Economic Crisis and the Crisis in Economic Thought A Progressive-Iconoclastic Perspective Inspired by Sartre

Since 2007, we have been bombarded with nothing but public speeches and articles on what has been referred to as the “financial crisis.” In Europe, within a few months, this was transformed into an “economic crisis” (affecting the entire world) and subsequently into a “great crisis” (a reduced GDP, and a massive increase in unemployment), then by a curious turnaround, into a public debt crisis, and finally into a “social crisis” (with less job security and more poverty). The numbers alone reflect its significance. In fact, this discourse on the “crisis” itself is actually a component of it–the performativity of the science of economics[1] – and thus structures the situation in which it must be considered.


Public interventions in the current “crisis” all say basically the same thing. A financial system, freed from all regulations and prudence rules, has become crazy, to the extent that the only way to restore order is for an external body to impose a code of conduct, which it is clearly unable to adopt on its own. In fact, this control, whatever its extent, falls within the realm of state public powers which the states have granted themselves, or those of international organizations (such as the IMF), and now assumes the form of more or less close cooperation, with varying degrees of intervention, at the national and international level. This clearly signals a massive change leading to a startling, new and abrupt legitimization of the “politics” and of public intervention, after more than twenty years of “happy” globalization and of a neoliberal veneer on all forms of public regulation developed since the Second World War. The return to favor of Keynesianism was certainly short-lived, and was mostly a matter of lip-service; this was subsequently marginalized by the “public debt crisis,” especially in Europe, thanks to which neoliberal and monetarist orthodoxy succeeded in regaining control of the situation with dramatic austerity cures, making the victims, rather than the guilty parties, pay. This has since been well recognized, especially in the useful contribution of heterodox economists (G. Stiglitz, P. Krugman, JK Galbraith, M. Aglietta, and S. Kean, amongst others). Nonetheless, the liberal world is breaking apart, its “ideological” hegemony vigorously contested. Again, we must trace the limits of such a dispute.

The same naturalist matrix

This agreement on the diagnosis (in fact, the remedies to apply) closely resembles that of those who have long denounced the illusion of the self-regulated market, and who are-temporarily, they hope—forced to recognize that it is barely functional. Despite their political opposition, representatives of both the left and the right actually share the same presupposition that we would term “ontological.” Based on the development of Sartrean economic philosophy,[2] we would characterize it as situating the economy outside of society, this exteriority being a necessary condition for the technization of political debates and the objectification of “economic questions,” which obscures the fact that this exteriority actually consists of a placing in exteriority, through the magic of discourse which we would readily term ideological, an externalization of the whole, a whole which we would view as natural, that is as a self-sufficient and self-organized whole through the implementation of natural laws, in other words, of a strict determinism.

To better assess the analytical impact of this proposition, we propose to return to the “point of departure” of the “crisis.” This “financial crisis” is said to be that of subprime mortgages. A prime mortgage, in American terms, is a building loan given to a borrower who appears to be quite capable of repaying it. The credit referred to as subprime is, therefore, offered to a borrower likely to default on the payments. Subprime mortgages are nothing less than speculation  on poverty, this poverty, which unbridled finance-dominated capitalism has produced in dismantling the “Fordist” salary status[3] and increasing inequality –in the United States, much more than in other advanced capitalist nations, such as in Europe. This practice reveals that the basis of a system of financial speculation is not at all its organization in a supposedly self-regulated market,[4] but rather its propensity to make of any situation an occasion for speculation. As in Aristotle’s uncontrolled “Chrematistim,” everything is a powerful object of speculation, including poverty.

Faced with such a situation, it is clear that the analyses and interpretations, not to mention forecasting, flooding national and international media, are far below the standards of the practical and intellectual stakes. Doubtless, this discourse serves to foster anxiety in our societies, even those which organized or allowed the development of this financial Prometheism, which is in a frenzy, leaving them in a vacuum. Let us leave aside liberals’ and social-liberals’ ridiculous sudden conversions to the virtues of “authentic” Keynesianism, sometimes exaggerated, but always uncertain, and turn to critical analysis. Despite its undeniable analytical merit, and the political sympathy it inspires in us, it is still inadequate in “ontological” terms. To say, as do heterodox economists, that this exuberant financialization of economies is essentially a strategy of economic elites initially intended to come back to the social gains of Keynesian-Fordian regimes, and now become a monster escaping from its creators, certainly serves to warn us. And, for the rest, formulating this in the present time is more likely to procure an audience than in the still quite recent past, when public intervention in these developments was sacrificed on the altar of the economic modernization of social models denounced as obsolete, and saw itself ridiculed as old-fashioned, and an obstacle to liberal modernization. Nonetheless, this view of the problem remains partial and does not allow us to respond to the essential question, which is to know how finally to escape this matrix, the performative efficacy of which structures the intellectual and political debate. Let us understand the matrix of the dualism of the “economy” and of “politics,”[5] naturalizing them both, seeing them as necessary and determinant, and condemning this to intervene only after the fact, within a very restricted “margin of maneuver.” Obviously, once this dualism is imposed on the politics of intervening exclusively in a voluntaristic way, this dissociates choice from its source, liberty.

This is the lesson delivered by Sartre in his first major philosophical work:

But this is not all: the will, far from being the unique or at least the privileged manifestation of freedom, actually – like every event of the itself – must presuppose the foundation of an original freedom in order to be able to constitute itself as will. The will in fact is posited as a reflective decision in relation to certain ends. But it does not create these ends. It is rather a mode of being in relation to them: it decrees that the pursuit of these ends will be reflective and deliberative. Passion can posit the same ends. For example, if I am threatened, I can run away at top speed because of my fear of dying. This passional fact nevertheless posits implicitly as a supreme end the value of life. Another person in the same situation will, on the contrary, understand that he must remain at his post even if resistance at first appears more dangerous than flight; he ‘will stand firm.’ But his goal, although better understood and explicitly posited, remains the same as in the case of the emotional reaction. It is simply that the methods of attaining it are more clearly conceived; certain of them are rejected as dubious or inefficacious, others are more solidly organized. The difference here depends on the choice of means and on the degree of reflection and of making explicit, not on the end. Yet the one who flees is said to be ‘passionate,’ and we reserve the term ‘voluntary’ for the man who resists. Therefore the question is of a difference of subjective attitude in relation to a transcendent end.[6]

We first offer a comment to avoid any misinterpretation of this article. Sartre completely modifies the meaning and usage of “transcendence,” which becomes the subject’s own, then no longer turned towards himself, as in the framework of classical or Cartesian theory but, on the contrary, seen as projected outside of himself, into the world. Also, the transcendental ends become confused with “the temporalizing projection of our liberty.” The transcendence the “subject” appropriated for himself is, thus, the other name for the subject’s freedom:  “Thus my freedom is perpetually in question in my being; it is not a quality added on or a property of my nature. It is very exactly the stuff of my being (. . .).”[7] This characterizes liberty as constituting the subject broken away from that, therefore classic, according to which the subject possesses liberty; thus, it is reduced to the state of an instrument or tool to which the subject has free access, to his will. This liberty-instrument is that which liberal economic theory ascribes to homo oeconomicus.

The principle of voluntarism consists of erasing the secondary status of the will and according it that which it deserves, insists Sartre, along with liberty-transcendence. This reduced liberty of the will is then deprived of the capacity to set goals, so that it becomes urgent to situate such values in a transcendent order (this time in the classic sense of the term, that is external to so-called liberty). This transcendence manages to be displayed “from the top down” (this order of values may then present itself as the expression of divine will), as well as “from the bottom up.” (Thus, orthodox economists claim this entire process is driven by natural laws—the central thesis of economism.) It is this order, divine or natural (it’s the same thing), which is responsible for providing the goals that liberty-will is powerless to promote. Also, let us understand that the essential act of such liberty is none other than to submit to such an order, since this is merely the immediate consequence of the impotence to which liberty has condemned itself in identifying with choice.

The dualism of the economy and politics, that we have mentioned above, perfectly illustrates what Sartre criticizes under the rubric of that which we name “voluntarism.” Economic reality, assimilated to a natural order (transcendence from the bottom up) provides the ends, indisputable since deemed necessary (for example, growth as the only way to have a healthy economy), that are the limited responsibility of the politics to realize in the best possible conditions and as quickly as possible. Politics assumes a kind of “stoicism of the poor.” We will attempt to convince you of this.

The critique of voluntarism

Today, it seems that, on the occasion of the crisis, the voluntarist option has regained its relevance and vigor. Henceforth, the debate rests entirely on the question of knowing what greater or lesser margin of maneuver the voluntarist option allows. Voluntarism in its current form is made possible by the distinction, once again “ontological,” within economic “reality” between a solid core worth preserving (the “real” economy) and its malign excrescence (deregulated finance) to be eliminated. To assure its good health, it would suffice to protect the former against the contamination of the latter. At a minimum, this reflects a certain naiveté, with those believing in rehabilitating the managers of the “real economy” indignant about the “golden parachutes” and other “excessive” remuneration. Let us clean up capitalism: it’s the law and the prophets! they say to save the economic-financial and political-media elites, and all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds! However, the dichotomy between perverse financiers and healthy bosses-entrepreneurs is not very convincing and, if we simply remain at the empirical level, the least that one can say is that current events regularly offer overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Faced with the abyss, more impressive by the day, it seems at a minimum to be short-lived. If we borrow from heterodox economic analysis (whether Keynesian or Marxist, regardless of the level of analysis), we must remember that in a capitalist regime, finance belongs to the “real economy” (in the sense of the actual site of the production-distribution-consumption of resources) and that, as a result, financial speculation is, after all, but an exaggerated application of the capitalist valorization which reigns over the entire economy. Hoping only for a faster and greater profit, financial speculation is not foreign to the fundamentally predatory reasoning of the “real economy,” in as much as this remains, for the most part, an economy dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

Michel Henry imparts this as Marx’s first lesson. The exchange value, feeding the process of valorization, is produced in the same movement as that which produces the use-value in the course of the real process dominated by capital. This was

in sucking the blood  out of living labor like a vampire [ . . . ] that the valorization of capital and, thus, capital itself, was possible. The same way that the production of use-values  only occurs in the crucible of production, there where living labor embraces, deforms, burns, twists in the flames, disintegrates, liquefies materials to restructure them, reorganizes them,  reinforms them, and rescuscitates them amongst the dead. In short this is the same way that the new configuration which will make them use-values is imprinted on them, in the same way and as the result of which this fire burning from living labor creates use-values, the exchange value of those produced at the same time as them, and also results from this burning kiss of life from which it counts and displays the marks—being nothing less than their representation.[8]

Let us repeat this: this logic of capitalist promotion could be partially contained during the period of “prosperity” (according to the same norms of classic economic science), the so-called “Glorious Thirty,” especially through the development of the welfare state and the consolidation of the salary condition, which contributed to a “decommodification” of the world,[9] without which its principle would never have been modified.

Changing the critique: The Sartrean reorientation

To remove the traps from the economy/society dualism, the task inherent in any social critique, which would be, under the impetus and from the Sartrean perspective, frankly antinaturalist, we first aim to describe the effects of the immanent process of capitalist valorization on the whole of society, as well as the way in which the different spheres under its jurisdiction, making it one world, are consistent. Nonetheless, inhuman as it might seem to us in many respects, this is still a human world. It seems inhuman because it is based on an alienation of most human capacities, yet this world is a human production. In capitalist societies, one human activity amongst others, the economic activity of capital enhancement, has become the main source of value (tending to exclusivity, or at least, claiming to be the norm), as the commodification of the world increases. More precisely, the norm, which structures the system of values of these societies, is provided through the accounting logic which rules capitalist economic activity and solicits each as a calculating subject having to draw upon his instrumental rationality (or even his liberty-choice). This is one reason why the economy seems to be organizing itself as an autonomous sphere, obeying “natural” laws, with which political action can only agree, using this ex post facto rationalization which we call the “margin of maneuver.”

This autonomization of the economic sphere, largely endorsed by the economic decision-makers and experts, and mostly adopted in political discourse, forces it to take refuge in voluntarism. Political will manages the means which the economy allows it, supposedly autonomous and, as such, a supplier of goals, and values; it organizes the means with an eye to achieving the already defined ends, in this world in which the economy performs and to which, as subjects subjugated by the merely instrumental solicitation that calls to us and abandoned to its exercise, we consent, each at our level, in more or less bad faith.

This being said, we are aware of the “moral” indecency of our proposal, which seems to place on the same level two types of “economic” subject, he who consents to the system although he suffers (from unemployment, poverty, and job insecurity) and he who consents to the system while binging on the proceeds (excessive remuneration, ostentatious consumption, arrogance and social cynicism). This distinction, which in our daily battles as involved citizens we make very willingly, presents something of an epistemological obstacle on an ontological level, where we are situated. This obstacle impedes the very comprehension of the ins and outs of the oppression which we condemn, but which we do not manage to ever understand if we would go no further than this condemnation. To understand it, we must risk this paradox of the equal liberty of the oppressed and the oppressor, and reject the voluntarist option, speaking out against the injustice which affects us above all. In other words, objectivizing domination (and the “dominated”), and laying claim to political voluntarism, is no less than accepting that the political realm is powerless.

In this framework, when the social dimension of the “financial crisis” is taken into account, it is only as a “consequence,” as collateral damage. We should consider for a moment the social arrogance that this seemingly innocuous, expression, “social consequences of the crisis,” contains. This victimization of social actors has provided fodder for the media and experts who produce such a vision of the world. Its main effect and principal rationale is to exclude these actors . . . from political action! Since what we call the “crisis” is understood to be the fleeting deregulation of a system, it would not be a political matter except in terms of “putting out fires.” This orchestrated depoliticization by a triumphant economism is, therefore, truly the indication of a much more profound crisis than the “financial crisis.” Engaging in politics first presupposes categorizing as contingent that which is above all—incorrectly—considered necessary. Since economism is, in fact, a  process of socialization (Marx taught us that capital is, first and foremost, a social relationship) which entrusts normativity to economic determinism, the struggles for supremacy can only be a reappropriation of the normative capacity of actors in these battles, refusing the victims’ fate to which they are relegated. Since capitalism is not giving way, it can only be denounced in its entirety here and now.

Communist perspectives

How? Caught up in a practical-inert situation, according to Sartrean vocabulary, in this practical-inert world of capitalist promotion, which reorganizes at the same time the identity of each and the being-together of all, each subjectivity remains no less a liberty. Let us stand firm, and cling staunchly to the Sartrean thesis. Abandoning oneself to a “destiny” as an economic subject remains and is only a certain choice, that of liberty in a situation, regardless of the power of the oppression to which one is subject. Now, it is precisely this gap between self (liberty) and self (subject) which makes possible the slogan of “another world,” to paraphrase a famous expression of the antiglobalization movements, but there is no solid evidence that they have appreciated the full significance of this expression. There is the foundation of all social utopias, by which the human being affirms himself, not as one who has been freed from oppression, here economic (but freed by whom? by what great Other?), but as one who can free himself. The figure of emancipation only partially breaks away from oppression to the extent that the liberator grants liberty to those whom he claims to emancipate; such liberty is therefore reduced to the diminished liberty of choice. Consequently, the emancipated figure has no say in the goal assigned by the liberator. In Marx’s critical thought, the question of emancipation, better—in our view—the question of self-emancipation, was envisaged as stemming from the communist utopia.

Yet, the latter must be placed in context. Economic determinism is the reason, the issue, the source of proletarian struggles, and not at all their cause or their underlying principle. Such battles suspend, or attempt to suspend, the effectiveness of this “determinism,” the vocation of which is mainly ideological, or performative.[10] The determinist ideology claims to fix the duality of being and of the duty to be whereas the struggle comes back to reappropriating for oneself this duality in order to redefine the terms and the relationship. This is an eminently political task since, in opening up the question of who should be, the very form of sociability is at play (and this claims to resolve “economical determinism” in a satisfying and definitive manner, for example, in calling on an “invisible hand”). At the same time, this raises the problem of passing from what is to what should be, an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.[11] While the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, this means that sociability could not be petrified in a structure and that it must be the central concern of any political decisions.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Michel Kail , Richard Sobel: Economic Crisis and the Crisis in Economic Thought A Progressive-Iconoclastic Perspective Inspired by Sartre

By Frank Kirkland: The Questionable Legacy of Brown v. Board of Education: Du Bois’ Iconoclastic Critique

By Lori Watson: What Is a “Woman” Anyway?

By Kevin Anderson: Four Years After the Arab Revolutions: Fighting on Amid Reactionary Retrenchment

By Steven Panageotou: No Democratic Theory Without Critical Theory

By Brian Caterino: The Practical Import of Political Inquiry: Perestroika’s Last Stand

By Mark Worrell: Moral Currents in Durkheim and Huysmans

By Chris Byron: A Critique of Axel Honneth’s Theory of Reification

By Kurt Jacobsen: Prefatory Note to The Twin Research Debate

By Jay Joseph , Claudia Chaufan , Ken Richardson , Doron Shultziner , Roar Fosse , Oliver James , Jonathan Latham: The Twin Research Debate in American Criminology

By Leonard Quart , Al Auster: Hollywood Follows the Money: Films of the ‘Great Recession’

By Tony Lack: Slavoj Žižek: Absolute Trouble or Recoil in Paradise?

By Brian Trench: Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy – the many faces of Anonymous

By Kurt Jacobsen: Daniel P. Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

By Riad Azar: Michael Gould-Wartofsky, The Occupiers

By Linda Etchart: Eduardo Galeano, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History

By Benjamin J. Pauli: Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy