Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2020

Michael Perelman, ¡Presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 4:36 pm
Michael Perlman (1939-2020)

Yesterday, the New Castle News in Pennsylvania reported that Michael Perelman died on September 21 at the age of 80. I would assume that Michael grew up in New Castle, a small town just across the border from Youngstown, Ohio—a scene of major labor battles in the 1930s.

Michael was the author of 19 books on economics written for a general audience. Despite his decades-long career at California State University, Chico, he could hardly be described as a mandarin. Like many economists who were radicalized in the 1960s, he saw his profession as a way to change society, not angle for awards that most academics covet. Today, the Nobel Prize in economics awarded to Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson for auction theory. When I saw the news, I asked myself what the hell was auction theory and why would experts in the subject merit a Nobel Prize? It turns out to be a way of “scientifically” calculating how bidding works, etc. When the world is poised on the edge of a 1930s type depression because of the pandemic, how did they win out? It turns out that both teach at Stanford, a symbol of the academy’s incestuous relationship to capitalism second to none. I only wish that Michael had lived long enough to comment on such a bizarre Nobel Prize.

After starting a new job at Columbia University in 1991, I was puzzled by nearly daily emails informing me about new mailing lists that I could subscribe to. Most were devoted to topics like Jane Austin studies or Nature Photography but when I spotted Progressive Economics Network, I was intrigued. If I could figure out what the hell a mailing list was, I might sign up. I strolled over to Terry, who maintained the email system, to ask what a mailing list was. He replied, “Ha!, I guess you don’t know what the Internet is yet.” It turned out that most colleges were on the Internet long before it became as universal as it is today. Thirty years ago, it was strictly about mailing lists since the Worldwide Web was still in its infancy, let alone social media. I sent a subscription request to the mail server at Chico and that began a friendship with Michael that lasted for the better part of thirty years. Despite the whirlwind experience of 11 years in the Trotskyist movement, the ties I have made through both PEN-L and Marxmail run deeper.

Not long after joining PEN-L, my correspondence with Michael began. As was the case with Michael Yates, I felt an affinity with economics professors who were both against the capitalist system and wrote books and articles directed to working people rather than fellow academics.

There two aspects of Michael’s scholarship that stood out for me. Back in the early 90s, I was becoming more and more committed to ecosocialism and saw Michael’s focus on agriculture as essential. It is worth noting that he earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley. I strongly suspect that his first book “Farming for Profit in a Hungry World” was based on his dissertation. With a forward by Barry Commoner, you can assume that it took up questions that are at the heart of our crisis today, with large-scale capitalist farming undermining our survival. Michael did not just theorize these questions. Long ago, when I learned that he owned a tractor and grew his own food, he struck me as a Marxist version of Wendell Berry. Nothing captures Michael’s humanity better than the farewell he wrote for Barry Commoner on his blog:

Goodby, Barry Commoner

Not long after I graduated and began teaching, Barry Commoner invited me to Washington University because of my work on energy use in Agriculture. He also published my article in his magazine, Ecology, and even wrote a forward to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World: Capital and the Crisis in Agriculture.

I only ran into him a few times after that.  We would only exchange a few words. He was always engaged with other people and I did not want to disturb him. I wish that I had been able to spend enough time with Barry Commoner to call him a friend. Nonetheless, I am grateful for our brief time together and even more grateful for the wonderful work he did.

His obituaries cover some of his most important work, but they neglected something that impressed me. Many of the people who worked for him were “unqualified,” in the sense that they lacked the credentials normally required for their jobs.  I believe that they did a better job appreciating that Barry Commoner gave them a chance that others would deny them.

We many more Barry Commoners.  Thank you Barry.

I invite you to check out Michael’s blog that should remain up for the foreseeable future given WordPress.com’s permanence, especially the intellectual biography in which Michael describes the road he took:

Although I earned a degree in agricultural economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1971, I never could bring myself to accept the ideological framework of conventional economics. Early on I noticed that the agricultural system was consuming ten times more energy than it was producing in the form of edible food. I looked more deeply into the environmental, social, and economic costs of the current agricultural system. These investigations finally led to my first book, Farming for Profit in a Hungry World (1977). In this book, I showed how the profit-oriented agricultural system created hunger, pollution, serious public health consequences, and environmental disruption, while throwing millions of people off the land.

I also had a strong interest in the history of economic thought, which led me to look into the historical evolution of the agricultural system through the lens of the major representatives of classical political economy. These economists, who wrote during a period that ranged from the late 17th century through the middle of the 19th century, lavished praise on free and unfettered markets in their theoretical works. In their more policy-oriented writings — letters, diaries, and more policy-oriented works — they promoted the active use of the state to apply extra-market forces in the interest of capitalists to the detriment of others. In particular, I looked at the fairly universal call of these political economists to undermine relatively self-sufficient small farmers to transform them into wage workers. This study led me to write Classical Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Social Division of Labor (1983).

A central theme of this book was the creation of a social division of labor — the partitioning of the economy into separate commodity producing units. I then began to look at what light Karl Marx could throw upon this subject. Reading Marx in this light made me realize that most of his readers missed what I considered to be very important to understanding his work. These researches led to my book, Karl Marx’s Crises Theories: Labor, Scarcity and Fictitious Capital (1987). I found that Marx sometimes wrote in order to influence contemporary political conditions. This aspect of his work led him write in such a way that seemed mislead later readers. Failing to see that element of Marx’s work, modern readers generally are inclined to read his writings as if they were timeless truths. For example, his famous articles on India argued that England was promoting progress in India, but Marx knew little about India at the time. Instead, he was trying to undercut the influence of Henry Carey at the New York Tribune, where Marx also wrote. I also found that scarcity was important to Marx, but he obscured this aspect of his work within the category of the organic composition of capital. Within this perspective, Marx’s crisis theory was far more sophisticated than many modern readers had realized. For Marx, subjective valuations caused market prices to violently oscillate. As investors became more optimistic, prices would rise in an irregular fashion, preventing prices from guiding the economy in an appropriate manner. Crises were required in order to set the economy right again, although the violence of the cure would eventually cause the system to collapse

Finally, on a personal note. I valued Michael’s friendship deeply. Over the better part of thirty years, we had many private email exchanges and numerous phone calls discussing issues that had come up over PEN-L as well as the general political situation. We also made time to chat at Left Forums, where he came to give talks, often on the same panel as Michael Hudson, another academic public intellectual. He did not have an arrogant bone in his body and was anxious to get my opinion on American and world events.

In addition to writing 19 books, Michael had a prolific presence online both through his blog and articles for various left publications. Six of them are on the Monthly Review website and well worth reading. Although Michael did not have any kind of special ties to MR, I always saw him in the same way I saw Harry Magdoff, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. All such intellectuals understood exactly what Marx meant when he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

2 Comments »

  1. This is a fine tribute to Michael Perelman. He was indeed a kind, generous, soft-spoken, guy, without any academic arrogance. I had forgotten about his farming. Way ahead of his times about agriculture. I was on PEN-L as early as 1988. Good days, those. We drove Herb Gintis right off the list when he started pontificating about how great was China’s shift to the right under Deng. Also, another person on the list, who shall remain unnamed because of his ever vigilant rabbit ears. He demanded I apologize for noting the irony of so many left economists in the precious little village of Amherst. Of course, not a one of these luminaries of left economics every volunteered to teach in the worker education program housed at UMass there. I bet Michael would have done so. BTW, I was delighted to learn from Michael that he grew up in Western PA, not too far from where I did. His high school was a basketball powerhouse, and a rival of the high school I attended. W. PA soil is rocky ground for radicals, but Michael managed to come out of there with a true radical heart.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — October 13, 2020 @ 6:04 pm

  2. FWIW, one of the few people I consistently liked, both for his character and his contributions, on LBO-Talk.

    Comment by Todd — October 13, 2020 @ 10:49 pm


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