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Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics

Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics

by David F. Ruccio, Jack Amariglio

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Of all the areas of contemporary thought, economics seems the most resistant to the destabilizing effects of postmodernism. Yet, David Ruccio and Jack Amariglio argue that one can detect, within the diverse schools of thought that comprise the discipline of economics, "moments" that defy the modernist ideas to which many economists and methodologists remain wedded.


Of all the areas of contemporary thought, economics seems the most resistant to the destabilizing effects of postmodernism. Yet, David Ruccio and Jack Amariglio argue that one can detect, within the diverse schools of thought that comprise the discipline of economics, "moments" that defy the modernist ideas to which many economists and methodologists remain wedded. This is the first book to document the existence and to explore the implications of the postmodern moments in modern economics.

Ruccio and Amariglio begin with a powerful argument for the general relevance of postmodernism to contemporary economic thought. They then conduct a series of case studies in six key areas of economics. From the idea of the "multiple self" and notions of uncertainty and information, through market anomalies and competing concepts of value, to analytical distinctions based on gender and academic standing, economics is revealed as defying the modernist frame of a singular science. The authors conclude by showing how economic theory would change if the postmodern elements were allowed to flourish.

A work of daring analysis sure to be vigorously debated, Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics is both accessible and relevant to all readers concerned about the modernist straightjacket that has been imposed on the way economics is thought about and practiced in the world today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"No other treatment of economics and postmodernism, including those written by the same authors, is as good as this one. The first chapter, which introduces postmodernism and constructs a genealogy of postmodernism in economics, is excellent. The last chapter . . . is a great addition because it challenges the notion that the economics expert has an unqualified 'better' understanding of the economy that the person on the street."Choice
No other treatment of economics and postmodernism, including those written by the same authors, is as good as this one. The first chapter, which introduces postmodernism and constructs a genealogy of postmodernism in economics, is excellent. The last chapter . . . is a great addition because it challenges the notion that the economics expert has an unqualified 'better' understanding of the economy that the person on the street.

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Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics

By David F. Ruccio and Jack Amariglio

Princeton University Press

David F. Ruccio and Jack Amariglio
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691058709

Chapter One


Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.
-Paul A. Samuelson, "Credo of a Lucky Textbook Author"

IN THIS CAUTIONARY epigraph-or epitaph, as the case may be-the doyen of modernist economics suggests how it becomes the queen of the social sciences, one shovelful of dirt on a coffin after another. For Samuelson, the "Darwinian impact of reality melts away even the prettiest of fanciful theories and the hottest of ideological frenzies" (1997, 159).1 Modernism as dirge; economic knowledge as its fossil remains.

Samuelson is only the latest to conclude with morbid optimism that, in the end, the evolutionary nature of scientific practice amongst economists does lead to the growth of economic knowledge-even if it grows as an unintended consequence of practice. There is a utopia in this dystopic rendition; a faith in the idea that, as long as economists remain committed to the norms of scientific practice, the knowledge they produce will illuminate historical reality and enlighten future generations.2 This grizzled confidence is a hallmark of modernism itself, those discourses and practices that have been associated with ideas such as "progress" and "knowledge" since the Western Enlightenment.3

Yet despite the prevalent optimism among economists and philosophers over the past one hundred and more years, many of them have nervously surveyed the standing of economic knowledge in modernist culture and science: "laimed to be the most 'effective' or 'mature' of the social or human sciences, or described as the 'hardest' of the 'soft' sciences, economics seems destined for a somewhat ambiguous and problematic place in the spectrum of knowledge" (Hutchinson 1979, 1).

There is no need to lament this ambiguity, for it speaks to the effervescent vitality (and not Samuelson's recursive life through incessant death) of the different discourses that comprise economics. This vitality may be most attributable to the "undecidables" and "aporias" that characterize modern economics, the fact that pure scientificity always seems out of reach as the ostensible achievement of the discipline.4 In some versions of this ambiguity, the point is to clean up economics by removing the vestiges of past "errors" ("prettiest of fanciful theories") and opinion ("hottest of ideological frenzies") that still remain in the debates between various schools.5 Other versions have it that as long as economics remains a "human" science, it will be impossible to accurately model economic behavior since humans confound models in their resort to just plain inexplicable actions.6 And there are others who consider economists' attempts to model human behavior pure blasphemy, seeing such desire for mechanistic control as a violation of the basic freedom of human beings and of the dignity and meaning of human life.

We are not partial to any of these ways of thinking through the problematic of ambiguity that T. W. Hutchison announces. Instead, we take up the challenge of unearthing and engaging the "undecidables" and "aporias" of economic discourse, as part of a new phase of self-conscious thought, a new phase perhaps of society and history: that which has been labeled the postmodern.7

Categorizing the Postmodern

Postmodernism is a relatively new development within economics, but one that has promise in calling economists' attention not only to the epistemological conditions of existence for their theorizing, but also to the general cultural milieu within which modern economics has both expanded and contracted. Modern economics certainly has a right to claim, as Samuelson says, the growth of knowledge. But it has run up against anomalies and fragmentations that have proliferated diverse knowledges, in addition to putting on the agenda concepts and approaches that lead away from rather than toward a unified, universalist science. While some may regard current economic discourse as "converging," we argue that-more than a century after the marginalist revolution-economic discourse is more heterogeneous than one might expect a unified science to be.8 This heterogeneity is nothing to bemoan. It speaks instead to the limits of modernism in economics, and just as much to the emergence of "post-modern moments" within the discipline.

Many commentators have challenged the Samuelsonian vision by attacking the neoclassical orthodoxy with which progress in economic theory is most often associated. Yet these criticisms also treat economics as an autonomous field, unconnected to such trends as formalism, historicism, and scientism that have comprised the transdiscursive horizon of Western modernism during the past 125 years. Our own challenge to Samuelsonian progress starts from the premise that modernism is not only an exhausted project, but a destructive one. One form of damage is its silencing of theoretical disagreement under the rubric of the unity of science and "correct" scientific protocols. This has led to disdain for, neglect of, and hostility towards nonmainstream thought.

Additionally, the Samuelsonian vision has kept in place the fetishism of the unified rational subject, the bottom line of "prediction," the reliance on mathematical "rigor," and much else that has given economics its specifically "modern" character. An engagement with postmodernism implies giving up this ground. It means taking seriously the evanescent concepts and experiences of disunity and dispersion in everything from macroeconomic theorizing to economic actors, now devoid of central, organizing motivations. These concepts and experiences have shown up even in the modernism that dominates economics. However, the conceptual possibilities opened up by these postmodern irruptions have not been mined to much purpose. Our hope is that the postmodern can push economists and others to talk about the discipline and conduct their theoretical practices differently. Many lines of research are opened if postmodernism is taken seriously, as we show in subsequent chapters.

We will discuss postmodernism as historical phase, as existential "condition," as style, and as critique. Most of the debates surrounding the term postmodern can be rendered intelligible according to these four headings.9 Postmodernism has been seen, by some critics, as a particular stage in the life history of modern capitalist economies. It has been seen as a "condition," or state of existence, describing the cultural/social dominant within which we experience the contemporaneous. Some writers view postmodernism as a literary/rhetorical or practical style (especially in the arts and architecture), one that affects even the philosophical stances that characterize current discussion regarding the nature of knowledge and scientific method. Finally, postmodernism has been a critique, that is, an attempt to create thought and action "outside" of the constraints of modernism (and here, modernism ranges from modernization and economic development strategies in a postcolonial world to the "high modernism" of formalist literature and mathematics). In what follows, we elucidate each of these categories. This will set the stage for a brief synopsis of the postmodern moments that have arisen within economic discourse and provide a context for the chapters that comprise the remainder of our book.

Postmodernity: The Latest Phase of Capitalism?

It needs to be said straightaway that we do not pursue an approach that sees postmodernism as a particular world-historical phase. Nothing in our treatment invokes the "postmodern" as the latest stage in "late capitalist" (or "post-Fordist") economies, and especially the process of "globalization."

The main reason for our neglect of this approach is that we reject its basic premises, first, that capitalism has morphed within the past half century into a distinct socioeconomic phase captured by the concept of "late capitalism" and, second, that "postmodernism" as a noneconomic phenomenon illustrates the existence of such a phase, or that postmodernism refers to a historical rupture in the global economy. Since our main objective is to address the ways in which postmodernism currently appears, or could guide new developments, within the discipline of academic economics, we have chosen not to elaborate our objections to this line of thought.

Still, this work is ubiquitous in the fields "outside" of academic economics, and a few words on it will put the rest of our analysis into clearer relief. It is not our aim to disparage this literature or to dissuade economists from interacting with it. To the contrary, economists should read it, partly because its picture of present world economic circumstances is so far from the mainstream neoclassical orthodoxy (and so much closer to heterodox, especially Marxist, views) that it can be engaged productively as a bona fide challenge, not only to that orthodoxy, but to cross-disciplinary dialogue. Our own interests in postmodernism and its contributions to the field of economics, though, lie elsewhere.

The best-known advocate of the "late capitalist" approach is the literary and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. Jameson (1991) captures the flavor of treating postmodernism as the cultural form of the latest phase of capitalist development in his frequent reference to three identifying aspects of "late capitalism": mass commodification, a shift in the location and conditions of global production, and the rise of new industries (mostly in information technologies) that allow for the unbroken world-wide expansion of capitalist markets and, hence, profitability.10 Jameson, it should be noted, is a devotee of the late Belgian Marxist economist Ernest Mandel (1975), whose book on "late capitalism" is the bible for those (cultural critics mostly on the left) who are looking to define capitalism's most recent trajectory.11 Following in the footsteps of both the Marxian-inspired Frankfurt School of sociocultural analysis (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse, among others) and the great Hungarian cultural theorist Georg Lukács, Jameson analyzes the forms of cultural expression that have aided this phase of capitalist development, partly by becoming commodities themselves.12 Hence, everything from the arts to philosophical thinking is seen to relate to this unyielding commodification and postindustrialization of the industrialized nations, paralleling the shift in economic production and ecological impact brought about by the globalization of capital.13

It is the idea of commodification that connects postmodernism most intimately to late capitalism.14 Not only has capitalism inexorably expanded markets, both geographically and in quantity of objects marketed, but culture has lost its relative autonomy and become almost entirely oriented toward the sale of commodities. This is apparent, according to some critics, in the growth of markets for cultural artifacts and the shrinking number of them produced outside of an exchange economy. More importantly, it is apparent in the increasing shallowness and slickness of the arts, culture, and thought, as they uncritically mimic-as with pop art, such as Warhol's Campbell's Soup, 1-or propagate commercial images. Indeed, an emphasis on "image" or "surface" as opposed to "content" or "depth"-characteristic of previous artistic forms, such as van Gogh's Still Life-is said to mark art forms that express this postmodern shift.15

It is noteworthy that Jameson identifies Gary Becker (1991) as the quintessential postmodern economist. Becker represents, in Jameson's view, the recognition among economists that most if not all areas of contemporary life are now prone to the logic of capital, including the vagaries of market forces. According to Jameson, Becker captures the spirit of the age, as everything from marriage to drug addiction to death becomes fodder for market-inspired calculations. Jameson does not present Becker as the latest disciplinary "imperialist," seeking to displace other noneconomic approaches to culture by advocating economically rational principles, especially individual choice, as the foundation of all social life.16 Instead, Becker's theoretical oeuvre gives voice to that which has transpired "in reality": the unfettered spread in the last century of capitalist markets and the commodification of just about everything. In Jameson's eyes, Becker's post-modernism consists mainly in marking the extent to which market logics have seized any and all noncapitalist, nonmarket social domains.

This take on Becker contrasts with the interpretation of feminist economists and others who consider his work in the vein of "high modernism,"17 as representative of the neoclassical paradigm committed to formal modeling and the reduction of human motives to a single purpose: individual gain. Motivations such as "altruism," for example, produce "psychic gain." Be that as it may, we note again that for many literary and cultural theorists like Jameson, the postmodern denotes rampant commodification, unchecked by oppositional forces-avant-gardes, say-that find themselves subverted by the power and allure of the market. This world, structured according to the object-life of the commodity, has received an enormous boost by new information technologies, especially the Internet. Accordingly, computers have made commodity time and space ultimately traversable in ways unthinkable for past generations of producers and consumers. In addition to the use of computer technology in such "post-Fordist" production methods as "flexible specialization," one need not leave one's chair (in front of one's screen, of course) to be bombarded by commodity images and the cornucopia of goods in cyberspace. This obliteration of constraints of time and geographical location in buying and selling (lowering transactions costs and reducing to rubble other past barriers to the international flow of financial capital and goods) reconstructs all notions and experiences pertaining to community and nation-hence the rise of the "global economy" that is said to be the hallmark of the postmodern.

Opponents of this global spread of capitalist commodity production often counter by seeking spaces for economic life, if not for economic thought, in pre- or noncapitalist social processes, such as gift giving.18 As capitalism seeps into every pore of the worldwide social skin, these critics hail the gift and any other realm of economic activity not reducible to market exchange. If in the postmodern age culture is merely an accompaniment to capitalist economic expansion, then it is legitimate to ask if it is possible to think about such issues as value and exchange in any register "outside" the regime of the commodity as "the general equivalent."


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What People are Saying About This

Judith Mehta
Forthright, concisely argued, engaging, and provocative, this book provides a critical commentary on the appearance of postmodern ideas in economic thought. But it is much more besides. There is currently no other text that brings together the material assembled here and that lends it coherence, while also pointing to the research agenda inscribed within it. The authors provide an informed guide to past and recent developments in the economic literature, but they also reveal a terrain littered with neglected challenges and unrealized but potentially productive projects.
Judith Mehta, Open University, United Kingdom
D. Wade Hands
This is an excellent and important book. All of the chapters are very good, but the first chapter is truly outstanding. It is the best discussion of 'postmodernism in economics' anywhere in the literature.
D. Wade Hands, author of "Reflection without Rules"
Economics and postmodernism?! Yes: and so it should be. If 'postmodernism' is taken to mean in economics, 'something beyond Samuelsonianism c. 1948,' then the field certainly needs a big dose of it. Ruccio and Amariglio are Marxists, but I am inclined to forgive them this peculiarity (and anyway they do it in a very rethinking—Marxism way), since they write like angels and think like angels, too. This is the real thing. Bringing economics—kicking and screaming—into the twenty-first century.
Deirdre N. McCloskey, author of "The Secret Sins of Economics"

Meet the Author

David F. Ruccio is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame. He is the editor of the interdisciplinary journal Rethinking Marxism, and coeditor (with Jack Amariglio and Stephen Cullenberg) of Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge. Jack Amariglio, Professor of Economics at Merrimack College, was the first editor of Rethinking Marxism and is coeditor of Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge.

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