The anthropology of magic explains economists better than economists explain the economy
Once upon a time, two learned men lived in a city of legends hard by an ancient river. The first of these was a magician of sorts, whose incantations have been passed down through the ages more or less unchanged: “supply and demand functions,” “marginalism,” “utility,” the “costs of production.” Even at the remove of more than a century, the hocus pocus of Alfred Marshall is enchanting.
Marshall, a professor at the University of Cambridge, published his Principles of Economics in 1890. It would go through eight editions over the next three decades and served for generations as the dominant textbook on the topic. Before his assembled totems and fetish-objects (revered, if only half-understood, by his present disciples) we are helplessly spellbound; the testimony of our senses retreats before the formulas and mystic mummery of neoclassical economics.
In the same year, Sir James Frazer produced an even longer work; one that was met, in its day, with scarcely less acclaim. The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, catalogued and classified the superstitious traditions of the human race, revealing the universality of certain beliefs, which we would now call “non-empirical,” around which societies had been formed. Frazer and his masterpiece are today the exclusive province of literary scholars, consigned to footnotes in the history of high modernist verse. But while Frazer was indeed a gifted prose stylist, and both Eliot and Yeats pilfered endlessly from his great study of magic, it is, I think, a mistake to dismiss him as a dilettante or, worse, an anthropologist whose conclusions merely betray the unfortunate influence of his age.
Which of the two Cantabrigians has aged better, the Clapham prophet of margins or the Scotch debunker of the Wotjobaluk superstitions? Judged by their influence or their followings, the prize surely belongs to Marshall. His vast canon, though it lies unread by the number crunchers and graph mavens who claim fidelity to it, has been as influential as that of any English author since Locke or Newton. Frazer is as irrelevant to anthropologists today as Freud is to the psychiatrists prescribing antidepressants or Marx and Engels to Xi Jinping: an Edwardian dinosaur without evolutionary lineage save for the compilers of annotations to The Waste Land.
But judging by their explanatory power, the most important criterion for any purportedly scientific work, one is tempted to award Frazer the laurel. Far more than Marshall or his successors, Frazer explains why men and women behave as they do, why societies organize themselves in particular fashions, why certain customs once considered savage continually reappear in barely disguised form after decades of apparently continuous progress. It is Frazer whose account disclaims the idea that there is anything intrinsically valuable in the rituals through which a priestly caste exercises its ghostly power: the significance of their activity lies in the pattern of thought identifiable beneath the mumbo jumbo, rather than in the words and gestures themselves. Marshall’s economics cannot account for modern economic conditions, but Frazer is an infallible guide to our cult-like belief in Marshall’s economics.
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Why does Frazer strike us as more scientific, even perhaps as an abler student of political economy, than Marshall? Above all, because he identifies that those tendencies which we now refer to blithely as “magical thinking,” implying logical errors or unfortunate epistemic disjunctures, are besetting sins from which no human society has ever been able to extirpate itself fully. In Frazer we find the germ or kernel of the tediously rehearsed economic prescription that has become second nature to all educated persons in the neoliberal era. Magical thinking is evident in Homo oeconomicus’s serial recital of the “benefits of trade”; his blithe attitude toward financialization and the rise of cheap digital consumer technology; his utter indifference to the economic pressures bearing down upon the working family; his slavish view that abstractions such as “growth” are valuable for their own sake, without regard for any other normative measure of social or political well-being. How else does one explain the beatification of Friedrich Hayek, whose scientific insights consisted of such propositions as “the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how”?
It is Frazer, not Marshall, who explains the priestly caste’s exercise of its power. “The office of a sacred king or priest is often hedged in by a series of burdensome restrictions or taboos,” he observes, which circumscribes the power but also guarantees it for his inevitable successors. If one must produce an econometric model predicting to the decimal place how a policy proposal will influence economic growth ten years hence, fluency in such models becomes a prerequisite for making a proposal. It is Frazer, too, who shows us how these shamans rule by fear—of failed harvests and rising unemployment, or disturbances in various auras such as total factor productivity. When the anticipated results do not come to pass, they “lure the weary enquirer, the footsore seeker, on through the wilderness of disappointment in the present by their endless promises of the future,” which turns out to be algorithm-driven digital entertainment and cannabis dispensaries.
Finally, it is Frazer who reminds us of the shortcomings of economics as it is actually practiced, as if it were a series of immutable principles about human nature rather than an inchoate jumble of ad-hoc observations (“some of them golden and some of them mere dross”) whose nature and scope will always be unknown. “The fatal flaw of magic lies not,” he writes, “in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the nature of the particular laws which govern that sequence.” Such would-be principles are, according to Frazer, “absolutely essential to the working of the human mind,” veracity be damned.
Frazer’s study leads him to an important and oft-verified prediction, that it is the “conscious deceiver” rather than the “honest wizard” who will invariably rise to the top:
The pitfalls which beset the path of the professional sorcerer are many, and as a rule only the man of coolest head and sharpest wit will be able to steer his way through them safely. For it must always be remembered that every single profession and claim put forward by the magician as such is false; not one of them can be maintained without deception, conscious or unconscious. Accordingly the sorcerer who sincerely believes in his own extravagant pretensions is in far greater peril and is much more likely to be cut short in his career than the deliberate impostor. The honest wizard always expects that his charms and incantations will produce their supposed effect; and when they fail, not only really, as they always do, but conspicuously and disastrously, as they often do, he is taken aback: he is not, like his knavish colleague, ready with a plausible excuse to account for the failure, and before he can find one he may be knocked on the head by his disappointed and angry employers.
Many mediocre economists admit puzzlement that waves of tax cuts have delivered none of the promised prosperity. The greats conjure new models to prove that whatever has happened was as planned, and that all would be much worse without their wizardry.
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The question remains: why do we respond to the anagogic drone of the magus with awed silence or cries of affirmation rather than with skeptical jeers? “How was it,” Frazer asks, “that intelligent men did not sooner detect the fallacy of magic? How could they continue to cherish expectations that were invariably doomed to disappointment? With what heart persist in playing venerable antics that led to nothing, and mumbling solemn balderdash that remained without effect? Why cling to beliefs which were so flatly contradicted by experience? How dare to repeat experiments that had failed so often?”
Frazer’s answer offers perhaps his most important insight and, like his framing of the question itself, is worth quoting at some length. The first reason, he tells us, is simply that it is difficult to separate cause from effect. “The fallacy was far from easy to detect, the failure by no means obvious, since in many, perhaps in most cases, the desired event did actually follow, at a longer or shorter interval, the performance of the rite which was designed to bring it about; and a mind of more than common acuteness was needed to perceive that, even in these cases, the rite was not necessarily the cause of the event.” A ritual “will always be followed, sooner or later, by the occurrence it is meant to bring to pass.” Besides, we are so accustomed to crediting the magical operations of the wizard for the very real constants in our experience that we cannot imagine a world in which there is no connection between the two:
Rites observed in the morning to help the sun to rise, and in spring to wake the dreaming earth from her winter sleep, will invariably appear to be crowned with success, at least within the temperate zones; for in these regions the sun lights his golden lamp in the east every morning, and year by year the vernal earth decks herself afresh with a rich mantle of green.
Hence the practical savage, with his conservative instincts, might well turn a deaf ear to the subtleties of the theoretical doubter, the philosophic radical, who presumed to hint that sunrise and spring might not, after all, be direct consequences of the punctual performance of certain daily or yearly ceremonies, and that the sun might perhaps continue to rise and trees to blossom though the ceremonies were occasionally intermitted, or even discontinued altogether. These sceptical doubts would naturally be repelled by the other with scorn and indignation as airy reveries subversive of the faith and manifestly contradicted by experience. “Can anything be plainer,” he might say, “than that I light my twopenny candle on earth and that the sun then kindles his great fire in heaven? … Theories and speculation and all that may be very well in their way, and I have not the least objection to your indulging in them, provided, of course, you do not put them in practice. But give me leave to stick to facts; then I know where I am.”
The fallacy of this reasoning is obvious to us, because it happens to deal with facts about which we have long made up our minds. But let an argument of precisely the same calibre be applied to matters which are still under debate, and it may be questioned whether a British audience would not applaud it as sound, and esteem the speaker who used it a safe man—not brilliant or showy, perhaps, but thoroughly sensible and hard-headed. If such reasonings could pass muster among ourselves, need we wonder that they long escaped detection by the savage?
Frazer articulates his immutable laws in The Golden Bough’s first few pages and then illustrates them with a thousand examples, the potted statistics of social scientists. Considered solely on the strength of their connections to the world of tangible phenomena in which we live, the Yakut formula for control of the wind and the veneration of oak trees among the Lithuanians before the arrival of Christian missionaries are roughly as valuable as the neat formulas and unimpeachable metrics of economists and the unchanging mantras of financial and political journalists. This ceremonial activity is undertaken because it speaks to the deepest longings of our species, to ancient credulities, or (perhaps) to a grain of truth about the operations of a nevertheless ineffable universe.
One hates to be flippant. I do not really believe that affirming some more or less well-defined and measurable relationship between the supply and demand of various goods and services is tantamount to believing that a shower of javelins upon a group of prisoners will bring the longed-for rain. But I do think that declaring the disappearance of heavy industrial manufacturing an inevitability and a boon to entire regions now given over to legally abetted and highly financialized drug peddling, while suggesting that those unemployed men just need to go back to nursing school, makes about as much sense as burying the corpses of twins near a lake on the hope that keeping their bodies moist will appease the dual gods of earth and sky.
Like voodoo priests or village elders, our economic shamans have shown that they are not infallible. Indeed, set beside the record of their failures in the last half century alone, their supposed successes are revealed as the fortuitous confluences they really are rather than the predictable working out of immutable economic laws applied to coherent public policy. Many an economics post-doc has stared into the tea leaves of Bureau of Economic Analysis data in vain, searching for the correlation between American tax or trade policy and rates of growth and innovation. Instead, one mostly finds the exact effects that the layman could have predicted: cutting taxes for the wealthy and exposing American workers to unfettered competition from coerced Chinese peasants has gone very well for the wealthy and not so well for workers.
Yet the faith of both cleric and layman alike in the power of this mummery does not seem to waver. Why? Because in any given case—the increased disparities in wealth that followed so-called “trickle down” policies, the naive belief that rickey markets could survive the impact of unstable new financial instruments, the collapse not only of America’s industrial base but of the middle class itself that began during the Carter administration and has continued apace—any number of causes might be adduced to explain the magical failure. The ritual’s effect is merely delayed (the market needs more time to adjust!); the people have shown themselves unworthy (Trump voters are racist!); sacrifice and suffering are necessary to eventual salvation (embrace the creative destruction!). The most shameless insist that the magic has in fact worked, and an ungrateful failure to appreciate the blessings of the faith only exposes one’s own unbelief. Anything but the seemingly obvious conclusion that there is no meaningful relationship between economic priestcraft and the observable world of cause and effect.
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Should we blame the economists, or their stenographers and acolytes in the financial press and our two major political parties, for their failings? If we apply Frazer’s wisdom to our own magical caste, the answer appears to be no:
It is to be borne in mind that the primitive magician knows magic only on its practical side; he never analyses the mental processes on which his practice is based, never reflects on the abstract principles involved in his actions. With him, as with the vast majority of men, logic is implicit, not explicit: he reasons just as he digests his food in complete ignorance of the intellectual and physiological processes which are essential to the one operation and to the other.
All of which is to say that the economist every bit as much as the witch doctor does not question the juju. He performs the prescribed rituals, assembling the mandalas and chanting the affirmations in the manner in which they have been handed down to him. The lot of the sincere magician every bit as much as that of the fraud is not to reflect but to perform.
This is perhaps not so fideistic an undertaking as one might imagine. Divorced from the world of observation and tangible phenomena, taken on its own terms, the neoclassical economic synthesis (and its attendant soft-libertarian policy consensus) is remarkable chiefly for its internal logical consistency. Theoretically speaking, its logical rigor matches that of Aristotle or particle physics. Magic, observes Frazer, “was the perfect pattern after which every man strove to shape his life; a faultless model constructed with rigorous accuracy upon the lines laid down by a barbarous philosophy. Crude and false as that philosophy may seem to us, it would be unjust to deny it the merit of logical consistency.” The only analytical error here is the author’s use of the past tense.
One pattern of cause and effect that seems to hold in the modern era is that between the practice of the economic man’s magic and the evidence of decline not measurable in terms of GDP—faith in something beyond the size of our flat-screen televisions, commitment to our physical communities and to our neighbors, to the goods proper to family life. This blinkeredness may be inevitable, which means that there might be serious limits to what conventional economic policy can achieve. Perhaps the current spell will only be broken when a more powerful magic arises in the land.