Post-modernism has something useful to offer economic analysis. Some of its wilder assertions are that truth is relative, and therefore ‘anything goes’ when it comes to theory. If this is the case, it would seem to be debilitating. Debates in the social sciences would reach no firm conclusion and simply result in a plethora of ‘discourses’ without end. More interesting is the idea that the theories chosen by those who would put them into practice are done so from positions of power. Those who wield the power can potentially bring more change to the world than those in positions of subordination, at least in a stable society and in the absence of revolution. In economic policy making, this might be the politicians striving to confirm their legitimacy and cementing their position of power through changing the very economy and society in which they live. The chosen ideas, in the post-modern schema, would not be seen as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, even if the politicians argue otherwise, but the result of the balance of power in society. Perhaps we would see our leaders as more honest if they argued their case based on the intended outcomes of their particular policies, more self-consciously. On the other hand, they might not last long in power if they did so!
Also characteristic of post-modern thought is the notion of evolving discourse. This is an attractive idea if one accepts the notion that our reality is subject to incessant change. New environments to live in may require new ideas to make sense of them, so this makes a case for the existence of an evolving consciousness and knowledge, whether at the individual or collective level. In today’s globalized and interconnected world, and particularly in rich countries, we are bombarded incessantly with new information which we can either ignore or choose to reflect upon and integrate into our awareness and thinking about our life and the lives of others. New information may need to be connected to old precepts, and the degree of change within us which it brings about will vary. Ignoring some information may also be a helpful survival strategy, so that we avoid being overwhelmed.
Accepting that we live in an evolving reality requiring new solutions to new problems may also involve the contradictory awareness that change is a constant. This realization may be useful, involving the acceptance that despite differences in culture and behaviour within and between societies, we all have the same basic nature: the desire to be happy and to overcome the negative in life. This idea comes from Buddhism, and seems to go against post-modernism. But applying the principles of the latter to itself, in a conscious fashion, one can seemingly go anywhere in thought, and why not work towards the positive in life?
A heightened degree of self-consciousness is a helpful outcome of applying the post-modern approach. One can reflect on one’s own values, beliefs and motivations which lead one in a particular direction in thought and in life in general. This approach is what is termed ‘deconstruction’ in post-modernism. Thus everything can be subjected to critique and examined from different perspectives without giving any precedence to a particular conclusion. This would seem to be a recipe for chaos and a lack of commitment to anything, but returning to the ‘change is the only constant’ idea, one can attempt to find some happiness in a self-conscious way, while continuing to learn and make progress through an evolving reality.
Overdetermination is another concept that comes from post-modernism. It is a more complex version of dialectics, in which any entity is characterized as being the result of every other entity in existence, whether economic, political, cultural or natural. These latter four categories may be a simplification, so that overdetermination amounts to ‘everything determines everything else’. Again, this seems to lead to chaos, but it means that we have to be self-conscious in the direction we take in thought and in action. It can be unsettling to be pulled in many directions, which can often be perceived in today’s seemingly complex world. However, as before, I do not wish to be a slave to post-modernism, rather to draw on some of its methods and insights. One can reflect on complexity and potentially find unity in the diverse or the constant of ceaseless change, while our inner nature can ideally remain much more stable. I would argue that this is essential for the happiness of the individual and society, although there may be different paths to reach that point, or at least to aspire to it, depending on the individual and it is likely to require effort.
Overdetermination might mean taking an inter-disciplinary approach to economics and returning to the political economy of the classicals and Marx. At the least it will mean allowing one’s analysis to be open to ideas drawn from political science, sociology, philosophy, history and even the natural sciences. In this way, economics can be potentially enriched and provide more useful conclusions, even if these are subject to change as time passes.
Capitalist society would seem to make possible a vast array of ideas and behaviours that we all experience in ourselves and others. In my view, it is driving an increasingly rapid social evolution, and this is having an impact on biological evolution, although the latter is moving much more slowly, leaving space for the anti-post-modernist concept of an ‘essential nature’ in humanity and maybe life in general, despite the existence of pluralism. This sort of idea can be found in a number of religious or spiritual traditions, which see it as beneficial to their practitioners. To stay in touch with this essential nature through some kind of conscious practice allows one to use some post-modern ideas in thought, while preventing the sense of being unsettled or overwhelmed in life.
In economics, all of this means bringing in a more self-conscious approach which takes account of one’s personal values and beliefs, and one’s intended outcome; being open to ‘endogenising the exogenous’ or taking factors considered to be outside the original analysis into the latter; allowing room for complexity or previously unexamined forces; and being open to integrating ideas from rival schools of thought. All these can offer a more fruitful way forward than blind and ill-considered conceptions.