Mapping out weak theory, navigating strong transformation (Part 1)
Back in January of 2019, I had the opportunity to attend the ‘Researching Post-Capitalist Possibilities’ Summer School at Western Sydney University in Australia. My time in Sydney was full of valuable lessons and thought-provoking discussions, as I was able to explore the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham together with an international community of researchers (pictured above). The insights from Sydney have not only helped me to further develop the theoretical framework for my PhD — they have inspired new ways of thinking about and looking at possibilities for transformative change. One concept that has continued to be of particular interest for me is ‘weak theory’. This blog post is the first in a series of posts to explain weak theory, and what is meant by a post-capitalist politics (spoiler alert: despite what Bill Gates or Fox News might tell you, it has nothing to do with Joseph Stalin, Venezuela, or getting rid of markets). To write these posts I have enrolled the assistance of economist and RECOMS fellow Rubén Vezzoni. In this first post of the series we describe a bit about one of the strands of economic theory that weak theory is a response to: positivist economics.
‘Weak theory’ as a response to ‘strong theory’ of positivist economics
Weak theory is a foundation of Gibson-Graham’s diverse economies approach. In part, it is a response to the ‘strong theories’ of positivist economics that became dominant in describing, categorizing and predicting human behavior throughout the 20th-century. Positivist economics is a branch of economics which was built around questions of describing what is, while ignoring questions of what ought to be. In other words, positive economics sought to be objective: to remove normative political questions about what was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in certain economic activities or outcomes. Somewhat ironically, this school of thought would go on to have a very strong impact on politics in the late 20th-century, and into today.
Positive economists attempted to model human economic behavior mechanically and mathematically — in the same way as Newton modeled his laws of motion. Some of these economists argued that their positive focus gave them the authority to claim that their prescriptions for economic policy were value-free, or unbiased. In the midst of the 20th-century’s messy politics and ideologically-fueled conflict, this was understandably, very seductive. Indeed, for many of us, economics now may appear to be such a value-free and objective science that discussions of ‘what ought to be’ cannot interfere with. In recent decades, the majority of our politicians (whether left or right) have rather subscribed to the belief professed by economist Milton Friedman in a famous 1970 New York Times article. Friedman’s article, entitled: “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Profits” argues that the sole responsibility of business to society is to maximize profits for their shareholders. For Friedman, businesses have no social responsibility beyond the quest for profit maximization. He claims that the inclusion of any other aims into the business’ bottom line, be they social or environmental, are ‘pure unadulterated socialism’ (a clear abomination in the midst of the Cold War). Social and environmental aims — like ensuring secure employment with a living wage, or avoiding business practices that degrade natural ecosystems — are, rather, purely individual responsibilities. Critiques were the result of intellectual forces hell-bent on ‘undermining the basis of a free society’.
Now, one must concede that there are clearly legitimate arguments to be made about where responsibility for social and environmental issues lies. Indeed, many readers may agree with Friedman that this responsibility is an individual one alone. And they would certainly be justified to believe this, and to bring their arguments into a democratic discourse. There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with positive economic science.
However, the problem with the ways that Friedman and other positivists articulated their economic theories, was that they aimed to de-legitimize the arguments of those who were against the implications of their theories on actual policy. For Friedman, there was no disagreement — he was objectively right. In this way, Friedman and the positivists disregarded and disguised the fundamentally political nature of their theories; they also ignored the irony that by claiming that their own presumptions cannot be refuted, positive economics actually becomes a non-scientific field. However, Friedman’s influence would prove to be large, and economics was increasingly seen as something that took place outside of democratic politics. ‘The Economy’ became something that just happened: a natural phenomenon that we could describe, but not influence. Instead of ongoing debates and negotiations about what to produce, how to produce it, where to produce it, and what to do with the profits, the natural forces of The Market could decide for us. Politics was left to merely determine what levels of regulation and taxation were appropriate.
So then, what is weak theory?
Simply put, weak theory keeps an open mind to what is possible. It doesn’t shut down discussions, it opens them up. It looks for opportunities instead of theorizing why something is impossible. This is very relevant in today’s predicament. In light of increasing negative market externalities, like global wealth inequality (where 62 individuals currently control as much wealth as 3.5 billion) and ecological degradation (that threatens the future of life on earth), we need to, again, seriously interrogate the assumptions that Friedman and other positivists have based their theories on. Can we really continue to believe that positive economics can offer us ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ prescriptions for socio-economic policy? Should we constantly shut down possibilities of the various ways that we can react to these existential issues without someone telling us that it is impossible, or using the famous conversation-ender, ‘Yeah, we understand the issues, but how are you going to pay for it?’ Is it, in fact, possible to extend democratic negotiation and debate to enterprise, with the goal of creating positive market externalities and orienting business toward common social and environmental aims beyond profit? The next post in this series will explore the premise of ‘naturalizing’ assumptions – that is presenting assumptions as natural laws rather than philosophical interpretations. This is done by using the analogy of maps to explain the foundation of ‘weak theory’ a non- (or anti-) essentialist ontology.