Analysing capitalism

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 1, 2008

The events of the last weeks have made me wonder about the agenda of contemporary analytical political philosophy. There are many ways to describe the current financial crisis, but it’s not implausible to say that the foundations of capitalism are shaking. Yet I find little help in contemporary analytical political philosophy to help me understand what’s going on. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place. Perhaps I am ignorant. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough (probably true given that there are so many other things that need to be done). Yet another explanation may be that in the last decades analytical political philosophers have focussed increasingly on issues to do with non-economic topics, or, as far as economic topics are concerned, on micro-economic topics and/or on issues of (re-)distribution or economic policies at the national/state level. Of course, there is quite a bit of related stuff – on the moral limits of the markets or on global justice for example. But are these literatures in themselves sufficient, or sufficiently integrated, to help us analyse capitalism? I doubt so.

I have friends and colleagues who work outside analytical political philosophy, have no background in economics at all, who are convinced they understand capitalism or neoliberalism and have strong normative views about these issues. So a possible thing for me to do would be to join them. Yet I have never found the ‘critical’ literatures they read very helpful – too rhetorical, too sweeping, insufficient analytical for my taste. Too much at the level of critique and deconstruction and too little at the level of helping us sort out the problems and propose constructive solutions. But at least the authors working in those literatures should be credited for having addressed crucial topics, which are, in my opinion, insufficiently addressed in the analytical tradition.

From informal talks over the last week I know I am not the only one with these doubts. Isn’t it time for a macro-economic turn in analytical political philosophy, that is, shouldn’t more of us put our efforts in analysing capitalism and alternative economic (global) systems, rather than focussing on micro-economic issues or non-economic issues? I suspect there is quite some (older?) literature out there, but that it just hasn’t been very fashionable in recent years. So what if we would start by collectively constructing a reading list on these issues for those who prefer to reason within the analytical tradition?


1 10.01.08 at 8:32 am

Isn’t it time for a macro-economic turn?
I don’t think so. The performativity turn in social studies of economics and finance over the past 10 years is premised on a rejection of the kind of monolithic Kapitalism you seem to be referring to and viewing markets more ‘idiographically’. I think this has proven to be much more productive than recourse to some kind of ‘macro’ approach. See the socializing finance blog for some excellent analysis of the current mess.


Zamfir 10.01.08 at 9:25 am

Why did you expect that political philosophy would help you understand the financial crisis, any more than it would help you understand a crisis in, say, the automobile industry? To me at least the crisis seems rather technical in origin, and the non-finance part of the world only cares because the financial part has so much influence on the rest.

I guess it makes sense to ask why it has so much influence, and whether that influence is really necessary, but a study of finance detailed enough to help understand this crisis seems better left to pure economists.


dsquared 10.01.08 at 9:30 am

Our very own Brian Weatherson has written a couple of decent articles about Keynes IIRC.


Nick L 10.01.08 at 10:05 am

Why would anyone expect analytic philosophy to have anything to say about an issue like the credit crisis and neo-liberal financialisation in general? Analytic philosophy has progressively jettisoned any concerns with major contemporary issues in favour of certain sets of intellectual puzzles. Analytic philosophers don’t claim to be public intellectuals, or if they do their attempts are rarely convincing as analytic philosophy has little to add to public debate. They are technical experts, adroit at addressing certain problems that other analytic philosophers find interesting. There is no more point asking the average analytic philosopher for their views on contemporary capitalism than there is asking a crossword writer.


Sam C 10.01.08 at 10:07 am

I initially had the same thought Zamfir did: why expect political philosophy to address this question?

But on reflection, here’s why: philosophy is rational therapy. It’s supposed (by me, at any rate) to help us deal with the central problems of our lives, and capitalism is at least a candidate for being such a problem. My reading list suggestion would be to go back to Mill and Marx, but – being a 19th century-geek – I would say that.


joao galamba 10.01.08 at 10:29 am

To do what I want you really have to rethink the analytic-continental divide. Continental Philosophy is not just a way of writing but mostly a tradition (far from being a monolitic block) that addressed modernity in a certain —critical— way. There are lots of people who tried to get over analytic political philosophy’s narrowness, arid specialization and uncritical take on modernity without falling into some of the excesses that you dislike. One of them has been Charles Taylor. We need to abandon the sterile labels such as liberal vs. communitarian (and others) and rethink what does it mean to think modernity politically.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.01.08 at 10:29 am

Sam, yes, Mill and Marx, I agree, and I found it somewhat ironic when I realised a few days ago that I should read more Marx since I was always told that this was an issue from history (it is increasingly possible to be trained in philosophy without having read a serious chunck of Marx, although it is not as bad as in economics where most student haven’t read anything by Marx).

Nick: I am not talking about the average analytical philosopher, but about analytical political philosophy (APP). I think you are either unfair or unaware if you say that APP has nothing to contribute to contemporary issues. If you think about egalitarianism and the welfare state, for example, I cannot think of a better literature to think clearly about these issues than APP. Having said that, I agree that there is little done within APP on capitalism – that’s what I write in the post. But I don’t think this needs to be a problem for APP’s, that is, that their/our instruments are unsuited; rather that we haven’t paid enough attention.


brooksfoe 10.01.08 at 10:39 am

What do you mean by “capitalism”?

He said, sitting in Vietnam.


Chris Bertram 10.01.08 at 10:57 am

I wouldn’t look to APP to help me to _understand_ the crisis, but I do think that the whole post-1973 period raises serious problems for the way in which Rawlsian political philosophy understands society, and specifically with the notion that we can choose a set of institutions and then reliably predict their distributive consequences (and tinker at the margins to get things even closer).

Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice towards the end of the postwar boom. At that time, many people had a high degree of confidence in the extent to which national economies could be controlled and planned.
Keynsian macroeconomic techniques suggested that governments could use public expenditure and the management of interest and exchange rates to even out the business cycle. It is fair to say that experience since the late 1970s has dented the belief that we can use such tools to control something as complex as a market economy with any degree of accuracy.


Chris Bertram 10.01.08 at 10:59 am

and just to add, most Rawlsian political philosophers still just proceed as if the assumptions underlying

choose dp-optimal basic structure > reliably generate outcome

are unbroken. But they aren’t.


Dan bednarz 10.01.08 at 11:28 am

A rhetorical question: If the net amount of energy flowing into modern economies begins to decrease, what are the socioeconomic implications? I don’t think Marx or Mill or A. Smith addressed this in any detail because they lived in an era when the earth’s resources were seemingly plentiful and limitless. The great technological progress and economic expansion 20th century was enabled by oil; the 21st will not be and no replacement candidates are coming online at the scale necessary.

I’d suggest a read of Catton’s Overshoot -quite sobering and analytical.


Matt 10.01.08 at 11:30 am

I guess I have a lot of sympathy with Zamfir and some others above that it’s not clear to me that philosophy is going to be the right tool to understand this sort of thing, at least not without a lot of other training. (You’ve got a lot of other training, Ingrid, if I recall correctly, so you’re probably better suited to understand it than most philosophers!) In some of the areas where I have non-philosophical training or do non-philosophical work I tend to find that the discussions by philosophers without special training is usually too abstract to be of practical use. That’s not to say it’s of no use- it’s often very useful for figuring out large-scale goals, clarifying positions, working out basic assumptions, etc., but when it comes down to more specific issues then one needs a lot of special training, or at least to have done a lot of special study. To tie this back in to the question, we might wonder if the current crisis shows us that, say, with the globalization of financial markets we need fundamentally different systems of norms and regulations, or whether this is just a particularly bad result of old things we knew going wrong, a failure to require sufficient capitalization, allowing non-transparent transactions, etc. What to do next depends on which position (there are probably others!) we should take. But I don’t see how philosophy helps very much with those questions, at least not without enough special training tha one isn’t opperating primarily at the level of philosopher anymore. Does that seem wrong to you?

Chris, I think you’re right that political philosophers tend to underestimate difficulties in implementing ideas. Do you mean more than that? If so, what? That doesn’t seem a special problem with Rawlsians to me, though maybe I’m wrong. Do you have any suggestions as to who you think has a somewhat better approach?


Zamfir 10.01.08 at 11:41 am

Chris, is your focus on the choice part, or the predictive part? That is, do you think that institutions are not actually chosen, or that they are chosen without a cear enough idea of the results?


stostosto 10.01.08 at 11:43 am

The events of the last weeks have made me wonder about the agenda of contemporary analytical political philosophy.

Indeed. And not a moment too soon, either.

Seriously, though…. I wish I did have a serious comment.


ingrid robeyns 10.01.08 at 12:05 pm

I think part of the scepcism of some of you may be explained by the distinction, which Chris righly stresses, between analysing and understanding (or explaining). Part of analysing is normative: do we want this kind of existing global economic system, and if not, then what kind of system do we prefer etc. These kind of normative questions are the core business of APP. But yes, I also agree that in order to understand capitalism (or financial markets etc.) you may be better serves by economic thinking or work in international political economy. There’s no contradition in that. That happens in all parts of APP that are working on real-life non-ideal topics. If I study what justice for parents, children and non-parents requires from society, I also go to the social sciences and pedogogical research to learn more about what children need, or what is needed for a healthy child-parent relationship. But after I have digested that (explanatory) knowledge, I move to APP to work out a normative account. My hunch is that something similar could be done with capitalism, or the global economic system, or whatever you like to call it.

Someone probably more knowledgable on these issues than I suggested (via Facebook) that the issue at stake may be nonideal theory vs. ideal theory in APP; that may actually be an important part of it, about which I had not thought.


Chris Bertram 10.01.08 at 1:10 pm

Matt, I think there is a special problem for Rawlsians because of their institutional focus. Since they help themselves to the assumption that outcomes are a more or less predictable function of institutional choice (where institutions are, more or less rule-defined entities) , they look (to me) to be in trouble if that isn’t so, since their attempt to straddle the gap between procedural approaches to justice and outcome-oriented ones get undermined.


HH 10.01.08 at 1:14 pm

Our weakness is taking the geometer’s narrow view. We believe that we can build arbitrarily powerful theoretical tools out of simple postulates. But modern financial markets are more like weather phenomena than geometric constructions. We need more advanced analytical weaponry to attack problems like the current financial crisis. The advent of computational tools powerful enough to model big financial systems built up out of many markets gives us the opportunity to get these turbulent phenomena under control.

Todays NYT has an excellent article by a physicist who is doing economic research based on bottoms-up modelling of market dynamics. This is very far from the old stereotype of the single “great mind” seeking a eureka moment. In dealing with problems of unprecedented scale and complexity, we must augment the traditional tools of philosophical inquiry with more modern apparatus.

Like any domain of knowledge, philosophy is in danger of stagnating. Opening the doors and windows of this discipline to the fresh winds of computational and behavioral science theory will provide a healthy rejuvenating effect. This means treating trust, ethics, and honesty not as subjective abstractions, but as measurable behavioral phenomena. Much depends on progress in this endeavor.


matt 10.01.08 at 1:20 pm

Chris- do Rawlsians have to think that “outcomes are a more or less predictable function of institutional choice”? I don’t doubt that many have thought that but I don’t see that they have to. Why can’t they say, “well, it turns out that politics and achieving justice in the real world is hard. We’ll have to keep working and tinkering to do the best we can.” The fact that achieving justice is hard is a problem for all views, though, it seems to me. I certainly don’t see how, say, a view like Cohen’s that doesn’t focus on institutions is any better, especially since it seems to offer no practical guidance at all as far as I can tell, and certainly faces just as serious issues about unintended effects and difficulties in implementation. It does seem plausible that philosophers ought to be more serious about how hard it might be in practice to achieve justice, but this again seems to apply to everyone.


nnyhav 10.01.08 at 1:24 pm


Nick L 10.01.08 at 1:35 pm

Perhaps I was a bit unfair. I concede that an APP might well be the first person that you would turn to if you had a particular question about certain aspects of distributive justice, political obligation and other normative issues in political theory. APPs have seen political philosophy as an application of applied moral philosophy and have framed their questions and answers accordingly. As a result their answers are generally universal/ahistorical and grounded in ideal theory. This may or may not be a problem depending on your particular views. It certainly provides a great deal of precision, rigour and generality.

But if you want APPs to focus on macro-social phenomenon, it might be a bit much to ask, because the tools seem to me to be unsuited for the job. As suggested above, there is a difficulty in translating the ideal theory to reality when the effects of institutions don’t have predictable effects. Macro-social phenomena are generally messy, vague and unpredictable – making it difficult to be as rigorous and precise as analytic philosophers would like. Working on technical issues, APPs are less likely to spend time examining macro-social trends – unlike political economists and sociologists amongst others. They therefore don’t have much to say about, say, risk society, multitude and empire, the role of fear in US politics after 9/11, gendered constructions of homo oeconomicus, or the clash of fundamentalisms. Many would regard these issues as ‘unclarifiably unclear’ and I’d certainly agree with them in a few (most?) instances. But there is a trade off between clarity and rigour on the one hand, and relevance and insight on the other. APPs have decided to base their professional standards around the latter, meaning that they won’t have much to say about the credit crunch that isn’t heavily hedged and laden with caveats.


Chris Bertram 10.01.08 at 1:41 pm

Matt – well one problem is that Rawlsian have a particular view about what that working and tinkering involves: essentially via the selection of rules (tied to rewards and penalties) that as an ensemble constitute the basic structure. If institutions in this Rawlsian sense are less important for the explanation of social outcomes that Rawlsians think (if, that is, they are committed to a false theory of social explanation) then that does leave them worse off, in that respect, than other people who don’t buy into that false view. (And this is germane to the practical guidance issue too, because if Rawlsian practical guidance is predicated on a mistaken social theory, is isn’t going to me much use!)

(By the way, I’m not sure that those other theories are, practically, worse off anyway. If they give up on the Rawlsian attempt to build the outcomes into the procedures and, instead, focus on outcomes directly, so long as they are willing to override Hayekian scruples about the rule of law, they can go in for Robin Hood style ex post redistribution, expropriation of the expropriators, and so on.)


Tim 10.01.08 at 1:42 pm

Just reminded me, I must go and read some Marx, I know some of his theories, but second-hand. I was thinking this way before the crash.

I might throw in some Mr Smith and Mills.

The rest of this post/comments scare me like when I go swimming and get out of my depth; although I can see one thing – that the grand-old ‘grand unified theory’ of analysis doesn’t really cut it when talking about very complex systems as HH said – what I suppose it could explain people’s thoughts though, being less complex cogs in a more complex system, the motivations aren’t that complex, like the people rushing to get their money from the banks.

And why have some philosophers divorced themselves in part from the real world, in the chase of the analysis of knowledge and ‘how we learn’? And purely abstract analysis? I do wonder if that Wittgenstein has a lot to answer for…


matt 10.01.08 at 1:49 pm

Chris- I guess you’re right that if outcomes are not tied to institutions in some way then messing with institutions won’t change outcomes. I don’t see at all how that’s a lesson we should learn from the present situation, though, since it seems pretty clear that much of the mess is due to bad institutions- ones related to requirements for capitalization of banks, which types of financial entities could do what sort of things, what sort of regulation is important, how much risk-taking we want to allow, etc. There’s a reason this crisis came now and not earlier, and that seems pretty clearly due to the change of institutions so I don’t at all see how the charge of a “false social theory” could apply here. As a more general criticism I think that’s on the edge of a crazy view as well. There is obviously feed-back between institutional design and other factors (an ‘ethos’, if you will) but no Rawlsian denies that (Rawls certainly didn’t.) But the way that different institutions have pretty strongly different results seems strongly supported and not at all challenged by the current crisis, as far as I can tell.

You’re right, too, that if we think we should just tinker directly with end results then we don’t need to “worry” about institutions. I should say, though, that I think that would be an extremely stupid view and one unsupported by any plausible account.


Chris Bertram 10.01.08 at 2:01 pm


I’ve just sent you something I wrote on these issues a while back …

Meanwhile … Obviously you are right to say that institutions in the narrow sense have a great deal to do with the present crisis. But there’s a big leap (that Rawlsians often make – I’m thinking Pogge here) from the claim that we can trace outcomes to explanations after the event, and the claim that we can choose institutions antecedently with a view to generating particular outcomes.

The claim I made about false social theory was intended to be a conditional one. Obviously, institutions in the rules-with-incentives sense play a big role in what happens. The problem is that (I think) Rawlsians assume that they play a bigger role than they probably do.

As for your last para, about “an extremely stupid view”. Well I’m very happy to worry and tinker with institutions, but I’m probably less resistant, in the real and imperfect world, to a bit of brute after-the-fact redistribution (windfall taxes anyone?) than some others are.


HH 10.01.08 at 2:05 pm

Ayn Rand’s toy-like model of economic behavior animated the mind of Alan Greenspan, who was in a position to pull the control rods out of the American financial reactor. The resultant meltdown is not a market failure, but rather a control failure. Greenspan believed that market participants would not optimize locally to the degree that their aggregate behavior would crash the entire system. Wrong.

We thought we had entrusted our financial markets to technocrats, when they were actually in the hands of ideologues operating according to destructive simplifications of economic theory. So this isn’t really a sub-prime securities problem; it is a sub-prime leadership problem, compounded by the complexity of market behavior outrunning the tools and policies intended to regulate it.

Thus, the remedy is to: 1) Throw the bums out; and 2) retool the modeling and regulation of markets to catch up with the latest generation of computer-enabled derivative securities.


Mike Otsuka 10.01.08 at 2:23 pm

Ingrid writes:

“…it’s not implausible to say that the foundations of capitalism are shaking. Yet I find little help in contemporary analytical political philosophy to help me understand what’s going on. …I have never found the ‘critical’ literatures they read very helpful – too rhetorical, too sweeping, insufficient analytical for my taste. Too much at the level of critique and deconstruction. …So what if we would start by collectively constructing a reading list on these issues for those who prefer to reason within the analytical tradition?”

Especially given that Marx has already been mentioned more than once, I’m left scratching my head and wondering why nobody has mentioned the writings in recent decades by the non-bullshit Marxists, as represented, for example, in the essays collected in the book Analytical Marxism that Roemer edited. Doesn’t this obviously fit the bill?


LogicGuru 10.01.08 at 2:42 pm

Just conjecture but I think 2 things are responsible for the failure of analytic philosophers to address macroeconomic issues:

(1) Plain ignorance. “APPs have seen political philosophy as an application of applied moral philosophy and have framed their questions and answers accordingly.” Moral philosophy, we know about and that serves us in discussing issues of distributive justice; econ we don’t know about. And it takes much more familiarity with technical issues in econ to “analyze capitalism” in an illuminating way than it does to talk about issues of fairness or contribute to the Rawls industry.

(2) Aversion to Systems. Whether it’s Capitalism or Marxism, Plotinus or Hegel, many (maybe most) analytic philosophers just don’t like it because we don’t like dealing with grand schemes. We like working on little puzzles and writing articles rather than books, or writing books that are essentially collections of articles.


matt 10.01.08 at 2:45 pm

I’m happy to agree, Chris, that Pogge often makes unreasonable claims about how institutions work, but this seems to me to be a pathology of his, and a lack of care for detailed work, rather than a deeper problem with an institutional view. (Matias Risse’s criticism of Pogge is especially useful here, I think.)


Ingrid Robeyns 10.01.08 at 2:49 pm

Mike, yes, I had actually orginially inserted the ‘analytical marxists’ as an example in the post, but took them out since I felt that this was ‘old’ literature; apart from the little group of APPs who worked on this in the last century, is there anything recent in that stream of literature? In contrast to, say, egalitarianism, on which one can fill an entire library, I don’t have the impression that one can fill even half a library on nonbulshit marxism. Is any of the original nonbulshit marxists still working on global economic systems? Not that I know. Is there work being taken up by a significant size of younger APPs? not that I know. (Obviously I’d be happy to be corrected). And is there work non-ideal, which some of us would argue to be important to understand capitalism as it is, and start our normative theorizing from there? Predominantly no. So I think the non-bullshit marxist show that I may need to qualify and soften my claim, but I don’t think they fill the gap that I see.


seth edenbaum 10.01.08 at 2:51 pm

Analytical vs Historical. The problem is the Cartesian view of history.
Theorists see values as constitutive, and liberal and neoliberal policies as resulting from preferences and prejudices. “Reason” is no more or less than the formal and logical (non-contradictory) structures built upon those prejudices.

A historian of the academy might recognize that the old division between the desire for wisdom and the desire for gold, the old dynamic tension, has collapsed over the past 50 years or so, so that the honest study of greed has become its moral defense. The theory of individualism and self-interest has become such a part of our intellectual political discourse that it’s assumed now that no future president would, or should be expected to, reverse the course of the increasing power of the executive. The “scientific” study of individualism has resulted in a theory of the individual and of undivided consciousness that is more based in ideology than logic. But we have created our own reality: geek heaven.

A soldier serving in the army of a democracy must act, must be responsible and follow the moral codes both of an authoritarian order and a free one. He must live, experience and understand the world as both a soldier and free citizen. That not unified consciousness, that’s consciousness divided against itself as ideal and as principle.

Cartesian, anti-historical, anti–Freudian, anti-Marxist, anti-empirical (if empiricism goes against assumptions of atomistic individualism); denying the existence of any forms of cultural determinism simply out of fear [determinism for thee but not for me] anti-narrative (formal), pro-crystalline (formal); operating on the assumption that expertise is wisdom and that judgement is calculation and that if you never really have to grow up. The intellectualism of neotenous self-absorption.

We need theoreticians who know how to count and analysts who read history, in this case: economic history.


Adriano Correia 10.01.08 at 2:55 pm

Marx is the right place to begin, I guess. Mainly in his concept of ideology. American intelligentsia seems to ignore what is “ideology”. And so one can read a very short analytical treatment of this, in the APP tradition, by Jonathan Wolff in the SEP, or surely one could read something “alien” as the Critical Theory appropriation of the concept.

Maybe what we think as “capitalism” isn’t actually capitalism (and here I’m trespassing common views, both leftist and right-wing ); maybe the Austrian libertarians are right in something: the existence of a central bank is a barrier to free-market capitalism (Wall Street isn’t “free”, it’s financed by Fed and the Treasury).

I know what I am saying is really strange and even nonsense to you people. But I just cannot believe the origin of the crisis isn’t the colligation of financial markets with a central bank that gives easy money, so all financial market people can go nuts and do whatever they want, even if it’s really irresponsible.

Tyler Cowen gets it right when he says, “the crisis represents a massive conjunction of both market and governmental failure”; but he would have to go further and say: the crisis isn’t about the failure of A + B, but about the existence of the conjunction of A + B.

What this crisis is about is, in short words, a financial pyramid. Wall Street is and always has been backed by the easy money of Fed and the Treasury.

Funny is the fact that the solution to this is more of the same error of giving more money to Wall Street, or simply bailouting the old financial pyramid, to which Bretton Woods gave a new breath of life.

Paulson’s plan is more procrastination, which might just be the biggest mistake in economic history.


HH 10.01.08 at 2:55 pm

Nothing less than the heroic model of philosophy is endangered in the modern era. 90% of the traffic on CT is the discussion of wisdom as revealed by “greats.” Are you a Rawlsian, or a Platonist, or a Rortyite? What does Aristotle, Kant, or Marx have to say?

The terribly threatening whisper from the future is that a single man’s mind cannot encompass exceedingly large and complex phenomena and render them tractable with a few terse truths. New structures of intellectual collaboration, probably augmented by machine intelligence, will be needed to climb higher in the difficult terrain of understanding modern global economic and social structures. Once the initial fear of letting go of the greats recedes, it is rather exciting to contemplate becoming part of a superorganism. Teilhard de Chardin understood this long before anyone else. It is all in the “Phenomenon of Man.”


HH 10.01.08 at 3:01 pm

Is any of the original nonbulshit marxists still working on global economic systems?

Mac Arthur fellow Mike Davis’s “Planet of Slums” is packed with data and is a well-defended neo-Marxist denunciation of a global “development” system that is producing exactly the opposite of what it promises.


Sebastian 10.01.08 at 3:32 pm

“Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice towards the end of the postwar boom. At that time, many people had a high degree of confidence in the extent to which national economies could be controlled and planned.
Keynsian macroeconomic techniques suggested that governments could use public expenditure and the management of interest and exchange rates to even out the business cycle. It is fair to say that experience since the late 1970s has dented the belief that we can use such tools to control something as complex as a market economy with any degree of accuracy.”

I think this is a very important point. Systems in capitalism tend to be evolutionary (yes this is a fun time to note how right-wingers tend not to believe that useful emergent systems can come from biological evolution while left-wingers tend to suspect that useful emergent systems cannot come from any non-biological evolution). Rather than controlling they system, the best government can do is apply evolutionary pressure in various directions. But that doesn’t dictate the outcomes.

Biological analogy: say the temperature in some region gets too hot in the middle of the day for the current species to do well. Will the plants change to release water more slowly? Will the animals become more heat resistant? Will they keep essentially the same physcially but instead change their movement habits more toward the night? Will they move underground? Will they congregate more around water? Will some die off? Will others change so much as to be almost unrecognizeable? A scientist could tell you that there will be adaptive change, but unless he actually controls the breeding, and often not even then, he can’t tell you exactly what the changes will be except in retrospect.

Political philosophers tend to act as if they can build the whole thing like a clock, while the reality is that the most they can do is tinker with the thermostat and maybe add a little water.


Tracy W 10.01.08 at 3:33 pm

Stupid question time – what would APP bring to studying capitalism that is different from what ordinary economists try to do?


mpowell 10.01.08 at 3:36 pm

In the back and forth between Chris and Matt, I noticed a discrepancy worth commenting on. Chris seems to be more focused on distributional concerns. Those are obviously important, but average wealth is pretty important, too. I don’t think this particular crisis is demonstrating any truths regarding distributional concerns. I think the last 25 years in the United States have indicated that there is something wrong the democratic institutions in the United States with regards to achieving just outcomes in economic distributions. But the political experience in Europe over the same time period suggests that these problems may be particular to the traditions and history of the US. On the other hand, the ability of our institutions to produce economic wealth has been called into question on both sides of the Atlantic. If anything, I would view this as a gap in Rawl’s analysis, but that gap is more or less intended. If the Marxist critique of capitalism proves to be accurate, Rawlsians can adopt Marx over capitalism as there go to economic order easily enough. I don’t think the current crisis goes that far, though. Even with a significant downturn, capitalism has still accomplished more than communism ever did. Marx’s cyclic economic critiques seem very relevant today, but still not quite right, in my opinion. I am more concerned about whether the political institutions we have at our disposal are up to the task of creating the financial institutions we need to fix capitalism.


John Emerson 10.01.08 at 3:50 pm



Walt 10.01.08 at 3:55 pm

Tracy W: More focus on normative questions.


J Thomas 10.01.08 at 3:57 pm

To understand the ideas of capitalism you might try the evolutionary literature. Capitalist ideals follow directly from that.

They figure that the more successful an entity is, the more influence it should be allowed on the rest of the economy. “Success” is measured by producing things that others will pay for, and bringing in more money than you pay. The surplus money can be used for anything but particularly for creating more success.

The system as a whole evolves as new entities find new ways to be successful. This ecosystem change is assumed to be somehow “good” because if it didn’t lead to a better system it would not generate profits.

Some of the older ecological literature is directly relevant — people assumed that ecological succession involved some sort of beneficial progression, and that any ecological change must be somehow “good”. The idea was basicly that if an ecosystem did not have what it takes to prevent a takeover, then it was flawed and the new system must be better — if you can take over from another system then you must be somehow stronger and presumably will be better able to defend against another takeover. Similar arguments have been made by “corporate raiders” and imperialists.

Some things are hard to market effectively. For example, if you try to sell knowledge, what keeps your customers from selling it or giving it away? Plant breeders handled that by selling hybrids that don’t breed true. The seed that’s sold is warranted to perform a particular way, but the next generation doesn’t breed true. Copyright and patent laws are designed to aid with that. Universities manage by selling knowledge that’s so complicated no one would want to effectively pass it on. Businesses keep trade secrets by splitting up the knowledge among many workers, no one of which knows more than a small sliver. The problem has not been solved well.

Then there’s the issue of risk. There are various attempts to buy and sell risk. Insurance companies use economy of scale; a catastrophic loss to you is lost in the noise for them. But if they have secret knowledge of who’s at risk then it’s natural for them to refuse to insure the risky. If risky buyers have secret knowledge then they will take out more insurance than normal. And what’s fair when the knowledge is not secret? Should smokers pay higher car insurance rates? Sure. Would they lie about it? Should auto insurance companies insist on drug tests to screen people for tobacco? And health insurance is a special problem; what do you do when the average buyer needs more medical care than he can afford? Then your average medical costs are not lost in the noise for the insurance company. If there are enough uninsured, then the insurance companies can use their leverage to negotiate low rates for them and pass the extra costs onto the uninsured. Or the government.

The mortage crisis came when people used advanced statistical methods to sell acceptable risks. If the chance of default among homeowners was not correlated, those methods would have provided known cash flows. But the statistics did not correspond to reality. Why did so many of these deals get sold? Why did so many banks etc believe in them, when there was no long-term track record? I personally believe that the import-export crisis required them to, they needed something and this was what was available.

“You get what you pay for.”
“You might not get what you pay for, but you pay for what you get.”
“You pay for what you need whether you get it or not.”

Similarly with the complicated derivatives that nobody except a few actuaries understood. Why was there such a large market for them when they were untested and misunderstood? Because many companies desperately needed what they promised. If you buy them and they fail, you’re screwed. If you don’t buy them you’re screwed anyway.

Anyway, there’s my suggestion in very general terms. 20th century capitalist theory tends to be quite homologous with 19th century ecological theory. And likely the 21st century corrections will mirror the 20th century discoveries in ecology and ecological population genetics.


Colin Danby 10.01.08 at 3:59 pm

I would ask us to think about how choices are set up here.

The APP – versus – ” ‘critical’ ” divide sweeps way too much into the latter category. Analytic philosophy has merits, but too many if its adherents think of it as a tribal identification solidified via truculence toward non-analytic traditions, of all kinds — you can see the politeness rapidly break down in the substitution of “bullshit” for “critical” above. The final sentence of the original post, about “those who prefer…” is weird, because it assumes that the conversation will be restricted to people who accept certain unstated conventions. Why shut the door like this?

Heterodox economists will be familiar with the same kind of refusal to engage among orthodox economists. So again, this seems an odd moment to be policing the boundaries of conversations.

The term “capitalism” is being asked to do far too much work in this discussion. It functions both as something that’s assumed to have a particular internal logic whatever that is, and to a way of pointing to the current state of affairs in the world. (A tendency to think of the social world as simpler and more legible than it is is a common problem in philosophical discussions of economy of all kinds.) This move also forgets a basic insight of feminist economics, which is that the real, material world we inhabit is much more institutionally-complex than simple notions of “capitalism” or markets or money would suggest.

I would suggest (a) if we’re paying attention to Marx, read the 2nd and 3rd volumes of capital in which a more fluid, financial economy comes into view (b) pay much more attention to Austrian Economics, especially those (e.g. Lachmann, Lavoie) who are interested in interpretation, (c) take another look at Post Keynesian economics, which has a modest philosophical tradition of its own, and which has, in writers like Davidson and Minsky not to mention Keynes, by far the richest set of theories for what is going on in the world right now.


lemuel pitkin 10.01.08 at 4:03 pm

I’m with Colin. it takes a funny sort of blinkers to think the question is “How do we analyze the crisis within APP” rather than “Is APP useful for for understanding the current crisis.” Far as I can tell, the answer to the altter question is No — or at least, not nearly as useful as lots of other traditions, such as the ones Colin mentions.

Honestly, I can’t for the life of me imagine someone who was not already professionally committed to analytic philosophy who would trun to it to understand the state of the world right now. Can anyone else?


seth edenbaum 10.01.08 at 4:11 pm

This crisis marks another point in the transition from an ideology of capitalism and individualism as utopia to a sense of capitalism, and markets in general, as another aspect of social life. Academic intellectuals are not leading in this- indeed they’re lagging behind. Academic libertarianism is the new scientific Marxism.

What’s being built still slowly but now visibly is a culture founded in and respectful of -because constituted by- divided consciousness. Theses days you’ll find a better description and analysis of American daily life on HBO than on a university campus, where proud utilitarian “philosophers” like Lyndsay Beyerstein walk around wearing Johnny Cash T-Shits without paying the slightest attention to the fact that they’re celebrating someone who represents the opposite of everything they claim to represent. I shouldn’t even have to add that I’m not talking about religion, but I have to assume I have no choice.

The answer to the immediate crisis seems to be Sweden 1992, but no one seems to have the guts -Not DeLong, not Krugman- to call for shoving that down Republicans’ throats and taking responsibility for the result. What we get is to bi-partisan bullshit that won’t work so the blame is divided equally between the two parties. Literally that’s the argument: Only if we can’t come together to do something that won’t work should we consider something that might Read DeLong. Read Roubini
” the claim by the Fed and Treasury that spending $700 billion of public money is the best way to recapitalize banks has absolutely no factual basis or justification.”

Tell me now who puts party before country?


tt 10.01.08 at 4:39 pm

“If I study what justice for parents, children and non-parents requires from society, I also go to the social sciences and pedogogical research to learn more about what children need, or what is needed for a healthy child-parent relationship. But after I have digested that (explanatory) knowledge, I move to APP to work out a normative account. ”

So, if one wants to analyse capitalism from a normative point of view, one should start with studying some economics. As of now, I do not see any concrete direction that the new macro thinking you support may take. I see only unmonitored banks, using a huge liquidity from keynesian demand-management in Greenspan era, gambling with complicated financial instruments. This calls for new regulation and, from a normative point of view, for thinking about the possible distributional issues of the bailout, something APP is decently equipped with, as you notice.


Mike Otsuka 10.01.08 at 4:40 pm


I agree that there’s very little work of analytical Marxism that’s been published during the past fifteen or so years. It seems that this research project rapidly fizzled out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I guess, however, that I’m reluctant to categorize the analytical Marxist literature as ‘old’. (This may have something to do with the fact that it was brand new during my graduate student days, and if it’s now old, then so, I suppose, am I.)

I think the non-bullshit Marxists did try — for a brief period in the relatively recent past — to do pretty much exactly what you were lamenting the absence of in your post.

As far as I can tell, there’s very little ideal theory in their writings. There’s a fair amount of attention to the prospects of a transition from actually existing capitalism to socialism and, by contast, very little spelling out of how things would be in socialist heaven. Here they mirror Marx.

Since you say, in your most recent post, that “I had actually orginially inserted the ‘analytical marxists’ as an example in the post, but took them out since I felt that this was ‘old’ literature”, I’m now puzzled by the following line in your original post: “I suspect there is quite some (older?) literature out there, but that it just hasn’t been very fashionable in recent years.” Shouldn’t this have been more than a suspicion, given your outdating of analytical Marxism?


J Thomas 10.01.08 at 5:04 pm

Tell me now who puts party before country?

Look at the Bush years.

If you had the chance to do one important thing right that would put the GOP in control for another 4 or 8 years, would you do it?

I say no. No matter what the issue is right now, it can’t be more important than defeating the GOP. Anything you do right that gives GOP control, they can undo for at least 4 years. It’s not worth it.

If we get faced with global thermonuclear war or sacrificing the elections and letting the GOP continue, then burn, baby burn. It probably only shortens it a little.


mijnheer 10.01.08 at 5:34 pm

Picking up on the “rhetorical” question of Dan bednarz: We need to look to Marx, while recognizing that Marx was insufficiently materialist in his analyses. (Sebastiano Timpanaro was arguing for a more materialist Marxism in On Materialism, back in 1975.) In other words, we need to understand the ecological limits and possibilities of capitalism. We need to examine what ecology and systems theory can tell us about energy flows and the viability of complex societies. In other words, we need to start taking Engels and his dialectics of nature seriously.


notsneaky 10.01.08 at 5:34 pm

“It is fair to say that experience since the late 1970s has dented the belief that we can use such tools to control something as complex as a market economy with any degree of accuracy.”

I know it doesn’t seem to make sense now, but the 1975-2005 period has been called “The Great Moderation”. And not entirely without reason.


notsneaky 10.01.08 at 5:35 pm

Sorry that should be 1985-2005


MarkUp 10.01.08 at 5:36 pm

What happens when the GOP takes the likely big hit in the coming election? Will the DNC bring in one of the many looking for work M&A teams and do to [with] the RNC what CITI did to Wachovia? Could that be considered a Neo-Marxist move, though with a funny mustache?


praisegod barebones 10.01.08 at 6:04 pm

‘But there is a trade off between clarity and rigour on the one hand, and relevance and insight on the other.’

That’s a nicely turned aphorism, but it can’t be quite right. If something’s unclear, how can you tell whether its relevant, or what it might be relevant to?

And why have some philosophers divorced themselves in part from the real world?.. I do wonder if that Wittgenstein has a lot to answer for…

Hard to lay this particular pathology at the dotty Austrian’s door, unless you think that his encouragement to ‘get back to the rough ground’ is where the rot really sets in.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.01.08 at 6:04 pm

Colin, I am taking offense at your suggestion that I am trying to police. Instead, I try to see whether there’s anything *within* APP that can help us to analyse (not just understand, as explained above) capitalism and other alternative global economic systems. It is precisely to avoid only receiving suggestions that we should look elsewhere (in economics, sociology, etc.) that I tried to delineate my question. The reason is that I care about this APP framework: I have found it very useful for a number of normative questions, and have found economics, including heterodox economics, largely failing at carefully addressing normative questions at the same level of detail, analytical power, and constructive spirit as APP. But I am open to the possibility that there are areas where the reverse holds: global economic systems may be one of them. So that’s my motivation for delineating the question as I do: the delineation is needed to figure out what, if anything, there is in APP to study these topics.

I think sometimes there are good reasons to want to debate an issue within a certain literature, or, “to shut doors of a conversation” as you prefer to call it (mind you: not ‘close’ doors, but ‘shut’ doors). It is fine if people suggest that to answer my question one may better look elsewhere, but it is equally legitimate for me to try to find out whether APP can serve us here. Answering this question does indeed require knowing what’s happening within APP. If the discussion reveals that there is little or no relevant literature within APP, then that is something that should concern APPs, I think. It’s perfectly fine with me that some (or many?) CT readers do not care since they are not attracted to the APP literature in the first place, but some, including myself, do.


Dan Kervick 10.01.08 at 6:15 pm

There is a lively field of inquiry devoted to understanding the economic behavior of human beings. It is called “economics”. If your aim is to understand human economic behavior, individually or socially, locally or globally, that is where you begin. And like any other area of systematic inquiry, a sustained encounter with economics gives rise to a host of difficult abstract, methodological and conceptual questions about the foundational concepts and principles employed in the field of economics, and also about the concepts and principles that economics shares with other fields of inquiry. This is true whether the particualr forms of economic thought that appeal to you are classical, orthodox or heterodox.

Economics also has a normative, evaluative dimension that produces or draws on substantive claims about rationality: about rational ways of organizing one’s values, about rational means of organizing and conducting inquiry, about rational balancing one’s mental states and about rational standards of decision-making, deliberation etc. There are many areas of philosophy that are closely allied with both the descriptive and evaluative dimensions of economics, and the fields cross-pollinate each other. This is actually a very lively area of research. Many of those on the more philosophical side of the line would be seen as analytic philosophers by most definitions. Their work can be found in philosophical and interdisciplinary journals that publish articles in the fields of decision theory, value theory, moral philosophy and other areas of thought related to practical reason.

Much of the work in cognitive and connative psychology also has strong participation from analytic philosophers, and is clearly relevant to political thinking. Analytic philosophers are just as involved as philosophers ever have been in the broader inquiry devoted to understanding human nature.

As someone who was once a professional analytic philosopher, and is still a devoted amateur, and as someone who also spends a lot of time thinking about politics too, I have to say that I have found my philosophical research to be directly relevant to my political thinking in countless ways. I draw in some way on my philosophical thinking in just about everything I write, including blog posts. However, I admit have never taken much of an interest in the institutionalized contemporary sub-field sometimes called “analytic political philosophy”, which seems dominated by certain star thinkers, and certain questions and inquiries that have never strongly attracted my attention.

For one thing, there is a bit too much emphasis for my taste on normative evaluation, and not enough on descriptive understanding. Many people in political philosophy always seem to me to want to jump right away to questions about what is right, and don’t do nearly enough preliminary thinking about the way things actually are, and why they are the way they are. They sometimes indeed seem to make a point about advancing normative prescriptions that are supposed to apply to all rational beings, or relate mainly to strange ideal societies that are inhumanly remote from our own. Philosophy always has been, and always will be concerned with testing its ideas by reference to hypothetical circumstances, abstracted in certain ways from the messy real world so as to bring out certain features that are the focus of the philosopher’s attention. But moral and political thinking in action are applications of practical reason to complex actual circumstances filled with actual human beings. Much contemporary political philosophy seems to me not just abstract, but removed and unconcerned with human nature as it is actually found – and therefore irrelevant to our political lives.

My own normative thinking is fundamentally rooted in the utilitarian tradition, and I think of normative political thinking as just a particular employment of practical reason, applied to current circumstances, considering immediate, short-term and long-term goals, entertaining proposed plans and actions that might be initiated in those circumstances, reasoning causally about the streams of consequences issuing from those plans and actions, and evaluating and hierarchically organizing the plans and actions on that the basis of those consequences, and different kinds of values we can apply to different outcomes. Much of contemporary political philosophy is wedded to Kantian, constructivist, right-oriented or contractarian ways of thinking about politics that are alien to me.

I have also personally never had a strong interest in the topic of justice. I suppose you could even say I am a skeptic about justice, just as I am about moral “rights” of certain kinds. But that topic seems to dominate the agenda in analytic political philosophy, whether we are talking about Nozick, Rawls or Cohen. While I do favor a much more egalitarian society, my thinking in that area is mainly based on utilitarian considerations about the benefits of balancing social power, about the most rational ways of compensating and organizing work so as to produce the most overall value for a society, about diminishing utility at the social margins, and about sustaining the social foundations of democracy. The benefits of different forms of democracy are for me less a matter of justice and rights than a question of building a sustainable and well-functioning political community, in which distributed knowledge and interests are efficiently channeled from local settings into rational social action that satisfies human needs in the most beneficial overall pattern, and that minimizes debilitating social discord so that the society can continue to progress without large unnecessary expenditures of wasted human energy.


Jo Wolff 10.01.08 at 6:21 pm

Tuesday was the first day of my course on Marx’s Early Writings. There has never been a better time …


mpowell 10.01.08 at 6:41 pm

I guess, Dan, you might say you are far more concerned about sustainability than ideals. When you consider the state of society for most of human history, this approach begins to look a lot more desirable. Kant might have some objections, though.


Lee A. Arnold 10.01.08 at 6:48 pm

I have started drawing a different picture here:

and part two is a few months away.

I believe that the key is to recognize that there is a “one-to-many, many-to-one” operator which is dominant in both personal cognition (rather like a Kantian category) and in social systems (often as the governance system, among other things.) I symbolized it as a regular part of the syntax of an animated flow language.

It is a center (the one) with a periphery (the many.) This takes us back to Aristotle, although there is not much there. It is a metaphysical entity at the same level as mathematics, although it is not mathematics.

More specifically in cognition and social systems, there are only two basic kinds of things: (1) Center: institutions / contexts, and (2) Periphery: transactions / distinctions.

I drew it as a snowflake pattern for nesting like Koestler’s holons, but the number in the periphery is not important: it is “many.” Making it symmetrical, however, appears to have cognitive value.

The instances may be temporary or permanent; macro or micro. Some are subsystems and some overlap holistically.

Markets are the institution using price transactions. It preserves some kinds of freedoms and inhibits others. So we need other, epicentric institutions overlapping, to take care of both distributive and environmental issues.

These problems are naturally occurring and in fact unavoidable.

Part two of my video will show that ALL such formations have three kinds of perpetual problems: (A) in the center, (B) in the periphery, and (C) outside. The center tends to over-centralize (e.g. aggrandize wealth,) the members of the periphery tend to over-specialize or over-differentiate (and therefore lose systemwide information,) and the outer area or environment falls outside of computational ability.

Again, these problems are perpetual, and unavoidable in all growing subsystems.

But unfortunately for the likes of us, the only solution is more of the same: ANOTHER institution with new sorts of transactions, or another context with new sorts of distinctions. These will be immediately subject to the same problems, in their own new terms, of over-centralization, over-specialization, and noncomputation of the exterior.

So we need overlapping, epicentric institutions for balance, a little like Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws.

There is no big synthesis, just a multitude of little ones.

There is a reading list way down the left side of my YouTube page, here:


Colin Danby 10.01.08 at 6:49 pm

I’m sorry you take offense, Ingrid.

I’m suggesting (a) that your initial question about how to “analyse capitalism” is not well-formed in that it assumes too much about “capitalism” as an object of analysis. This would seem to me to be the kind of question that could be thought about within an analytic framework. Second, I suggest that there are *multiple* other areas of heterodox economics relevant to the questions your initial posting raises, among them normative questions. Keynes, for Christ’s sake, was a student of G.E. Moore and a close associate of Russell and Wittgenstein and there’s a lit in Post Keynesian economics that follows some of that up. I tend to think there’s a lot of relevant work in Institutional and Austrian economics, but since I don’t pass every idea I come across through the filter of whether it fits APP, who knows if it will interest you. Finally, your initial post contains, in its second para, what looks like a recognition that there might be material worth reading in other philosophical traditions. And yet within a few posts you echo, without apparent irony, language about bullshit Marxists. (If you are so ready to take offense, think twice about giving it!) It’s probably useless to pursue this, since once one is outside a charmed circle of discourse one can’t argue one’s way in, but I’m always struck by how the act of establishing a conversation among certain analytic philosophers entails pushing off against non-analytics.


HH 10.01.08 at 6:52 pm

large unnecessary expenditures of wasted human energy

Behaviors fitting this category in America would include:

1. The colossal post-WWII arms race.

2. Several insane neo-colonial wars, culminating in the Iraq/Afghanistan twin disasters.

3. The building of an unsustainable American suburbia, which James Howard Kunstler calls the “greatest misallocation of resources in human history.”

These follies were all committed by the most prosperous “democratic” society in history, addled by propaganda and corrupted by prosperity.


SamChevre 10.01.08 at 7:01 pm

I am not an analytical philospher; I am not a philosopher of any sort by training. What little acquaintance with philosophy I have is largely from reading CT, which is a bit like trying to do topology based on knowing addition.

That said, here are my guesses at the areas where analytical philosophy might interact with looking at the ongoing economic turmoil.

Modern political-economic thought is based heavily on two arguments.

Hayek’s argument that centralized decision-making scales badly due to knowledge-aggregation problems, and Friedman’s argument that Freedom critically includes the freedom to trade with willing, informed partners.

Decision theory might help in determining in what circumstances Hayek’s argument holds.

The most-likely candidate seems to me to look carefully at how Freedom is defined. Defining Freedom as “you may act as you choose” is not universal; the argument that only the freedom to do what is beneficial to you is true freedom has deep roots in the natural law tradition, as well as in some more modern schools of thought. (Augustine’s “Without Thee, what am I but a guide to my own destruction?” would be a classic statement of freedom as something othe rhtan lack of constraint.)

I cannot see philosophy, of any sort, as being a good choice of tool for institutional design. It can be very useful for setting goals and constraints, but institutional design is probably going to require specific kinds of knowledge that will be based in economics and political theory.


Walt 10.01.08 at 7:02 pm

Colin, FWIW if Wikipedia’s to be believed, analytic Marxists used the “bullshit” terminology themselves.


Seth Edenbaum 10.01.08 at 7:19 pm

DeLong is going back and forth. Now he’s going back, or at least linking to Dean Baker.
Interestingly the first reference to Sweden I read was on DeLong’s page. With Baker adding in comments: “I’m with the DeLong plan!!!!!!”
Baker at least has been a consistent supporter.

And one more time on the general subject: The failures of Marxism, like the failures of all other philosophical/linguistic systems, begin with a failure of imagination, and a surfeit of students trying to think what the master thought, rather to how. That’s how ideas and observations become reified as ideologies.
You can’t systematize human perception, and you can’t systematize human interaction and continue in a republican form of government. Seeing life as a series of problems to be solved, results in a deeply simplistic and deeply unpleasant, authoritarian philosophy of governance. It’s also the foundation of modern liberalism. Seeing life as a series of aporias and dilemmas to be faced by each of us, alone and with our friends and our communities, this none of you have patience for. The language of liberalism is the language of generalities and generalizations, not the language of specifics. It’s the language of ideas, rather than observations., which is why any observations that might throw it off balance, about America and the world (if you’re an American) about gender (if you’re a man), about the behavior of a black presidential candidate (if you’re a white), about the relation of Islam to the European world… and on and on.
People need to be observant because systems never are. DeLong is a mass of contradictions, but not to himself. The same is true for most of you. That’s what needs ‘analysis’

To put it in vulgar terms, systems will always require managers and good management will always require the wisdom of Solomon; and Solomon lived, if he did at all, a long time ago. But system making is still in vogue, while the fostering of wisdom, or even the notion that it exists, is considered passe. I want progress. It’s not progress if I’m looking at the past!
Wisdom can’t be taught. And if something can’t be taught what good is it? And if something does not fit in the formal system I’ve developed, I’ll ignore it.
The rule of the academic industrial complex.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.01.08 at 7:30 pm

Colin, I agree about the use of the term ‘bullshit’ – I should not have copied that from Mike’s post. The fact that this is widely used in this literature is no excuse, I accept that.
But I really think you are trying to fight, via my post, a battle that you have with other people, probably hard-core analytical philosophers who make strong claims that all non-analytical philosophy is useless (not just that they don’t find it usefull for themselves, but the much stronger claim that they believe it is useless, for every reader, for every question, for every debate). I am not saying that I think this non-APP literuare that I read is no good; I just say that I personally don’t find it helpful, but that doesn’t imply that I can respect and accept that other people do find it very useful (in fact some of my best friends do), just as I am happy with other people not finding APP or any other academic literature/tradition useful for what they are after. I say this not because I want to ‘push off non-analytics’ as you call it, but rather to motivate why I want to search hard within APP for good literature. If I haven’t found good literature yet, don’t you think it is normal strategy to see whether there may be unknown or hidden knowledge or potential within an existing tradition that I do find, overall, a useful literature to study normative questions?
So I think I am entitled to raise the question that I raised, and consequently to feel offended by your attack, and I’m sorry to read that you don’t seem to appreciate why I do so. I think we are talking cross-purposes and we only seem to make things worse, so you can have the last word – I’ll shut up.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.01.08 at 7:35 pm

sorry this shoudl not all have been italics. Couldn’t find how to fix it in WordPress – and I am switching off the computer so it’ll stay there as it is. Goodnight.


HH 10.01.08 at 7:36 pm

Seth is stating the evils of destructive conceptual simplifications in an excessively metaphysical way. Systems are neither intrinsically good or bad. We get good or bad results to the degree than we understand them.

The most important test of understanding is predictive power. Obviously, the financial and political leaders of the United States did not understand our capital markets. This does not mean that altering this system and improving our understanding of it is a foolish or unattainable goal.


Mike Otsuka 10.01.08 at 8:10 pm

In calling them ‘non-bullshit Marxists’, I was just unthinkingly using their own term of self-reference. These Marxists even created a letterhead, which included a drawing roughly along these lines :

The circle with the line through it encompassed only the bullshit, however. It did not also encompass the bull. I assume that this is because they had nothing against bulls. They just didn’t like bullshit.


John Emerson 10.01.08 at 8:13 pm

A: ‘But there is a trade off between clarity and rigour on the one hand, and relevance and insight on the other.’

B: That’s a nicely turned aphorism, but it can’t be quite right. If something’s unclear, how can you tell whether its relevant, or what it might be relevant to?

Analytic philosophers narrow their problems by stipulation until they’ve been stated with complete clarity so that strict precision and rigorous truth can be attained. In doing so they leave out hard-to-handle problems which are crucial in actual practice. A less-precise, more comprehensive method aiming at more general but less certainly true answers can be more useful, more illuminating, and more powerful, even though the answer will be imperfect are require additional work.

The reciprocity isn’t binary. It’s not a choice between 0 clarity and 1 relevance on the one hand, and 1 clarity and 0 relevance on the other. But the institutional culture analytic philosophy favors cllarity and rigor far too strongly.


matt 10.01.08 at 8:19 pm

John, you’re fighting imaginary figures (ones that were straw-men even in the 50’s and 60’s) again. Please don’t.


John Emerson 10.01.08 at 8:27 pm

No, Matt, I’m responding to a statement by praisegod barebones on this thread, which was a response to Nick L.

I understand that CT’s failure to ban me bothers you and Brian Leiter, but that’s your problem.


brooksfoe 10.01.08 at 8:29 pm

capitalism and other alternative global economic systems. — Ingrid

I simply don’t understand what is meant by an “alternative global economic system” or by your use of the term “capitalism”.

Marx used the term “capitalism” to refer to a period in human economic organization, as distinct from systems which held in earlier periods and from a predicted later communist phase of organization.

In the 20th century the term “capitalism” was used both in the Marxian sense and in a sense in which it was distinguished from socialist and Soviet-style command economies.

With the collapse of Soviet-style command economies there is no longer a plausible case that a post-capitalist communist phase will develop. There is also no “alternative global economic system”.

It is now possible, and in fact crucial, to draw distinctions between different kinds of market economies. Different economies have very different ways of structuring companies and of setting up the relationships between financial firms and production firms. Different economies have different roles for the state and different ways of organizing workers. Korean capitalism is different from Chinese capitalism is different from Australian capitalism is different from Russian capitalism is different from French capitalism is different from American capitalism is different from Brazilian capitalism.

But the way you are using “capitalism”, I am not sure that it means anything. It seems to be a difference that does not make a difference. What is “non-capitalism”, in your worldview? Wouldn’t you do better to substitute the word “economics” for “capitalism”?


MQ 10.01.08 at 8:57 pm

This crisis marks another point in the transition from an ideology of capitalism and individualism as utopia to a sense of capitalism, and markets in general, as another aspect of social life.

I think this is true and a very good point by Seth. Some areas of economics is also moving closer to understanding markets as tools that are always embedded within a broader social system. It’s getting much harder to define ‘capitalism’ as the dependence of markets on their regulatory and institutional backgrounds becomes more and more clear.

I also like Dan Kervick’s comment 52 a lot.

Seeing life as a series of problems to be solved, results in a deeply simplistic and deeply unpleasant, authoritarian philosophy of governance. It’s also the foundation of modern liberalism. Seeing life as a series of aporias and dilemmas to be faced by each of us, alone and with our friends and our communities,

Fine words, but modern societies simply do not operate on the community / friends you know level. The technocratic elements of our ideologies reflect concrete material facts about the scale of our institutions and the extent of our division of labor.


Seth Edenbaum 10.01.08 at 9:13 pm

Sorry, but both those quotes are from me.
“The technocratic elements of our ideologies reflect concrete material facts about the scale of our institutions ”
And we need to fight humanize those institutions.
I had another rougher, raunchier, comment up (I thought) but either it got removed, or I went on to other things and then closed the page. It doesn’t matter.
The real issue here is not knowledge or the lack of it but the inability of our political class to think or act as adults. And no amount of academic discussion will resolve that.


MQ 10.01.08 at 9:31 pm

I know, Seth, I was just saying generally I liked Kervick’s comment 52. I didn’t quote from it.


Seth Edenbaum 10.01.08 at 10:04 pm

No offense intended.
Thanks for the good review.


Colin Danby 10.02.08 at 2:06 am

You’re right, Ingrid, that my initial response was too sharp; I apologize for that. I also regret that my annoyance overshadowed other points I was hoping to make.

— I’m glad some folks are taking up the question of whether or in what respects “capitalism” makes sense as an object of knowledge (or analysis). On a good day I can sort of pick out what Marx, or Schumpeter, or Braudel mean by the term, and even there it differs a lot, but those folks have at least clear historical reference to the phenomena they’re picking out. One can also point out various theoretical efforts at definition of capitalism by Marxists analytical and, um, not analytical; some Post Keynesians use the term… you get the idea. I’d simply suggest that actual, existing material life is institutionally very mixed, and this certainly applies to finance, in which government is always present — the presence just happens to be especially vivid whenever banking systems collapse into nationalization. Feminist economics, again, is valuable among other things because it problematizes how we think about the institutional organization of the material life around us, and that includes areas like finance.

— Why doesn’t APP link up with Keynes and Post Keynesians, given the various philosophical links I pointed out? Wouldn’t that be relevant to a macroeconomic turn?

— I hope I’ve communicated to others that there’s a range of economicses — it doesn’t just reduce it to neoclassical versus marxist, an opposition that serves neither of those traditions well and excludes interesting others. And it’s possible to think across them, as John Hicks’ work showed. We are at an interesting moment when there is more philosophical work from a range of traditions being linked to a range of heterodoxies.


geo 10.02.08 at 4:49 am

Much the best analysis — empirical and normative — I’ve come across of the crisis and its antecedents is in books by Robert Kuttner (The Squandering of America), David Cay Johnston (Free Lunch), Kevin Phillips (Bad Money), and articles or blogposts by Dean Baker, Nouriel Roubini, Ralph Nader … hmm … not one academic economist or philosopher among them … ?


Bruce Baugh 10.02.08 at 5:23 am

Just to return to the Rawls issue for a moment…I don’t think that the basic scheme has failed so much as a lot of Rawlsian turned out to have naive views about other actors in society. We have institutions several decades old which have been fine-tuned to produce results desirable to their instigators. It’s just that those people are (in varying mixes) villains and fools, and callous to the extreme about the effects of their system on anyone but those they choose to care about. It’s been a while now since I read much Rawls, but I have the sense that if you set aside the expectation that systems will be democratic or even very moral, then he has some analytical tools that may well still be handy.

Which is to say, what HH said in #25, pretty much.


Chris Bertram 10.02.08 at 7:24 am

Colin Danby:

“And yet within a few posts you echo, without apparent irony, language about bullshit Marxists.”

Well it is Ingrid’s thread, and she’s been concessive over this. But I wouldn’t be inclined to be. The “bullshit” term here, as used by people like Cohen echoing Frankfurt, wasn’t meant to consign all non-analytics to the bullshit category. There were clearly Marxists before “analytical Marxism” whom the “analytical Marxists” didn’t think of as bullshitters. So the English historians, Lukacs, the Frankfurt School, Lenin, Trotsky all come out as making definite claims, having clear arguments etc. Hell, even Althusser gets an ok from some of the September group (specifically Erik Wright).


matt 10.02.08 at 1:51 pm

Ingrid, I happened to be reading a chapter from the _Cambridge Companion to Keynes_ this morning, “Keynes and philosophers” by Tiziano Raffaelli. There’s some interesting discussion in there about Keynes’ views on crisis and how trust, norms, uncertainty, and the like play in. You have to extrapolate a bit to fit it with the current mess but it might be of some interest. There may be other useful chapters in the volume but I’ve only started reading it so can’t say for sure. It looks like a pretty useful book, though.


Ingrid Robeyns 10.02.08 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for all the many helpful suggestions – I learned a lot about my own limited horizons, about limitations of APP, and about works and thinkers out there to be read.


seth edenbaum 10.02.08 at 3:16 pm

If Cohen is the same man who has argued that living by example is too hard on the kids, then we’re talking about someone who’s capable of passing Althusser in the bullshit category. Frankfurt is certainly. Althusser was at least honest at the end.

There’s a whole range of analytical thought that struggles to answer questions while refusing for ideological reasons to incorporate any observational data at all. That effort spans the political spectrum. It’s not left-wing or right wing. it’s late modern academic rationalism.
Academic bullshit.


noen 10.02.08 at 4:20 pm

I found this skit by Bird and Fortune helpful:
The Subprime Morals of The Free Market Mind


John Emerson 10.02.08 at 5:11 pm

I loved Althusser’s crazy autobiography. It sad that he didn’t start out writing that kind of stuff. He could have been a great comic novelist.


seth edenbaum 10.02.08 at 5:27 pm

I want to add something because it connects specifically to the debate over theory and analysis, academicism and the market crunch.

The above is discussion of political ideas held in the context of a very real crisis. But most admit the crisis concerns less a lack of ideas than a lack of political maturity and will. Now discussions of ideas tend to pull inward towards a specialized discourse supporting the community based around it, while a wider discussion of mores or values pulls outward towards the wider linguistic, social, and political world and a larger listening and speaking public. And in this case such a discussion also engages a better, more precise, description of events. So why the refusal to engage?

In general it’s less an issue whether a taste or preference is right or wrong, but of whether and how we choose to value the abstractions that result from a discussion. If precision is desirable it’s desirable to most as a capacity for precise description. But Precisionism is a value system of it’s own. When does one become the other?
And what is precisionism?


HH 10.02.08 at 6:11 pm

what is precisionism

This is a fruitful question, and the answer depends on context. The desire to describe and manipulate things with accuracy and care is a human trait that is normally distributed, but its value when expressed in human activity is quite variable. At a pathological extreme, obsessive-compulsive disorders are highly amplified versions of precision-focused behaviors that are actively encouraged in the worlds of business or competitive athletics.

Where the craving for precision becomes especially pernicious is when it distorts the context of the exercise. The demand for precise adherence to a theory or ideology can cause abstractions to govern events, as in Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Our words and theories are nothing more than tools to give us advantages in living. When they become ends in themselves, they act as defective tools that ruin our work and injure us – no matter how precisely they are used.

The academic world is fraught with the peril of idolatrous worship of faulty intellectual tools.


Roy Belmont 10.02.08 at 7:16 pm

Out of the pieces of a broken balsa-wood model airplane kit Temple Grandin, when she was a child, constructed a, self-engineered, model helicopter with a rubber-band wind-up propeller, that rose 100 feet into the air.
Temple Grandin being, in addition to someone with a solid career and many successes in the field of animal husbandry, an autistic woman whose life and life obstacles were made famous by Oliver Sachs.
Keywords: tools, defective, precision-focused, ruin, work, peril, fraught, faulty.


MarkUp 10.02.08 at 9:45 pm

“The academic world is fraught with the peril of idolatrous worship of faulty intellectual tools.”

Interesting parallel in the Google 2001 thread as concerns search ranking and algorithms; of course we see this spill in to finance as well.


seth edenbaum 10.02.08 at 10:20 pm

Temple Grandin’s day job is as a designer of slaughterhouses.
And no, I’m not particularly interested in the opinions concerning intersubjectivity and the relation of individual to democratic society of a person who says she understands cows more than people.


Roy Belmont 10.03.08 at 4:45 am

As you know, slaughterhouses produce meat by butchering animals, and are thus just an extension of the individual slaughtering done by carnivores everywhere, of which we are one, as a species. To get the meat you have to kill the animal and cut up its body. Certainly very few if any people reading this come from multiple generations of exclusive-by-choice vegetetarians.
The condemnation in your dismissal gets its power from the distance between table and field, a distance so great it’s as though they’re not connected at all anymore. Slaughterhouses are metaphors as much as actual places now, glimpses into the dark side. But then so are trucks full of battery chickens headed toward the poultry plant, transported in the middle of the night so kids won’t see where their lunch comes from.
A point could be made that Grandin’s making the process more humane is enabling the factory farm system, but that would be a weak point held almost exclusively by confused urbanized children who’ve been raised divorced from the reality of the food chain they crown.
And really the point was the helicopter.
Grandin’s about as much a democratic outlier as we’re ever going to hear from, and if her voice, and voices like hers, is ignored entirely it will be our loss.
Why someone, admitting they understand cows more than people, who then made a career out of eliminating unnecessary pain and suffering in their lives, should ignite so much contempt is maybe a kind of outlier flag in itself. Having generated this professed disinterest in “the opinions concerning intersubjectivity and the relation of individual to democratic society of a person who…”. Which seems to have no antecedent but your own private thoughts.


s.e. 10.03.08 at 5:41 am

The condemnation in my dismissal gets its power from the distance between a person and a cow, that’s all.


Roy Belmont 10.03.08 at 6:40 am

“Temple Grandin’s day job is as a designer of slaughterhouses.” Full stop.
This is a complete rebuttal and a powerful dismissal because everybody knows that’s bad, to do that, designing slaughterhouses, or even the ramps leading into them.
It gets its power from everybody knowing that that’s bad because slaughterhouses are bad and everybody knows that, because they have slaughtering in there. And slaughter is always bad, that’s all.
The distance between a person and a cow is not as great as you think, maybe.
On the other hand maybe the reason slaughterhouses are bad is because you think the distance between a person and a cow is not that great.
That might be why your attitude toward Grandin seems facile and unthoughtful.


matt 10.03.08 at 5:27 pm

Naomi Klein’s book is right up there with Mike Davis’ work–if not more important–no?


seth edenbaum 10.03.08 at 5:31 pm

You’re making an argument quite literally for autistic economics.
Productivism via the McDonaldization of everyday life.

Economics is the study of the theoretically predictable behavior of incurious but aggressive minds, under the assumption that they will always be with us and that their banal desires are better harnessed than ignored. I was not raised to nor will I ever nor will my friends ever live by the rules laid down as mandates for homo economicus. How anyone with any pretensions to calling himself an intellectual could imagine viewing Warren Buffet or the oligarchs of google with anything other than at best bemused detachment is beyond me.

What this crisis marks is not the end of capitalism but the end of American ideological capitalism. Even jackass neoliberals are saying the answer is what Sweden did in 92.
Capitalism is an absurd joke that won’t ever go away. Better to treat it that way.


roy belmont 10.03.08 at 6:18 pm

If I’m the “you” in that then no. I’m pointing out to the pompously didactic HH that the combat binary he’s trying to establish is dimensionless and fictive, then I’m sort of defending Grandin against your aspersions, implied as they are. In neither case was I attempting to address present economic circumstances or theory. Certainly not to defend in any way the insectivization of food production.
I’m an agrarian populist with post-Christian/neo-Maoist tendencies, and Aquarian communalism’s fine by me, as are idealized, even mythic hunter-gatherer economies, and bio-regionally diverse nomadics.
My McDonald’s life-list is in the low teens, even though I was alive and scarfing burgers when it was founded by Mr Kroc et al., though not in my vicinity or my tally would be a lot higher. I’ve never willingly entered one as an adult, and I never bought anything at WalMart the one time I was in one.
Wendell Berry will have my proxy vote to use as he sees fit as long as he’s engaged in these issues.
Speaking way outside my mandate, not that you asked, the present state of things Wall Street looks an awful lot like something you’d see around the base of the tower of Babel just before the lightning hit.


J Thomas 10.03.08 at 8:03 pm

And no, I’m not particularly interested in the opinions concerning intersubjectivity and the relation of individual to democratic society of a person who says she understands cows more than people.

Humans have a variety of available behavior patterns. We can act alone, or we can run in packs. We can plant and hunt. Sometimes different patterns get emphasized. Doesn’t it seem in recent years that large numbers of americans are acting more like herd animals?

We might learn a whole lot about conservatives by studying cows. I’d be interested in the insights of somebody who’s good at it.


HH 10.03.08 at 8:17 pm

If I may offer another pompously didactic observation, there is a profound distinction between ideologues and pragmatists (and no, pragmatism is not an ideology). Ideologues worship schemes and models as ends in themselves, and pragmatists adopt schemes and models as disposable means to ends. There is an unfortunate tendency for pragmatic schemes to be adopted by ideologues and turned into petrified dogmas. The “free market” worship of the Chicago School economists suffered this fate, and is in large measure the cause of much of our present difficulty.


virgil xenophon 10.03.08 at 10:29 pm

“seeing life as a series of problems to be solved, results in a deeply simplistic and deeply unpleasant, authoritarian philosophy of governance.” —-Seth Edenbaum

Truer words were seldom spoken—-VX

“The end result of progressive politics is totalitarianism.”——-Eric Voegelin


Walt 10.03.08 at 10:40 pm

Well, this was a good thread, but I guess we’ve reached the trolling phase of our discussion.


Seth Edenbaum 10.03.08 at 11:56 pm

The post WWII European bourgeois/anti-bourgeois left-wing intellectuals learned a lot from the 18th century anti-bourgeois right. That’s what underlies their sense of irony that Americans schoolmen have never figured out. Neoliberals and Neoconservatives both have a very confused relation to history. Wall Street Burkeanism is a contradiction in terms; and as I try to remind people, defenders of liberal technocracy don’t really understand the conservative roots of the rule of law. The rule of law does not support the rule of reason, it opposes it. Which is why defenders of reason [cf. the “brights”] make pronouncements that are more and more explicitly anti-democratic, and why I repeat myself in saying as a secularist that I’m more offended by Richard Posner than I am by born again christians.
I have no faith in anything, especially not my capacity for reason. Wanting to be rational does not make it so. My fellow trolls here have a point.
And the market’s still tanking.


Tom Dumble 10.06.08 at 4:34 am

Karl Marx vs Adam Smith and the economic collapse. Karl Marx’s word “Capitalist” had a definition cleverly designed to nix one of the main points of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. A capitalist in Marx’s world is any owner of capital, even a small bakery shop owner.
Adam Smith’s praised the multi-competitor industries such as the bakery industry and condemed the Merchantile or Crony Capitalist system. The very name “Capitalist” to this day confuses economic discussions. While the world’s multi-competetor system has brought lower prices to billions of consumers, crony capitalist, merchantilists and monoplies are on the verge of destroying the gains. Because on part of Marx’s definition has failed us doesn’t mean the other part has.

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