Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Richard Norgaard

I am pleased to have received so many constructive commentaries to my essay on economism. I cannot imagine a better way to “intellectually crowd test” an idea, or a better intellectual crowd.  My essay worked with but some of the arguments I am advancing in the book I am writing on economism and the Econocene. For the essay, I necessarily had to select some arguments and ignore others. My commenters were quick to identify material that I had chosen not to mention, or to mention only cursorily. Your ability to paint the bigger picture around the parts I laid out is impressive and gratifying.

Let me start with the commentaries of John Barry and Chella Rajan, who argue to the effect that I fell short of correctly identifying the problem, that I was “beating around the bush” while studiously avoiding the “C” words: capital, capitalism, capitalists, and control. Barry argues that there is no reason to invent the term Econocene when Capitalocene is already in use. I have no qualms about speaking of capitalism and will do so in the book. Exploring the idea of economism is opening up a new characterization of the human dilemma that I hope will complement critiques of capitalism. I certainly am not arguing that economism is the one and only true characterization.

As Jonathan Harris noted, not all schools of economics suffer from the problems I identify.  I celebrate the diversity and wisdom shared among heterodox economists. I am inspired by some eco-feminist economists as well as some ecological economists, a group with whom I identify.

Next, to the issue as to whether “religion” is the word I should be using, I was pleased that the theologians in the discussion, such as John Cobb, were not upset by my labeling economism a religion. People do not declare their personal allegiance to the church of economism, but surely economistic practice is conscious on Wall Street and implicit in all of our lives. People express their faith in markets over government repeatedly. I agree with Stephen Woolpert that economism has not produced any great art or music, though there are some classic old banks that evoke at least modest awe even without ceilings painted by Michelangelo or an organ playing Bach. I see no chance that economism will lead composers to produce anything comparable to the beauty and emotional power of Bach’s “St. Mathew Passion.”

To be clear, I am not using the term “religion” critically, putting religion down for being an irrational belief system. Quite the contrary, I accept Frank Knight’s point that people need to believe in how a society is organized for its day-to-day operation to go on. We cannot go through all of the good and bad points of different forms of social organization and rationally instate what is best for the day, not that we ever tried, but this is the implicit assumption of simple rationalist thinking. Thus I emphasized my fear that the transition to a sustainable, equitable, and meaningful society, or societies, will entail a dramatic switch in beliefs, a period in which existing institutions that have evolved around or simply found their peace with economism will disintegrate before fully functioning new institutions come into being. As Stephen Marglin argues, we will need to envision wholly new politics, as well as new institutions to go with the next belief “ism” in order to minimize the human loses of a political and institutional void. The consequences of a poorly supported belief transition in a world of 7 billion highly interconnected individuals are frightening to contemplate. 

Marglin also correctly points out that the shifts in mindset to individualism, atomism, and property are only some of the transitions of modernity. Other essayists have stressed unlimited consumption and equating progress with growth. I also agree with Marglin that the modern emphasis on the nation at the expense of community and family is also extremely important. I will definitely elaborate a broad critique of modernity in my book before I present economism.

Growth, as well as the worship of it by economists, corporatists, and politicians, is surely as important as the worship of markets. On our growth fetish, the literature is already strong though I will surely have to integrate it into my own broader efforts. We have a degrowth movement trying to awaken the public to the absurdity of its worship. There are many excellent critiques of markets, but not yet an understanding of markets as a fetish or a “demarket” movement.

I am especially appreciative that Lourdes Beneria and others picked up on and elaborated on my but brief mention of the need to make care central, not only to our personal lives, but to our public lives as well. And yes, the efforts of feminists are helping us recoup from the excesses of male bravado, though I shudder when listening to the current Republican presidential lineup.

Banks and money were set up by government to provide services and for most of their history were under the control of government. John Fullerton stresses that the financial sector today is the primary abuser of people and that it acquired this power by using our economic beliefs, or economism, to break out of public control. Yes, this is the central institution causing problems now, and, in my judgment, the financial sector could be changed with a relatively modest change of consciousness.

Thank you, Sandra Waddock, for elaborating on the role of memes in economism. And thanks as well to John Ashton for emphasizing the role of language and the need for a new story. Words, metaphors, and narratives are critically important. Thanks to Ashton for also pointing out that revolutions are not brought about by working through existing institutions and stating so straightforwardly that the next system must be rooted in reality and compassion. And thanks to Rahul Goswami for writing on how the culture of modernity erases regional cultures and our anchors and sense of the past.

Richard Norgaard
Richard Norgaard is Professor Emeritus of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, a founder of the field of ecological economics, and a lead author of the 5th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005).

Cite as Richard Norgaard, author's response to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

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