Economic schools of thought often take on characteristics of 19th Century Parisian artists’ salons, unfortunately. These were cartels maintained to protect the interests of established artists and their patrons. Salons functioned as gatekeepers, stabilizing market values while excluding innovative works by up and coming artists including impressionists such as Edouard Manet.
When an economic school operates like an artists’ salon, its function is to stabilize and promote prominent ideas and personas, as well as to control or exclude the flow of entrants. This is where cancel culture comes into play.
To begin, “economic religion” has combined with authoritarianism to drive a wedge into America’s political life, creating culture warfare. It’s disastrous for our republic and one from which political liberals are not immune in their responsibility. My belief on how this works is driven by personal experience.
First, right-wing ideologues have never abandoned Isaac Newton. Orderliness connects for them as a link to their views of God and to their perception of natural law. When government intervenes as it did during the Great Depression—ala the policies of Keynes and Roosevelt—free-marketeers and Christian evangelists believe it acts immorally since it substitutes man’s will for what they perceive to be the will of God.
Second, Keynesian dominance faltered during the Vietnam War. Practically, inflation was the culprit. Even though Keynes’ ideas had dominated for five decades following the Great Depression’s onset, they became undermined politically by the supply side prominence of Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, with the weakening of Keynes, also came a weakening of middle-ground policy options and cross-isle political collaboration. What remained ala Reagan was the resurgence of laissez-faire. Following that, what survived intellectually on the political left, too-often was reactionary and little more than Marxism. While it has never driven a majority of pragmatic Democrats, “flirtations” have left the party vulnerable to manipulation by strategically motivated, ideologically driven Republicans.
Third, these economic policy wars melded into culture wars, eventually. Beginning in the 1980’s as America shifted rightward politically, socialism-baiting became a powerful “trolling tool” to solidify the right-wing base. Progressivism was portrayed as an encroaching threat and fearmongers asserted it would bring European-style Marxism to America’s shores. What remained in the political middle was little more than scorched earth. The victors in this fifty-year battle were Republicans and its culmination was Donald Trump’s rise to an authoritarian-dominated presidency.
Fourth, the left’s response to right-wing political baiting grew to become a disastrous outcome for what might have been successful middle-ground causes such as climate protection. Amid this shift, the cancel culture elevated many far-left intellectuals into liberal influencers. Some went on their own search and destroy missions, inwardly rather than outwardly. Among the collateral damage was pragmatism championed by some innovative, “middle-range” theorists who rejected the receipt of “blessings” from the Marxist salon.
I’m cross-trained as a Marxist. As a Ph.D. student, my professors taught Marxism as an alternative to Adam Smith’s laissez-faire, but not as the sole alternative. We called ourselves radical economists then, implying support for all varieties of constructive, new thinking. During the 1970’s, the ideas of reformer JM Keynes were considered middle ground. Even then however, his ideas were losing some luster due to inflation. Intellectually, little remained vibrant on the liberal palate beyond Marxism.
As the Great Recession was taking hold, I worked with a French university and its dominant Marxist faculty. Whenever I made presentations, I sensed that my calls to confront pseudo-capitalism were resisted by Marxists, not unlike resistance to an upstart entrant in a 19th Century Parisian salon.
Years later, as a radio commentator in liberal-leaning Boulder, Colorado, blowback from far-left liberals continued. My ideas confronted fraudulent business schemes that lowered output and expanded wealth-holding by capitalist “wannabes” such as Donald Trump. Some radio station ideologues opposed what I was doing, labeling it as a mere distraction from left-leaning commentaries they were expecting instead. Was I trying to undermine Marxism, some asked? Should my commentaries be cancelled? Eventually, they were.
AN “IN-BETWEEN” THEORY?
If pragmatism is to be resurrected in American economics and politics, the methodology of John Maynard Keynes remains as the best starting point. However, because real economies evolve in complexity—and because economic ideas stagnate and loose vibrance—Keynesian-type thinking needs rebirthing. The best intellectual pathway for renewal ought to start with Joan Robinson, Keynes’ student. Her reflections on what she called the profit lacuna are a solid gateway toward the development of some sort of in-between theory dealing especially with all sorts of fraud. Beyond economics, it might also pour balm on America’s culture wars. Capitalism in Crisis dot Org is about fleshing out these compelling possibilities.
~ Jim Sawyer
Here’s a link to one of last month’s posts that also talks about the profit lacuna and fraud.