[OPE-L] David F. Ruccio, (Un)Real Criticism, Post-Autistic Economics Review, issue 35

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Dec 06 2005 - 04:26:20 EST

Howard, Andy and others:

This article by David Ruccio seems relevant to our recent discussion in
the "Derrida's Ghosts" thread.  How would you reply to Ruccio's critique
of critical realism?

In solidarity, Jerry


David F. Ruccio, "(Un)Real Criticism", Post-Autistic Economics Review,
issue 35    Issue no. 35, 5 December 2005  article 5

      Symposium on Reorienting Economics  (Part VI)

      Dialogue on the reform of economics with Tony Lawson’s Reorienting
Economics as focal point

      (Un)Real Criticism
      David F. Ruccio   (University of Notre Dame, USA)

      © Copyright: David R. Ruccio 2005

      Reading the work of Tony Lawson and the growing literature on
critical realism and economics, I am impressed by the power of this
“underlaboring” philosophy both to shed light on the methodological
problems that beset contemporary mainstream economics and to help
create the theoretical space in which we, as heterodox economists,
can imagine and develop alternatives to the mainstream. At the same
time, I am troubled by the particular way Lawson and other critical
realists are endeavoring to fill that space.

      Let me put this a different way: Lawson and other critical realists
raise a series of pertinent and probing questions concerning the
ontological presuppositions of contemporary economic discourse. I am
not, however, persuaded by the specific answers Lawson and others
give to those questions.

      I want to use this essay, then, to explain why I think critical
realism—at least Lawson’s version of it, as spelled out in
Reorienting Economics—deserves a great deal of credit for
challenging mainstream economics and recognizing the value of
heterodox economics, all in the name of “reality.” In this, Lawson
has established the ground for a new set of conversations in and
about economics. He asks those of us who labor in the discipline of
economics to become self-conscious about the conceptual schemes and
methods we use when we take on the task of analyzing one or another
aspect of reality and how those methods are inextricably related to
issues of ontology, to how we understand the nature of being. Of
particular significance to me, since I have never been much
convinced by the ontological schemes presumed within mainstream
(neoclassical and Keynesian) economics, Lawson’s critical realism
asks those of us who do heterodox economics to discuss and debate
the general role that reality plays in our work and the particular
conceptions of reality with which we conduct our work. How do we
conceive of social reality and the relations between the various
parts of that reality? What are the notions of subjectivity and
identity we deploy in our analyses? What is the relationship between
economic discourse and social reality? Instead of ignoring such
questions, critical realism places them front and center, and in
this has enlivened the conversations within and among the schools of
thought that today make up heterodox economics.

      I also want to argue that the specific conception of reality put
forward by Lawson forecloses another set of conversations. In
arguing that economic (and, more generally, social) analysis
requires a specific ontology—an independent reality characterized by
relations of depth between actual events, practices, and behaviors
and underlying rules, codes, and structures, and much more—critical
realism precludes a productive engagement with the constitutive
effects of different economic discourses. It also leaves unexamined
the existence of other—particularly, Marxian and
postmodern—ontologies that have been developed and proven to be
quite useful in recent years.

      Economic and Social Reality

      While in much of this essay I adopt a critical stance toward
Reorienting Economics, I want to leave no doubt that I am quite
sympathetic to a great deal of Lawson’s work, and to critical
realism more generally. And that’s the case not only on strictly
theoretical issues. In my view, credit should also be given to
Lawson for the ways he has opened his Routledge book series to
perspectives other than those of critical realism and the extent to
which he has demonstrated, in contrast to many other economic
methodologists these days, an interest in and a clear partisanship
in favor of nonmainstream—feminist, Post-Keynesian,
institutionalist, and other—approaches to economic analysis.1

      My interest in and support for Lawson’s version of critical realism
runs through a number of other themes and issues. For example, the
extent to which the “ontological turn” brings discussions of social
reality back into economics can only have a salutary effect. This is
especially true since Lawson (as other critical realists) avoids the
kind of naïve empiricism that still pervades much economic analysis,
both mainstream and heterodox. (Generally but not always, an issue
to which I return below.) The complexity and “messiness” of reality
remind all of us that the theories we develop always leave something
out; there is always a “remainder,” which cannot simply be dismissed
as unimportant or extraneous to our analyses of history and society.
The “fullness” of material reality thus makes us suspicious of any
attempt to derive a single order, whether a Subject or an Origin,
that can be said to govern or give rise to—that can account for
every dimension of—what we have before us. Invoking reality in this
way allows us to raise questions about, and to pose alternatives to,
both the theoretical models and policy prescriptions of our
mainstream counterparts.2

      There is another sense in which putting reality up front aids us in
confronting mainstream economics and elaborating our own approaches
to economic analysis and policy. If our conception of social reality
is such that the economy is “open” with respect to other social
spheres and practices—such that, for example, economic events and
practices are affected by and spill over into culture, politics, and
so on, and no strict lines can be drawn between these areas—then the
kinds of theories and policies advocated by many mainstream
economics, which presume a more or less isolated economy, can be
challenged. Two particular examples might help to illustrate this
point. Microeconomic analyses of decisionmaking often presume that
individuals will make rational decisions, unaffected by the “real”
values (such as fairness and justice) or knowledges (including
whether or not a decision is warranted or even possible) such agents
hold. Similarly, if for a particular country a mainstream economist
conducts a macroeconomic analysis, which uncovers an imbalance for
which they propose a currency devaluation (or some such measure) as
the solution, “reality” tells us that those with little or no power
(women, workers, the unemployed, and so on) may be and often are
adversely affected by such a policy. In such cases, reality can be
used to complicate, undermine, and/or transform the usual
pronouncements of mainstream economists.3

      But, of course, Lawson claims more than that reality be brought to
the forefront, that we confront head-on the twin challenges of
making sense of and intervening to change contemporary social
reality. He argues that the protocols of science require that
reality be conceived in a particular fashion. In this arena, too, I
find much to commend in his approach. A “social world structured by
social rules or codes” that is “continuously reproduced or
transformed”; social practices that are both “highly, and
systematically, segmented or differentiated” and  “constitutively
other-oriented”; social reality as a “process” of becoming; social
agents that have consciousness who, at the same time, are often
engaged in “human doings that are carried out without being
premeditated or reflected upon”—these and other attributes of the
ontology elaborated by Lawson (in Economics and Reality as well as
in Reorienting Economics) are exactly the kinds of things I
emphasize in my research and teaching (both inside and outside the
university), in contrast to many of the ways reality is depicted in
and enforced by mainstream economics.

      Reality and Science

      If Lawson stopped there, then I would have not have cause to
criticize his approach (except, perhaps, for quibbles around the
edges). But then his discussion of ontology wouldn’t carry the force
of critical realism. Because Lawson both wants to accord a
particular status to this ontology and, following on that, to
attribute to it a structure of “depth” or verticality. I (and I
presume others) find both of these arguments problematic.

      Lawson contends that ontology is important because science demands
it—and the particular ontology he describes is said both to rule out
the formalist protocols of mainstream economics and to accord with
his preferred “contrastive explanation” approach to economic and
social science. Once again, I find myself sympathetic with the
questioning (particularly of the fetishism of formal, including
mathematical, models) but not with the answer.4 For the approach
Lawson adopts is to develop a particular definition of the goals and
methods of science—to identify “event regularities,” to form causal
hypotheses to explain such regularities, and to choose between
competing hypotheses—and then to indicate what reality must look
like in order to follow the protocols of such a conception of

      The result is that, instead of putting reality at the forefront, it
is science—and a specific understanding of science—that governs
everything else. The ontological turn is, in the way I read it,
actually a turn to science. The emphasis on reality is further
undermined by Lawson’s frequent references to a kind of common sense
as the warrant for his assertions about reality. Reorienting
Economics is replete with such phrases as “we all act on it” (p.
33), “highly generalized feature of experience” (p. 38), “we all, it
seems have” (p 46), and “generalized fact of experience” (pp. 51 and
85). Here, in an approach eerily reminiscent of empiricism, the
requirements of science (reality must be structured in a specific
way for science to work) are shunted aside in favor of the shared
observations of the scientists (who are presumed to agree that
reality looks such and such a way).5

      My point is not to argue that Lawson is being inconsistent, either
in moving from reality to science or from the protocols of science
to commonsensical empirical observations. But I do want to point out
that Lawson’s moves are not the only ones available to us. For
example, if we want to place reality at the center of our work, then
why must the protocols of science dictate the rules reality must
follow? Why should reality behave in a manner that fits a so-called
scientific method? If reality looks different—if it doesn’t seem to
match the particular model or concepts we are using, if there is
something left over or unaccounted for—then why not change the

      In the end, that’s precisely the argument Lawson uses to rule out
mainstream economics and to embrace heterodox economics: the former
can’t account for reality (at least as Lawson understands it) while
the latter can. Moreover, Lawson considers the different schools of
thought that make up heterodox economics to be merely different
perspectives on—different questions about, different ways of making
sense of—a common reality. But the only way this approach can work
is if social reality itself is taken to be both independent and
singular: independent of the way we think about it, and common to
all forms of economic and social analysis.

      Marxism and Postmodernism

      There are many alternatives to the way Lawson poses the problem of
ontology. The two I have in mind, both of which question the
independence and singularity of reality, are associated with Marxism
and postmodernism (neither of which receives but brief mention in
Reorienting Economics).

      If Lawson’s approach hinges on the idea that social reality is
independent of the process of theorizing, the Marxian tradition
emphasizes the dialectical, interdependent nature of that
relationship. Without entering into unnecessary detail, what this
means is, on one hand, theory and social reality are seen to be
mutually constitutive and, on the other hand, the conception of
reality produced by the process of theorizing is considered to be
distinct from reality itself. The mutual constitutivity of theory
and reality is a way of focusing attention on the role that each
plays in determining the other: changes in society lead to changes
in theory, and vice versa. Thus, for example, social reality
contains the conditions of existence of economics (both the
discipline as well as individual schools of thought) and, in turn,
the process of economic theorizing affects—constitutes, reproduces,
changes—the society within which such theorizing takes place. This
is not to say there is a simple, one-to-one correspondence between
the two (as is often presumed in deterministic renditions of
Marxism, according to which the emergence of capitalism leads to the
birth of economics, or different stages of capitalism give rise to
different economic theories). But it does place emphasis, in a way
that Lawson does not, on how changes in one lead to changes in the
other, in a never-ending pattern of interdependent influence and

      The contrast does not end there. Marxists also make a distinction
between the thought-concrete and the concrete-real, between the
conception of social reality produced in and by the process of
theorizing and the social reality within which that process takes
place.7 The two are not the same. From a Marxian perspective, what
social scientists (including economists) do is produce a conception
of social reality in thought, and these thoughts are not to be
conflated with the reality that exists outside of thought; they are
literally the appropriations within thought of an external social
reality. Thus, in a classical Marxian formulation, the “movement
from the abstract to the concrete” is a process that takes place
entirely within thought—the goal of which is to produce a more
concrete analysis of society (or of some part thereof) than what one
began with. It is more concrete in the sense that it includes more
determinations; it takes into account more factors that are
constitutive (and, of course, constituted by) the concepts under
analysis. It makes no sense, then, to imagine or to specify a
relationship of approximation or correspondence between the product
of theorizing and the social reality that exists “out there,”
outside theory.

      The postmodern way of handling this problem is to refer to the
discursive construction of social reality.8  Again, proceding at a
relatively general level, postmodernism emphasizes both the way
different social discourses produce different social realities and
the idea that social reality itself comprises social agents and
entities that use different discourses to construct the reality in
which they exist. Thus, there are two, different but related, senses
in which the economy can be said to be discursively constructed.
First, different economic theories—mainstream and heterodox, from
neoclassical to Marxian—produce different conceptions of economic
and social reality. Economists literally see and analyze different
economies, according to the discourses (or paradigms or theoretical
frameworks) they use. And such “economic realities” may be and often
are radically different and incommensurable, produced and elaborated
according to different concepts and conceptual strategies. Thus, to
choose but one example, neoclassical economists perceive an economic
reality characterized by rational choices, factor payments, and
equilibrium whereas Marxian economists see commodity fetishism,
exploitation, and contradiction. And, from a postmodern perspective,
there is no transdiscursive or nondiscursive standard whereby such
different realities can be validated or adjudicated (although, of
course, such judgments often do take place within particular
discourses, leading to quite different conclusions).

      The second sense in which postmodernists view the economy as being
discursively constructed pertains to economic events and practices
themselves. The idea here is that economic and social discourses—not
just academic or scientific discourses but also “everyday”
discourses, about the economy and much else—affect the way economic
agents behave, institutions operate, and events occur. And, again,
different discourses will have different effects on such behaviors,
institutions, and events. The discourses I have in mind run the
gamut from ways of making sense of desire and labor (particulary
with respect to economic agents) through accounting conventions and
notions of relevant stakeholders (in the case of economic entities
such as corporations and international trade organizations) to the
pronouncements of monetary authorities and corporate officials
(which affect the movements of interest rates and prices of equity
shares). The point is that the economy—specific parts or sectors as
well as the economy as a whole—will be affected by which discourses
are present, and it is important to analyze such discourses in order
to understand economic reality.

      Put the two together—call it postmodern Marxism—and ontology
acquires a status quite different from the one outlined by Lawson.
While a clear distinction is made between social reality and the
discourses about that reality, that’s just the beginning of the
story. It then becomes important to recognize the complex ways
social reality has an impact on social (including economic)
discourses, on how those discourses affect social reality, and on
how social reality itself is constituted by both academic and
nonacademic discourses. What this means is not only are discourses
about the economy influenced in important ways by the practices and
discourses in the wider society; it also means that economic
discourses are “performative,” in the sense that economic agents and
institutions are constituted—brought into being, reproduced and
changed—in and through the ideas produced within economics. Thus,
for example, the “language of class” that characterizes Marxian
economics serves both to highlight class processes and to offer a
range of class identities and positions that can be inhabited by
social agents.

      Critical Ontologies

      Not only do Marxism and postmodernism, alone and together, call into
question the independence of theory and reality. They also offer
ontologies that are quite different from the one Lawson articulates
and expounds as the singular reality appropriate for economic

      The ontologies associated with the Marxian and postmodern
methodologies discussed in the previous section are not based on the
scheme of verticality or depth that characterizes Lawson’s approach.
For Lawson, all social systems are composed of “surface actualities”
(actual events and states of affairs) and “underlying causes” (such
as deeper structures, powers, mechanisms, and so on)—and the point
of economic and social analysis is to show how the “deep” causes
account for or explain the “surface” events. But what if reality is
taken to be a surface, which comprises a wide variety of social
agents, processes, and practices, wherein there is no relation of
depth or verticality? Does such a horizontal array of elements make
economic and social analysis impossible? The Marxian tradition has
offered up one way of making sense of such a social reality:
overdetermination.9 Originally borrowed from Freud’s interpretation
of dreams, the concept of overdetermination is a way of producing an
ontology wherein relations of depth (such as those between essence
and appearance or base and superstructure) are discarded in favor of
mutual relations of constitution and contradiction. Each problem or
event that is under analysis is then seen as being constituted by
myriad other aspects of social reality—to be the condensed effect of
those other aspects or dimensions—no one of which is accorded causal
priority over, or more ontological significance than, any other. It
is the totality of such effects—the conditions of existence, in this
language—that accounts for the contradictory constitution of any
particular social actuality. Nothing behind, nothing underneath; no
levels of ontological priority or causation. Just the constant
movement and change that are occasioned by the overdetermined
contradictions, the uneven pushes and pulls, that define each

      What then of the rules of conduct, power, mechanisms, and so on that
Lawson attributes to a deeper or transcendental level of reality?
From a Marxian perspective, they are present within the effects of
the various processes and practices that make up social reality.
Even stronger: they are nothing but the presence of those effects.
Thus, for example, the rules of exploitation are contained within
the practices whereby surplus labor is appropriated from the direct
producers, practices that are themselves the overdetermined result
of the other aspects of the social totality—economic, political, and
cultural—within which that exploitation takes place. And it is that
contradictory social reality that gives rise to practices of
exploitation as they exist as well as to the emergence of other,
nonexploitative class practices. It in this sense that the flat,
horizontal, surface ontology of Marxism provides the basis for a
critical analysis of reality, including a project of emancipation.

      Postmodernism also suggests alternatives to the vertically oriented
ontologies of economic modernism.10 Indeed, much postmodern critique
has taken the form of a refusal or subversion of the idea that there
are essences to be discovered and that appearances are to be probed
for the truths hidden beneath the surface. Skeptical of all forms of
determinism—whether of necessary cause-and-effect relations or, less
strongly, probabilistic patterns that link particular events as
causes with other events as effects—postmodernists are inclined
toward ontologies characterized by “depthlessness,”  and emphasize
the randomness of causation and effectivity of chance, the
indeterminacy of events, the multiplicity of possible causes, the
fluidity of the relationship between seeming causes and their
effects, and the reversibility of positions between putative causes
and effects. In the particular area of economics, postmodernists are
critical of both of the main forms of essentialism: theoretical
humanism (according to which social reality can be reduced to and
explained in terms of some underlying characeristics of human
beings) and structuralism (in which underlying structures can
account for and be used to explain social events). The alternative
is a surface comprising heterogenous elements—events, actualities,
behaviors, flows, connections, and so on—that can be analyzed with
alternative notions of causality—juxtaposition, simultaneity,
textuality, decentering, and so forth. Based on its refusal of
ontological hierarchy in favor of flatness, the goal of postmodern
analysis is thus to read the “text” of social reality, to produce a
“commentary” on the practices and subjectivities that define that

      Again, the conjunction of Marxism and postmodernism has produced
alternatives both to mainstream economics and to critical realism—in
this case, new ontologies and forms of social analysis. “Postmodern
materialism” is one such example.11 Originally inspired by
Althusser’s notion of the “aleatory,” postmodern materialism was
formulated in order to move beyond the systemic treatments
associated with traditional Marxism, the homogeneity and fixedness
of social reality and the certainty of historical trajectory—and to
bring to the fore the more antisystemic elements of the Marxian
tradition—the heterogeneity and openness of social reality, the
incompleteness of the bourgeois project and the imagining of
alternative economic and social realities. On this interpretation,
many aspects of Marxian economic and social theory take on a new
cast. The specificity of Marx’s concept of value, to consider but
one instance, instead of being an expression of an underlying “law”
of the division of labor (which presumes an aready constituted
homogeneity of social subjects, of homo faber), is now seen to be a
way of focusing on the cultural and political mechanisms whereby
diverse communities are stripped of their identities and needs in
order to be molded into the subjects of a single economic calculus.
Thus, the “economy” would emerge not as a primitive foundation, an
independent and singular underlying reality, but as the forced
attempt to create a closed space whose principle of existence is
based on a negation of social specificity, heterogeneity, and

      Similarly, “poststructuralist political economy” is an attempt to
rescue the Marxian theory of class from the primacy of the
“capitalist totality”— the capitalist system or mode of production,
the global capitalist political economy, and so on—itself seen as
the expression of an underlying cause (such as the “law of
accumulation”).12 A poststructuralist approach suggests a reading of
Capital that emphasizes class as the discursive entry point of
political economy instead of being taken as a given of the social
order. Once reliquished from the limitations imposed by a unified,
centered ontology, an “accounting for class” suggests both a diverse
and differentiated economic landscape—comprising both capitalist and
noncapitalist practices and identities—and a field of theory and
politics that is open and experimental. In other words, the ontology
associated with poststructuralist political economy is characterized
not by closure and certainty but by challenges and possibilities. It
also clears the way for an active political role for theory in
creating the terms in which the identities of subjects are
constituted and through which they can create their futures. The
result is to defamiliarize existing notions of social reality, to
make that reality different from itself.

      Critical Thought and Realism

      My aim in this brief essay is not to elaborate or defend
alternatives to critical realism in any detail. I merely want to
indicate that alternatives to the ontology proposed by Tony Lawson,
in Reorienting Economics and elsewhere, have been developed within
heterodox economics, including Marxism and postmodernism. These
alternative ontologies have led to projects of economic and social
analysis that are not only critical of mainstream economics but
quite productive in their own right.

      And I certainly don’t want to argue that the alternative conceptions
of ontology I have mentioned are any more “real” than the one that
can be found in Lawson’s work. While I share with Lawson the idea
that ontology is important, both for the critique of mainstream
economics and for the flourishing of heterodox economics, I admit to
being skeptical about the project of finding or producing a single
ontology that will serve as the shared foundation of the various
schools of thought that have come together in the post-autistic
economics movement. In my view, we need to do everything within out
grasp to keep critical approaches to economics alive by making
reality as unreal as possible.


      I want to express my appreciation to Edward Fullbrook not only for
the invitation to participate in this symposium (and his
graciousness and patience in waiting for my contribution) but also
for all the work he has done to keep the post-autistic economics
movement alive. I also want to thank Antonio Callari for his
comments on a previous draft.


      1. Disclosure: a volume I co-edited with Stephen Cullenberg and Jack
Amariglio, Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge (2001), as well
as another to which I contributed (Garnett 1999) were published,
with Lawson’s encouragement, in the Economics as Social Theory

      2. I take this to be one of the main points raised by the students
who initiated the post-autistic movement, in France, England, and
the United States. See the statements and manifestos reprinted in
Fullbrook (2003).

      3. In the United States right now, there is a particular poignancy
to siding with “reality-based” arguments against so-called
“faith-based” ones. This is the case as much in the discipline of
economics as in the wider society.

      4. See, e.g., my critique of the use of mathematical models in
Marxian economics (Ruccio 1988; Ruccio and Amariglio 2003,
especially chap. 1).

      5. Antonio Gramsci (1991) argued that common sense contains a
“specific conception of the world” and that “in acquiring one’s
conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping
which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode
of thinking and acting” (324). Clifford Geertz (1983), for his part,
reminds us that such common sense, a set of presumably shared
observations about reality, “is not what the mind cleared of cant
spontaneously apprehends” but rather "what the mind filled with
[historical and cultural presuppositions]. . .concludes" (84). It
is, in other words, a historically and culturally specific
knowledge—in this case, a local ontology.

      6. To be clear, the Marxian tradition admits of many different
interpretations. The one I develop here is often referred to as
antiessentialist Marxism, associated with the journal Rethinking
Marxism and the work of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff (1987).

      7. The difference between the “concrete-in-thought” and the
“concrete-real” was made prominent by Louis Althusser (1970, 1977)
as a way of distinguishing the method of the “mature Marx” from that
of Ludwig Feuerbach.

      8. The postmodern approach briefly summarized in the text is
developed at some length by Ruccio and Amariglio (2003). It is also
more or less synonymous with poststructuralism (Amariglio 1998) and
deconstruction (Ruccio 1998). See also the different interpretations
of postmodernism with respect to economics in Cullenberg et al.

      9. See, e.g., the pioneering contribution of Resnick and Wolff (1987).

      10. Within social theory, postmodern ontologies have been developed
perhaps most prominently within feminism, especially with respect to
the gendered body. See, e.g., the work of Judith Butler (1990,
1993), Jane Flax (1990, 1993), and Elizabeth Grosz (1994). Gillian
Hewitson (1999) and Suzanne Bergeron (2004), among others, have
developed similar arguments with respect to economic discourse.

      11. The concept of postmodern materialism and its effects on social
analysis are elaborated by Ruccio and Callari (1996).

      12. This view is developed at length in the essay by Gibson-Graham
et al. (2001). On the theoretical and political problems created by
an ontology defined solely in terms of capitalism—what one might
refer to as capitalocentrism—see Gibson-Graham (1996) and Ruccio and
Gibson-Graham (2001).


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