Academic journal article Capital & Class

Economic Conscience and Public Discourse

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Economic Conscience and Public Discourse

Article excerpt

Damaging cultural roots before damaging the garden

It has been said many times before. As early as 1964, Joan Robinson wrote, 'Any economic system requires a set of rules, an ideology to justify them, and a conscience in the individual which makes him [sic] strive to carry them out.' Not surprisingly, since 2009 there has been a plethora of public discourse about the economic and political crisis caused by the banking sector and, in the UK at least by the MPs' expenses scandal. The Establishment view seems to be that institutional reforms in various guises, designed to get back to business as usual, can be the solution to these crises. But the very rules of overly market-oriented societies and the professionalisation of politics have been shown to be the problem rather than the solution. Given the impersonal nature of an overly market-oriented society, any expectation of a sense of economic conscience within capitalism was perhaps always questionable. But it currently seems to be disappearing altogether from the workings of our key economic and political institutions. So how do we respond to this?

It is both unhelpful and (probably) impossible to a priori explicate the values that would inform a more developed and progressive economic conscience. I cannot sit in my political armchair and summon up such an explanation in a way that would suit all people for all time. Nor can anyone else. Whilst it might be likely that any shared notion of economic conscience will have some relationship to more generally shared ethics, whether those be virtues or an emanation of some sort of social contract, I do not intend to engage in a futile attempt to define an economic conscience. Instead, I intend to critique the public discourse of the Establishment since its crisis of economic and moral legitimacy on its own terms, and to suggest that its members do not live up to their own espoused values. This is framed as a 'negative philosophy' in order to suggest that the renewal of ethical and moral articulations is needed as part of the broader critique of the over-extension of market rationality, highlighting the way such Establishment public discourse tends to close down the economic and ethical 'universe of discourse' (Marcuse, 1964). As we will explore in close detail below, Establishment public discourse concerning ethics within economic and political governance during these crises has tended to close the universe of discourse by pursuing internal institutional self-validation and the 'containment' of expressions of more thorough going alternatives, as a response to the crisis of legitimacy. These conceptual discussions are well known on the left, but the crisis conditions created since 2009 are novel because they have shown beyond all doubt that these Establishment institutions have lost the conscience to adhere to even their own rules and justifying ideology. Recent events have shown again, very clearly, the way the bankers and professional politicians form a mutually supportive institutional constituency. The bankers help to legitimate the economic technocracy at the heart of professional politics, and professional politicians bail out the banking sector with public money. With this, the bankers pay themselves inflated wages and bonuses and lend it back to the public with added interest; and the professional politicians pay for it all by cutting back on public spending and axing the jobs of the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Their overly market-oriented amorality means that their economic conscience is now thoroughly extrinsic, and their supposed ethicality has to be made explicit as a result. Whilst this economic bad faith covers over the abundantly clear intention of the economic technocracy and professionalised politics to get back to business as usual, such failures of economic conscience create broader and deeper cultural damage. (1) The over-extension of market rationality and commodification has had broad cultural consequences that produce a particular 'social character' (Fromm, 1976) which tends to diminish public discourse concerned with the common good. …

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