The Glass Wall
from Edward Fullbrook
Last week in Paris I had two days of discussions on the state of economics, including two dinners in restaurants of the kind to which my budget does not usually run, with three economists, three trans-disciplinary physicists, one Silicone Valley billionaire, his hedge fund manager and his charitable foundation director who diplomatically refereed our dog fights. These included numerous squabbles on how mimetic theory should be applied to bubbles, as well as more venomous disagreements such as when in the first session one of the physicists, who appeared to loathe the other two, went for their jugulars, and the moment in the final session when the fund manager revealed himself to be a Freidmanite and pronounced me “superficial”.
Unquestionably I was the shabby man out. The sociology of this mini conference of the Imitatio Economic Forum bears significance to a point I wish to make. The other three economists and the three physicists all came from the upper most crust of world academia. Even the nature of the venue was beyond my previous experience. The École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and the École Polytechnique (Poly) are to France, only a bit more so, what Oxford and Cambridge are to the UK, and Harvard and Stanford are to the US. The venue was the private onsite apartment of the head of the ENS, the hyper elegant moral philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber. One of the economists, André Orléan, as well as being director of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique, belongs to the ENS, another and the organizer of our meetings, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, enjoys a dual affiliation with the Poly and Stanford, and the career of the third economist, Paul David, has spanned Harvard, Oxford and currently Stanford and the Poly. Two of the physicists are Stanford based, and the third, a young Russian – who after his assault vanished never to return – is at the Poly.
So why did they invite me? Two reasons. Firstly, I share an interest, although a more tangential one, in giving front-page consideration in economics to what I call “intersubjectivity” and they “mimetic theory”. The origin of their focus, and it is of much importance to them, is the oeuvre of the Stanford-based, French-American thinker René Girard. Using different vocabularies, we all seek to reverse, especially at its theoretical level, economics’ axiomatic exclusion of the obvious and increasingly paramount fact that the subjectivities, and hence behaviours, of economic agents are interdependent. The formal link between Girard’s thought and French economics extends back to 1982 when Orléan, now a sort of Krugman-like figure in France, and Michel Aglietta, also prominent, published La Violence de la monnaie. Out of their work and Dupuy’s grew a school which in several papers around the turn of century I introduced to the English language world as “the French Intersubjectivists”. And in 2002 Routledge published my large edited collection Intersubjectivity in Economics, a project which first took shape for me over lunch with Dupuy and Orléan.
Their second reason for inviting me was my work at internationalizing the Post-Autistic Economics Movement and developing the real-world economics review. Like all outsider schools, the French Intersubjectivists covet more influence. They hoped I could give them some pointers.
I also came with hopes, faint though they were. One suspects many heterodox economists dream not of the day when neoclassicalism is demoted to a supporting role but when it invites them to share the throne. Susceptibility to this fantasy stems from the failure of heterodoxies to combine their advances on neoclassicalism to create a new paradigm, including a narrative that integrates our renderings of the economic realm into a teachable and compelling real-world syllabus. This requires give and take. At this meeting in Paris I had hoped to interest the Intersubjectivists in the process of kick-starting the intersubjective process that would lead to the integration of our teachings. More than any other school, I thought them well endowed for the task. Besides having the intellectual apparatus to conceptualize the endeavour itself, they also possess an analytics of demand desperately needed by ecological economics, and after hours of bubble talk they left me in no doubt that their understanding of the Global Financial Collapse rivals Keynesians (real ones) and Minskites, such that even Steve Keen could gain insights from them.
Paris, despite the disappointment that I am about to relate, was a positive experience, not least because I enjoyed everyone’s company, including the hedgie’s. David was an inspiration, the billionaire showed himself possessed of serious good intentions, Dupuy and Orléan were as stimulating and charming as ten years ago and the two Stanford physicists and foundation director embedded themselves forever on the pleasure side of my memory. But with the possible exception of David [this week he assumes the presidency of the Western Economics Association International] I failed miserably, despite a detailed plan, to tempt the Intersubjectivists into engaging with other heterodox communities with the intent of bringing some cohesion to the stories we tell the world. But they did, ironically and perhaps with a touch of melancholy, like the following paragraph from my paper:
By definition, each heterodoxy has a major quarrel with orthodoxy, with each having its own point of divergence, and from which, even if it was not the origin of its founding, it now forms its primary self-identity. As a consequence not only does each heterodox school begin in isolation from other ones, but its primary point of reference remains the neoclassical mainstream. Historically there has been little interchange between different branches of heterodox economics, instead where inter-school exchange has taken place it has been mostly between neoclassical economics and individual heterodox schools. Upon reflection this is not as surprising as it sounds. Because the members of the various schools come to identify themselves in terms of their points of divergence from the dominant school they retain a working awareness of the common ground, usually quite large, that exists between them and neoclassicalism. Between heterodox schools, on the other hand, their common ground is their outsider status, so that their commonality relates mainly not to economic ideas but to the position of those ideas and their holders in a socio-cultural-economic structure. It is my experience that nearly all heterodox economists are more conversant with neoclassical economics than they are with any heterodox school other than their own.
It is that absence of intersubjective give and take, the failure of the real-world heterodoxies to develop between them a compelling common ground by accommodating their individual narratives to a larger one for the big screen of Economics 101 and the evening news, that guarantees to keep the now vulnerable neoclassicals in power. The Paris ensemble in part understood this. But, for the moment at least, they show no appetite for the required task. Understandably, they are more at ease with other upper crust academics than with renegades from the academic outback. Perhaps they are also mindful that billionaires generally prefer French cuffs to plain ones. Long ensconced in elite institutions and accustomed to their privileges and perks, like their well-remunerated intermezzo in Paris, their working-life identities resemble the guardians of the orthodoxy rather than embattled heterodox economists. With their offices literally opening onto the profession’s corridors of power, their school’s admission to the ruling mainstream appears never further away than an invitation to the room across the hall. But that accessibility is a fool’s illusion. A glass wall runs down the hall’s middle, and without the heterodox hoi polloi it will never be shattered.
25 June 2010