18 July 2011

Economics is the Opiate of the People: When economics hides the cultural realities

I have been watching for some time, as have many, the struggle n the US over how to manage the economy, and specifically, whether to adjust the debt ‘ceiling’. Although this is clearly ‘economics’ it is strange how little it has to do with money.
What makes this stranger still is that it seems to upset Karl Marx’s slogan that culture (specifically religion) is "the opiate of the people.” ( Although Marx’s slogan was about ‘religion’ it is fair to say that in the terms he worked with, ‘religion’ was virtually identical to ‘culture’ (See Marx’s first published essay in English: “On the Jewish Question”). since Marx had no effective theory of culture, per se, this is what he had to work with.) Today, Economics is becoming the opiate of the people.

Religion itself has long since rendered many people comatose. Economics is the new drug. Perhaps it should be banned.

The American ‘debt ceiling’ is an piece of legislation that imposes and arbitrary amount of dollars as the ‘limit’ that the government can borrow. But there is no reason at all that there has to be a debt ceiling, or that it has to be a certain amount. There is no reason. And that is the problem.
The reason of a financial limit of this sort is purely moral, which is to say, a political goal that is conditioned by moral sentiments. It is therefore a cultural issue, not an economic one, and the reasons for the debate in Congress appear to be cultural, but are hiding behind the strongly-held American belief that there are economic ‘laws’. This is simply not the case.
In today’s New York Times, for instance, one columnist argues: "Politicians Can’t Agree on Debt? Well, Neither Can Economists"

The financial impasse in America then is less and less an issue of ‘finance’ and more and more an issue of belief. As a question of belief, then, it suddenly becomes possible to understand what is going on. If it were simply a financial issue, it could be settled by a more or less technical adjustment. Now, however, the extremity of the financial crisis has revealed that the core is not financial at all but cultural.
so long as everyone agrees that the issues are financial rather than moral and cultural, however, the crisis cannot be resolved. Strange to see culture hiding behind economics, since we have been taught in the social sciences that economics hides behind culture. Religion, for instance, is supposed to disguise the economic reality. The job of the social scientist, in the view of many, is to reveal the ‘underlying’ and ‘hidden’ economic ‘realities’ that lie hidden under a veneer of culture. This was the goal, at any rate, of the Marxist and left ‘cultural studies’ when it emerged in the 1970s.
Now it appears that Economics is the opiate of the people.

By ‘Economics’, of course, we mean the theoretical edifice of the formal discipline so called. As much as there has been an economic crisis in the last few years, it is fair to say taht there has also been a crisis in Economics, the discipline and the ideology of capitalism, neoliberalism and the world’s economic system with the IMF and World Bank, and the big economies at its core.
This has been taken by many to be almost a god-given ‘reality’. (Some American fundamentalists might well think that it is given by god, may god forgive them!). If Big Economics, however, is taken as religion, then we are back to Marx, only this time with Marx standing on his head. We can set him back on his feet, in today’s world, by recognising that there is no such thing as an ‘economic reality’, or ‘laws of economics’, and that when Economics becomes religion is can become the opiate of the people. And, worse, not just ’the people’, but of their ostensible leaders.
Is this sad, or just funny?
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