This is a summary of the introduction/motivation part of href=”https://sites.google.com/site/az4math/ll15europe19th”>Lecture 15 on Advanced Microeconomics II, delivered at PIDE in Spring Semester 2017. The lecture is about 19th Century European History, and how it is deeply entangled with Modern Economic Theory. We cannot understand one without the other.
19th Century European Economic Ideas In Historical Context.
“… the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong …” Ecclesiastes 9:11
In the late 19th century, a battle of methodologies (“Methodenstreit”) took place, which shaped the future of economics. The German Historical School lost out to the newly emergent, quantitative, mathematical and scientific approach. This led to a re-conceptualization of economics as a science similar to physics, which studies the economic laws of motion of societies. For a detailed account of this battle, and its effects, see “How Economics Forgot History,” by Geoffrey Hodgson.
1. Contemporary Methodology:[humans are predictable robots] The idea that economic theory is a science like physics has extremely unpleasant and counterintuitive consequences. We look for universal laws of economics, which apply equally well to Pakistan, France, Brazil, Russia and Nigeria. Furthermore, they apply equally well in the seventeenth, nineteenth, and twenty-first century. The trade theory of economists must apply equally to trade between Ghana and England, India and Pakistan, and the Huron and Iroquois tribes. Since the ability of human beings to shape their destiny in accordance with visions cannot be fit into a scientific framework, human behavior is reduced to that of a robotic pleasure machine, which follows precise mathematical laws.
2. Marxist Methodology:[social and political structures are determined by economic structures] A key element of Marxist methodology is that economic relations of production are fundamental. These determine the political and social superstructures. Marxist methodology is far richer than current methodology, which removes history, and human beings, from economics. Nonetheless, Marxist methodology gives primacy to materialistic conditions of productions, and considers society and politics as important secondary consequences.
3. (Polanyi’s Methodology):[material circumstance shape human societies, but also human vision and ideas shape material circumstances] Whereas conventional methodology restricts attention to the material circumstance, and Marx considers material circumstances as primary, Polanyi uses a bi-directional causality. Human ideas and visions can shape history, and conversely, the economic relation of production shape human ideas and visions. For more discussion of the radical implications of this entanglement of ideas and materials, see my earlier post on “Meta-Theory and Pluralism in Polanyi’s Methodology“.
These are three distinctly different methodological principles. In the rest of this lecture, we will look at nineteenth century European history through these three different colored glasses and see how they help us understand the economic, social and political changes which occurred during this period. Our goal will be to establish that “entanglement” occurs – that human ideas are both shaped by, and shape, history. In particular, economic theories are used by humans to understand historical experience, and also to guide social responses to this experience, and attempt to mold history in favorable directions. An extremely important consequence of this entanglements is that economic theories cannot be understood when detached from the historical context in which they were born. As Polanyi explains clearly, modern economic theories were produced in nineteenth century England, and to understand these theories, it is necessary to understand European history of that era.
The failure to see the impact of ideas on history was due to the overwhelming influence of a materialist view of the world, which had come into existence following the success of Newton’s laws in explaining diverse phenomena. Since material substances follow laws, they could not be affected by ideas. This duality and divide between spirit and matter has been influential in shaping Western epistemology, and in making it difficult to see the influence of spirit on matter, due to ideological preconceptions.
Before proceeding to the complexities of European history, we will do a dry-run of the conceptual framework we are using within the simpler context of hunter-gatherer as well as feudal societies. The 90m Video-Lecture linked below, discusses the co-evolution of economic theories along with the historical context in 19th century Europe: