This afternoon I had a rather puzzling and at times disconcerting conversation with a staunch defender of neoclassical economics. The catch is that my interlocutor prefers not to use the epithet: it is simply ‘economics’. I will come back to that in a moment. First, let me recall some basic propositions that were put to me:

1. ‘Economics’ provides a set of tools in order to analyse an objectively existing reality.

2. “Economics’ asks the fundamental questions of life and is therefore the basis of all other inquiry.

3. Mainstream economics is incredibly diverse and can incorporate all perspectives (at last an epithet).

Let’s take each in turn. The first is pretty much what Lenin argued in his worst and very undialectical book, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. The world exists out there and it is the task of science to come to a greater understanding of that world. Our only limitations are those of the tools we use. I’m told that most neoclassical economists work with such an assumption. On the one hand, I want to ask, what world? Capitalism? Or is it neutral? On the other hand, I guess it doesn’t leave much room for the possibility that the independently existing ‘economy’ was a creation of a new discipline needing a topic.

Second, not much needs to said here, except that it is a classic case of disciplinary chauvinism.

Third, when an epithet does appear, it is a pseudo-epithet, since ‘mainstream’ claims what the solitary ‘economics’ claims as well. As for the assertion of diversity and flexibility, it is the classic assertion of the status quo: there, there, don’t worry, your perspective will also be taken into account. No need to get too excited or offer any challenges, since we are a broad church.  The present world is fine, after all.

Finally, let me return to the quiet dropping of the epithet ‘neoclassical’. This is a telltale and imperialistic move that makes a universal claim from a dodgy particular. Cover the tracks, have a shit, shower, and shave, and people will soon forget the particularity of the term itself. This is comparable to the use of ‘democracy’, rather than Greek democracy, ancient Near Eastern democracy, bourgeois democracy,or socialist democracy.

Recently, I came across a similar process in a different context. I had passed on a document originally drafted by some people from eastern Europe. In it they spoke of ‘Orthodox’ churches and countries. Some other readers immediately asked, ‘don’t you mean “Eastern Orthodox”‘? The catch here that those readers are precisely the ones who use ‘Catholic’ when what is really meant is the Roman Catholic Church. All of which reminds me uncannily of the early church and its councils, where all manner of groups claimed to be ‘mainstream’, ‘catholic’ or ‘orthodox’, and denounced their opponents as heterodox.

As I was pondering some of these things on the ride home, I went from ‘bugger the blinkers of neoclassical economics’ to being reminded of Wallerstein’s observation:

The institutionalization of history and the three nomothetic disciplines – economics, sociology, and political science – in the last third of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth took the form of university disciplines wherein the Western world studied itself, explained its own functioning, the better to control what was happening (Wallerstein, Modern World System vol. IV, p. 264).