Posts Tagged ‘Louis Althusser’


Gary Becker’s recent death has provoked widespread praise (for example, from Peter Lewin through Justin Wolfers to Amita Etzioni) for his role in initially creating and then extending “economics imperialism.”

The basic idea (as presented on Wikipedia, by Edward P. Lazear [pdf], and in this interview with Becker himself) is that economics imperialism refers to an “economic analysis of seemingly non-economic aspects of life,” such as crime, law, the family, racial discrimination, tastes, religion, and war.*

Actually, that’s wrong. Economics imperialism is not the economic analysis of supposedly noneconomic behaviors and institutions; it’s the extension of neoclassical economics to those domains. Economics imperialism is, in this sense, the highest stage of neoclassical economics.

There are lots of different ways of making sense of the economic dimensions of our individual and social lives. What Becker and his followers set out to do was to analyze various aspects of individual decisionmaking and social institutions through the lens of neoclassical theory. This has meant reducing those decisions and institutions to individual, rational, self-interested calculations of costs and benefits, under conditions of scarcity, such as to arrive at efficient, equilibrium solutions.

The imperialist extension of neoclassical theory to supposedly noneconomic phenomena was predicated on the formation of a neoclassical monopoly within the discipline of economics. Once that monopoly over teaching, research, publications, and funding was achieved within the traditional domain of the discipline in the postwar period, it became possible to branch out and colonize the rest of the space of social theory. (I should note that the monopoly of neoclassical theory within the discipline was never complete, and has been contested throughout the postwar period.) That’s what economics imperialism was all about: to attempt to create a theoretical monopoly across the social sciences by exporting the methods of neoclassical economics to other domains. This is what made it different from the previous period, when it was the conclusions of neoclassical economics that were exported to other disciplines; now, it was the method that was being exported.

The result, of course, was not to unify social theory across the disciplines but to create new divisions within the disciplines. It’s no longer a battle between, say, economists and sociologists but, instead, between neoclassical economists and sociologists, on one hand, and non-neoclassical economists and sociologists, on the other. Much the same is true in political science, anthropology, psychology, and so on. And it’s not just a battle over the use of some of the key concepts and tools closely identified with neoclassical economics (such as mathematical modeling, rational choice, equilibrium, and so on) but over the actual entry points of social analysis. Because, in the end, that’s what Becker’s neoclassical analysis privileges: the reduction of the social space to the decisions and actions of individual subjects.

The real challenge to economics imperialism—inside and outside the discipline of economics—is, as Louis Althusser put it, the idea of a process without a subject.


*What I didn’t remember, or perhaps never knew, is that Becker understood his work to be a critique of and an alternative to Marxism (or at least what he took to be Marxism). It’s right there at the beginning of his Nobel lecture [pdf] and the interview with Religion and Liberty:

R&L: You are sometimes called an “economic imperialist.” What is meant by this?

Becker: That refers to my belief that economic analysis can be applied to many problems in social life, not just those conventionally called “economic.” The theme of my Nobel lecture, based on my life’s work, is that the horizons of economics need to be expanded. Economists can talk not only about the demand for cars, but also about matters such as the family, discrimination, and religion, and about prejudice, guilt, and love. Yet these areas have traditionally received little attention in economics. In that sense, it’s true: I am an economic imperialist. I believe good techniques have a wide application. Adam Smith and many others believed that as well.

On the other hand, my economic imperialism doesn’t have anything to do with crude materialism or the view that material status is the sum total of a person’s value. That view has much more in common with Marxist analysis.


Stuart Hall, former direct of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and professor of sociology at the Open University, has died at the age of 82.

Hall may have been known as the “godfather of multiculturalism” but, to my mind, he was much more than that. Drawing inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, Hall was one of the most creative Marxist intellectuals of the postwar period. He joined others in breaking with both economic determinism and theoretical humanism, put a materialist cultural studies on the map, and carried out a thorough-going critique of neoliberalism (which I have written about here and here).

He was also always concerned about the current political conjuncture, as in this interview:

it’s the state of the left that strikes him as the most problematic. “The left is in trouble. It’s not got any ideas, it’s not got any independent analysis of its own, and therefore it’s got no vision. It just takes the temperature: ‘Whoa, that’s no good, let’s move to the right.’ It has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.”

The examples of this are everywhere, but take as the most pressing the case of the NHS. “How can millions of people have benefited from the NHS and not be on the streets to defend it? Come on. The NHS is one of the most humanitarian acts that has ever been undertaken in peace time. The principle that someone shouldn’t profit from someone else’s ill health has been lost. If someone says an American health company will run the NHS efficiently, nobody can think of the principle to refute that. The guiding principles have been lost.” There was a study recently investigating why America, which spends more per capita on health, has worse outcomes, and the answer was quite clear: when there is a profit motive, the rich are overinvestigated, and the poor are undertreated. People die needlessly.

So there’s quite a sound pragmatic argument against private involvement in health, but Hall’s is a blistering moral statement – who would profit from someone’s ill health? What sort of person would that be? Would you trust them with your budget, let alone your health, or the health of a loved one? The moral case is not being forcefully enough put; indeed, it is not being put at all.


Here’s a link [ht: ms] to Robin Blackburn’s obituary, as well as a list of other obituaries, commentaries, and work by Stuart Hall.


Harvard has received quite a battering in recent months.

After the student cheating scandal (and the accompanying investigation scandal), we’ve witnessed the Reinhart-Rogoff error-ridden scandal followed by the Ferguson gay-bashing scandal.

Now, we have the scandal of Jason Richwine’s doctoral dissertation.

All of these scandals involve the production and dissemination of knowledge, and what fascinates me (and a friend with whom I’ve been discussing these issues) is the wide array of arguments that are offered in order to preserve the idea that what happens at Harvard is in fact (to use Louis Althusser’s term) a “knowledge-effect.”*

Consider Zack Beauchamp’s investigation of l’affaire Richwine.

First, of course, Richwine’s dissertation on the genetic intellectual inferiority of immigrants from Latin America must have been legitimate knowledge-work because it was done through the Kennedy School at Harvard and we know that’s a “very serious” place, that has produced “outstanding scholars,” with “kind,” knowledgeable professors (like George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher “Sandy” Jencks) who, of course, are engaged in their own first-rate knowledge-work.

Second, Richwine successfully went through the “normal” steps for achieving a doctoral degree: courses, comps, prospectus defense, dissertation research, and a dissertation defense. And we all know that each of those steps guarantees that knowledge-work is being done and that, in the end, new knowledge has been created.

Third, Richwine used high-quality (for economists, that is) statistical methods, which are considered impeccable, and therefore the work is unassailable in terms of its economic model. It certainly looks like knowledge, because it is produced by a knowledge-producing machine we call statistics and the econometrician says the work was carefully done and that, in itself, suggests the integrity and validity of the work. And, of course, the statistical techniques and economic model are somehow considered independent of the “other stuff”—the race and IQ connections—such that they stand on their own as criteria of knowledge-production.

So, there we have it, all the pieces that make Richwine’s dissertation resemble of piece of knowledge, to display the appropriate knowledge-effect.

And yet. Richwine is now the Heritage Foundation’s former Senior Policy Analyst in Empirical Studies, because it was politically inconvenient to leave him in his post. But Richwine still has his Ph.D. from Harvard.

While the rest of us are left wondering what it is that constitutes the knowledge-effect that serves as the basis of much contemporary work in the social sciences—which, in the name of “good science,” metes out its rewards and punishments to thousands of scholars whose work is measured according to the scholarly standards set by the Harvards of the world; and which determines the fate of millions of Americans through the public policies suggested by the “best and brightest” whose work is taken as knowledge by think tanks and legislators in Washington.


*The knowledge-effect, for those not familiar with the term, was Althusser’s way (e.g., in Reading Capital) of making sense of what Marx called the “mode of appropriation of the world peculiar to knowledge.” Althusser begins with the important distinction between the real-concrete (the real object) and the thought-concrete (the object of knowledge), which is the basis of his critique of all forms of empiricism. He then argues that the criteria for producing knowledge—the knowledge-effect—are internal to the practices of each particular scientific discourse. In this manner, Althusser shifted the terms of discussion, clearly indebted to Foucault’s focus on “epistemes,” from the presumption of an original ground of knowledge (related in one way or another to some real object) to the contemporary mechanisms within specific knowledge practices whereby knowledges are produced and recognized as so many knowledge-effects.


The founding editors of the British journal Soundings—Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin—have published an online manifesto in which they argue for disrupting the current neoliberal common sense and challenging the assumptions that organize our twenty-first-century political discourse.

Three ideas are, in my view, particularly important. First, “mainstream political debate simply does not recognise the depth of this crisis, nor the consequent need for radical rethinking.” That indictment is accurate not only for the current political debate but also for mainstream political and economic thought, both liberal and conservative—although there are plenty of intellectuals who are willing to take the “pay to play” in the sandbox of neoliberalism.

Second, neoliberalism has never succeeded in conquering everything. It is, instead, a project, an attempt—not always or everywhere successful—to colonize the world.

It operated within, and created, a world of great diversity and unevenness. Its early – classic – laboratory was Chile, but the rise of South East Asian tigers was, critically, a state-aided development (by no means the official neoliberal recipe). And in spite of the Western triumphalism of 1989, Russia also retains its specificities – a hybrid of oligarchic and state capitalism combined with authoritarianism. China, too, struggles to define a different model; it currently combines centralised party control with openness to foreign investment, and acute internal geographical dislocations and widespread social conflict with break-neck rates of growth and the lifting of hundreds of millions out of poverty. Indeed, conflict has erupted in many parts of the world where the neoliberal orthodoxy has been adopted. India, so frequently lauded for its embrace of the market consensus, exhibits both extraordinary rifts between the new elites and the impoverished, and multiple and persistent conflicts over its current economic strategy. Other major sites of conflict have been the water and gas wars in Bolivia, and the struggle of ‘the poors’ in Thailand. The emerging articulations of progressive governments and grassroots social movements in Latin America are, in varying ways and in varying degrees, responses to the impact of previous neoliberal policies. The alter-globalisation movement has been vocal. This has not been a simple victory.

Third, the shift in economic and social power since the 1970s has not been driven by a simple logic or single motor.

The economic is critical; but it cannot determine everything – even ‘in the last instance’, as Althusser famously argued. Any given conjuncture represents, rather, the fusion ‘into a ruptural unity’ of an ensemble of economic, social, political and ideological factors where ‘dissimilar currents … heterogeneous class interests … contrary political and social strivings’ fuse. What has come together in the current neoliberal conjuncture includes class and other social interests, new institutional arrangements, the exercise of excessive influence by private corporations over democratic processes, political developments such as the recruitment of New Labour to the neoliberal consensus, the effects of legitimising ideologies and a quasi-religious belief in the ‘hidden hand’, and the self- propelling virtues of ‘the market’.

So, there we have it: a neoliberal order in crisis that simply cannot be grasped or contained by mainstream political and economic thought, which has only ever involved an incomplete and always-contested attempt to remake the world, and which represents the contradictory fusion of economic and non-economic processes and events.

That’s a very good start. I look forward to reading the next installments of the Kilburn Manifesto.

This morning, Nate Silver argued that Obama’s recent gain in the polls cannot be attributed to any single cause or event. Instead, it is “overdetermined.”

While Silver provides a link to the mathematical definition of overdetermination, his use of the term—”there are lot of variables that might have contributed to the one result”—actually has a more interesting lineage, as a challenge to cause-and-effect notions of causality.

The term first appears in Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. There, Freud argued that, because of the processes of condensation and displacement, there is no one-to-one relationship between dream-thoughts and the dream-content. Instead, Freud argued,

The formation of the dream does not, therefore, take place in such fashion that a single one of the dream thoughts or a group of them furnishes the dream content with an abridgment as its representative therein, and that then another dream thought furnishes another abridgment as its representative—somewhat as popular representatives are elected from among the people—but the whole mass of the dream thoughts is subjected to a certain elaboration, in the course of which those elements that receive the greatest and completest support stand out in relief, analogous, perhaps, to election by scrutins des listes. Whatever dream I may subject to such dismemberment, I always find the same fundamental principle confirmed—that the dream elements are constructed from the entire mass of the dream thoughts and that every one of them appears in relation to the dream thoughts to have a multiple determination.

Needless to say, this made the work of free association important as a way of producing a particular interpretation of dreams, which however could never be constituted as the only possible interpretation.

This notion of overdetermination was, in turn, taken up Louis Althusser who, in such essays as “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” used it to criticize Hegelian notions of contradiction, in which everything can be reduced to a single or essential element. Instead, Althusser argued, a particularly Marxist notion is that of overdetermined contradictions. Thus, for example,

the Capital-Labour contradiction is never simple, but always specified by the historically concrete forms and circumstances in which it is exercised. It is specified by the forms of the superstructure (the State, the dominant ideology, religion, politically organised movements, and so on); specified by the internal and external historical situation which determines it on the one hand as a function of the national past (completed or ‘relapsed’ bourgeois revolution, feudal exploitation eliminated wholly, partially or not at all, local ‘customs’ specific national traditions, even the ‘etiquette’ of political struggles and behaviour, etc.), and on the other as functions of the existing world context (what dominates it – competition of capitalist nations, or ‘imperialist internationalism’, or competition within imperialism, etc.), many of these phenomena deriving from the ‘law of uneven development’ in the Leninist sense.

The concept of overdetermination is then taken up Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff who, in a series of works (such as Knowledge and Class), extend the idea to criticize the kinds of essentialist theories—in both epistemology and methodology—that have haunted the Marxian tradition as well as non-Marxian approaches to economic and social analysis. Their view is that Marxist theory is based on a notion of causality radically different from the logic of cause and effect. Instead, everything can be seen as both cause and effect at the same time. Essentialist approaches (such as rationalism and empiricism in epistemology, or economic determininism and theoretical humanism in methodology), on the other hand, are based on the idea that what we’re trying to explain (knowledges or social events) can be reduced to a single element.

In my view, Silver’s use of overdetermination makes more sense in that lineage than in terms of the mathematical definition of overdetermination. As such, it is an important corrective to those who, now and in the coming days, will attempt to reduce Obama’s victory in tomorrow’s presidential election to one or another event or cause.