Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

Foucault and Economics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on December 23rd, 2008

This post is more of a suggestion than an explanation. There has been hardly any scholarly work done with respect to applying Michel Foucault’s ideas and approaches to political economy or economics. On searching the internet, all I could find was a conference conducted in 2005 titled ‘Rethinking Foucault, Rethinking Political Economy’ at University of Leicester, UK and a PhD thesis submitted by Iara Vigo de Lima at the University of Stirling in 2006. This post is a result of my reading of certain sections of Dr. Lima’s thesis and the sadness associated with the knowledge that economists have not studied/read/understood Foucault.

I find it difficult to believe that nobody has tried to think/rethink the methodology and historiography of Economics by applying Foucauldian themes. To do justice to this area of research, it is necessary that I quote certain sentences from Dr. Lima’s thesis, as my knowledge of Foucault is limited.

“Foucault followed Nietzsche’s genealogical approach aiming not ‘simply to gain access to the unfamiliar past’, but mainly ‘to articulate and illuminate the familiar present’, and ‘the past, then, becomes a means to access the present’.” [p. 16]

“For Foucault, concepts, notions, theoretical frameworks, methods, etc., are bounded by time and culture.” [p. 21]

“Michel Foucault’s particular insight, especially his way of thinking about history – which he preferred to call ‘history of systems of thought’ – does offer elements that let us think about this question, and specifically in economics (given that he applied it to the history of economic thought). According to him, every age has its way of producing ‘the truth’, which can be uncovered as we think about history.” [p. 24]

“… one of his objectives in OT: to find out how political economy established itself as a discipline (discourse) at the end of the 18th century.” [p. 29]

Very often economics is taught (in India) as if the present day economics is what has evolved out of the previous economic theories. Therefore, the multiple paradigms that prevail in economics are seldom expressed clearly. It is not uncommon to learn the theories of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, etc under Classical theories. Then, they are forgotten. They are mentioned as the initial thinkers. No more are they mentioned nor their relevance. For, neo-Smithians, neo-Rocardians, neo-Malthusians, etc are very much present. And, they do come out with better theories than the neoclassical economists.

This post suggests that one ought to know that there are ‘other’ truths (heterodox economic theories) apart from the truth that we are taught – neoclassical economics. And in this aspect, a reading of Foucault will prove to be immensely insightful.

4 Responses to “Foucault and Economics”

  1. Dr Dheeraj Kattula Says:

    I am no economist nor am I a philosopher.I just felt like responding to this post.
    Focault was a postmodern philosopher who believed ‘truth’ was relative and not not objective.
    There are elements of his thinking which need appreciation & following like teaching ‘other’ truths.But overall his thinking is counter-productive to those who pursue knowledge of the present and past.It is good to be sceptical but irrational to doubt everything.
    I might be wrong in understanding Focault or economics or history,but does that matter as I am bound by my culture and my time and my own ‘system of thought’!( thanks Foucault, you make everyone right )

  2. dp.damodar Says:

    Have you seen Kalyan Sanyal’s work – rethinking capitalist development.. for a mix of focualt and marxian political economy

  3. Alex M Thomas Says:

    @Dheeraj
    It would be inaccurate to say that Foucault argued that truth was relative and therefore, anything goes. He argued that truth was relative in particular contexts. One such case was his famous analysis of the birth of a clinic as well as the origin of madness. His detailed historical analysis proves his dislike for ‘anything goes’.

    @Damodar
    Thanks a lot for the pointer.

  4. suraj gogoi Says:

    According to me foucault’s birth of bio politics is a must for the students who are interested in political economy.His analysis of ‘governmentality’ to the emergence of different institutions or developments, say markets, would provide for a good understanding of the discipline itself. Moreover the inter disciplinerity brought about in that book should be of immense resource for knowledge production.

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