The Dilemma of Postmodern Metaphors in Economics

When explaining something the ideal rational language is literal and straightforward and has a unique relationship to the truth. Until the last 40 years metaphors were dismissed as deviant, misleading embellishments imposed on otherwise clear discourse. Metaphors can’t change reality; only shed light on it. When people use metaphors to take liberties with reality, their words can be misleading at best and mendacious at worst. The most pervasive false metaphors occur in economics in the support of trickle-down economics. Friedrich Hayek regards the metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ as Smith’s most important contribution to social theory. Hayek claims, “Adam Smith was the first to perceive that we have stumbled upon methods of ordering human economic co-operation that exceed our knowledge and perception.” Milton Friedman was a believer in the metaphor of biological evolution as a predictor of the economy – to help rather than replace a fundamentally mechanistic paradigm.

Since the turn of the 20th century, there has been a belief that technology and reason could make us masters of our own environment and would continue to make life better. This was part of the modernist view that all people are equal, each person has the freedom to make his own choices, therefore we can use our intelligence and rationality to make the world a better place. Also, individual rights should be subservient to the general needs of society. Metaphors are a primary method of proposing abstract concepts. Modernist thinkers viewed metaphors as a stylistic form of speech or simile that is used to make comparisons. Within the modernist tradition, metaphors are often described as mere ornaments of language and not a constitutive part of language and understanding. By way of contrast, postmodern scholars suggest that a metaphors are basic to understanding, and consequently that they are not so much a form of speech but rather a fundamental form of thought.

Postmodernism is a 1980s movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. The postmodernist now doubts the end project of all technological advances will be to improve our lives. The fact is that they may not deliver leaves the feeling that the quality of life will deteriorate. Now one realizes legal attempts to grant all people equally will not make it possible for all people to have the same quality of life. With such a mindset they are unable to separate rationality from emotional attachment to a particular set of cultural values that have no basis for over-ruling cultural values. The progress of history is not consistent, and life may become worse for all of us.

For the postmodernist the intellectual, liberal belief that everyone should sacrifice for the overall benefit of society has miserably failed to replace the mythic and religious arguments for altruism. Each person is not a self-made individual but is dependent on social and environmental factors in developing their values, and the social elements that most advocated individual freedoms and self-determined values. These individuals have become, themselves, a tragedy of depressed, suicidal, and self-indulgent individuals that leads to a narcissistic society, turning their backs on the poor, and the working class. Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction has become the foundation of many postmodern ideas today. Under deconstruction the idea is to tear apart the theories of anyone that purports to prevent a theory that is grounded in some sort of reality. This concern is that people who think they have a grasp of truth are the people who try to control others and cause suffering and pain for others. They believe that there isn’t such a thing as absolute truth.

Postmodern scholars suggest that perceived realities may change as the metaphors used to understand “reality” change. Social reality is distinct from biological reality or individual cognitive reality, representing as it does a phenomenological level created through social interaction and thereby transcending individual motives and actions. Knowledge and people’s conceptions (and beliefs) of what reality becomes embedded in the institutional fabric of society. Reality is therefore said to be socially constructed. Postmodernists believe that the West’s claims of freedom and prosperity continue to be nothing more than empty promises and have not met the needs of humanity. They believe that truth is relative and truth is up to each individual to determine for himself. Postmodernists do not attempt to refine their thoughts about what is right or wrong, true or false, good or evil.1

The US has placed great trust in the compatibility of market competition with the dedication to freedom of expression. Since 1980s a succession of administrations pursued a policy based on delivering public benefits by deregulating and relying on private market mechanisms. Neoliberalism is a consequence of restructuring of class power in favour of the economic elite. It has no vision of the Good Society or the public good and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Today neoliberal ideology defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality. Neoliberal capitalism is associated with increasing income gradient between the rich and the rest of society. This increasing economic inequality between the rich and the rest of society over the past four decades led to the hollowing out of the middle class, leaving many people disillusioned.

Postmodernism introduces the attitude of skepticism or distrust towards ideology and various tenets of universalism. Supporters believe knowledge and truth are products of social, historical and political discourses or interpretations, and therefore contextual or socially constructed. Postmodernism is still alive in economic theory – economic truths are socially constructed. Postmodernism is supposed to be the end of the ‘grand narrative’ or the metanarrative apparatus of legitimization. Postmodernism and neoliberalism share some common themes. Both emphasize the positive role of the pursuit of individual interest and promote individual rights rather than duty to society. Questions related to the Good Society are irrelevant to both. Neoliberals advocate deregulation in economic life while postmodernists advocate deregulation in the cultural sphere. Both currents of thought place the isolated individual in the centre of attention. Everybody has his/her own culture.2 The main dilemma of postmodernism is the quest for meaning.

The postmodern philosophy can be traced to the work of Hegel and is reflected in critiques of Hegel by the Existentialists and Marxists. Hegel’s use of Greek dialectic to introduce what has become the core of the postmodern view that “truth” evolves and is culture/context dependent is the key issue in the change. The pre-Hegelian view was that truth was attached to reality and that by training our minds to weed out error, we could know this reality. The tools that were developed: the scientific method, the utilitarian ethical system, refined logical systems, inductive logic, linguistics, statistics, and the phenomenological method of doing anthropology, history, sociology, and the study of religion, all were expected to bring us closer to an accurate “picture” of how our world really worked. This knowledge would let us become the masters of our fate and do away with chance.1 Christopher Hitchens notes, “The Postmodernist’s tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.”

Gareth Morgan identified eight metaphors of organization in his book Images of Organization. In his late writing Hayek described a theory of spontaneous order, which is brought about because individuals are restrained by certain rules, while the order resulting from their ‘observing these rules’ is wholly beyond their knowledge and intentions. Jürgen Habermas’s theory of social evolution describes the developmental logic for the reproduction of society, social change and the directional character of social change. Darwin’s narrative was that competition favors traits and behavior according to how they affect the success of individuals, not species or other groups. The real reason for regulations is to protect ourselves from excessive competition with one another. Market failures in Adam Smith’s framework occur only when competition is limited. Darwin’s view of the competitive process will prevail over Smith’s in the end because it offers a far more rigorous explanation of the behaviour patterns observed.3

Jürgen Habermas warns of the crisis around the demise of ideals from inept politicians and the dark forces of the market. With respect to postmodernism it implies re-inventing modernity, believing in the possibility and the necessity of social progress. This includes the need to steer social development and to think about the Good Society. As Habermas noticed, the Enlightenment is an unfinished project – we must aspire to a public sphere that serves to make things better. Today “the public” is created at election time by the technicians of public opinion, in order to give a simple endorsement of state power. Instead of criticizing and examining the government, this manipulated public is meant merely to agree. Habermas makes it clear that a successful democracy needs a vibrant, critical public sphere instead of the present fake messaging.4 Such a public sphere creates hope for a future of a political system based on the equal rights and obligations of citizens, and provides a response to postmodern metaphors in economics.

1 Wm. S. Jamison (11 July 2016) The Dilemma of Postmodernism.

2 Hans von Zon (2013) The unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism.

3 Darwin’s Invisible Hand Narrative: A New Paradigm. (10 April 2018)

4 Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

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