Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Architectures of Economic Subjectivity: The Philosophical Foundations of the Subject in the History of Economic Thought

Academic journal article Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics

Architectures of Economic Subjectivity: The Philosophical Foundations of the Subject in the History of Economic Thought

Article excerpt

Review of Sonya Marie Scott's Architectures of economic subjectivity: the philosophical foundations of the subject in the history of economic thought. London and New York: Routledge, 2013, 302 pp.

This book is an historical study of economic science that provides a close reading of Ricardo, Marx, Marshall, Walras, and Mises in order to unearth not the "philosophical and economic premises" of a given model or theory, "but rather an interaction between explicit philosophical or [...] methodological assumptions and implicit, often contradictory philosophical practices" (p. 9). More precisely, the book deals with the "epistemological constitution of subjectivity in the history of economic thought" (p. 2), with a special emphasis on its "architectonic". Subjectivity is defined as "the logical and epistemological prescription to which the purported 'people' that economics describes are subjected" (p. 2), whereas architectonic, a term borrowed from Kant, refers to "the attempt to create a coherent theoretical unity [...] an enclosure [...] around the concepts, subjects and logic that comprise the unity" (p. 3). The architectonic, for Scott, is never complete, but all the theories she describes are somehow moving towards such enclosure.

In the first chapter (influenced by Marx's account of Ricardo in his Theories of surplus value) the work of Ricardo is located "within the history of the modern liberal subject [...] [that is] homo oeconomicus" (p. 11). Scott argues that Ricardo imposes a rational structure on the subversive realm of the natural, a realm linked with the labouring, subsisting subject, and that this move underlies the whole edifice of Ricardian thought. The body of the labourer is conceived as a factor of contingency and instability that is at the same time the basis of the labour theory of value since the labouring body of the worker is the source of economic value. Scott deconstructs Ricardo's attempt to tame the beast of labour by suppressing and subsuming it within a rationalised doctrine. But labour cannot be fully known, and the quest for an invariable standard of value, Scott argues, is bound to fail. The concreteness of labour and the qualitative nature of the labourer are dispensed with; workers are deprived of any independent agency, while the rational agency of those who control capital and their self-ascribed superior understanding ("epistemological domination" in Scott's terminology) become the determining features of this process. As Scott puts it, "The labourer is robbed of his materiality, made abstract and bound into reified relations, i.e., relationships characterized by price, by units of labour-time, etc." (p. 51). The domination of a particular class-the rational owners of capital-is textually demonstrated from Ricardo's treatment of taxes.

Ricardo's immaterial but invariable standard of value is a failure: "unable to be rooted in the material, but continuously requiring the material in order to substantiate its existence, it becomes the impossibility of Ricardo's system itself" (p. 35). Thus, along with the labouring body and the rational capitalist the third implicit subjectivity emerges-that of the political economist, or scientific observer who wants to embrace the whole of the economic system within his model, but is unable to do that since the abstraction used is both directed at reality and separated from it by the quixotic quest for an invariable standard of value.

The second chapter goes back to Smith. Scott describes The wealth of nations as enacting "scattered, tangential and tentative economic subjectivities" (p. 53); Smith's architectonic is merely partial and tentative. The text is read primarily not as a theory of value but as a collection of historical digressions. In particular, reading the digression on colonies, Scott suggests that "the profound conflict that lies at the heart of The Wealth of Nations" (p. 87) is the difference between concrete economic subjects (who belong to different classes and nations) and abstract individuals populating the ideal system of freedom. …

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