Not replacing Politics by Economics, but inserting the real world into it

Paul Mason has written a challenging piece in ExecReview. He does so from a Left-wing activist background as a Corbyn supporter who says that Labour “should welcome Momentum,” and as a one-time Channel 4 News Economics Editor. He quotes Goldsmiths University academic, Will Davies, who describes “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. Mason writes that:

“Another way of phrasing Davies’s definition, then, could be the evisceration of politics by economics, or more simply the surgical removal of emotional reasoning from political decision-making.”

It was neoliberalism that did this, of course. He is right in the sense that neoliberalism did change politics, but wrong in supposing that it used economics to remove emotional reasoning from it. Inspired by David Hume, neoliberals know that while reason can direct people how to act, it is emotion that makes them want to act in the first place. People might want to give as much of humanity as possible the extra wealth that bring additional opportunities and choices in its wake, and they might want to lift the poor of this world into a decent standard of living, but these wishes do not tell them how to do it.

What neoliberals did was to require that political decisions should take account of the real world, the practical world of experience. It is not enough to approach them with emotions, praiseworthy though many of them might be. Neoliberals brought the empiricism of practical observation to bear on policy proposals. The question was not, “does this express people’s emotions about identity and class?” but “does this achieve the sought-for results in practice?” Neoliberals looked at what had worked in the past and sought to build on it. They looked at what had worked in other countries, and sought to adapt and apply its lessons elsewhere.

No less importantly, they looked at what had not worked in the past, and not worked elsewhere, and rejected it. It was discarded on practical grounds, incorporating the lessons of experience. The aim is to change and improve the real world, not to feel good by having worthwhile emotions about what it might be in some imagined future. We might even paraphrase Marx. “Some thinkers have interpreted the world through an emotional lens. The point is to change it.”