By Bill Jordan
How have social scientists responded to the global crisis of capitalism? In his Guardian column (17 April), Aditya Chakrabortty accuses us of lamentably failing to seize the moment – a unique chance to re-assert the claims of political and social analyses against those of over-mighty market economics. He scans leading journals and conference programmes in vain for critiques of the dominant political economy of this country since the advent of Margaret Thatcher, and discovers instead a timid disciplinary parochialism.
This attack is partly justified. The imperialism of economics in the past 40 years has followed a dual strategy. On the one hand economists have reached into the domains of politics and society, and colonised them with their concepts and methods. The language of methodological individualism and rational choice has spread like a virulent rash across the collective landscape and the social sciences themselves; concepts like ‘social capital’ mark the territory where economic analysis has infiltrated social and political theory.
On the other, it has corralled politics and sociology in technical ghettoes, and set armies of researchers to work on tasks which have advanced its purposes. Career opportunities now beckon young social scientists into projects whose very nature demands uncritical acceptance of the business model of government and the managerialist version of the public services. The scope for critical thinking has been trapped within close horizons, hemmed in by towering capitalist edifices.
But the picture is not as gloomy as Chakrabortty paints it. Beneath the surface of this now-crumbling market empire, a number of important theoretical and policy debates have been raging, about the nature and role of the state, about how collective life adapts to and resists the forces of globalisation and consumerism, about solidarity, poverty and exclusion, and about the future development of societies. Above all, the research evidence on capitalism’s failure to sustain the incomes and employments of the many is available to be deployed against the current economic orthodoxy, to potentially devastating effect.
Ironically, one symptom of the increasingly tenuous dominance of the market model has been the Big Society debate. Cameron launched it as an attempt to discredit New Labour’s grandiose and mechanistic approach to public policy. But the coalition has adopted almost all of its predecessors’ repertoire – contracts, targets, nudges, league tables, incentives – and its austerity programme constantly throws up new examples of the contradictions between its actions and the kind of society it espouses. The row over the cap on charitable donations was just the latest example. Social scientists have not been slow to point out these contradictions.
The fact that no single great critique of market orthodoxy has yet emerged is scarcely surprising. Even Karl Marx took his time to produce his masterpiece. I rather agree with Chakraborty’s colleague, John Harris, who wrote that when we need another Marx all we get is a succession of Malcolm Gladwells. But somewhere, perhaps even in the British Library, a social scientist is beavering away – just watch this space…
Bill Jordan is Professor of Social Science and Social Work at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of two books with the Policy Press: Why the Third Way Failed (see special offer below) and Welfare and Well-being.
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