Postmodernism: conspiring with the orthodoxy

Yanis Varoufakis

Why critics of economics can ill-afford the 'postmodern turn'

The dissident's nightmare

It is a sad irony when the activities of dissidents help shore up the establishment they set out to subvert. The point of this piece is to warn the 'economic' dissident: Beware the Postmodern Turn! The argument will turn on the thought that postmodern criticisms of economics serve the twin purpose of (a) releasing pent-up frustration with the profession while, at once, (b) reinforcing its ideological backbone.

Every era has a tendency surreptitiously to guide young dissidents toward a specific 'umbrella movement'; one that ends up shaping their milieu. Existentialism, structuralism, neo-Marxism, etc. have given their place, in our era of devalued political goods, to Postmodernity and Deconstruction. Without wishing to discuss the 'postmodern condition' generally, I shall concentrate entirely on its likely effects on the struggle to 'civilise' economics. In this regard, the problem with postmodern thinking is that it stands no chance of success.

Postmodernity's criticism of grandiose Theory may be terribly satisfying to those who adopt its grandiose pronouncements. However, the satisfaction at having lambasted all Theory is momentary and the ensuing subversion short-lived. To paraphrase Marx, the subverters will be, eventually, subverted and, tragically, the neoclassical establishment will come out stronger and better equipped to obfuscate social reality than ever before.1 If I am right, the task of the post-autistic economics (PAE) movement must be to clear the way for radical criticism that avoids the postmodern trap as resolutely as it opposes economic autism.

Dissidents or the economists' handmaidens?

Modernity marginalised Religion, but retained religious transcendence by worshipping Theory. Economics emerged as the highest form of this secular creed and enchanted all of its practitioners; free-marketeer and protectionist, liberal and Marxist, Keynesian and monetarist. It now seems that some economists are breaking ranks; joining the 'other', the postmodern, side which defines itself in anti-theoretical tones that exude an atheist's anti-religious fervour. The danger is that the legitimate anger of students (which has given rise to the PAE movement) will draw them to an apostasy without a future. For despite its considerable oeuvre, postmodern criticisms of economics are doomed to shrivel and be absorbed by mainstream economics; the predator turning into unsuspecting prey. I risk this prediction for two reasons.

First, postmodernists allow economics to parade as equally scientific as the natural sciences (albeit on the grounds that no discipline is truly scientific). They are right of course to think that all theory resembles religion, since it also seeks to give meaning to the practices and expectations of whole communities. However some theories are capable of transcending religion and approaching objectivity better than others. Nature's habit of working independently of our beliefs about it means that the natural scientist can devise experiments which have the power disinterestedly to discard falsity and thus forge knowledge and progress. Society, on the other hand, is corrupted to the very marrow of its bones by our collective beliefs about it, and can therefore provide no objective test of social theory (the latter being part of the