Making thoughts unthinkable – the soft power of economic theory

The 1932 science fiction novel Brave New World portrays a dystopian future where history is rewritten and words are redefined in order to make undesirable ideas “unthinkable.”footnote 1 The book is often associated with George Orwell’s 1984, where those who do anything undesired by those in power are made into an “unperson,” with all evidence of their history destroyed. When anyone speaks the unthinkable, they are simply defined out of existence.

More generally, in Brave New World, the populace is controlled by inundating them with false pleasure. In 1984, they’re inundated with needless painfootnote 2. Outside of fiction, here in the real world, both techniques are used. Examples of the former include endless escapism via streaming episodic video series, and modest privilege such as a decent home, car, and health coverage. Examples of the latter are to viciously crush, jail, or kill those already deeply oppressed.

Unthinkable thoughts are utilized by those in power to reduce the chances of actual dissent, by making the mere expression of dissent much more difficult. They do this by reshaping our language such that the ideas and concepts required to express dissent are no longer available.

This essay explores the concept of unthinkable thoughts and the power struggles lying beneath them, at all levels of society. It illuminates how those in power can coerce the rest of us into doing what’s desired without having to resort to direct force, starting with a simple example from a parent-child relationship. It ultimately demonstrates how mainstream economic theory (the macroeconomics of those already on top) is a primary tool of soft power, with two detailed examples of its “unthinkable thoughts.” It ends by imagining how one might come to terms with a lifetime of this kind of deception.

Written by Jeff Epstein, host of Activist #MMT, the podcast. Copy-edited by Ben Szioli. With thanks to Jonathan Wilson of pmpecon.com for valuable feedback, and Asad Zaman for guidance. This essay was originally published at activistmmt.org.

Using soft power to avoid hard power (parent-child)

At all levels and in all aspects of life, from nation-states down to children on the playground, there are power relationships. In these relationships, there are regular demonstrations of, and struggles for, power. This is true in the most belligerent and greedy societies, as well as the most peaceful and generous.

Those in power coerce the rest into doing what’s wanted with both hard and soft power. Hard power is expressed through the use of “carrots and sticks,” such as through financial rewards or consequences, or with the direct force of fists, sticks, swords, and guns. Alternatively, soft power makes people behave in desired ways by convincing or deceiving them into desiring it themselvesfootnote 3. When soft power is successful, the carrots and sticks of hard power become unnecessaryfootnote 4.

A familiar example of a power relationship is a parent and their child. When the child is an infant, the parent is clearly the more powerful figure. As the child ages, that imbalance becomes less clear. A common type of coercion is demanding the child do a chore such as clean their roomfootnote 5. The goal of the parent is to balance their relationship with the child with the pressing need for their room to be cleaned. Threatening a beating if they don’t clean it immediately may get the job done, but will greatly upset that balance.

Instead of threats, the parent can utilize the soft power of a false choice, such as by saying, “Gramom and Grampop will be here in a few hours. Do you want to clean your room now or in thirty minutes?” The child is coerced into taking the desired action while being given a limited illusion of freedom. The option left unstated – not cleaning their room – is rendered unthinkablefootnote 6.

The soft power of mainstream economic theory

A major element of soft power is to reshape our language (using terminological frameworks) in such a way that makes the expression of dissent more difficult. Soft power is pervasive throughout economics, and the assertions and assumptions mainstream economic theory makes about the very nature of “money” are a primary example. “Money” is a universally accepted tool for purchasing things (goods and services) in a market economy.

Mainstream economic theory conceals the government’s power to create moneyfootnote 7, and the processes by which it’s done (and those who do it). This is exemplified by the false household analogy, which is a myth that asserts that national governments must first obtain money before they can spend. This is also embodied in the concept of the “federal budget deficit,” which is the amount of taxes returned to the government, minus how much the government spent, over the past year. The government’s power of money creation renders this number almost entirely meaningless, but this reality is vehemently denied by conventional economists.

The power of the financial sector (especially commercial banks) to create money is also hidden from the public. Until recently, economics textbooks firmly denied this with myths like the money multiplier. A recent article in the Bank of England Quarterly Bulletin confirms that, contrary to conventional wisdom, banks actually do create money when they loanex nihilo, as electronic entries in the accounts of borrowers.

These deficit myths are a major tool for creating the facade of democracy, providing elected representatives with legitimate-, neutral-, and natural-sounding excuses. It allows them to say that withholding what’s desperately needed by millions is “unfortunate, but necessary,” primarily by giving the appearance that no money is available with which to do it. (In other words, how’re you gonna pay for it?) Destroying these myths would reveal the ugly truth of why essential services are withheld: because it provides the powerful with labor that is both cheap and exploitable.

For more on this topic, see ET1%:Blindfolds Created by Economics by Asad Zaman.

Depriving the poor: Two examples of the thoughts made unthinkable by mainstream economic theory

Let’s now demonstrate the above with two common examples of the unthinkable thoughts of mainstream (or neoclassical) economic theory – the macroeconomics of those already on top. Each presents a false choice and leaves the “unthinkable” option unstated.

Example one

  • Deficit hawks say we must reduce the debt and deficit at all times.
  • Deficit doves say we must reduce the debt and deficit, except in times of crisis.

Here’s deficit hawk Delaware Senator Tom Carper, in a press release titled REDUCING THE DEFICIT AND DEBT:

I suggest we start the conversation on how to reduce the deficit by putting everything on the table: domestic discretionary spending, defense spending, entitlement programs and taxes. […] We must work together and have the courage to make the right decisions to get our country back on the path of fiscal responsibility and prosperity.

Here’s deficit dove and Nobel-Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, speaking in the New York Times in 2013: “Yes, we’ll want to reduce deficits once the economy recovers, and there are gratifying signs that a solid recovery is finally under way.”

The assumption of both these options is that, in the national context, debt and deficits are inherently and always harmful. In this view, reducing both must always be a primary goal – that is, targeted. The reality is that this is only valid in the personal, individual context. Because the government issues the nation’s money, and can only spend by creating more, it means the very concepts of saving and revenue – and therefore debt and deficits – are utterly meaningless.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, increasing levels of money are required by a growing economy and population. Under current institutional setups, this means that ever-increasing levels of government debt are to be expected, which is clearly reflected in the data, such as exemplified by this from the United States governmentfootnote 8. By force of logic, it means that government deficits are by far the most common case.

What’s left unspoken is that only real-world, societal (functional) goals should be targeted. The particular budget position (deficit, balanced budget, surplus) these pursuits happen to result in (and therefore how much it adds to or subtracts from the debt), is nothing more than one of many ways to measure and account for the sum of our past economic activity – one that serves more to deceive than to provide any useful informationfootnote 9.

Example two

Here’s another common assertion informed by mainstream economic theory:

Our only choices are to reduce the government’s spending, increase taxes, or raise the debt ceiling. Otherwise, we risk a complete government shutdown. In addition to harming those who work for the government and those depending on government services, it could ultimately result in an unprecedented default on our debts and a likely deep recession or depression.

(Note that only the following seven countries have a debt ceiling, or similar limit: the United States, Denmark, Malaysia, Kenya, Poland, Pakistan, and Namibia. The Eurozone also variously imposes debt ratios onto its member nations.)

In addition to the points made in the previous example, the above options are all based on the assumption that the debt ceiling is somehow protecting us from something potentially catastrophic. In reality, putting an upper threshold on the amount of debt is an artificial, needless, and self-imposed, constraint. This is confirmed by the debt ceiling being arbitrarily raised, just in the nick of time, every time. (Almost as if it’s more like a New Year’s resolution than a natural and inherent economic lawfootnote 10.)

Breaching the debt ceiling can never be inherently harmful to the economy. Rather, the fear of breaching it is used as a tool to deceive the public into thinking that bold government action, desperately needed by millions, can only be harmful. Trillions of dollars for war or bailouts of large banks and corporations, however, never seem to undergo the same scrutiny – nor are they subject to the debt ceiling restrictions.

What’s left unspoken is to eliminate the very concept of the debt ceiling. (Until that day, in a quirk of law unique to the United States, the debt ceiling could be entirely bypassed by minting a trillion dollar platinum coin.) The even deeper, even-more-unspoken option is to stop selling that debt (those bonds) to begin with. Like the debt ceiling, selling bonds is an artificial and arbitrary act – one which serves only to further exacerbate our already unprecedented levels of inequality.

Betrayal, then hope

To end our essay, let’s imagine how one might come to terms with a lifetime of the kind of deception discussed above.

Most of us have grown up to believe that those in power (whether parents or the government) only want what’s best for us. For everyone. We are adamantly told, and genuinely believe, that anything bad that’s ever happened is always “unfortunate, but necessary.” It’s a real shock to discover that some of those (very) bad things were in fact deliberate and arbitrary choices – or those in power stood by passively as it happened.

Some of those who are supposed to care about us the most in fact decided to betray us, before we were even born. They consciously and consistently continue to deceive us about it, all in the name of feeding their personal greed and dealing with their fears and frailties like little children.

Unfortunately, when you realize the depth of the deception, you find yourself surrounded by lots of people (many you care about) who still believe deeply in the benevolence of those in power. Or, worse, they have greed, fear, and frailties of their own, which require supporting and perpetuating the betrayal by those above.

You now clearly and thoroughly understand the unspoken option (whatever it may be). You know it’s not just obviously correct, but desperately needed. Unfortunately, only a tiny minority seem to agree with you, and this isolation is greatly compounded by the near omnipotence of those in power to silence the message and sideline the messengers.

It’s especially hard when there’s not enough time left in life to undo the damage, such as when the betrayer has passed away. Or, in terms of our current ecological crisis, that the literal existence of the human race depends on most of us coming to terms with and getting beyond those deeply ingrained greed, fears, and frailties – very, very quickly.

(Here’s a choice quote from the April 2022 report from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change: “Delayed action increases challenges to both economic and societal feasibility after 2030.”)

The good news is that those who deliberately exploit are few in number. The bad news is they wield great power. Conversely, when those with some power exploit those with none at all, though they are great in number, very few do so with ill intent. Rather, they’ve been thoroughly deceived into believing that exploitation is genuinely what’s best for all. Our task, therefore, is to educate these masses with historical experiences demonstrating that the only way to save us all is to provide what’s needed most by those with the least. The option mainstream economic theory wants you to believe is unthinkable is, in reality, the only option there is.

Whatever the odds, the task before us is clear. There’s no alternative.footnote 11


Footnotes

  1. [Return] The concept of unthinkable thoughts (and the thinkable ones that remain) is strongly related to Michel Foucault’s idea of power/knowledge, which asserts that information is inseparable from the power of those who deliver it. For more on this concept, see the 2011 paper by Asad Zaman, Power/Knowledge and Economic Theories. For a brief overview, see this video starting at around the eleven-minute, thirty-second mark.
  2. [Return] A quote from the foreword of Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

    Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. […] As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

  3. [Return] Another method is giving implicit permission to discriminate against those who dare to question and challenge power (essentially delegating that hard power). A recent example from the United States is “fake news,” asserting that a particular piece of news is misleading or deliberate propaganda, ultimately calling entire organizations into question. In other words, a potential seed of truth can sometimes be leveraged by the powerful to deceive the exploited, not just into accepting and expecting exploitation, but into exploiting themselves.
  4. [Return] Here are two real-world examples of the soft power used by the United States, as described by Noam Chomsky. The first is this 2014 article, which contains the quote: “The ability to ignore unwanted facts is one of the prerogatives of unchallenged power. Closely related is the right to radically revise history.” The second is this post where he describes the views of hawks versus doves in the context of the Vietnam War. See the section starting with “The Vietnam War is a classic example of America’s propaganda system.”
  5. [Return] This demonstrates how coercion is not necessarily a bad thing. Another example is stopping an arsonist from burning another building. In a similar sense, journalistic bias is also not inherently bad. Undisclosed bias is. Again thinking of Michel Foucault, it’s impossible to not be biased. It’s also impossible to not be political. “Not being political” (or, in the context of this essay, not speaking the unspoken option) is nothing more than supporting the politics of those already on top.
  6. [Return] A child may feel safe asking about the unspoken option: “Mommy, what happens if I don’t clean my room?” A reasonable response might be: “Well, I’ll clean it myself. But you will proooobably regret that decision.”
  7. [Return] A quote from pages 2-3 in economist Stephanie Kelton’s 1998 paper,Can Taxes and Bond Sales Finance Government Spending? (emphasis in original):

    … newly-created money is revealed as the source of all government finance. It is further argued that the proceeds from taxation and bond sales are not even capable of financing government spending since their collection implies their destruction

  8. [Return] This same conclusion can be calculated for all nations by combining these two data series from The World Bank: World Development Indicators (WDI) proportion of debt, and GNP. Multiply these to get total debt. A plot of this information will indicate a hugely increasing series.
  9. [Return] In the national context, the deficit can only be a measurement, not a target (this is an example of Goodhart’s law). In fact, it’s impossible for the government to target the size of the deficit to an even moderately precise degree. For details, see this 2019 paper by L. Randall Wray, which was submitted to Congress in advance of his in-person testimony (here is the edited video of that testimony). (The paper and testimony were discussed in the second half of this Activist #MMT podcast episode.) Finally, here’s a 2016 video lecture where he more briefly summarized the concept.
  10. [Return] Listen to the first minute of this.
  11. [Return] This section was partially inspired by the stories in this Facebook thread.

TOP IMAGE: Derived from GIPretorius on Pixabay (license)

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3 thoughts on “Making thoughts unthinkable – the soft power of economic theory

  1. How does change happen or fail to happen?

    In his 1971 book, Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, the community organizer, has a useful metaphor for explaining why some social movements tend to burn bright and then burn out before making the change they seek. A successful revolution, he insisted, must follow the three-act structure of a play: “The first act introduces the characters and the plot, in the second act the plot and characters are developed as the play strives to hold the audience’s attention. In the final act good and evil have their dramatic confrontation and resolution.” That is to say, a movement needs a period of incubation—of conjuring, planning, debating, and convincing. Sometimes involving confrontations that may not be peaceful. The problem with the activists Alinsky observed was that they sprinted to that third act, taking shortcuts that led, he wrote, only to “confrontation for confrontation’s sake—a flare-up and back to darkness.” It’s a dynamic that seems particularly true today, when social media provides us with extremely effective bullhorns that can call people to the streets with enormous speed and scale, or allow for the most clickable version of a radical idea to race around the internet before being fully developed.

    If our movements today can devalue that slow, unseen incubation, the stories we tell about how social or political change unfolded in the past tend to leave out this part as well. Many of those narratives, whether about women’s suffrage or the civil-rights movement, feel foreshortened, cutting out the years of struggle, or the need for debate and patience, for trial and error, of hearing and being heard. Instead we zero in on the charismatic leaders’ big speeches. We fixate on the moments: policemen on horseback chasing down protesters, or a man standing up to a tank. This leaves out so much.

    Luckily, some books have explored how change actually works, describing a longer range of time and a wider cast of characters and events. These books focus on how a status quo crumbles, and they tell the most rewarding sort of story: about a dissatisfaction shared by a small group of people that grows and grows until it alters our connections to society, to one another, to nature itself.

    One such book is Bruno Latour’s ‘The Pasteurization of France.’ Latour is one of the most influential French social theorists of the second half of the 20th century. His particular interest for the past four decades has been understanding the way science continually reshapes our sense of reality. But he never formulates these shifts as the result of one great or even several great thinkers exposing a truth to the world. Instead, Latour looks to the various networks and interests that mold these dramatic changes. Spreading an idea is more like war than a revelation, with the slow vanquishing of mental territory. In this 1984 book, translated into English in 1988, he went back to the 19th century and Louis Pasteur’s then-revolutionary notion that microbes cause infection and disease. How did people come to “see” germs and take steps to combat invisible enemies? It was a painstaking, grinding process, almost a political campaign, in which the scientific establishment and then farmers and industrialists had to be won over to Pasteur’s prescriptions. Even a scientific insight now everywhere understood as objective truth—that killing bacteria as a way to avoid illness is an achievable and good practice—needed to first conquer accepted reality.

    Awarded the Dexter Prize by the Society for the History of Technology, historian Thomas Parke Hughes’ 1983 Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 is a unique comparative history of the emergence of modern electric power systems, Networks of Power not only provides an exact representation of large-scale technological change but also demonstrates that technology itself cannot be understood or directed unless placed in a cultural context. For Hughes, both the invention of the simplest devices (like the lightbulb itself) and the execution of the grandest schemes (such as harnessing the water power of the Bavarian Alps) fit into an overarching model of technological development. A model subject to continuous struggle and recasting. But at the same time concrete enough to guide action and investment. His narrative is an absorbing account of the creative genius, scientific achievements, engineering capabilities, managerial skills, and entrepreneurial risks behind one of the most commonplace amenities of the modern age. A narrative that also recognizes and accepts the near military form of the struggles involved in such massive technological, political, economic, and religious change.

    A third book about change that satisfies Alinsky’s criteria is historian Lynn Hunt’s 2007 book Inventing Human Rights: A History. Human rights is a concept that only came to the forefront during the 18th century. When the American Declaration of Independence declared “all men are created equal” and the French proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man during their revolution, they were bringing a new guarantee into the world. But why then? How did such a revelation come to pass? In this remarkable work of cultural and intellectual history, Hunt grounds the creation of human rights in the changes that authors brought to literature, the rejection of torture as a means of compelling human cooperation, and the spread of empathy. She places the upswing in rights language within the context of both the appearance of the novel of letters (such as Rousseau’s Julie and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa) and the rise of portraiture in the mid- to late-18th century. These particular art forms, she argues, fostered a sense of individuality in their audience and empathy for their subjects, most frequently “regular folks” rather than nobles, royalty, or saints. She then takes the reader through 250 years of rights legislation, covering the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, various anti-torture measures and 20th century campaigns against human rights violations, among others. Hunt traces the amazing rise of rights, their momentous eclipse in the 19th century, and their culmination as a principle with the United Nations’ proclamation in 1948. She finishes this work for our time with a diagnosis of the state of human rights today.

    No such changes are ever fully successful in displacing accepted reality(s). Even today, 150 years after Pasteur began the campaign to change scientific, political, economic, legal, and religious reality, germ reality is not 100% accepted. And even today some deliberately choose to live without electricity. Current eclipses of human rights demonstrate the uncertainty of the reality of human rights. It is also important to note that changing reality is not about truth, whatever that is. Also, not every reality change will be seen as morally positive by all who view it. Fanatics and demagogues as well as moderates and peacemakers may successfully change reality.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply, Kenneth. It has the makings of a post in and of itself!

      I only came to know the depth of the problem starting with Bernie (2015), which led me to MMT (2018), which led me to Professor Zaman (2020), who led me to
      Polanyi
      (2022) and other related historical insights. Plus, realizing the severity of our ecological crisis in the past two years.

      In a sense I’m now liberated, but in a world where most remain afraid of not being chained. Being outside of a cage, but surrounded by nothing but cages where the inhabitants VOLUNTARILY lock themselves inside, does not make one feel very free.

      Reaching those who don’t want to be reached – and more deeply believe there’s no reason to be reached in the first place – makes saving the planet a bit more difficult, when a prerequisite for doing so is to reach most of them.

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