Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"
Richard Norgaard’s timely essay follows nicely from some of the previous essays this year—from Giorgos Kallis, Herman Daly, and John Bellamy Foster for example—in offering another critical perspective on the ideological dimensions of dominant economic thinking. While I agree 100% with the analysis offered by Norgaard, I feel he pulls his punches. Everything he describes as “economism” can be easily and equally described as “capitalist economics” or—to give its more usual nom de guerre—“neoclassical economics.” “Economism” is, after all, simply the ideology of capitalist economics, the capitalist economic imaginary that has now achieved almost full spectrum ideological and imaginative domination in how we define and describe the economy and this how we conceptualize “economics.”
Thus it is not the “Anthropocene” we now live in (which conveniently elides and deliberately obscured issues of class, power, global and national inequality, and injustices between peoples and places), nor is it the “Econocene” as Norgaard suggests. No, rather than either of these terms, a more accurate description for the current age is the “Capitalocene.”1 After all, what we witness is not the “humanization the world,” nor has our planet been “economized,” but rather the earth has been “capitalized.” And it has been capitalized, rendered into commodities, monetized, and valued right from the micro level of DNA through biotechnology to the macro level of the entire planet becoming negatively affected through climate change by capitalism and its addiction to endless fossil fueled orthodox economic growth.
Similarly, when Norgaard talks of “economists,” I do not think he is talking about feminist economists, ecological economists, Marxist or heterodox economists, or green political economists such as myself. No, he is correctly talking about those who are members of the dominant economic orthodoxy—capitalist, i.e., neoclassical, economists—so let’s call a spade a spade. And, of course, it is economics as doxa that enables it to be interpreted as a form of religious thinking.
In everything from the nonsense of a “value-free,” objective “science” of the human economy to myths of endless economic growth on a finite planet, we can correctly ascertain the ideological and mythic characteristics of modern capitalist/neoclassical economics. So I ask if it looks like a pig and smells and walks like a pig, why not call it what it is, i.e., simply state that what we are talking about is capitalism, its ideological power, and its inherent tendencies to ecological irrationality and social injustice? Why be coy?
On this issue, I have been always struck with the reticence of American scholars toward invoking the C word, in a way we in Europe find odd given how criticism of capitalism and suggestions for possible post-capitalist political economies and social orders has long been a perfectly legitimate form of scholarly inquiry. It is almost as if some people can accept the end of the world more readily than the end of capitalism. Here, economism as used by Norgaard is closer to the way it was defined by Lenin (mentioned in the essay) as a reformist rather than transformative political project in its unwillingness to explicitly propose the replacing of capitalism, but this is perhaps a minor quibble (but one perhaps worthy of a future Great Transition discussion).
I have myself long been convinced of the ideological character of modern economics. Here, I make two related points. The first is that there is no ideology-free conceptualization of the economy and economics: all forms of economic thinking are at root forms of “political economy,” a fusion of ethical, political, and normative prescriptions and principles with empirical economic proposals in terms of policies or suggestions for public policy. Political economy is of course what Adam Smith and the great classical economists practiced, fully aware of the political and ethical dimensions of their ideas and proposals. It is a pity most modern economics students have very little idea of the political economy roots of the discipline they study. Instead, modern students of neoclassical/capitalist economics (since there is little to no pluralism in modern economics teaching) are completely ignorant of either the normative or historical foundations of the discipline. In this context, what we in the universities churn our year after year in our economics programs are nothing short of “technically competent barbarians.”2
The second point relates more to the religious invocation used by Norgaard to describe modern capitalist economics. Here, viewing this religious dimension as essentially ideological in another sense—that is, masking and occluding power relations or hidden normative assumptions conveniently smuggled in as “axioms,” for example—is a really important starting point for the dethroning of this false religion of “economism.” We need to ask ourselves, in whose interest is this form of “knowledge/power” deployed and inscribed in university curricula, and what does it hide and why?
Norgaard rightly points out how fragile the assumptions behind market economics are. Here are some more suggestions to add to the ones he outlines.
“Twelve Theses on Neoclassical Economics”
1. The fact that the “economy” is the material/metabolic foundation/bridge/link between the human and non-human worlds also affects relations of power within human societies.
2. Neoclassical economics’s purported objectivity, “scientific” status, or “value neutrality” is false since it is as value-laden and based on ethical and political judgements as other ethical or political position and prescriptions.
3. Related to that, this lends economics the illusion of being able to definitively establish the “truth,” mostly through its use of quantitative and numeric methods, what Stephen Marglin calls the algorithmic “ideology of knowledge” of economics.3
4. Modern capitalist economics regards itself as defined by its methodology and approach, which has (almost) universal application to all human affairs, rather than a subject matter, “the economy” per se.
5. The institutions of the modern market economy—such as “the market,” “private property,” “competition,” “efficiency,” etc.—are "naturalized" in such a way that they are deemed not only “natural” (beyond the capacity of humans to alter) but also “good,” if we want economic growth and material well-being.
6. This in turn establishes “economics” and “economists” as the professional “experts” on how the economy works, thus “crowding out” or marginalizing “non-economic” and thus “non-expert” commentary on or views about the economy.
7. Its analyses and aims—most crucially the concept and objective of orthodox “economic growth”—can thus be accepted within a pluralist social context, i.e., it is something almost all value/normative and political positions can accept, endorse, and support as a self-evident “common good” (think of how both left and right promote orthodox undifferentiated economic growth uncritically).
8. Its capacity to deliver (albeit unequally) material benefits to enough people often comes via hiding, externalizing, or sequestering the social and environmental costs of economic growth, but it is still regarded and promoted as a form of knowledge that “works.”
9. It has a purportedly “non-political” character, related to thesis #2.
10. This purported non-political character supports powerful interests, groups, forms of thinking, and institutions within society, and allows the bypassing of ethical, political debate.
11. Because of its position as the “master discipline” or form of knowledge within policy-making and political decision-making by the state, all discourse and debate must ultimately be translated into a form acceptable to neoclassical economics.
12. As well as “crowding out” rival accounts of the economy, and political and ethical debate, neoclassical economics “colonizes” non-economic areas of life, such as health, family, the domestic sphere, community, and politics, i.e., it moves outside its own subject area.
While all of these “theses” are interlinked, it is the imputed “value-free” (and, therefore, supposedly non-ethical and non-political) character of modern neoclassical economics that I particularly wish to focus on here. Simply put, the study of the economy is not, and can never be, either a politics- or ethics-free zone.4
My own work on critically examining orthodox, undifferentiated GDP-measured economic growth as a permanent feature of the economy has led me to analyze not just growth but also neoclassical/capitalist economics as by turns a form of ideology, myth, religion, and cultural meme.5 Revealing the ideological core of capitalist/neoclassical economics is of course central to Norgaard’s essay.
The ideological power of capitalist economics cannot and should not be underestimated. Its comprehensive failure to predict the current global economic crisis has led neither to its displacing as a useful paradigm nor to the reforming and reformulating of the paradigm. Rather, we have witnessed what John Quiggin provocatively but correctly labels “Zombie economics.”6 That is, dead, analytically useless (but politically and ideologically powerful) ideas and nostrums still reign over us in terms of informing everything from “common sense” and everyday understandings of the economy, to state economic policy, to the political platforms of political parties. This entails recognizing the “common sense” and “taken for granted” nature of capitalist economics and its emphasis on growth, i.e., that almost everyone seems to at least tacitly, if not explicitly, accept it.
And we need to always remember that orthodox, capitalist economists are called up to comment on the media not because what they say is correct or true, but because they are asked, because they are presumed to be and present themselves as the authority on “the economy.” That is, it is from the fact that orthodox economists have privileged access to some objectively verifiable truth that their power and authority stems. Rather, it is because ideologically we all accept that they so possess this power: the power to discern whether the “market fundamentals” are sound, to detect the prevailing or anticipated moods of the gods of the market. How different is this from shamanism? Indeed, how different is the dogma of austerity as cure for our current economic woes from other societies that sacrificed their children to assuage the gods and ensure the harvest?
I see Norgaard’s article as an important contribution to the project of dethroning and delegitimizing capitalist/neoclassical economics—similar to the view of scholars such as Thomas Princen who have advocated the effective delegitimization of fossil fuels as an indispensable element in decarbonizing the economy and combatting climate change.7 We need to see neoclassical economics/economism for what it is—a form of groupthink—and we need more like Norgaard to point to the emperor and say he has no clothes. And as for what new clothes we need—what new “ism,” as Norgaard put it, we need—my own suggestion (and in keeping with Norgaard) is that we need an old/new political economy of sustainability based on pluralism. We need context-specific not one-size-fits-all logic, and one in which the myth of endless economic growth is replaced with sufficiency, a sense of “enoughness,” and (as the degrowth position has it) a focus on redistribution of resources, economic wealth, and opportunities. And perhaps above all else, we need a new model of progress and prosperity beyond orthodox economic growth which has done its job in the overdeveloped world and now passed the point where it is causing more costs than benefits.
It is high time we call a spade a spade and move on from not just the dangerous myth of perpetual economic growth, but also the entire dominant economic system of thinking (which can be viewed as form of religious, ideological, and, indeed, mythic thinking) and practices behind it—namely, carbon-fueled, consumerist-dependent capitalism. To paraphrase, “it’s capitalism, stupid.” And to invoke religious language, “the truth will set us free.”
Norgaard’s essay helps us see past the beguiling and comforting myths of capitalist economics and to recognize both the painful truth of economic mythic thinking (allied to a powerful myth of techno-optimism and the capacity of human beings to control the world), and thus begin to live in sustainability as a consequence of recognizing the multiple dangers and risks of such false mythic thinking. But he also rightly points out in his essay that we need alternatives to the latter’s religious mythic doxa. After all, without vision, the people perish.
In this way, I think the task before us is to “live in truth,” as Vaclav Havel wisely put it, and equally importantly to co-create and co-imagine new visions for how we want to live in truth, justice, sustainability and solidarity with one another in our particular places and storied residences, as well as our more collective species story of living in peace on and with our planet, our “common home” as Pope Francis recently put it in his latest encyclical. Capitalism or our “common home”? That is our choice.
1. Jason Moore, “The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” unpublished paper, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, http://www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/The_Capitalocene__Part_I__June_2014.pdf.
2. John Barry, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability: Human Flourishing in a Climate Changed, Carbon Constrained World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 125.
3. Stephen Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economists Undermines Community (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
4. Barry, Politics, 121-122.
5. John Barry, “What's the Story with Growth?: Economic Growth as Ideology, Myth, Cultural Meme and Religion,” presentation, Rachel Carson Center, Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, July 15, 2015, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/280489369_Whats_the_Story_with_Unsustainable_Economic_
6. John Quiggin, Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
7. Thomas Princen, Jack Manno and Pamela Martin, eds., Ending the Fossil Fuel Era (Boston: MIT Press, 2015).