[OPE-L:4896] Copernicus: not just a 'scientific revolution'

From: Alan Freeman (a.freeman@greenwich.ac.uk)
Date: Wed Feb 14 2001 - 06:34:58 EST

Since I was involved in choosing the title of our Brecht Forum presentation,
a few words might be appropriate. I suspect this will be a substantial part
of what I say at the forum, so if you want to attend, you've got a bit of a
lead in preparing a response.

The Copernican/Galilean revolution has intrigued me ever since I began to
perceive the extent of resistance to temporalism, so I researched it and
found that the deeper I went, the more striking the analogy.

Historical analogies are not models, and an overly formal approach can go
wide of the mark. The French revolution was a reference point for the
Bolsheviks, whom Lenin liked to call 'Jacobins'. Trotsky refers to
'Thermidor' and characterised Stalin as Bonapartist. Lenin did not however
propose the Bolsheviks should organise by means of banquets, nor did Trotsky
expect Stalin to ride over Europe on horseback.

What historical analogy achieves is to lay bare decisive elements which
recur or persist despite the originality of every epoch, which help analyse
the present in the light of the past. My adoption of a Copernican analogy
draws on a parallel which, I think, goes beyond merely outward resemblance:
between the intellectual resistance to Copernicus orchestrated via the
organised catholic church, and the intellectual resistance to temporalism,
orchestrated via the profession of economics.

Intellectual progress is not linear. Challenges to old ideas frequently, in
fact generally, involve a return to older insights. Copernicus did not
'discover' a new truth but recuperated a system formulated by Aristarchus of
Samos in 246 BC. This was not just forgotten but consciously suppressed:
Cleanthus called for Aristarchus to be burned to death for 'saving the
phenomena by displacing the earth from its rightful position at the centre
of the universe.'

The safe Ptolemaic alternative was not superseded until thinkers dared
contemplate what had *previously* been declared unthinkable. The question is
therefore why and how it came about that an earlier, better idea was not
merely passed over but consciously extirpated.

Hence the key point: Copernicus and Galileo were not engaged in 'normal'
scientific debate (unless the scope of scientific discourse is extended to
torture, exile, and excommunication). Resistance to them arose from definite
ideological requirements of a society whose organising principle --
political order -- had to express divine order.

Temporalism in economics, of which (from my point of view) Marx was the
definitive and most developed expression, does not encounter 'normal'
scientific opposition, unless the scope of scientific discourse is extended
to the suppression of an entire body of theory and excommunication of most
of its exponents. What has to be grasped is that this resistance likewise
arises from a definite ideological requirement, of a society whose
organising principle -- the market -- has to express natural order.

I think what also has to be grasped is that in both cases, these organising
principles were incarnated in a definite set of ideas: through what Galileo
termed a 'World system' and which Andrew and myself, perhaps stretching Kuhn
a point, refer to as a paradigm: a conceptual and ontological framework for
thinking about the universe which was at one and the same time a cosmology
and a social theory.

Political class struggle transmits itself into this intellectual battle of
ideas, which ceases to be a simple struggle between a variety of scientific
alternatives; it is turned by the dominant class into a confrontation
between two ways of thinking about the world. Within one of these ways of
thinking, it is possible to formulate the idea that the existing order is
transitory and limited, and within the other, it is not. Although in
themselves, each World View is merely a theory and of equal potential
validity, and although one cannot deduce that a simultaneist is necessarily
a reactionary, or a Copernican a revolutionary, nevertheless the scientific
discussion is overlaid, conditioned by, and in the last instance determined
by, the political class struggle, in that the dominant classes intervene by
definite material means to secure the success of the theory that most
effectively secures the continuity of their rule: the church in mediaeval
times, the profession of economics today.

What then has to be grasped is how the World View lends itself to such
usage; its internal logic, or ideologic, has to be understood in and for

The resistance to Copernicus/Aristarchus, like the opposition to
temporalism, did not (pace Brecht) reduce to simple-minded irrationalism or
obscurantism; to the contrary the church was the birthplace, and Aristotle
the father, of modern deductive logic, just as mathematical economics
reaches its high point in systems of competitive or Sraffian General

Within this paradigm there was a varied and open cosmological debate; but it
was a prison, at one and the same time intellectual and material. One
decisive idea was literally unthinkable; the idea of a order without rulers.
The Ptolemaics inhabited a ruled universe. Everything that existed was the
expression of a purpose. By *definition*, to the Ptolemaic way of thinking,
the heavens were the direct visible expression of divine rule, and the idea
that the earth was some aimless wanderer in their midst was just ridiculous,
stupid, absurd.

Likewise within simultaneist ontologies, notwithstanding their great
variety, one decisive idea is literally unthinkable: that the market might
fail to reproduce itself. All essential magnitudes are *by definition* the
outcome of a perfectly-reproducing market. It becomes impossible for anyone
that employs this ontology to formulate ideas about the forces through which
the market calls its own existence into question. The equilibrium of a
simultaneist market might be disrupted by bad governance. But the idea of a
market that does not even have an equilibrium is ridiculous, stupid, absurd.

Thus when Fred speaks of prices of production as 'centres of gravity' (with
great unconscious irony, given the Copernican debate) it never even occurs
to him that this term can mean two entirely different things, according to
the way one thinks, or that Marx might have meant, with these same words, an
idea different to his own. He simply identifies the phrase, as if no other
idea were possible, with 'long-run equilibrium'.

Yet only two years ago he debated a paper, still sitting on the web-site,
which exhaustively demonstrates the alternative, shows that it is
quantitatively distinct, establishes that it is textually utterly compatible
with everything Marx wrote, and proves that if Marx had employed the concept
which Fred attributes to him, it would have been logically impossible not
only for the profit rate to fall but even for any two profit rates to
diverge from each other.

Even Marx's own category of super-profit, never mind his theory of crisis,
finds no logical expression within the concept that Fred imposes on him. Yet
insofar as he even considers the possibility that Marx might have had
another concept, he considers it only to discount it as a youthful
abberation. Like all simultaneist thinkers, he simply proceeds as if the
words had only one possible meaning which must necessarily be Marx's:
'long-run equilibrium', just as Clavius in Galileo's time proceeded as if
the word 'earth' had only one meaning: 'centre of the universe'.

The problem of science within the church is thus not just the churchman, but
the prisoners of the thinking which the church was built to propagate.

The irreducible political and social function of economics, like the late
Mediaeval church, is despite the diversity of its debates to make it
conceptually impossible to formulate the idea that the existing order is
transitory. Its job is to make the things which happens to exist now appear
as if they must exist for ever. It must render opposition futile; it must
make it seem that, no matter how diverse or how different one's ideas are,
they always lead back to the same point, never outside to the unknown.

Thus the very possibility that globalisation, for example, might fail of its
own limitations cannot be expressed within simultaneist theory, or if it is
expressed, only in the last instance by endogenising what is actually
exogenous, such as government policy.

Globalisation then appears *inevitable*; the only choices are acceptance or
futility. The profession of economics functions so as to instil a spiritual
horror of political dissent, not as in Mediaeval times by directly
suppressing it but by suffocating its intellectual life-force; by making it
appear contrary to the natural order of things.

This for me is the force of the analogy. If it is a valid analogy, and in my
view the evidence for that is substantial and mounting, then there is a
practical conclusion: it is not possible to pursue a career in economics as
if one were taking part in 'normal science' or as if economics were a
science at all or even an environment within which science can thrive. A
scientific development of Political Economy can only exist under capitalism,
just like Copernicanism under late catholicism, in and through a militant
struggle, involving great dedication and personal sacrifice, against
everything which the profession of economics treats as 'normal',
'reasonable', 'acceptable' and in consequence against its entire structure
of selection, graduation, appointment, peer review, publication, promotion,
tenure and recognition, against its domination of the social sciences,
against its positivism, against any claim to exercise authority over
people's lives.

The historical point to be understood is that like the church, economics is
not just a branch of knowledge. It is a material structure, a branch of the
division of labour, exerting material pressure, with a definite ideological
function that is relayed from the funding mechanism via the selection
structure. Its graduates are its novitiates, its Professors its priests, its
Nobel Laureates its Cardinals, its textbooks its catechism, its schools are
its monasteries.

Through these structures, economics refines the notion of the market as a
natural order, and weeds out or neuters all that challenges this notion.
Just like the church, no matter how 'nice' the people within it, at every
point where it faces an intellectual choice that jeopardises its function
and hence material existence, it does not take that choice; instead it
ruthlessly extirpates the forces leading towards that choice.

The question is not at all, therefore, whether either Marx, Copernicus, or
TSSers have 'revolutionised' thinking by discovering something new. It is
where the boundary lies between religious praxis which submits all evidence
to the test of conceptual structure, and scientific praxis which submits all
theoretical alternatives to the test of the evidence.

This leads me to what is historically original about the present epoch.

The peculiarity of economics is that it poses as science. It appears to
invert, and indeed even caricatures, the struggle between Galileo and the
church, casting itself as absolute reason and its opponents as absolute
unreason. To oppose it is therefore to be branded as irrational,
obscurantist, dogmatic, fundamentalist.

I think it has to do this, because it must portray the market not as a
divine order but as a natural one. What has to be grasped is that this
appearance, like so many things under capitalism, is an inversion of
reality; the true role of economic reasoning is to transform nature into a
source of authority; and it is in this respect that it is no different from,
and no better than, the church.

Economics portrays itself as a science, but functions as a religion. It
defends itself against science by claiming special status as a branch of
social research, and against social research by claiming special status as a
science. Yet it yields to criticism from neither. It is self-sustaining,
self-governing, accountable in fact only to its funders.

The next problem is to understand how this is achieved intellectually. To
make nature into a source of authority, it must appear unchallengeable. The
ideology that corresponds to this is that of positivism. This, I think, is
where the simultaneist World View lends itself to a very specific praxis
which appears scientific because it is logical, but is actually profoundly
anti-scientific because its function is to avoid any confrontation between
alternative conceptual structures.

The simultaneist World View is implicitly dogmatic. It yields only one rate
of profit, one set of prices, one set of values, one natural rate of
unemployment, one 'correct' rate of interest and so on, these magnitudes
being those through which the market can reproduce itself. Nothing else can
be considered except as 'disequilibrium', a momentary departure from the
underlying 'reality' -- the perfect market.

It therefore finds a *theory* that excludes equilibrium logically
inadmissible, because to the mind of a simultaneist, this would mean
constructing a theory of the real by starting from the unreal. In the
history of economic thought, as is well-documented by others than ourselves,
such theories (not only TSS but temporal theories in general) are invariably
'discounted on logical grounds' or politely dropped not because they are
wrong but because economics cannot understand them; that is, they are

But this is the anti-scientific core of the whole procedure. The minute one
drops or discounts a theory which *might* explain the facts, on no other
grounds than that one cannot make sense of it, one has stepped over the
boundary that separates science from dogma. Economics, along with its
simultaneist World View, is a well-oiled machine to stand guard over this

On the wrong side.

I think we now sit on a cusp in which new forces generated outside
economics, as they do every few decades, are again questioning the
legitimacy of this praxis - the French students, the anticapitalist
movement, the resurgence of heterodoxy. At the previous points in history
where this happened, personified in the thinking of Marx and of Keynes,
economics successfully suppressed the new insights by a combination of two
measures. On the one hand, it produced a 'sanitised' equilibrium reading of
the new ideas. On the other, it prepared an ideological offensive rooted in
the critique, not of the thinkers themselves but of the contradictions in
this sanitised version that it successfully identified with them.

This is where, I think, TSS can be situated. The core notion of TSS(I),
considered in its most limited sense as nothing more than a theoretical
interpretation of Marx, is no more nor less than the following; in order to
test Marx's ideas (or anyone else's, for that matter) one must first
establish what they actually are. That is all. These ideas may be wrong, and
they may be right, but it is utterly illegitimate and anti-scientific, as
economics has done for the last century, to discount Marx by establishing
the inconsistency of things Marx never said. That is why it is a necessary
corrective, a precondition for scientific Political Economy, to instil a
completely different approach, one in which the purpose of logic is not to
test Marx, or any other thinker, but to clarify the true structure of their

The issue is therefore not at all whether Marx or readings of Marx are
definitively true - only history can establish that - but whether they are
*distinct*. A praxis that permits them to be tested against the evidence
requires that each such theory, and each such interpretation, be studied for
what it is and not portrayed as something else. A requirement of testing
different theories properly is that each such theory really is presented in
its own conceptual terms, including Marx's own theory. If there are
different interpretations of a theory then these in turn have to be
presented as distinct and understood in their own terms.

But this is precisely what Economics refuses to do. Instead it purports to
test rival theories by *re-interpreting them* in a single doctrinal
framework -- physicalist simultaneism -- which it legislates to be positive
truth. The historical analogy with Brahe is thus not, I think, Ricardo as
Julian proposes, but Bortkiewicz, and all subsequent twentieth-century
Marxism, most of which amounts to squaring the circle by reproducing Marx's
conclusions with Walrasian concepts; to get the planets going around the sun
without uncomfortably displacing the earth from the centre of the universe.

The touchstone of science in the light of this historical analogy is neither
the substitution of deductive logic (which religion pursues with fervour
matched only by a Sraffian in full flow) for theoretical clarity, nor the
substitution of gentlemanly conduct (which the Antebellum South perfected
while lynching was at its frenzied peak) for systematic engagement between
alternative views of reality. It is the ruthless pursuit of *clarity*; the
identification of what is truly different between rival explanations,
*without* seeking to use these differences as a basis for exclusion. Thus
*pluralism* - genuine, scientific pluralism - coupled with evidential
contestation - is the core of the required practice.

Being an economist is a choice. One can choose not to do it, just as one can
choose not to research nuclear fission. Einstein once said, had he known, he
would have made watches. If one chooses to be an economist, there are
attendant responsibilities; I more or less agree with Ken Livingstone when
he points out that the IMF has killed more people than Hitler. It's not just
a job like any other.

Therefore, anyone who wants to fight what economics does, or sanctions the
doing of, cannot confine themselves to intellectually stimulating
discussions, publishing heterodox papers in obscure or even respectable
journals, polite discussions with fellow dissidents on flame-free lists, or
tenure career tracks which recognise 'teaching heterodoxy' as a valid
activity. Of course these are valid activities. But even the most radical
priest cannot overturn the church's essential function, which is to render
opposition intellectually powerless, unless s/he goes for the jugular and
denies -- and militantly struggles to displace -- the church's right to that
power. The decisive issue is that *economics is not a science*; and not
merely is it not a science, it is a religion.

An economist cannot merely act like 'any other' intellectual precisely
because of this fact. Economics is a social institution whose function is to
perpetuate a conceptual structure within which the existing order appears as
natural, eternal and inevitable. To function scientifically as an economist
one must function as a permanent subversive, a militant, a public and
implacable foe of the institution that pays one's wages, of all praxis that
perpetuates its role, a champion of all the ideas it scorns and a defender
of all the people it tramples on. One must promulgate a different way of
arriving at truth; the way of Copernicus and Galileo.


Some references on the Copernicus/Galileo debate:

Lattis, James M (1994) Between Copernicus and Galileo: Christoph Clavius and
the Collapse of Ptolemaic Cosmology. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Drake, S (1957), Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, Doubleday.

Sambursky, S(1991) The Physical World of the Greeks

Clavius on Copernicus:

"If the position of Copernicus involved no falsities or absurdities there
would be great doubt as to which of the two opinions – whether the Ptolemaic
or the Copernican – should better be followed as appropriate for defending
this kind of phenomena. But in fact many absurdities and errors are
contained in the Copernican position – as that the earth is not at the
centre of the firmament and is moved by a threefold motion (which I can
hardly understand, because according to philosophers one simple body ought
to have one motion) and moreover that the sun stands at the centre of the
world and lacks any motion. All of which conflicts with the common teaching
of philosophers and astronomers and also seem to contradict what the
Scriptures teach." (From Clavius’ commentary on Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, cited
in Lattis (1994:249))

Kuhn (1961):

"Consider, for another example, the men who called Copernicus mad because he
proclaimed that the earth moved. They were not either just wrong or quite
wrong. Part of what they meant by ‘earth’ was fixed position. Their earth,
at least, could not be moved. Correspondingly, Copernicus’ innovation was
not simply to move the earth. Rather, it was a whole new way of regarding
the problems of physics and astronomy, one that necessarily changed the
meaning of both ‘earth’ and ‘motion.’ Without those changes the concept of a
moving earth was mad." (Kuhn 1961:149-150)

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