Is “economics” society’s operating system?

Is economics now society’s default, or de facto, operating system? And what does this mean? I heard this mentioned in passing on the radio the other day in another context. But it struck me as a really useful and interesting analogy to the role of economics in society, and the values and goals that we subconsciously prioritise.

An operating system is system-wide software that manages computer hardware and software resources, and which provides common services for computer programmes. It operates as a base on which all other functions rely for resources and access – it sets the rules of the game. Similarly, we can see economics, in particular neoclassical economics, as performing a similar function within society, although widely unrecognised and largely subconsciously. It does this, as I suggest below, through setting the rules of the game as well as providing the vocabulary and grammar that we use to talk about the game.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s piece in the Times Higher Ed this morning, on the impact of competition and marketization in higher education, perfectly summed up some of the issues of economics-as-operating-system, but in the specific context of higher education.

Fitzpatrick writes that while friendly competition can be helpful, “when the competitiveness that fuels excellence and prestige becomes based in the logic of the market, universities lose sight of their true purpose”. In a detailed and thoughtful piece, she argues that excellence in academia and higher education has embodied the norms of the market, and competition between academics, between faculties, between institutions and between fields of research has become the main means of determining achievement, excellence, and promotion. The metrics that are used to determine success – publication in the right place, impact, and so on – are based on orthodox, or neoclassical economics and the assumptions, biases and norms contained therein.

Fitzpatrick asks what we could achieve instead if we moved from competition to collaboration within faculties and within higher education more generally. What could we achieve by articulating our goals and values and determining excellence in relation to the achievement of those goals and values rather than against one another?

Fitzpatrick’s argument relates to higher education, which is in a state of flux at the moment given the questions surrounding its funding and the role of higher education in society more broadly. The answer is, of course, not quite so simple, as to challenge or step outside of the mainstream competitive framework inherently makes oneself “uncompetitive”. Funding and prestige are therefore potentially sacrificed – a leap into the unknown that so far, only the University of Ghent has been prepared to take.

In other words, the system perpetuates and reproduces itself, while being almost impossible to step outside of. However, within the sphere of higher education, there is some level of awareness of the metrics, competition, and implications of this on career progression, wellbeing and industry more broadly, even if there is no clear or simple solution.

But the article raises broader issues that relate to my research, and the comment about economics – particularly neoclassical economics – functioning as a de facto operating system throughout society. The difference here is the general lack of awareness about the way that neoclassical economics shapes the way that society functions. Even within economics as a field of study and research, there is a generalised monoculture.

We can point to economics notions like competition and a belief in the free market, ways of measuring (GDP, for example), profit maximization, and so on, as having pervaded social consciousness and public discourse to such an extent that they guide and influence policy making even tacitly. By effectively fixing the rules of the game, and even the way we talk about the game before playing it by supplying the vocabulary and grammar, economics functions as a social operating system. And the sooner we are more aware of the impact of this, the sooner we can begin to challenge its effects.

Group think, and the state of sociology

Five eminent sociologists recently reviewed the state of sociology for the Times Higher Ed. You can (and should) read the post here. It makes for interesting, if slightly depressing, reading. For those fond of the tl;dr approach, each of the five sociologists review their experiences of sociology teaching and research today, and recount the somewhat inferior position to which sociology has been resigned within the social sciences. This is for a variety of factors, but I want to dwell on two in this post; the diversity (or fragmentation) of the subject, and the unavoidable political accusations that are inevitably hurled at it (just see the comments on THE).

Fragmented sociology

Much in the same way as the social sciences have fragmented, drifted apart and become silos of endeavour over the past century, sociology has more recently succumbed to a similar fate. We have a sociology of sport, a sociology of arts and music, a sociology of x, y, and z that talk at, rather than to, each other. At the same time, we have economic sociology, legal sociology (or as it tends to be referred to in the UK, sociolegal studies), and then the discipline struggles to distance itself from anthropology and offer something different (apart from research into the present day and the present society).

But what does it really do? Why do we need it? And why is it fair to level the same accusations at sociology as we would at, say, a badly conducted physics experiment?

The political connection

There is always a political connection – politics is about social rules and beliefs, and sociology is about understanding these. They are two sides of the same coin. Look at the impact of Anthony Giddens’ “third way” in forging New Labour’s direction in the years after Blair’s election to power.

And this tends to be one of the main accusations thrown at sociology for why it should not be publicly funded in the same way that STEM subjects are – that we would be funding “socialists”, “Marxists”, and look where that experiment ended… (I paraphrase here). The comments in response to articles banging the drum for public funding of the social sciences generally have at least one reference to socialism.

But wasn’t the notion of the free market also derived from the social sciences (economics)? Hayek and Polanyi published in the same year (1944) but Hayek’s Road to Serfdom received much greater acclaim at the time than Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Arguably, 99% of us are the poorer for this, and still feeling the impact of this twist of fate. But the politically motivated accusations against public funding of the social sciences recur consistently, and in a way that does not seem to apply to capitalism, neoliberalism or the rise and rise of neoclassical economics. These seem to be treated as the natural order of things these days, backed up by the received wisdom of neoclassical economics and the laws of social interaction it has “discovered”. Any investigation into performativity will tell you differently.

Can we study societies? No? Then why bother?

What is the point then? The point is that we need to shout louder about what sociology – and the social sciences more broadly – can do for society. About what it already has done. And about what we stand to lose without publicly funded research into the social sciences, both to understand society and to shape the type of society that we (collectively) aspire to. Do we value the rule of law? Do we value independence of the judiciary? Parliamentary supremacy? The free market? Labour regulation? Because these all started out as “good ideas” that someone had. You may not agree with all of these, but if we had never had “the social sciences”, chances are we would not even have “the State” now. We would still be living in a Hobbesian state of nature.

The response to this is that we have all these “good ideas” and solid institutions that we value now, so why continue funding investigations into how society works? This is a little like Francis Fukuyama’s end of history argument, that has been roundly debunked, notably by John Gray’s argument that history is cyclical. The things that we value need to be protected, otherwise they begin to disappear. And that means shouting loudly about what they have done for us, especially in the face of nationalistic, populist sentiment. Politics in the United States has shown that, and the neoliberal drive to set markets free and dial back the state in the UK has seen inequality rise and the safety net of the welfare state feel less secure than ever.

Why publicly funded?

Michael Burawoy’s chapter about the future of the university as a centre of knowledge production in an age of marketization and regulation makes some interesting points about the funding of research. Marc Spooner has also written an interesting post on the drive to publish and the perverse incentives now in place in higher education and research. Taken together, these posts provide an overview of the direction the sector is moving in, and the question that we keep coming back to is “for whom”? Who is paying for the research? Who is paying for the publications? And does this matter?

The Coburn Amendment in the US has seen a scaling back of public funding for social research into anything that does not directly apply to the national economy or the national defense. In Australia, the “national interest” test has prompted fears that curiosity-driven research will be pushed out altogether. In both Australia and the UK, there are ever higher demands for researchers to demonstrate the impact of their work and its benefit to society. The (somewhat flawed) riposte that is habitually trotted out here is Newton’s discovery of gravity; what is the impact of this? How does it benefit society? Newton would have failed under the current research excellence framework, and would probably not have convinced a funding body – let alone a Research Council – to pay him to study this.

The marketization and commercialization of the entire HE sector raises a number of questions that should probably be saved for another post. The point is that the application of the free market to the production of knowledge about society and for the good of society will produce skewed results. Yes, industry can and does fund social research – into how to market products and services more effectively, how to sell more, and how to understand consumer behaviour. Industry is unlikely to be interested in funding research into the big issues mentioned above – the big issues central to society. Why would they? These are things that we are mostly unaware of but impacted by every day. These institutions, beliefs and policies shape our interactions, our ambitions, and the options available to us in almost every aspect of our lives. The welfare state actively funds the companies to pay lower wages and remove labour rights through the very provision of the welfare state. The production of social knowledge is therefore, I suggest, a public good that should be publicly funded.

Welcome to the new site! …(and a bit about porting everything over)

Well, I’ve had time to stop and catch my breath after getting to a draft of the thesis that I’m reasonable happy with, so I thought it was high time that the website had a little update. And that includes porting everything over to WordPress and getting things looking a little more welcoming!

The old site used Blogger, which was a platform that I’d become “stuck” with. It’s simply part of the Google ecosystem and having dabbled with it a few years back, and then succumbed to status quo bias, I’d been stuck ever since. It’s not a particularly easy platform to use, and doesn’t seem to give you many options for making the site look professional. So, eventually heeding everyone’s advice, I’ve switched to WordPress and effectively joined the rest of the world – better late than never?

The site will eventually look much more like my Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and the Zentangles and drawings here are all my own, and subject to copyright. If you want to use them, please ask me! I’ll post about the why, what, and how of the drawings separately, but suffice to say they represent my research visually.

Please bear with me while I shuffle everything around and get all my content in the right place with the right links that send you to the right place!