“Deconstructing the Canon: Political Economy and Post-Modernism”

European Conference on the History of Economics (ECHE)


“The History of Economics: Constructing the Canon”


17-19 April, 1997, Panteion University, Athens





“Deconstructing the Canon: Political Economy and Post-Modernism”


Stavros D. Mavroudeas

University of Macedonia

Department of Economic Studies

156 Egnatia St.

P.O.Box 1591

54006 Thessaloniki



tel.: +30 +31 – 891779

fax: +30 +31 – 891750

e-mail: smavro@macedonia.uom.gr





                The study of the historical creation and the theoretical substantial content of Political Economy is an area dominated by heterodox and Marxist interpretations. These interpretations generally focus on the emergence of capitalist economies and the subsequent need for a self-sufficient scientific theory of economic relations. On the basis of these objective foundations of the relation between economy and economic theory the construction of Political Economy is explained. An explicit social perspective (usually through a class theory) underlies this theorisation.

On the other hand, Orthodox Economics understand Political Economy as mere history of economic thought, i.e. as a succession of more or less personal contributions with rather limited relation to the socio-economic framework. The relation between economy and economic theory is theorised through a historicist and mainly a-social perspective, since for Orthodox Economics social classes have no relevance, politics are excluded and methodological individualism reigns.

Recently, and under the diffusion of influence of the post-modernist trend within social sciences, another line of interpretation appears to emerge. This interpretation – in contrast to both the heterodox and Marxist emphasis on socio-economic factors and the neo-classical historicist and a-social perspectives – advances a politicist, historicist and relativist view. Politicist and historicist since agents’ actions are considered as almost indeterminate and history as totally unbound and open. Relativist because on the basis of history’s openness (every outcome is possible) any subjective interpretation is justifiable. Politicist because the reasons for the emergence of political economy are to be found not in the socio-economic framework but mainly in the field of the political.

This paper criticises the post-modernist interpretations from a Marxist perspective and rejects their arguments as historically unfounded and logically inconsistent.



European Conference on the History of Economics (ECHE)


“The History of Economics: Constructing the Canon”


17-19 April, 1997, Panteion University, Athens





“Deconstructing the Canon: Political Economy and Post-Modernism”


Stavros D. Mavroudeas

University of Macedonia

Department of Economic Studies



I. Introduction

                If there is a canon in the interpretation of Political Economy, this is provided by heterodox and Marxist views and it is based on an objective socio-historical perspective. Indeed, the study of the historical creation and the theoretical substantial content of Political Economy is an area dominated by heterodox (institutionalist, post-Keynesian, neo-Ricardian, Radical Political Economy) and Marxist interpretations. There are important reasons for this: the main focal points of Political Economy (the primacy of production over relations of exchange, Value theory, social classes and the interrelationship between the economic and the political sphere) have been discarded by neo-classical Economics in favour of a theory of prices and an economics-of-exchange perspective. The original Political Economy framework has been retained only by the heterodox and Marxist traditions.

These interpretations generally focus on the emergence of capitalist economies and the subsequent need for a self-sufficient scientific theory of economic relations. On the basis of these objective foundations of the relation between economy and economic theory the construction of Political Economy is explained. An explicit social perspective (usually through a class theory) underlies this theorisation.

On the other hand, Orthodox Economics understand Political Economy as mere history of economic thought, i.e. as a succession of more or less personal contributions with rather limited relation to the socio-economic framework. The relation between economy and economic theory is theorised through a historicist and mainly a-social perspective, since for Orthodox Economics social classes have no relevance, politics are excluded and methodological individualism reigns.

Recently, and under the diffusion of influence of the post-modernist trend within social sciences, another line of interpretation appears to emerge. This interpretation – in contrast to both the heterodox and Marxist emphasis on socio-economic factors and the neo-classical historicist and a-social perspectives – advances a politicist, historicist and relativist view. Politicist and historicist since agents’ actions are considered as almost indeterminate and history is perceived as totally unbound and open. Relativist because on the basis of history’s openness (every outcome is possible) any subjective interpretation is justifiable.

Objective socio-economic factors are reduced to mere historical accidents, caused by concrete historical conjunctures. At the same time, discursive elements assume an overarching importance which is expressed in the supposed explanatory primacy of the politics. Politics are understood as an ideological-cum-semiological  terrain and explain the specific outcome of struggles in concrete historical conjunctures.

This conception of politics – in contrast with previous views relating politics to the theory of classes – emphasises ideological and discursive factors and downgrades (if not eliminates at all) social and class factors.

The overall result of this perspective is a politicist interpretation of Political Economy, because the reasons for the emergence of political economy are to be found not in the socio-economic framework but mainly in the field of the political (Meuret (1988), p.225).

In this sense, the post-modernist interpretation is truly a deconstruction of the political economic understanding of Political Economy. The fundamental socio-economic factors are being relativised and reduced to historical accidents. Politics are autonomised from socio-economic factors and, then, based on subjective ideological-discursive elements and upgraded as explanatory factor. Additionally, theory is autonomised from socio-economic evolution and related to medium-term and subjectivist political influences. The outcome is a deconstructed Political Economy, understood as the chance outcome of concrete historico-political conflicts.

This paper is divided in three parts. The first gives a general analysis of post-modernism and its relationship to post-structuralism and post-marxism. The second traces the impact of post-Modernism in economics. Finally, the third studies one of the major areas of post-modernisr influences in economics: that of the interpretation of its past and present. This area covers the dispute of the “canon” of interpretation, believed to be common in all “modernist” approaches (neo-classicism, Keynesianism, Marxism – and with the probable exception of certain Institutionalist trends). Meuret’s (1988) thesis of the political genealogy of Political Economy, provides a powerful version of the post-modernist perspective and proposes a re-interpretation of the creation of Political Economy. This paper criticises the post-modernist interpretations from a Marxist perspective and rejects their arguments as historically unfounded and logically inconsistent.



II. On Post-modernism

                Post-modernism is not a grand theory per se since its very definitional premise is a question of this type of theories. Lyotard (1984, p.xxiii) criticises sciences (or scientific discourses, in his theoretical framework) for tending to legitimise themselves with reference to some metadiscourse or «grand narrative», such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational subject or of the working class, or the creation of wealth. In contrast, he defines post-modern as «incredulity towards metanarratives» (Lyotard (1984), p.xxiv). According to Callinicos (1985, p.86), «postmodern science refuses any homogenising, terrorist metanarrative, proceeding by introducing new moves into old games, or inventing new games, so that they can be evaluated, not from the standpoint of some uniform truth, but on the basis of a pragmatics which is concerned with utterances’ effects, not their conformity to some overarching philosophical discourse». It is, therefore, more than obvious that the rejection of the general theoretical approach[1] is intrinsic to post-modernism. Of course, Lyotard’s grandiose declaration does not close the question for, if we set aside the post-modernist jargon, language tricks and mythology, the dialectics of life have the strange habit of often turning the content of a grand and pompous declaration into its exact opposite. Anti-theories usually become a mirrored image, albeit painted in black instead of white, of the very theories they claim to reject; and, seldom does their foremost definition by a sterile negation devoid them of any positive content. In this sense, post-modernism, by positing itself as the absolute opponent of the «grand narratives» becomes itself one; although it is a suis generis version, since it denies its very role.

The methodological counterpart of this post-modernist thesis is the method of decomposition or deconstruction and a blatant relativism and eclecticism. Its foundations lay on the so-called «post-modern» crisis. The course of the argument runs as follows. Traditional pre-industrial societies are supposed to be characterised by an organic cohesion of the life-world. On the other hand, modernity – identified with industrial society and dominated by technology – is ruptured by its differentiation into autonomous spheres (a thesis shared with representatives of the theory of post-industrial society). But it is able to retain its cohesion by virtue of an «imperialism» of the rationality and an ideology of progress, universality and continuity which takes the form of certain «grand narratives».

The dissolution of this cohesive element leads to the «postmodern» crisis and the eruption of discontinuity into the continuity of modernity. Furthermore, the precipitation of rationality together with the undermining of the role and the impact of material relations opens the way for the discourse. The discursive elements and the whole variety of possible interplays between signifier and signified become the centre of attention. Nothing can exist without its discursive reflection; the signified is inseparably bound to its signifier. Additionally, deconstruction questions even the correspondence between signifier and signified since, as Derrida argues, these two categories are interchangeable. The result is an open advocation of relativism or, in Platt’s (1989) terminology, of propositional undecidability. Deconstruction seeks to avoid any final propositional commitment because there are no essential determinations relating its objects of analysis to one another. Everything goes. This claim amounts to a total rejection of the existence of any essence. For example, for Derrida the existence and the eternal replication of difference makes any essential meaning undecidable[2]. Consequently, attempts, such as that of Platt, to apply post-modernism to the social sciences adopt notions like «recursion». Recursion, a term borrowed from computer science, refers to structures or networks which define themselves in progressively simpler terms. A recursive network is one in which distinctions of level can be made on the basis of repeated self-referencing operations. This relational but also indeterminate approach gives a typical example of post-modernist relativism. Finally, propositional undecidability is coupled with methodological individualism and an emphasis on mimesis, repetition and habits as the levers for the creation of discourses and social environments (although we must bear in mind that post-modernism refutes the concept of society as the all-embracing framework). The final mix is an extremely eclecticist recourse to historical relativism (see Raulet (1989), p.160).

Callinicos (1985), taking as criterion their method of theorising discourse, distinguishes two major post-modernist strands. The first, associated with Lyotard, draws heavily on a version of analytical philosophy of language (speech-act theory). The second strand is post-structuralism, which is itself divided into two sub-strands. On the one hand, there is Derrida’s textualism (characterised as the heir of German classical idealism) which denies the possibility of ever escaping the discursive; discourse has no extra-discursive referents and encompasses all the aspects of reality. On the other hand, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari propose a version of «worldly post-structuralism», which, in contrast to Derrida’s idealist theory, proposes an articulation of the discursive and the non-discursive. It is the «worldly post-structuralism» that provides most of the discreet links between certain newer non-orthodox «middle-range» theories[3], post-marxist theories and post-modernism (although Lyotard, based on his previous participation in the «Socialisme ou Barberie» group, advances a variant of post-marxism, as well).

«Worldly post-structuralism» meets the post-structuralist and post-marxist theories of another strand deriving from Althusserian structuralism and a mistreatment of Gramsci’s work. The typical and most representative exemplification of this strand is provided by Laclau and Mouffe (1985). The fallacy of this approach has been exhibited in a number of critiques, of which the most prominent are those of Wood (1986) and Geras (1987). However, it is necessary to point out certain aspects of these theories which operate as their discrete links with post­-modernism.

To start with, the scapegoat of «essentialism», especially in the form of the supposed Marxist economism, is once again ceremoniously thrown in the fire. Consequently, structural relations, and especially class relations, are purged, downgraded or relativised and, instead, discourse assumes explanatory primacy. There are no such things as material and class positions and actions, but only discursively constructed ideas about them. As Wood (1986, p.62) remarks:

In this, Laclau and Mouffe have followed the now familiar trajectory from structuralism to post-structuralism – though they seem uncertain whether the post-structuralist dissolution of reality into discourse can be regarded as a general law of history (as it were) or whether it is only in the modern age, and particularly with the advent of «industrial society», that social reality has dematerialized and become susceptible to discursive construction.

Anderson (1988, p.40-55) has given a very lucid and accurate account of the common descent and the theoretical and personal continuity which links structuralism to post-structuralism. He delineates three major themes that established, in successive stages, the trajectory from structuralism to post-structuralism. Firstly, the originating discipline from which structuralism drew virtually all of its concepts, and then extending them to all the major structures of society, was linguistics; leading, thus, to what Anderson terms as the exhortation of language. Secondly, this absolutization of language led to the attenuation of truth. The precarious balance between the signifier and the signified, inherent in structuralist linguistics, severed any possibility of truth as a correspondence of propositions to reality. This, in return, implied a critical weakening of the status of causality. «Causality, even when granted admission, never acquires cogent centrality on the terrain of structuralist analysis» (Anderson (1988, p.50). The result of this process was the randomization of history. Since causality is weakened, an unbridgeable gulf exists between the general laws and causes and the actual events. So, there is the paradoxical result that a total initial determinism ends in the reinstatement of an absolute final contingency. All these three major themes, described by Anderson, lay at the heart of the notorious structure-subject riddle and already led the way to post-structuralism. It takes only the unavoidable questioning of the validity and the weight of the distinction between signifier and signified in order to detonate a chain reaction leading to post-structuralism. In a nutshell, the way that structuralism formulated, and believed it had solved, this riddle contained the seeds for a subsequent capsize into its antithesis; post-structuralism proper is born.

As Wood (1985) has shown, this trajectory from structuralism to post-structuralism has assumed flesh and bones in the journey of certain intellectuals from Althusserianism to post-marxism; she, moreover, identifies Poulantzas as their forerunner. For them the explanatory primacy of discourse is based on the autonomisation of ideology and politics from the economy. This is supplemented with the randomisation of history and politics. The first implies that the discursive elements cease to be determined, even in the last instance (according to the Althusserian past of these writers), by the economy. This is part and parcel of their anti-essentialist and anti-reductionist drive and their quest for «openness» and an «unsutured» theory. On the other hand, the randomisation of history and politics initiates a recourse to historicism. The result is an awkward hybrid of (implicit) absolute determinism and absolute contingency, with the emphasis on the latter. Following their Althusserian structuralist past, Laclau and Mouffe theorise structures and laws in a rigid, static and non-dialectical way (worthy, indeed, of mechanistic determinism) which, in return, enables them – but now under the new banner of post-structuralism -to reject them in favour of the indeterminacy of the historically specific.



III. Post-modernism, Economics and Political Economy

                It is only recently that the post-modernist trend appeared to make inroads in the field of economics. This is not strange since for post-modernism in social sciences the study-area of the economy has been considered as the basis of the socio-economic relations in all the so-called modernist discourses (neo-classicism, Marxism etc.). Post-modernism rejected this «essentialist» dominance of the economic relations.

Of course, there are unbridgeable differences between the Marxian perspective (as well as that of the Classical Political Economy) and that of neo-classical Economics.

The Marxian Critique of Political Economy considers socio-economic relations as an unseparable whole, which in bourgeois society is being fetishistically separated in the spheres of economics and politics. Within this unseparable whole social relations securing the creation of social wealth and the material reproduction of society (i.e. the moment of production and its subsequent moments of circulation/exchange and distribution) have a determining primacy over non-productive spheres of social activities. However, the latter  exert feedback influences of the former. From the theoretical aspect, the study of the socio-economic relations in production, exchange and distribution constitute the basis on which the study of the rest of the socio-economic relations (ideological, political etc.) should be studied. In this sense the Marxian Critique studies economic relations in direct but also structured connection to social and political relations. The same holds for the Classical Political Economy of Smith and Ricardo, since – by definition – it studies economic relations as social relations.

On the contrary, Economics separate artificially «economic» relations from social and political relations. Moreover, they study as «economic» relations primarily those activities that arise in exchange (i.e. market relations). However, these «economic» relations (i.e. the market) are being considered the basis of the social and political relations – which are being studied by separate scientific branches. Post-modernism conflates unjustly those two opposing perspectives under the common accusation of economism.

The recent post-modernist inroads in economics may be grouped in three broad theoretical categories:

1) A middle-of-the-road trend, organised in the area of Radical Political Economy around the remnants of the newer non-orthodox “middle-range” approaches (Regulation, Flexible Specialisation).

2) A current deriving from the Althusserian tradition (Amariglio-Ruccio (1994), Callari-Cullenberg-Biewener (1994)).

3) A host of authors flowing from the Keynesian, post-Keynesian, Institutionalist but also from heterodox neo-classical trends (Samuels (1990, 1991), Mirowski(1991), McCloskey (1985), (Klamer (1988), Weintraub (1991)).


The newer non-orthodox “middle-range” theories

                The first current adopts influences from the “worldly post-structuralist” strand. It maintains that a radical historical change has taken place and we live in  a new post-modern era of capitalism (post-Fordism, second industrial divide etc.). In this sense post-modernist elements in theory are the corollary of real changes rather than simply a theoretical perspective. Post-structuralism and post-marxism provide the links between the new intellectual fashion of post-modernism and the Regulation Approach, and possibly certain other newer non-­orthodox «middle-range» theories.

These theories are based on some mediating ground, which is usually provided in the form of the structure­-subject relationship and the relation between economy, politics and ideology. Furthermore, it is often accompanied with a more or less covert recourse to methodological individualism, as a solution to the structure-subject riddle. The newer non-orthodox «middle-range» approaches supply the ideal ground for such an experiment. For them, the problem of the structure-subject is crucial, not only because it is an important problem as such, but also because it affects their general-theoretic requirements. In addition, theoretical and conceptual relativism, multi-causality, eclecticism, empiricism and historicism lay at the very heart of their theoretical systems. Finally, the majority of their representatives share the same social and intellectual past with the proponents of post-modernism and post-marxism. Post-­structuralism and post-marxism, apart from being the new trend, appears to solve many of their broader referential problems.

For example, Lash (1990), proposing a political economy of post-modernism, believes that a «regime of signification» is co-articulated with a «regime of accumulation». On this basis, he defines the new restructured form of capital accumulation as «post-fordism» or «disorganised capitalism», which is characterised by a turn from mass production and consumption to the services and information economy, flexible production and specialised consumption. With regard to the social aspect, the working-class is being shrinked and fragmented, resistance is apportioned to decentralised and multi-collective (inter-class) social movements and individualism returns. Additionally, Lash argues that this new (post-fordist) regime of accumulation is being transformed with accelerating rhythms to a regime of signification, because both the means and the forces of production acquire an increasingly cultural – rather than strictly economic – hue. The forces of production are no longer mediated by the material means of production but constitute issues of discourse and communication between management and workers. Lash suggests that the wide-spread implementation of quality circles and team briefings are obvious and undeniable proofs of this alleged transformation. For the critical reader it is obvious that all these theoretical elements are loans from the Regulation Approach and the Flexible Specialisation theory. In addition references to the neo-classical institutionalism of Williamson and the theory of post-industrial society of Bell are equally present.

Another typical example is provided by the post-marxism of Laclau and Mouffe. When they attempt to give a solitary and vague economic reference to their elaborations they invoke the regimes of accumulation.

This does not mean that the Regulation Approach or any other newer non-orthodox «middle-range» theory adhere heart and soul to post-modernism and/or post-marxism. On the contrary, they represent a middle-of-the-road choice. In the regulationist tradition Lipietz introduces shyly the concept of the Universe of Discursive and Political Representations as a counterpart for the usual concepts of the Regime of Accumulation and the Mode of Regulation. Aglietta – in his latest works – moves further to discard the initial regulationist  theory and adopts Foucault’s theory of power, Baudrillard’s historical account and Girard’s methodology as his new framework.

On the other hand the Flexible Specialisation theory adopts an even more relativised, historicist perspective and from that point of view argues for its superiority against Regulation (Hirst-Zeitlin (1991)). Mass production and its flexible successor are accidental historical creations rather than inherent necessities of capitalism (Sabel-Zeitlin (1985)). The saturation of mass standardised products’ markets led to a change in consumer preferences and the creation of market niches based on quality characteristics. Additionally, the exhaustion of Fordist technical capabilities and the crisis of the 1970s led to the re-emergence of flexible small-scale production. This combination is crystalised in the creation of a new technological paradigm. based on flexible, programmable machinery able to respond swiftly to demand changes, using multi-skilled workers and in a context of co-operation and competition exemplified by the modern day neo-Marshallian industrial districts. The result is the new era of Flexible Specialisation. It is interesting that the driving force in these developments is considered the sphere of consumption and its «liberation» from supply-side constraints. A true consumer-sovereignty appears to reign and furthermore consumer preferences are formed on the basis of status and discursive elements. Curiously enough Baudrillard’s post-modernist theory is not invoked.


Post-Althusserian post-modernism

                There is also a current deriving from the Althusserian tradition, which ascribes explicitly to post-modernism. It is represented by authors around the Rethinking Marxism U.S. journal. It appears to have certain links with the British Althusserian branch around the Economy & Society journal, although the latter is closely associated with the Flexible Specialisation thesis (see Hirst-Zeitlin’s (1991) critique of Regulation and their exclamation of the superiority of Flexible Specialisation). For example, Amariglio-Ruccio (1994) maintain that their rejection of the «essentialism of the market» – that, according to them, can be found in both Marxism and Hayekian liberalism (and indeed of many other types of essentialism as well) – is similar to that of Hindess (1987).

This current does not accept the notion of a post-modern epoch (contrary to Laclau-Mouffe, who also stem from the Althusserian tradition). Amariglio-Ruccio (1994) reject the identification of the character of the economic theory with the issue of contemporary economic processes[4]. Instead, they try to propose a version of post-modern Marxism as a general theory. They criticise neo-classical, Keynesian and Marxist theories for their common foundational axes, namely (a) order (a strict causal determinism and ultimate orderly processes), (b) centering (the definition of the composition and nature of the economic subject as rational), (c) certainty (the purge of uncertainty and openness). They argue that the opposite poles (i.e. disorder, decentering and uncertainty respectively) should be introduced though a post-modern Marxist theory. Marx’s analysis is translated in terms of historical conjectures and contingencies; and, consequently, laws of motion and necessity are discarded. Then the Althusserian theory of ideology and his methodology of overdetermination are introduced. The first is supposed to enable the social construction of subjects and their discursive nature. The notion of overdetermination and the process without a subject is taken to imply a radical contingency and uncertainty about socio-economic processes.

The post-Althusserian project of the creation of a post-modern Marxism is inherently contradictory since post-modernism rejects general theory in principle. Additionally, on the one hand due reference is paid to post-structuralism but, on the other hand, the Althusserian structuralist approach of a process without subject is adopted. This makes the whole scheme inherently inconsistent. It is true – as Anderson has pointed out – that latent links exist between the prima facie opposite trends of structuralism and post-structuralism. But this does not make the trajectory from the one to the other less contradictory, Finally, the Althusserian theory of ideology was based on the theory of theoretical practice. According to the latter the scientificity or truth of thought is judged by the purely internal criteria of theoretical practice, not by its dialectical relationship to the concrete reality. The result of this thesis is the crude counterposition of an empiricist understood reality and a theory riddled with scientism. In a way, the Althusserian purge of


dialectics and its substitution with a structuralist formalism ended up with a version of the relation between reality and theory on the same lines with the positivist dichotomy «model-real world». It is true, on the other hand, that at the same time it opened the floodgates for subsequent positions which – while keeping the separation between model and real world – they questioned the objectivity of the former and relativised even more its content. In the post-Althusserian post-modernism not only theory is separated from reality but also there are no «internal» criteria for the judgment of scientific truth. But, although Althusserianism opened these gates there was a lot of work needed in order to pass them. This was not Althusser’s doing but that of his epigones. In this sense, the post-Althusserian invocation of L.Althusser as a «post-modern» thinker (Ruccio (1991), p.500) is completely unfounded.


Heterodox, Keynesian and Institutionalist post-modernists

                Finally, there is                 a large host of writers stemming from the traditions of the Economics who begin by questioning the objectivity of economic theory. In contrast, they stress the social construction of theory as discourse, the decentering of the subject (in the sense that multiple subject-positions exist) and that subjectivity is not prior to but constituted by systems of language, power and other social factors. Therefore, scientific objects are always preinterpreted and science cannot be separated from rhetoric. Hence, value judgments cannot be purged from theory in the way orthodox Economics – via the distinction between normative and positive economics – do. Finally, from this perspective, they question traditional scientific boundaries in the social sciences.

It seems that this diverse host of writers is quite close – although without explicit reference – to the textualist post-modernism. in the sense that they concentrate on discursive elements. Extra-discursive referents are not employed or appear to have almost no consequence.

Their starting point is the social construction of economic subjects[5]. Assaulting neo-classical orthodoxy, they maintain that economic theories are socially constructed and non-value free. In this way the purported neo-classical monopoly of truthfulness, impartiality and objectivity is negated. On the contrary, many different theoretical perspectives can exist within economic science, depending upon different ethical (value) judgments. However, there are no specific criteria for judging the truthfulness of each theory. Additionally, the social construction of the subjects is equally relativised and understood in mere political terms. Whereas Marxism recognises the social construction of subjects but bases this construction upon the social division of labour and the subsequent class structure, for post-modernists this «imperialism» of the economic – and even more of the sphere of production – is unacceptable. Instead, they choose more fluid, short-term and relativist referents which enable the acclaimed openendedness and indeterminacy of their theory. Post-modernists override the scientific boundaries but without transforming their interrelationship. «Politics» are added rather than organically linked to «economics». The only major change is that both are discursively understood. In the cases where an extra-discursive is employed, this is usual a theory of power not generated by socio-economic relations in the production of social wealth (as in Marxism) but by the inherent nature and desires of mankind (e.g. Foucault).

Samuels (1996) provides a representative account of this perspective. Although he does not reject the importance of truth (o.p.p.114), he posits that the social construction of truth leads to a multiplicity rather than homogeneity of truth (o.p.p.115). Therefore, all epistemological, ontological and theoretical positions are functional with regard to the reconstruction of extant reality. This reconstruction is almost solely a discursive matter. Hence, vast opportunities for selective perception exist (o.p.p.117). These arguments hold even more forcefully in social sciences, which – most notably economics – are systems of belief and modes of discourse and not solely epistemological phenomena (Samuels (1991), p.516). The social construction of knowledge-belief (the control of language), in return,  organises the control of the definition of reality. Consequently, it has an inexorable political nature (o.p.p.517). It is indicative how he understands this political nature: it is when the mode of discourse (i.e. selective perception) is combined with hierarchical social structures (o.p.p.519). The prioritisation of the characteristic «hierarchical» is telling. Politics are understood as mere struggle for power and hierarchy. This struggle is autonomised from the economy and even overimposed on the latter.


IV. A political genealogy of Political Economy?

Meuret’s (1988) «Political genealogy of political economy» is an interesting attempt to propose a post-modernist interpretation of the birth and the establishment of Political Economy. Meuret’s framework is based on a combination of Foucault’s theory of knowledge (as a programme of truth but without calling into question its actual truthfulness) and the Annales economic historiography. His main thesis is that Political Economy became the dominant discourse because it constructed a better political framework for the co-existence of capital, state and those trying to protect themselves from their power. Thus, the reasons for the emergence of Political Economy are to be found in the field of the political rather than that of the economic. It is indicative that, for Meuret, the final crisis of the ancien regime (the last stage of the feudal system) is caused mainly by political reasons; and particularly political ideological and discursive factors.

Meuret begins his essay by adopting Foucault’s savoir and Veyne’s “programme of truth” perspective, within which a theory is posited as a discourse autonomised from and non-determined by other spheres of social activities. Therefore, a particular theoretical discourse should not lay claim to truthfulness. The very term genealogy, employed by Meuret, denotes that his account of the construction and establishment of Political Economy does not pose the claim of truthfulness. Then the habitual post-modernist jargon of discourse, representations, utterances, rhetoric (op.p.241) etc. is employed in his study. A major element of his analysis is the way in which political theories and economic representations are linked. He argues that economic and political representations stand on an equal par and they reciprocally determine how men agree on a common perception of the world in order to inhabit it together. The question is why these – or only these two – fields of discursive representations exist.

His second theoretical pillar is his definitional framework and the subsequent historical account of the evolution of modern societies. Both these elements are adopted from the school of the Annales. He defines, following Braudel, three major actors: capitalism, the state, and the public.

Capitalism is not the understood as a mode of production (founded on the private ownership of the means of production and the subsequent transformation of labour-power to a commodity) but as that economic organisation in which the indispensable exchange of necessary commodities is organised on the basis of the very minimum of necessary regulations (o.p.p.227). Capitalism’s actors are all those – merchants, industrialists, landowners – “who conduct themselves according to its rules, who play its game” (o.p.p.227). This definition of capitalism confines it to a mere mode of exchange relations. This understanding has critical consequences in Meuret’s analysis. Additionally, there is nothing to explain why these three figures (who correspond to the three of the four basic fractions of capital – merchant, industrial, landowning, money capital – are his sole actors. Then, the economy is defined as “sometimes all the exchanges of a given society, sometimes that part which remains outside the capitalist game” (o.p.p.227). Again here the economy appears mainly as an organisation of exchange. When a non-capitalist, in Meuret’s terms – and non-exchange (?) – part is included, this cannot be explained, since the economy is confined to exchange relations and production is absent.

Then the state is taken as an almost self-defined concept. This conception, also, fails to grasp the state as a derivative of the socio-economic organisation and not as a primary agent. Consequently, it fails also to understand the changes in the nature of state from one socio-economic system to the other. In his analysis Meuret cannot distinguish between the absolutist state of the last era of feudalism and the capitalist state.

Finally, the public is defined as “all citizens with the power to repudiate the state to the extent that they exercise this power… It is not a sociological but a political reality: a set of opinions, attitudes and propositions, of tacit resistances and acceptances which do or do not allow a governmental apparatus to function” (o.p.p.228). Again this term is highly problematic. The notion of citizen has a different content under different socio-economic systems (e.g. in a slave-owning city-state, in capitalism). Furthermore, it limits opinions and struggles only to those in relation to the state. There are no relations of struggle within the socio-economic structure, even if these are considered of equal validity to those in relation to the state.

Meuret’s definitions fail to understood politics and political power as a truly social process. Additionally, he fails to establish them on the problem of production and distribution of social wealth. This failure derives from both the neglect of the sphere of production (and the socio-economic relations of production) and the subsequent rejection of the concept of social classes (defined on the basis of these socio-economic relations of production). The result is a more or less open recourse to methodological individualism: “men agree on a way of perceiving the world in order to inhabit it together, economically and politically” (o.p.p.228).

On the other hand, his historical account of the development of modern (capitalist) economies fails to distinguish rigorously from the preceding ancien regime and also cannot explain the conflictual process of development of capitalism from within this regime.

A final point is necessary with regard to the adoption within Meuret’s post-modernist account of the Annales’ historical and definitional framework. The school of Annales or of the New French History dominated the French intellectual scene for quite a long time, since its emergence in 1929, and continues to have an imposing presence. Its linkage to post-modernism sounds curious enough, since it has been known for its emphasis on structures rather than agents. It focuses on the economic background of history, instead of the political events, and it pursues an inter-disciplinary approach, transcending the boundaries between the scientific branches. Especially Duby and Braudel emphasise the perennial character of the heavy structures («structures lourdes»). The impact of these structures is expressed through the norms levied on daily life which confine the space of liberty allowed for initiatives to individuals and groups.

However, the Annales passed through several phases of evolution[6]. It is the second period of the Annales, which begun after the 2nd WW. and revolved around Braudel’s works, that emphasises structure. The theses of the first period of the Annales (expressed in the works of Bloch and Febvre) came under the attack of the then predominant structuralism. Braudel answered this attack by incorporating part of the structuralist project. The concept of structure was appropriated, if not as a conceptual framework, at least as a descriptive notion. The structure was seen as embodied in the beginning of the period of long duration. In Braudel’s (1969) words, «historical structures are visible, detectable, and to a certain extent measurable: duration is their measure». Thus, there was a shift to a historical approach that privileged the long duration and undermined specific events.

Meuret adopts from the Annales’ perspective (a) the interdisciplinary framework and (b) its terminology. On the other hand, he discards their emphasis on economic relations and the structuralism of the second period.

Based on the above, Meuret advances his political genealogy because he maintains that the reasons for the emergence of Political Economy are to be found in the field of the political. He defines Political Economy as a discourse and, moreover, as the governmental discourse of the modern world (o.p.p.227). because it was able to construct a superior political framework for the co-existence of capital, state and those trying to protect themselves from their power. Political Economy’s exemplary version is found in A.Smith. However, Political Economy’s superiority over other discourses – either in the field of Political Theory or in pre-classical economic theories – is not based on its theoretical status only but it was crucially reinforced by a particular event, the industrial revolution (o.p.p.247). In this sense, the predominance of Political Economy over other discourses does not derive from its truthfulness but from its programmatic value (as a prescription for actions) in relation to external events. This is a clear-cut post-modernist argument, which however, fails to explain why this crucial external referent – the industrial revolution – has taken place. If the latter was a necessary feature of capitalism – as Marx thought – this creates problems to Meuret’s production-less understanding of capitalism.

Meuret proposes a four-phases periodisation of the political genealogy of Political Economy, which is founded on the relation between representations of the economy and its congruence with the political system:

(a) the period of absolutism (till 1680), where the state is accepted as the legitimate regulator of market activities in order to guarantee people’s happiness and the state strength

(b) absolutism’s crisis of legitimacy of the state (18th century), which is attributed to political reasons

(c)18th century pre-classical search (Physiocrats etc.) for a redefinition of the role and the legitimacy of the state

(d) A.Smith’s solution as the discourse of Political Economy, in which the state and market relations are equally domesticated (in the sense that are mutual defined on a national (domestic) basis and the second operates with minimum regulations and is the sole responsible for social wealth whereas the first should overlook and guarantee this function)[7].

This account is based on political and historically accidental factors plus the primacy of the discursive elements. The lack of any reference to classes and social relations of production creates significant explanatory problems. For example, the era of mercantilism – as the transition period when one element of the feudal system (the state of absolute monarchy) allied with the precursors of capitalism (merchant capital) in order to overcome the feudal socio-economic fragmentation – loses any significance. Equally, the construction of Political Economy is confined merely to the redefinition of the role of the state and of the modus operadi of market. Crucial elements of the Smithian theory, such as Value theory, the role of the division of labour, the problem of the source of social wealth appear to play no role. In this understanding of Political Economy is highly questionable if D.Ricardo – who is usually considered as the most coherent representative of Political Economy and who paid less attention to philosophical and political problems and focused on a production-based Value theory – has any place at all. In contrast, a different approach – deriving the evolution of the science of economics from socio-economic developments and founding them primarily – but not exclusively – to the sphere of production can provide a better understanding of the emergence of Political Economy: (a) why at a certain historical epoch became necessary the construction of an autonomous science of economic relations, (b) why its first version took the form of Political Economy  and (c) why Political Economy retreated and Economics took its place as the dominant version of a science of economic relations.



V. Conclusions


Post-modernism attempts, legitimately, to dispute the supposed socially-neutral and objective character of Economics. However, in disputing this as a particular socially-constructed discourse it rejects the existence of a criterion of truthfulness. Additionally, this social construction is reduced to an autonomised sphere of politics. In contrast, for Marx there is such a criterion for choosing between competing socially-constructed perspectives: labour and the right to distribution of the producers of social wealth. Moreover, the Marxian social-construction begins from the production of social wealth and from that generates the political-form as an organic but also determinate derivative. Post-modernism by creating an imaginary world where only words, texts and discursive elements exist and production is annihilated, recourses to a renovated version of idealism.

Political Economy and its Marxian Critique have provided much more promising routes in order to explain historical reality and act within it.





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[1]                      The general or «grand theory» approach constructs theories covering the whole spectrum, from the more abstract laws and concepts to the empirical analysis within a unified framework.

[2]                      Derrida (1981, p.219) defines undecidability as follows:

An undecidable proposition, as Godel demonstrated in 1931, is a proposition which, given a set of axioms governing a multiplicity, is neither an analytical nor deductive consequence of those axioms, nor in contradiction with them, neither true nor false with respect to those axioms.

[3]                      The breed of the «middle-range» theories rejects abstract general laws and the necessity of a general theory which it substitutes with intermediate concepts with an almost immediate identification with the most concrete phenomena or with empirical observations believed to be so (stylised «facts»).

The newer non-orthodox «middle-range» theories are a group of theories that predominated – and indeed characterised – the so-called Radical Political Economy after the 1970s. Approaches such as the French Regulation (Aglietta (1979), Lipietz (1983)), the American Social Structures of Accumulation (Reich-Edwards-Gordon (1982)) and the Flexible Specialisation thesis (Piore-Sabel (1984)) are typical representatives of this trend.

[4]                      Amariglio-Ruccio (1994, p.9) dispute as unfounded and simplistic the supposed emergence of «consumerism».

[5]                      Works associated with the so-called new social movements (e.g.  feminist economics) take also part in the project of the «social construction: of economic categories. In many cases they adopt the post-modernist perspective.

[6]                      For an exposition of its theory, a periodisation and also a critique of the school of Annales, see Dosse (1986).

[7]                      Meuret recognises correctly that for Smith the state has a role in the economy.


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