The contemporary crisis of capitalism has also unleashed a crisis of the economics mainstream that may yet prove to be a singular opportunity for heterodox political economy. But how can ontological analysis contribute to the construction of alternative perspectives that are compelling, both epistemically and politically?
Politically, the multiple, overlapping crises – not just of capitalism, but also inter alia of ecology, knowledge production, liberal democracy etc… – have shifted the ground on which political economy must be able to comment informatively; from the traditional focus on industry and trade to include also a diverse set of issues such as the commercialisation of science, innovation (including of novel ontological capabilities) in a ‘knowledge-based’ economy, socio-technical system transitions and the interaction of economy and ‘nature’ (often mediated by science and technology). These issues come together within an ‘economics of science’. Yet, epistemically, an economics of science that is critical and explanatory, rather than axiomatic and ahistorical, demands profound rethinking of the ontological presuppositions of ‘economics’. Moreover, political economy also has much to learn from productive synthesis with disciplines that have engaged with these issues for many years, including science & technology studies; issues, moreover, that are intimately and inextricably connected to ontological and epistemological reflection on the nature of ‘techno-science’ and its world-making powers. This yields the contours of a new research programme of a ‘cultural political economy of research & innovation’ (CPERI). Yet such mutual engagement of political economy and STS also demands rethinking of the ontological (and epistemic) presuppositions of both disciplines, given that the former is presumptively realist in both epistemology and (social) ontology while the latter is foundationally anti-realist, constructivist and sceptical of social structures.
Whereas much work in the ‘ontological turn’ of economic methodology is conducted at the level of philosophical argument alone, therefore, this paper takes a different approach to demonstrate, rather than merely argue for, the contribution of ontological attention to political economy. We thus start with the substantive problem of developing an economics of science capable of illuminating the commercialisation of science and its interaction with and implications for broader social crises, arguing thence that ontological attention is a crucial step in this theoretical project. Moreover, incorporating substantive concerns from the outset also affords illustration of genuinely dialectical development (in which ontological arguments are themselves honed through interaction with substantive research, rather than vice versa alone) and of the limitations of ontological argument. Several major criticisms of ontological work’s contribution to economics are thus tackled, regarding its alleged irrelevance to or unbridgeable remoteness from actual research, its arrogant ex cathedra pronouncements and its infallibility.