post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 16,  17 October 2002
article 4



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Social Being as a Problem for an Ethical Economics

Jamie Morgan   (The Open University, UK)

© Copyright 2002 Jamie Morgan



Orthodox economics conspicuously lacks a satisfying account of social being and is thus unable to provide a practical starting point in addressing many of the problems of being that humanity now confronts. It is theoretically impoverished and practically bereft. As PAE and previous forums have shown, the current orthodoxy of economics is neither explanatorily powerful nor is it genuinely scientific. One way of showing this is to explore how its science, its method and its power are founded on a series, a cascade, of inversions of dimensions of realisms that corrupt science and method in the name of that power. Those inversions include issues of:

  • The relation between economy and being
  • Synchronous behaviour
  • The ill of being
  • The alienated economist
  • Alienated method

My starting point or primary organising principle is that economics as an explanatorily powerful (and thus scientific) discipline should account for what we live for, but that it is not economics for which we live.

What are we living for?

Orthodoxy colludes in the commodification and fetishism of capitalism. Its primary inversion is that for the orthodox economist, we live for the economy - its motors (as they are represented by the orthodox economist) are our motors, a stochastic ordering process that reflects our most basic “natural” behaviours and motivations. This homo economicus ergo sum extracts its account of the economy from the social whole and subjugates human being to it. The economy we are told we live for is the economy of the orthodox economist, a best of all possible worlds, in so far as we are told that it is the only world there is and we’d better get used to it.  It is a world we apparently make but one that escapes us.  For orthodoxy, the knowledge that has previously eluded us is not a path to emancipation but rather the tracing of our prison walls.  Its invisible hand offers a seductive material utopia that arrives as a clenched fist, demanding that we conform and be disciplined by its own inevitability.

The Paradox of Synchronicity

For the orthodox economist, our behaviour, founded though it might be in a deep-seated “nature” of accumulation, desire and competition, will never quite be our own. Our behaviour is externalised, becoming behavioural, an imperative. Our choice in this arid world of orthodoxy is no choice at all lest it be non-being, an ultimate sanction of capitalism or death. One synchronises with the system in order to survive. Indeed, synchronicity is the system (just as it is the non-beating heart of homeostatic equilibrating method). It is the system in so far as it denies the existence of any significant and causally efficacious rules, institutions or interventions other than this primeval behavioural imperative. Being is thus no more or less than persistence. One persists in a system that somehow claims to subordinate the self to its self. As a consequence, the utopia at the heart of that orthodoxy is simultaneously pragmatic and deterministic, avaricious and pessimistic, human yet all too holohedral. It is a charitable cruelty that affords us, each and every one, participation, a cruelty that whispers of merit, hard work, returns, and opportunity in the name of the ever-present possibility that we may succeed and that others may fail. Failure is the collateral damage of utopia – the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed, and marginalized. Their failure defines success. Their failure is an illustration that some forms of the subjugated being of orthodoxy are more abject than others. The morality of  this most “hard-headed” of disciplines is, therefore, Nietszchean. In it, “blood and cruelty lie at the bottom of all “good things”.” Of it, morality is transvaluated in a becoming that is amoral in its methodological indifference to morality, and immoral in terms of the consequences of such amorality.

Frozen Being

One cannot understand an advanced capitalist economy without understanding the constitution and consequences of the transitive values that the organisation of its production produces.    The absence of moral investigation within orthodoxy is thus symptomatic of the economy’s contributions to the ill of social being. Orthodox economics is part of the (il)liberating problem of technologies whose social relationality it blithely ignores. It is in this sense that if we do not (should not, cannot, will not) live for economics, the economist should at least be asking what it is we are living for (and what consequences this has for how others live and die across the world, now and in the future). This is a moral as well as a practical question. As a practical question it is, all too easily, debilitated by the deterministic undercurrents of orthodox pragmatism. Such pragmatism lends itself to a utilitarian pleasure principle that is at once too narrow and too broad, providing limited descriptions without explanations; rendering the historical eternal. This is yet another dimension of orthodox synchronicity and also another element in the inversions of orthodoxy. The dynamism of the lived life of social being is frozen. Homo economicus is statuesque, ignorant and selfish.

Nowhere is this lack of engagement with the dynamics of social relations of economy clearer than in the home economy of the alienated and commodified self. At the same time as technology has divorced many of the centres of advanced capitalism from hard physical labour, it has produced new forms of oppressive social relations where humans have, ironically, become once more subject to subsistence agriculture’s long hours of labour (for technology is now pervasive and its relations invasive); concomitantly, reduced non-working time has increasingly become an arena of instrumental activity within the emergent leisure economy, one dominated by consumption on three fronts: food, home refurbishment, and shopping.

The relations of economy of all three subject the human at the centres of advanced capitalism to accelerated rhythms and his/her marginalized counterparts in the majority world to greater burdens. Food has become an oral fixation, a primary sensory pleasure, a lifestyle choice, and a source of fear. Affluent over-consumption, knowledge of the mortality implications of the foods of choice, and obesity, channel us to the clinic, the diet book and the gym where hours of over-consumption of the world’s resources are converted into joules of isolated exertion on yet more machines that are in turn the conversion point of food into further profit. Similarly, home refurbishment has become a micro-economy of perpetual investment in the reconstruction of living space whose demands rob us of what little living time we have within it. Shopping meanwhile, is the master category of the home economy, a centre of gravity, a principle source of leisure, status and self-esteem. It is a preoccupation, a form of activity that has attuned the human to a numbing receptivity to acquisition divorced from attainment; the introduction of lifestyle obsolescence has quickened its pace at the same time as new forms of credit have softened its short-term pressures whilst all but guaranteeing a hard landing. Shopping has become the bull market of the soul. Here, orthodoxy is denied even the defence that scarcity is a purely allocative problem.

The Alienated Economist

Yet one cannot simply define a problem like human social being out of existence. The very claim is a category mistake. One is defining it out of theory. Such an act of power within orthodoxy simply commits the error of burying one’s head in the sand. Ringfencing narrow and problematic fundamental assumptions about humanity with forbidding formulae that produce neat and tidy mathematical outputs (that in another inversion, that of theoretical linearity, all but select their inputs) impoverishes the theoretician as it bastardises the theoretical process. There is something deeply atavistic and yet all too modern in the way that the orthodox economist has become a tool of his tools. The orthodox economist is both the high priest of capitalism and another instance of its victim. A source of cant and superstition, of such linguistic abuses as  “the needs of the market,” and “human capital downsizing.” A master who is by his own dialectic truly a technician-slave; his thought counts the cost of production but not the value of being. Yet he knows the value of differential calculus, of indices, simultaneous equations, and regression. One must ask why it is that, alone amongst the social sciences, orthodox economics has so assiduously pursued the Chicago School dictum of 1926, “When you cannot measure your knowledge becomes meagre and unsatisfactory.”

The orthodox economist’s disdain for reality is captured by the (only half joking) injunction, “But does it work in theory?” In lauding unreality orthodoxy commits itself to a trajectory that parodies itself. A profession whose hierarchy places the mathematical economist at its airless summit, far removed from practical considerations, may provide an economist with a clear path to maximising his own exchange value but does so by crushing his use-value. Ironically, competence is divested from its etymological relation to the socially productive. Rather it is diverted into computation; competence becomes a technical facility rather than a contribution to society. Orthodox economics thereby becomes one of the few social realms where rational expectations genuinely apply; orthodox economics becomes a profession of calculating calculators.

The ideological value of “facts”

Orthodoxy abstracts from fantasy to construct knowledge. Unreal assumptions conducive to the simplification of complex mathematical problems dictate what is and what is not economically significant. Thus abstraction is conjoined to abacus and absolved from its relation to appropriation from the world in order to return with knowledge of the world. Here one shifts to a further double returning, both to “But does it work in theory?” and to that realm where one is a tool of tools. Perfect knowledge and instantaneously equilibrating and spontaneously clearing markets make neat mathematics but require a neat world, not the untidy one that we actually inhabit.

Here wider inversions of “to be scientific” become clear. The rejection of use-value in the maximisation of the exchange value of the orthodox economist, that is inherent in the debasing of competence, is itself a sub-set of the behavioural imperative from which its theoretical core derives. In affirming a deep-seated “nature” where we accumulate, desire and compete, orthodoxy overwrites the needs inhering in species being – food, sleep, shelter, warmth, dignity, security etc. A set of descriptive nouns become ascriptive verbs whose claim to represent the same territory, a baseline from which the cultural, the social and the human begins, takes the form of disguise.

Such ascriptive verbs are values of means from species-being beginnings, and thus one trajectory delimiting one possible (impoverished) end. Disguising then, takes the form of overwriting species being with values claimed as basic facts. Once the behavioural imperative is installed as fact, the possibility that things could be otherwise, as species being is pursued within the social whole (and in the constitution of social being), is sublimated. The construction of orthodox “fact” begins from disguised value. That construction is, therefore, ideological, a necessary myth.  It is ideological both in its function within the secret logic of orthodoxy and within orthodoxy’s relationship to the unrelenting inevitability of capitalism. The interface between the two secretes the statement that we are (this) nature all the way up – an insight as meaningless as that we are (that) nurture all the way down. As a consequence, unreality takes yet another guise in terms of orthodoxy’s claim to authority. As a theory it inverts any commitment to the overcoming of ideology in the pursuit of truth. Its truths are ideological and its science is ideological.

Likewise, its concept of  “To do science” is also ideological. Installing the behavioural imperative as fact is not only the first step in tracing the prison walls of systemic synchronicity, it is also an act within the philosophy of method. The many dynamics by which things cannot be otherwise within orthodoxy speak to a knowledge that is ultimately waiting to be found. Since things cannot be otherwise, that “found” is not simply a beginning in both the fallible process of knowledge of the world and the work of transforming that world, it is simply what the world is – a true reflection, founded in a debased form of materialism that knows that what it observes is, has been, and will always be. Orthodoxy is, therefore, a special kind of Empiricism; a form of Humeanism without the latter’s scepticism towards the possibilities inherent in the act of knowledge. Its “To do science” makes a God of the scientist and an idiot of man. Science finds a society that is a machine of perpetual motion, a set of wheels and gears executing the same operations in an undeviating endless closed cycle, without history, without consequences, and for all intents and purposes, without meaning. In their absence it is a science without the human, and this is surely the nadir of ideology in a social science.


Such then are the inversions of dimensions of realisms that corrupt science and method in the name of the power that is orthodox economics. They are inversions of realisms because they raise the standard of unrealism. Their paradox is that they raise that standard precisely in the name of realism – of science and of method. In doing so a claim is made on common sense action within the world that ephemeralises heterodoxy, as “softer” social theory that may be disparaged as (once more playing out the nadir of ideology in a social science) “sociological”.


Ironically, it requires the terminology of another form of unrealism, the post-modern, to appreciate this. Orthodoxy wears its exclusions, its constructed “Other” by which it defines itself, upon its sleeve.  Its philosophical defence of its own lack of realism shows precisely this. Its instrumentalism, the claim that heuristically convenient simplifications (that are actually methodological fictions rather than abstractions) are explanatorily powerful, its contraction of method to mathematical technique, and its reduction of evidence to quantifiable data (when pressed for such), all bear this out. That orthodox economics has managed such a sleight of hand – claiming to be the disciplinary proponent of all that is practical and useful in economics, offering itself as a first port of call for policy advice and justification, claiming to represent “how things really are”, whilst also being a site of fundamental and often celebrated forms of unrealism – is itself a sociological conundrum. An exploration of that conundrum may say much about how more prosaic, yet more valid, heterodox approaches have been excluded from a ready audience for their own realist claims.

Yet beyond an organising principle that economics should account for what we live for but that it is not economics for which we live, the exploration of the inversions of orthodoxy suggest not so much what heterodoxy should be but what it should not be and what its many forms should take seriously in order to avoid being what it should not be. In the very process of not being orthodoxy, the possibility of explanatorily powerful and scientific economics emerges out of a plurality that is the very antithesis of orthodox conformity. The heterodox challenge is therefore to convert inversions.

Thus methodology should not dominate its object. Economics should be empirical and relational, investigating all aspects of economies, their organisation and consequences. As such it cannot but deal with the historical, the non-universal, it cannot but be social and sociological, political and politicised. As such it cannot but be moral yet need not be pejoratively moralising, in the sense that it confronts and explores the economic problems of conflicted forms of social being – what are the human consequences of technology, what has affluence meant for social being, local and global, is poverty a derivative of affluence, what is economic growth (for)? These are issues of the human in a material and conceptual world where we must look at ourselves from the outside in and the inside out, as constitutive of economic processes, as makers of social structures and institutions, of rules, and also as agents conforming, confronting, contesting and thinking in terms of those structures, institutions and rules; as above all carriers of values and makers of value judgements.

Economics as an engagement with a transitive social reality can therefore be scientific in a non-ideological way precisely because the political and the social are part of the historically specific economy and a science of the human must acknowledge this and construct its research and methods on that basis. Science is about the appropriate investigation of objects, explaining their processes, thinking about what causes events, with the ever-present possibility that such knowledge provides that they may be manipulated. In a human science explanation provides the understanding that is the first step in changing a conceptual social world. That is the moral dynamic of non-ideological human science. This can only be acknowledged when synchronicity and the behavioural imperative are abandoned, when the economist starts to take his use-value seriously, when his competence is more than computational. Only then will the contingency of social being be more than an expectations augmented exercise in modelling, only then will species being become a realistic problem of what the economist can contribute to society.

And this is not a problem of mathematics or any particular tool or technique but rather our relationship to our tools and techniques. They should be ours; we should not be theirs. We should decide where they are appropriate rather than appropriate what is appropriate to them. Above all, if methodology is not to dominate its object, economics must be returned to the social whole. Yet such a returning is not to demand that economics must be the science of society in all its aspects; rational expectations has already taken orthodoxy down that blind alley of economic imperialism. No science can be the new metaphysics. A social whole cannot be theoretically totalised. No discipline can discipline society, bringing it to heel. To argue so entails three axes, the acknowledgement of which is also a hallmark of a genuinely social science:

1.       Though economic theories, like any other branch of social theory, thrive on the articulation of their own coherence, they subsist in terms of their own contingence. Knowledge is always and everywhere fallible.

2.       A social whole can be cut across in many ways, by an economics of aspects of economy that grasp elements of the diversity of the socio-economic experience and its processes, and by other forms of social theory that take as their remit and object some other problematic.

3.       A social whole is open-ended and thus incomplete, no economic theory can totalise what is not total. Its object, the economy, is human, historical, conditional and transitive.

The challenge for heterodoxy can be located in terms of these axes. Metaphorically speaking they constitute a commitment within which heterodoxy can be grid-referenced as an ensemble of theories bridged by a family resemblance that leaves open the possibility of corrigible dialogue and commensuration. This too is a hallmark of a social scientific method, for what else is progress to be in economics?

Jamie Morgan, “Social Being as a Problem for an Ethical Economics”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 16, September  16, 2002, article 4.