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Cultural Political Economy

Summary and Keywords

Cultural political economy (CPE) is an approach to political economy that focuses on how economic systems, and their component parts, are products of specific human, technical, and natural relations. Notwithstanding longer historical roots, CPE emerged as part of the “cultural turn” within the social sciences. Although it is often seen as countering material determinism and the neglect of culture in conventional approaches in political economy, the cultural turn was less about “adding culture” than about challenging positivist epistemologies in social research. For some, cultural political economy continues to be defined by an orientation toward cultural or “lifeworld” variables such as identity, gender, discourse, and so on, in contrast to conventional political economy’s focus on the material or “systems” dimensions. However, this revalorization of the nonmaterial dimensions of political economic life reinforces a sharp distinction between the cultural and the material, an issue which can be traced to the concept of “(dis)embedding” the economy and subordinating society. A more noticeable development, however, is the increasing orientation of critical (CPE) analyses of global development toward the “economization” of the cultural in the context of mutating forms of neoliberalism. Concomitant to the economization of the cultural in narratives of global development is the “culturalization” of the economic. Here attention is paid not just to the growth of cultural industries but to the multiple ways in which culture has been normalized in discourses of global and corporate development.

Keywords: cultural political economy, CPE, political economy, economic (dis)embedding, culturalization, economization, neoliberalism, global development, economic systems


Cultural political economy (CPE) presents a challenge to the positivist orthodoxy that prevails in studies of economic development. CPE replaces explanation of economic outcomes with the interpretation of economic life. CPE focuses on how the economy is “put together” in various spatial and historical configurations. Determinist laws of economic development, and universal accounts of economic behavior, provide convenient theoretical templates for political economists. But this type of rationalist political economy also ignores the contextual, creative, and transformative aspects of economic reality. CPE is an approach to political economy that focuses concretely on how economic systems, and their component parts, are products of specific human, technical, and natural relations. CPE utilizes ethnographic and otherwise empirical methodologies as a means to decipher the workings of specific economic configurations. As we enter a new period of certain economic (re)organization, this combination of “deep” interpretation and empiricism provides powerful heuristics for evaluating economic change.

CPE as Critique

Political economy is conventionally seen to be the study of the “laws” of economic development. Underlying the emphasis on economic laws is the modernist belief in singular and universal “truths” about the social world. The particular truths of political economy emerge from the utilization of “master concepts,” usually deployed as explanatory variables in various deductive theories. These concepts are often some variation on the following: rationality, structure, interest, path dependence, and class. While the terms are themselves analytical constructions, they are often presented as the “causal” link between political actions and economic outcomes. Rationalist political economy relies heavily on the use of such underlying master narratives and concepts for much of its explanatory force. When culture is mentioned in liberal, institutional, or classical Marxist political economy, it appears as a residual, peripheral, or “superstructural” feature. As a result of this positivist methodological bias, the questions posed by political economists are most often limited to those where variables are easily separated, and “cause” is supposedly straightforward. What government policies promote economic growth? Whose economic interests lurk behind the state (or global) management of the economy? When will a state practice free trade or, conversely, resort to protectionism?

Indeed, prominent literature reviews on comparative political economy (Pontusson 1995; Hall 1997) and international political economy (IPE) (Frieden and Martin 2002; Lake 2006) attest to the obsession with locating the linear, causal chains between the political and the economic. Unfortunately, the hegemony of positivism also appears in the mainstream ideational or “constructivist” stream of political economy as well (Blyth 2003). In this literature, ideas easily slide into “causes” and, as a consequence, are analytically separated from the environments that produce and transform them. The CPE critique of both “hard” and “soft” rationalist political economy is essentially similar: economic development must be viewed as a cultural process. Furthermore, understanding culture as a “process” means going beyond the classic meaning of culture as simply “belief” or the “normative” side of social life. As Sewell (1999) argues, a cultural reading must focus on: 1) the practices that allow a particular system to function; and 2) the beliefs (or discourses) that provide these practices with their coherence and legitimacy. As Sewell states,

the system has no existence apart from the succession of practices that instantiate, reproduce, or – most interestingly – transform it. Hence system implies practice […] the important theoretical question is thus not whether culture should be conceptualized as practice or as a system of symbols and meanings, but how to conceptualize the articulation of system and practice.

(Sewell 1999:47)

While important differences remain between various strains of CPE, it remains a shared commitment to the recursivity of practice and belief, as constitutive of the “economic,” which conjoin the different approaches.

Mainstream political economy has ignored culture at its own peril. Many of the cornerstone concepts used within the field are mistakenly assumed to be acultural, despite their contingent and socially embedded properties. The concept of “value,” for example, is often taken to be the natural price a good receives on the market upon considering factors such as labor inputs, raw material prices, and effective demand. Yet Arjun Appadurai (1986) has demonstrated that “value” primarily emerges from networks of exchange that involve specific relations between people, commodities, and knowledge(s) about commodities. Arguing for a relational view of commodification, Appadurai states, “we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things” (Appadurai 1986:5). In other words, value is determined in the (contingent) social relations that underpin networks of commodity exchange. Hence there is no “objective” means of ascribing economic value; value is always determined locally, or within a cultural (market) context.

“Rationality” is a second concept uncritically deployed within rationalist political economy. Its meaning is generally some variation on the (supposed) proclivity of humanity to be profit seeking and self-interested. From this assumption, the behavior of individuals, states, and firms is deduced for the purpose of creating theoretical models (actors always become “self-maximizing”). This sweeping definition of the concept obscures the divergent ways economic “rationality” and “self-interest” have been conceptualized (Best and Paterson 2009:2). To provide one example, the rationality of “economic governance” has been continually redefined over the course of the twentieth century.

Within (and between) Western governments, “rational” economic governance once involved maintaining a healthy trade balance, tightly regulating capital markets, and ensuring demand-side growth through extensive welfare spending. These economic practices provided a certain “protective” and “stabilizing” function for national populations in the midst of increased postwar international trade and, as such, were cornerstones of the “embedded liberal” compromise forged after World War II (Ruggie 1998). Embedded liberalism was a political and cultural reaction to the income inequalities, unemployment, and financial instability produced under a different regime of economic governance, early twentieth century classical liberalism. Under classical liberalism there was a utopian belief in the “self-regulating market” that advocated a natural “harmony of interests” between liberal states, free trade, and international peace (Polanyi 1944; Carr 2001). In contrast to governing the economy for social ends, classical liberalism saw the economy (and free markets) as the mechanism for providing social order.

If embedded liberalism was a reaction to the perceived absence of the state under classical liberalism – and the inequalities and political dislocations it produced – so was neoliberalism a reaction to the (supposed) overly powerful and stifling “statist” form of economic governance practiced from the 1930s through the mid 1970s. Neoliberalism presents a distinct understanding of the state’s role in the economy and the place of markets within individuals’ lives; a commitment to corporate self-regulation, footloose global capital, deregulated labor markets, privatization, means-tested welfare, and macroeconomic stability (i.e., wage and inflation control) (Peck and Tickell 2002; Harvey 2005). The economic interests of the neoliberal “enabling” state are, in part, a reactivation of some classical liberal ideas about the efficiency of the market over public organization (see Gill 1995). Yet there is also a novel discourse on the nature of economic governance being pronounced here. This paradigm demands the need for a “prudential” and “entrepreneurial” citizenry, but also a fiscally reflexive and responsible state that is neither totally absent nor all powerful (Dean 1999:149–75; Rose 1999:137–66). On comparing classical liberalism, embedded liberalism, and neoliberalism, distinct perceptions of “rational” economic governance emerge. Each is based on unique political problems, policy instruments, and cultural norms.

CPE: Context, Creation, and the Constitution of the “Economic”

In his masterful study on the work of Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze (1986) argues that Foucault did not view history as a set of unfolding (determinist) structures, but rather as a set of “multiplicities.” These multiplicities are both rare and unique; each multiplicity harbors its own assemblages of statements, problems, spaces, and subjectivities that make the multiplicity “real” or, in other words, allow it to appear as if it were an objective historical structure (see also Veyne 1997). This is precisely the historicist insight brought by CPE to the field of political economy. If the “economy” itself is only an abstract – but vacuous – concept, then it is important to analyze the specific multiplicities and assemblages that constitute the economy at the level at which it operates, governs, and speaks a truth. This, in turn, requires the incorporation of two insights that move us beyond the use of universal economic “variables.” First, the economic (and economic development) must always be understood as occurring within a context. Yet, this does not mean context as something that determines economic outcome. Instead context, the way it is understood here, includes the specific spaces and discursive environments that inform economic activity. Capitalism is not a “metaphysical entity” or a comprehensive “grid of power relations” (Thrift 2005:1). It is rather a “series of relations of relation instituted over time through different organizations of time–space” (Thrift 2005:1). CPE attempts to describe the form and functioning of these relations. This type of analysis will, again, “turn crucially on conceptions of culture as practices of meaning-making that are inextricably linked with situated material practices […] in the multiple, interconnected areas of everyday life” (Hart 2002:818).

When understood as a set of practices, culture is furthermore taken to be a productive force that attempts to “order” society in new ways (Kendall and Wickham 2001). The economy is therefore not only practice, but, crucially, inventive practice. New forms of calculation, subjectivity, and economic “knowledge” emerge as a way to order, or reorder, the economy alongside projects of economic and political governance (Amin and Palan 2001; de Goede 2006). CPE explores the creative practices of ordering and enrolment that underpin transformations of capitalism (see especially Law 2002). What are the stock ticker, the spreadsheet, the store credit card, and the business page? They are “artefacts” of capitalist programs and strategies; the little things that make economies function. CPE explores these little creations of capitalism, down to the smallest devices used to count, survey, and communicate economic data. It is here that capitalist order – at least temporarily – is achieved.

CPE has begun to pose a set of fundamental, but extremely pivotal, questions on the constitution of economic life. These are also the questions ignored by rationalist political economy that take as a point of departure the already constituted economic system. How do forms of economic calculation and inscription represent, and thus create, the national, global, and regional economies we take for granted (Miller and Rose 1990; Larner and Walters 2002; Mitchell 2002; Cameron and Ronen 2004; Sparke 2005)? How are the (artificial) boundaries between the “political” and the “economic” made tenable through intellectual and political practice (Shields 1999; Barnes 2005)? How has political economy, as a body of knowledge that informs strategies and programs of governance, transformed since the eighteenth century (Meuret 1988; Tribe 1995; Foucault 2007, 2008)? How are economic agents, such as “consumers,” “investors,” and “experts,” constructed and reproduced through performance (de Goede 2005; Aitken 2007; Busch 2007)? To answer such questions, messier methodologies have been required. Government documents, obscure political tracts, advertisements, diaries of personal behavior, interviews with experts; no “evidence” is off limits. It is time that political economy begins to accept a methodological insight offered up by (the empirically rich) literature within actor–network theory, the importance of methodological complexity over parsimony:

Unfortunately, I have not found a way to speed things up: this type of science for that type of social should be slow as the multiplicity of objections and objects it has to register in its path […] and it should be as reflective, articulated and idiosyncratic as the actors collaborating in its elaboration. It has to be made to register differences, to absorb multiplicity, to be remade for each new case at hand.

(Latour 2005:121)

CPE Is Interdisciplinary

Unlike other approaches to economic development, CPE does not share a canon of authors or coalesce around a set of strict methodological principles. CPE is an interdisciplinary venture, loosely bound by the commitments to interpretation, context, and economic creation mentioned above. The theoretical and disciplinary “boundary crossing” of CPE has been shown to be one of its greatest strengths. Active CPE research agendas are found in (and between) the disciplines of political science, international political economy, sociology, anthropology, and geography. The diversity of CPE is apparent in recent edited readers on cultural economy (du Gay and Pryke 2002; Amin and Thrift 2004), poststructuralist political economy (de Goede 2006), and cultural political economy (Best and Paterson 2009). Much additional work is found in the journals of New Political Economy, Economy and Society, Review of International Political Economy, Cultural Studies, and Antipode, among many others. Certainly, attempts have been made to “discipline” CPE around certain political-intellectual agendas. In particular, various neo-Marxists have begun to import cultural/poststructural insights as a means to reinvent moribund class analysis and expose structures of domination under neoliberalism (Hardt and Negri 2000; Sayer 2001). While such work has a place within CPE, it would be a mistake to organize the entire field around a project of emancipatory politics. The critical value of CPE emerges not from its unmaking of power, but from its ability to politicize economic processes and subjectivities that we have come to accept as natural or inevitable (see especially de Goede 2006:11–15). CPE must work to expose the various truth effects produced by global capitalism; it should avoid the creation of an alternative belief system.

The remainder of the essay proceeds as follows: First, a historical survey of CPE is provided. This is divided into two sections. The first discusses the importance of the “cultural turn” in the social sciences. Without the cultural turn, it is doubtful an interdisciplinary and nonfoundational approach, such as CPE, could have coalesced. Additionally, the historical survey discusses the importance of a secondary history – rooted in social theory rather than political economy proper – which must also be considered as a precondition for CPE. The following section provides a review of the contemporary literature on CPE and “global development” via a discussion of three key debates in the field. The third section, future directions, argues for a distinct trajectory for future CPE research. Here we argue that CPE should pursue “problem” driven research that explores the diverse ontological formations and subjectivities that define economic life within late modernity.

Historical Survey

Cultural Political Economy and the “Cultural Turn”

Notwithstanding longer historical roots, CPE emerged as part of the “cultural turn” within the social sciences more broadly. Although it is often seen as countering material determinism and the neglect of culture in conventional approaches in political economy, the cultural turn was less about “adding culture” than about challenging positivist epistemologies in social research (see White 1999; Suny 2002). As Steinmetz (1999) suggests, the cultural turn “disrupted entrenched ways of thinking about familiar objects of social research by emphasizing the causal and socially constitutive role of cultural process and system of signification” (Steinmetz 1999:2). As such, it did not invoke a particular conceptualization of culture, but moved across poststructural, psychoanalytic, and hermeneutic approaches.

Conventional approaches had always assumed that social science could objectively apprehend social phenomena through the application of scientific methods. Culture, as a result of its methodological variability and fungibility, was therefore most often treated as a dependent variable. Even where culture was foregrounded, it was in terms of function, for example at the service of social cohesion for Durkheimians, or an outcome of capitalist structures for Marxists. Increasing attention to the constitutive role of culture through the 1960s and 1970s challenged these assumptions, with ripple effects through the social sciences that manifested in new approaches in history, sociology, anthropology, political science, and political economy (Bonnell and Hunt 1999).

On the one hand, there was a reorientation toward questions about power and the ways in which symbolic systems reflected particular logics of domination (for example in critical Marxist theorizing on ideology; Steinmetz 1999:6). On the other hand, new ways of conceptualizing social change emerged through the historicization of cultural transformations.

Foucault’s genealogy of the modern penal system in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1979) was emblematic of new inquiries into how certain social practices are made possible. This work looked at the emergence of modern forms of power through changing forms of punishment: how punishment was reconfigured from spectacle (e.g., public execution) to become the “most hidden part” (Foucault 1979:9) of the penal process, understood in terms of “reform” through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Foucault showed that the penal system (as well as the hospital, school, and factory) could only be imagined in terms of a distinctly modern form of disciplinary power, which operated through new practices of observation, normalizing judgment, and the classification of “normal” and “deviant” behavior. This type of analysis, centered on the emergence of (and relations between) particular practices, disciplinary knowledges, and institutional spaces, spawned new approaches in social theory that retain great influence today.

In political economy specifically, the “cultural turn” is often traced to Marxist social historical analyses of culture and capitalism and the interpretivist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Definitive works included the injection of questions of culture into analyses of labor and class formation in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1991, originally published 1963), attention to narrative and problematization of the historical method in H. White’s Metahistory (1973), and C. Geertz’s redefinition of culture in The Interpretation of Cultures (1977).

Thompson’s analysis of working class experience through to the early nineteenth century significantly re-envisioned class formation not only as an outcome of relations of production but also as constituted through historically particular, shared cultural experience (Thompson 1991; Suny 2002). As Thompson states in his much cited introduction:

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences […] feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from theirs […] Class consciousness is the way in which the experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms.

(Thompson 1991:9)

This conceptualization of class reframed the role of culture in social transformation by privileging social consciousness, thereby challenging the materialist emphasis of structuralist accounts.

Geertz’s reconceptualization of culture in The Interpretation of Cultures (1977) was a defining work in this context. Eschewing causal explanation, Geertz reframed the analysis of culture “ be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Geertz 1977:5). His view of human activity as embedded in shared cultural meanings marked a significant epistemological and methodological break with positivist approaches to the study of the social. His ethnographic research in Bali and Java (Geertz 1977) showed how social (including economic) practices were constituted through the particular meanings ascribed to them, challenging “thin” accounts of universal material interests in rational choice explanations. Geertz’s work became emblematic of an increasing skepticism toward ahistorical and essential conceptions of political and economic life; increased attention to discourse and the constitutive role of intersubjective meanings; and a criticism of metanarrative and fixed conceptions of culture (see Suny 2002).

Weberians have also been interested in understanding the historical distinctiveness of modern capitalism. Unlike Marx’s historical materialism, Weber did not reduce social relations to a determinist economic base, nor did he see them as necessarily evolutionary, as with Durkheim’s thesis on social integration. Using what he called “ideal types,” Weber attempted to produce “multicausal” explanations that mixed both material and ideational factors (Holton 2003). One of his most notable works – The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – suggested that the “spirit” of capitalism was a contingent outcome of a particular ascetic Calvinist-protestant ethic and the regulating effects of puritan attention to labor. This attention to religious devotion as the productive force behind a particular form of economic organization reversed Marx’s premise on the causal supremacy of the mode of production (the “economic base”; Giddens 1971). Weber’s Economy and Society, on the other hand, focused much attention on the material ways in which institutions, such as the market and its use of bureaucratic rationality, determine the life chances of individuals. While Weber was not often consistent between his writings, his repeated insistence on the need to incorporate both material and ideational factors, and his nonteleological focus on historical multiplicities, remains (one) of his paramount contributions to the social sciences (Holton 2003:31).

Collectively, these aforementioned lines of analysis emphasized context and contingency and, in more critical accounts, denaturalized contemporary phenomena to show them to be, as H. White states, “less an inevitability than only one possibility among a host of others” (White 1999:316). In political economy specifically, the cultural turn has been manifest in a criticism of its conventional categories, greater attention to the constitutive role of ideas and discourse in political and economic processes, and the attempt to redress the overprivileging of class by attention to nonclass social divisions such as gender and ethnicity.

A Secondary History of CPE

There remains a second trajectory that informed CPE – more inspiration than historical lineage – which must also be considered. This literature includes influential social theorists and moral philosophers who began the process of “culturalizing” economic philosophy and economic practice, and who did so outside any significant disciplinary confines, including those of political economy. The origins of CPE did not emerge solely from the injection of “cultural” insights directly into the field of political economy. Many contributions came from authors who interrogated the relation between the economic and cultural economies as part of broader treatises on the making of modern societies. With the remainder of this section, some of these pivotal critical contributions are explored through two specific themes: the writings of Adam Smith and practices of consumption.

Adam Smith, or so the story goes, bequeathed modern capitalism – more or less intact – to all humanity. Smith is usually presented as the first “modern” political economist because he challenged the ideas about finite wealth and the utility of state protection, and extolled the market as the most efficient reflection of demand. Yet, a few social theorists have begun to challenge the prominent linear narrative that connects the writings of Smith directly to norms that underpin modern (global) capitalism. Michael Shapiro (1993) challenges this “Smith Effect” (his term) by questioning Smith’s concept of value. Because Smith saw value as a brute material relationship between man and object, his analysis of how commodities come to possess value might be more limited than is often thought. Specifically, Smith ignores the cultural contexts where value takes on meaning. For Smith:

Objects produce satisfactions because of their materiality, not, for example, because of the interpretative process in which they achieve their significance […] The Smithian subject or body faces things alone, alone in the sense that there is no linguistic or cultural mediation between a person and the satisfaction of value. Smith’s empiricist story of value […] is conceptually disenabling in that it neglects the contexts in which objects take on value, and politically disenabling in that part of context is the interpretative struggle that determines what will control what “value” means.

(Shapiro 1993:64)

Devoid of any way to “contextualize” value outside the narrative of labor and production, Smith provides no help for deciphering many contemporary consumption patterns based on nonlabor-intensive services. Here the worth of a product is often entirely mediated by culture (think of how we consume sports, entertainment, or travel). Furthermore, the relatively “smooth” movement Smith sees from production to exchange obscures the struggles and tensions that exist within market relations (Shapiro 1991:13). This, of course, provides no room for contemporary questions about the role of environmental degradation and oppressive labour in “hiding value” among certain products. Due to the materialist position adopted by Smith, it is not a surprise that a radical separation between culture/economy continues to persist within liberal and Marxist political economy (Shapiro 1991:71).

Challenging the Smith orthodoxy from a different direction, Keith Tribe (1978) contests the idea that Smith could have been the progenitor of modern ideas about a “market society” (and with it modern conceptions around land and labor). In particular, Smith’s writing remained connected to many ideas espoused within Political Oeconomy, the governing doctrine of state administration during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Foundational to Oeconomy was the belief that the “economy” was an adjunct of the commonwealth (Tribe 1978:81). The “economy,” in other words, was not autonomous from the exercise of sovereign political power – the latter understood as the comprehensive management of population and territory. Labor, production, and exchange are inexorably linked to the management and promotion of national strength (Tribe 1978:Chapter 5). Smith’s central revision of Oeconomy was to promote the interest of manufacturers, and to articulate a broader conception of productive labor than that offered by the agrarian-centric physiocrats. But, as Tribe points out, Smith did not successfully challenge two notions central to Oeconomic thought. First, similar to the Physiocrats, Smith maintained that agriculture was the privileged origin of circulation (Tribe 1978:106). And secondly, Smith viewed the control of circulation as a central state function; there was a continued reliance on the “statesman” as a source of economic organization (Tribe 1978:108) The invisible hand, for Smith, was but a means to (re)regulate economic “circulation” through a new instrument. Smith’s central contribution was to point out how the commonwealth could benefit by freeing up the capacities of all labor (see also Walter 2008). Smith’s writings did not articulate a separate domain – called the economy – with its own rules of supply, demand, and equilibrium. The modern conception of an economy as a system is best articulated later in the work of David Ricardo. Smith, when The Wealth of Nations was originally published, was taken as a respectable theorist of Oeconomy, not the founder of liberal economics (Tribe 1978:110–11). The work of Shapiro and Tribe, by challenging the “Smith effect,” provides space for revisiting the (linear) intellectual history told about capitalist development.

Increased consumption is often taken to be a progressive feature of capitalism. The growth in wealth permitted by capitalism allows a corollary expansion in our ability to exercise our “freedom” as consumers. Thorstein Veblen and Herbert Marcuse have provided alternative “cultural” readings of the role of consumption in capitalist development. Veblen, the great economist-satirist, was possibly the first to “culturalize” practices of consumption. In his masterful and biting work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1953, first published in 1899), Veblen argues that consumption beyond the point of material comfort is no longer about function or use value; it is, rather, a way of performing class. Veblen, unlike his contemporaries, was not awestruck by the financial prowess of the “robber baron” upper classes of American industrial capitalism. He saw in these neo-Victorians a feature endemic to upper classes across history: one group of predatory individuals who exploited the labor of the majority in order to live easily (Veblen 1953:24–7). However, what especially intrigued Veblen was the sheer excess involved, and how this “conspicuous consumption” had no other use but to demonstrate upper class disdain for labor, and a preference for frivolous (leisure) pursuits (Veblen 1953:Chapter 3). Furthermore, Veblen offered a thesis on why the lower classes – despite their exploitation – did not react against this situation. Far from disdainful, the lower classes attempted to copy the profligate ways of the rich, in so far as their limited means would allow, because it proved their own status. This “emulation” of the better off, in other words, was the key to middle/lower class respectability:

In modern civilized communities the lines of demarcation between social classes have grown vague and transient, and wherever this happens the norm or reputability imposed by the upper classes extends its coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the social structure to the lowest strata. The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal.

(Veblen 1953:70)

Herbert Marcuse similarly provides a critical reading of consumption, this time in the context of post–World War II (late) industrial capitalism. Marcuse argues in One-Dimensional Man (1964) that hyperconsumption was a key feature that provided a sense of reasonableness and incontestability to the Keynesian postwar settlement. Alienation, for Marcuse, was far from a political or even an “objective” economic fact. It occurred, most successfully, when capitalism produced new (unnatural) needs and desires within the working class, and then subsequently filled those desires (see Muller 2002:338). Unlike earlier industrial capitalism, “high industrial civilization” did not need to use brute coercion or create paupers out of its working class. By creating (un)reflective hyperconsumers, it had effectively made “its own population into objects of total administration” (Marcuse 1964:9–11). Any revolutionary impulse – previously discernible by a collective sense of material exploitation – became lost in a sea of hamburgers, lawnmowers, and stupefying television shows – that is, material abundance! By creating citizens unable (or unwilling) to critique exploitative structures, capitalist society effectively produced “a false consciousness which is immune against its own falsehood” (Marcuse 1964:12). Once freedom becomes equated with the material “good life,” and technology continues to fulfill the expectations it produces, the critical force of anticapitalism is blunted (Marcuse 1964:49).

CPE and Global Development

Beyond (Dis)embedding

For some, cultural political economy continues to be defined by an orientation toward cultural or “lifeworld” variables such as identity, gender, discourse, and so on, in contrast to conventional political economy’s focus on the material or “systems” dimensions (see Sayer 2001). However, this revalorization of the nonmaterial dimensions of political economic life reinforces a sharp distinction between the cultural and the material. This problem can be traced to Polanyi’s largely insightful analysis of economic (dis)embedding, which continues to underpin many debates in CPE.

Part of Polanyi’s (1944) influential thesis was that prior to the rise of market liberalism, the economy was embedded in society, subordinate to political and cultural norms. The rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century attempted to reverse this relationship, “disembedding” the economy and subordinating society. He saw this process as invariably incomplete due to inevitable resistance to the “fictitious” commodification of people and the environment. This was conceptualized as a dialectical process of disembedding and resistance – a “double movement” inherent to capitalist market society. Polanyi’s Great Transformation (1944) remains an important critique of liberal capitalism, and the notion of a double movement has been subsequently applied in contemporary analyses of global development and IPE (see Gill 1995). Polanyi’s thesis has a dual heritage for CPE. On the one hand it represents an important culturalist (v. purely materialist) account of political economy, and provides attention to the intersection of economic practices and social relations. On the other hand, it reinforces a separation of culture and economy as well as a sharp distinction between capitalist/noncapitalist practices that CPE analyses alternately challenge and reproduce.

There is a rich body of work in history, sociology, and anthropology in particular that challenges this differentiation of the cultural from the material and attempts to redress problems of “capitalocentrism” (Gibson-Graham 1996). Anthropologists interested in economy and material culture, for example, shifted their focus from “precapitalist” societies to mixed economies and culturally specific forms of capitalism, also blurring simple distinctions between capitalist/noncapitalist, embedded/disembedded (see Gudeman 2001; Miller 2002; Wilk and Cliggett 2007). Others extended this critique, arguing that the division between capitalist/noncapitalist economic practice has been intrinsic to the production and reproduction of capitalist political economic hegemony. Gibson-Graham (1996), for instance, points to the heterogeneity of economic practices subsumed under the metanarrative of capitalism and puts forward the concept of an economic “heterospace” that includes noncapitalist as well as capitalist practices.

Mitchell (1998) shows this fuzzy border between market and nonmarket activities in the production of sugar cane in Egypt. He points out that its cultivation was nonmonetarized and required very little engagement with the formal market (neither in seeds, sowing, nor inputs etc.). This inherent hybridity not only blurs the boundary between capitalist/noncapitalist but also raises the question as to how the economy, as a formal, totalizing, self-evident entity, came into being at all. Mitchell argues that the contemporary idea of “the economy” in fact relies on such exclusions (of nonmarket activities, state, and household). This complicates the view that a more inclusive understanding of what “counts” as economic is all that is required from CPE.

The problem of “capitalocentrism” is also taken up by Rojas (2007), who criticizes the absence of counter-discourses in CPE from subaltern, postcolonial, and postdevelopment perspectives (Rojas 2007:573). For Rojas, CPE is limited in its focus on the semiotic dimensions in the reproduction (and transformation) of only capitalism (Rojas 2007:574), thus marginalizing perspectives from non- (or not completely) capitalist experiences. Practices of “otherwise” political economies are not somehow exterior to capitalism, as they are defined in relation to the latter, but challenge totalizing accounts of global development, potentially “decolonizing” political economic accounts that assume a singular (capitalist) logic at work (Rojas 2007:581–3).

Inayatullah and Blaney (2006) also destabilize conventional PE accounts of capitalism by pointing out that political economy was culturally constituted from the outset, on the juxtaposition of the civilized (i.e., modern, rational, Western subject) and the backward Other. PE is thus recast as an inherently cultural project, articulating utopian Western values of wealth, stability, freedom, and equality. Not only does this challenge the idea of culture and economy as distinct and oppositional, it situates PE within a long history of narratives of civilization and improvement that continue to underpin ideas about global development.

Historically, what we now conceive of as “development” has largely been about the promotion of Western capitalism as an economic and cultural project – as much about “civilizing” and spreading “Western values” as economic growth (Radcliffe 2006; Li 2007). This is a central point in the broad body of work characterized as “postdevelopment,” although this insight has yet to penetrate mainstream conceptions of “culture and development.” Certainly, questions of culture have been the object of renewed attention in development thinking and practice (Radcliffe 2006:2). However, this inclusion has become increasingly perceived as a pivotal “variable” in the outcome of mainstream development initiatives. Echoing debates within CPE, the relation between culture and development has been conceptualized in different ways, some more critical, others more instrumental (see Radcliffe 2006:17–18).

Renewed attention to questions of culture within mainstream development initiatives through the 1980s and 1990s was associated with the failure of conventional economic reforms, the increasing role of nonclass-based social movements, and concerns about cultural disappearance and homogenization in the context of globalization (Watts 2006). The valorization of the local, the primacy of human but also cultural rights advanced by indigenous populations in particular, and strong efforts to decenter Eurocentric, evolutionary models of modernization and development were also influential (Radcliffe 2006). Culture in mainstream development policies and projects remains in many cases additive, something separate that is to be reckoned with and instrumentalized in different ways. It is alternately deployed as a space, a group, and a set of attributes and behaviors to be preserved and promoted.

In contrast, poststructural and postdevelopment critiques look at underlying normative and cultural frameworks that produce categories and practices of global development. As Escobar (1995) has effectively argued, this was enacted not only through the promotion of capitalism but also through the discursive construction of the world in terms of development/underdevelopment as a new postwar “political economy of truth.” Development is thus an apparatus that linked knowledge about the so-called Third World with specific forms of intervention. Problems and pathologies of illiteracy, malnourishment, and poor farming practices were constituted and reproduced through particular forms of expertise and intervention. What this analysis offers is a strong critique of global development as a Western (capitalist) hegemonic project. It also shares conceptual ground with the central questions raised in this chapter: how “culture” and “economy” are constituted in the context of global development.

New Imaginaries of Global Development: Economizing Culture

CPE approaches are also increasingly viewed as a response to “new conditions” of global development (Du Gay 1997; Jessop 2005). This is not limited to early concerns about cultural homogenization (“McDonaldization”) associated with standard accounts of globalization as “the widening, deepening and speeding up of global interconnectedness” (Held and McGrew 2003); nor to more nuanced analyses of hybrid forms or “glocalisation” (Pieterse 1995; Robertson 1995). More centrally, global economic transformations themselves have been conceived of in cultural terms: These include ideas about a shift from an industrial to an informational economy (Castells 2003) and the significance of the symbolic content of commodities by Lash and Urry (1994). It also includes more disjunctive conceptions of global cultural economy; Appadurai (2008), for example, uses the irregularity of landscapes as a metaphor to conceptualize five overlapping dimensions of cultural economic flows: ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes (Appadurai 2008:50–4).

Perhaps most noticeable, however, is the increasing orientation of critical (CPE) analyses of global development toward the “economization” of the cultural in the context of mutating forms of neoliberalism (Peck and Tickell 2002; Jessop 2005; Jayasuriya 2006). Neoliberalism, from this view, is no longer characterized by the orthodox economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s associated with the Washington Consensus: privatization, deregulation, and liberalization of trade and finance with a reduced role for the state in social service provision and so forth. Instead, increasing attention is focused on a “metamorphosis” (Peck and Tickell 2002) or “reterritorialization” (Craig and Porter 2006) of neoliberalism, triggered by the failure of orthodox reforms, marked by a reinstitutionalization of the state and the normalization and extension of a market logic to encompass new spatial and social frontiers (Peck and Tickell 2002; Larner 2003; Perreault and Martin 2005).

Jayasuriya (2006) refers to this phenomenon as the socialization of the neoliberal market model, whereby social policy agendas and strategies for “social inclusion” operate on a neoliberal market logic. These range from more overt initiatives such as development through microcredit (see Weber 2002 for an insightful analysis), but also in the association of “empowerment” with entrepreneurialism and the promotion of “marketized” citizenship. This is manifest in a shift away from social entitlements under welfare regimes to “social investment” programs that entailed the reconceptualization of citizens as enterprising, self-reliant, and responsible agents, integrated through market mechanisms (for example see Schild 2000).

Craig and Porter (2006) and Macdonald and Ruckert (2009) understand this as a shift from orthodox to “inclusive” neoliberalism manifest in mainstream development agendas. This mutation is defined by the grafting of a positive liberal emphasis on empowerment and participation onto neoliberal macroeconomic models of development (Craig and Porter 2006:12). This creates a new hybrid that allows neoliberal reforms to persist by way of a shallow re-embedding of markets through the promotion of greater citizen participation. Not only does the market retain its priority status, but empowerment through participation is implemented as a technical-institutional solution that fails to politicize problems of poverty and exclusion, or the political-economic model that produces them.

The continued centrality of “investment” in human and social “capital” in global development projects remains one of the clearest examples of the economization of the social (see Fine 1999, 2001; Walters 2002). Its basic premise, associated with Putnam’s (1993) astoundingly influential analysis, is that political and economic efficiency are improved by robust social relations of trust and cooperation. Since coming to the fore of international financial institution development agendas in the 1990s, it has acquired common-sense status and become institutionalized as best practice. Getting the social relations “right” thus became an important means and end of development intervention, with social capital constituted simultaneously as an immanent resource and ongoing site of intervention (see Li 2007). It also represents a paradox from CPE perspectives, in that it provides both a “culturalist” account of economic development (or lack of one), but also an economic “colonization” of social relations, rendering them amenable to measurement, alteration, and comparison with other forms of capital (see Fine 2001).

“Culturalizing” the economic

Concomitant to the economization of the cultural in narratives of global development is what Thrift (2001) and others have referred to as the “culturalization” of the economic. Here attention is paid not just to the growth of cultural industries but to the multiple ways in which culture has been normalized in discourses of global and corporate development (Lash and Urry 1994; Thrift 2001). This manifests itself, for instance, in the promotion of corporate culture, corporate citizenship, as well as questions of corporate social responsibilities for both internal and public consumption (see Watts 2006). It is also related to the emergence of a discursive and institutional apparatus of capitalism manifest in the growth of business schools and managerialism after the 1960s, which Thrift (2001) describes as capitalism’s “cultural circuit.” Here, capitalism is critiqued with the end goal of its more successful reproduction.

In a critical analysis of global development, Jessop (2005) explores the culturalization of the economic in reference to the crisis of Atlantic Fordism and the emergence of a new economic imaginary – the “knowledge-based economy.” For Jessop, the knowledge-based economy is defined by a set of new performative dimensions, subjectivities, and norms of production and consumption that emerged through the 1980s and 1990s to become a heterogeneous, “meta-object” and master narrative of governance (Jessop 2005:152). According to Jessop, the knowledge-based economy underpins a new regime of accumulation and regulation centered around the extension of intellectual property rights as a form of protecting capital interests, and thus struggles with a precarious balance between questions of protection and the promotion of innovation. Jessop is particularly interested in the state’s role in constituting the knowledge-based economy, for example in the promotion of knowledge and the creation of new entrepreneurial subjects through the requirements of flexible labor, worker retraining, and public–private partnerships.

Jessop sees CPE as being indispensable in this type of analysis, in so far as it captures the discursive and material practices through which the knowledge-based economy is constituted and reproduced. For him, the purchase of CPE in this context is its Marxist-inspired attention to the “directional dynamic” of capital or logic of accumulation. He therefore sees CPE as a potential bridge between Marxism and poststructural approaches – with Marx’s insights into capital as a social relation being anticipatory of constructivist (and ANT) conceptions of the mutual constitution of the social and material. Jessop has been among the most prolific scholars in writing about and attempting to define CPE as a postdisciplinary approach and a useful tool for understanding mutating forms of capitalism (see Jessop and Sum 2001; Jessop 2002, 2005; Jessop and Oosterlynck 2008). Despite his timely insights into the knowledge-based economy as a new economic imaginary, his analyses often reproduce a material/nonmaterial dichotomy and a conceptual distinction between ideas and things. For example, the “semiotic” is always distinguished from the structural and their relationship is always dialectical (Jessop 2004:163).

Overall, this attention to contingent, context-specific, and cultural forms of neoliberal ideology and articulation redresses earlier totalizing accounts, reorienting research toward ethnographies of “actually existing neoliberalisms” (see Gledhill 2004). However, analyses of transformations in the global economy, such as those reviewed above, tend to take “the economy” (national and global) as a pre-existing, self-contained sphere, external to the critique. This is Mitchell’s (2002) point that, unlike the concepts of class, nation, state, society, gender, and race, the idea of the economy has remained relatively immune to critical interrogation:

It is as though the varieties of cultural theory had to leave in place a residual sphere of the economic, as a reserve whose existence in the distance made cultural analysis secure. Everything else could be understood as cultural, including particular forms of economic practice or local ways of thinking about the economy […] The economy always remained, tacitly, as a material ground out of which the cultural is shaped, or in relation to which it acquires its significance.

(Mitchell 2002:3)

As this chapter argues, these assumptions problematically remain at the heart of the body of work broadly categorized as CPE.

A Future Research Agenda for CPE: Three Exemplars

In her book French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age, Susanne Freidberg (2004a) explores the creation of two transnational fresh vegetable commodity networks. The first is a Francophone network that links the green beans grown in Burkina Faso to markets in France. The second network is Anglophone and involves the shipment of prepackaged Zambian vegetables to supermarkets in the UK. Both networks were built from pre-existing colonial relationships, both reflect a more globalized fresh food system, and both were forced to react to the “food scares” in western Europe in the late 1990s. But, as Freidberg indicates, the discourses and practices that inform the production, trade, and sale of these vegetables are quite different between the two; each reflects divergent forms of “power in globalised food provision” (Freidberg 2004a:5).

The first point of contrast is how the two networks were organized. The British preference is for vertically organized systems with large farms (Freidberg 2004a:27). Operations are standardized across farms and supervised by British managers at every step (Freidberg 2004a:Chapter 6). The French, in contrast, are much more comfortable dealing with small farmers and prefer networks built on friendship and local knowledge – no “best practice” (Freidberg 2004a:Chapter 5). In short, the British demanded complete control over the food chain, while the French preferred to deal with “the Africans” in whatever way necessary. While distinct, both the French and British saw their organizational models as most conducive for an “on-time” industry where profit margins were often tight:

Portrayed as a set of simplified themes, the cultural norms of the francophone and Anglophone commodity networks appear diametrically opposed. In one, intermediaries value embedded trust relations and experiential knowledge, and see them as the best assurance of quality in an intrinsically volatile commercial and natural environment. In the other, intermediaries value the management tools, technical skills, and corporate “partnerships” that, in their view, reduce volatility to a minimum and allow them to market goods possessing an ever broader range of value-adding qualities.

(Freidberg 2004a:29)

The second point of contrast concerns the different understandings surrounding food, and the differing levels of public trust in the food supply. This feature – a result of the establishment of colonial foodways over the nineteenth century – led to drastic-ally different ways of organizing the retail sale of vegetables. The French, for example, experience less anxiety over the safety of their food compared to the British, and tend to equate farmland with “nature” (Freidberg 2004a:132–3). As a result, there is minimal pressure on purchasers to account for the standards of food production, and a feeling of trust in the small farmer who knows best how to cultivate his/her family plot (Freidberg 2004a:164–6). The French also place less emphasis on hygiene protocol, resulting in less elaborate packaging (Freidberg 2004a:134). Even after the rise of the hypermarket in France, the organization of the vegetable trade remains distinct from that in the UK: vegetables are procured from smaller farming operations, “organics” and other technologies of certification are viewed with suspicion, and, lastly, there remains a persistent skepticism about “rationalizing” the food chain.

The organization of the Zambian vegetable trade is more robust, and hence places additional pressure on British suppliers and purchasers. Here retail is dominated by a few megasupermarkets – such as Sainsbury’s – that place exacting labor and production standards on food production (Freidberg 2004a:198–9). As a result of NGO pressure to account for labor abuses in the supply chain, a variety of “objective” indicators have been created to account for the “social responsibility” of labor procurement and food production (Freidberg 2004a:Chapter 6). The history of the British foodway is replete with such attempts to secure the “ethicality” and “safety” of food, dating back to the food purity debates of the mid nineteenth century (Freidberg 2004a:Chapter 2). Additional public pressure now demands certification as to production techniques. Organizations such as Social Association attach “organic” labels to vouch for chemical and hormonal free foodstuffs. Both the “organic” and “social responsibility” certifications have proven to be highly profitable marketing strategies for imported UK vegetables (Freidberg 2004a:169). In short, the British obsession with certification, standardization, monitoring, and “ethical” food produced a supply chain distinct from the French model. Freidberg does an excellent job of exploring the practices and subjectivities that account for this divergence.

In his book Automobile Politics: Ecology and Cultural Political Economy (2007), Mathew Paterson points out that movement – and in particular the accelerated movement of people and commodities – has been central to the development/reproduction of modern capitalism (Paterson 2007:4). But in particular for Paterson, it is the car that deserves special investigation, for it has emerged “as the predominant daily form of mobility. Even for those who do not use a car, the conditions under which we move around are shaped fundamentally by car-led development strategies” (Paterson 2007:9). Paterson’s insightful study of “automobility” – which he situates at the intersection of political economy, cultural politics, and environmental politics (Paterson 2007:8) – addresses a number of different functions and effects of car automobility. These include the linkage of car use to patterns of environmental degradation, the role of the car in securing strategies of capitalist accumulation, and the importance of counter discourses that challenge automobility. However, for the purposes of this review, it is Paterson’s discussion of the multiform practices that produce the automobile subject that intrigues. Paterson argues that the power of automobility became possible by convincing individuals they needed, or should desire, to become mobile (Paterson 2007:25). Focusing on the sociotechnical practices that created this mobile subject, one aspect of “liberal-consumerist democracy” (Paterson 2007:18) becomes clear.

How was the automobile subject created? One avenue was through state practices. Automobility emerges in a context where freedom was being constructed as the maximization of personal choice (Paterson 2007:134). Individuals who owned cars were also individuals who could be “active participants, makers of their own travel plans […] rather than ‘passive’ recipients of transport services” (Paterson 2007:135). The car thus becomes a vehicle for individual liberation, not just transportation. Seeing the economic utility in having a mobile and active – thus productive – citizenry, the state begins to regulate these new automobile subjectivities. Programs such as motor vehicle education and licensing drivers, for example, bring into existence a new public designation/identity: the “driver” (Paterson 2007:140).

The prominent car symbolism within literature, film, and music further reinforces the sense of freedom and excitement in hitting the open road (Paterson 2007:142–5). Yet the most prominent force for naturalizing the car has likely been advertizing. Car advertizing is so effective due to the range of preferences to which it can appeal (Paterson 2007:147–60). Car adverts routinely draw on themes as diverse as open space, machismo, sociability, safety, irony, nature, technology; even anti-car strategies are deployed to sell automobiles. While eschewing any claims of “causality,” Paterson makes the prescient claim that film, literature, and advertizing have gone a long way in ensuring “the legitimacy of automobility” (Paterson 2007:162). In conclusion, Peterson highlights how a particular capitalist identity was created through “a complex interplay of popular cultural forms, daily practice, regulatory interventions, surveillance and resistance” (Paterson 2007:165).

Mitchell’s (1998, 2002) profound insight that the contemporary idea of “the economy” – understood as “the totality of relations of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services within a given country or region” (Mitchell 1998:82) – that only emerged in the 1930s also challenges conventional assumptions in political economy. He shows that prior to this, “economy” was not a distinct object, but a particular way managing of resources. The reconfiguration of economy was the product of specific sociotechnical practices, including new forms of consumption marketing, managing populations, and statistics and calculation, that collectively produced the economy as a separate, self-contained, measurable sphere (Mitchell 2008:116). This counters the views that the economy was merely a new name for an essential (embedded) pre-existing process, or only a social construction. Unlike Jessop, Mitchell does not ascribe to the view that there is something “purely economic”; nor is there an outside to the economy from which it can be measured – economic knowledge and calculation are conditions of its possibility.

Mitchell (1998, 2002) points to some of the distinct features of “the economy” that emerged in the mid twentieth century: first, that it was bounded by the nation state. This provided a new way to enframe the nation state as naturally circumscribed and subject to political management (Mitchell 1998:90). This also entailed what he refers to as a reimagination of the international order, a new way of conceptualizing geopolitical space, which problematized the economic heterogeneity of the European empire and reflected the new postwar order of clearly separated economies (Mitchell 1998:90). A second distinct feature of “the economy” was that it could grow within this fixed space, and could be mapped and measured in aggregates (such as GNP). This move was pivotal to the contemporary problem of “development,” redefining it from a question of resource exploitation to economic growth, thus producing the possibility of “underdeveloped countries” (Mitchell 1998:91; Escobar 1995).

In reference to countries outside the West, “to develop” ceased to be just a transitive verb (referring to the exploitation of a particular territory or resource) and began to refer to an intransitive political and economic process: development. The prewar concern with colonial welfare was transformed into the postwar ideology of developing what was now called the underdeveloped world.

(Mitchell 1998:91)

In Rule of Experts (2002), Mitchell looks critically at the story of capitalist development in Egypt through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, highlighting the constitutive role of “noncapitalist” elements. This included a variety of human and nonhuman agents, ranging from a mosquito (Anopheles gambiae), hydraulic energy, fertilizer and chemical innovations, to family empires and political struggles as well as changing patterns of consumption internationally (Mitchell 2002:51). This wide-ranging assemblage makes it hard to tell a singular story of the emergence of a market economy in Egypt in terms of capitalist development. Rather, the economy is made possible by a variety of exclusions or “externalities” that constitute it as a separate, self-contained sphere that is both mappable and calculable. Practices of global development continue to produce and reproduce the constitutive boundaries of “the economy.”


If CPE continues to probe the constitutive questions surrounding economic development, it will remain a fruitful project. At the same time, this essay posits three research commitments that could provide further organization or clarification for the field. This future research agenda is well represented in the three works (“exemplars”) reviewed above. First, CPE should remain problem focused. Genealogically specific examinations of particular economic configurations and networks should be favored over sweeping narratives on economic development. The work of Paterson (2007) and Friedberg (2004a) is notable in this regard. Their analyses are quite focused, and, as a consequence, empirically rich. Specific questions, relations, and engagements guide the analysis: How was the fresh vegetable trade constructed among former colonial powers and their dependants? Through what strategies and programs has automobility emerged as a defining feature of late modern capitalism? As CPE becomes less dependent on “container” labels such as neoliberalism and globalization, its contribution to empirical economic debates will continue to grow.

Second, CPE should continue to focus on the practices that “make up” the economy. CPE is a form of “cultural” analysis precisely because of its commitment to exploring the diverse ontological forms the economic can take. The creation of a transnational fresh vegetable trade was not possible outside the various conversations, checklists, auditors, and physical markets that allowed this trade to commence. Such cultural artefacts and practices are thus not incidental to economic networks; they constitute its very ability to operate. On a larger scale, Mitchell demonstrated how various forms/modes of calculation, division, and exclusion are what allow the “national economy” to become something real, and, as a consequence, something that can become the basis for broader political and, more pointedly, population management.

Lastly, this essay argues that practices related to the formation of subjectivity should be privileged. The further mutation of late capitalist orderings will depend on the ability to reproduce old subjectivities, but also create and “sell” new ones. Automobility, as Paterson details, became possible when the capitalist subject was made to feel she must become mobile; her freedom as a consumer and citizen was only realizable through car ownership. The same is true, more generally, for other emerging economic subjects, such as the “fair trade consumer” or the “ethical corporation” (Barry 2004; Freidberg 2004b; Trentmann 2007). Types of economic subjectifications must be created, and continually reproduced, before their cultural power becomes manifest. How this is accomplished – both discursively and as a set of practices – must remain a continued point of investigation for CPE.

Eminent philosopher Charles Taylor (2004) argues that the “economy” is one of the central “social imaginaries” underpinning Western modernity. Taylor sees recursivity between “understandings” and “practices” as central to a social imaginary: “The relation between practices and background understandings behind them is therefore not one-sided. If the understanding makes practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding” (Taylor 2004:25). Expanding this insight further, CPE has been able to provide original accounts of how the “economic” is reproduced and transformed at the level of lived experience, and within specific economic multiplicities. Ultimately, CPE rejects the simplification involved in variable specific political economic analysis. It privileges description above the search for causal laws. As such, CPE has provided the field of political economy with original ways for deciphering the complicated relationship between “the economy” and the making of modernity.


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