Robert Urquhart: Capital accumulation as eternal recurrence: theology of the bad infinity

The uneasy cohabitation of science and theology in neoclassical economics is an indication of its ideological character

If the lion had consciousness, his rage at the antelope he wants to eat would be ideology: Theodor Adorno; Negative Dialectics.

Extract: Neoclassical economics — most notably in the model of general equilibrium — gives an exhaustive quantitative representation of the market order. It nonetheless leaves intact the primary claim that the market is beyond human knowledge or agency: for all its precision, the model shows that not we, but the market, knows best. We must recognize the oddness of this. No one makes such a claim for the family or the state, for example, or any other field of human endeavor. Nor is it the kind of claim made by science. Scientists will always acknowledge that there are things that they do not know, but not that the central element of their particular study is in principle unknowable. There is, of course, a place where just such claims are made and that is in the realm of theology (and this is why it made sense to invoke the theological in regard to Smith).

The economic order is supposed to function entirely through immanent laws, usually treated as in some way natural (as is suggested by the assertion of Shapiro and Varian); and neoclassical economics claims the status of value-free positive science. But the demand is immediately put in question by the character of the result of the process as the best possible. For this strongly suggests some agency outside of the order itself, and the continued appeal to the image of the invisible hand – both by economists and by lay defenders of the market order – reinforces the suggestion. The continued assertion of the primary claim, with its theological aura, is thus explained. Neoclassical economics secretly retains the role of the providential that was only barely veiled in the Wealth of Nations. The providential (or theological) element cannot be admitted explicitly, but it must remain: science, it seems, is not quite enough. Belief—and belief in a mystery – is needed also.

The uneasy cohabitation of science and theology in neoclassical economics is an indication of its ideological character…

Abstract: The paper re-evaluates Schmitt’s (Political theology: four chapters on the concept of sovereignty, trans. George Schwab. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2005 : 36, 48, 65) claim that although all “significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”; the theological was replaced in the nineteenth century by “exclusively scientific thinking”; leading in the twentieth, to “the onslaught against the political,” in which it “vanishes into the economic or technical-organizational”. Some modern political concepts, especially sovereignty, have theological origins; and economics claims to be pure positive science. Nonetheless, the political is necessarily worldly, whereas economics is theological in its origins and remains so. The political is worldly in accepting the principle of plurality as “the law of the earth,” taking worldly freedom as its aim (Arendt 1968 : 146–50, Arendt in The life of the mind. Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1978 : 19).

Economics is theological first, because, like the one god, it is essentially singular and postulates an order beyond human knowledge and agency. Three stages of economic theology are sketched: the primitive theology of Adam Smith; the pseudo-theology of neoclassical economics; and the true theology of Marx’s account of capitalist accumulation. The paper uses Eliade’s (The myth of the eternal return or, cosmos and history, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series XLVI. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1965 ) account of the “archaic ontology” of pre-modern societies in which order is beyond human knowledge and agency; realizes itself through the eternal recurrence of archetypal agents and acts; and abolishes history. It also uses Agamben’s (The kingdom and the glory: for a theological genealogy of economy and government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2011 ) description of the development of the word oikonomia. It argues that the line of modern political thought based on sovereignty and regarded as central by Schmitt, is a politics that has been colonized by economics, and must be a form of domination. Liberation from economic theology can only come from a revival of a true politics that aims at freedom. It is true that such a politics has never yet succeeded in separating itself from domination (Pierre Clastres in Society against the state, trans. New York, 1977; 1989 ); but that is the subject of another discussion.

Robert Urquhart; Accumulation as eternal recurrence: theology of the bad infinity; International Review of Economics, 2016, v 63;#1

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