Posts Tagged ‘Michel Foucault’


John Baldessari, “Man Running/Men Carrying Box” (1988-1990)

It was Paul Samuelson who, in 1997, declared with morbid optimism that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.”*

What Samuelson presumed is that, over time, wrong ideas would be killed and laid to rest and better ideas would flourish, thus creating the foundation for progress in economic thought.

That’s what I consider to be the epistemological utopianism of mainstream economic thought: using the correct scientific methods, the work that economists do gets closer and closer to the Truth—the singular, incontestable, capital-t truth. It used to be the case (for Samuelson and many others, such as fellow Nobel laureates Kenneth Arrow, Gerard Debreu, and Paul Krugman) that mathematical models represented the best way of making progress (inspired by a particular conception of nineteenth-century physics).** The current fad is to rely on randomized experiments and big data as evidence that economics is finally becoming a real, empirical science (akin to biology and medicine).

In the first case, rationalism is the reigning theory of knowledge; in the second case, it’s empiricism. However, both theories represent two sides of the same epistemological coin, defined by a radical separation between theory and reality and some sort of correspondence between them. In other words, both rationalism and empiricism are foundationalist theories of knowledge according to which the gap between theory and reality is eventually—”funeral by funeral”—closed.

It’s a utopianism that serves as both the premise and promise of mainstream economists’ practice. And we know something about the consequences of that epistemological utopianism—for example, the combination of ignorance and arrogance when it comes to the work of nonmainstream economists (who stand accused of not doing science and therefore of not contributing to the progress of economics), noneconomists (whose methods are neither mathematically nor empirically rigorous enough), and everyday economists (who either produce cultural representations that accord with the lessons of mainstream economics, in which case they be invoked as illustrations, or whose work is dismissed and needs to be attacked and eradicated, because it runs counter to mainstream economics). Not to mention the idea that, in the midst of the worst economic crises since the first Great Depression, mainstream economists could blithely assert that their theories had done just fine; the only problem was the fact that policymakers hadn’t adequately listened to or followed the advice of mainstream economists. Finally, of course, there’s the closing-off of publishing venues (like the leading journals), research funding (especially the National Science Foundation), teaching positions (especially in research universities), and so on—all in the name of a singular scientific method and conception of truth.

As I have shown (e.g., here and here), mainstream liberals today are also obsessed with the defense of science and capital-t Truth. In their zeal to attack Donald Trump and the right-wing media’s defense of his administration’s outlandish claims about a wide variety of issues—from climate change to the Mueller investigation—they increasingly invoke and rely on an absolutist theory of knowledge. And then, of course, claim for themselves the correct side in the current debates. They, too, are guided by the utopianism of essentialist theories of knowledge.

The problems with epistemological utopianism are legion. I’ve mentioned some of the nastier consequences above. But there are other issues. For example, in their defense of absolute truth, they invoke a time—before the current “post-truth” regime—when a set of institutions (such as journalism, science, and the academy) supposedly got it right. Except they can’t ever cite an example of how those institutions successfully adjudicated the facts in play—when, supposedly, there was universal assent to the truth claims, either within the academy or the wider society—and they ignore all the times when they simply got it wrong.

Moreover, they’re willing to admit that the claims to truth are often deflected by lots of other influences—such as narratives, confirmation bias, ethics, and information overload. But the problem is always “out there,” among regular people, and not the scientists themselves (whether in economics or other disciplines). Epistemological utopians simply can’t acknowledge that, in their daily practice, mainstream economists and liberal thinkers are also engaged in story-telling, that they accept evidence that confirms their preconceived notions and assess counter evidence with a critical eye, make ethics-laden decisions based on relations of unequal power, and operate with overconfidence based on the illusion of knowledge.

There are, of course, many alternatives to the utopianism of absolutist epistemology. One of them is what I call “partisan relativism,” associated with the Marxian critique of political economy.

In fact, I (with my friend and frequent coauthor Jack Amariglio) have just published an entry on “epistemology” in the Routledge Handbook of Marxian Economics. There, we discuss many different contributions to Marxian epistemology and highlight the role that postmodernism has played in providing an alternative to and moving beyond the long history of attributing to Marx a modernist project of attempting to delimit the certainly of scientific knowledge from non-science (or ideology). Thus, we write, postmodern Marxists

frequently call attention to the “relativism” that they believe is Marx’s main epistemological message and/or is exemplified in his texts. Marx’s aleatory materialism, for postmodern Marxists, also establishes an under-determination in the realm of knowledge; a discursive whole cannot close itself. Influenced by Jacques Derrida’s conception of “deconstruction,” postmodern Marxists insist that discourse is always marked by slippages, aporia, displacements, and deferments. For them, meaning is overdetermined and uncertain. A certain knower is thus a contradiction in terms.

In addition, if scientific discourse is not the mirror of nature, then there is an “ethical” dimension to all knowledge production. Cornel West, utilizing Richard Rorty among other “pragmatist” philosophers, brings out the enduring, constitutive ethical and political aspects of how and what we know, and what we intend to do with this knowledge.

Thus, we go on to explain, relativist Marxists dispute the claims of a certain knowing subject (indeed, they challenge the very idea that knowledge begins with a knowing subject) and focus instead on how knowledge claims are internal to theoretical frameworks and the manner in which knowledges produce within different theories or discourses have specific—and often quite different—conditions and consequences in the world within which those knowledges are produced.


For many Marxist epistemologists, knowledge is active and actionable, and its existence as material image/image of the material is one requisite condition for the revolutionary socioeconomic—especially class—change that Marx vehemently proposed.

And that, in the end, is the utopian moment of Marxian epistemology—not a utopian appeal or aspiration to absolute truth, but instead a practice (one might even call it an ethics) of materialist critique. That critique operates at two different levels: it is a critique of all theoretical claims (such as those made by mainstream economists) that normalize or naturalize the existing economic and social order and a critique of capitalism itself, since from a Marxian perspective capitalist societies are based on and serve to reproduce an exploitative class structure.

It should come as no surprise then that the utopian horizon of Marxian epistemology is summarily rejected by mainstream economists and liberal thinkers—or that the latter’s epistemological utopianism often serves to locate itself within and ultimately to justify, by treating as normal or natural, the existing set of economic and social institutions.


*“Credo of a Lucky Textbook Author,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 11 (Spring): 159.

**It’s a particular conception of physics that has been disputed by many others, including Thomas Kuhn (and his theory of “scientific revolutions”), Paul Feyerabend (who argued that there are no useful and exceptionless methodological rules governing the progress of science or the growth of knowledge), Richard Rorty (who criticized the idea of knowledge as representation), and Michel Foucault (who showed that different systems of thought and knowledge—epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology—are governed by different sets of rules). Their criticisms of essentialist epistemologies apply as well to the more recent turn to “empirical” methods as the foundation of economic knowledge.


Mainstream economists have been taking quite a beating in recent years. They failed, in the first instance, with respect to the spectacular crash of 2007-08. Not only did they not predict the crash, they didn’t even include the possibility of such an event in their models. Nor, of course, did they have much to offer in terms of explanations of why it occurred or appropriate policies once it did happen.

More recently, the advice of mainstream economists has been questioned and subsequently ignored—for example, in the Brexit vote and the support for Donald Trump’s attacks on free trade during the U.S. presidential campaign. And, of course, mainstream economists’ commitment to free markets has been held responsible for delaying effective solutions to a wide variety of other economic and social problems, from climate change and healthcare to minimum wages and inequality.

All of those criticisms—and more—are richly deserved.

So, I am generally sympathetic to John Rapley’s attack on the “economic priesthood.”

Although Britain has an established church, few of us today pay it much mind. We follow an even more powerful religion, around which we have oriented our lives: economics. Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle”. And, like the old religions it has displaced, it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.

Over time, successive economists slid into the role we had removed from the churchmen: giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment.

However, in my view, there are three problems in Rapley’s discussion of contemporary economics.

First, Rapley refers to economics as if there were only one approach. Much of what he writes does in fact pertain to mainstream economics. But there are many other approaches and theories within economics that cannot be accused of the same problems and mistakes.

Rapley’s not alone in this. Many commentators, both inside and outside the discipline of economics, refer to economics in the singular—as if it comprised only one set of approaches and theories. What they overlook or forget it about are all the ways of doing and thinking about economics—Marxian, radical, feminist, post Keynesian, ecological, institutionalist, and so on—that represent significant criticisms of and departures from mainstream economics.

In Rapley’s language, mainstream neoclassical and Keynesian economists have long served as the high priests of economists but there are many others—heretics of one sort or another—who have degrees in economics and work as economists but whose views, methods, and policies diverge substantially from the teachings of mainstream economics.

Second, Rapley counterposes the religion of mainstream economics from what he considers to be “real” science—of the sort practiced in physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. But here we encounter a second problem: a fantasy of how those other sciences work.

The progress of science is generally linear. As new research confirms or replaces existing theories, one generation builds upon the next.

That’s certainly the positivist view of science, perhaps best represented in Paul Samuelson’s declaration that “Funeral by funeral, economics does make progress.” But in recent decades, the history and philosophy of science have moved on—both challenging the linear view of science and providing alternative narratives. I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Kuhn’s “scientific revolutions,” Paul Feyerabend’s critique of falsificationism, Michel Foucault’s “epistemes,” and Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalism. All of them, in different ways, disrupt the idea that the natural sciences develop in a smooth, linear manner.

So, it’s not that science is science and economics falls short. It’s that science itself does not fit the mold that traditionally had been cast for it.

My third and final point is that Rapley, with a powerful metaphor of a priesthood, doesn’t do enough with it. Yes, he correctly understands that mainstream economists often behave like priests, by “deducing laws from premises deemed eternal and beyond question” and so on. But historically priests served another role—by celebrating and sanctifying the existing social order.

Religious priests occupied exactly that role under feudalism: they developed and disseminated a discourse according to which the natural order consisted of lords at the top and serfs at the bottom, each of whom received their just deserts. Much the same was true under slavery, which was deemed acceptable within church teachings and perhaps even an opportunity to liberate slaves from their savage-like ways. (And, in both cases, if those at the bottom were dissatisfied with their lot in life, they would have to exercise patience and await the afterlife.)

Economic priests operate in which the same way today, celebrating an economic system based on private property and free markets as the natural order, in which everyone benefits when the masses of people are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers at the top. And there simply is no alternative, at least in this world.

So, on that score, contemporary mainstream economists do operate like a priesthood, producing and disseminating a narrative—in the classroom, research journals, and the public sphere—according to which the existing economic system is the only effective way of solving the problem of scarcity. The continued existence of that economic system then serves to justify the priesthood and its teachings.

However, just as with other priesthoods and economic systems, today there are plenty of economic heretics, who hold beliefs that run counter to established dogma. Their goal is not to take over the existing religion, or even set up an alternative religion, but to create the economic and social conditions within which their own preferred theories no longer have any relevance.

Today’s economic heretics are thus the ultimate grave-diggers.


Just the other day in class, we discussed Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, “A story of industry, of enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” Remember the scene in which The Tramp (a Factory Worker in the credits) sneaks away into the restroom to grab a smoke and the boss catches him via video surveillance?

Well, the modern workplace goes far beyond that.

As Lynn Stuart Parramore [ht: ja] explains,

It’s obvious that wearable tracking technology has gone mainstream: Just look at the explosion of smart watches and activity monitors that allow people to count steps and check their calorie intake. But this technology has simultaneously been creeping into workplace: The military uses sensors that scan for injuries, monitor heart rate and check hydration. More and more, professional athletes are strapping on devices that track every conceivable dimension of performance. Smart ice skates that measure a skater’s jump. Clothes measure an athlete’s breathing and collect muscle data. At this year’s tryouts in Indianapolis, some NFL hopefuls wore the “Adidas miCoach,” a device that sends data on speed and acceleration straight to trainers’ iPads. Over the objection of many athletes, coaches and team owners are keen to track off-the-field activity, too, such as sleep patterns and diet. With million-dollar players at stake, big money seems poised to trump privacy.

Now employers from industries that don’t even require much physical labor are getting in on the game.

Finance is adopting sophisticated analytics to ensure business performance from high-dollar employees. Cambridge neuroscientist and former Goldman Sachs trader John Coates works with companies to figure out how monitoring biological signals can lead to trading success; his research focuses on measuring hormones that increase confidence and other desirable states as well as those that produce negative, stressful states. In a report for Bloomberg, Coates explained that he is working with “three or four hedge funds” to apply an “early-warning system” that would alert supervisors when traders are getting into the hormonal danger zone. He calls this process “human optimization.”

People who do the most basic, underpaid work in our society are increasingly subject to physical monitoring, too — and it extends far beyond the ubiquitous urine test. Bank of America has started using smart badges that monitor the voice and behavior patterns of call-center workers, partnering with the creepily named Humanyze, a company specializing in “people analytics.” Humanyze is the brainchild of the MIT Media Lab, the fancy research institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dedicated to the “betterment of humanity,” which, incidentally, receives a quarter of its funding from taxpayers. Humanyze concocted a computer dashboard complete with graphs and pie charts that can display the location of employees (Were you hanging out in the lounge today?) and their “social context” (Do you spend a lot of time alone?).


This brave new world of workplace biosurveillance is, of course, reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, whose major effect, as Michel Foucault explained, is

to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. . .

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.

That’s exactly why, in these modern times, we need to be aware of companies whose names end in yze. And, of course, of all the employers who use the mechanisms of biosurveillance invented and sold by those companies.

I still have some pieces of unfinished business. . .

Like the latest report [pdf] from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which looks at changes in homelessness nationwide from 2008 to 2009. The findings—for example, that homelessness rose (in 31 states and the District of Columbia) after years of declining rates and numbers of homeless people—are certainly not surprising but they confirm the harsh toll exacted by high unemployment and cuts in social services during the Second Great Depression.

And the fact that, according to University of California-Irvine biology professor Diane K. O’Dowd and research professors at Harvard University, Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and elsewhere, “reward systems at universities heavily favor science, math and engineering research at the expense of teaching.” This is one of the unfortunate trends, and not just in the sciences, of the new corporate university.

Then there’s Tyler Cowen’s unfortunate initial dismissal of Michel Foucault’s work (“Most of his books have not held up very well as history, even if he succeeded in drawing people’s attention to some neglected factors.  On top of that, his theoretical framework is incoherent.”), although in a subsequent post he does admit that reading Foucault “is one useful path out of extreme positions of methodological individualism.” Most economists have remained mostly ignorant of Foucault’s writings (not knowing enough to even be dismissive). But I can recommend two useful references: one general, Gary Gutting’s Foucault: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005); and one specifically for economics, Jack Amariglio’s “The Body, Economic Discourse, and Power: An Economist’s Introduction to Foucault,” History of Political Economy 20 (1988): 583-613.

And Maxine Udall’s unfortunate defense of the “science of economics,” as a critique of David Brooks’s idea of economics as art, in which she conflates economics with the concepts and mathematical models of neoclassical economics. Even on those grounds, she mistakenly assumes (in discussing the economics of health), she assumes that resources are being efficiently allocated to health care—thus putting the economy on its production possibilities frontier and creating a false tradeoff between taking “resources away from health advantaged people in order to give them to health disadvantaged people.” She should know both that are non-neoclassical theories of the economics of health and that current the health care system in the United States is far below its potential.

Finally, there’s George Demartino’s superb summary of the state of discussion within the American Economic Association about conflict of interest and disclosure.

Economists are creative people who love to solve pressing social problems. If we haven’t yet solved the problem of conflict of interest in economics, perhaps it’s not because the problem is so darn difficult. Perhaps it’s because we’ve never really tried.

Done! Now, back to building that bridge. . .