The pandemic has upended ideas about economic ideology almost as much as it has upended the economy itself. There has been a massive shift of wealth toward billionaires and corporate giants like Amazon, at the expense of workers suffering the most sudden and severe wave of unemployment and impoverishment since the Great Depression. But there has also been paradigm-shifting federal stimulus legislation that has massively (if temporarily) expanded unemployment insurance and anti-poverty funding. Meanwhile, debates continue to rage about the risk of a fourth COVID wave coming from states’ efforts to revive local economies through lifting restrictions on restaurants, bars, and other businesses. There has never been a better time to dive into the world of Marxist economics to understand the current moment.
Into this atmosphere came Hadas Thier’s popular new book, A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics. Economics books are often dry and inaccessible, but Thier’s writing style, plainspoken and filled with relevant contemporary examples and anecdotes, is anything but dry — something that can also be seen in her frequent articles for Jacobin and her Marxism in a Minute series on YouTube.
In this interview, Thier discusses why this moment is sparking so many profound questions about economics, why Marx’s Capital is both highly relevant and difficult for many new readers to understand, and how she, as a woman without an economics degree, has been able to thrive in a field dominated by male academics.
Danny Katch: First of all, congratulations on the popularity of your book! It’s not every day that a book about Marxist economics reaches a wide audience. Why are so many people interested in this subject right now?
Hadas Thier: It’s a bit of a joke in my household that it took me almost 10 years to write this book but it was timed perfectly. We have massive contradictions playing out, with billionaires gaining almost $2 trillion of the world’s wealth during the pandemic while millions have fallen into poverty. But, also in the positive sense, all the discussion about essential workers, as cynical as it often is, is an admission that it’s Amazon logistics workers and nurses and grocery workers and teachers that actually make the world run.
So, there’s a ton being exposed right now, and there’s a deeper crisis that’s been unfolding ever since the last crisis of the world economy in 2008, which was this massive financial meltdown that was so clearly caused by capital, and then so clearly the people who paid the price for it were workers.
All of those things have driven questions of class and capitalism. Millions of people were drawn into politics through Bernie Sanders’s campaign and through [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and other democratic socialists. There is now a growing and thriving and very young socialist movement that is instinctively anti-capitalist but has different levels of political experience. That’s who the book was written for, and that audience exists now in a way it didn’t just a few years ago.
Many are questioning the mainstream economic orthodoxies of austerity and deregulation, but there are many different alternatives to these neoliberal policies. What does Marxism in particular have to offer?
Marxism is a tool for explaining what’s at the root of these crises. It’s ultimately an exposition into how capitalism works, and what its contradictions are as a profit system based on short-term gains versus any kind of long-term, let alone humane, considerations. The fact that there were bidding wars for masks and ventilators instead of coordinated and centralized planning, the way the pharmaceutical industry is meant to be incentivized to save our lives via patents rather than any kind of humanly organized system — all of these things are based in a profit motive.
If you understand that companies can’t just be incentivized to do the right thing, then you understand that they need to be regulated, or in some cases, nationalized. If you understand that workers are the people that not only make the world run but are the creators of value and profit, then you understand what kind of role labor can potentially play in disrupting profits and having leverage in the ways we’ve seen from some of the strike actions and threatened strikes in this past period.
Your book is being hailed as an accessible guide to Marx’s Capital. Can I give you the even greater challenge of summarizing Capital in 100 words or less?
In a nutshell, the purpose of Capital — and Marx was writing at the very early stages of [capitalism’s] development — was to try to break down capitalism to understand it as a particular form of class society which has been ideologically sold to us as a [system] where the people who have the most are the people who deserve it, and that we’re all equal and rational players on an economic playing field. The purpose of Capital is to look under the surface to unpack the economic laws of motions of this system, and to show that economics aren’t about numbers, stock markets and price fluctuations, but about a social relationship of exploitation. There’s more I can say but I’ve probably hit my word count.
Many readers over the years have struggled to make it through the opening chapters of Capital where much of that unpacking — of concepts like commodities, value and money — takes place. As a largely self-taught economist, how were you able to become an expert and a teacher?
Some of it is certainly stubbornness on my part (laughs). I write in the introduction that when I first tried to pick up a book about economics, which is now over 20 years ago, I put it down after a page or two and just cried because I was so frustrated. But I tried and tried again because I had to get my head around economics to really understand how capitalism ticks.
But more importantly, I think being an activist really helped me, both in terms of providing motivation, but also because it puts you in a collaborative community. I started to read Capital with a group of other socialists and still only made it through the first couple of chapters, but then I tried again with another group until we actually made it through.
The whole process of leading study groups and giving talks along the way helps to deepen your own education. Some of the best aspects of academia is that it encourages a certain intellectual rigor, which is important. There’s a sort of organic version of that in the left activist community, which is that you’re accountable to your comrades. Nobody is grading you, but something more important is on the line of actually trying to work out these questions together and figure out the questions of the day.
We’ve been talking about Capital being a difficult read, but you also argue that mainstream economics is hard to understand because it’s “purposefully mystified.” What do you mean by that?
It’s not that I think there’s a boardroom of economists sitting around trying to figure out how to confuse us, although it does sometimes feel that way! I think economists believe what they espouse, but the entire structure of mainstream economics is built around skirting the elephants in living room: the role of labor, and specifically the exploitation of labor, in creating wealth; the fact that the system has for that reason built-in inequality; and the contradictions built into that system.
Economists are regularly floored every time there’s a crisis, as though that’s a new thing that’s come up even though it’s a completely recurring occurrence. So you have very mainstream prominent economists that will have theories of explaining crisis through sunspots and [other preposterous] ideas in order to avoid the fact that at the heart of capitalism are built-in contradictions that play a very important role in Marx’s writing and theory.
When Bill Clinton was cutting welfare in the 1990s, I remember learning that mainstream economists held the “ideal” unemployment rate to be about 5 percent, but I didn’t see them refuting the claim that joblessness was caused by welfare making people “dependent.” That was one of those moments where it felt like they were sitting in a room plotting how to screw people over.
So much is about what is implied and not said, so “full employment” is not considered 100 percent employment by economists’ standards. A lot of this discussion has resurfaced with the debates over stimulus spending, and the need to have low enough unemployment benefits so that economic coercion will force people to work for poverty wages.
Marx talked about how capitalism needs unemployment — he called it a reserve army of labor — in order to keep wages from getting too high from the capitalists’ perspective. Because if there was actually 100 percent full employment, capitalists would have to compete with each other with higher wages in order to attract workers to their company. That would be a complete bust for capitalism. And that is exactly the problem — that capitalism depends on unemployment and low wages in order to properly function in its “healthiest” state.
To bring it full circle, Marxist economics isn’t about a number like the ideal unemployment rate, but a relationship of power, capitalists having more power than workers.
Final question. Economics remains dominated by men — even on the left, unfortunately. Why is this, and how does it impact our movements?
One thing that motivated me to write the book was that I’d give talks about the economy in socialist meetings and the audience was always predominantly men; the few women who were there rarely spoke up, and when they did, it was in the form of a question. Women are given the message from the time we’re girls that we’re more suited for caretaking or perhaps more creative endeavors than we are for mathematics, science and economics. Of course, people of color, and working-class people are also subjected to the same types of messages that they can’t understand this stuff. Then there are some of the structural issues of who is promoted in academia, who gets media jobs, and who has the resources to begin with to wind up in academia and get these kinds of jobs.
Obviously, it’s wrong that women, people of color or working-class people shouldn’t be in the leadership of these movements, including providing leadership on theoretical questions for these movements. But it’s not just a moral question. We need a movement where there’s not a small section of people that feel confident to speak about economic issues and the rest of us just show up for picket line duty or the demonstrations. We need a movement that has the depth and the width required to lead a mass movement for more mass systematic change.