Four years ago, while we were first-year doctoral students, Clément Levallois and myself were selected among several other contributors to present a paper at the French Summer School in History of Economic Thought. Usually, those Summer Schools, though they can be of some interest, are also the occasion for senior researchers to lecture the younger ones and to bash their work in public – I have been told that the American Summer School, which is organized every year at George Mason Univeristy is of a different kind, and far more interesting for the graduate students. This time, in Clement’s case, it was worst than bashing, it was a witch trial, not more, not less.
I guess that some context is needed here. In fact, Clément and I were not in a very friendly territory. Philippe Fontaine, our PhD advisor, had clearly expressed his opposition to the views of most attending scholars, the latter being more than skeptical toward contextual history of economics and social studies of science. But this time, the father was away and there was a good opportunity to mistreat the kids. I was first in line and my presentation on “Samuelson, Boulding and Visual Representation” met moderate disapproval. An attendee told me that I was going nowhere, because my framework is Latourian, so that the conclusion of the article is known even without reading it. I was told later than one of the attending professors mumbled that I would never be qualified for a position as a lecturer in economics (which I have been last year). It was the expected reception, so I did not feel disappointed.
Clément’s presentation was another kettle of fish. His paper was on the reception of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology among economists, which I had never seen as a very controversial subject. The opinion of the audience was not similar to mine. First, he was reproached his absence of position against Wilson. One attendee – the same that reproached me the use of Latour’s framework – asked Clément to present a disclaimer for what he thought were “some very hazardous ideas”. One other scholar – I will not mention his name by charity – told him that “[he] should be ashamed of what he has done”, because “Wilson’s theory is used in South America to sterilize populations”. In his mind, Clément was guilty of complicity with death squads, Pinochet and all the other criminals of the last half-century. Then, dissenting voices dramatically increased. The crowd wanted some blood, they wanted an execution by burning, they craved to see Clément’s head on a pike.
At that time, I felt guilty in some way, because I felt like I should have stood up and say something like : “Are you totally irrational ? Can you make a distinction between understanding and apology, between history of economics and ideology ?”. I wanted to tell them that Wilson is particularly mainstream in the US – he is even quoted in a novel by Jim Harrison ! – and that if they had some problems with his ideas, they should have addressed their claims to the Academy of Science, not to Clément. I wanted to tell all these former marxists that if they were able to follow their logic to its implications, they should also feel guilty for the gulags and the millions of people who perished under Staline – that would have been a mean and nasty argument ! But I did not. Today, I realize I was right. I did not have to stand up for Clément. He did not need to be defended. The message he wanted to deliver was not to be understood by people who see history of economics as a think tank for the defense of heterodox economics. Those researchers were blinded by their hatred of all things neoclassical or right-wing (moreover, they can barely distinguish between the two) and that prevented them from hearing a different kind of discourse. What they don’t like doesn’t exist, so it should not be questioned, even from a historical point of view.
Yet I remember that Clément’s own defense was a bit clumsy – we were still young and inexperienced. He argued that he was just seeing things as a historian and did not want to take position. He said he wanted to keep some objectivity. It did not calm down the angry analytical historians of economics, who argued that “objectivity” has long been discarded by historians. Still, when I think about that day, I can’t see a more appropriate defense against that kind of criticism. So I wonder how historians of economics can justify their refusal to take position (which of course is a position !!) when dealing with some really hot potatoes. Is it enough to say that we’re different as citizen and as historians ? I am a bit annoyed by that argument, because it really sounds like the economists themselves, when they try to trace the limits between positive and normative economics. Our studies are mostly based on the fact that scientific creation cannot be separate from the sociological/political/ideological context surrounding it. Are we consistent if we try to argue the same thing as historians ?
PS : I would like to reassure people about Clément. He is alive and well, and he has stopped beating his wife.