Economic representations and the power of ideas

Posted: 22 February 2015 in Uncategorized
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As readers know, there are few things I take more seriously than economic representations and the power of ideas.

As I argued in my book, representations of the economy (including, of course, issues of inequality) are produced and disseminated in many different discursive forms and social sites, only one of which is the academic discipline of economics. We also find them in academic disciplines other than economics (such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and so on) and in many places outside the academy (including in literature, from Balzac to DeLillo).

And, of course, I wouldn’t teach, write, and give talks (not to mention compose posts for this blog) unless I believed in the power of ideas—especially those ideas that represent a ruthless criticism of everything existing.

So, I was pleased to find I’m in good company, as Thomas Piketty explains in this interview with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias:

Pablo Iglesias: When I was reading the introduction of your book, my attention was caught by the way you described your experience in the United States. You said you wanted to return to Europe immediately. You were criticising the deification of economists in the US and showcasing your admiration for Pierre Bourdieu and Fernand Braudel.

Thomas Piketty: I really enjoyed my stay in the US, but I couldn’t wait to get back to France, to get closer to historical research, especially economic and social. Overall, I see myself as a researcher in social science rather than as an economist.

I think that the line between economics, history, sociology and political science is thinner than what economists sometimes tend to affirm. It is tempting for economists to have people believe that they created a separate science, too scientific for the rest of the world to understand. But of course this is a big joke, which has done a lot of harm. I believe we need a modest approach to economics, and that we shouldn’t let economists keep economic questions to themselves.

In my work, I try to conduct research on the history of income and assets, and I don’t believe it’s possible to tackle this issue without an economic, social, political and cultural approach. This includes the representations people have of inequalities, which is why in my book I also mention representations in literature. I believe it is crucial not to leave these questions for the economists, as they are far too important.

PI: What you are saying is very interesting, as sometimes economists introduce themselves more or less as representatives of a natural science; as if they were putting on a lab coat and stepping away from social sciences. Moving on to your recent rejection of the Legion of Honour, what in your opinion should be the role of intellectuals today?

TP: We do not write books for those who govern, we do not write books for governments. We do not write books seeking official honours. We write books for anyone who reads books, and above all I try to contribute to the democratisation of economic and social knowledge. I trust the power of books, of ideas. I believe in a general democratisation of society and of economy. This can enable citizens to take up issues that are not technical. Public funding, income, assets, interest rates, salaries … these questions are for everyone.

I’m trying to democratise this knowledge so that every citizen can be more active and take part in collective deliberation. I believe this shows more political commitment than going to official receptions. Political leaders often implement what they believe to be the prevailing opinion. Therefore, the most important thing for me is to help in transforming this opinion.

  1. Great post, David. In engaging with Piketty’s economic representations, I have wondered whether his use of specific literary sources—such as Honoré de Balzac or Jane Austen—as historical sources in understanding inequalities of capital ownership is actually intrinsic to his argument or simply a surface appearance? The literary sources (or economic representations) seemed somewhat of a bolt-on, rather than accruing out of his wider social theory.

    If one was to take seriously the use of literary sources as historical sources then a reference to Kazuo Ishiguro’s *The Remains of the Day* would surely have been apposite for Piketty’s book?

  2. David F. Ruccio says:

    My own view, for what it’s worth, is Piketty’s use of literary sources (such as Balzac and Austen) is an attempt, albeit quite timid, to take seriously the existence of representations of inequality outside the normal confines of mainstream academic economics. He certainly doesn’t exhibit a full-blown understanding of or willingness to engage those representations.

    “The Remains of the Day” should certainly be included in any such list—not only as a representation of inequality for a somewhat later period, but also as a window on the British aristos’ willingness to sympathize with Hitler.

  3. BRF says:

    Whoever said economics was separate from politics is a liar, or vice wersa.

  4. […] it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane […]

  5. […] it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane […]

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