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Interrogating the ‘Political’ in Economic Ideas in Political Time

by Sara Meger on March 8, 2018

Wesley Widmaier’s Economic Ideas in Political Time is an ambitious book that foregrounds not only the role of political actors in shaping the course of economic revisions of twentieth-century America, but importantly the role of the speech act in generating the ideological conditions in which such revisions are possible. The core argument advanced in this text is so sensible as to seem uncontroversial – that “principled and causal ideas that stabilise policy orders may in turn be repressed by agents in ways that cause instability across time.” Indeed, as an interloper to ‘mainstream’ political economy, I greatly appreciated how this book forcefully argues for a consideration of the power of language to shape actors’ decisions and influence the course of policy and history.

By detailing both the broad shifts in economic policy in America as well as the political and economic leaders whose rhetoric and actions shaped these shifts, this book demonstrates how change in the political economy is not necessarily borne of crisis and rupture that suddenly destabilise the otherwise functioning system, but rather how misplaced certainty in hegemonic ideas can lead to overconfidence in ‘fine-tuning’ and, itself, generate said crisis.

I admit though, that for a book entitled Economic Ideas in Political Time, I was disappointed by the narrowness of the analysis of what constitutes the ‘political.’ I recently participated in a forum with feminist political economists and International Relations (IR) scholars—reproduced on this site in the series Feminist Global ‘Secureconomy’—where this idea was raised with regards to the separation of the study of the political from the economic. While acknowledging the utility for academic analysis of breaking dividing elements of a complex world into its component parts in order to gain analytical precision, we must also acknowledge how this reification of the distinctiveness between what is economic and what is political (from again what is social or cultural or environmental) obscures crucial interconnections. It is some of these interconnections that I felt integrally missing from Widmaier’s analysis of US politico-economic orders, including:

1) The connection between the political and the economic

One of the things I most appreciate about this book is the efforts to re-situate the economic within the political. To show how that small thing which we study is part of a larger social totality, and thus cannot be considered completely in isolation from social forces. Indeed, the shifts that Widmaier has mapped in this book are not resultant of rational corrections post-crisis based on pure reason, but thoroughly embroiled in the subjective positions of actors with power and the wider socio-political context in which such economic decisions must be made (and to which they must respond).

That said, the definition that Widmaier adopts of what constitutes the ‘political’ is, in my view, too narrow. ‘Political’ is taken to be ‘governance’ or what happens in the halls of the White House, rather than seeing these ideas as situated within broader political debates and contestations that were occurring in the country. I will use here two examples to illustrate what I mean.

A point that struck me most in the first half of this book was the sheer influence of the steel industry on the US economy in the first seven decades of the twentieth-century.  Until the neoliberal order, Widmaier’s historical overview of the US economy almost directly implicates the steel industry as the sole (or at least primary) driver of inflation. Steel is a secondary industry, an integral building material for much of the manufacturing that was the basis of the US economy in the earlier parts of the twentieth-century. But in terms of supply chain, why would it be the steel workers with the most capacity to drive wage increases? Why not the iron workers or miners further down the chain? Or the construction workers, end-user manufacturing workers up the chain? Why this point in the link? And why this resource? Just unpacking this relationship I think could have unearthed much more of the politics driving the economy and economic ideologies of the US.

Part of understanding the centrality of steel in the US economic development in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is acknowledging the role of convict leasing in the mining industry, which provided a cheap source of docile labour, readily available when the usual workers went on strike. The collusion of mining and steel companies with government agencies to facilitate access to indentured labourers led to the development of private prison contracts with the companies. As Douglas Blackmon detailed in 2001, “the companies built their own prisons, fed and clothed the convicts, and supplied the guards as they saw fit.” Much of this convict leasing was done in the southern states, where the overrepresentation of African Americans in the prison system was most disproportionate. Thus, it is important when trying to understand how, firstly, steel drove the US economy and, secondly, how wage-price spirals within the steel industry were so integral to driving national inflation, necessitates a deeper unpacking of the conditions that gave rise to this dynamic and the power of this industry; in particular, the history of race and class relations in the country.

The second example relates to broader ideological shifts that were shaping US and global politics in the twentieth-century. In Chapter 3, Widmaier notes in the mid-century a growing mistrust and scepticism across social sectors of government authority, which gave rise to an increased tendency to blame the state for economic conditions. Given that the shifts he traces in economic policy from Keynesian ‘big government’ regulatory interventionism into neoliberalism that were being laid at this moment in time, it is worth integrating the policy analysis with a socio-political analysis of the conditions of the 1960s and 1970s in the US. What is happening in the everyday lives of Americans that has germinated the distrust in government? How were the emancipatory projects of black liberation, women’s liberation, sexual liberation, of pacifism, of new economic world order feeding into the growing instability of the prevailing economic ideas? Or to what extent was the neoliberal reform a response to these political movements?

In short, the political time of these economic developments necessitates an excavation of the structural conditions of inequalities, the exploitation of which was integral to building the economic successes outlined in this book as well as in germinating the contesting antitheses that helped bring about change in economic orders.

Which brings me to my second point of interconnections:

2) The connection between the individual and the structural

Throughout, Widmaier emphasises the role of elite agents in structuring the US economy. Rather than simply representatives of an office, this book demonstrates well the capacity of particular individuals to subjectively interpret events and act according to their own emotional responses and subjective interpretations, often against the tide of broader ideologies or structures of power, if in no other way than relying on the power of exhortation to shape the political discourse around economic policy. Where I am less convinced is in the degree of influence individuals had over the course of the broad shifts in economic ideology and policy traced in this book. Here, I echo Shahar Hameiri’s critique that too much agency afforded to individuals in the context of a dialectic of economic ideologies. In so doing, the politics is actually stripped so that the ideas appear as if out of nowhere. I was left questioning the extent to which these ideological shifts represented broader sweeps or trends in America (and beyond), or were simply the domain of the individual agents surveyed here.

Without denying the significance of discourse, my reading of this text is that Widmaier thinks that discourse is sufficient and that material force is unnecessary for achieving consensus. But how might those actors’ subjectivities be determined by their social and political conditions? What is the relationship between the material and ideational?

In short, actors do not exist in a vacuum, but in social structures that shape their interests and subjectivities. Thus, by not asking the basic question of ‘who benefits?’, the analysis falls short of fully excavating the political impetuses and effects of these economic ideas and policies.

3) The connection between the domestic and the international

Finally, and what to me was perhaps the gravest oversight, was the lack of connection made between what was happening in the domestic US context and the international.

All reference to the international is bracketed to the conclusion, where Widmaier acknowledges that the insights from this book could be extended to international economic policy orders and an analysis of the rise and fall of systemic orders. Yet, just as the political and the economic are not insular realms, neither are the domestic and the international. Given the position of the US throughout the twentieth-century as global hegemon, analysing its domestic economy without attention to its global politics and global economic agenda is a stark oversight.

There are two key points I want to raise here. The first is that domestic economies, particularly since the late twentieth-century, are not insular. Thus, understanding what appear to be unparalleled policy successes in the conversion of the Keynesian order to the neoliberal one, putting an end once and for all to wage-price spirals and stagflation, cannot be done without consideration of the increased mobility of capital and transnationalisation of labour, amongst other global influences. These factors at least as much as any policies adopted domestically helped undercut the power of labour and facilitated the shift towards the financialisation of the US economy, which lended itself more readily to the neoliberal economic policies surveyed later in the book.

The second is the role of wars, both hot and cold, in shaping the US economy and subjectivities of actors. Let me revive here again my fascination with the steel industry’s influence. Two things struck me in thinking about the wage-price spirals that came from recurrent strikes, leading to wage increases, and price hikes within this industry. Firstly, understanding corporate and governmental responsiveness to strikes in this industry in that period behoves us to think of them in the context of uncertainty, perhaps even fears of the events of Russia in 1917 or Spain 1936 occurring in the US. Understanding the significant decline in both union participation and strike rates over the twentieth-century must also be situated within the context of the Cold War and the massive ideological investment made by the government to discredit and disparage as ‘enemy communism’ any workers’ rights movement. Thus, it was not just Reagan’s stance in the PATCO dispute and rhetoric of the illegality of striking that led to decreased participation rates over the period, but broader ideological trends shaped by geopolitical contexts.

The second key explanation I have for the steel industry’s influence is, of course, its use in military affairs. To develop and then defend its military hegemony in the twentieth-century, the US government was massively reliant on accessibility of steel for its equipment and armaments. This dependency no doubt was part of what Eisenhower warned of in his 1961 Farewell address, when he counselled on the developing military-industrial complex. In his words:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

Yet, after the Korean War, especially, US manufacturers found there was more profit to be gained from maintaining weapons production rather than converting to consumer goods. Military work was more profitable and generated more jobs, which facilitated the mutual dependence between the US government and economy on weapons manufacturers.

We also know that the US presidential elections have a long history of corporate campaign financing. In 1896 William McKinley received exorbitant contributions through promises of big-business-friendly politics. The steel industry has long been campaign donors, historically contributing more to Republican candidates, with US Steel one of the top industry contributors annually. Beyond campaign contributions, the industry also spends billions in lobbying.

These facts suggest strongly that the government’s activities should be read within a particular geo-political and geo-strategic dynamic, and as a party with vested interest, not an impartial arbiter of capital-labour relations. Its own interests in this dynamic are shaped through the mutual dependency of US foreign policy and US domestic economic policy.

Perhaps it is reflective of a trend we discussed in our Secureconomies series of IR scholarship, generally, to silo the economic from the political. But, as Penny Griffin has argued, shouldn’t we have by now developed more encompassing frameworks for thinking and writing about the ‘high politics’ of economic regulation and political decision-making that doesn’t further marginalise and silence the multitudes of actors and actions we (by which I mean the mainstream) assume with our academic discourse to be so powerless in influencing ‘economic ideas’ in ‘political times’?

This critique has lain disproportionate responsibility at the feet of Economic Ideas in Political Time. As a stand-alone book, Widmaier’s contribution will go far in diversifying how political economists think about change in economic orders. But we cannot let the discipline rest with this critical intervention as we still have so far to go in re-integrating economic analysis in our complex, social world.

Sara Meger
Sara Meger is a lecturer in international security in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on the political economy of global security, using a critical feminist lens. She is the author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2016) and editor of the blog The Gender and War Project (http://www.genderandwar.com). You can follow Sara on twitter @SaraMeger

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