Opening remarks from Dr. Arjun Appadurai (Godard Professor of Media, Culture & Communication, New York University)
Why does there appear to be no one to blame for the ongoing destruction of the economy, society and environment? The government, banks, experts, and regulators have all claimed innocence, while taxpayers have had to speculate on their futures. It is time to point the finger: it is the discipline of economics that has brought about this state of affairs. From business to the media to academia, economists now run the world.
People have become “business junkies.” In the 1960s business news was a specialized section. However, over the past four decades, it has become hegemonic and we are regularly assaulted by business news everywhere. In the past, the business of America was business; now the business of American life is business. We have become identified as investors and homeowners, not mothers, fathers or neighbors. Citizenship is defined by business. As business junkies, we have been like sheep being taken to slaughter by Wall Street, and it is time for a bleat or two.
As scholars, we must force ourselves to think differently about the world. Business not only saturates our world, it undergirds social life. We have to create the scaffolding of a dialogue between economists and other social sciences. In the Weberian spirit, we must develop a general theory of calculative action. Economists must bring culture and history back into its study, while anthropologists must take into account has institutions, organizations and leaders lead an ethical life. Following Weber, we have to examine the ethical calculations with constantly changing cultural understanding. With calculative action, we have to return to the spirit of capitalism to understand what enabled the beginnings of modern capitalism. The limitation in adopting Weber as part of the toolkit is his argument that we forget beyond one ethical moment.
While there is an overwhelming focus on risk in contemporary society, there is a need to look more closely at why the idea of risk has pushed out the concept of uncertainty out. Weber had emphasized the condition of uncertainty in Protestant life. We need to examine what the bigger idea of uncertainty is that contributes to the idea of risk.
Weber’s comparative histories of capitalism was really a comparative history of a non-event. Why did capitalism not take root in certain places? For Weber, magic was the main obstacle to the birth of capitalism in many contexts. Magic, or the irrational reliance on technical processes to address perceived injustice, was the main obstacle to capitalism. Yet today, it is possible to identify magical procedures at the core of capitalism: a transcendental faith in markets. Consider George W. Bush’s plea for a “faith-based economy.” Just have faith and keep shopping. This is a reversal of the Weberian logic.
Yet this opens up a number of topics of inquiry. What are the techniques of calculation from the perspective of ethics and ethos? What is the relation between an ethics of probability and an ethics of possibility? We can move toward a new form of social inquiry that looks at the relationship between quantity, quality and personhood. This is a different theory of social action that moves away from rational choice.
The worldwide Occupy movement is a harbinger of major changes, even if it takes some decades to realize this change. The goal for us is to “Occupy Economics.” We can find allies in the discipline who have elected to join for change. We have to redefine its means and methods to change social science.