Where does economic critique come from? | What's Left

Following the global economic crash of 2008, there has been a lot of discussion about the need for a re-think of mainstream economic thought. While this 'orthodox' economics held claim to the economic growth before 2008, it completely failed to predict the economic crash and seems unable to deal with the aftermath. Unfortunately, while the economy they supported collapsed, the theories that set the foundation for the economic crisis have not lost their dominance.

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Almost a decade after the crisis, frustrations continue about the state of university economics courses. Even those from mainstream economic programs can see they are not getting the whole story. Student groups like the Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) at the University of Manchester try to raise awareness. While the Society has recently received attention in newspapers like the Financial Times and Guardian for a new book on economic teaching, curriculum have not changed. Without a sense of irony, these newspapers even publish the articles about the Society alongside others arguing in support of the neoclassical tenants of free trade, central bank independence, a free market in social services (including education), deregulation, and privatization.

Student groups like PCES are confused by the doctrinaire attachment to (now utterly exposed) neoclassical theory in their course material. While the group itself seems to acknowledge the vast modern literature in heterodox, (post)Keynesian, Marxist and classical-streams of economic theory, it is unfortunately more interested in gaining plurality in these courses than looking at rejecting the current nonsense taught in economic course material.

The reality is that there are plenty of critiques of capitalist-inspired neo-classical economics. In fact, most of the problems with neo-classical theory were essentially known before it became dominant. But, the reason it became dominant was not because neoclassical theory was correct or could predict business cycles or allow companies and people to understand their place in the economy. Neoclassical theory took the centre stage of the Western economics because it supported the political ideologies of those in power. Since these folks are still in power “post-crash”, it is not surprising that neoclassical theory remains dominant.

Students need to demand change in their curriculum when it is broken and failing them – regardless of the area of study. Many student movements have been successful in changing curriculum in the past, including the establishment of feminist studies departments, political economy programs, race and gender studies courses, and the establishment of anti-colonial history degrees. However, the corporatization of universities (driven by neoclassical processes) have made this more difficult. Instead of (business) economics programs focused on critique and understanding, they respond to “market pressures” to produce the next generation of finance workers.

The stodgy nature of economic studies (and other programs taken over by uncritical ideologies) can only be broken by a mobilized student movement advocating an alternative, not just lamenting lack of pluralism. Agitation begins with small committees or clubs in universities campaigning, to education-focused outreach that loudly explains why the programs are broken, to organizing professors, graduate students, and allies out-side of the academy that will teach the alternative. Creating the “market” for these ideas happens through an active process.

If we want to avoid another collapse that destroys peoples lives and change society for the better, it is necessary to drive change in both the real economy and the academy that develops the details of the policy critique.

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