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Christian Arnsperger, Critical Political Economy. Complexity, rationality, and the logic of post-orthodox pluralism

Pierre Livet
p. 477-480
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Christian Arnsperger, Critical Political Economy. Complexity, rationality, and the logic of post-orthodox pluralism (with a foreword by David Colander), London: Routledge, 2007, 327 pages, ISBN 978-041556937-8

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Crédits : Routledge

1Critical political Economy (2007), by Christian Arnsperger (who holds the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics at Louvain Catholic university) aims at awaking economists from their dogmatic sleep and making them take a critical turn inspired by the unexpected but meaningful conjunction of Horkheimer and Hayek (focusing on the critical and self-organized side of Hayek’s thought).

2Arnsperger’s line of argument goes as follows. Economic agents, according to the “main stream”, are rational automata, not autonomous people. To the contrary, all humans are critically reflexive agents. Economics is not a purely descriptive science but always involves an evaluative and normative part, because a global economic state depends on the model that the majority of agents is motivated to adopt. Economics cannot be isolated from the political struggle between different models and visions of economics and society. Mainstream theory, taking economic agents as uncritical atoms, does not reflect the complexity of real economy, in which real people have emancipatory motivations, mixed with cognitive imperfections. Mainstream theory is thus unable to take into account the complex social dynamics of competitive-cooperative interactions, if is realized that these dynamics must remain open to different views of what would be a better socio-economical functioning. Pareto-optimality is a caricature of social optimality, as it saves the inequalities of the initial distribution and can block the emancipatory process.

3What are the conditions of the emergence of an economy consisting of critical reflexive agents? Arnsperger’s answer is developed through an extension of the traditional representation of individual preferences. Agents are modelled through a two-part utility function. The first part reflects their interests and constraints in the present state of the society, while the second part represents both the reflexive and active dimension of preferences. The reflexive part expresses the difference between the present system S and what would be a better economic system S’. Above a frustration threshold, the active part is triggered with the aim of approaching S’. The action chosen depends partly on the environment given by the actions of other persons. Each person has her own critical theory about the reasons for choosing such better system S’, for feeling frustrations and for triggering and selecting actions. He takes into account the distribution of other critical theories in order to formulate his vision of the collective action. Such persons, starting from their routine conception of what it is to be free and how to exploit the social complexity for their own purposes (“harnessing complexity”), will revise it to get first an intra-systemically coherent harnessing, and in a further step to obtain a more over-compassing and extra-systemically coherent one. Collective dynamics emerge from the interactions (competition and cooperation) of these conceptions of collective actions—the dependent effective actions—and this mass of critics. An “Esprit Critique” emerges from the interaction between critical theories embedded in these dynamics. Economic theory is not overhanging above these dynamics but becomes part of it.

4At this point of the argument, Arnsperger backs his analysis upon Horkeimer and Hayek. Indeed, Horkheimer as well as Hayek have postulated that such dynamics reach a fixed point (the critical reflexive society, or the rules of the market). Arnsperger believes that it is more coherent (with the emancipatory motivation) to expect a possibly endless process of competitive and public debate between theorists, open to non-theorists, a debate between different kinds of rationality, different visions of the economic system. It could be said that this perspective suggests that deliberative democracy is the result of the emergence of these complex dynamics, provided that the emancipatory motivation continues to animate the dynamics. Whatever would be the resulting state of the economy and the society, it would be coherent with the requirements of the Critical Theory (with capital C and T) and its pluralism. At least, Critical Theory could be used as a filter for excluding uncritical theories incompatible with the emancipatory quest.

5It is difficult not to sympathize with most of the assumptions of this exciting book. Who could be against being considered not as an automaton but as a reflexive person, motivated by his attachment to a society in which we could be collectively more emancipated? Who could ignore the complexity of worldwide economics? No doubt one agrees on the necessity for economic theory to take into account the ability of its agents to have a representation of the present state of the economy, to evaluate the difference between this state and a socially preferable one and to design collective strategies while taking care of the collective actions of other parties, in order to transform the present world in a world moving toward a state as close as possible of the preferred one. One would also share the need for embedding any economic theory in the real economy, as it gives more justification for some kind of behaviour than for another one, and finally the need for an all encompassing theory to take into account this embedding and to acknowledge that even such a theory cannot escape its embedding.

6The previous assumptions are rather indisputable because they are requirements or demands related to an emancipatory complex society. Meanwhile, some assumptions (explicit or implicit) are more disputable: they are related to constraints on the feasibility of the programme. Interactions (including competition and cooperation) between the different critical projects are supposed to give rise to an emergent society, implicitly supposed to be satisfying at least partly the emancipatory requirement. Emergence implies that interactions between elements at a level give rise to patterns satisfying some properties at another level. In this programmatic book, emergence is simply assumed. For all that we know the “emergent” state could be pure chaos (civil war, world-war) as well. People have made war for the true religion in the past (and present) times, and they can make war for defending their particular notion of freedom. Arnsperger takes care that his favourite agents are not too dependent on their routine notion of freedom and try to elaborate reflexively more satisfying notions of freedom by a process of revision, which is in fact the very process of emancipationat least at the theoretical level. But not every agent can be assumed to commit himself to this effort of revision. Through interactions and competition these painful revisions and the easier routines conceptions of free choice will be confronted. What are really the advantages of emancipatory perspectives in this confrontation? Arnsperger has to face a problem similar to the one that K. O. Apel evoked (but did not solve): Why accept demanding argumentative discussion, if you are not sure that everybody will join it (in this respect, Arnsperger’s programme has a Habermasian flavour)? Arnsperger is sceptical with respect to mainstream economics, but he seems to believe that our reluctance concerning the mainstream theory is enough for us to behave as emancipatory persons in order to demonstrate that we cannot be taken as automata. Arnsperger says that his Critical Political Economy is “a non-contradictory framework for coordinating various” local critical theories (285). He does not tell us to what extent the chances that this emergent process will boil down to conflicts between illusory dogmatisms or partial interests could not be taken as counter-arguments to this assumed coherence.

7To be less sceptical about the feasibility of his programme, one has to be given, if not conditions for a family of trajectories satisfying the properties of the emancipatory process, at least some definitions of the limit conditions of such an emergence, in order to identify the main obstacles to this kind of project. On the former, Arnsperger does not escape the weaknesses of the mainstream. He tends to see most of formalized processes as reductions of agents to automata (cf. his criticism of Durlauf, 71) while he himself proposes a sketchy formalized account of the extended utility of the critical reflexive agent. On the latter, one would need a first sketch of how to overcome the obstacles to the emergence and steady development of an emancipatory process—a mixture of expected attractive perspectives and present trends towards this fight. Arnsperger owes us this second part of his attractive programme.

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Pierre Livet, « Christian Arnsperger, Critical Political Economy. Complexity, rationality, and the logic of post-orthodox pluralism »Œconomia, 1-3 | 2011, 477-480.

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Pierre Livet, « Christian Arnsperger, Critical Political Economy. Complexity, rationality, and the logic of post-orthodox pluralism »Œconomia [En ligne], 1-3 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2011, consulté le 22 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pierre Livet

Université de Provence

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