There seems to be a general consensus at the moment that our ways of doing, talking and thinking are the constructs of “good ideas” in the social sciences over the past few centuries. We are living “the dreams of dead people”, to quote Yuval Noah Hariri. Once these are taken up on a broader level by society, these “good ideas” become taken for granted. We don’t spend our days pondering the rule of law, separation of powers, agency, productivity, and so on. We know these are important and work, as concepts, because… well, they just do. Look around you.
But the seeming invisibility of these “ideas” is a problem. Ignoring the fact that we prioritise concepts agency hides their historical and cultural contingency, and then leaves these unavailable to analysis. How can we challenge neoclassical economic theory that has become “common knowledge” or “just the way things are” when we no longer even notice it?
There have been a few books, blog posts and tweets recently that have spoken to this which are worth mentioning here.
Firstly, James Suzman’s new book. He’s just done an interview about this with GQ magazine, and it’s well worth a read. To oversimplify his argument hugely, he challenges our current notions of productivity in western liberal culture, and specifically puts this in the context of property ownership, heritage, lineage, time and space. In other words, our focus on productvity – often at the expense of other factors in life – is a cultural, social, legal and economic construct. Why do we internalise norms of productivity? Because a few economists 100 years ago thought that the abstract notion might be a good thing for growing the economy (and profits). However, in the process of moving from neoclassical economic theory to mainstream cultural doctrine, it has changed the way we see ourselves as citizens and as consumers.
There’s also a biography of Torsten Veblen by Charles Camic out at the moment, which is a really interesting take on the “outsider” economist. Geoffrey Mead has written a review on the LSE Review of Books Blog here, which offers “an excellent account of how Veblen arrived at his influential contributions to economic theory and paying close attention to how abstract ideas get embedded in institutions and practices”.
Well, yes. They do. And my book (out later this year) is a deep dive into the impact the way we talk about law and economy on how we do and think. Specifically, I look at embeddedness. In the drive to “Build Back Better”, there’s been a lot of talk of “re-embedding” the economy in society. Since responses to the 2008 financial crash started to appear, there have been a lot of statements either that “the economy is embedded in society” or that “society is embedded in the economy”. Start looking out for them – they’ll crop up more than you’d expect. And yet nowhere is there an explanation of what we’re talking about (what is embedded in what) and what we really mean by this.
But it really is important. My work is about just one example. But if we do want to Build Back Better, we need ways of talking about law, economy and society that recognise, acknowledge and then challenge “common sense” or accepted ways of doing and thinking about the economy. And this starts with those “good ideas” or abstract notions that eventually work their way into the mainstream and become “received wisdom”, invisible, or “just the way things are”.
Matthew Syed wrote a comments piece in the Sunday Times this week about a new drug for obesity, but placing it firmly in the wider context of personal responsibility, agency (as a Weberian ideal), and the atrophying of this that happens when the state gets too involved in individuals’ lives. I think he misses a trick by not recognising that while the agency-structure duality is open for debate, the “structural elements” (the food industry, the farming industry, and the advertising industry) have evolved under the guise of free marketeering far faster than our capabilities as agents to confront these, both on a social level and a biochemical level. Nevertheless, this is a prime example of one of those “common sense”, “received wisdom” ideas (personal responsibility) that is derived from “good ideas” of theorists (agency and the notions of the individual agent of neoclassical economics) that is held up (usually by free market advocates) that we tend to ignore. Yet we ignore it at our peril. The agency-structure debate is as relevant as it ever was, however our grammars and vocabularies to respond to current crises, crashes and catastrophes are those of the mainstream… in other words, the mainstream mental models that got us into this mess in the first place.
So, we need new ways of doing, talking and thinking about the legal and the economic. We need new grammars and vocabularies that challenge these accepted notions. The fact that we are turning more to the social sciences, to our social and institutional heritage to seek answers for how we can respond to the current crashes, crises and catastrophes is something to be celebrated. The social sciences have a huge role to play in our response. We cannot Build Back Better without them, and the founding fathers of sociology still have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.