The [senior aide within the White House] said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world works really anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
In an interview with Ron Suskind, a senior aide of the White House complains about one of his articles published in the NY Times.
— Rob Coley and Dean Lockwood, Cloud Time
It’s as if everything I’ve been thinking about lately has been converging around a void with the exact shape of this excerpt.
I tend not to talk about my ideas about economic theory so much on here (though I kind of do on my Sraffa blog), and I’ve been reluctant to publish anything on my wordpress blog until I can come up with a concrete argument. Still, however, this sort of charge needs to be addressed, even if only in a tentative form.
As a few of you might be aware, my main project of late has been to interpret Piero Sraffa’s economic methodology (which is notable for not requiring the marginalist concepts of supply, demand, equilibrium, and capital) through François Laruelle’s Non-Philosophy. I’ve found this to be very productive, and because the two correspond so closely to one another, I’ve been motivated to make claims about the possibilities for economic theory that would normally be considered outlandish.
My main thesis, inspired by Non-Philosophy, is that Piero Sraffa’s (non-)economics has the same relation to marginalist economics as Non-Euclidean geometry to Euclidean geometry. Sraffa’s main contention is that economics did not develop in a linear fashion from political economy, but rather, that the methodology introduced in the late 1800s utilizing calculus to measure economic concepts in terms of infinitesimal units (called ‘marginal x’, hence the name marginalism) constituted a fundamental break from the research programme of the classical economists, and Sraffa’s major accomplishment was to revive the classical research programme. This allowed him to disregard certain methods of ‘auto-positioning’ taken by other economic methodologies, such as how Marx’s economics is predicated on exploitation of workers’ surplus value, and conversely, how marginalism—by equating the value of workers’ labor with their wages—rules out a priori the existence of exploitation. Lastly, it also allowed him to revive concepts such as the circular flow of commodities, which had been replaced by marginalism’s linear path of a commodity from producer to consumer.
My latest bit of inspiration comes from the linguistics of Louis Hjelmslev, which Deleuze and Guattari identified as the closest we have yet come to a linguistics which does not depend on the dyad of signifier/signified. This made me curious as to whether it might be possible to view Hjelmslev’s work as a sort of Non-Linguistics (and/or Non-Semiotics). I’ve been slowly making my way through Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language and find his epistemological propensities to be markedly similar to those of Sraffa: in particular, both denounce the tendency of their disciplines to focus on ‘subjective’ elements, and feel that a more axiomatic method focusing on readily identifiable objects is more rigorous than the prevalent methodology of linguistics/economics.
The main reason that I think it is possible to compare the work of Sraffa and Hjelmslev is an extension of viewing marginalism and Sraffianism as different ‘geometries’. A couple of months ago I wrote an essay which interpreted Austrian economics in the conceptual terms described above and showed how in regard to the question of whether ‘microeconomics is the only economics’, it assumes the point to be proved, and thus its arguments against Keynes are in fact meaningless. This convinced me that different economic methodologies—Marxian, Austrian, etc.—can all be viewed as different ‘geometries’. In effect, each economic methodology (or, as I prefer to say, each economics) posits and describes a fundamentally different kind of economy. Rather than taking the Keynes’ reductionist view that certain economicses are each a “Euclidean geometry in a Non-Euclidean world” (which even taken literally is an immense oversimplification), I’ve been toying with the idea that the Economy is not a homogeneous entity, but rather, just as different surfaces (flat, round, hyperbolic, fractal) exist in the real world, there are also different economic ‘surfaces’ subsumed within what we call The Economy. From here it’s only a short step to identify the properties of an economics to be strikingly similar to a language (even, as with dead languages, it only exists in a virtual state). As a side note, although this notion of the Economy as being heterogeneous may be quite counterintuitive, the Indian economist Krishna Bharadwaj found that marginalist economics was not applicable for explaining the conditions of India’s squalid poverty, but found that classical political economy could do this.
Now, the primary aim of Hjelmslev’s linguistic theory is to construct a calculus of actual and possible languages by delineating the relationships between various elements of a language and their dependency with other elements (e.g. x presupposes y, but not vice versa; p cannot exist in a language that possesses q). To transfer this project into economic terms, if Sraffa’s work is truly a Non-Economics and Hjelmslev’s work is a Non-Semiotics, both open the way to create the conceptual equivalent of Riemannian geometry—a sort of meta-geometry that the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann created to show the similarities of different geometries. This is precisely what constituted the crux of Hjelmslev’s project, and, I would like to argue, what Sraffa was building up to in his “Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.”
Now I can finally address the quotation above. The Austrian economist and philosopher Ludwig von Mises once said something to the effect that:
The job of an economist is to say to the Government: ‘No—you can’t do that.’
Although, as gestured to above, I harbour some serious reservations about the applicability of Austrian economics, I entirely agree with this point, which, moreover, I feel is apposite to the issue of political ‘mondialization’ (to borrow a term from Jean-Luc Nancy which can be translated into ‘world-creation’, to be contrasted with ‘globalization’) which, as the White House senior aide explains, it is now entirely in the power of the American Empire to bring about.
An economy is a complicated thing. And yet, it’s possible to envision so many of them—gift economies, green economies, bitcoin economies—all of which have different conditions of actualization, not all of which are compossible with one another. And as appropriate as it may be to say that the American Empire can create new realities, there are certain limits to this. In a period of only 50 years the economies of rich countries have transformed from state-assisted capitalism to neoliberal quasi-free markets, with concomitant effects in all the other countries of the world. So what the aide in the White House is saying is true: economies are plastic. Yet, just as Marx didn’t think it possible to shift immediately from feudalism to socialism without an intermediate capitalist stage, so it would be unrealistic to expect, say, an direct shift from a neoliberal economy to a gift economy—just like it would be absurd to expect the French language to shift to the sort of syntax in which one word comprises an entire sentence (which some linguists indeed believe is happening) without intermediary changes in its grammar.
So in response to the White House senior aide’s accusation that empiricism is worthless, I think it is possible to respond by appealing to transcendental empiricism. (I’m borrowing the term from Deleuze, and am not entirely sure if I’m using it correctly, so please correct me if I’m butchering it.) By developing a calculus of both actual and virtual economicses, it once again becomes possible for the economist to say “No, you can’t do that” in response to State mondialization. Therefore, the possibility of mondialization is no excuse not to read the news, in the typical fashion of Marxists who claim that since communist revolution is imminent, there’s no use in studying how the financial sector works, or how empirical world works in general. Conversely, empiricists have no right to denigrate the work of quasi-economic theorists such as Charles Eisenstein who seek to comprehensively describe alternate economies (in this case, the gift economy).