Overdetermination, Totality, and Institutions: A Genealogy of a Marxist Institutionalist Economics

By Cullenberg, Stephen | Journal of Economic Issues, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Overdetermination, Totality, and Institutions: A Genealogy of a Marxist Institutionalist Economics


Cullenberg, Stephen, Journal of Economic Issues


The question of whether "institutionalist" economics has a deep theoretical structure or basic methodology is an old one. Certainly, institutionalists have eschewed and been critical of those theoretical approaches that seek to understand history as the unfolding of some fundamental essence or laws of motion, as do classical Marxist theories of historical materialism. Likewise, institutionalism, at least "old" institutionalism, has avoided the reductive tendencies of neoclassical economics to ground its theoretical arguments in the social atom of homo economicus. [1] Instead, institutionalist economics has employed such fundamental ideas as Veblen's notion of "blind drift" and the dynamic and contingent concept of "process" as a fundamental constituent of economic life. Moreover, institutionalists reject the idea of history as an evolutionary and teleological process and instead embrace the idea that change is non-progressive in the sense of not tending toward a pregiven telos. Finally, institutionalists emp hasize the need to analyze concrete situations as the outcome of unique configurations of institutions, rather than to seek general laws of social or economic rationality.

One could argue that how one conceives the relationship between the individual and society is the most fundamental decision of any social theory. This decision not only structures the manner in which theories apprehend the relationship between theory and the world (the epistemological issue), but also the ways in which the basic elements of a theory are causally related (the methodological issue). In economics, neoclassical economics is perhaps the best example of a theoretical approach that is based on what I will describe briefly below as the Cartesian totality, where parts are given independent to and prior to the social whole. Neo-Ricardian economic theory and some parts of Marxian theory, especially that approach now known as "Analytical Marxism," are also based on the Cartesian totality. Classical Marxism and traditional Keynesian theory, as well as the older historicist economics, are examples of economic theories based on what I call the Hegelian totality, where the social whole is understood as onto logically prior to the individual agents.

A third version of social totality is one that might be called an emergent or, as I will refer to it, a decentered totality. In this approach, neither part nor whole is privileged but are seen as mutually constituted and contextually defined. Institutionalist economics, with its attention to social, political, and economic structures and the idea that individuals are embedded in, and constitutive of, these structures, is, I would argue, based on the idea of a decentered totality. It is also the case, as I detail below, that some very important recent strands of Marxian theory have adopted a decentered approach to thinking the social totality, and they therefore have moved closer to institutionalism and further away from Classical Marxism. In so doing, this more institutionalist approach to Marxian theory has developed the concept of "overdetermination' as its methodology--a methodology that might equally well serve institutionalist economists. [2]

The first section of this paper briefly outlines the structure of the Cartesian and Hegelian totalities. The major section of the paper discusses the development of what might be called an "institutionalist" approach to Marxian theory by tracing the development of the decentered Marxian totality from Louis Althusser to Anthony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain, to the more recent work of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff in the area of Marxian economics. The paper concludes with further discussion about overdetermination and considers the question of whether it is an appropriate method for institutionalist economics.

The Hegelian and Cartesian Totalities

The Hegelian totality is a particular instance of the tradition of social explanation that is known as holism, which assumes that the whole is a pregiven, structured totality. …

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