Air travel offers an opportunity to catch up on one’s reading. In my case, this means Marion Fourcade’s “Economics: A View from Below”, which had been sitting in my pile for at least two long weeks. For those wondering about her title, she has been toying for several years with the actual/mock inferiority felt by other disciplines, such as her own sociology, in the face of the pretensions, authority and worldly success of economics.
This essay is another dancing, enigmatic exploration of this apparently stable dominance, one that survives public embarrassment, like the backwash against its claimed expertise after 2008, and internal fissures. She plays with Hayek, who denounced economists for their empty pretense of knowledge, and sports with contemporary eminences such as Ricardo Caballero, who have similar objections to the intellectual simulacrum that passes for economic insight.
To cut to the chase and save you from a more detailed reading if you’re not so inclined, Fourcade goes part of the way with Hayek, but recognizes that the critique of pretense is a gun that points in all directions, since there is no position of “postense” from which to aim it. She, like many others, sees the shared worldview and methodology of economics as the source of its strength, the reason why the discipline can prosper and expand its influence even as it hosts bitter debates among its practitioners; in fact, its capacity to cohere despite apparent fracturing is exactly its greatest asset. She also sees the discipline’s internal discord reflecting a dialectic between altering the world as a significant participant in it and interpreting it as a reflective bystander—not so different from a priesthood if one recognizes both aspects of what it means to be priestly. Economics does not converge on consensus because of the dynamic relationship between particular understandings of economic and political life and the ensuing events created by those understandings that themselves become objects of study.
Along the way, Fourcade demonstrates a tendency to be conventional. Foucault is invoked in a big way, for instance, even though it is now becoming apparent she profoundly misread classical and more modern political economy—a trajectory that ended up as utterly deluded cheerleading for neoliberalism. We also read that Keynesianism is a response to economic disorder stemming from fixed prices (getting JMK’s critique of his orthodox opponents exactly backwards) and German ordoliberal macroeconomics reflects the country’s experience with hyperinflation (rather than the hyper-austerity that ushered in Hitler). I get the impression that Fourcade’s method is to critique the conventional wisdom of particular academic specializations by juxtaposing them with the conventional wisdom of others.