"Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture" - Iris Murdoch

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Some Thoughts About Thinking About Political Economy

Ancient Agora of Athens 5
By DerHexer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via

I am a couple of chapters into Dimitris Milonakis and Ben Fine's From Political Economy to Economics.  So far, it has been a clear introduction to the history of economic thought and the change of methods which, as the title suggests, led to the disappearance of the political economy tradition.  (If you're not so keen to dive straight into discussion of inductive vs. deductive reasoning, abstract vs. historical enquiry, etc, then an engaging starting-point is Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers, telling the story of thinkers from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter.)

I thought this would be a good time for me to note down what I'm after in thinking about political economy.  So far, I've been writing blogposts without giving an overall framework for how the different strands tie together.  One way of framing my reading and writing is as an effort to think about how ethics, social thought and politics should be merged into a political economy approach: a wider perspective on how we shape and maintain "the economy".

From what I've absorbed so far, it seems that "political economy" should be characterised by a number of aspects.  Firstly, it should pull together what are usually thought of as different social sciences, for instance economics, anthropology, sociology and geography (and, importantly, a borderline humanity, history).  Secondly, it should recognise that this kind of enquiry has a moral dimension.  Thirdly, it should recognise that this kind of enquiry has a political dimension.

These three aspects all refer to the way political economy should be done.  If you like, they're about what form the activity should take: it should be social, moral and political.  But what about the content of that activity?  Shouldn't be political economy be about something rather specific, namely "the economy", or if that's a term of too recent an origin, about "economic" things like "production", "consumption", "wealth" and "resources"?

I want to resist this for the time being, because I'm suspicious of all these terms.  I'm suspicious that they involve metaphors, and what's more, that they're a set of interlinked metaphors which play a purpose that isn't entirely clear.  (Do you really consume clothes?  Is a nation's "human capital" really part of its wealth?  If your mind is a resource, is it renewable?  These don't seem merely neutral descriptions.  Why do we say things like this?)

There's not anything inherently wrong with using metaphors, but if my suspicion is correct, we'll need to proceed carefully, and working out how we proceed is what I'd like to concentrate in this post.  I also think we share a rough idea of what direction we need to proceed in, and that will do for now.

So I'm going to run through those three aspects here: social, moral and political.  I'm not going to argue for them in full—that might happen in later posts—but I'll outline how I understand them, that is, what the kind of enquiry or activity is that we need to be doing. 

I said that I don't want to be too specific about what political economy is about.  But we do need some kind of unifying idea to tie together the different types of social thought that go on in different social science departments (and elsewhere—more on that in a moment).  What we are ultimately interested in, when we think about society, is how we live together. To put it more formally, we're enquiring into the kind of social relations, practices and structures we have.

But we also need a practical dimension to this.  We're not just interested in these things for curiosity's sake, but because we (might) want to change them, or preserve them.  So let's say, what we are ultimately interested in is determining how we live together: both "determining" as in "getting a clearer understanding of", and "determining" as in "shaping".

This might seem a far cry from interest rate rules and carbon emission trading schemes.  But, speaking very generally, these things do shape how we live together, and, ultimately, they are composed of social relations, practices and structures.  So is the financial system as a whole (of course, it is dependent on a physical infrastructure, but that's true of any social system).  This is also true of our energy and ecological systems, insofar as we are part of them (though obviously here the non-human side is becoming more and more significant).  But it is also true of our cultural system, however we're going to spell out what that is (a system of meanings? interpretations? symbols? knowledge? mental structures? behaviours?).

That last point just emphasises that we need a variety of tools to understand these social things.  It would be odd if one particular approach could do the whole job.  I like the following two-by-two matrix (adapted) from philosopher Martin Hollis.  He actually calls it a window, which I think is rather nice, given that he is trying to work out how these four approaches (panes?) might be reconciled with each other.  I hope to write about this soon.  In particular, I have a hunch that the top-left box and the bottom-right one might turn out to be more fundamental than the other two.

interested in causes)
interested in meanings)
e.g. classical and Marxian political economy
e.g. Wittgensteinian language games
e.g. rational choice theory, game theory
e.g. dramaturgical models

One reason I have that hunch is because of the moral and political dimensions.  But before I move on to those two features, there's one more point about the tools that we need.  I initially referred above to "social thought", not "social sciences".  I see the social sciences as a subset of a wider activity which mainly goes on outside academia.  (Also, not all social thought inside academia is "scientific": for a start, some happens in humanities departments.)  Of course, academic enquiry is crucial as a professional and disciplined activity which holds itself to standards of precision and rigour.  And, at least in my part of the world, that activity is under attack at the moment.  But part of the problem might be a failure to see clearly how this activity is interconnected with where the bulk of "determining about how we live together" has to go on: in the media, in homes, in workplaces, in pubs, in bus queues, and in the corridors of political power.

This last point is connected to both the moral and political aspects of political economy.  "It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live."  This (wonderfully) is how Bernard Williams' opens Ethics and Limits of Philosophy, quoting from The Republic.  If you replace "one" in Socrates' quote with "we", you end up, pretty much, with the question I set out above.  Seen from another angle, determining how we live together is a moral activity.

How we characterise this other angle is tricky.  (The social scientist Andrew Sayer has a very clear, and to me convincing, discussion here: a lot of the important work happens in chapter 2.)  We could say it is about determining how we live together "in the light of our values", but applying our values is an activity we can also empirically observe, the kind of thing social scientists (and not just moral philosophers) can enquire into.  So it can be seen from two angles, itself. 

Nor will the economists' "normative vs. positive" distinction help us.  What are normative structures and activities, things like "justifying" or using terms like "good" or "courageous" or "worthwhile", if they aren't social relations, practices and structures?  (Social relations, practices and structures we sometimes use, as individuals, on ourselves.)  And this cuts the other way: the doing of economics, whether economists are conscious of this or not, is moral activity.

I suspect what ultimately makes this kind of thought "moral thought" (instead of unconsciously moral activity) is some kind of connection with metaphysics, with working out what really exists and what it is like.  But I don't have much more to say, right now, about what metaphysics is, and what that connection is like, and of course, that still doesn't distinguish social thought from moral thought, as social thought also has its metaphysics...and I suspect that that is precisely because we really have one interconnected body of thought, but some of that thinking is more obviously "directed" "towards" "something"...and just to make things more mystical, I don't even think we should be restricting ourselves to "thought", but should be considering conscious activity in general...

But let's step away from morals.  The third aspect of this enquiry was its political dimension.   Again, this is something which is there, whether it is recognised or not by social scientists (and by practitioners of social thought—that is, all of us).  A political economy approach should recognise it.

I'm going to use a slightly unusual idea of the political here, namely that it has something to do with taking a stand in an arena of shared decision-making.  (This has osmoted into my mind from secondary literature on Hannah Arendt, who also will need to appear on this blog soon.)  The arena of shared decision-making here is, again, this process of determining how we live together.

Mainstream neoclassical economists, again, take a stand in this process without always realising the full extent to which they're doing it.  I'm not sure the stand they're often accused of taking (one in favour of capitalism, or markets, swallowing up our shared lives) is the one they actually take.  That strikes me as a stand for something more admirable: the individual, capable of choice and reason.  But if we could be more precise about how this stand threads into their work, and about how taking a stand can co-exist with a commitment to objectivity, to precision and to rigour and to professionalism, then we'd be in a better position to stop capitalism, or markets, swallowing up our shared lives. 

I've taken a number of stands there, which I'll need to back up, again, in later posts.  But to sum up, political economy is, for me, primarily something that we do: determining how we live together.  But we do this guided by our thought, and given the nature of that thought, it is helpful to have specialists of various kinds (including social scientists) working on bits of it.  That thought, and this activity that we do, has three aspects: social, moral and political.  But that's not to say there are actually three separate areas of activity which interlink: in fact it might be more like the same activity, seen from three angles.  Working out exactly how this can be will be tricky.  More soon.

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