Hayek, Epistemology, and Hegemonic Rationality
Artwork by Eric Fleischmann


Friedrich Hayek is quite the contested figure in left-libertarian circles. Praised as a genius of libertarian philosophy on the one hand and as a white knight for capitalist hierarchy on the other, his ideas, like those of most theorists, are nuanced and require further investigation.

Philosophy does not necessitate historicism – Sidestep the Marxists! We mustn’t let orthodoxy stand in the way of progress! Thinkers throughout history have provided invaluable insights based on rocky foundations and unreasonable conclusions. The individualist anarchists were staunchly opposed to chattel slavery, and yet, Benjamin Tucker saw his ideas (and by extension the ideas of anarchism) as a radical extension of those espoused by slave-owners like Thomas Jefferson. [1] Screw Thomas Jefferson! He was a dreadful man. But like Aristotle, his writings seemed to outlive him— and eventually, they were twisted against the evil legacy he left behind. The question of Hayek, Foucault, Proudhon, or any other thinker’s actual beliefs and actions is a valid one, to be sure— but the utility of their entire body of thought should not be contingent on the purity of the thinker themselves. 

The question here is what we can usefully draw from Hayek’s work, and how his insights might benefit the anarchist analysis he so readily dismisses, which left-libertarians have been doing for quite some time. The specific question here is to do with his criticism of social science and how it can inform our thought today. In come the unterrified Hayekians, the radically liberal Foucauldians, the new-age Marxists! Here come new ideas–and with them, progress!

Social Science and Knowing

Individualism and Economic Order” is a collection of essays by Hayek. The third essay in the book, ‘The Facts of the Social Sciences,’ deals with the supposedly factual existence of concepts within the realm of social sciences (a term Hayek uses loosely as opposed to the “natural sciences” and which, for him,  includes economics, sociology, linguistics, criminology, and historicism.) He deals with this question in a way that could be justifiably deemed “post-structuralist” in the sense that he accidentally aligns himself with what would come to be a field of intellectual criticism in France regarding objectivity and the political status of knowledge.

Although there are, of course, theoretical contradictions between the ideas of the Critical Marxists or Post-Structuralists and those of the Austrians, comparing the two is useful. The Austrians and their predecessors pioneered some very potent criticism! Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk’s critique of Marx’s formulation of value theory was one of the hottest contentions in early twentieth-century socialist circles (one which Bukharin took much time to respond to). Mises’ theorem on the theoretical impossibility of calculations within a planned economy remains a topic of discussion even today (though, both sides of the modern debate have less of a “discussion” and more of a straw-man jousting match). Hayek is a unique case, though: his ideas are uniquely forgotten in the vast majority of far-left discourse today.

Though Hayek’s knowledge problem has remained often unspoken in certain Marxist circles, his sociological and epistemological revelations provide what is arguably a bigger danger to advocates of centralization or socialization than Bawerk or Mises. His legacy of critique, although often misguided, threw into question the entire concept of deriving objective “truth” surrounding people’s wills and the ability to generalize action in a Rousseaudian sense, as well as the instinct of the modern, “rational” individual to demand hierarchical control for and within every aspect of society. 

In ‘The Facts of Social Sciences,’ Hayek extends his career-defining question on the legitimacy of attempts to control society beyond economic limits and into a wider epistemological inquiry: on what basis can we analyze society? 

Hayek presents the problem as such:

To him, the social scientists, up until this point, have largely ignored the differences between “social” science and “natural” science as cultural concepts and realms of study. 

But it [scientific methodology] is different with the study of language or the market, of law and most other human institutions. It is this group of disciplines which alone I propose to consider and for which I am compelled to use the somewhat misleading term “social sciences.” [2] 

…. Certainly in economics, all the people who are universally regarded as talking sense are constantly infringing the accepted canons of scientific method evolved from the practice of the natural sciences; that even the natural scientists, when they begin to discuss social phenomena, as a rule…do the same…when a natural scientist tries to apply his professional habits of thought to social problems, the result has almost invariably been disastrous. [3] 

Here we see that, for Hayek, the acceptance of what is typically espoused to be purely scientific methodology into the sociological realm of analysis is not only inaccurate but potentially dangerous for a myriad of reasons. A key point throughout the paper is that, unlike the natural sciences, the social sciences are not reliant on any sort of physical characteristics of the subjects in question (i.e. economists do not decide something is “money” based on physical criteria in the same way a chemist might decide something is a “polyatomic ion”). 

To Hayek, it’s not even up to the economist or the social scientist to define the objects themselves. If we are to analyze and/or classify behavior (which Hayek sees as one of the essential components of any social science) we cannot do so by analyzing human actions regarding money as it exists as a purely physical phenomenon (say, as a piece of legal tender) nor directly as understood within our narrow cultural lens (fiat currency, accumulating asset, paper slips, etc.). Instead, the definition of “money” as economists use it in behavioral analysis relies on the relation of the subject to the concept itself (i.e., if one views seashells as circulating currency, their actions towards said shells can justifiably be deemed as towards money, even if shells wouldn’t be “money” as we’d typically imagine). Behavioral definitions are up to the behaving subject in thatthe behavior itself is altered along the lines of said definitions .  Thus, definitions imposed afterward (beyond vague categorization based on subject-input) remain invalid along lines of genuine social analysis. Though we will inevitably interpret the relationships and behaviors of others through our own established lenses, an effort should be made to allow acting subjects to speak for themselves without external interpretation. If you pay close attention, this observation poses interesting questions for vast fields of study within social science. 

If we hold psychoanalysis (which, as we will discuss later, falls more into the “social” category than the “natural” category) to the same standards as economics, Freud should theoretically refrain from absurd sexual compartmentalization of his patients— but he doesn’t. He projects carnal categories he’s already created onto lived experience, coaxing confessions and then labeling them as having to do with objective moments of subjective experience the patient did not and cannot typically autonomously describe. For instance:

A child has its sexual instincts and activities from the first; it comes into the world with them; and, after an important course of development passing through many stages, they lead to what is known as the normal sexuality of the adult. [4]

…. It is only too easy to explain why most people (whether medical observers or others) will hear nothing of the sexual life of children. They have forgotten their own infantile sexual activity under the pressure of their education to a civilized life, and they do not wish to be reminded of what has been repressed. [5]

This pattern is common across much of the social sciences. The study of objective behavior in the natural sciences is simple enough (to Hayek), but when decisions and behaviors are conscious and not predetermined by general physical laws (the free will conversation being one for another day!), the supposedly objective positivist approach loses its appeal. In attempting to objectify behavior that is autonomously willed regardless of patterns of behavior across broader society and inevitably interpreted through the existing cultural lens of the scientist,  social scientists fall into a trap in which they treat the available objective data as a sufficient replacement for pure subjective data, allowing them to draw conclusions and make prognoses that are inevitably misguided, ineffective, and irresponsible in dealing with social behavior. The cultural situation in which we analyze said tacit information is omnipresent and vital in this introspective study.

Generalizing Our Critique 

This is an issue that is common across a broad range of diagnostics regarding the ills of modern society. Returning to our analysis of psychiatry, take the rather confusing concept of “insanity” as it has been used throughout modern history. An illuminating example is the case of John Brown, in which psychiatry – in a seemingly separate pattern than the vast majority of natural sciences – seems to arise from and directly serve institutional power. 

How hopeful were the times and the skies, had we among us but a few men — ay, or one man — of John Brown’s conscience, judgment, valor, righteousness, and, above all, of his self-sacrificing life!

Now, as my last words for to-night, I exclaim: Great were John Brown’s life and work and triumph! Worthy, thrice worthy, is John Brown! [6]

John Brown had a long life of abolitionist activity. He was a part of the underground railroad, he attempted to set up schools for freed slaves in the North, and he and his sons hacked five pro-slavery whites to death in the pre-civil war disputes in Bleeding Kansas. In his final bid against slavery, he and a group of twenty or so stormed a US army base in hopes of taking arms to enslaved people and inspiring a massive slave uprising across the south. Brown’s plan failed as white militias from the area killed his comrades. In the wreckage, he was arrested and sentenced to death. Awaiting execution, he received letters from inspired abolitionists and Black activists from across the US. 

Backhanded claims as to Brown’s insanity were abundant, which Brown vehemently rejected. As white people across the nation called him a lunatic with a “glittering eye” (a reference to insanity in 19th-century popular culture), Black activists during his time (F.E.W. Harper, Harriet Tubman, and his personal friend Fredrick Douglass) and afterward (W.E.B Du Bois, Malcom X, etc.) praised his actions. The question in the mind of historian Robert E. McGlone was whether or not the entire concept of insanity in regard to the case of John Brown was white America’s inability to grasp the fact that one would be willing to risk his livelihood for the freedom of a Black person. The “insanity” of the man who was deeply religious, reflective, and articulate to the end was more of a reflection of America’s inability to imagine the application of white people’s empathy to Black people than of any genuine medical investigation.

Hayek’s insights are useful here. Indeed, white America did believe John Brown to have gone insane. Their basis for this, though – their entire concept of insanity –was entrenched in their own cultural values and interpretive lenses, meaning that the entire legacy of colonialism in America solidified into the supposedly scientific psychological profiling of John Brown. History, time and time again, has seen supposedly objective social sciences directly serve racist, capitalist systems in the name of progress or knowledge.

Michel Foucault takes the argument further. In his 1970s interview ‘Truth and Power’ he follows in Hayek’s footsteps, asking questions about the correlative effects of knowledge and power:

If one takes a form of knowledge like psychiatry, won’t the question be much easier to resolve, since the epistemological profile of psychiatry is a low one and psychiatric practice is linked with a whole range of institutions, economic requirements, and political issues of social regulation? Couldn’t the interweaving of effects of power and knowledge be grasped with greater certainty in the case of a science as ‘dubious’ as psychiatry? [7]

Foucault begins to go a step further than Hayek though. Hayek’s reference relies on an unequivocal commitment to “natural sciences,” but as time has gone on, Freudians have attempted to induct psycho-analysis into this metaphorical hall of positivist fame. How do we know the dynamic humans Hayek alludes to can conduct natural analysis in an unbiased manner? Sure, we can listen to the subject describe their own behavior, but who decides who the “subject” is? Isn’t that a matter of social construction?

In general, the insights Foucault and Hayek provide us allow us to draw certain conclusions about the realm of science in modern society at large. Far from claiming that no knowledge exists, or that there can be no basis on which to judge knowledge and behavior – an idea that has often been poorly accredited to the post-structuralists as a movement – the conclusions they offer us allow us to ask how institutions and societal norms impact the way we think about science— and, if I may inverse our equation – how does our narrative surrounding science and rationality impact the institutional treatment of knowledge and the operation of society?

When marketists discuss John Locke, it is not often because of his epistemology, but it’s relevant here. To Locke, knowledge comes to the human mind as an impression in the sand, the mind a blank slate for information to pass through. Immanuel Kant disagrees! To Kant, assuming the comprehensibility of said information to the human mind in a world that is not in fact all-you (see me in my office, George Berkeley) meant that the one comprehending plays quite an active role. If we understand the world, it is not because the world naturally speaks our language, but because we fine-tune the information we are given to fit the lens we see with. 

I’d like to draw a parallel here. Foucault, and by extension Hayek, extend Kant’s critique of Locke to the social sciences. We are constantly seeing the world through lenses. Cultural, fiscal, political…Objectifying knowledge, especially knowledge that inevitably comes from and in turn impacts human behavior, as social science tends to, takes leaps of logic not afforded to us by science as it stands. 

A wicked concoction of twentieth-century insights is a-brewing! Freudians tremble, Popperians quiver, Marxians… will come in surprisingly useful. The questions remain:

How does our narrative surrounding science and rationality impact the institutional treatment of knowledge and the operation of society at large?

What purpose does the supposed objectification of knowledge serve and how does it relate to existing institutions?

What do our cultural attitudes surrounding rationality have to do with our political crisis?

The diagnostic, to borrow ideas from Horkheimer and Adorno on the legacy of the enlightenment, is as follows:  the spirit of liberalism, in its liberatory essence, was left weak and dormant by the Enlightenment. The society left in its wake is carrying on the traditions that founded Enlightenment thinking: reason, rationality, and scientism. The narratives surrounding these concepts have crystallized themselves in the very way people operate— the way we move, think, approach problems and find solutions. We have continued to gear society toward peak rational calculation— and it isn’t working.

Rationality as Authoritarian Dogma

 When a natural scientist tries to apply his professional habits of thought to social problems, the result has almost invariably been disastrous. [8]

Though the anarchist-twist of the Frankfurt Marxists and the idea of authoritarian reification are chats for another day, suffice to say, Hayek’s ideas in regard to objective knowledge in society aren’t far from those of Horkheimer and Adorno:

For the enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. [9]

…. Enlightenment throughout the liberalistic period has always sympathized with social coercion. The unity of the manipulated collective consists in the negation of each individual and in the scorn poured on the type of society which could make people into individuals.  [10]

The impacts of the unrivaled acceptance of positivist scientism as a way of social calculation have culminated in a number of authoritarian experiments, as Hayek might have feared. Whether it be eugenics, the medical torment of queer people, misogynistic and abusive lobotomization practices, or the scientific racism so dear to the colonial Enlightenment, the legacy of science as a tool for social injustice is long. In economics – the realm Hayekians have always been most concerned with – these fears have undoubtedly come to fruition within the legacies of both capitalist and “socialist” countries. While mass calculability has remained a goal of government franchises, for instance by creating economic metrics like the Laffer curve to maximize profit in theft and advancing the supposedly rational social contract theory to an unspoken facet of political ontology, economies themselves have become increasingly centralized around information. 

Soviets, in their own words, often praised a strong society as a total replacement for the needs of capitalist exchange in supply chains, despite their overwhelming inability to escape said exchange11. Hayekians have repeatedly attacked the Soviet state and its role in the economy since its inception (and arguably prior, in the formulations of statehood and production with Marxist canon at large). These attacks, though, were not entirely sufficient as to the power structures underlying Soviet society. Without a proper sociological mirror, Hayekians frequently forgot to direct their critiques onto their own societies and institutions, ridden with information problems and centripetal death spirals. 

Returning to the notion of lenses and how they impact our analysis, we can in a sense proclaim that beyond our society being shaped by the lens we see it through, our lenses themselves are altered and reshaped by societal norms and expectations. Our own subjectivities are constructed by the political situations we are positioned within. We, people, in carrying on the legacy of the enlightenment, have made rationality the cold lens through which we analyze everything. This is not to say comprehensibility or coherence are byproducts of capitalist order— they are indeed often the default faculties of discerning information as it operates in human consciousness. Rather, we have introduced a legacy of institutions riddled with bureaucracy which are both inefficient in regard to information and its access but also maximally rational in the realm of inducting profit, expanding, and calculating and maximizing coercive power— in essence, using scientific reasoning for the expansion of authoritarian institutions and transforming people from autonomous individuals into subjects of a wider order. Attempts to impose mass positivism as a political order is a scheme riddled with statist abuse as well as, ironically, impediments to the spontaneous sharing of knowledge (given that this would allow people to fulfill their own interests). 

Our “constructed subjectivities” then internalize said messaging in the way we view power struggles. For instance:  “I did a crime, I ought to be imprisoned.” “I need help, I ought to look towards legislators” “Our society is broken, the ecosystem is dying, it is the state’s duty to fix it.” The average person has fully become their own cop, psychiatrist, and tax auditor, all while assuming by default that a world in which relationships unfold without such oversight is entirely impossible. This coincides with not only the inability of information to be effectively spread throughout the population autonomously and with the government’s fundamental inability to deal with information crises (which Hayek of course predicted) but also with the age of surveillance. When Hayek warned against using knowledge in the application of power – in trying to objectify human operations –  he ironically foresaw the totalitarian fate of the societies his followers would implicitly defend. We now live in the age of data, at every turn becoming the statistics in a larger picture Hayek warned against us becoming, constantly being observed, tracked, charted, and quantified. 

The term panopticism has become somewhat of a cliche in regard to radical analysis, but its concept is important. A guard in a central tower in a prison stands in a position in which every cell in the prison, arranged in a circle surrounding the tower, is in theory fully visible to the guard. This minimizes authoritarian input as far as manpower goes while also maximizing disobedient anxiety. The panoptic schema uses mass surveillance to keep up good behavior regardless of spectatorial status, in essence actualizing a citizen body of micro-cops, micro-judges, and micro-executioners, ready to externalize the power mechanisms for which they are afraid but for which they praise as holy necessity. The key point here is that the panoptic scheme of power is possible to apply in every bureaucracy, every hierarchical order, from your workplace to your school, your library, the streets, the apartment blocks, and the empty warehouses. 

But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use. [12]

…. In short, it [the panoptic schema] arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contacting. [13]

This is not to say that the state does not matter – we are anarchists! The state is the ultimate organ of power, the realm from which, many times, the privileges that apply power on a socially microscopic level originate. It is quite possible that Foucault underestimates the role in the state of constructing the bureaucracies from which panopticism gains its efficacy (for instance, we can look to, Kevin Carson’s historicism for a grasp of how crucial the state was, fiscally, to the creation of a capitalist order to begin with). As Foucault notes:

I do not mean in any way to minimize the importance and effectiveness of State power. I simply feel that excessive insistence on its playing an exclusive role leads to the risk of overlooking all the mechanisms and effects of power which don’t pass directly via the State apparatus, yet often sustain the State more effectively than its own institutions, enlarging and maximizing its effectiveness. In Soviet society one has the example of a State apparatus which has changed hands, yet leaves social hierarchies, family life, sexuality and the body more or less as they were in capitalist society. [14]

The point is, instead, that the power operations we are opposed to as anarchists have, by and large, come out of the woodwork as facets of our everyday relationships, our frames of analysis, our fields of observation— in short, out of the way we approach knowledge and problems in society at large. Hayek’s original work on knowledge and power is brought to its full negative potential in that knowledge and political power now resemble the same authoritarian force in modern society. These connections are so fundamental to the way capitalist society operates that a brief re-organization of the state among radical party lines will never be enough to escape the dominating forces of capital as we experience them. 

Mind becomes in reality the instrument of power and self-mastery for which bourgeois philosophy has always mistaken it…Through the mediation of the total society, which encompasses all relationships and impulses, human beings are being turned back into precisely what the developmental law of society, the principle of the self, had opposed: mere examples of the species, identical to one another through isolation within the compulsively controlled collectivity. [15]

We have seen scientific notions of society grow and, with them, attempts to centralize information and treat people as subjects in a totalitarian sense. In the capitalist era we live in, surveillance and knowledge act as facets of power, with the mass state and micro-applications of power operating in a reciprocal sense, boosting one another’s dominant capabilities. The application to this on anarchist thought today is complex and needs to be analyzed further, as it has been to some extent by Foucaudlians and Hayekians alike. The primary lesson here is, perhaps, that no piece of society’s operation, including our own methods of analysis, people’s own notions of self, the way family, social, educational, or medical relationships operate, are separate from our political situation. A crux of our programme going forward must be an unyielding insistence on the possibility of an alternative, a societal structure in which knowledge and power do not operate in an ever-expanding centripetal spiral. 

We have to remain critical of every aspect of the capitalist order if we wish to genuinely get to the bottom of statist operation. We have to continue to create, imagine and change our methodology, not only in regard to praxis but also in regard to analysis, critique, and operative strategy. We must, unlike what appears to be the sad fate of much of the modern Marxist canon, be moving! 

End Notes

    1. Tucker, Benjamin. “State Socialism and Anarchism.” State Socialism and Anarchism, Instead of a Book, https://fair-use.org/benjamin-tucker/instead-of-a-book/state-socialism-and-anarchism#e1. p. 28. 
    2. Hayek, Friedrich. Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press, 1948. p57
    3. Ibid., p. 58.
    4. Freud, Sigmund. Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis. W. W. Norton & Company, 1952. p. 44.
    5. Ibid., p. 46.
    6. Tucker, Benjamin. “Honoring a Great Law-Breaker.” Liberty, 10 Dec. 1881.
    7. Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, 1980. p. 10.
    8. Hayek, Friedrich. Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press, 1948. p58
    9. Horkheimer, Max, et al. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002. p. 3.
    10. Ibid., p. 9.
    11. Stalin, Joseph. “Commodity Production Under Socialism.” Economic Problems of the USSR, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1951/economic-problems/ch03.htm. 
    12. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books, 1977. p. 205.
    13. Ibid., p. 206.
    14. Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, 1980. pp. 72-73.
    15. Horkheimer, Max, et al. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002. p. 29.
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