Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

Stephen Marglin

I agree with much, perhaps most, of Norgaard’s argument; however, I would go further, though, in situating the ideology of economics in modernity. Norgaard emphasizes individualism and self-interest as foundational assumptions, and these are key. But I would add three more assumptions: an ideology of desire that assumes wants are unlimited, an ideology of knowledge that prioritizes rationality, and an ideology of community that assumes the nation-state is the primary, if not the only, community. Taken together, these are not only the assumptions of mainstream economics, but also the assumptions of modernity. Indeed, economics is the cutting edge of modernity, the formalization of its unconscious cultural presuppositions. So the challenge is larger than economics: it is one of redressing the extreme imbalance of the ideology of modernity.

Many people see the ideology of modernity as liberating. And so it is when the imbalance is in the other direction: when communities stifle individuals, when the poor receive meager rations and are taught that to want more is a sin, when rationality is not allowed to challenge tradition, when the nation is suppressed by empire. But modernity too suffocates when society is regarded as nothing more than a collection of individuals; when having becomes being; when experience is denied, or, equivalently, is dismissed as superstition when it cannot be explained by the dominant rationality; when the nation state undermines other communities.

The problem with modernity is not individualism. Neither is it individual desire, rationality, or the nation-state. It is rather a state of imbalance in which these assumptions crowd out other ways of being and knowing.

Yes, we need a new economics, and we need to situate this economics in a new set of cultural presuppositions, ones more suited to an age where sustainability is the watchword.

And we will need a new politics as well. The success of the Keynesian revolution in economics, limited as it was, was in no small part due to its symbiosis with the political revolution of social democracy in Europe and the New Deal in the United States. It is no coincidence that the counterrevolution in economics that brought us the new classical economics took place at about the same time that center-left coalitions responsible for the New Deal and social democracy came to grief.

The failure of radical economics to create a new paradigm in the late 60s and early 70s cannot be attributed to a single cause. But the political failure of the New Left to build a new politics is certainly one of the reasons.

If a new economics is to thrive it will only be in conjunction with a new politics. Some hoped for that new politics in the person of Barack Obama—and were disappointed. Some looked to Occupy—and were disappointed. Until we find the basis of a new politics, people like Richard Norgaard (I count myself among them) can plant seeds, but unless the soil and climate are favorable, the seeds will not flourish, and may not even germinate.

Stephen Marglin
Stephen Marglin is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University. His published papers and books focus on the organization of production and the relationship between the growth of income and its distribution.

Cite as Stephen Marglin, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

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