Sunday, 30 March 2014

Why PoMo is Self-Defeating (iv)

15th century, unknown Spanish (Valencian) author.  [A]

"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon; and the Dragon fought and his angels" (Revelation 12:7. KJV).

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I bet you've seen those heated Internet debates about politics, economics, philosophy of this or that; sociology of knowledge, theory of this, post-that-ism.

If you take those discussions at face value (say, if long words impress or intimidate you) you probably think you're witnessing epic battles of ideas. Good versus evil stuff. I mean, only experts write about ergodic thingies, ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, idealism versus materialism, the teleology of supply and demand (Yup: link Not related to the hermeneutics of quantum gravity!). Experts don't argue about trivial things, like the rest of us. So, you must approach these enlightened people hat in hand, with near-religious awe. Right?


Take for instance Philip Pilkington unleashing his righteous PoMo/PoKe fury on the old PoMo of Deirdre McCloskey (about whom I wrote a few weeks ago).

Pilkington begins with a little product differentiation: his hipster-style PoMo brand (think of Wheaties), versus McCloskey's old boring PoMo (think of no-frills bran flakes): "Wheaties is The Breakfast of Champions. Bran flakes is, well, just bran flakes". Link.

A blow-up model of a Wheaties box to commemorate
the opening of Glory Road on the UTEP campus,
November 29, 2005. [B]

With the lines drawn, the situation acquires an apocalyptic tone.

Next, archangel Philip inspects his winged regiments (already armed, assembled in close formation, and ready to do battle), and harangues them about the frightful possibility of defeat:
"I'll tell you who wins the day should that nonsense [D. McCloskey's relativistic PoMo] ever be accepted: the group with the most institutional power. That is, the group of economists from out of which McCloskey comes." [link]
But, what exactly happens if -- God forbid -- archangel Phil loses and Big Bad D's institutionally powerful army of demonic economists wins the day? Would we, together with Phil, "be cast alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur"?

It's only at the end of his second post on McCloskey, when finally Pilkington makes clear the issues at stake and the tragic and disastrous consequences of defeat (and if you enjoy ironies, you'll love this):
"In her relativism McCloskey forgets that, well, … some economists find it more difficult than others to get jobs and publications". (Emphasis mine)

There you have it: whatever the rhetoric advanced by these PoMo champions and exponents of philosophical idealism (both avowed debunkers of all forms of materialism), for Pilkington this wasn't about ideas or principles. It was all about something more prosaic, and tangible; something as material, as who gets what (distribution, in one word): Pilkington fears that McCloskey and the mainstream crowd will keep on hogging all the goodies (from lowly lecturer positions, to prestige professorships, and associated perks: conferences, lecture circuits, advisory roles, book deals, networking opportunities, why, even prizes!), leaving young up-and-comers like himself, with big-shot aspirations, locked out in the cold. Quite proletarian, if you think about it.

(Have you guessed it? Our very precocious Phil is this close to discovering historical materialism, class and class warfare!)

Remember Mitt Romney and his 47% speech? Well, like him, this time Pilkington spoke candidly. The whole brouhaha boils down to this: at stake is Pilkington's career.

Only one question remains unanswered: why should we, working class rabble, take sides in that conflict?

Pilkington's "product differentiation" doesn't work with me (and shouldn't work with you, either): he and McCloskey are more similar than they care to admit. Whatever else marketing would have us believe, Wheaties still are bran flakes.

For example, Pilkington and McCloskey aren't critics of capitalism. For them, capitalism is the only dish on the menu: Au naturel, pour Madame; avec le sucre, pour Monsieur. (More on that, here).

The best one can say about Pilkington and McCloskey is that both are enfants terribles of mainstream economics (at very different levels of competence, with McCloskey actually providing evidence she understands the subject she criticizes; while Pilkington, well, whatever).

To compensate theoretical shortcomings, Pilkington (who seems to have a flair for show business) has made a career of embarrassing senior mainstream economists. (Ask Paul Krugman, one of his whipping boys of choice: link)

Whatever their real differences, as opposed to self-serving amateurish marketing spin, Pilkington and McCloskey share the same goal: to shore up capitalism, with themselves starring in the role of High Priests/Priestesses (eventually Grand Inquisitors?) and you and I guest-starring as the sacrificial offerings.

That's all there is to it. Now, choose: Wheaties or no-frills bran flakes?

Image Credits:
[A] Saint Michael and the Dragon. Author: unknown Spanish (Valencian), early 15th century. Wikimedia.
[B] "A blow-up model of a Wheaties box to commemorate the opening of Glory Road on the UTEP campus, November 29, 2005". License/Permission: GFDL-SELF-WITH-DISCLAIMERS; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. Wikimedia.


  1. I am no fan of PP. When I still allowed myself to be sucked into arguments with hacks like him, well, I had several arguments with him (especially over at Naked Capitalism).

    But PP is not a PoMo advocate. I don't think he is even PoKe. As best I can remember he is an MMT advocate, but since I generally have avoided what he writes for several years now, maybe he is Post Keynesian.

    But he is not PoMo as both MMT and PoKe offer grand narratives, something that PoMo theorizes as invalid.

    All that said, I think your ultimate criticism of PP is absolutely correct--that he is no different from McCloskey because they only disagree on the means, not the end-- and it should apply to people like Yves Smith, Robert Reich (especially that guy!), and Steve Keen (and probably Bill Black, Michael Hudson and James Galbraith, but I just don't feel like going there right now). It is not clear to me that people even consider what they mean by "capitalism," let alone compare the "capitalism" we have today to that definition so that they can even question what they are actually defending. The fact is that capitalism is not what it purports to be, and I believe it has never been what it purports to be. Capitalism has never been about capital (i.e., the principal) but about compounding interest.

  2. Tao

    I understand your doubt about Pilkington (one never knows with that guy), but I say this with absolute certainty: he claims to be both PoMo and PoKe. I am a witness to that.

    Check his comments on this thread (Corey Robin's blog) pay special attention also to the comments by a Jeff Doyler ("So, a postmodern modernist. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis"), which seems to coincide with your own point ("he is not PoMo as both MMT and PoKe offer grand narratives, something that PoMo theorizes as invalid"):

    Philip Pilkington May 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    I’m not a libertarian. If you want a label maybe postmodern-Keynesian or something like that. (I hope labels…).

    Philip Pilkington May 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm #
    @ Jeff Doyler

    I’m certainly NOT a libertarian. I’m a Keynesian basically (Post-Keynesian, to be precise). I don’t believe in value theories at all. So, I guess that makes, I don’t know, a postmodern-Keynesian or something.

    Jeff Doyler May 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    Thanks for the response. So, a postmodern modernist. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but in a progressive, reactionary, or static direction? As Private Eye would say, I think we should be told. Cheers.

    pilkingtonphil May 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm #


    I like things that work. I’m a macro economist first and foremost. And I don’t like things that hide dysfunctionality under metaphysical cloaks. My politics? I’m a bleeding heart, naturally. But I consider them pretty secondary. What works is usually non-ideological, I find.


    If memory serves, he's also claimed to be PoMo and post-structuralist at Social Democracy for the 21st Century and at his own blog (but I can't pin point the precise link).


    Incidentally, there is a short exchange between Jeff Doyler (whom Pilkington addresses later) and Corey Robin. Doyler asks Robin "Why do you say Pilkington is 'from the left'?"

    That's a good question.

    1. Thanks for the additional color and context regarding Pilkington. As I said, I tend to ignore anything he writes.