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On economic metaphors

3 min read

From a piece at Teh Graun, entitled "We need a new language to talk about the economy":

Looking further back, Keynes was a master of the disruptive metaphor. He described the “animal spirits” of investors whose rationality he questioned, and dismissed the self-styled “wolves and tiger” of industry as pathetically “domesticated” beasts. He was even credited with livening technical debate about the efficacy of monetary policy in a liquidity trap by talking of “pushing on a piece of string”. Keynesians across the Atlantic, such as Lauchlin Currie, rationalised the deficits of Roosevelt’s New Deal as “pump priming” the economy. The image here is of an old-fashioned well, where you have to pour in a little fluid to clear air from the valve, which then allows you to pump out a far larger volume of water. It had intuitive appeal for the very many Americans who had then been raised on farms, but hydraulics remains a promising source of imagery. Where orthodox economics and the moralising that goes with it emphasises solid “stocks”, assets and liabilities of particular values – a nasty debt, a nice nest egg or indeed an empty cupboard – the real economy operates through continuous “flows” of payment and activity.

Hydraulics is one metaphor for flows, certainly, but it only holds for systems through which there is only one substance flowing. A more complex but more powerful metaphor, then, might be the metabolic processes of a living organism, which captures the complexity of multiple mutually essential flows of resources and information... which is perhaps why it was one of Marx's favourites. So not a new metaphor needed so much as a return to an older one, perhaps? (The Marxian notion of the metabolic rift informs much of Haraway's theoretical work, and is a central plank in McKenzie Wark's wonderful Molecular Red.)

The liberal left's continual search for a new economic metaphor might well be rooted in the assumption that there is a "real" economy for the metaphor to represent -- a signified behind the signifier, so to speak. The problem is that economics itself is a metaphor, a morality story, a sign that refers to itself; economic theories do not describe reality, they merely narrate it, interpolating meanings and values into the movement of material and ideas in space and time. Economics does not explain, it defines. Its laws are not immutable, like the laws of physics, but plastic like the laws of the land -- a game in which the habitual winners are awarded the rights to edit the rulebook.

Money does what it does because that's what the books about money say it must do. Endless dissections of neoliberal capitalism's Byzantine mysteries are ultimately pointless, like seagulls following a trawler; we merely reinforce its hegemony by attempting to argue with it in its own terms. The master's tools will not dismantle the master's house, and all that.

If we want an new economics, we must write it ourselves.