Academic journal article Capital & Class

Debating Critical Realism in Economics

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Debating Critical Realism in Economics

Article excerpt

In responding to Nielsen and Morgan, it makes sense to detail the context in which my original piece appeared (Fine, 2004a). The first draft was submitted to the editor in 2000, and the final version, shortened and tempered upon request, followed soon afterwards that same year. The volume itself, however, appeared more than four years later. Over the short lifetime of critical realism applied to economics ('CRE'), my piece necessarily responded to an early and minor part, at most, of what has now been contributed. To the extent that CRE has moved beyond methodology to address theory (and actual economies), this is both welcome and at least an implicit and unconscious recognition of the veracity and appropriateness of my earlier contribution. Elsewhere, Nielsen (2002: 727) asserts: 'critical realism is a demarcated philosophical project that explicitly refuses to deal with substantive theoretical or political issues ... critical realism leaves an immense number of scientific practices open so that the scientist is left to navigate by him- or herself in an overwhelming space of choices and possibilities'. Yet 'The current orthodoxy in economics dictates the practice of thousands of economists, influences the development of many other social sciences and contributes a great deal to the current hegemonic neo-liberal ideology. Therefore the anatomy and ideological functions of current orthodox economics have to be analysed in depth' (ibid: 733).

But Nielsen and Morgan seem to demand much more for CRE. For they argue that both CRE and Marxism incorporate a number of competing and complementary strands, and that these should be allowed to flourish and mutually condition one another. This seems perfectly reasonable; but two of their implications warrant comment. The first is that I hold to some form of Marxism that is intolerant of such a project. Indeed, my critics infer that I perceive critical realism in terms of some sort of repressive tolerance, since it 'can be accommodated by the ideological apparatus as a minor element in the necessary illusion of a free market of ideas'. These are not my words; but even if I were to frame the matter in this way, I do, nevertheless, take critical realism to be genuinely critical and Constructive. My stance can best be understood by contrasting critical realism with analytical Marxism, to which such negative comments do appear to apply. Its project can be seen to be a barely tolerated attempt to subordinate Marxism to standardised methodology, theory and techniques. Even so, it has garnered only temporary and slight interest. But as the opening paragraph to my original article (2004a) makes clear, I welcome CRE--so much so that I was reluctant to offer a critique, given what I would be addressing in terms of its analytical and, more significantly, its strategic weaknesses.

This is why I deployed the affectionate, if telling metaphor of CRE as a missionary in the neoclassical cannibal's cooking pot: an infallible self-belief overwhelmed by intellectual savagery. But perhaps I have been too kind--and certainly in comparison with Hodgson's (1999: 3) comparison of critical realism with an Il Duce-style fascist dogma. (1) For Nielsen (2002) identifies two directions that CRE could take--either towards Marxist political economy, or towards political economy more generally. His preference is for CRE to depart from 'classical' Marxism, since 'there is a rooted tendency within Marxism towards sectarianism and vigilance' (P. 735). Perhaps, to mix metaphors, this is a more a matter of my being placed in the role of kettle and called black by CRE, from its position in the cooking pot. Nielsen and Morgan seem to think that a challenge to CRE from a Marxist perspective is an attempt to win it to Marxism, or to get CRE to act as a front for it. By contrast, their own stance is one of deploying CRY. to serve as a front for a methodologically constrained eclecticism. I suspect that this is at the core of any disagreement between us, for we appear to agree on many things across our various writings; and it would be unfortunate if these were read as otherwise opposed to one another. …

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