Economics is how we moderns do politics

Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France:

 Society…is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primæval contract of eternal society…

Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

Money in its significant attributes is, above all, a subtle device for linking the present to the future.



  1. escott January 5, 2016 at 10:16 am | #

    both quotes are seductive nonsense.

  2. L.M. Dorsey January 5, 2016 at 11:32 am | #

    Both would have said, I think, that they were giving accounts of matters of fact. But it’s the mysticism that is so striking, and that’s what struck Polanyi, who recognized in it the unacknowledged, er, heart of the project:

    Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was discarded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social consequences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The elementary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited, then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely reflecting the teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the ancients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth.

    • LFC January 7, 2016 at 12:13 pm | #

      “It should need no elaboration that a process of undirected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community.”

      Well, Burke wd have agreed w that as a general proposition. Since the Polanyi quote is about “liberal philosophy” and 19th-cent utilitarianism, and Burke was a pre-19th-cent conservative, the Polanyi quote isn’t directed at him.

      • Corey Robin January 9, 2016 at 9:27 am | #

        When it came to economics, Burke was a defender of what would come to be known as the liberal system of the 19th century. A firm defender.

        • LFC January 11, 2016 at 4:05 pm | #

          @Corey R.
          Noted; don’t think I was aware of that. Are you saying there’s a fairly straight line from Burke on economics to the Manchester School (Cobden, Bright, et al)? Burke wd have favored the repeal of the Corn Laws? Assuming the answers are ‘yes’, I assume it’s also true that B. wasn’t a utilitarian, so Polanyi’s reference to “the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism” still wdn’t apply to, or be directed to, him.

          I don’t know a great deal about Burke, but how does his ‘conservatism’ in some things (tradition, the little platoons etc) mesh w his ‘liberalism’ in the 19th-cent sense in economics? Potential contradictions there?

          Also, Cobden was big on ‘commerce (etc.) will lead to peace’. A famous Cobden quote is “As little intercourse as possible betwixt the Governments, as much connection as possible between the nations [i.e., the peoples] of the world.” Does that sound Burkean? Maybe it does; I don’t know.

          • Corey Robin January 11, 2016 at 8:30 pm | #

            Burke was fully in favor of deregulated markets, particularly of labor. He was very much against the Speenhamland system, which Polanyi thought was the last gasp of reactionary paternalism in the late 18th C. He wasn’t a utilitarian, no. He didn’t think markets promoted peace either. Whether his position contradicted the conservatism, as it’s conventionally understood, is another issue. I of course have issues with the conventional understanding. I have a long article coming out in the next issue of Raritan that looks more closely at these issues. It might answer some of these questions.

  3. Glenn January 5, 2016 at 12:52 pm | #

    Money is violence.

    “Picture the scene – companies that have monopoly patent ownership of drugs (many based on taxpayer funded research and development) are essentially telling their customers with life-threatening diseases that they have to “pay or die” for unique drugs that are priced at more than $100,000 per patient per year, unless they have an insurance company to pay the tab. Already, those insurance companies that do pay, along with Medicaid and Medicare, are staggering under the sharp surge in costs during the past two years. A casual Congress is just starting to notice its responsibilities here.”

  4. Paul Coppock January 6, 2016 at 1:08 pm | #

    J. K. Galbraith notes somewhere that Keynes, apparently deliberately, used no commas in the title of his most famous work.

  5. David Green January 6, 2016 at 1:29 pm | #

    I think Keynes’ observation is important and ambiguous. Money on the one hand represents primitive accumulation, or surplus that can be saved and/or invested. But in more abstract forms (fiat, credit) money creates the possibility of determining the future means of production, and who controls that and to what end. Unemployed labor can be joined to available resources, regardless of whether there is a literal surplus of money (profits). Thus the “future-ness” of money, not just its “past-ness” based on primitive accumulation and private profit. The “future-ness” of money should be a powerful tool for democracy and equality. The question becomes, what keeps that from being the case?

  6. Roquentin January 6, 2016 at 1:46 pm | #

    I can’t help but think of Marx and how he described capital as “dead labor controlling that of the living” or something similar. I’m sure that’s paraphrased. It’s weird to think of it that way, isn’t it? These vast fortunes traded in hedge funds and the like as an amalgamation of thousands of little bits of labor torn away from those who did it, then used to compel people to do more labor, so it can be taken from them again. That’s the basic schema of reproduction. Capital is the recording surface on which the labor of the past is engraved.

  7. Frank Wilhoit January 6, 2016 at 4:01 pm | #

    It is much worse than you think. Economics is not how we do politics. Literature is — no, strike that; *literary*criticism* is how we do politics.

  8. LFC January 11, 2016 at 11:08 pm | #

    @Corey (in comment upthread): Thanks. Of course I know from ‘The Reactionary Mind’ that you take issue with a lot of the conventional understanding of Burke. Anyway, I’ll look out for your Raritan article

    • LFC January 11, 2016 at 11:15 pm | #

      …conventional understanding of Burke’s conservatism, specifically, is what I meant to say.

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