Wednesday, 3 December 2008

It's Not All In The Mind

Matt Grist neatly summarises the 'line of attack' being taken by those who would demolish the vanishing consensus underpinning neo-liberal economics, and neo-liberal social science more generally:

" reason for adopting neo-liberal capitalism is the claim that people won’t be motivated to work hard by anything other than self-interest. Or, that even if they can be otherwise motivated, the motivation of self-interest is so powerful, producing so much surplus wealth, that discounting other forms of motivation can be justified. Here in the UK, New Labour has bought into this motivational model wholesale.

But this claim has hardly any credibility any more. At the level of the brain, research is showing that altruistic and other-regarding concerns have their own distinct neural pathways. At the level of analysing individual behaviour, in game-theory, behavioural economics and social psychology, it has been shown that people are at least sometimes as motivated by such concerns as they are by self-interest. (..... most theorists now accept that it is optimally rational to be as swayed by ‘pro-social’ concerns as self-interested ones - for example, game-theorists recognise that it is rational to maintain one’s social reputation as a ‘good person’ through altruistic acts.) "

I'm so old. I've been away from this stuff for so long. Long enough, in fact, to be surprised that the argument is still taking place at the level of individual motivation, as if the principal problem with neo-liberal theory is that it mistakes the nature of homo economicus' reactions to sticks and carrots.

'Social being determines social consciousness' is what I was taught - even by Weberians. This really isn't a matter of innate psychology - or at least I can't productively think about it in that mode - it's about structure and power relations. Which is why economics, and those other social sciences which have bowed to it's intellectual dominance, are a poor substitute for political economy of any stripe.

(Illustration: 'Pyschology' by D.Cohen)

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