One uncontroversial definition of neoliberalism is that it means to rule in the name of the economy. In Michel Foucault’s observation about postwar Germany, “the economy produces legitimacy for the state that is its guarantor.”
Seeking the origins of the seemingly natural object of “the economy,” scholars at the intersection of cultural, economic and political history have sought out the moment of its invention. Initiated by Timothy Mitchell’s seminal 1998 article “Fixing the Economy,” historians have been circling back to the same surprising point for years: that “the economy” as we know it is a relatively recent invention.
It is only since the 1930s that techniques such as national income accounting, and the calculation of Gross Domestic Product have made it possible to speak of a bounded, autonomous entity called “the economy”— a system in which we participate while also observing from the outside.
If a myth, as Roland Barthes said a half century ago, transmutes history into nature
, then studying the invention of the economy was an example of cultural critique at its best: proving that the apparently natural status of this object, invoked daily in political and academic speech, is of relatively recent vintage and is not an inevitable axis for the organization of human life. Seeing the contingency of the economy concept made us realize the consequences of its naturalization—including the subjection of diverse human action and the worlds of cultural meaning to the brute metric of GDP or per capita income, the viewing of the world as a composite of atomistic national economies engaged in “growth” and “development” in apparent isolation from one another, and the displacement of economic decision-making from democratic control into the realm of technocracy and supposedly depoliticized management.
Through this wave of scholarship, we began to better understand how and why “the economy” became a domain of experts both unknown and unknowable for the common person, driven by internal dynamics and dependent on intermediaries to decipher.
Studying the invention of the economy began a reversal of this process, reclaiming it as a domain of our own, neither as inscrutable nor as incomprehensible as it was made to seem. It imported Terrence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm’s earlier treatment of “invented traditions” to the realm of the economy, an area feared by non-economic historians since the cultural turn.
If the invented traditions’ work set out to take down nationalism, including that (one might infer) of recently decolonized African nations, then this work seemed to have “economism” in its crosshairs.
The work of Karl Polanyi was of special inspiration to many. Polanyi identified the “economistic fallacy,” by which society was conflated with the market in the 19th century, a move that helped produce a lived reality where land and labor, what he called “fictitious commodities,” were treated as if they indeed were made only to be bought and sold—a reality which he believed impoverished human life and human imagination.
The colossal, and tragic, irony was that a methodological conceit—the myth of homo economicus and the utility-maximizing atomistic actor—became the basis for the transformation of global reality: the world was remade to match the model. As Christof Dejung, Monika Dommann and Speich Chassé have put it, “’the economy’ exists in a relationship of tension between materiality and discourse.”
Economy talk has a tendency of becoming economic reality.
If Polanyi was one parent of the “invention of the economy” discussions, Foucault was the other.
In his Collége de France lectures, available only in translated fragments in the 1990s and early 2000s then in full by 2007, he described “the process that isolate[d] the economy as a specific domain of reality, with political economy as both a science and a technique of intervention in this field of reality.”
Both Polanyi and Foucault echo Marx’s notion that the bourgeoisie “created the world in its own image,” that is, by applying universalistic categories of measurement falsely, economic liberals produced a world where these very falsely universal categories—namely those of price—became truth, determining one’s life chances and social standing.
Given its apparently built-in critique of capitalism as a world-making system, it is no coincidence that interest in the invention of the economy peaked around the time of the Occupy movement. In 2011, Thomas Piketty’s graphs of income disparity appeared on protest signs, and the figure of “1%” transmuted from neutral economic description to polemical political denunciation. The long fascination of cultural studies with the demand-side phenomena of “consumerism as resistance” seemed to be morphing—by way of David Graeber’s Debt (itself more focused on consumer debt than sovereign debt)—into an attack on the economy’s master categories. The “political” seemed to be returning to political economy.
Yet a curious thing happened in the wake of Occupy’s demise. The “invention of the economy” idea began to edge to the mainstream. In 2014, the popular National Public Radio podcast Planet Money, which takes a Clintonite free trade position representative of what passes for the left wing of U.S. academic economics, aired an episode titled “The Invention of the Economy.”
It drew from one of two recent books devoted to unveiling the statistical wizardry—and sleight of hand—behind, to cite the name of one book, The Leading Indicators, subtitled “a short history of the numbers that rule our world.”
The author of this book was a historian by night but, more lucratively, a phenomenally successful investment banker by day, named a “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the Davos World Economic Forum in 2003.
What did it mean that someone deeply involved in the very activities and legitimizing structures of what would pass any rough definition of neoliberalism was himself engaged in exposing the “invention of the economy” and denouncing both GDP and the unemployment rate as “zombie numbers”?
It should at least prompt a moment to reflect. What does it mean when an act of ideological critique becomes itself naturalized? Why is it that the invention of the economy has been absorbed relatively seamlessly into mainstream discussions? It might be helpful to recall then-U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s quotable prediction from 1991 that soon “there will no longer be national economies, as least as we have come to understand that concept.” What parallel tendencies might the act of deconstructing the economy be coasting next to, and perhaps inadvertently feeding off of—and in to?
This chapter departs from an observation and a neglected paradox. The paradox is this: on the one hand, those scholars engaged in tracking the invention of the economy are often self-described critics of neoliberalism as both a broad ideology and a discrete intellectual movement involving a group of actors around Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and organized in the Mont Pèlerin Society since 1947.
On the other hand, it was precisely these neoliberal thinkers, including Hayek himself, that were engaged themselves in deconstructing the “invented economy” for half a century before Mitchell’s seminal article was published.
It is startling to recall that there are no bigger skeptics about the quiddity and thereness of “the economy” than card-carrying neoliberals themselves. Hayek put it bluntly in a paper delivered at the Tokyo meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 1966: “it is exceedingly misleading, and has become one of the chief sources of confusion and misunderstanding to call this [spontaneous] order [of the market] an economy as we do when we speak of a national, social or world economy.”
He offered instead his preferred term of “catallaxy,” from the Greek for “exchange,” or “to make an enemy into a friend.”
Hayek justified his animosity by arguing that the use of the term of “the economy” was, as he put it, “one of the chief sources of most socialist endeavors to turn the spontaneous order of the market into a deliberately run organization serving an agreed system of common ends.” Of course, he was correct. As the above-mentioned histories make clear, those who “invented” the economy—who developed econometrics and national-income accounting—were almost all on the left: socialists like Jan Tinbergen, social democrats like Gerhard Colm (who lost his job in McCarthy’s Red Scare), British Labour Party activists like William Beveridge and Colin Clark, and card-carrying communists like Oskar Lange. The economy, in other words, by which we often mean the object of macroeconomics—a term first used in 1935 by socialist Michal Kalecki
—was largely invented in the first half of the 20th century as a means of redistribution and as a key feature of the Keynesian welfare state.
The image of the Philips Machine, or MONIAC—a refrigerator sized hydraulic model of the national economy—created by New Zealand economist Bill Phillips and distributed throughout the world in the 1950s is often invoked as an example of the quaintly delusional quality of economic knowledge producers and the hypertrophy of the “mechanical metaphor.”
But the impulse behind the MONIAC was not only to comprehend but to tame the market, and make it work for the goals of full employment.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie’s guitar famously had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written on it. If the MONIAC had the words “This Machine Kills Joblessness” scrawled on the side, would we feel the same about taking it apart?
In 1974, Nobel Memorial Prize winner and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Wassily Leontief recalled the MONIAC when he said, in a speech to the American Economic Association that “The American economy is a gigantic, intricate machine. A serious malfunction of any one of its component parts affects, sometimes with a long delay, the workings of all the other parts.”
He was calling for more planning, a demand strongly opposed at the time by Gottfried Haberler, a Mont Pelerin Society member, colleague of Hayek’s in Vienna, one of Nixon’s policy advisers and the first resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
As far back as 1927, Haberler had labeled attempts to talk about “national economies” and other such “supra-individual totalities and powers” as “collectivist mystifications” and “harmful…personifications of complicated tissues of economic acts.”
Austrian neoliberals such as Haberler are perhaps unlikely, but nonetheless very consistent, allies in the head-shaking at the delusion of the economy’s invention.
Take Hayek’s close friend, and fellow Mont Pelerin Society member Fritz Machlup, one of the key figures in ending the Bretton Woods system of fixed but adjustable exchange rates.
When not hosting international conferences of central bankers and professional economists, Machlup engaged primarily in what he called “economic semantics.” In what might be the closest studies of economic categories until the 2000s, Machlup did concept histories of “micro- and macroeconomics,” “integration,” “equilibrium,” “structural change” and “development,” all by the early 1960s.
In 1963, he concluded as a category skeptic in a line that could end any of the recent deconstructions of “the economy” by saying: “The ‘real world’ surely has infinitely more variables than any abstract economic model and their ‘actual’ interrelations are neither known nor, I fear, knowable.”
With all of this in mind, the question rankles: Have leftist historians deconstructing the economy been doing their opponents’ work for them?
One of the attractions of Philips’s MONIAC is its status as a lost object of attachment under conditions of what have been called for the last several decades, “globalization.” The MONIAC stands in symbolically for the vanished possibility of the national economy, the prospect of an existence beyond the buffeting forces of world commerce, the binding regulations of international trade organizations and the disciplining effects of currency speculation and hot money flows. At the 2003 Venice Biennale, the MONIAC stood in the New Zealand pavilion alongside the TREKKA, a failed attempt at an indigenous automobile. If the MONIAC is a gravestone for embedded liberalism
, then maybe the scholarly project of “un-inventing” the economy is an act of mourning, working through the disappearance of the goal of what one could détourne Stalin to call “egalitarianism in one country”—or even, lowering expectations, Fordism in one country.
By the 1990s, the idea of constructing a national market insulated from the world seemed hopelessly naïve. This might help explain the curious fate of world systems theory, whose star fell at the precise moment when one would expect it to burn brightest.
Despite the global frame used by Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, André Gunder Frank, and their cohort, they tended to preserve, ironically, the possibility of withdrawal into the national frame as a countermeasure. This is best captured in Amin’s notion of “delinking.”
In 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri explicitly disavowed this framework in terms themselves questionably when they said: “Any proposition of a particular community in isolation, defined in racial, religious, or regional terms, ‘delinked’ from Empire, shielded from its powers by fixed boundaries, is destined to end up as a kind of ghetto.”
There are alternatives to the ongoing demystification of the Keynesian national economy concept. One is to look at the different ways the economy is represented beyond the MONIAC model. Literary scholar Leigh Claire La Berge, for example, has written about how the rise and fall of financial indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average—itself only a measure of thirty companies—has come to stand for the “health” of the economy as such.
Hartmut Berghoff has explored the history of credit ratings agencies—themselves private entities—which have accrued an extraordinary level of public authority.
Economic anthropologists show how the terminal screens of financial traders “appresent” the world market, both visualizing it and creating a space of engagement and action within it.
Given the prevalence of formal mathematical modeling in economics since the Second World War, many scholars like Mary Morgan are interested in exploring the model as something that splits the difference between theory and empiricism. As she puts it, models act “both as objects to enquire into and as objects to enquire with.”
She also advocates a return to Max Weber’s discussion of ideal types to resolve the apparent theory/empiricism opposition, insisting pace Polanyi that we see notions such as homo economicus not as prefigurative prescriptions for the world but as useful tools for comprehending a world that we must always assume to be messier than the model itself.
Following in the footsteps of Machlup, historians have unpacked categories like “structural transformation” and the “three-sector” model of economies (raw materials, manufacturing, services).
They have refused the functionalist explanations of world system theory, demonstrating a suspicion of any claims that categories can transcend politics. In a volume largely devoted to praising Wallerstein, the editors remark that “the certainty that the functioning of a system can explain anything and everything, even Auschwitz, does not inspire confidence. Here the causal powers of the system are granted an almost theological omnipotence. This is what gives system a bad name.”
One of Hardt and Negri’s own criticisms of world systems historian Giovanni Arrighi is that it is “impossible to recognize a rupture of the system, a paradigm shift, an event.”
African historian Frederick Cooper, in turn, criticized Hardt and Negri for being “so taken with the apotheosis of globality that they had no patience for reexamining actual processes.”
The trend in recent history, including new histories of economics, has been the demotion of capital letter transcendent explanations that identify history’s prime movers like Capital, State, and Empire, in favor of Cooper’s “actual processes,” especially state practices and what one book called “the little tools of knowledge.”
Yet with this chapter’s opening paradox in mind, it is important to recall that deconstruction is only one half of the critical task. If the neoliberals are themselves questioning the “economy” and praising the “spontaneous order” of the “catallaxy” which supposedly defies sensory representation,
then we must nonetheless look ourselves for the contours of this catallactic sublime.
There are roots of the latter-day financial imaginary in the way that early Austrian economists, including a young Joseph Schumpeter, envisioned the stock market as a kind of motion picture, tracking the totality of the world economy along the one-dimensional line of the rise and fall of commodity prices.
But it is the economist Herbert Giersch, another president of the Mont Pelerin Society like Hayek that offers a way to conclude this chapter, and suggest a way out of the apparent double bind by which we act as aides to the neoliberal project of undoing the Keynesian economy.
Daniel Speich Chassé is correct to observe that we see our contemporary globe as a world of nations, each represented politically by its own flag and economically by its own national accounts.
Yet as the historian/investment banker Zachary Karabell’s denunciation of the GDP as a “zombie number” suggests, there are other indicators competing for the position of ruling myth. Karabell himself invoked the world of high-end menswear and the ethos of customization to suggest “bespoke indicators” which would use “big data” to meet their task.
Giersch offered a provocative and prefigurative theorization of such indicators in 1995. In place of economic measurements indigenous to the age of Keynes like as GDP which he called “ex post economics,” Giersch advocated what he called “ex ante economics” for the “age of Schumpeter.”
A proper application of methodological individualism, as coined by Schumpeter himself in 1908, required measurements of that which had yet to take place—that is, measurements of expectations, or predictions of the future.
To Giersch, the objective was to measure competitiveness, and competitiveness was always anticipatory, predicated on future outcomes that one could guess at but not reliably predict. As he put it in 1989, “the competitiveness of a country or a region is nothing more than its attractiveness for future-oriented mobile resources.”
Thus GDP, wage share (Lohnquote), or rate of growth were all irrelevant measurements. Giersch proposed the creation of new rankings for the world’s economies. In 1995, he wrote that “it would be strange if international mobile capital did not soon develop something like an index of attractiveness, to compile a systematic ‘rating’ of locations in worldwide competition.”
His prediction came true a few years later when the consulting firm A. T. Kearny published its first Foreign Direct Investment Confidence index. This was followed by the Milken Institute’s Global Opportunity Index, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index and, in 2014, The Economist’s first “business environment ranking and index.”
These were properly neoliberal forms of measurement, displacing the old metrics of GDP and perfectly happy to uninvent the national economy to imagine all capital and goods as mobile, wending their way to the nodes, regions, Special Enterprise Zones, “clusters of excellence”, “innovation hubs,”—or in Giersch’s terminology “locations” (Standorte)—where they would find the best returns on investment. This is a normative economic geography freed from the national frame, which creates new blockades (in the form of migration barriers and aggressive intellectual property rights) even as it speaks of “flows” and relies on the strong hand of the state even as it speaks of the self-regulating market.
Giersch’s vision and its latter-day realization reminds us that the category work that critical historians of the economy have done is exemplary. Yet we must remain attentive to the larger political projects in which our academic exercises of dismantlement—and reassembly—are complicit.
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