Subjectivity and the evolution of economic thought

maurice dobbThis quote, by Cambridge Marxist economist Maurice Dobb, writing in the 1970s, is taken from a chapter on economics and ideology. He argues that an ideology or ‘vision’ of society is inseparable from economic theories, even when this is not acknowledged or operates on an unconscious level. This extract describes the importance of the subjective in the formation of new ideas.

“There is always a subjective element in the march of knowledge, not only in the sense that action and experiment play a crucial role, but that these are preceded and shaped by the formation of concepts. Current problems are something created as much by thought-inspired human action upon an existent situation as by the given objective (but changing) situation itself; and in this sense can be said to represent continually, in varying degree, a contradiction between the two. Problems arising in this way then form the starting-point of new thinking, the formation of new concepts and new theories; and to this extent the latter are always relative to a particular historical context. These changing concepts and ideas represent in part a commentary upon or interpretation of – a ‘reflection’ if one cares to use so passive a simile – the objective situation from the particular perspective in which it is seen. But since inherited ideas and concepts, operating as a refractive medium, affect this perspective and the resulting vision of the situation, new ideas are always at the same time a critique of old ideas which form the heritage of thinking; hence these new ideas are necessarily shaped in part by the antithetical relation in which they stand to the old as well as being empirical statements about actuality.”

Maurice Dobb (1973), Theories of value and distribution since Adam Smith, p.17

Economics as inevitably political

“The many supporters of neoclassical economics present it as “value free” in the sense that it encapsulates eternal truths of economic behaviour and natural law that are as independent of human perception and will as the law of gravity. The truth is that economics has always been a highly political discipline, and twenty-first century mainstream theory no less so than economics in the past. Recognizing that neoclassical theory is heavily laden with ideology does not invalidate its insights, but it does require a serious attempt to distinguish that part of the theory that is scientific and that which is essentially propaganda. One example demonstrates the distinction: the hypothesis that there exists a rate of unemployment in the aggregate for which the rate of change of the price level would be zero (and that this relationship is stable) is a scientific proposition in that it can be derived theoretically and empirically verified or rejected. Calling such a rate of unemployment “natural” and associating it with full employment is propaganda, placing theory in the service of ideology.”

John Weeks (2012), The Irreconcilable Inconsistencies of Neoclassical Macroeconomics

While I reckon that humanity remains part of nature in the end, despite our ability to modify (and often damage) the natural world, I think that Weeks makes a helpful distinction here. He uses an example of so-called “natural” concepts in economics, such as the natural rate of unemployment, interest, output etc. Paying attention to the language used in arguments as creating a particular symbolism and a presupposed ideology can be important to an effective critique.

Political persuasion, personality and society: its all in the mix

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The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben

We are all a curious mixture of personality traits, beliefs and values. When it comes to politics, one of those difficult dinner-party conversation topics that is often best avoided unless we are among those we know share our affiliations, we all tend to likewise hold such a mixture of viewpoints. While in the UK of today, some of us are lifelong voters for one particular political party, many are floating voters, with no strong affiliation, and targets for those who would weald power in government come an election.

In terms of personality and political views the floating voter may hold a range of opinions on politics, supporting policies coming from a range of parties. Continue reading

Beliefs, values and the choice of theoretical outcomes

I often wonder what leads economists and other social scientists more broadly, to choose which set of theories or paradigm to follow, and to invest their thinking and research time in. For example, how does a Marxist become a Marxist, or a Keynesian a Keynesian? Continue reading