The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology (Review)

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Review of Lawson, T. (2019). The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology. London and New York: Routledge.

Ontology is the study of being. Social ontology is the study of social being or, in other words, the study of the nature and basic structure of social reality. We all do ontology all of the time, economists included, whether we like it or not. For all practices carry ontological presuppositions. Economists only have a choice between doing ontology explicitly or implicitly. Tony Lawson’s contributions stand out and are of such profound significance precisely because he explicitly grounds his analysis in an account of social ontology. It is only by redressing the ontological neglect that has for some decades characterised the discipline that a productive transformation of economics is at all feasible. 

Lawson is perhaps best known amongst heterodox economists for his critique of the mainstream emphasis on mathematical modelling. Lawson shows that the implicit ontological presupposition of an insistence of mathematical modelling is a world of isolated atoms and argues that, as the social realm is not characterised by isolated atoms, the mainstream approach will produce largely irrelevant research. However, it would be wrong to consider this critique to be his major contribution. Rather, it is but one of an increasing number of powerful (sometimes startling) results derived from Lawson’s three-decade project of developing and defending, along with other participants of the Cambridge Social Ontology Group, an account of the nature of social reality. 

The Nature of Social Reality: Issues in Social Ontology provides the latest developments that Lawson has made in the field of social ontology. Here, he sets out an account of social ontology that has come to be regularly referred to as a theory of social positioning, demonstrating its explanatory power. An exciting feature of the book is that it sets out the theory of social positioning in its most advanced form to date and then puts it to work through analysing the nature of the corporation, money and emancipatory practice. Whilst Lawson is pursuing themes in social ontology at an advanced level, he takes great pains to ensure that the analysis is everywhere accessible. The detailed and provocative accounts of the corporation and of money provide ample illustrations of the enormous potential of the social positioning framework.  Read More »

Book Review of Money, Markets, and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East

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Money, Markets, and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. ISBN: 9781108453158 (paper); ISBN: 9781108614443 (ebook)

Adam Hanieh’s book ‘Money, Markets, and Monarchies: The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Political Economy of the Contemporary Middle East’ is one of the most important works on contemporary Middle East. The book analyses the specificity of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as part of global capitalism by focusing on the socio-economic structures of the six Gulf States, the interlinkages between them and other socio-economic and financial relationships with the rest of the world. Joining other scholars, Hanieh draws attention to the fact that scholarship on the Middle East including the GCC has inclined towards an exceptionalism which overwhelmingly focuses on the Middle East as a resource-rich country and a site of various conflicts. This reductive emphasis diminishes the various ways in which the region integrates the contemporary patterns of capital accumulation and historical lineages of familial and monarchic capitalism. As he mentions, even the modern concept of the ‘BRICS’ excludes the large population of the Middle East. Filling this vacuum, the book focuses on how the GCC absorbs and reproduces contemporary modalities of capital accumulation in diverse sectors including finance, agribusiness, real estate, retail, telecommunications, and urban utilities. The six states of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain have special linkages with global powers including the US, Israel, China and other Arab states. As important logistics hubs and sites of intermediate supply chains these states also connect with other countries.Read More »

Is Postcolonial Capitalism a Thing to Itself? Reviewing Sanyal’s Rethinking Capitalist Development

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Kalyan Sanyal’s Rethinking Capitalist Development (2007, 2014) is a rare work of political economy for many reasons. It is written by an economist, but it’s so interdisciplinary that you won’t be able to tell. It is an attempt to theorize capitalism in the postcolonial context from the inside-out rather than outside-in, i.e. with no reference to an ideal type. It refuses to sit neatly in theoretical boundaries — it is not entirely Marxist, not entirely Postmarxist, not entirely neo-Gramscian, not entirely Foucauldian, but a strange concoction of all. Perhaps the only thing that is not rare is that like most interesting and influential works that emerge from the Global South, it too has been largely ignored in the academic circles of the Global North, especially in Economics. Read More »

In Service of Neoliberalism – The Art and Science of Perpetuating the ‘State versus Market’ Dichotomy

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How should one assess a book on economic policy that takes a dim view of the state and redistribution in a country that is home to multiple and intersecting inequalities? Economic inequality and the role of the state in tackling inequality emerged as a major talking point in the last decade and it is likely that it will continue to animate academic and policy debates in the following decade too. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to evaluate any book on economic policy based on the seriousness with which it engages with inequality and how it imagines state intervention in the economy. This review seeks to do precisely that by unpacking the conventional wisdom about the nature and role of the state presented in the book In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.Read More »

Is Degrowth an Alternative to Capitalism?

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The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.Read More »

Finance Damages Democracy – and Brexit Will Make it Worse!

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The ‘do or die’ Brexit deadline this Halloween has come and gone without bringing much certainty about the policy and political landscape going forward. UK voters who hoped for a clear-cut end of the Brexit saga were disappointed as big questions remain unanswered while new ones have been added: What will the December election bring? Will there be a second referendum? A different deal? A further extension? 

There seems, however, one definite outcome of the Brexit process: UK democratic institutions have been hollowed out permanently. Individual politicians have certainly contributed to this outcome. However, it would be too easy to blame the disintegration of democracy in rich countries entirely and exclusively on Johnson, Trump, and the like. Rather more systematic and structural trends are at play, which raise the old question of whether capitalism and democracy are compatible or rather contradictory systems. The claim that capitalism will usher in democracy, since free markets rely on an open societal order, or at least fundamentally weaken authoritarian regimes, has been proven untenable. This is particularly clear as the Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip over social media, using information technology to survey ever-growing parts of Chinese people’s lives.   

It is striking though that among rich countries the crassest examples of democratic disintegration are unravelling in the two Anglo-Saxon economies which have been hailed as economic success stories during the 1990s and early 2000s: the UK and US. Much of their growth spurts over this period was fuelled by the increasing size and influence of their finance industries and so is the current hollowing-out of their democratic institutions. In brief, we are currently experiencing the effects that financialisation has on democracy. Of course, capitalism and democracy are generally difficult to reconcile as convincingly argued by Polanyi. The fact that a democratic order calls for equality of all citizens before the law and provides all of us with the same vote, while our economic order simultaneously introduces a strict hierarchy based on ownership is possibly the clearest illustration of the conflict between democracy and economic order. But it is further stoked under financialisation. This blog post unpacks how financialization affects democracy in a variety of ways, through three examples, namely social provisioning, the Euro crisis, and the Brexit saga.Read More »

An Alternative Economics Summer Reading List, 2019

pasted image 0.pngThis summer, we take stock of the most interesting economics-related books that have been released over the past year. Every year, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times makes a similar list. However, by his own admission, he only reads within the tradition of his own training in mainstream economics. While his 2019 summer list includes several excellent books, such as The Case for People’s Quantitative Easing by Frances Coppola and The Sex Factor by Victoria Bateman, we are still struck by the strong white-male-mainstream-Western bias in Wolf’s list, with the books almost all written by white (20/21) men (18/21) about topics mostly focused on the US and Europe. 

To complement Wolf’s list, we have put together an Alternative Economics Summer Reading list with authors from across the world, with more varied backgrounds – and writing about more wide-ranging topics, and from a wider variety of critical perspectives. Our alternative list also reflects our belief that issues such as structural racism, imperialism, ideology and the philosophy of science are central to understanding economics. 

It is not that we think that Martin Wolf is in particular responsible for the lack of diversity and monism in our reading decisions: other curators such as the Economist (for example, here) also perpetuate the myth that the books worth reading about economics are mostly those written about the US and Europe, by white men trained trained in mainstream economics. Read More »