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«      Boffo, Marco (2013) Interrogating the knowledge‐based economy: from  ...»

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Indeed, while economists have investigated issues relating to knowledge and its relation to the economy in the past, it is only of late that mainstream economists, albeit tentatively and episodically, have started to refer to contemporary capitalism as a Knowledge-Based Economy (henceforth KBE) and invoke, if not already proclaim the existence of, an economics of knowledge (henceforth EK) as a legitimate sub-field within the discipline. This has been received enthusiastically outside of economics, where the latter’s characterisation of knowledge as a public good has become prominent in the rhetoric of international organisations, while at the same time fuelling the outrage of those arguing against the privatisation of knowledge through expanded intellectual property rights (and, more generally, in defence of the commons).1 Yet, more attentive analysis reveals that, in adhering to the conceptualisation of the economy as KBE and attempting to develop an EK, economists have merely opportunistically appropriated ideas that were “in the air”, rehashing their own conceptual and methodological apparatus rather than genuinely engaging with the problems posed by the production, reproduction and distribution of knowledge at all let alone in the The hitherto unprecedented development of intellectual property rights witnessed since the 1980s has been widely acknowledged as one of the major transformations within contemporary capitalism, and as a major factor leading to the elaboration of the Knowledge-Based Economy concept itself (for examples of discussions of these trends germane to the concerns of this chapter and thesis, albeit differing in interpretation, see: Foray, 2006; Hardt, Negri, 2004, 2009; Mirowski, 2011; Coriat, Weinstein, 2012). It is important to emphasise that this evolution has a quantitative dimension (manifest in the exponential increase in the numbers of both applications for patents and patents granted in the U.S. and in Europe), but also a qualitative dimension (Foray, 2006; Mirowski, 2011; Coriat, Weinstein, 2012). However, this is not merely a Hegelian quip, where sheer quantity morphs into quality. Indeed, the scope and breadth of patents (and intellectual property in general) have expanded to encompass new objects previously explicitly excluded from patentability (software, mathematical algorithms and computer programmes;

genes and living matter; business models), and new players (with the passing of the Bayh-Dole Act, or Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act, in 1980 in the U.S.; this authorises the granting of patents and the negotiation of exclusive licenses on the results of publicly-funded research conducted by universities, small companies, and non-governmental organisations) (Coriat, Orsi, 2002). Further, this has led to the explosion of markets for licenses and the pressure to harmonise legal frameworks and standards worldwide, not least as consequence of international treaties, commercial activity, the material (re)organisation of production, and the concerted efforts to emulate the (pioneering) U.S.

experience (Mirowski, 2011; Coriat, Weinstein, 2012).

contemporary period. Indeed, and regardless of whether one attributes to knowledge a central place into the economy or not, there are devastating weaknesses in the way in which the mainstream treats the economy, knowledge, and the relation between the two, and any genuine engagement with the relation between knowledge and the economy is incompatible with mainstream economics. Thus, it is hardly surprising that there are devastating criticisms of the mainstream version of the KBE and of the EK, even to the extent of declaring their impossibility, from any contribution taking a different view of the nature of knowledge, the economy, and their interaction. In this light, this chapter will review the criticisms, add to them, and pose a coherent overview of the flawed nature of the KBE and the EK.

1.2) The Knowledge-Based Economy and the Economics of Knowledge The idea that contemporary advanced economies have reached a stage of development dominated and driven by knowledge and information has become common currency across political and public debates, scholarship, and policy discussions. Thus, the concept of KBE has gained such prominence that it has become almost a vernacular description of contemporary capitalism. According to the OECD’s glossary of statistical terms,2 the expression has been ‘coined to describe trends in advanced economies towards greater dependence on knowledge, information and high skill levels, and the increasing need for ready access to all of these by the business and public sectors’. As the OECD document goes on to state, the notion has emerged out of a context in which ‘knowledge and technology have become increasingly complex, raising the importance of links between firms and other organisations as a way to acquire specialised knowledge’, paralleled by ‘the growth of innovation in services in advanced economies’. In other words, the recent expansion in knowledge-related investment and activity, coupled with the technological revolution in information communication technologies (henceforth ICTs), are thought to be at the heart of a change in the conditions of production, transmission and accumulation of knowledge and information resulting in ‘a break in growth processes and modes of organization of the economy’ (Foray, 2006, p.21).3 In turn, this is perceived as having brought about an economic context in which the speed of creation, accumulation and depreciation of knowledge has increased dramatically, while the costs of its 2 th Available at http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/index.htm (last accessed on the 9 of August 2013).





Dominique Foray is ‘a prominent French science policy expert’ (Mirowski, 2011, p.42) or, as the biographical note on his website states, ‘one of the leading academic experts in the economics of innovation and knowledge and economic policy implications of the new knowledge-based economy’ th (see http://people.epfl.ch/dominique.foray/bio?lang=en&cvlang=en, last accessed on the 9 of August 2013). His work is followed closely in this chapter, for Foray (2006) (often in association with Paul David, see David, Foray, 1995, 2002, 2003) is one of the main proponents of the KBE concept and of the EK as a sub-discipline within economics (see below). Further, together once again with David, Foray has played a pivotal role in shifting the policy and research agenda of the OECD from an approach focused on the study of national systems of innovation to one focusing on the KBE and EK (see footnote 43).

codification and transmission have substantially decreased (Foray, 2006; Benkler, 2006;

Powell, Snellman, 2004). Despite acknowledgement that ‘there have always been organisations and institutions capable of creating and disseminating knowledge’, from ‘the medieval guilds through to the large business corporations of the early twentieth century, from the Cistercian abbeys to the royal academies of science that began to emerge in the seventeenth century’, and so on, and indication that the KBE concept ‘is meant to signify’ a ‘“sea change”’ from the material organisation of economic activity of earlier periods rather ‘than a sharp discontinuity’ (David, Foray, 2003, p.20; similarly, Foray, 2006, p.21, and David, Foray, 2002, p.9), these developments, nonetheless, commanded enthusiastic reception and attention across the social sciences and cultural theory and commentary, where the temptation ‘to reify’ them ‘into some grand synthesis of a New Information Mode of production’ has proven ‘irresistible’ (Mirowski, 2011, p.10). However, while the latter is certainly true for the social sciences at large, whether, and how deeply, this attitude is

embedded within economics beyond the speculations of a handful of key figures (for example:

Foray, 2006; David, Foray, 2002, 2003; Stiglitz, 1999a, 1999b), remains dubious. On the contrary, this chapter will argue that the forays (nomen omen?) of economists into the topic of the KBE have been consistent with the logic of economics imperialism and, even when attempting to depart from the latter, are exemplary of the present state of “suspension” of economics (as opposed to purposeful engagement with the issues at hand).

Alongside these putative material developments in economic and social reality, economic theory is posited as witnessing the rise of two distinct yet related ‘new developments’ of its own. First is ‘a scientific development corresponding to the emergence of a new economic subdiscipline’, the EK, whose ‘research object – knowledge – poses new theoretical and empirical problems’ (Foray, 2006, p.xi). Indeed, as noted by Leppälä (2012, p.2), even though the expression “economics of knowledge” has been around at least since Kenneth Boulding’s (1966) use, after that it has ‘appeared rather irregularly in the economic literature’, to resurface consistently only ‘in the early 21st century’ (Leppälä, 2012, p.2).4 Thus, the However, Leppälä entirely glosses over that Boulding’s ‘The Economics of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Economics’ (1966) criticises the discipline for its neglect of ‘[w]hat might be called, perhaps somewhat grandiloquently, the Epistemological Question’ (i.e. ‘the role of knowledge in social systems, both as a product of the past and as a determinant of the future’) (Boulding, 1966, p.1). For Boulding, consideration of the role of knowledge in social systems was essential to move beyond general equilibrium theorising, and implied the restoration of methodological holism, systemic thinking and the recognition of the dynamic and evolutionary nature of economies, organisations and development (together with purposeful dialogue with other disciplines) at the heart of economics (Boulding, 1966). These implications for the discipline of the serious consideration of the importance of knowledge in socio-economic development, rather than the primacy (or not) of knowledge within economic activity and the material organisation of the economy in any specific era, provide better cues as to why issues related to knowledge within mainstream neoclassical economics have been neglected expression has reappeared recently in the titles of books (Foray, 2006; Andersson, Beckmann,

2009) and in academic journals (Ancori et al., 2000; Lundvall, 2004), summoning interest from points of view as disparate as, for example, (rational choice) political philosophy (Hardin, 2009) and popular journalistic accounts (Warsh, 2006). Secondly, the discipline of economics itself is presented as having taken into account the ‘historical development heralding the advent of a particular period in the growth and organization of economic activities’ (Foray, 2006, p.xi;

similarly, David, Foray, 2003), sufficing to re-label the current organization of economic activity as KBE. These theoretical developments are perceived as consequence of the material and social evolutions outlined above (Foray, 2006; David, Foray, 2003). Indeed, although the EK is understood as having its own precursors and “tutelary deities”,5 Foray (2006, p.ix) submits that, ‘[j]ust as industrial economics as a discipline was founded with the advent of industrialization in around 1820, so the economics of knowledge developed as knowledgebased economies gradually came into being’.6 Thus, following Foray’s understanding of the ‘dual nature of the economics of knowledge – as a discipline and as a historical period’ (Foray, and the calls for an EK have been sporadic and generally unheeded, at least until recently to some degree.

Foray (2006) and Leppälä (2012) provide the following lists and (diverging) accounts. On top of historical figures such as ‘Smith, Marx, and Schumpeter’, understood as having ‘all dealt with knowledge, its creation and division’, and ‘its use and appropriation’, Foray signals ‘Simon, Hayek, Arrow, and Machlup’ as the unquestionable ‘latter-day pioneers in the general economics of knowledge (i.e. not confined to science and technology)’ (Foray, 2006, p.1). However, Leppälä provides a broader account, which includes areas deliberately excluded by Foray from the EK (see Foray, 2006, p.1), such as the economics of invention, innovation and technical change, on the one hand, and decision-making, uncertainty and market coordination, on the other. Rather than casual, this disagreement reflects the imprecise boundaries and foundations of the EK (see also footnote 9).



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