Bernard Maris, a critic of mainstream economics
Born in Toulouse in 1946, Bernard Maris was altogether a renowned economist, an academic, a writer, a columnist, a journalist and an influential figure of the French intellectual life of the late XXth and early XXIst century. He was one of the editors and shareholders of the iconoclastic weekly Charlie Hebdo and was murdered on 7 January 2015 in Paris in the terrorist attack against the publication. Revisiting a prominent and unusual contemporary personality, ever-battling against the frauds of mainstream economics.
Although his international notoriety was thwarted by the lack of translation for non-French speakers, Bernard Maris unquestionably remains one of the most original contemporary French intellectuals. Committed to both thinking and acting, he constantly contributed to the necessary analysis of ideas, institutions, practices and discourses.
His many-sided production displays a sharp mind and a critical approach, always supported by strong proposals. He has left us with a powerful criticism of the assumption according to which economists enjoy axiological neutrality: according to him, the so-called “hard science” characteristic claimed by mainstream economics is nothing but rhetorical and actually hides real power-based relationships.
A committed academic
Until the late 1980s, Bernard Maris worked at the CEJEE (Centre for legal and economic employment studies at the Toulouse university of Social Science, now UT1-Capitole), the laboratory where he had defended his thesis in 1975 (The Personal Distribution of Income: a Theoretical Approach to Balanced Growth) under Jean Vincens’ supervision. Following the advice of Jean-Jacques Laffont, he left to teach microeconomics at Iowa university before becoming a lecturer at Toulouse university of Social Science. That stay in the US later provided the background to his first novel entitled Pertinentes questions morales et sexuelles dans le Dakota du Nord (1995), a satirical picture of the American society. In 1990,he joined the LEREP (Study and research Laboratory in production economics which was to become the LEREPS in 1998 – Studies and Research in Economics, Policies and Social Systems), where he worked for eight years. He had actually found the right sort of scientific environment for him: a laboratory breaking away with the paradigms of mainstream economics where he was able to truly think critically.
In 1994, he was appointed Professor in Economics at the Toulouse Institute of Political Studies and supervised the LEREP for two years as well as the DEA (former name of Master’s degree 2 in Research) as part of the laboratory activities. The seminar « Rhétorique » (Rhetoric) which he created used to host prestigious researchers in Social Science such as Jean-Pierre Dupuy or Robert Boyer.
His position as an academic meant a lot to him but his appointment as Professor was quite hectic as it gave rise to a very long and hot debate at the CNU (University National Council). The restricted council of 12 Professors perfectly knew what a formidable polemicist he was, particularly in his criticism of mainstream economics, they were also aware of how highly competent he was in the field of economics, a keen specialist in the Keynesian theory. Following a stormy discussion during which it proved necessary to remind everybody that he was a true academic and which raised the issue of whether it was more appropriate to have him within the University or outside, he was finally appointed Professor by one extra single vote. The university higher authority had saved face and assumed its responsibility for the scientific and pluralist character of the discipline.
At that time, he was awarded the « Best economist » prize by the magazine Le Nouvel Economiste (1995). That period also witnessed the development of close relationships between his friend, the Canadian economist Gilles Dostaler and the LEREPS. With a knowing smile, Gilles would enjoy the coincidence between Keynes’ date of birth the very year Karl Marx died (1883), and his and Bernard’s dates of birth the year Keynes died (1946). « Which economist of genius will be born the year of our death », he would say ironically.
In 1998, he settled down in Paris while joining Paris 8 University and the Institute of European Studies. It was then easier for him to get more involved with Charlie Hebdo for which he had been writing regular columns for several years under the pseudonym of « Oncle Bernard ». In 2007, he married his second wife, Sylvie Genevoix, the academician Maurice Genevoix’s daughter.
While pursuing his career as an academic, columnist and writer, he also, on his own, carried on a project he had started with his wife (she had died in 2012) and, in 2013, published L’Homme dans la guerre : Maurice Genevoix face à Ernst Jünger, a tribute to the academician. He also acted as the consultant for the film Ceux de 14, a TV series dedicated to the writer during the 1st World War and was a member of the editorial board of the organisation Je me souviens de Ceux de 14 gathering around the figure of Maurice Genevoix to commemorate the Great War and analyse what it currently meant
An anti-liberal Keynesian
Bernard Maris’ intellectual discourse underwent a clear epistemological break in the course of the mid-1980s. During his academic studies and until he was appointed assistant Professor in 1984, he was immersed into mainstream economics. He mastered and taught marginal microeconomics: his thesis (1975) reveals a very high mathematical level and a great number of his works refer to the Chicago School thinkers such as Gary Becker. It was then as an expert in ultra-orthodox economic analyses that, amidst the 1980s, he experienced a kind of « mystical crisis » which made him delve into a diversity of writings by Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Sigmund Freud or René Girard, and led him to join the post-Keynesian and conventionalist schools of thought.
Since then, he decidedly rallied and supported heterodox economics. He started sharing John R. Commons and Thorstein Veblen’s stress on the importance of rules and institutions; Hyman Minsky ‘s hypothesis about financial instability; Michal Kalecki ‘s questioning the issue of income distribution and capital accumulation, and Karl Marx’s wage ratio modelling. He particularly developed his relationship to the Trier philosopher in his book Marx ô Marx… (2010). According to Bernard Maris, « Marx had made no mistake at all when he analysed the way the capitalist society worked. He remains the best, the greatest economist », and, to him, the 2007 crisis was an excellent illustration of the Marxist theory. But if Marx perfectly described the capitalist society (surplus extraction, tendency of the rate of profit to fall, world proletarianization, generalised overproduction, commodification and world destruction), none of what he predicted actually took place. Nothing indicated that the communist society might provide any sort of synthesis and prove a solution to conflicts nor a contribution to humanising the society. Moreover, Marx did not foresee the extent of the ecological issue. Socialism died because it was unable to provide some purpose for life, especially some reason for living together.
Apart from Marx, John Maynard Keynes was probably the other most important author to influence Bernard Maris’ analysis, particularly after he met Gilles Dostaler who, up to now, remains one of the best interpreters of Keynes. His first work on the Cambridge economist (Keynes or the citizen economist, 1999) was born from the presentation he had made with Gilles Dostaler for a seminar held in Québec. What particularly struck him in Keynes’ work was the concept of « radical uncertainty », i.e. impossible to describe probabilistically, hence preventing economists from making any prediction. He also retained some other concepts, central to the Keynesian analysis, such as money illusion and its impact on people’s perception of wages, on wage-earners, trade-unions and on economic stakeholders as a whole.
An economist and a humanist
Like Keynes, Bernard Maris advocated researchers’ necessary community involvement, accountable scientific discourse and acknowledged the performativity of economics. Economics is neither amoral nor politically unbiased, it is not a self-sufficient science: reflection must be nurtured by all other sciences (sociology, history, anthropology, psychology…), but also by art, literature, in short by all human productions. He embodied this multidisciplinary approach when he published his book To Govern through Fear (2007), written with a historian, an anthropologist and a sociologist.
Furthermore, he claimed that the issues questioned in both psychology and economics were very close « The never-ending accumulation of capital, the deadly craving for money and the death drive are closely intertwined » (Capitalisme et pulsion de mort- Capitalism and death drive, 2009, with Gilles Dostaler). The way human beings relate to money is not neutral. Keynes had included Freud’s contribution and so did Maris, as economics is also a matter of human relationships. Money may prove useful; it is the yardstick of wealth and can divert the individual drive for violence. But, when it is exclusively used towards personal accumulation, endless accumulation, then alienation is not far. He actually shared with Keynes his distaste of capitalism for setting aside the human aspects of our societies. Economics should not be mathematical, but a political science of use values and not of exchange values.
He kept questioning rhetoric, particularly the economists’ discourses, which he openly criticized in his book Petits principes de langue de bois économique (Economic newspeak principles -2008). He often challenged the part played by economists in the society and blamed the gurus of economics for making reality fit in their models. In his work Des économistes au-dessus de tout soupçon (Economists beyond doubt -1990), he denounced their often-mistaken predictions and the role they played in justifying the need for liberal policies.
He regularly exposed rhetorical discourses stated as a-historic general laws (law of supply and demand, competition, economic efficiency…), necessarily leading to the same mistakes in the economic policies and further increasing social injustice. He was also a strong advocate of social policies, of the reduction in working time, of degrowth and of minimum income. But he refused final opinions: any analysis and its following conclusions should always be contextualized and evolve along with social changes.
Just like Keynes, he permanently questioned the role of economics and its right place – that is well under science and art. How could economics become humanistic so as to envisage a new relationship to work? How to bring poetry back to work (La Bourse ou la vie, Your money or your Life –2000) ? Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would enjoy a society of leisure, of friendship and of culture where people would only work very little. Although Maris’ views were much more pessimistic, he also dreamt of a society in which « you would be able to reconcile the irreconcilable: work and pleasure, eroticism and social life, contemplating life, no cruelty and socializing, enjoying the others without imitation. We should then be amidst peace and beauty, where the earth becomes a garden again, a realm that used to be restricted to artists but that would then be open to everybody » (Capitalisme et pulsion de mort, 2009).
A citizen economist
Bernard Maris agreed with Keynes that economists, like any other citizen, ought to participate in the political and social life and he did! For instance, in 2011, he accepted the President of the French Senate, Jean-Pierre Bel’s request to be a member of the General Council of the Banque de France (he had taught at the Central Bank of Peru in the 1980s). He was also a member of the scientific council of the alter globalist organisation Attac and the 2002 candidate of the Green party Les Verts for general elections.
His keen interest for the media never failed. In 1992, he was among those who decided to start publishing Charlie Hebdo again. He was Assistant Director until 2008 and a regular columnist to his last day. He then wrote for a variety of national papers and magazines: Marianne, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Figaro Magazine, Le Monde, Alternatives Economiques (…). For quite long, he was part of a France Inter Saturday radio programme « On n’arrête pas l’éco » (dedicated to economics) and would regularly debate in the « Débat économique » with Dominique Seux, the Editor of the Echos.
He also spoke on I-Télé, until 2009, in a programme entitled « Y’a pas que le CAC » (CAC 40: benchmark French stock market index) debating about economic issues with the liberal economist Philippe Chalmin and was often invited to the France 5 TV programme « C dans l’air ».
Everything was an excuse for thinking, creating and sharing, which accounts for all the tributes he was paid after his tragic death: a great many articles and media events, obituaries in academic journals, several university premises named after him (amphitheatres, boardrooms…), some schools, streets…and, last of all, a chair.
The Association ALLISS, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme Foundation (Paris) and Toulouse Sciences Po wished to pay a tribute by creating a Bernard Maris Chair « Economie Sociétés » (Economics and Society). It was granted by the UN organisation for education, science and culture the prestigious label « Chaire UNESCO » and aims at promoting economics rooted in social science and in the city. Since 2018, the Chair has been organising scientific events and citizen debates about the economic and societal issues at the core of Bernard Maris’ concerns. A way for us to keep alive, share and nurture the legacy of a truly extraordinary economist and intellectual.
Crédits images en CC : Mondes Sociaux, Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux, Wikimedia Commons Jacquelinekato, Publicdomainesvectors.org