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Economics as Natural-History: Adorno and the

Critique of Neoliberalism

Charles A. Prusik

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and the Critique of Neoliberalism, Architecture and Culture, 5:2, 165-174, DOI:

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Charles A. Prusik
Villanova University,
Philadelphia, PA, USA
Economics as Natural-History: Adorno
and the Critique of Neoliberalism
Charles A. Prusik
Keywords: economics,
neoliberalism, Adorno,
natural-history, free
markets, competition
ABSTRACT  This paper develops an analysis of neoliberal economics through
Adorno’s concept of natural-history (Naturgeschichte), in order to articulate
the formation of what I define as neoliberal “second nature.” Through
engagements with economic history, I demonstrate how the neoclassical,
and neoliberal economic traditions have naturalized the concept of the
free market in their relevant notions of value, information, and competition.
Through engagements with Hayek’s critique of socialist calculation and
the emergence of information sciences, I analyze the transformation
within neoliberal economics to show the determination of markets as
information processors, and organisms of self-development. By identifying
the natural logic of the market’s immanent self-determination, this paper
Volume 5/Issue 2
July 2017 demonstrates the way in which social relations and institutions of coercion
pp 165–174 are legitimated through their appearance as natural necessity.
DOI: 10.1080/

No potential conflict of
interest was reported by
the author. Neoliberalism: Economy, Nature and Society
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, Under today’s neoliberal order we face a society dominated by the circulation
trading as Taylor & Francis
Group of incomprehensible market prices, valuations and speculations. Confronted
with the random play of numbers, the individual finds herself cast into an
environment of disorder and uncertainty. But neoliberal hegemony does
not preserve itself solely through the set of institutions that have served
to liberate capital from its regulation. Its political power depends on 166
the appearance of authority it makes for the individuals who suffer its Economics as Natural-
consequences. This form of economic authority is not only political but History: Adorno and the
Critique of Neoliberalism
also cultural. It refers to the ideas and habits we cultivate, the norms we Charles A. Prusik
internalize, the spaces we rent or own. Neoliberalism’s form of authority
derives from the impression that the inscrutable quantities that shape our
world are, indeed, understood by someone – or perhaps some thing.
Economics is the science of the abstract quantities that govern
society. Over the course of the twentieth century, economics has come
to serve as an ideological resource in the construction of neoliberalism’s
global ascendency. Such a construction depends on the following claim:
the economy is the most real aspect of society because it is what is most
“natural.” More specifically, the science of economics is committed to the
view that the “free market” is the most natural institution and, therefore,
the most legitimate source of authority for managing society. While this
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interpretation is widely attributed to the classical liberalism of Adam Smith

and David Ricardo, the efforts to naturalize the economy by neoliberals are
generally ignored.1 In order to criticize this naturalization, neoliberalism
should not be analyzed on the basis of the science of economics.
Neoliberalism is grounded in the claim that the most rational aspect of
society is economic. As a consequence, neoliberalism should be analyzed
from a perspective that allows us to see its natural appearance as an
appearance. The form of this appearance is grounded in the view that in the
absence of social planning, the substance of the free market is identical to
the principles of nature. As I intend to demonstrate, the naturalization of the
free market by economists depends upon a metaphysical presupposition
– namely, that the most substantial core of society is economic value,
and that value remains constant despite the changes of history. This
metaphysics of value not only serves the project of neoliberalism in its
ongoing reduction of society to the market but also has contributed
(paradoxically) to capitalism’s blindness to its most significant market
externality – namely, the ecological crisis of anthropogenic climate change.
Unlike much of the Marxist tradition, which criticizes political
economy on the basis of an alternative metaphysics of value,2 Theodor
W. Adorno’s materialism uncovers the illusory assumptions of political
economy. In other words, rather than accepting the scientific designation
of the economy as nature, his negative dialectics provides us with the
means to become reflective of the historical content that disappears in the
naturalization of economy. Despite his distance from the contemporary
world of neoliberalism, I maintain that Adorno’s “The Idea of Natural-
History” (1932) can help us interpret the neoliberal efforts to naturalize
the free market. Rather than comprehending socio-historical processes in
terms of their seeming naturalness, Adorno’s language of natural-history
shows how specifically social, political and historical forms have been
forgotten by subjects throughout the course of their naturalization. By
forgetting the relations of coercion and violence that reinforce the global
reproduction of financial capitalism, individuals come to live within an
167 economic “second nature,” where the ideals of competition, individualism
and privatization appear normal and, therefore, unchangeable.

The Idea of Natural-History

Adorno’s idea of natural-history (Naturgeschichte) defies straightforward
categorization. By natural-history he is not referring to “the history of
nature”3 in the sense of a developmental, progressive or evolutionary
account of natural process. Nor does the concept of nature refer to the
objects of mathematical science.4 Taken together, the concepts of nature
and history refer to a dialectical relation of opposition in which both
concepts are “mediated in their apparent difference.”5 This mediation
consists in the temporal aspects of nature and history. For Adorno, nature
is frequently understood as “myth,” i.e., a cosmology of timeless order,
constancy and fate. The mythic concept of nature refers to “what has always
been, what as fatefully arranged predetermined being underlies history and
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appears in history, it is substance in history.”6 Mythic nature is atemporal.

The concept of history, by contrast, refers to the human capacity to form
newness amidst the context of nature.
Following his colleague Walter Benjamin, who argues that nature
can be interpreted as historical because of its temporal unfolding,7 Adorno
criticizes the mythic concept of nature. Rather than isolating an ontological
layer of reality as the most natural (or real) aspect of history, Adorno’s
framework sets nature and history into a relation of contradiction.
Historical change is itself dependent upon nature; human activity
reproduces itself in relation to material, physical need. But nature itself is
also mediated by historical transformation – it is marked and shaped by
human activity. The idea of natural-history, therefore, can be used to criticize
the science of economics, because the very concept of economic value
itself depends upon the reduction of socio-historical change to an invariant
principle of natural necessity. By isolating value as the most substantial
principle of life, the science of economics implicitly dissolves the historical
content of society, and therefore mobilizes a mythic concept of nature as
justification for its reduction of life to an economic logic. As a consequence,
the neoliberal free market not only becomes the most natural form of social
arrangement but also, more importantly, assumes the appearance of a
fatefully arranged destiny for the management of society’s future.

Classical Political Economy

The classical political economy of Smith and Ricardo divided the economy
into three spheres of activity: production, exchange and consumption.
Economic value, they argued, could be understood as an unchanging
substance that underlies the activity of markets.8 In order to articulate the
relevant “laws” at work in the conservation of such a substance, economists
throughout the classical tradition resorted to a metaphor – value was
treated as though it were physical energy.9 Borrowing heavily from Cartesian
physics, Smith constructed a vision of the economy where value remains
constant throughout its circulation.10 Economic laws thus appear to
resemble physical laws; the “natural course” of economic life tends towards 168
a point of “equilibrium” throughout the movement of commodities.11 As Economics as Natural-
Thorstein Veblen commented, History: Adorno and the
Critique of Neoliberalism
Charles A. Prusik
the resulting economic theory is formulated as an analysis of
the “natural” course of the life of the community, the ultimate
theoretical postulate of which might […] be stated as some sort of
law of the conservation of economic energy.12

Neoclassical Economics
If the classical economics tradition modeled its articulation of value on the
basis of the economy’s resemblance to external nature, the “neoclassical”
tradition displaced the law-like necessity of value onto the individual. The
neoclassical tradition, which originated as the “Marginalist Revolution” in
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the 1870s, began as a break from classical political economy by defining

value as “utility.”13 Through purely mathematized representations of supply
and demand, thinkers such as William Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, Vilfredo
Pareto and Francis Edgeworth devoted their efforts to formalizing the
principles of rational economic behavior.14 Believing in the strict uniformity
of the individual’s pursuit of satisfaction, neoclassical economists
attempted to identify degrees of pleasure as “utils,” i.e., the representation
of the degree of satisfaction derived from the consumption of a commodity.
Rather than understanding value as the result of objective laws belonging
to external nature, neoclassicals derived the laws of value from the
individual subject’s preferences. However, in order to mathematize the
internal preferences that influenced the movements of supply and demand,
they were forced to conceptualize the individual subject as an objectively
mechanical, universal and causally determined agent.
The neoclassical school found the theoretical resources for its
mathematical representations of utility by way of analogy to the models
of nineteenth-century physics. As economic historian Philip Mirowski has
demonstrated in detail, Marginalists such as Jevons, Walras, Pareto and
Edgeworth explicitly modeled their concept of utility on the potential energy
physics of their time.15 Rather than turning to psychology, anthropology
or philosophy for possible concepts of human rationality, neoclassicals
defined the individual’s behavior as though it were responding to the causal
sequence of mechanical forces. As Walras himself insisted in his Elements
of Pure Economics (1874), “the pure theory of economics is a science which
resembles the physico-mathematical sciences in every respect.”16 But if the
laws of the individual’s behavior follow the objective laws of external nature,
the paradox of the subjective theory of value lies in its determination of
subjectivity as an objective principle – namely, utility or potential energy.17
However, the agential principle of the subjective paradigm is only possible
on the assumption that individuals truly are rational maximizers of utility –
which is to say, the individual operates independently of the extra-economic
relations of society.
169 Neoliberalism and the Economics of Information
Neoliberalism, in contrast to the neoclassical school, must be understood
as an effort to displace the substance of economic activity from a
mechanical concept of nature onto a concept of organism. Originating in the
Austrian School of Economics and the Mont Pelerin Society in the 1930s,
neoliberalism began as a critique of the Keynesian welfare state, as well
as neoclassical “market socialism.”18 Perhaps more than any other figure,
Friedrich Hayek emerged as the most influential economist of the neoliberal
school, for it was his critique of socialist planning that indirectly caused
the most significant transformation to microeconomic orthodoxy.19 Rather
than defining the market as a physical mechanism that relocates discrete
objects between individuals, Hayek defines the market as thinking machine.
As he argues in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945):

The peculiar character of the problem of rational economic

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order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge

of circumstances of which we must make use never exists in
concentrated or integrated form but solely as dispersed bits of
incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the
separate individuals possess.20

Unlike the neoclassical school, which presupposes the knowledge of

individuals in their rational pursuit of preferences, Hayek’s framework
begins from the assumption that individuals are radically ignorant with
respect to the distribution of resources. Only the market is capable of
discovering how to allocate resources efficiently. Rather than understanding
the market as a resource allocator that achieves true prices in general
equilibrium, “the price system as such” becomes a mechanism for
communicating information.21 For neoliberals, information is not simply
knowledge to be discovered, but is also a commodity that can be exchanged.
As a consequence, the neoliberal vision for a free-market society turns on
the belief that the market is itself a rational subject. Moreover, the market’s
rationality is more complete and efficient than any individual subject.
In an effort to shift the basic problem of economics to questions of
knowledge and coordination, Hayek turned his attention to developments
in psychology, cognitive science and cybernetics.22 In Law, Legislation, and
Liberty (1976), for example, he defines the price mechanism as a “medium of
communicating knowledge,” which not only broadcasts information but also
influences “the decision of others.”23 Cybernetics, with its interdisciplinary
approach to the study of the relationship of information to the organization
of systems, provided Hayek with the means to define economic behavior
as a self-ordering system. The cyberneticist notion of “negative feedback”
functions by way of analogy to the self-regulating properties of markets.
Negative feedback refers to the inherent tendency of an organism, machine
or system to correct itself through the output of information.24 If a market
is left alone to operate freely from any external regulation or control, it will
correct itself in time through individual responses to the price mechanism.
Competition, Adaptation, Spontaneous Order 170
With its transdisciplinary emphasis on the underlying identity of Economics as Natural-
mechanical and organic systems, the science of cybernetics also inspired History: Adorno and the
Critique of Neoliberalism
Hayek to define self-regulating markets through an analogy with biology. Charles A. Prusik
In particular, Garret Hardin’s work on ecology and adaptation in his text
Nature and Man’s Fate (1959) shaped Hayek’s later efforts to interpret
economic behavior as though it were an evolutionary process.25 Hardin
understood the process of Darwinian adaptation itself to be a cybernetic
system governed by negative feedback, where the traits of a given species
are regulated against deviations through adaptations to the environment.26
But more importantly, the same principle of negative feedback operating in
living species is equally at work in a market system. Within the Darwinian
framework, Hardin argues, “the concept of the ‘fittest’ has the same
normalizing role as that played by the ‘natural’ process of commodities or
labor in economics.”27 Having read Hardin’s cyberneticist work on the self-
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regulating properties of adaption in biology and economics, Hayek arrived at

his defining theoretical concept – the idea of a “spontaneous order.”
Through the activity of “competition,” human beings “adapt” to
their environment through the information conveyed by prices. Just as a
species evolves through both responses to changes in the environment
and the reproduction of acquired traits, the market, too, “orders itself”
through the coordinated activity of competition.28 “The whole structure”
of a spontaneous order, he maintains, “tends to adapt, through these
partial and fragmentary signals, to conditions foreseen by and known to
no individual […].”29 A self-regulating market thus forms itself immanently
through the unconscious, self-interested actions of the individuals who
constitute it. Within the proper framework of rules and laws, Hayek argues,
human civilization “evolves” through the competitive selection of behaviors,
customs and institutions, which in turn coalesce as the orderly context for
coordinated economic activity.30
While it seems the concept of a spontaneous order breaks
from what Adorno has called “mythic nature,” insofar as it introduces a
moment of temporal dynamism into the developmental properties of the
market, Hayek’s thought remains grounded in an implicitly metaphysical
framework in its articulation of economy. Rather than deriving a theoretical
representation of the market from the formal principles of physical nature,
Hayek interprets the structure of nature itself as inherently economic. Citing
legal theorist Sir Frederick Pollock as a key influence, Hayek defines the
doctrine of evolution as “nothing else than the historical method applied to
the facts of nature […].”31 Considered through the lens of natural-history,
this position does not comprehend how the concepts of nature and history
are, in the words of Adorno, “mediated in their apparent difference,”32 but
rather projects the concept of history onto nature in an unconditional
manner. If the neoclassical tradition constructed its analogy of nature and
economy by imitating the laws of external nature, neoliberalism interprets
external nature as being economic in its inner principles.
171 Hayek’s articulation of the abstract identity of economy and nature
has significant consequences – not only for the theoretical understanding
of market systems but also for the political strategy neoliberals have
mobilized in order to construct the institutional context necessary for a
market society. For the emergence of a spontaneous order is only possible
through the construction of an institution that cannot, by definition,
belong to external nature, i.e., private property. As Hayek argues in The
Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), the orderly communication
of information can only be achieved through decentralized means.
“Several property,” he maintains, “leads to the generation and use of
more information than is possible under central direction.”33 Through the
defense and establishment of private property, humanity not only grew
in population but also acquired the means to transmit the necessary
information to individuals in markets.34 The spontaneous order emerges on
the basis of private property as the structuring context for the coordination
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of human activity. But the institution of private property – despite Hayek’s

condemnation of centralized authority – requires the active intervention of
the state to preserve its function as the source of market relations.
Viewed through the lens of Adorno’s idea of natural-history,
neoliberalism can rightly be interpreted to have legitimated its vision for a
market society on the basis of its seeming “naturalness.” The free market’s
appearance of law-like nature is achieved by liquidating the historical
contents from economy. If the neoclassical tradition constructed its vision
of a market through an analogy to a mechanical, timeless and deterministic
concept of nature, contemporary neoliberal thought is building its vision
for a market society through an alternative image of nature – the free
market is a self-ordering system that knows more than society. The science
of economics has therefore returned to a metaphysics of value; value is
information, and information is organized and transmitted via competition.
Neoliberalism, which casts its politics in the ideals of spontaneity, freedom,
liberty and individualism, in truth regiments human behavior through the
unfreedom of a chosen destiny.
By identifying the market as the most suited instrument for the
negotiation of society and nature, society in turn finds itself restricted
in what it can consciously plan, organize and control. In the face of the
imminent ecological crises of global climate change, neoliberal institutions
remain undaunted in their core policy strategy – left to its own devices, the
self-regulating market will find the means to resolve the crises of external
nature in time.35 By redefining the market as a self-correcting, thinking and
ordering system, neoliberalism returns us to what Adorno called “mythic
nature.” Guided by the providential movement of the price system, society
achieves its harmony with economic processes – and, moreover, with
the underlying substance of nature. Criticism of neoliberalism, therefore,
should aim to disrupt this false harmony through an act of remembrance.
By recovering the historical relations of violence, injustice and coercion that
have disappeared in the construction of financial institutions, society can
appear in its antagonistic mediation with nature.
Charles Prusik received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at Villanova University Economics as Natural-
in 2017. His dissertation, “Negative Reason: Adorno and the Critique of History: Adorno and the
Critique of Neoliberalism
Neoliberal Society,” draws from the work of Theodor W. Adorno to develop Charles A. Prusik
a critical theory of neoliberal society. His research specializes in the social
and political thought of the Frankfurt School, as well as the history of
economics and sociology.


  1 Thorstein Veblen, for example, criticized as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge:

classical political economy extensively: Cambridge University Press, 1989): “Value
The Place of Science in Modern Civilization was reified as a conserved substance,
and Other Essays (New York: B. W. conserved in the activity of trade to
Huebsch, 1919), 82–113. Neoliberalism, provide structural stability to prices, and
on the other hand, tends to be understood differentially specified in the process
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as a radical departure from the efforts by of production. Almost all of the theories
economists to naturalize markets. A key conforming to this pattern are now
example of this understanding can be seen remembered under the rubric of Classical
in Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics Political Economy” (142).
Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–  9 Ibid.
1979, trans. Graham Burchell (London: 10 Ibid., 164.
Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 32. While it 11 Ibid., 216.
is true that neoliberalism is a significant 12 Veblen, Place of Science, 280. Metaphors
political and theoretical departure from of balance, motion and energy thus came
classical liberalism, I argue that it retains a to function in the formation of economics
naturalistic conception of economy, albeit as a science of necessary laws – and, by
with a very different concept of nature. extension, to the naturalization of the
  2 Such a metaphysics can be understood socio-historical relations, practices and
as a “substantialist” theory of value. institutions which constitute the objective
Substance theories of value, such as the form of economic life.
labor theory of value, identify a constant 13 C. E. Ferguson, The Neoclassical Theory of
principle of identity underlying the Production and Distribution (Cambridge:
changes of production, circulation and Cambridge University Press, 1969), 1–11.
consumption. The extent to which Marx 14 For neoclassical economists, “utility”
possessed a substance theory of value refers to the total satisfaction received by
remains contested. For details regarding consuming a particular commodity. For an
this debate, see Michael Heinrich, An example of a foundational account of the
Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl utility theory of value in the neoclassical
Marx’s Capital, trans. Alexander Loscascio tradition, see Alfred Marshall, Principles
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), of Economics: An Introduction (London:
39–79. Macmillan, 1920), 76–84.
  3 Theodor W. Adorno, “The Idea of Natural- 15 Mirowski, More Heat than Light, 193–275.
History,” in Things Beyond Resemblance: 16 Leon Walras, Elements of Pure Economics:
Collected Essays on Theodor W. Adorno, Or, the Theory of Pure Wealth, trans.
ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor (New York: William Jaffee (Evanston, IL: Northwestern
Columbia University Press, 2006), 252. University Press, 1954), 71.
All subsequent citations of “The Idea 17 Mirowski, More Heat than Light, 229.
of Natural-History” will refer to Hullot- 18 Many neoclassical economists at the time
Kentor’s translation. were socialists committed to developing
 4 Ibid. a theory of market planning through
 5 Ibid., 253. economic calculation. This development
 6 Ibid. emerged as the “Socialist Calculation
 7 Ibid., 265. Debate” throughout the interwar period,
 8 Philip Mirowski, More Heat than Light: primarily between market socialists such
Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Oskar Lange, on the one hand, and
173 the Austrian School, on the other. For 23 Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and
historical accounts, see Angus Burgin, Liberty (London: Routledge, 1976), 125.
The Great Persuasion, Reinventing Free 24 Oliva, “Road to Servomechanisms,” 5.
Markets since the Great Depression 25 Ibid., 26.
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 26 Ibid.
Press, 2012); and Don Lavoie, “A Critique 27 Garrett Hardin, Nature and Man’s Fate
of the Standard Account of the Socialist (New York: Rinehart, 1959), 55.
Calculation Debate,” Journal of Libertarian 28 Friedrich Hayek, New Studies in
Economics 5, no. 1 (1981): 41–87. Philosophy, Politics, Economics and the
19 I am indebted to Mirowski for making History of Ideas (London: Routledge, 1978),
this historical material available to me 183.
in his forthcoming text, co-authored 29 Friedrich Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The
with Edward Nik-Khah: The Knowledge Errors of Socialism, ed. W. W. Bartley III
We Have Lost in Information: A History of (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press,
Information and Knowledge in Economics 1988), 76.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 30 Hayek, New Studies, 22–28.
20 Friedrich Hayek, “The Use of Information in 31 Ibid., 41.
Society,” American Economic Review 35, no. 32 Adorno, “Idea of Natural-History,” 252.
4 (1945): 519. 33 Hayek, Fatal Conceit, 86.
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21 Ibid. 34 Ibid., 29–35.

22 For an account of the influence of 35 For an excellent account of the influence
developments in cybernetics on of neoliberal think tanks on “free market
Hayek’s psychology and economic environmentalism,” which includes policies
theory, see Gabriel Oliva, “The Road to of carbon “cap-and-trade” schemes and
Servomechanisms: The Influence of geoengineering initiatives, see Sharon
Cybernetics on Hayek from The Sensory Beder, “Neoliberal Think Tanks and Free
Order to the Social Order,” in The Center Market Neoliberalism,” Environmental
for the History of Political Economy Politics 10, no. 2 (2001): 128–133; also Tina
Working Paper Series, October 6, 2016. Sikka, “A Critical Discourse Analysis of
Available online: Geoengineering Activity,” Critical Discourse
ssrn.2670064. Studies 9, no. 2 (2012): 163–175.


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– Burgin, Angus. 2013. The Great Persuasion: History of Ideas. Chicago, IL: University of
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Theory of Production and Distribution. Press.
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– Foucault, Michel. 2008. The Birth of the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital,
Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de translated by Alexander Loscascio. New
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