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Culture beyond capitalism

from David Ruccio

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montréal.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.


*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.

  1. robert locke
    August 1, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    You did not have to wait for Piketty to find culture. One of my fields for my Phd qualifyings was the 19th century French novel, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Hugo, Zola, Maupassant, etc. read to give me insight into 19th century French social history. And other novels I have read for the same purpose, Fontana, Dickens, Jane Austen, etc. All read in the 1950s & 1960s, while at the same time reading institutional economic history, Schmoller, Sombart, Max Weber, Veblen, etc. In the 1950s the gulf that opened up between neoclassical economics, econometrics, and history departments had not yet quite taken place. But it did in the reformation of education in economics in the 1970s. That is what economists are perhaps, trying to repair now, but I am not convinced.

  2. Alan
    August 1, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Culture was never off the agenda in economic anthropology. Why don’t economists pay any attention to anthropologists? Maybe because they don’t like what anthropologists have had to say on the matter of economics for the last 100 years

    See for example: Marshall Sahlins: On the culture of material value and the cosmography of riches. And while Piketty may seem like a revolutionary in economics, anthropologists see “a mainstream economist in the classic marginalist tradition of mathematical economics”. See Chris Gregory The Three Faces of Thomas Piketty: Reflections on a #1 Best-Seller.

    Further digging into his text reveals that the respect Picketty pays anthropologists such as Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu and Godelier is a mere gesture. He does not refer to them in his bibliography and obviously has no understanding of economic anthropology and of how the tribes and peasants of yesteryear were articulated with the dominant capitalist mode of production. Polanyi was the first economic historian to take this problem seriously in his 1944 classic The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time. The old trichotomy of tribes, peasant and capitalist—conceptualised as reciprocity, redistribution and money-making by Polanyi—has morphed into an opposition between the plutocracy and the precariat today. Piketty makes no attempt to come to terms with Polanyi or the attempts that have been made to bring him up to date. How can any self-respecting economic historian in the Political Economy tradition write about the economic history of global capitalism over the past 200 years without mentioning Polanyi? This is a bit like a physicist writing about relativity theory without mentioning Einstein.

    • August 2, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      Alan, excellent points. I’m a social and cultural anthropologist. Anthropology is usually identified as the “study of humans.” More specifically of one species of human, Homo Sapiens. There is no aspect of Homo Sapiens beyond the study of Anthropologists. Physical anthropologists study the physical evolution of the species. While social and cultural anthropologists study culture. Usually, culture is identified as Homo Sapiens’ unique ability to conceive, create, and communicate in symbols. But it’s much more than this. The historian Yuval Noah Harari explains this ‘more’ in this way, none of the things that make up the lives of Homo Sapiens exists outside the stories these people invent and tell one another. “There are no gods in the universe [and no universe], no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common ‘imagination’ of human beings.” (emphasis added) Succinctly put, culture is human imagination. Something that no other species possess. Expressed in symbols, surely. But also in directly physical ways such as combat, love, marriage, feuds, pride, etc. Economists ignore most of this. And they certainly have little use for imagination. In this way, they ignore most of what makes humans human. And human life, human life. They make little effort to study or understand economic stories and the imagination that creates them. They study and write about tangential things, like mathematics and logical framing. These stories, while certainly important don’t reveal how and why humans create economies and economic actions. Sort of like studying wars to understand love. To study and understand love eventually we must look at love stories.

      • Alan
        August 2, 2017 at 10:09 pm

        I suspect anthropology and neoclassical economics can never engage intellectually with each other. It would be like combining matter and anti-mater. They exist in parallel intellectual universes where the understanding of human behavior in one completely and totally contradicts the other.

      • August 3, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        Alan, you may be correct. The one thing certain about human culture is it’s complex. If you ignore the complexities, this is neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics, following Adam Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus assumes that each human is a free actor, autonomous and engaged in transparent market actions ultimately derived from a barter economy (individualism). As such human freedom is only (or should be) constrained by freely entered contractual obligations, which together ultimately comprise society. They teach us about the ‘social contract’ which restrains us collectively from a previous existence of ‘nature red in tooth and claw.’ This ‘free human’ is motivated by a desire to maximize its own self-interest, only mediated by the contractual obligations just explained. Together this creates a virtuous circle of maximum achievement for humans. This vision is summed in works such as Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” and Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness.” This is wholly an a-historical view and provides no place for anything other than contractual human communities. This way of life is much like enjoying a melon by eating the skin and discarding the fruit. But its dominance over current human culture is matched only by the medieval church and the communism of the USSR. Both examples give us some glimpse of what to expect if the dominance of neoclassical economics continues and grows.

      • robert locke
        August 3, 2017 at 3:00 pm

        Talking about parallel intellectual universes. I once spent a week dining every evening with A.J. Ayer on the Bremen, crossing the Atlantic westwards (He was on his way to Harvard to give the William James lecture). In one conversation, he told me that on the European continent philosophy was dead. Having just finished a year in Germany, where people were discussing the Frankfurter school, and J. Habermas especially, I was taken aback. So I asked him about Habermas. He answered: “Who? Never Heard of Him” Do you think he was pulling my leg? Continental thinkers have had great influence on Americans, but not in certain fields, like philosophy and economics.

      • August 4, 2017 at 9:57 am

        Robert, every professional specializes. Ayer apparently had not pushed his specialization in the direction of Habermas or the Frankfurter school. Pulling your leg? Perhaps. Although I never asked, I am willing to wager that few of my clinical psychology profs. trained in Maslow, Rogers, Adler, etc. had little or even no knowledge of Freud.

      • Alan
        August 3, 2017 at 5:04 pm

        I actually think there is a conversation to be had between anthropology and Adam Smith. Anthropologists, to their discredit, have in the past often attacked Smith because they took the founding mythology of 20th C. economics (Samuelson, the Chicago Law and Economics School, et al.) at face value and because Polanyi got Smith wrong. As Gregory, who trained as an economist and then switched to anthropology, argues Smith actually preempted much of economic anthropology (Malinowski through Mauss to Sahlins). He writes that “economic anthropology is the bastard offspring of this unacknowledged father”. The real ire of anthropology, and many others besides, should be turned on Bentham and his offspring.

        See Gregory, Chris A. “On Money Debt and Morality: Some Reflections on the Contribution of Economic Anthropology.” Social Anthropology 20, no. 4 (November 1, 2012): 380–96.

      • August 4, 2017 at 12:21 pm

        I agree that anthropologists have misunderstood and mis-labeled Adam Smith and his views on economics and culture. They failed to follow their own rules about answering questions with ethnographic research. Smith clearly understood that economics is merely one area of human culture and that it’s reality or lack thereof was given it from culture, not the reverse. Still, however, today there is no good starting point for talks between anthropologists and economists. Mainly because economists begin from a certain way of life that in their view is unchallengeable as the proper basis of human society. Difficult to discuss changing perfection with anyone, even anthropologists.

  3. August 1, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    Thank you for this rich post.

    Orthodox economists are people living in whatever are their cultures. But ideology, particularly in the daily practice of an institutionalized professional career can make people blind even to their own humanity and culture. Thus, for example, the disrespect toward people by referring to them as “human resources” on the one hand, and diminishing them to heartless, bloodless cyphers — the rational representative agent — on the other.

    So it likely will not lead to much change for an economist such as Schiller, or any similar situation, to call for change in a speech. That economist must redirect their daily practice, as Ruccio has, to really embody human culture into the profession.

    I encourage readers here to click on some of the links in Ruccio’s post, above, which will take you to his blog. It is a wonderful discovery. Once there, click on “About” and you will learn about what the University of Notre Dame did to recently enshrine the neoclassical in stone and excommunicate the dissenters. It’s a shocking story that has been replicated on countless campuses, perhaps often subtly.

    And, Professor Ruccio, I make this request: would you post here your entire essay “Capitalism” that you wrote for the book Keywords for American Cultural Studies. If we are to prevail in opening up the subject of economics, we must not only undermine the euphemism “market economy”, we must always remember the elephant in the room — capitalism —lurking behind any discussion today on the subject of economics, and name it for what it is: much more than an ideology.

    • David F. Ruccio
      August 2, 2017 at 4:09 pm

      I appreciate your generous comments, Econoclast. In response to your request, I will publish the pre-publication version of my Keywords entry on capitalism on my own blog on Thursday.

  4. August 2, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    Well, I am enjoying both the article, and its links, as well as the comments.

    It just so happens that I am 81 pages into a 2008 book, “Adding Insult to Injury: Nancy Fraser Debates Her Critics,” and in just those pages I have come across almost all the issues raised in this posting and by the commentators, including the anthropological perspectives on economics and the tensions between culture and economics. I’m going to keep this as short as I can, and to highly recommend the format of the book which posts essays immediately followed by rebuttals from major critics: to Nancy Fraser’s by Judith Butler, and Richard Rorty…I’ll leave you the flavor of this by quoting from Rorty’s 2000 essay “Is ‘Cultural Recognition’ a Useful Notion?”

    “As I said in ‘Achieving our Country,’ a kind of cultural revolution actually took place: between 1972 and the present, the treatment of women, African-Americans and gays by American institutions and American straight white males improved enormously, thanks in large measure to the generation of teachers that entered the schools, colleges and universities between 1975 and 1990. But, as I also said in that book, nothing much has been done by that generation to help underpaid straight white males make more money and unemployed straight white males get jobs. Culture pushed economics aside, in part because the maturing sixties leftists had a lot of ideas about cultural change, but few ideas about how to counter Reagan’s soak-the-poor policies, what to do for the unemployed in the Rust Belt, or how to make sure that a global economy did not pauperize American wage-earners. Because culture pushed economics aside, the straight white male working class in America may find it tempting to think that the leftist academy is uninterested in its problems.”

    The issues raised in this post, by Fraser’s book and the responses of her critics, like Rorty (he acknowledges that they have a lot in common, as well) go to the heart of the hopes and difficulties in creating a unified Progressive platform to oppose Trumpism, either within the Democratic Party or …without. And what is Trumpism in policy terms, and appointments, other than the most deeply delusional and ramped up version of Reagan economics? If you doubt that, here was my comment in the NY Times on the brief career of the blessedly now departed Anthony Scaramucc, responding to Charles Blow’s column, “Satan in a Sunday Hat.” i:

    “As shocking as the reality maybe to Washington centrists, and – how many can there be left – “decent” Republicans, I think you are on target, Charles, with very little exaggeration. You might want to visit Chris Hedges piece which appeared today at Truthdig entitled “The Dance of Death,” the rituals of civilizations in decline.

    When Mr. Scaramucci entered our macabre national stage last week I Googled his background and surprise, surprise, learned that he was an alumnus of Goldman Sachs, later moving on to his own adventures in the creative world of finance. But what came out of his mouth in the instances you recalled for us was also right out of Michael Lewis’ “Liars Poker,” from his instructor during Wall Street “boot camp,” someone who was called the Human Piranha and who helped introduce us to the concept of “ripping the faces off of” – wait now – their customers.

    There are times when I think that Chris Hedges is too bleak, too extreme. But Trump and his crew are making the case for Hedges “Death Dance” for our society.

    And going back to the dynamics of the reaction to Lewis’ “Liars Poker,” he tells us he wrote it to be a cautionary about what Wall Street was becoming after the 1980’s and would become in the Roaring 1990’s, yet aspiring business majors wrote to him enthralled with the cautionary horrors he portrayed.

    The hour is late, and our nation is becoming ungovernable. Like the 1850’s.

  5. August 3, 2017 at 5:42 am

    If Nancy Fraser’s works and debates illustrate one thing it is that culture is not a thing. It is a process. And it is often a violent and stressful process. Inventing ways of life, from law to science to justice to nations is frequently conflictful for such an imaginative species as Homo Sapiens. We as a species tell one another stories, in the search to build a “shared” life, a common life. Often our stories do not mesh. At times, they are in violent conflict with one another. And sometimes we rob, maim, torture, and kill one anther looking for that common single story that tells us who we are, where we’re going, and why. It’s amazing that we have been able to unite at times around one or a group of similar stories. The history of these times seems to indicate they happen in times of great stress such as wars, natural disasters, or fear. They also seem more common among groups that have a pre-existing close commonality. On the other hand, however evolution has created in Homo Sapiens a genetic predisposition for cooperation and assistance. The cultural and evolutionary don’t always mesh, leading to some of the conflicts we see today. Homo Sapiens’ collective life is complex and exciting. Never a dull moment.

  6. August 3, 2017 at 1:21 pm

    Yes Ken, a complex and daunting stew of conflicts in American society now; not new, the divides were great in the late 19th century and on into the Progressive “era.”

    Fraser’s work is a good starting point for understanding one of the major divides inside the “Progressive” forces: the major dichotomy being between the old economic left, the “redistributive” impulse, and the cultural diversity movement, including feminism, LGBTQ, black agenda, Hispanic dreamers…It may be overly simplistic, but it has at least some grounding in reality: just ask Bernie Sanders who got slammed for being insensitive to contemporary black demands, who spokespeople said, rather impolitely if you will recall, on stage, uninvited, that we don’t give a damn about your economic proposals, the police are shooting us down and juries won’t indict. Protect our bodies first and then we’ll get to the economics. (Maybe, I will add.)

    I do believe that one of the main reasons that Hillary Clinton could never motivate the base, much less working class America, is that she spread herself across the many “camps” of the Progressive movement, all of whom have a base in the Democratic Party. Feminists, old labor, LGBTQ, environmentalists, black lives, hispanic immigration…please show me which speech maker can emotionally and intellectually appeal to all these camps, who each might name a different problem as the nation’s most pressing one? And I’ve left a number out: let us not forget that the overwhelming great shadow over all I have listed is the power of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood…the money players…

    I’ve written about the “Ideas Conference” held by the Clinton’s, Podesta’s old think tank, the Center for American Progress on May 16th, at an expensive hotel in Georgetown, closed to the public, where they broached the idea of a guaranteed job for the high school educated working class…a Marshall Plan (WPA) …the boldest measure yet…but it didn’t get traction at the conference or where Sen. Schumer just went on July 24th: apprenticeships, tax deductible. But at that conference, the speakers and some of the key panelists were sprinkled with the donors…(specifically Glenn Hutchins, and Tom Steyer, who got a cameo interview one on one with John Podesta himself.)

    And out of this leaderless stew, who declares for the Dem. nomination for 2020? My own Congressman, John Delaney, about the least dynamic public figure I know, and who has been stony faced when handed my ideas for a new CCC/WPA Second Bill of Rights, in a small face-to-face meeting. Perhaps he is figuring that by the time the nation has endured four years of the Trump circus, if it lasts that long, that it will be ready, pining for a Democratic Calvin Coolidge, or is it Grover Cleveland? They’ll want plain vanilla, business friendly…bland-gland brand.

    • August 4, 2017 at 9:46 am

      Gracchibros. The questions I have relate to why these divisions, as opposed to other possible ones were latched onto as significant? Why is death by police for blacks more important than death by starvation, exposure, or by bomb. All of which have been involved in racial conflicts. Why is there a left-right political divide? I know the original story of the French Parliament left-right seating. But why has this division become ever more important over the last 200 years?

      Equally important for me is the creation and now taken-for-granted dominance of markets and money. Certainly, something that would have seemed strange, even paranormal to just about anyone living in Europe in 1700. Yes, there were disparities of wealth and resources, but no belief in money or markets as an acceptable substitute for society and culture. In our time, William F. Buckley pointed out this change multiple times. So many times, in fact that it finally got him “dis-invited” to many conversations of the “new conservatives” (neocons).

      In my view one thing is clear. The time for using the rights of humans or statements of the equality of all humans as a basis for governing is over. Governing must focus on adaptation for survival of the species. Culture is, after all the answer to the question, what is it that makes human ways of life and physical existence more durable? Our current debates among climate change believers and non-believers, budget deficits, military budgets, etc. are useless, by comparison.

      The “Ideas Conference” brings up another important question. What do Americans collectively and institutionally want from life? And what do they want American government to do about it? Right now, I believe Americans are confused and conflicted about the answer to this question.

  7. August 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    «At the level of development of ideas, and according to Joan Robinson (1973), one of the major contributions of the ‘General Theory’ of Keynes, has been a radical break with the neoclassical orthodoxy (of an axiomatic character) in which the rationality claimed for the system by their proponents and defenders was taken as being of an ‘eternal’ character (and therefore outside the concrete, historical, social and human time) and of a ‘universal’ character (and therefore outside of any geographical and cultural context). Also according to the same Joan Robinson, Keynes had sought explicitly and specifically, to study the concrete economy of his time in order to understand and explain what was objectively happening with specific societies, historically and culturally conditioned, that he was given to know. In this sense we could say that Keynes (re)opened the way for the future meeting of the fields of interest of economics and anthropology. We say that Keynes (re)opened the way, for the simple reason that Marx and Engels had already been reflecting and writing about the relationship between History and Culture, on the one hand, and political economy on the other. It should be added, in passing, that at a deeper level of analysis in neoclassical economics, society as a whole has been conceived as a harmonious whole, without internal conflicts of interest. That would mean that in society there would be no classes or other social groups that might have conflicting interests.»
    In «South Africa and the World-System – From the Boer Wars to Globalization».
    The reference to Joan Robinson comes from – Economic Philosophy, Penguin Books.

    • August 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      That’s right, we’re just one big happy family here in the USA, the headlines shout it out everyday.

      If only we would recognize that all we need to make things run smoothly, for us to reach escape velocity on our “productivity and then GDP” growth rates, is to make the owners of capital happier than they currently are. Isn’t that the key? Happy capitalists make for a happy society. Please, do tell us what you need…and we will serve it to you on an Alabama-Texas made silver platter.

      And unhappy ecological greens can go follow Voltaire’s advice, and cultivate their own gardens, grow their own food and “decouple.”

      • August 4, 2017 at 11:29 am

        Gracchibros and Ken, I just wanted to draw attention to the fact that – unfortunately – the issue of the relationship between Culture and Economy (as a system or mode of production and distribution of wealth) has been discussed for decades, but (again, unfortunately) that discussion has been confined to small groups of concerned citizens and scholars of (generally) progressive persuasions. As for «solutions», all I feel like saying, is that «it’s a long struggle but we shall overcome»… The French have an interesting saying that goes like this «chacun son métier et les vaches seront bien gardées», meaning – roughly – that if we all keep doing our bit perhaps there’s a chance of success.

      • August 4, 2017 at 12:33 pm

        Fonseca-Statter, why do you say unfortunately? You are correct that this relationship has been discussed and is discussed in many academic areas, including anthropology, history, sociology, medicine, etc. And members of these disciplines discuss the issues with those outside their discipline. Many have offered detailed views of what this relationship is and how it is constructed. So, economists have a large literature to choose from for interdisciplinary research and problem definition and solutions. But more importantly and interestingly, this relationship is considered, sometimes quite imaginatively by non-academics, from attorneys to mental health workers to bankers to the working poor. But again, few of these discussions or their problem solving is allowed into the world of economists, even heterodox ones.

  8. August 4, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Ken, I say unfortunately because I’m afraid that a «critical mass» of discussants is needed for it (the discussion) to have a significant impact on policies. As I am typing this message the French TV channel «France24» is discussing a very topical issue that involves both anthropologists and economists (and policy makers). «To whom does the land belong» (in the context of a lack of formal registration of plots of land in a large number of African countries…
    To most peasant communities in Africa, land is a gift of Nature. It is a collective property whose usage depends on the wisdom of the elders and the consensus of each local community. To the experts of the World Bank and IMF (and I’ve known a few in my years in Africa – not professionally but on «social «encounters»…), the real problem is one of «productive usage» and formal ownership (and taxation of that ownership…), as well as «the right market incentives»…

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