Freitag, 4. November 2016

What is mainstream economics?

The Real World Economics Review Blog, a project dedicated to changing economics as a science and as a profession, has recently posted an article called "What is mainstream economics?". It is a very profound criticism of the scientific methods, by which economists develop their models. While I do think that the author captured many of the fallacies of mainstream economics, it failed to answer the question it asked. So what is mainstream economics?

As all science, it is a product of human culture. It can only exist in a codependency with society and not by itself. Any science is also a reflection of the social discourse it is embedded in. As Michel Foucault pointed out, science also is an important instrument of power in the modern world. The alleged objectivity of science will always be a construct of the social discourse and the power relations of its time. What is seen as an unquestionable truth in one period of time, may be unscientific nonsense for another. From Foucault's perspective there is no power relation without the simultaneous existence of a field of knowledge and no field of knowledge that is not constituted by power relations. Power and knowledge are always building an interconnected complex.
In Foucault worldview, all power is the product of inter-subjective relations in the social discourse. The workings of power can be seen in how it shapes the discourse. For Foucault those parts of the discourse that he calls the "muted parts of discourse" are where the workings of power show themselves most prominently. He calls those parts the "Exclusion" and the Dispositif". Who can partake in a discourse and who cannot? What can we speak of and therefore think of? What can't we think of? What defines the basis of common sense, those parts of our worldview that are so deeply inscribed in our thinking that we never even discuss them?

Even a superficial discourse analysis shows that mainstream economics has a prominent role in the social discourse of our time. Not only in the discourse about economy but beyond. What can be said? Who may speak? What is to obvious to even discuss? Many of these questions are today answered by mainstream economists.

Economists are not the only ones that concern them self's with economy There is a discipline of social anthropology that is mostly ignored in the public discourse, called economic anthropology. There are famous scholars of economic anthropology like Bronislav Malinovsky, Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi or Marshall Sahlin, who have contributed greately to the ontology of economy, but are not a part of the current social discourse about economy.

Why is that so? Why do economists get all the publicity, the money, the institutions etc. while economic anthropology is virtually unknown in the general public? Is it because economic anthropology is bad science and economics is good science? If we understand how science can be embedded in the power structures of a time we might answer those questions. I will therefore examine one example in the history of science I am familiar with, that is the history of social anthropology in Germany.

Social anthropology as a science has a very dark but interesting history in Germany. In the the 20th century (and some time before) it was called "Volkskunde". Volkskunde was a very conservative and reactionary subject of intellectual exercise with its main interest in constructing and legitimizing the German nation state, that only had existed for a brief time. When the Nazis came to power, Volkskunde had already contributed to their cause for some time by having influenced the social discourse on what "a German" is. Volkskunde then profited extremely from the Nazi regime. Money and influence was raining on them. Most of the institutes and chairs in Volkskunde/social anthropology in Germany were created in Nazi Germany.

All "science" of that time became utterly corrupted by fascism and Nazi-Germany had its very unique Knowledge/Power complex, but Volkskunde took it upon itself, without much pressure from the Nazi party, to mainly provide the alleged scientific legitimacy of Hitlers "Rassenlehre"/ racial ideology, nationalism and other parts of the twisted Nazi ideology.

Obviously Nazi Germany was radically different in its outcomes, ideology and power structures from what the world is today, but we rightly believe that Nazi Germany was not the result of the actions a small group of fascists that led Germany into ruin. When Germany had to face its crimes after WW2, all Germans were considered culpable for the Nazi-regime and its actions, and rightly so.

So after WW2, not surprisingly, Volkskunde also had to face its past and almost vanished in the process. It took Volkskunde more than 20 years to overcome its dark history. In order to do so, Volkskunde had to reflect its role in society and in history very profoundly. This was a very painful process for anybody engaged in this discipline, but today social anthropology in Germany is a very critical and progressive science and brings forth many of the (left?) intellectual critics of capitalism. In short, Volkskunde (in the many names it has today) has distanced itself from power and has therefore lost much of its ability to shape the public discourse.

When power systems change, the underlying power/knowledge complex also changes. Some scientific discipline's standing will rise while others will fall. Foucault was very interested in postwar Germany development, because here he could see this change happening. A new power/knowledge complex had to be established and it was economics that profited most from that change. Why is that?

Is the role that economics plays in our society a result of the scientific achievements it has provided? Are we dependent as a society from the leadership of economists? I would have a very hard time to answer those questions with "yes" and keep a straight face. 

The obvious answer is that today mainstream economics finds itself aligned very closely with the current elite, not only in Germany, but everywhere in the world. Mainstream economics provides the ideologic framework our current worldview rests upon. As it provides the scientific basis of our current economic policies it also provides the legitimacy of the current hegemony.

Just as German Volkskunde had profited from aligning itself with Nazi ideology, mainstream economic science today profits hugely from this close alliance with power. Money from the state, the capitalist enterprises and financial institutions is raining on them in numbers all other fields of science can only dream of and economists are invited by the corporate media to present their work to a broad public.

Today the global hegemony is in question as capitalism is in a fundamental crisis. Its no wonder that with the crisis of global capitalism, economic science finds itself in a fundamental crisis too, even if many mainstream economists are in denial of either crisis. Most of the fixes that are offered to solve this crisis are rooted in questioning its methods and its models, because as it became obvious with the 2008 crisis, those models do not represent the real world anymore.

Without considering the role of economics in todays knowledge/power complexes, criticism on its methods will be self defeating. By questioning the methods and models, heterodox scientists are questioning the alliance with power that provides economics with the funding and standing it has today. Breaking this alliance with power would result in loosing much of the privileges that economic science has today. 

By distancing them self's from mainstream economics orthodoxy, heterodox scientists distance them self's from the elites. For those scientists this choice immediately has severe consequences on their career. In science, the control over publications in scientific journals, very much controls the discipline itself. This control is held firmly by the mainstream.
Holding on to the aliance with power and the privileges that come with it, also has a price. There is a point where holding on to the alliance with power means abandoning the "ideals" of science. There is a general understanding in our society when science leaves the path of science and starts becoming something else. Ultimately there is a point where the standing of the discipline in the social discourse becomes totally discredited. In the event of a post capitalist transformation of society, economic science will then have lost not only its standing and funding but also its legitimacy and could be disposed with altogether. 

If we look at the models, methods, schools of thought etc., to answer the question what mainstream economics is, the result will be not conclusive, just as useless for finding answers, as a historic document without its context. Mainstream economics is all that, but most of all it is the role that it plays in the power structures and discourse of our time.

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