Kapital, and it seems to say more about modern economic methodology than the collapse of the former Soviet Union. After reading the papers by Rob Garnett and Stephen Cullenberg [1999], it is clear that it has important links to institutional economics.

Garnett believes that the most important link between postmodern Marxism and old institutional economics lies in the core concept of value. He notes that value" means different things in different paradigms yet plays a central role in all economic paradigms. His key point seems to be that value means a similar thing to Marxist and institutionalist economists. Garnett states, "Marxian value refers to labor, exchange, and class exploitation," [p. 817] and later that "while the ultimate focus of Marxian value is not markets but market-based class exploitation, its domain is delimited by markets" [p. 818]. He notes that, to institutionalists, value "refers to the normative dimensions of all human action and socioeconomic evolution" [p. 818]. At first blush, it would seem to be quite a stretch to say that these two concepts of value are linked in any sense other than their opposition to the analytical, reductionist value theory of neoclassical economics--end it would be quite a stretch, if not for postmodernism.

Garnett notes that a number of Marxist and institutionalist authors have begun to redefine value within a postmodern framework, but, as yet, the two groups have remained separate. The main purpose of the Garnett pape and the symposium is to begin conversation between these groups and to show that postmodernism can be the key nexus between the two groups. Garnett offers a brief but useful discussion of postmodernism and suggests "paradigmism" as an explanation for the lack of conversation between the institutionalism and postmodern Marxism groups.

Garnett's paper is useful. He raises a number of important insights, and I am encouraged by this attempt to foster communication between two schools of heterodox economics. Still, there are at least two issues that need to be resolved before I will be indifferent to being called a postmodern Marxist or institutionalist, just as I am now almost indifferent to being called an institutionalist or Post Keynesian. (I am not sure which I prefer, but I am sure that I am not quite indifferent!)

Postmodernism is difficult to define. Garnetts citation of Montag's definition of postmodernism as a "de facto alliance between irreducibly different forces" [p. 819] helps a bit but does not say whether, for example, it would be postmodern to develop, say, an institutionalist variant of rational expectations. Postmodernism often refers to ideas that are less rigidly logical and more experimental; this may be especially apparent when examining postmodernist art and architecture. To me, the key element of postmodernism is this: Postmodernism is a philosophical view that rejects absolutes and determinism. It recognizes that the economy and economic events are caused by a multitude of factors--"overdetermined" to use the contemporary Marxist terminology suggested by Cullenberg in his paper.

That said, postmodernism does seem to be a way to link modern Marxism and institutionalism. It would represent an alliance between irreducibly different forces; it would be less rigidly logical and more experimental; and it would reject absolutes and determinism. However, I see no reason why the entry point to this link should be the theory of value.

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