The problem of postmodernism in American economics: an historian’s perspective
from Robert R Locke
Like Marx, postmodernists stand Enlightenment rhetoric on its head in order the better to attack it. Whereas Marx talked about how the bourgeoisie created a superstructure of thought and moral teachings to protect its interest, the postmodernists discuss how dominant groups construct authoritative meta-narratives that ignore the live experience of the disadvantaged – women, slaves, minorities, nonwhite, and generally the poor – and leave the fact of their exploitation hidden until the rhetoric of the dominant dialogue is deconstructed.
Since orthodox economics is modernism par excellence, the rhetoric it employs is a prime example of what postmodernists are talking about. When the neo-classical economist states that “demand for labor varies inversely to wages,” he uses a neutral “scientific” language, a principle of economics. When he adds another principle, that “labor is mostly effectively utilized when workers compete for jobs in a free job market,” he uses a meta-narrative of the dominant capitalist class, which obscures the fact that these principles send actual working people on a race to the bottom in their competition with each other. If the scientists add a mathematical model of general equilibrium or rational choice theory in order to attain prescriptive rigor, they continue the meta-narrative of dominance under the guise of neutral mathematical functions.
The problem is that postmodernist analysis can easily be applied to discipline in the humanities, and that has primarily been the case. The postmodernist critique actually originated in philosophy and linguistics; it is and has always been preoccupied with language, with deconstruction of texts, not with mathematics, natural science, or engineering. It has mounted a determined attack primarily in the humanities – in history, in philosophy, in literary criticism, in religious studies and in other disciplines, which have been deeply affected by the force of the critic. But the modernists, whose conquest of economics was complete after World War II, were not shaken by the postmodernist movement. Postmodernism, despite David Ruccio and Jack Amariglio’s Post Modern Moment in Modern Economics, has been all but ignored in economic science. As postmodernism wrested control over disciplines in the humanities and “soft” social sciences, the number of university student majoring in them declined, while those in the management science and economics skyrocketed.
Although it undoubtedly ended the authoritative narrative (Lyotard) in the humanities when it introduced new voices into the dialogue, postmodernism also, inadvertently perhaps, weakened the humanities within the university. It has been, it critics in the humanities say, a negative if not destructive force because it has torn down the Enlightenment project, without putting any ethical norms in its place. It has constituted “an unjustified betrayal of the modernist project of building an ever better world.” (Peter Beyer, “Postmodernism and Religion, Catholic issues, p. 2, on internet http://home.adelphi.edu)
Consequently, none of the people who opposed modernism in management teaching, not the Post-Autistic Economists, not those in a humanities with diminished stature and funding, have been able effectively to challenge the amoral educational juggernaut of MBA business education and neoclassical economics in the American university. The business schools, schools of industrial administration, and departments of economics, educate students who are technically ready to engage in the creation of material wealth, but ill-prepared to foster a normative moral order that is necessary to solving the biggest problem mankind now faces – its proper distribution. Without this moral creativeness, the American university, whatever its cognitive glories, and they are many, can no longer give the world the leadership it needs.