Cultural Political Economy and Critical Policy Studies

This on-line version is the pre-copyedited, preprint version. The published version can be found here:

‘Cultural political economy and critical policy studies’, Critical Policy Studies 3 (3-4), 336-356, 2009.

Abstract: This article introduces cultural political economy as a distinctive approach in the social sciences, including policy studies. The version presented here combines critical semiotic analysis and critical political economy. It grounds its approach to both in the practical necessities of complexity reduction and the role of meaning-making and structuration in turning unstructured into structured complexity as a basis for ‘going on’ in the world. It explores both semiosis and structuration in terms of the evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection, and retention and, in this context, also highlights the role of specific forms of agency and specific technologies. These general propositions are illustrated from ‘economic imaginaries’ (other types of imaginary could have been examined) and their relevance to economic policy. Brief comments on crisis-interpretation and crisis-management give this example some substance. The conclusion notes some implications for research in critical policy studies.

Keywords: complexity; crisis; crisis-management; cultural political economy; cultural turn; crisis-management; finance-led accumulation; Green New Deal; neo-liberalism;

Cultural political economy is an emerging post-disciplinary approach that highlights the contribution of the cultural turn (a concern with semiosis or meaning-making) to the analysis of the articulation between the economic and the political and their embedding in broader sets of social relations. Explicit arguments in favour of ‘cultural political economy’ as such emerged in several contexts in the 1990s as part of and/or in reaction to the then prevailing cultural turn. It was also prefigured in classical political economy, the German Historical School, and some versions of critical political economy and/or ‘old institutionalisms’; and there are similar currents in other fields of social scientific inquiry. Given the range of cultural turns and the starting points from which they have been made as well as the widely different definitions of political economy (and its critique), there is no consensus among scholars on the nature of cultural political economy. The version presented here is by no means intended to be prescriptive: indeed, such an ambition would conflict with the meta-theoretical foundations set out below. Nonetheless this version does involve a novel synthesis of critical semiotic analysis and critical political economy that has major implications for cultural and social analysis. Its novelty can be seen in five features that together distinguish this version of cultural political economy (hereafter CPE) from others on similar terrain: (1) the manner in which it grounds the cultural turn in political economy in the existential necessity of complexity reduction, (2) its emphasis on the role of evolutionary mechanisms in shaping the movement from social construal to social construction and their implications for the production of hegemony; (3) its concern with the interdependence and co-evolution of the semiotic and extra-semiotic; (4) the significance of technologies, in a broadly Foucauldian sense, to the consolidation of hegemony and its contestation in the remaking of social relations; and (5) its de-naturalization of economic and political imaginaries and, hence, its contribution to Ideologiekritik and the critique of specific forms of domination. Even within this version of CPE, different authors give more weight at different times to different features. For example, the present author is especially interested in issues of complexity reduction, evolutionary mechanisms, and the critique of political economy both as a discipline and a field of social relations (Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer 2004; Jessop 2004, 2007, 2008; Jessop, Fairclough, and Wodak 2008); Fairclough retains a strong interest in critical discourse analysis and is developing argumentation theory (e.g., Fairclough and Ieţcu-Fairclough 2010); Sayer explores the moral and evaluative aspects of social imaginaries and practices, taking human flourishing as his criterion (e.g., Sayer 2005); and Sum emphasizes the production of hegemony, governmental technologies, and the critique of discourses of competitiveness and their articulation to knowledge brands (Sum 1995, 2004, 2005, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). These concerns are complementary and reflect specific objects of inquiry. After sketching these features, I argue for intellectual value-added in the critique of political economy and illustrate this from a brief account of the CPE approach to crisis.[1]

An Approach to CPE

While CPE is applied mainly, as its name implies, in the field of political economy, the general propositions and heuristic that inform it can be applied elsewhere by combining the same semiotic analysis with concepts appropriate to other social forms and institutional dynamics. I will suggest below that this also holds for policy studies.

Complexity reduction, semiosis, and structuration

Cultural turns can be thematic, methodological, or ontological: in other words, one could examine hitherto neglected research topics, propose a new entrypoint into social analysis, or argue against other positions that ‘culture’ is foundational to the social world. The present version of CPE all three turns but emphasizes the last. The cultural turn includes approaches oriented to argumentation, narrativity, rhetoric, hermeneutics, identity, mentalities, conceptual history, reflexivity, historicity, and discourse (for a good survey of different turns, see Bachmann-Medick 2006; for useful introductions to critical discourse analysis, see Fairclough 2003; Lakoff and Johnson 1980; van Dijk 1987; Wodak and Meyer 2009). Most versions of the cultural turn regard semiosis as causally efficacious as well as meaningful and, in this sense, suggest that it serves not only to interpret actual events and processes and their emergent effects but also to contribute to their explanation. Thus, in emphasizing the foundational nature of meaning and meaning-making in social relations, CPE does not seek to add ‘culture’ to economics and politics as if each comprised a distinct area of social life; nor, analogously, does it aim to apply ‘cultural theory’ as a useful tool in policy analysis.[2] Instead it stresses the semiotic nature of all social relations.

The approach to CPE advocated here begins from the role of complexity reduction as a condition of ‘going on’ in the world and argues that semiosis (the intersubjective production of meaning)[3] is one mechanism whereby complexity is reduced. The aim here is not to theorize or model complexity as such but to explore how actors and observers reduce complexity. Because the world cannot be grasped in all its complexity in real time, actors (and observers) must focus selectively on some of its aspects in order to be active participants in that world and/or to describe and interpret it as disinterested observers. This enforced selection occurs as actors/observers attribute meaning to some ‘aspects’ of the world rather than others. While the real world pre-exists complexity reduction (and is also transformed in some respects in and through complexity reduction), actors/observers have no direct access to that world apart from the sheer facticity of the concrete historical situations into which they are ‘thrown’. They do not encounter the world as pre-interpreted once-and-for-all but must engage with and reflect on it in order to make some sense of it. The ‘aspects’ that particular actors/observers regard as significant depend on specific meaning systems.[4] Meaning-making not only reduces complexity for actors (and observers) but also gives meaning to the world (Luhmann 1990: 81-2; for some implications of this line of argument for public policy and administration, see Morçöl 2005). These construals may also contribute to the constitution of the natural and social world insofar as they guide a critical mass of self-confirming actions premised on their validity (see below).

A second aspect of complexity reduction concerns the emergent pattern of social interactions, including direct or indirect human interactions with the natural world. If these are not to be random, unpredictable, and chaotic, it is essential that possible connections and sequences of action are limited; and, if adaptation in response to changing circumstances is to be possible, there should also be scope for flexibility and innovation in such structuration. These two forms of complexity reduction work to transform meaningless and unstructured complexity into meaningful and structured complexity and succeed insofar as the world becomes meaningful to actors and social interactions undergo structuration. Many other meanings are thereby excluded and so are many alternative social constellations. Because complexity reduction has both semiotic and structural aspects, we should treat the ‘cultural’ and the ‘social’ as dialectically related moments of the social world. Its cultural moment refers to meaning-making and the resulting properties of discursive formations (such as distinct discourses, genres, genre chains, styles, or inter-textuality) regardless of their condensation, or otherwise, in social structures. And its social moment concerns the extra-semiotic features of social practices and the resulting properties of social interaction (such as social cohesion and institutional integration, dilemmas and contradictions, and institutional logics) that operate ‘behind the backs’ of agents and may not correspond to their meaning-making efforts. The scope for disjunction and non-correspondence between the cultural and social moments makes it necessary to study both in their articulation.

The particularity of the cultural and the social indicates the need for a clear distinction between social construal and social construction (cf. Sayer 2000: 90-93). All actors are forced to construe the world selectively as a condition of going on within it. But, while all construals are equal before complexity, some are more equal than others. Given the potential for infinite variation in construals, we must explore how their selection and retention are shaped by emergent, non-semiotic features of social structure as well as by inherently semiotic factors. Although every social practice is semiotic (insofar as social practices entail meaning), no social practice is reducible to its semiotic moments. Semiosis involves more than the play of differences among networks of signs and is therefore never a purely intra-semiotic matter without external reference. It cannot be understood or explained without identifying and exploring the extra-semiotic conditions that make semiosis possible and secure its effectivity – including its embedding in material practices and their relation to the constraints and affordances of the natural and social world. Although individual words or phrases have no one-to-one relation to the objects to which they refer, the world still constrains language and ways of thinking. This occurs over time, if not at every point in time. Not all possible discursive construals can be durably constructed materially and attempts to do so may have unintended effects (Sayer 2000).

For the present CPE approach, construal and construction have four interrelated aspects: semiosis, agency, technologies, and structuration. While three of these will already be familiar to most readers, technologies merit a brief comment. They include diverse social practices that are mediated through specific instruments of classification, registration, calculation, and so on, that may discipline social action. Technologies have a key role in the selection and retention of specific imaginaries insofar as they provide reference points not only in meaning-making but also in the coordination of actions within and across specific personal interactions, organizations and networks, and institutional orders. In this sense they are important meaning-making instruments deployed by agents to translate specific social construals into social construction and hence to structure social life. Policies, policy decisions techniques, policy instruments and policy evaluation are important technologies in this regard because each, in its own way, contributes to the selection and retention of its associated policy discourses, often transforming them at the same time (cf. Sum 2009c on policy technologies relating to competitiveness).[5] This is why one must look beyond agenda setting, policy discourses and policy formulation to examine how policies actually get implemented and with what effects, whether intended or not.

CPE draws on different theoretical and empirical approaches for each of these aspects but aims to produce a coherent rather than eclectic account. Its analysis of semiosis is inspired by diverse cultural turns; its approach to agency is inspired by various analyses of assujetissement (subjectivation), identity formation, learning, and reflexivity (including, in the present context, of course, policy learning); its analytical toolkit for technologies includes, inter alia, Foucault on disciplinary normalization and governmentality, governmentality studies more generally, actor-network theory, and research on material culture; and its view of structuration builds on Jessop’s strategic-relational approach (1982, 2007), which, in the present context, would study the strategic selectivity of advocacy coalitions, partnerships, policy networks, policy transfer mechanisms, and other aspects of policy regimes. Attention to all four aspects and their interaction is required to explain why and how some construals are selected, get embodied/embrained in individual agents or routinized in organizational operations, are facilitated or hindered by specific social technologies and affordances, and become embedded in specific social structures ranging from routine interactions via institutional orders to large-scale social formations. Success-failure in this regard also depends on how specific construals correspond to the properties of the ‘raw materials’ (including social phenomena such as actors and institutions) that provide the target and/or tools of attempts to construct social reality. As indicated, this provides the basis for thinking about semiosis in terms of variation, selection, and retention and hence about the actors and factors that affect the movement from construal to construction.

In stressing the interdependence and co-evolution of these interrelated semiotic (cultural) and extra-semiotic (structural) moments in complexity reduction and their consequences for meaning-making and social structuration, CPE aims to avoid two complementary but unequally threatening theoretical temptations. The first occurs in forms of structuralism and social determinism that reduce agents and actions to passive bearers of self-reproducing, self-transforming social structures. There is little support nowadays for such positions. The second temptation is the sociological imperialism of radical social constructivism, according to which social reality is reducible to participants’ meanings and understandings of their social world. This sort of reductionism generates an arbitrary account of the social world that ignores the unacknowledged conditions of action as well as the many and varied emergent properties of action that go un- or mis-recognized by the relevant actors. It also ignores the many and varied struggles to transform the conditions of action, to alter actors’ meanings and understandings, and to modify emergent properties (and their feedback effects on the social world). It also leads to the voluntarist vacuity of certain lines of discourse analysis, which seem to imply that agents can will almost anything into existence in and through an appropriately articulated discourse. CPE offers a ‘third way’ between a structuralist Scylla and a constructivist Charybdis. It aims to explore the dialectic of the emergent extra-semiotic features of social relations and the constitutive role of semiosis. It is in this context that the notion of the ‘imaginary’ is introduced and elaborated below.

Variation, selection, and retention in semiosis

Another feature of the CPE approach recommended here is its integration of the three evolutionary mechanisms of variation, selection, and retention into semiotic analysis. This does not entail the sort of evolutionism that posits pre-determined sequences. Rather, an evolutionary turn highlights the dialectic of path-dependency and path-shaping that emerges from the contingent co-evolution of semiotic and extra-semiotic processes that make some meaningful efforts at complexity reduction more resonant than others. This calls for a shift from a mainly semiotic analysis of individual texts or discursive genres to a concern with the semiotic and extra-semiotic mechanisms that together shape the variation, selection, and retention of particular imaginaries in a continuing dialectic of path-dependent path-shaping. Discourse analysis tends to focus on specific texts in particular contexts, to undertake static comparative analyses of certain types of text at different times, or to study changes in linguistic corpora. A thorough CPE analysis would include the role of extra-semiotic (material) as well as semiotic factors in the contingent emergence (variation), subsequent privileging (selection), and ongoing realization (retention) of specific discursive and material practices (for two approaches to these processes, compare Sum 2004, 2005 with Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer 2004 and Jessop 2004).

A useful concept here is ‘sedimentation’. This covers all forms of routinization that lead, inter alia, to forgetting the contested origins of discourses, practices, processes, and structures. This gives them the form of objective facts of life, especially in the social world. In turn, ‘politicization’ covers challenges to such objectivation that aim to denaturalize the semiotic and material (extra-semiotic) features of what has become sedimented. Sedimentation and (re-)politicization are not confined to a specific ‘political’ domain (separate from others); they are contingent aspects of all forms of social life (Glynos and Howarth: 2007). Indeed, the role of extra-semiotic mechanisms seems to grow in the movement from the disruption of sedimented discourses and relatively structured complexity through the (re-)politicization of discourse and the rise of relatively unstructured complexity and thence to new forms of sedimentation and structuration.

Co-evolution of semiosis and structuration

Third, turning to wider evolutionary and institutional issues in political economy, there is constant variation, witting or unwitting, in apparently routine social practices. Simplifying the analysis in Fairclough, Jessop and Sayer (2004) and extending it to include material as well as semiotic factors, the following factors shape the co-evolution of semiosis and structuration:

  1. Continuing variation in discourses and practices, due to their incomplete mastery, their skilful adaptation in specific circumstances, new challenges or crises, or other semiotic or material causes.
  2. Selection of particular discourses (the privileging of just some available, including emergent, discourses) for interpreting events, legitimizing actions, and (perhaps self-reflexively) representing social phenomena. Semiotic factors act here by influencing the resonance of discourses in personal, organizational and institutional, and broader meta-narrative terms and by limiting possible combinations of semiosis and semiotic practices in a given semiotic order. Material factors also operate here through conjunctural or entrenched power relations, path-dependency, and structural selectivities.
  3. Retention of some resonant discourses (e.g., inclusion in an actor’s habitus, hexis, and personal identity, enactment in organizational routines, integration into institutional rules, objectification in the built environment,[6] material and intellectual technologies, and articulation into widely accepted accumulation strategies, state projects, or hegemonic visions). The greater the range of sites (horizontally and vertically)[7] in which resonant discourses are retained, the greater is the potential for effective institutionalization and integration into patterns of structured coherence and durable compromise. The constraining influences of complex, reciprocal interdependences will also recursively affect the scope for retaining resonant discourses.
  4. Reinforcement insofar as certain procedural devices favour these discourses and their associated practices and also filter out contrary discourses and practices. This can involve both discursive selectivity (e.g., genre chains, styles, identities) and material selectivity (e.g., the privileging of certain dominant sites of discourse through structural biases in specific organizational and institutional orders). Such discursive and material mechanisms recursively strengthen appropriate genres, styles, and strategies and selectively eliminate inappropriate alternatives and are most powerful where they operate across many sites to promote complementary discourses across society.
  5. Selective recruitment, inculcation, and retention by relevant social groups, organizations, institutions, etc., of social agents whose predispositions fit maximally with requirements the preceding requirements.

This list emphasizes the role of semiosis and its material supports in securing social reproduction through the selection and retention of mutually supportive discourses. Conversely, the absence or relative weakness of one or more of these semiotic and/or extra-semiotic conditions may undermine previously dominant discourses and/or block the selection and retention of appropriate innovative discourses. This poses questions about the regularization of practices in normal conditions and about possible sources of radical transformation, especially in periods of crisis. These are often moments of profound disorientation due to rapid social change and/or crises that trigger major semiotic and material innovations in the social world. It should be noted here that the semiotic and extra-semiotic space for variation, selection, and retention is contingent, not pre-given. This also holds for the various and varying semiotic and material elements whose selection and retention occurs in this ‘ecological’ space. In a complex world there are many sites and scales on which such evolutionary processes operate and, for present purposes, what matters is how local sites and scales come to be articulated to form more global (general) sites and scales and how the latter in turn frame, constrain, and enable local possibilities (Wickham 1987). These interrelations are themselves shaped by the ongoing interaction between semiotic and extra-semiotic processes.

Applying these general principles to political economy (especially in capitalist social formations), two complementary lines of reflection and research are proposed. On the one hand, given the infinity of possible meaningful communications and (mis)understandings enabled by semiosis, how do extra-semiotic as well as semiotic factors affect the variation, selection, and retention of semiosis and its associated practices in ordering, reproducing and transforming capitalist social formations and their various spatio-temporal features? More concretely, given the meaning-making and path-shaping potential of competing economic and political imaginaries, why do only some of these get selected and institutionalized and thereby come to co-constitute and embed economic subjectivities, interests, activities, organizations, institutions, structural ensembles, and the dynamics of economic performance? In short, how do such imaginaries come to provide not only a semiotic frame for construing the world but also contributing to its construction? And, on the other hand, given the structural contradictions, strategic dilemmas, and overall improbability of capitalist reproduction, especially during its recurrent crises, what role does semiosis play in construing, constructing, and temporarily stabilizing capitalist social formations at least within specific spatio-temporal fixes and their associated zones of relative stability?[8] Again, more concretely, and by way of illustration, in the face of economic and political crises, what contribution do established or new economic and political imaginaries make, if at all, to crisis-management and resolution?

Two provisional hypotheses grounded in these general considerations suggest themselves at this point, though neither has been fully tested in CPE work. First, the relative importance of semiosis declines from the stage of variation in imaginaries through the stage when they are selectively translated into specific material practices and institutional dynamics to the stage when they are embodied in a structurally coherent set of social relations with a corresponding spatio-temporal fix. Second, the relative weight of semiotic and extra-semiotic mechanisms varies across social fields. No great leap of imagination is needed to suggest that extra-semiotic mechanisms are less important in theology and philosophy than in natural science and technology and that, conversely, that semiosis matters more in the former than the latter. However, because every field is always-already semiotic and also socially structured, each has its own mix of semiotic and extra-semiotic mechanisms.

Governmental technologies, hegemony, and domination

This fourth feature merits special comment because it is often overlooked in discourse analysis and heterodox political economy. In this version of CPE technologies refer not to the productive forces involved in the appropriation and transformation of nature but to the mechanisms involved in the governance of conduct and, a fortiori, in the production of hegemony. While the fashionable Anglo-Foucauldian governmentality studies approach explores the many efforts to decompose power into political rationalities, governmental programmes, technologies and techniques of government (Miller and Rose 2008), it tends to focus on micro-social relations at the expense of broader macro-social issues such as hegemony, domination, state power, or capital accumulation. Unlike Foucault, these students of governmentality are less interested in how the micro-analytics of power gets ‘scaled up’ to macro-level questions about political economy and the state (Foucault 2008: 186). Foucault himself explored how capitalism had penetrated deeply into everyday life, especially as it required diverse techniques of power to enable capital to exploit people’s bodies and their time, transforming them into labour power and labour time respectively to create surplus profit (for discussion, see Jessop 2010). CPE combines this line of critical inquiry with Gramscian interests in the forms and mechanisms of hegemony, passive revolution, and domination. At stake here is how micro-technologies come to be assembled and articulated to form more encompassing and enduring sets of social relations that are embedded in the habitus, hexis, and the common sense of everyday life but also provide the substratum of institutional orders and even broader patterns of social domination. Such questions are addressed in Sum’s synthesis of Foucault and Gramsci, through which she examines how techniques of government are strategically (hence selectively) deployed across different discourses and sites of action to produce hegemony and consolidate states of domination (Sum 2004, 2005). To Foucauldian notions such as disciplinary normalization, governmentality, expertise, and truth regimes, Sum’s work on economic competitiveness and clusters adds concepts such as knowledge apparatuses (e.g., numbers, standards, programmes, guidelines, scorecards) and knowledge brands as well as common discursive stratagems (e.g., naturalization, inevitabilization, otherization, nominalization) (Sum 2009a and 2009c). She also relates such governmental technologies to issues of sub-hegemony, resistance, counter-hegemony, and the possibilities of fraud, corruption, and force as alternative means of securing domination.

Ideologiekritik and the critique of domination

Complementing its distinctive approach to critical semiotic analysis, CPE aims to contribute to the critique of orthodox political economy regarded both as a discipline and as a field of social relations. As a discipline, political economy tends to naturalize or reify its basic categories (such as land, machines, the division of labour, money, commodities, the information economy), to offer impoverished accounts of how subjects and subjectivities are formed, and to neglect the question of how different modes of calculation emerge, come to be institutionalized, and get modified. CPE critiques the categories and methods of orthodox political economy and emphasizes the inevitable contextuality and historicity of its claims to knowledge. It follows critical political economists in regarding capital not as a thing but as ‘a social relation between persons, established by the instrumentality of things’ (cf. Marx 1967: 717). Thus it views technical and economic objects as socially constructed, historically specific, more or less socially (dis)embedded in broader networks of social relations and institutional ensembles, more or less embodied (‘incorporated’ and embrained), and in need of continuing social ‘repair’ work for their reproduction. The same points hold for the categories of mainstream political science and/or (neo-)realist international relations theory. The former tends to take the institutional separation of the economic and political for granted and to focus on how the governmental institutions are deployed to pursue objective interests. Realist and neo-realist international relations theory also tends to naturalize national states and national interests in explaining the necessary logic of state action. In contrast, the present CPE approach examines state power as the discursively- and institutionally-mediated condensation of a changing balance of forces. It examines struggles to shape the identities, subjectivities, and interests of the forces engaged in political struggle as well as to transform the state system and its various selectivities. Moreover, regarding political economy as a complex field of socially constructed social relations with distinctive emergent properties and effects, CPE involves a form of political intervention that goes beyond Ideologiekritik. The latter serves at best to reveal the immanent contradictions and inconsistencies in relatively coherent meaning systems,[9] to uncover the ideal and material interests behind meaning systems and ideologies more generally, and to contribute to the re-politicization of sedimented, taken-for-granted discourses and practices. CPE also aims to explore the semiotic and extra-semiotic mechanisms involved in selecting and consolidating the dominance and/or hegemony of some meaning systems and ideologies over others. This in turn offers more solid foundations to understand the nature of different forms of social domination, to develop Herrschaftskritik (critique of domination), and to contribute thereby to critical policy studies.

On economic imaginaries

I now consider how these general remarks can be re-specified in investigations of the economic field broadly interpreted. In other contexts, it would be more appropriate to elaborate them in relation to other fields of social practice, such as technology, law, politics, education, science, or religion. Let me note immediately that the ‘economy’ is a historically constituted category with changing denotation and connotations and that its meaning is heavily contested (on the conceptual history of the ‘economy’ as an economic category, see, for example, Burkhardt 1992; Fey 1936; Finley 1973; Foucault 2008; Marx 1963; Polanyi 1968; Tribe 1978). Nonetheless its use simplifies a complex social world and has semiotic and material consequences in making sense of that world and organizing economic activities. Let me note, second, that, through variation, selection, and retention, economic ideas may have a performative, constitutive force in shaping economic forms and relations (see, for example, Callon 1998; MacKenzie et al., 2007; Mirowski 1994).

CPE contributes to these social scientific commonplaces by highlighting the role of discursively-selective ‘imaginaries’ and structurally-selective institutions in the making of economic practices and, a fortiori, economic policies. Imaginaries are semiotic systems that frame individual subjects’ lived experience of an inordinately complex world and/or inform collective calculation about that world. They comprise a specific configuration of genres, discourses and styles and thereby constitute the semiotic moment of a network of social practices in a given social field, institutional order, or wider social formation (Fairclough 2003). Genres are distinctive ways of acting and interacting viewed in their specifically semiotic aspect and, as such, they serve to regularize (inter)action. Examples include initial public offering documents, political party manifestos, and university mission statements. Discourses represent other social practices (and themselves too) together with relevant aspects of the material world from the vantage point of particular positions in the social world. Illustrations include particular economic discourses, such as mercantilism, liberalism, the ‘social market economy’, or revolutionary syndicalism. Styles are ways of being, identities in their specifically semiotic (as opposed to bodily/material) aspect. Two instances are the ‘new’ managerial style depicted by Boltanski and Chiapello (2007) and the flexible, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, self-responsible individual of advanced liberalism (Miller and Rose 2008). Genres, discourses and styles are dialectically related. Thus discourses may be enacted as genres and inculcated as styles and, in addition, get externalized in a range of objective social and/or material facts (e.g., nature as modified by human action, physical infrastructure, new technologies, and new institutional orders). Viewed in these terms, an economic imaginary is a semiotic system that gives meaning and shape to the ‘economic’ field. The ‘knowledge-based economy’, for example, can be read as a distinctive semiotic order that (re-) articulates various genres, discourses, and styles around a novel economic strategy, state project, and hegemonic vision and that affects diverse institutional orders and the lifeworld (see Jessop 2004, 2008). Whereas the ‘imaginary’ is a general term for semiotic systems that shape lived experience in a complex world, ‘institution’ belongs to a family of terms that identify mechanisms that embed lived experience across different social spheres.

In terms of what orthodox economics misleadingly describes as the macro-level, CPE distinguishes the ‘actually existing economy’ as the chaotic sum of all economic activities (broadly defined as concerned with the social appropriation and transformation of nature for the purposes of substantive provisioning)[10] from the ‘economy’ (or, better, ‘economies’ in the plural) as an imaginatively narrated, more or less coherent subset of these activities occurring within specific spatio-temporal frameworks. The totality of economic activities is so unstructured and complex that it cannot be an object of effective calculation, management, governance, or guidance. Instead such practices are always oriented to subsets of economic relations (economic systems, subsystems, or ensembles) that have been semiotically and, perhaps organizationally and institutionally, fixed as appropriate objects of intervention. Economic imaginaries have a crucial constitutive role in this regard. They identify, privilege, and seek to stabilize some economic activities from the totality of economic relations and transform them into objects of observation, calculation, and governance. Technologies of economic governance, operating sometimes more semiotically, sometimes more materially,[11] constitute their own objects of governance rather than emerging in order to, or operating with the effect that, they govern already pre-constituted objects (Jessop 1990, 1997).

Economic imaginaries are always selectively defined – due to limited cognitive capacities and to the discursive and material biases of specific epistemes and economic paradigms. They typically exclude elements – usually unintentionally – that are vital to the overall performance of the subset of economic (and extra-economic) relations that have been identified. Such exclusions limit in turn the efficacy of economic forecasting, management, planning, guidance, governance, etc., because such practices do not (indeed, cannot) take account of excluded elements and their impact. Moreover, if they are to prove more than ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ (Gramsci 1971: 376-7), they must have some significant, albeit necessarily partial, correspondence to real material interdependencies in the actually existing economy and/or in the relations between economic and extra-economic activities. Similar arguments would apply, with appropriate changes, to so-called meso- or micro-level economic phenomena, such as industrial districts or individual enterprises.

Imagined economies are discursively constituted and materially reproduced on many sites and scales, in different spatio-temporal contexts, and over various spatio-temporal horizons. They extend from one-off transactions through stable economic organizations, networks, and clusters to ‘macro-economic’ regimes. While there is usually massive scope for variation in individual transactions, the medium- to long-term semiotic and material reproduction demands of meso-complexes and macro-economic regimes narrow this scope considerably. Recursive selection of semiotic practices and extra-semiotic processes at these scales tends to reduce inappropriate variation and thereby secure the ‘requisite variety’ (constrained heterogeneity rather than simple uniformity) that supports the structural coherence of economic activities. Stable semiotic orders, discursive selectivities, social learning, path-dependencies, power relations, patterned complementarities, and material selectivities all become more significant, the more that material interdependencies and/or issues of spatial and intertemporal articulation increase within and across diverse functional systems and the lifeworld. Yet this growing set of constraints also reveals the fragility and, indeed, improbability of the smooth reproduction of complex social orders.

Economic imaginaries at the meso- and macro-levels develop as economic, political, and intellectual forces seek to (re)define specific subsets of economic activities as subjects, sites, and stakes of competition and/or as objects of regulation and to articulate strategies, projects and visions oriented to these imagined economies. Among the main forces involved in such efforts are political parties, think tanks, bodies such as the OECD and World Bank, organized interests such as business associations and trade unions, and social movements; the mass media are also crucial intermediaries in mobilizing elite and/or popular support behind competing imaginaries.[12] These forces tend to manipulate power and knowledge to secure recognition of the boundaries, geometries, temporalities, typical economic agents, tendencies and counter-tendencies, distinctive overall dynamic, and reproduction requirements of different imagined economies (Daly 1991; Miller and Rose 2008). They also seek to develop new structural and organizational forms that will help to institutionalize these boundaries, geometries, and temporalities in an appropriate spatio-temporal fix that can displace and/or defer capital’s inherent contradictions and crisis-tendencies. However, by virtue of competing economic imaginaries, competing efforts to institute them materially, and an inevitable incompleteness in the specification of their respective economic and extra-economic preconditions, each ‘imagined economy’ is only ever partially constituted. There are always interstitial, residual, marginal, irrelevant, recalcitrant and plain contradictory elements that escape any attempt to identify, govern, and stabilize a given ‘economic arrangement’ or broader ‘economic order’ (Malpas and Wickham 1995; Jessop 2002). These provide important sources of resistance and help preserve a reservoir of semiotic and material resources that enable dominant systems (through the agency of their associated social forces) to adapt to new challenges through their re-articulation and recombination in the service of power.

Relatively successful economic imaginaries presuppose a substratum of substantive economic relations and instrumentalities as their elements. Conversely, where an imaginary has been successfully operationalized and institutionalized, it transforms and naturalizes these elements and instrumentalities into the moments of a specific economy with specific emergent properties. This process is mediated, as indicated above, through the interaction among specific economic imaginaries, appropriately supportive economic agents – individual or collective – with appropriate modes of calculation and behavioural or operational dispositions, specific technologies that sustain and confirm these imaginaries (e.g., statistics, indexes, benchmarks, records), and structural constellations that limit the pursuit of contrary or antagonistic imaginaries, activities, or technologies.

A cultural political economy of crisis

A significant moment in the development of economic imaginaries is the emergence of crises affecting economic identities and performance. Crises often create profound cognitive and strategic disorientation and trigger proliferation in interpretations and proposed solutions. As the critical policy studies literature emphasizes, a crisis is never a purely objective, extra-semiotic moment or process that automatically produces a particular response or outcome. A CPE approach combines semiotic and material analyses to examine: (a) how crises emerge when established patterns of dealing with structural contradictions, their crisis-tendencies, and strategic dilemmas no longer work as expected and, indeed, when continued reliance thereon may aggravate matters; (b) how contestation over the meaning of the crisis shapes responses through processes of variation, selection, and retention that are mediated through a changing mix of semiotic and extra-semiotic mechanisms. A crisis is most acute when crisis-tendencies and tensions accumulate across interrelated moments of a given structure or system, limiting manoeuvre in regard to any particular problem. Shifts in the balance of forces may also intensify crisis-tendencies by weakening or resisting established modes of crisis-management (Offe 1984: 35-64). This creates a situation of more or less acute crisis, a potential moment of decisive transformation, and an opportunity for decisive intervention. Thus crisis situations are unbalanced: they are objectively overdetermined but subjectively indeterminate (Debray 1973: 113). This opens space for strategic interventions to significantly redirect the course of events rather than ‘muddle through’ in the (perhaps forlorn) hope that the situation will eventually resolve itself. Moreover, as Milton Friedman (1962: 32) put it hyperbolically but tellingly: ‘[o]nly a crisis produces real change.
When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around’. This indicates that a ‘war of position’, i.e., preparing the cultural and social ground for crisis-induced strategic interventions, will also prove important to the nature and outcome of crisis-management and crisis response. In short, crises are potentially path-shaping moments that provoke responses that are mediated through semiotic-cum-material processes of variation, selection, and retention.

First, even in normal times, there is continuing variation as actors deliberately or unintentionally redefine the sites, subjects, and stakes of action and articulate and experiment with innovative strategies, tactics, projects and visions. This is even more likely during crises as various forms of disorientation stimulate alternative discourses and practices rooted in old and new semiotic systems and practical routines. Diverse economic, political, and socio-cultural narratives may intersect as they seek to give meaning to current problems by construing them in terms of past failures and future possibilities. While many visions will invoke, repeat, or remix established genres, discourses, and styles; others may develop, if only partially, a ‘poetry for the future’ that resonates with new potentialities (Marx 1996: 32-34).

Second, while most of this variation is arbitrary and short-lived, lacking long-term consequences for overall social dynamics, some innovations do get selected. In the case of interpretations of the crisis and its implications, for example, the plausibility of narratives and their associated strategies and projects depends on their resonance (and hence capacity to reinterpret and mobilize) with the personal (including shared) narratives of significant classes, strata, social categories, or groups affected by the crisis. Moreover, although many plausible narratives are advanced, their narrators will not be equally effective in conveying their messages and securing support for the lessons they hope to draw. This depends on the prevailing ‘web of interlocution’[13] and its discursive selectivities, the organization and operation of the mass media, the role of intellectuals in public life, and the structural biases and strategically selective operations of various public and private apparatuses of economic, political, and ideological domination.[14] Such matters take us beyond questions of narrativity and specific organizational or institutional genres towards issues of the extra-discursive conditions of narrative appeal and stable semiotic orders and their reinforcement by various structural mechanisms. That these institutional and meta-narratives resonate powerfully does not mean that they should be taken at face value. All narratives are selective, appropriate some arguments, and combine them in specific ways. So we must also consider what goes unstated or silent, repressed or suppressed, in specific discourses. Nonetheless, if the crisis can be plausibly interpreted as a crisis in the existing economic order, minor reforms may first be tried to restore that order. If this fails or the crisis is initially interpreted primarily as a crisis of that order, more radical changes may be explored. In both cases conflicts are likely over the best policies to resolve the crisis and allocate its costs as different social forces propose new visions, projects, programmes, and policies and a struggle for hegemony develops.

Third, we must explore the discursive and extra-discursive mechanisms that select some discourses for further elaboration and articulation with other discourses and that contribute to their subsequent institutionalization. There is many a slip between the discursive resonance of new imaginaries in a given conjuncture and an enduring institutional materiality. It is one thing to (re-)politicize discourses in the context of the apparently unstructured complexity associated with crisis, it is another to move to sedimented (taken-for-granted) discourse and seemingly structured complexity. This raises the question of the correspondence, always limited and provisional, between new imaginaries and real, or potentially realizable, sets of material interdependences in the economy and its embedding in wider sets of social relations (for studies on the ‘knowledge-based economy’, see Jessop 2004, 2008; on competitiveness, Sum 2009c; on the Green New Deal, see below).

This poses crucial problems around delimiting the origins of a crisis in space-time, establishing whether it is purely economic or has broader roots and effects, and reducing its complexities to identifiable causes that could be targeted in the search for solutions (cf. Gramsci’s comments on the complexity of the origins of the Great Depression and, hence, the difficulties of identifying them, 1995: 219; and, for a study of the 1997 ‘Asian’ crisis in South Korea on these lines, see Ji 2003). Economic imaginaries have a crucial role to play in both respects. In addition, of course, complexity reduction is never wholly innocent. It is intimately connected to diverse forms of social contestation, alliance building, and forms of domination. Likewise, given a crisis in/of a given social order, the emergence and consolidation of a new economic regime does not occur purely through technological innovation and changes in the labour process, enterprise forms, and forms of competition. Wider ideational and institutional innovation going beyond the economy narrowly conceived is needed, promoted and supported by political, intellectual, and moral leadership. This includes a new ‘economic imaginary’ that is articulated to new state projects and hegemonic visions that can be translated into material, social, and spatio-temporal fixes that would jointly underpin a relative ‘structured coherence’ to support continued accumulation. If this proves impossible, the new project will, to quote Gramsci again, prove ‘arbitrary, rationalistic, and willed’ rather than ‘organic’ (1971: 376-7). Such arguments are exemplified in his analyses of Americanism and Fordism in the USA and the problems of translating this crisis solution to Europe (1971: 277-318).

Let us now consider the multifaceted global financial crisis that began to emerge well before it attracted general attention in 2007-2008. This complex set of events has already led to countless interpretations, explanations, strategic plans, and specific policy recommendations. These range from claims about the terminal crisis of capitalism through to the equally fanciful belief that it was a temporary blip in an otherwise well-functioning, self-correcting free market system. Such variation in interpretations is unsurprising given the complexity of the crisis and the wide spectrum of entry points and standpoints that could be taken towards it. Even ‘mainstream’ interpretations, explanations, blame, and proposed solutions reflect different regional, national, and macro-regional economies experiences of the global financial crisis and its broader repercussions. What matters from a CPE viewpoint is which of these many and diverse interpretations get selected as the basis for private and public attempts to resolve the crisis. This is not reducible to narrative resonance, argumentative force, or scientific merit alone (although each has its role in certain contexts) but also depends on structural, agential, and technological[15] selectivities. Critical in this regard is that most accounts lack the support of economic and political actors with enough economic, administrative, fiscal, or legislative resources to offer ‘necessary’ institutional and policy solutions on the most relevant scales of action.

In the advanced capitalist economies, especially in the leading neo-liberal regimes, the ways in which the crisis has been interpreted and measures identified and pursued are typical of liberal-democratic political regimes in the face of crisis. In short, generous (and often ill-defined) discretionary powers have been given to the executive, or its nominees, to solve the crisis (Scheuerman 2002). In the present case, exceptional measures with limited consultation were declared essential to ensure timely, targeted, and temporary action to return the economy to health. While this has facilitated a rapid return to ‘business as usual’, the concentration and centralization of political power in the hands of economic and political elites and the extent of agreement among the leading political parties has largely closed the space for democratic debate and accountability at the same time as it opened one for populist appeals and diversions. One effect of this has been that the effective scope of debate over policy was quickly narrowed down to a limited set of alternatives. This was useful for financial elites and the political class in the leading capitalist economies because, by confining serious debate to policy choices, however wide-ranging, it suggested that correct policy choices can solve the crisis, curing its symptoms and removing its deeper causes. This diverted attention from more basic questions of institutional design and, more radically, of the basic social relations that reproduce crisis-tendencies and shape the forms that they take (cf. Wolff 2008). Challenging this implication is an important part of Ideologiekritik in this period and also relates to the structural selectivities of economic and political orders.

My current research[16] suggests that the dominant interpretation in liberal market economies that has been ‘selected’ after an intense private and public debate is that, with some differentiation reflecting specific economic, political, and institutional locations and interests, this is a crisis in finance-led accumulation or, at most, in neo-liberalism. As such it could be resolved through a massive, but strictly temporary, financial stimulus, recapitalization of the biggest (but not all) vulnerable banks, tighter regulation, and a reformed (but still neo-liberal) international economic regime. This will permit a return to neo-liberal ‘business as usual’ at some unfortunate but necessary cost to the public purse and some re-balancing of the financial and ‘real’ economies.[17] In other capitalist regimes, the crisis is more often read by leading forces as a crisis of finance-led accumulation, prompting efforts to roll this policy approach back, especially in the financial sector, through more radical re-regulation, and through greater investment in the ‘real economy’. In other capitalist regimes, however, the crisis is more often interpreted as a crisis of neo-liberalism and this has led to a divergence in domestic and international economic policies: rolling back neo-liberalism at home and seeking stricter regulations on neo-liberalism in various supranational and international contexts. Even in more neo-statist or neo-corporatist advanced capitalist economies, however, where the legitimacy of earlier neo-liberal policy adjustments has been questioned and calls are being made for stricter regulation of financial markets in various supranational and international contexts, this has yet not prompted leading forces to question the broader commitment to world market integration. The feasibility of these alternative responses will depend on the integration of different economic spaces into the world market, the respective strengths of the political regimes promoting them domestically and in international arenas, and the substantive rationality of the proposals in the light of the more general global economic crisis, the worsening crises affecting food, fuel, water, climate change, and the environment more generally. Such crisis-tendencies indicate that, although a neo-liberal restoration of ‘business as usual’ may displace and/or defer the costs of financial crisis-management, it cannot resolve more fundamental impending crises. Much will also depend on how problems that have been merely postponed or displaced will be addressed when the crisis re-emerges and how those committed to alternatives can prepare the ground for the next set of encounters in key economic spaces and states.

More generally, the crisis was quickly thematized at elite levels in the advanced capitalist economies in terms of variable combinations of: (1) a return to Keynesian demand management nationally, regionally, and globally; (2) restructuring and recapitalization of banks and isolating toxic assets in state-owned or supported ‘bad banks’; (3) building a new international financial architecture; (4) remoralization of capitalism in tune with corporate responsibility and responsible competitiveness; (5) a Green New Deal; and (6) the turn to rapidly growing market economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China (the discursively construed ‘BRIC’ quartet) as offering good prospects for investment. The first theme is evident in the turn from a period of ‘private Keynesianism’ when consumer debt sustained demand despite declining real wages to pursuit of state-sponsored Keynesianism with massive expansion of demand through quantitative easing (releasing money also for investment bubbles in raw materials, emerging economies, and so on) and short-term stimulus to some of the hardest hit industrial sectors. The second response is a central plank of crisis-management in neo-liberal and other economies and has been pursued through emergency legislation, executive discretion, and behind a veil of secrecy. It resulted in the nationalization and/or recapitalization of ‘impaired’ banks (notably in Iceland, Ireland, the USA, and the UK plus those Baltic States and Eastern and Central European economies that took a radical neo-liberal turn and, inter alia, experienced real-estate booms on the back of cheap loans). The third response is proving much harder to realize in a concerted and coherent way, even with the expansion of the G8 to the G20 economies and key international bodies, and the key players seem to have agreed that more free trade, de-regulation, and so on, are required. The opportunity for tighter regulation seems already to have been lost as the semblance of ‘business as usual’ has been restored – although few experts claim the crisis is fully resolved. At least the much-feared return to protectionism is absent. The fourth response is largely rhetorical and reflected in demands for responsible and green competitiveness (Sum 2009). The Green New Deal remains a floating signifier, which is being narrated as capitalism’s best hope to create jobs, restore growth, and limit climate change but which is also being re-contextualized primarily on neo-liberal lines. There is also little agreement on how to proceed, let alone how to translate promised action into binding multilateral commitments, as can be seen from the outcome of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on climate change. Finally, on the BRIC economies as the next economic frontier and efforts to translate them into an inter-regional bloc, see Jessop and Sum 2010.

To illustrate some of these points, let me first refer to the disorienting impact of the financial crisis. An expert witness is Alan Greenspan, Chair of the Federal Reserve (1987-2006). This is an extract from a Congressional Hearing on 23 October 2008:

Greenspan: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief”

Questioner: “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”

Greenspan: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact”

One quotation proves nothing but it is emblematic of a more general shock to the neo-liberal mindset, especially during the panic of late 2008. Nor does it follow that the advocates of neo-liberalism will abandon the field of ideological contestation or resign from further involvement in decision-making. The emblematic case here is, of course, Ben Bernanke, Greenspan’s successor as Chair of the Federal Reserve, who despite his major role as an architect of crisis, has been confirmed by Senate for a second term as an architect of crisis-management. On the contrary, whatever the scope for discursive variation among those affected by the crisis and its resonance in populist measures against bankers’ bonuses, other forms of selectivity – structural, agential, and technological – in the current conjuncture have tended to concentrate power in the hands of the same economic and political interests that contributed to the global financial crisis.

In short, following the panic of late 2008, the dominant forces in the leading capitalist economies have managed to normalize the situation, individuals have accepted the crisis as a fact of life and turned to coping strategies, populist anger against ‘banksters’ and politicians has been defused, and there is a return to capitalist normality. Given a return to ‘business as usual’ in the short- to medium-term in the advanced capitalist economies, the more interesting question is what sort of economic imaginary is likely to shape a meaningful a ‘post-finance-led’ or ‘post-neo-liberal’ macro-economic order in an increasingly integrated world market.

Such an imaginary would need to satisfy two requirements. First, it should be able to inform and shape economic strategies for all scales from the firm to the wider economy, for all territorial scales from the local through regional to the national or supra-national scale, and for most market forces and their non-market supports. And, second, it should inform and shape state projects and hegemonic visions on different scales, providing guidance in the face of political and social uncertainty and providing a means to integrate private, institutional, and wider public narratives about past experiences, present difficulties, and future prospects. The more of these fields a new economic imaginary can address, the more resonant and influential it will be. This explains the appeal of Fordism and the knowledge-based economy in the last and current long waves of growth respectively and indicates the potential of the ‘Green New Deal’ (or GND) as a post-neo-liberal economic imaginary.

Drawing on the mythology of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the last great global depression and social contract rhetoric, the GND has been proposed from many different perspectives. It also has the power to frame broader struggles over political, intellectual and moral leadership on various scales as well as over more concrete fields of technical and economic reform. The basic idea is being articulated on many scales from the local (even under the anti-environmental Bush Administration, climate change and ecological modernization was already on some local and state-level political agendas) to the national (notably in Norway, Germany, and China) and supranational (with strong engagement from the European Union) and up to the global (its sponsors include the United Nations Environmental Programme). It also has attractions to diverse organizational and institutional sites from firms to states, in many systems besides the economy in its narrow sense, such as science and technology, law and politics, education and religion, and in the public sphere and the lifeworld. Thus it is being articulated across fields as different as technology (eco-technologies, energy efficiency), the productive economy (green collar jobs, sustainable development, ecological modernization, low carbon economy), the financial system (cap and trade, carbon trading, green bonds, sustainable investing), law (environmental rights, new legal regimes), politics (the green movement, climate change), religion (environmental stewardship), and self-identities (homo virens, green lifestyle). The Green New Deal has also been translated into many different visions and strategies and can be inflected in neo-liberal, neo-corporatist, neo-statist, and neo-communitarian ways by prioritizing, respectively, market incentives, social partnership, societal steering, and solidarity respectively. Indeed, the very fuzziness of the ‘Green New Deal’ has helped to build alliances and compromises and it is currently being heralded in many quarters as a ‘magic bullet’ (Brand 2009) that can somehow resolve the economic crisis, the problem of peak oil, and climate change.

The Green New Deal can be seen in some ways as an imaginative extension of the paradigm of the knowledge-based economy that was consolidated in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s – a paradigm that was sidelined but not negated by the rise of a finance-led accumulation that reflected the interests of financial rather than industrial capital. The Green New Deal (initially without this particular label) has been proposed on many occasions as a global (in the triple sense of comprehensive, planetary, and world-wide) solution to diverse problems from the mid-1990s (see Brüggen 2001). It has acquired serious traction only in the current crisis (indicating again the key analytical distinction among variation, selection, and retention) as a floating signifier that can be articulated in different ways to resolve a crisis (or complex of crises) also read in different ways. Its appeal from early 2008 onwards lies in its mobilization of the opposition between the interests of those engaged with the ‘natural’ or ‘real economy’ and the interests of ‘footloose finance’ (for an exemplary presentation, see New Economics Foundation 2008). In this sense, the GND has moved from one economic (and political) imaginary among many in the mid-1990s to one that has been strongly selected as the basis for concerted action in the late 2000s. At stake now are the form, manner, and likelihood of its retention as a powerful imaginary that can be translated into accumulation strategies, state projects, and hegemonic visions. The role of structural, agential, and technological selectivities will be even more important in this stage than in the period of ‘selection’ and, whilst motivated by the principle of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, the present author expects that the GND will acquire a strong neo-liberal inflection in the leading national economies whatever its form beyond them and/or at local level. Time – and struggle – will tell.


Unlike many currents in evolutionary and institutional political economy but like other variants of cultural materialism, the above approach to CPE takes the cultural turn seriously, highlighting the relations between meanings and practices. For, insofar as semiosis is studied apart from its extra-semiotic context, resulting accounts of social causation will be incomplete, leading to semiotic reductionism and/or imperialism. Conversely, insofar as material transformation is studied apart from its semiotic dimensions and mediations, explanations of stability and change risk oscillating between objective necessity and sheer contingency. On this basis, I outlined five interrelated features of CPE, introduced the notion of ‘economic imaginary’ as a useful general concept for analysing the co-evolution of semiosis and structuration, provided a simplified (of course!) account of some of the implications of CPE for the analysis of crisis and crisis-management, and offered a very preliminary account of how this approach might be applied to the financial crisis and Green New Deal.

The evolutionary and institutional approach to semiosis advocated here enables us to recognize the semiotic dimensions of political economy at the same time as indicating how and why only some economic imaginaries among the many that circulate actually come to be selected and institutionalized. And the semiotic and evolutionary approach to political economy enables us to identify the contradictions and conflicts that make capital accumulation inherently improbable and crisis-prone, creating the space for economic imaginaries to play a role in stabilizing accumulation in specific spatio-temporal fixes and/or pointing the way forward from recurrent crises. Finally, although I have presented one variant of CPE, cultural political economy is actually a broad movement. It should not be reduced to an intellectual current exclusively linked to just one theorist, school, or tradition. Such  a move would contradict my own arguments about complexity reduction (there are different ways to reduce complexity) and with more general reflections on the contribution of pluralism and debate to advances in theoretical and policy paradigms, including in the fields of critical semiotic analysis and critical political economy.


[1] This article draws on discussions over several years with Norman Fairclough, Andrew Sayer, Ngai-Ling Sum, and Ruth Wodak. Its specific form and content benefitted from sound advice from Ngai-Ling Sum, timely recommendations from Frank Fischer, pertinent comments from Andrew Sayer, and remarks by two anonymous reviewers.

[2] An example of this ‘culturalist approach’ is the use of group-grid cultural theory as a tool for taking account of cultural differences in policy analysis (cf. Hoppe 2007).

[3] While semiosis initially refers to the inter-subjective production of meaning, it is also an important element/moment of ‘the social’ more generally. Semiosis involves more than (verbal) language, including, for example, different forms of ‘visual language’.

[4] These meaning systems are shaped by neural, cognitive, and semiotic frames (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) as well as, of course, social interaction, meaning-making technologies, and strategically-selective opportunities for reflection and learning.

[5] On other policy decision techniques, see the contributions on cost-benefit analysis, environmental impact assessments, technology assessments, and policy mediation in Part IX of Fischer, Miller, and Sidney 2007 (465-534). Many other examples exist. On public policy instruments, see also Peters and van Nispen (1998) and Salaman (2002).

[6] For a narrative account of the meaning of buildings, see Yanow (1995).

[7] Horizontal denotes sites on a similar scale (e.g., personal, organizational, institutional, functional systems); vertical denotes different scales (e.g., micro-macro, local-regional-national-supranational-global).

[8] On spatio-temporal fixes, see Jessop (2002).

[9] Adorno notes that ‘the critique of ideology, as the confrontation of ideology with its own truth, is only possible insofar as the ideology contains a rational element with which the critique can deal’ (1973: 190).

[10] Polanyi (1982) distinguished substantive economic activities involved in material ‘provisioning’ from formal (profit-oriented, market-mediated) economic activities. The leading economic imaginaries in capitalist societies ignore the full range of substantive economic activities in favour of a focus on formal economic activities.

[11] Although all practices are semiotic and material, the relative causal efficacy of these elements will vary.

[12] I am not suggesting that mass media can be disentangled from wider networks of social relations but seeking to highlight the decline of an autonomous public sphere.

[13] A web of interlocution comprises metanarratives that reveal linkages between a wide range of interactions, organizations, and institutions and/or help to make sense of whole epochs (Somers 1994: 614).

[14] On discursive selectivity, see Hay 1996 and Somers 1994; on structural selectivity, see Jessop 2001, 2007.

[15] Besides policy decision techniques, technologies refer here to diverse presentational devices that render some discourses more persuasive in some contexts than others: economic models, powerpoint presentations, video clips, vox pop interviews, etc. Other technologies, including policy instruments (e.g., quantitative easing), may also be involved in retention, i.e., the translation of selected accounts into the policy field.

[16] A three-year professorial fellowship begins in 2010, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Cultural Political Economy of Crisis-Management’ (Grant number: RES-051-27-0303).

[17] Iceland is an extreme case due to excessive financialization.


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