1828. The mechanical turn in economics.

Provocation # 77. The mechanical turn in Economics. Consequences.

With Adam Smith, and hints before in Ricardo and others, Economics took the path of treating the economy as a natural object that should not be interfered with by the state. This fit the Newtonian ethos of the age, science was great, science was mathematics; science was true right and good.

But along the way the discussion in for example Montaigne and Machiavelli – about the powers if imagination, myth, emotions, sentiment, human relations and community – was abandoned by the economists (Adam Smith had written his Theory of Moral Sentiments 20 years earlier and sort of left it behind, though the Wealth is still concerned with human well being). Gibbons Decline and Fall was published in 1776, same year as Smith’s Wealth, but hardly read today by most economists.

In philosophy and the arts (romanticism among others) there was great engagement in these issues economics was trying to avoid.

The effect of ignoring the human side of lives was to undermine the social perspective of the “political,” by merging it with the individually focused “interest.” So instead of exploring the inner structure of interest (or later utility or preference), or community feeling and the impact of culture, these were assumed to be irrelevant to the mechanics of the market.

Those who wanted economics to be a science were motivated by the perception that “being scientific” was appreciated by the society of the time and was the path to rock-solid truth. But the move towards economics as a science also happened to align with a view of the landed and wealthy that the economy was working for them so don’t touch it. We get the equation, embracing science = conservative. This is still with us because of the implication that the market is god or naturally made rather than socially constructed. Since economics is the attempt at a description of the economy, it was mor or less locked in to the naturalist approach which ignore things like class and ownership and treated capital as part of economic flow rather than as a possession that was useable as social and political power.

Even now economics still continues as if it were part of the age of Descartes and avoids most social, historical and philosophical thought about the nature of man and society. Names like Shaftesbury and Puffendorf, very much read I their time, are far less known now than Hobbes, Descartes, Ricardo, Mill and Keynes. Karl Polanyi is much less well known than Hayek. We do not learn of the social history such as the complex interplay in Viennese society among those who were classmates and colleagues such as Hayek, Gombrich, Popper and Drucker. The impact of Viennese culture is not known to many economists.

The result is an economics that supports an economy that is out of control because the feedback loops through society and impact of the quality of life – and resentment are not recognized in a dehumanized economics and so can’t have a feedback correcting effect.

The solution however is not to look for simplicity but to embrace a kind of complexity that honors nature, humans, politics, and the way they are dealt with in philosophy, arts, investigative reporting , anthropology and history. Because the way forward cannot be a simple project of the past. We are in more danger than that.

Before the enlightenment, late feudalism and the Renaissance,

the scholastics had made their version of the natural law the basis for a universal moral and political code that demanded that all human beings be regarded in the same way, no matter what their culture or their beliefs. It also demanded that human beings respect each other because they share a common urge to “come together,” and it required them to offer to each other, even to total strangers, help in times of need, to recognize “that amity among men is part of the natural law.” Finally, while Hobbes and Grotius had accepted the existence of only one natural right—the right to self-preservation—the scholastics had allowed for a wide range of them—

From Anthony Pagden Why the Enlightenment is still important.

After the Hobbes and Descartes..(before Smith)

Also from Pagen

The Enlightenment, and in particular that portion with which I am concerned, was in part, as we shall now see, an attempt to recover something of this vision of a unified and essentially benign humanity, of a potentially cosmopolitan world, without also being obliged to accept the theologians’ claim that this could only make sense as part of the larger plan of a well-meaning, if deeply inscrutable, deity.

The reason this is so important is that the simple and ethical view in say Smith (and many other classical economists if read) that it was wrong to let the poor starve because of manipulated grain prices, was replaced by a more mechanical view of society that denied human intelligence except as calculators of self interest – is a return to the Hobbesian world leading to a destructive society: climate, inequality, corruption. Today the poor are hemmed in by so many regulations and procedures (real estate, education, police) that the persons are now starved, but not perceived to be suffering, by a blinded society. Economics in its current form – most economics papers and courses – do not touch the third rail of class, or pain.

1827. Books now about where are we..

There is a kind of consensus among the people I read the most that the “elites”, the one percent and their professional support system (the universities, the bureaucracies, the professions) are responsible for creating a world that was comfortable for them and disastrous for the others, for community, for security. The depth of inequality (much worse in parts of the world we are not told about) and the deterioration of the environment (oceans for example) are the results of policies that fed the one percent and brought along what Miljovan Djilas called years ago The New Class


But what is left out is convincing understanding of why and how.

There area number of books emerging. A review in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnick covers some of this.


The writers he reviews such as Mishra, are challenging but scattered and muddled. He fails to deal with the more challenging writers, Kanth for his depth of anthropological examination of western culture, (and his dysfunctional anger).

And my current favorite Jeofff Mann. In his book In the long run we are all dead, a history of the eternal return of Keynes, an analysis of the fate of political thought (it disappeared under cultural pressure from the abstractions of the enlightenment). A short version at


Helping with his sanity and clarity is the writing of j. Hickman of

with his challenging thoughts (much based on his ongoing analysis of Stiegler’s Automation.

My own view has been that climate change, automation, over population and governance failure come together to create a major crisis that will require the redeployment of early everyone. There is no job that is not complicit in environmental damage on the physical side or cultural and community damage on the social side.

People must stop doing what they are doing – but must also create or be given better things to do.

That is the emerging frontier – what to do and how to get there.

Breaking With the Enlightenment: The Twilight of History and the Rediscovery of Utopia

Mann In the long run…

In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy, and Revolution

Mishra: Ruins of Empire

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Bernard Stiegler: The Automatic Society: the Future of Work

Automatic Society: The Future of Work

1796.Democracy as goal

My own belief is that the recognition of the humanity of everyone is the core starting point for democracy – the people rule. But to get from such a start to a practicing democracy requires the education and participation of all. Only continuous conversation and engagement  by each person can get us there.

But something is in the way. Education has turned from a broad liberal goal to an ensemble of skills, sometimes called human capital (what is a person worth to the company that pays them?). Participation has shifted from conversation about crucial issues to purchases in the consumer world.  We think much more about what to do with our dollars in an increasingly rich market of possibilities than we do about our vote and making sure we get to vote for what we care about.

The serious reason to have democracy is because it requires the development of all the people. Development that gives them the education, exposure, experience  to be wise about their vote and their conversations. I like to call this the democracy project, and it has just begun. Society has been controlled by elites trying to hold their societies together but taking too much for themselves. If we see the relationship between full participation, the ned for education, the capacity to participate in conversations, we will do more t support the development of democracy.

Another problem

Indeed the collapse of democracy to mere voting is a serious reduction in scope from a world where participation and conversation culminate in the voting rather than voting replaced by the conversational culture of community participation and urgency.

1826. Trump and values

Trump sees winning as the only good outcome. Lots of kills along the way (federal agencies and their beneficiaries for example) are part of the game of serious winning.

Trump has reversed the seven deadly sins, turning them from  wrong to right. (It is the trend in modern financial capital with high inequality – have to do something with all that money)

sins were envy, gluttony, greed, avarice, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath.

But now they are all signs of success.




1825. Trump and the republicans

It is really quite simple. A small number of Republican politicians get money from the super rich to run a campaign which appeals to the poor or nearly poor who then vote against their own interests, and meanwhile the  interests of the rich are enhanced and the small cadre of politicians have some semblance of power.

But the context is that the Democrats did not give these voters any alternative (we all felt it).

Now, i I know it is not that simple, but it is a good starting place.

1824. Keynes wrote……


It is our duty to prolong peace, hour by hour, day by day, for as longas we can. We do not know what the future will bring, except that itwill be quite different from anything we could predict. I have said inanother context that it is a disadvantage of “the long run” that in thelong run we are all dead. But I could have said equally well that it is agreat advantage of “the short run” that in the short run we are stillalive. Life and history are made up of short runs. If we are at peace inthe short run, that is something. The best we can do is put off disaster,if only in the hope, which is not necessarily a remote one, thatsomething will turn up. While there is peace, there is peace.  1937.

How to govern in a capitalistic society, but are there other posibilities?  Why should a few own capital? A way of getting a responsible elite to govern and be rewarded? Weak logic.