©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

Sliding Into PoMo-ism from Samuelsonianism

by D.N. McCloskey
Special issue of Rethinking Marxism on Jack Amariglio and David Ruccio's Postmodern Moments in Economics, Spring 2008
Filed under Criticism in history and economic history [reviews]

Paul Samuelson delivering remarks at a memorial service
for E. Cary Brown, October 2007, MIT (Photo source: MIT website)
We're all the descendents of the Blessed Adam Smith, may his tribe increase. But I don't need to tell you that his descendents cluster in hostile families, and tend not to favor the others with so much as a greeting card at Christmas or Hanukah or Eid al-Adha. You would hardly know that they are cousins. With the exception of unusual figures like David Ruccio or Jack Amariglio or Ted Burczak, for example, Marxists don't much read the Austrians or the institutionalists or the Samuelsonians. The feeling is mutual.

My birth family was the Samuelsonians. (I think it's about time, by the way, to stop calling them the "mainstream," or even the anachronistic "neoclassicals," either of which gives away the game before it's started. "Neoclassical" economics includes in historical precision the Austrians and the Marshallians, who find the contents of most economics journals nowadays to be unscientific rubbish. The Samuelsonians are best thought of as the children and grandchildren of Paul Anthony Samuelson and his brother-in-law Kenneth Arrow. Larry Summers is their mutual nephew—honest, he is. We ought to call them what they are, and not accord victory to them in their very name.) The family bible of the Samuelsonians is Paul's modestly entitled Ph.D. dissertation, The Foundations of Economic Analysis, which proposed in 1947 that all of economics should produce qualitative existence theorems out of a method of constrained maximization under the sign of logical positivism. His proposals have been fruitful of hundreds of thousands of published articles. Otherwise they have constituted a degenerating research program.

The Samuelsonians were almost literally my "family." Paul was for years my mother's mixed-doubles partner in tennis at the Belmont Hill Club. I was educated at Harvard, down the street from the holy sites of MIT, just as Harvard was surrendering to Samuelsonianism big-time, sending out people like Tom Sargent, who was in my graduate school class, and Bob Barro, who was in the class behind me. In the mid 1960s only the URPE people—Marglin, Bowles, Gintis—had any intellectual equipment for resisting the defining of economics as the adventures of Max U, that charmless Samuelsonian fellow who so haunts the pages of the American Economic Review.

My first job was at Chicago—my marriage family, so to speak—which in 1968 was still resisting. Chicago then had not yet consummated its marriage with the Samuelsonians. It's easy to get confused by later developments at Chicago. Friedman and Stigler and Ted Schultz and Bob Fogel and even Harry Johnson and Bob Mundell were not Max U economists. Northwestern, not Chicago, was the Max U place in Greater Chicagoland. I left Economics at the University of Chicago after twelve happy years when it started to slide into Samuelsonianism, compliments of Gary Becker and Bob Lucas. Even its naïve positivism got worse. Nowadays most of the Chicago School in residence have given up economic thinking, and have replaced it with constrained maximization (Samuelson) and existence theorems (Arrow) tested with Fisherian sampling statistics without loss functions (Klein out of Samuelson). Remarkably, though, as we at Chicago were delighted to see, most of the Samuelsonians at MIT or Harvard or Stanford adopted at the same time our Chicago-School attitudes towards capitalism. I guess that's what intermarriage means. Anyway the marriage of Samuelsonians with Friedmanites has by now resulted in the dreary uniformity of American economics. (Europeans whoring after "ranking," listen up.) The journals fill up with Max U sludge "tested" by meaningless t statistics, narrowing the field down to the intellectual range from M to N. The late, great Bob Heilbroner once remarked of the Journal of Economic Perspectives that all it lacked to be an intellectual success were some . . . economic perspectives.

When I left Chicago for nineteen years at the University of Iowa, I had already started my own slide, into post-modernism. I came to postmodernism approximately the same way that David and Jack did, though a little later than they, and a lot later than Resnick and Wolff, and with much less sophistication in the more obscure of the pomo thinkers. Like my Marxist pals I gradually saw the silliness of my birth family's and my marriage family's way of talking about Method and (this is the "later" part) I eventually saw the silliness of resisting Talk in the actual economy. That's the main point I want to make here: regardless of economic family, an economics becomes pomo—and scientific—when it realizes that truth is a mobile army of metaphors, both the truth of a science and the truth of the humans the science is talking about. Even Samuelsonianism could be saved this way—though unfortunately when the Samuelsonians talk of talk their first and usually their last instinct is to reduce talk to the marginal cost of information equaling the marginal benefit, as though language was mainly about transmitting unchangeable pellets of data. 1 You-all of Rethinking Marxism, as far as I understand what you're doing, have pushed hard on the insight that language matters—even to the class struggle.

The anti-Rethinking Marxism Marxists, like Gintis and Bowles and Folbre and Marglin, seem to be discovering the power of language. Steve Marglin, while sticking to some Marxist fairy tales about enclosure and the like, admits in his recent and elegant book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (2008), that how we talk matters. "What is lost in . . . economic development. . . . when markets become a sphere unto themselves," he claims, is community. (I sharply disagree—for which see The Bourgeois Virtues [2006]—but that's not the point here.) Why is it lost? In large part, Marglin says, because economists and calculators have said that greed is good. In 1630 the Puritan John Winthrop, whom Marglin admires, noted that "every man is born with this principle in him to love and seek himself only." Max U. You can see it in your three-year old grandson. But in the Britain of the late 17th and 18th centuries the principles of a war of all against all, or at any rate the principles of a three-year old, came to be spoken of as the sole springs of action: "from virtue to vice in a century," as Marglin puts it. It's an old story, of a corrupting commerce, and a theory of commerce, that leaves the polis undefended and the glory of Europe extinguished forever.

We can only hope the non-Rethinking Marxism Marxists will follow us into reading Rorty, Dewey, Nietzsche, classical rhetoric, and the works of all those French boys and girls who paid close attention to Greek rhetoric in their lycées, and when they grew up renamed it under various strange headings such as "deconstruction." Come on, Nancy, Herb: get to it. If there's one thing that characterizes postmodernism across fields it is such a linguistic turn, realizing with a jolt that physics, as Niels Bohr said, is about what we humans can say about the world, or that we architects are saying something when we quote the classical orders in our skyscrapers, or that we economists depend on persuasively saying things to each other, in words or mathematics, to change opinion, and that the economy itself depends on the means of production, sure, but also on what people say about it. Modernism is then the conviction held by most intellectuals 1910-1980 or so that words don't matter, that talk is cheap, that rhetoric is transparent, that vulgar Marxism reigns. Down with vulgar Marxism!

I have only recently begun to grasp the elementary fact that a long time ago Lenin and Gramsci started a pomo hare in Marxism. Lenin established in 1902 the Bolshevik line against an "economism" that reckoned we don't need to talk because the relations of production will cause the working class to rise up. On the contrary, he believed that ideas in talk inflamed the working class to action—certainly the case for his own eloquence and ruthlessness in 1917. He asked, What is to be done, and answered: Do not wait for the material conditions of the workers to cause them to attain spontaneously the idea of revolution. On the contrary, "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without [his italics here], that is only from outside the economic struggle. . . . the social democrats [by which at the time he meant revolutionary socialists] must go among all classes of the population; they must dispatch units of their army [of ideas in talk, observe] in all directions." 2 "A social-democrat must concern himself . . . with an organization of revolutionaries capable of guiding the entire proletarian struggle for emancipation." 3 Guide by talk, not follow by inevitable material dialectic.

Gramsci, too, spoke of economism as an error. While in prison in the 1930s he wrote that "the claim (presented as an essential postulate of historical materialism) that every fluctuation of politics and ideology can be presented and expounded as an immediate expression of the structure, must be contested in theory as primitive infantilism." Marxism, he contended, "is itself a superstructure, . . . the terrain on which determinate social groups [e.g. the proletariat] become conscious of their own social being." The base and superstructure form a "historical bloc," quite different from the imaginings of bourgeois enthusiasts for economism that the superstructure is mere rhetoric in the sneering sense of the word, and automatically mimics the material dialectic of history. Gramsci claimed plausibly that in detailed political writings, such as The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx himself was cautious in using the Materialist Postulate, and gave room for accident and "internal necessities of an organizational character" and the difficulty of identifying just what is at a particular moment the base or the structure that is supposed to be limiting thought. 4 Gramsci himself is chiefly important in the history of European socialism in denying that materialism does all the work. His very career illustrates the importance of how people talk—though Jack pointed out to me that there's plenty of residual economism in Gramsci's thinking.

And so another way of describing the pomo in economics is to say that it resists economism. The height of modernism and economism in my own marriage family was the later thought of the great Chicago-School economist, George Stigler (1911-1991), as for example in The Economist as Preacher (1982): "We live in a world that is full of mistaken policies, but they are not mistaken for their followers. . . . Individuals always know their true self-interest. . . . Each sector of the public will therefore demand services from intellectuals favorable to the interests of that sector." 5 The argument is similar to Gramsci's on the role of the intellectual: "every social group. . . creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals." 6 But Gramsci the Marxist was much less of a historical materialist than was Stigler.

I certainly agree with David and Jack, then, that there are "postmodern moments" in the midst of the modernism that they and I have long criticized. Lenin and Gramsci are a case. So in my own family line is Frank Knight (1885-1972), who like me taught at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago (I met him only once, fool that I was, scorning him as insufficiently technical for my callow tastes). Knight attacked for example stable preferences, the assumption of perfect competition, the positivism of welfare economics, and its "positive" method, which he described as "the emotional pronouncement of value judgements condemning emotion and value judgements which seems to [me] a symptom of a defective sense of humor." 7

In an essay in Cullenberg, Amariglio, and Ruccio, eds. (2001) I went about as far as you can go in arguing that postmodernism wells up within modernism. I argued that the recent postmodernism we all celebrate was a response to a European modernism that arose about 1910—"modernism" being the conviction that We Have All the Answers Now, Because We Are Modern. You could see modernism around 1910 in The Rite of Spring, on the one hand, and the Hilbert Program of mathematics on the other. You could see it around 1980 in the physics and the architecture and the evening performances of string quartets at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. You can see it persisting into the 21st century in a Samuelsonianism that goes on and on asserting that there "must" be micro-foundations for macroeconomics, without telling us exactly why.

My main points in the 2001 essay were that (1.) there have been many modernisms, all of them bossy and elitist and wanna-be-aristocratic, starting with Plato; and that therefore (2.) there have also been many postmodernisms, such as the sophists (that is, the defenders of democracy) attacked by Plato. Augustine vs. Irish heresies. Bacon vs. Montaigne. French vs. Scottish Enlightenment. The pomo is rhetorical, casuistic, virtue-ethical, narrative, anti-elitist, and pragmatic. It challenges stable values in the sense of the values of convention, normal science, rich people, the given. On that David and Jack and I enthusiastically agree. Aux barricades! Or perhaps, Aux séminaires!

But one point of disagreement between me and David-Jack is the matter of what I perhaps impolitely called long ago "ersatz economics," the economics of the "man on the Clapham omnibus," as the British used to say, the economics that our students come to us with and that many of their parents, such as Lou Dobbs, stick with. I accept David-Jack's criticism that, unlike, say, Arjo Klamer, I am "insistent and even verbally violent" when I should be sweet and pomo when I hear Lou Dobbs articulating mercantilism as an excuse for his racism. That's not nice of me. Bad girl. The only point I'd make in reply is that it's not nice of Lou Dobbs to propose taking away the gains to poor people, Mexican and gringo, from the division of labor and the breaking up of comfortable national monopolies. You see that I am in some ways an unreconstructed member of the Good Old Chicago School (the Nouvelle Chicago of dynamic programming and existence theorems is not mine: that unfaithful husband long ago drifted away from me). I think capitalism is good for workers. Workingpeople of all countries unite! Demand capitalism!

But that's another story.

  1. McCloskey 2008.
  2. Lenin, What is To Be Done? 1902 (1988), pp. 143-144, his italics.
  3. Lenin 1902, p. 179.
  4. Forgacs, ed. 2000, pp. 196-198 (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 407-409; Selections from Cultural Writings, Q10, II para. 41.xii).
  5. Stigler 1982, pp.10, 60.
  6. Gramsci 1932, in Forgacs, ed., p. 301.
  7. Knight 1940.
Works Cited
  1. Forgacs, David, ed. 2000. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: New York University Press.
  2. Knight, Frank. 1940. "What is Truth' in Economics?" Journal of Political Economy 48 (Feb.): 1-32. Reprinted in his On the History and Method of Economics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
  3. Lenin, V. I. 2002. What is to Be Done? J. Fineberg, G. Hanna, R. Service, trans. London: Penguin, 1988.
  4. Marglin, Stephen A.. 2008. The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  5. McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2001. "The Genealogy of Postmodernism: An Economist's Guide." Pp. 102-128 in Stephen Cullenberg, Jack Amariglio, and David F. Ruccio, eds. Postmodernism, Economics and Knowledge. New York and London: Routledge.
  6. McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. McCloskey. Deirdre N. 2008. "How to Buy, Sell, Make, Manage, Produce, Transact, Consume with Words." Preface to Edward M. Clift, ed., Transdisciplinary Readings: Essays on Rhetoric & Economics. Forthcoming Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press. Available in draft at deirdremccloskey.org
  8. Ruccio, David F., and Jack Amariglio. 2003. Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  9. Stigler, George J. 1982. The Economist as Preacher and Other Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.