[OPE-L:2180] Re: [OPE-L:2141]Thermodynamics

From: Michael J Williams (michael@williamsmj.screaming.net)
Date: Mon Jan 17 2000 - 06:57:57 EST

[ show plain text ]

This is a response to Paul C and Julian, both of whom deserve thanks for
clarifying the interpretation of 'thermodynamic' models as applied to
Political Economy. It is a bit long, I'm afraid.

----- Original Message -----
From: clyder <wpc@dcs.gla.ac.uk>
To: Michael J Williams <mike.williams@dmu.ac.uk>
Sent: Friday, January 14, 2000 10:29 AM
Subject: Re: [OPE-L:2141] Re: value-form theories

Paul C writes:

>The analysis of Steedman treats them as basically
>simple highly ordered systems.

Also Re. Chris's recent post. To say that I accept the critique presented
most trenchantly by Steedman in the 1970s is not to say that I accept his
positive position on value-theory, if he has one. I accept that his
criticism of embodied labour theories is 'internal'. Nevertheless, I have
(at least until now - see below) accepted his logical arguments to the
incoherence and redundancy of embodied labour theories as a further nail in
their coffin.

>Steedman ... performs two
>1. he replaces the production functions of all firms within an industry
> with the mean production function for that industry,
>2. he replaces all profit rates for all firms with the mean profit rate
> for the economy as a whole.
>These are simply not valid operations when reasoning about disordered

OK, but the embodied labour theories up until F&M were *not* reasoning about
disordered collections

>In this context however the crucial question is whether intentionality or
>teleology can be plausibly called in to impose order on the structure of
>profit rates and prices in a complex economy.

I would appreciate some indication of the arguments why the irreducible
intentionality of human beliefs desires and so the actions guided by them
can be assumed a priori to impose no (or only 'insignificant') 'structure'
on the reproduction of systems of such intentional agents.

>I believe that they can but only under circumstances that would make the
>economy cease to be capitalist in the normal sense. Intentionality and
>in the form of a state plan for prices and profit rates could create an
>whose structure could be modelled by the sort of input/output tables with
>profit rates that Steedman assumes, but this would not be the sort of
>that Marx was trying to describe.

Again, what arguments can you adduce for the presumption against any
(significant) structure in a modern capitalist 'mixed economy'. First, this
is not a system of spot markets in which dumb atomistic non-agents collide.
There are many elements of 'planning', hierarchical management,
administration, etc.: within large corporations and even quite small firms,
within state apparatuses (distinguished by their power to impose their
'plans' on the market sector), within non-governmental organisations, and so
on. Why do you assume that your example of:

>the publicly regulated utilities. In these cases it is valid to assume
>intentionality as the explanation.

is unique?

More fundamentally, perhaps, Value-Form theory can motivate its presumption
of a systemic theoretical object by reference to the notion of ubiquitous
overlapping dominant ideas sharing family resemblance (Wittgenstein) -
beliefs, desires => actions. It is these, it is argued, that are at least in
part constitutive of the theoretical object - bourgeois society with a
capitalist economy at its core.

As I have said before, this kind of Value-form conceptualisation doesn't
negate the value of a 'statistical mechanical' investigation of capitalism
as if it was a chaotic system lacking any significant structure, but it does
raise questions as to how the results of such modelling are to be

Turning to Julian's extremely helpful gloss on F&M's modelling.

----- Original Message -----
From: <P.J.Wells@OPEN.AC.UK>
To: <ope-l@galaxy.csuchico.edu>
Sent: Saturday, January 15, 2000 11:27 AM
Subject: [OPE-L:2162] Thermodynamics

> F&M themselves refer to their approach as derived from statistical
> (Chapter Two of their book "Laws of Chaos" is titled "A paradigm:
> statistical mechanics"), but they directly address Mike's concerns at the
> beginning of Chapter Three:
> "How can methods borrowed from statistical *mechanics* be applied to
> political economy, which is a *social science*? Surely, an economy --
> a gas -- cannot be made up of a mechanical system made up of mindless
> particles. Economic activity is a conscious activity of human beings,
> motivated by human aims and impelled by human volition; nothing can be
> different from the blind collision of material particles." (F&M p. 57,
> emphases in original)
> The answer is that (here I summarise) the whole point of statistical
> mechanics is to see what structural features a system must have given the
> weakest possible assumptions about the elements which make it up --
> essentially that it is composed of a very large number of independent (but
> interacting) particles; virtually nothing is assumed about the particles
> themselves.

It is, of course, a strength of F&M's work that they do not try to finesse
the question of transferring a technique evolved for modelling atomistic
chaotic ('thermodynamic') systems to a (social) system that may involve
intentionality and structure.

However, their justification does not appear to me to be very robust. I
detect an 'ontological parsimony' kind of argument underlying examination on
the basis of 'weakest possible assumptions'. The general problem of
interpreting the results of this modelling approach is that it presumes that
its results continue to hold in the, ontologically richer, real world:
specifically one involving intentionality and structure (even if that
structure is postulated as having evolved in the course of the development
from a less structured earlier system).

Specifically, I would appreciate some further gloss on what you/they have in
mind in terms of 'independent *and* interacting' particles. Then I would
like (see above) some argument motivating the argument that human social
agents can reasonably be modelled as 'independent' in the sense required for
statistical mechanics.
> Whether the particles are thought to be Newtonian tiny billiard balls
> (classical statistical mechanics), or conscious agents with intentions,
> etc., is irrelevant to the results, *provided* that they are
> *unco-ordinated* (relatively few constraints).

This is exactly what, imo, needs motivation. First, it is not clear that
constraints that can be modelled as functional relations between parameters
exhaust what is generally meant by social structure. Second, constraints
that include the structure constituted by sufficient overlapping of dominant
'ideas' are not external to intentional agents nor are they independent of
the 'interactions' between such agents: agency and structure are not
> As F&M point out, the idea of a vast number of unco-ordinated agents whose
> only form of interaction is to collide with each other is an intuitively
> appealing image of a competitive market economy.

Well .. my intuition needs a little more tutoring before it is persuaded by
this image - even for the (counterfactual) notion of a competitive economy.

>In this case what can be
> deduced about the macro-state of the system are such things as prices and
> values, the general rate of profit, etc., etc. -- all of which (as well as
> the states of the individual particles (e.g. firm profit rates) are quite
> independent of -- tho' *caused by* -- any plans or intentions which the
> particles (agents) may or may not have had.

I have no problem with 'unintended consequences' - these are, of course,
commonplace in interactive decision models. But if they are the result
(although not the intended result) of the structured interaction of
intentional agents, then surely therein lies their best explanation?

We should perhaps remind ourselves at this stage that 'intenionality' is
much richer than the the simple everyday notion of 'purposiveness'. All
human action that is informed systematically by beliefs and desires (and
such like) is intentional, just because beliefs and ideas have only an
intensional existence in the mind. That is they embody a proposition whose
truth-value is dependent on how its elements are conceptualised (as well,
perhaps, as its relation to the - extensional - relevant real world domain).
This of course, is the kernel of the modern reappearance of the controversy
about whether 'reasons (motivations)' can be 'causes'. This perhaps takes us
too far afield, but I would just say that John Searle's arguments that they
can be seem to rely on the prior reinterpretation of 'motives' that makes
them very like causes but only by removing their essentially intentional
nature; and Donald Davidson has simply been misinterpreted as supporting the
reduction of motivational to causal relations.

> and in a letter to Bloch:
> "... an infinite series of parallelograms of force which give rise to one
> result -- the historical event. ... For what each individual wills is
> obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one
> willed."

but may, nevertheless be generated by the structured interaction of what
'everyone' willed?
> I hope to come back to Mike's points about naturalism in a further post --
> there was an interesting 19th century debate (which, very unfortunately to
> my mind, appears to passed Engels by) as to what the discovery of
> statistical regularities in social phenomena implied for free will.

I look forward to that. imo, restrictions on freedom (desirable or
undesirable in some sense) derive from social structure not statistical

comradely greetings,

Dr Michael Williams
Economics and Social Sciences
De Montfort University
Milton Keynes
fax: 0870 133 1147
[This message may be in html, and any attachments may be in MSWord 97. If
you have difficulty reading either, please let me know.]

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Mon Jan 31 2000 - 07:00:07 EST