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What’s So Great About Efficiency?

Early in the last century the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci developed the idea of hegemony as a hidden ideology behind political, economic and cultural domination. What is understood by dominant cultures as straightforward explanation of the natural world, common sense in contemporary parlance is really, as Gramsci argued, the underlying ideological basis for domination. It isn’t the dominant culture that the dominated have a quarrel with under the hegemonic belief system, but rather the natural order of the world. The struggle against domination becomes a struggle against nature goes the hegemonic claim.

It is with no small irony that a century later academic economists at prestigious universities in the West claim that what they teach is a method to understand the will of nature, natural economic laws, rather than what appears once the mystification is removed as rank ideology. When the students of Harvard University economics Professor Greg Mankiw recently walked out of his introductory economics class to protest the narrow ideology being taught they left behind their dear professor proclaiming his innocence. As an economic advisor to governments including the George W. Bush administration, Professor Mankiw either knew that he had blood on his hands or he was publicly admitting that he was too stupid to know that he did. No third explanation is possible.

The reason why this is an argument that needs to be had in public is that Western academic economists have wielded power over the lives of billions of people without being held responsible for the outcomes of these policies. The Free Trade policies that Mr. Mankiw and his colleagues have developed, recommended and supported have caused economic dislocations that would be the envy of the most irresponsible of military strategists and they have accomplished them with a global efficiency that would make any twentieth century dictator blush with envy. How many of those affected by free trade policies were ever asked if they consented to their implementation? The answer is none.

The claim that Professor Mankiw makes (see his New York Times editorial responding to the student protest), but that is endemic to Western economics in general, is that his economics is a methodology rather than an ideology. But a methodology is a means of accomplishing a goal. Whose goals are accomplished with the methodology of his economics? Why would a generic methodology be better at accomplishing specific goals than specific methods? And most pressing to readers, why does a purported non-ideological methodology always come to such ideologically loaded conclusions—why are there winners and losers if in theory everyone benefits? And why are the winners always the already rich and powerful and the losers always the already marginalized?

The benefits of their policies that Western economists point to are always systemic, but where exactly does this system reside? It must reside outside of human existence because otherwise the specific nature of the purported gains and losses would be evident as a social struggle between the gainers and losers. The fact is that the policies of Western economists affect specific people and the claims of systemic benefits hide their motives behind the language of political neutrality. Professor Mankiw and his colleagues either know that they are paid hacks in the service of international capital or they are but they don’t know that they are. You decide which is worse.

The goal of economics always given by Western economists is to maximize economic efficiency. Who could object to getting the most out of society’s economic efforts? If free trade agreements drive a few million peasants from their land through the destruction of their indigenous economies, don’t a few capitalists getting rich from hiring the newly “freed” labor that results mean that efficiency has been served? Lest one think this tale improbable, take a look at Mexico following implementation of NAFTA. If capital is globally mobile while labor is embedded within national boundaries, linguistic and cultural difference and the accoutrement of complex social life, how do economic models that assume that none of this embedding has economic content maximize anything?

Another smokescreen offered by Western economists is that their economics is evidence based. What they mean is that they choose the methods that support their economic claims. How many victims of their intellectual largesse have they ever interviewed? In fact, the statistical methods that they use are ideologically embedded at the core of Western hegemony. I refer readers to the ontological issues discussed in Edmund Husserl’s Crisis of the European Sciences and Martin Heidegger’s response in History of the Concept of Time and less straightforwardly in Being and Time.

The point here is that the statistical methods used by Western economists to support their claims are hegemonic in the same way that their economics are. Alternatively, if the statistical methods are non-ideological and the economics they are used to support are non-ideological, both being “methods,” then who sets the goals of these methods and how do they escape the taint of ideology? Is capitalism only a method also?

Lastly, to the protesting students, this piece results from a conversation that I had with fellow arrestees and cellmates from the Occupy Wall Street protests at the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1st. The Harvard protest came later but these ideas are in the air. The advice given me in the days of Vietnam War was to skip school and educate myself. I pass that advice along for what it is worth. And the “better” the school is that you are attending, the more relevant it is.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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