Economic Teleology

This is not the occasion for a thorough — or even moderately substantial — defense of teleological thinking. Since an intrinsic component of modernist teleology is the systematic suppression of teleological thought, the topic is certainly an intriguing one. This post, however, is devoted to a far narrower purpose. (At least, that is how it initially appears.) There is no need for the larger problem to be envisaged as an obstacle.

It is rare to encounter any serious resistance to the application of teleological reasoning to economics. In this intellectual domain the attribution of socio-historical developments to interests, incentives, and goals does not expect to encounter objection. Regardless of intellectual tradition or ideology, the presupposition of goal-oriented direction to work and business — even without reference to large-scale strategic planning — is considered so uncontroversial that it typically passes without comment, even in technical treatises. Within the biological sciences, teleology teleolonomy remains a source of cognitive irritation, but in the social and historical ‘sciences’ it is entirely natural to ask what economic production is for.

There are three, and only three, basic responses to this question, although subtilization and recombination allows open ended complication from any of these starting points. The foundational teleologies of all economic philosophy are Humanistic, Malthusian, or Mechanogenic.

Humanistic economics is by far the most common, to such an extent that it tends to presume itself unchallenged. It’s basic assumption is that the end of all economic activity is to be found in human needs or desires, and technically in (human) consumption as the final cause of economic life. People engage in production and trade because they want things. ‘Utility’ is an obvious abbreviation for ‘human utility’ and a generalized utilitarianism — developed in one of several possible directions — provides a complete teleological solution to the economic problem. The thunderous collisions between the various liberal and socialist economic schools are all enveloped within this expansive and flexible framework. Individually or collectively, man is the proper and efficient end of productive activity. “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production” insisted Adam Smith, and this claim has rarely been found tendentious.

Malthusian teleology dissolves man into naturalistic anthropology (and ultimately into generalized Darwinism). Whatever purposes people lucidly advance as motivations for economic action, the real goal of production is population increase. Where humanistic economics tends intrinsically to optimism, across all differences of theoretical and ideological inclination, the Malthusian vision is stubbornly tragic. It has haunted the classical economic tradition as a shadowy ghoul, manifested in the Ricardian Iron law of Wages, which sets the natural exchange value of labor in the Marxian analysis, and continues to impose its dark-matter curvature upon economic speculation into contemporary futurism. The instinctual life of the species, rather than its conscious self-direction, consumes its economic advances, with no stable equilibrium to be found beyond the edge of bare survival. Real purposes are inescapably grim.

Mechanogenic purpose finds its first significant elaboration in the work of Samuel Butler (in his ‘The Book of the Machines’). Economists paying detailed attention to the industrial process, especially within the Marxian and Austrian traditions, have regularly found themselves engaged in schematization of mechanogenic purpose — which is to say, theoretical reconstruction of an inherent tendency within the history of economically productive machinery — without being thereby deflected from their basic humanistic orientation. For Marx and for Böhm-Bawerk, mechanogenic teleologies are always intermediary, and subject to narrative envelopment within the larger story of human economic finality. Whether macro-historically (Marx) or micro-historically (Böhm-Bawerk), the emergent teleology of capital can only be a sub-plot within the saga of human economic self-realization, or terminal anthropomorphic consumption (framed by our ultimate purposes). Capital is essentially transcended instrumentality. Mechanogenic teleology is, minimally, no more than stubborn skepticism regarding this claim, based on the generally accepted but subordinated recognition that capital wants itself. (Could not the efficient final purpose of industrialization be something more like this?)


Why introduce this question? If we knew how to definitively answer that innocent inquiry, we would know far more about what we were doing. An emerging teleological crisis of advanced modernity could mean any of least three (basic) things. (It might be expected to be hidden within concerns such as this.)

The superficial answer: Accelerationism, in setting into its various modes, has already implicitly chosen between these explanatory paths. As it develops, it can only cycle through its conceptual foundations, and the teleological problem will become an explicit challenge. What is accelerationism for? We shall have to ask.

ADDED: Humanism on steroids in increasingly what the IEET is all about.

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