Wednesday, June 08, 2005


“. . . the close to monopoly position of neoclassical economics is not compatible with normal ideas about democracy. Economics is science in some senses, but is at the same time ideology. Limiting economics to the neoclassical paradigm means imposing a serious ideological limitation. Departments of economics become political propaganda centers . . .”

So fumes Peter Söderbaum in a choice quotation on the excellent 'Post-Autistic Economics Network'. In fact most on the Left would go further than Söderbaum and claim that neo-classical economics has very little to do with science - in fact, it has very little to do with reality itself - it is ideological discourse to its very core. The famous phrase here is, I suppose, 'ideology masquerading as science'.

I teach 1st year seminars in 'Economic and Social History' and am regularly shocked by the narrow understanding of economics on the part of many of the students. The other day, I mentioned the difference between neo-classical accounts of value and those of the classical political economists, thinking that the students would have, at least, some vague grasp of it. They didn't - none of them (in 8 groups of about 12-15 students) could tell me what Adam Smith's or David Ricardo's approach to value was (let alone Marx's!) Now this is staggering. Even allowing for the fact that they are mostly 18 year olds and are only in their first year of university study, you would have thought that, at some stage, they would have been introduced to classical political economy - surely Adam Smith (Adam Smith, for fuck's sakes) should get a mention somewhere in A-level Economics courses or in the 'Introduction to Economics' module of their undegraduate degree - apparently not. I had to sit there and explain that not every economist believes that the value/prices of commodities are determined subjectively through consumer/buyer judgements of marginal utility in the marketplace and then give a potted account of the labour theory of value. I was met with a fair few bewildered looks - like I was arguing that the moon was made of cheese.

I shouldn't really have been surprised I suppose. Over the two years that I've taught seminars in this course, it's been very apparent that the students tend to think that neo-classical economics is the only game in town - that in fact it is economics. There does seem to be an understanding of Keynes amongst the most advanced of the students - but I get the sense that Keynesianism is understood as something of a historical curiosity (an interesting blip in economic orthodoxy) which has now been discredited and replaced by neo-classical truth (which eternal truth was revealed/rediscovered sometime around 1979). All of the full time teachers I've met in the ESH department are very good and some seem vaguely leftish and there are a few social democratic writers (such as Pollard) on the course reading list - but this does not seem to have rubbed off on many of the students. I don't know for sure, but I imagine that Economic History lecturers are unusual in the Economics dept in that they tend to have something of a social conscience - the unworldly Friedmanite high priests (those mathematical equation invokers and graph gazers) tend not to penetrate into this sub-discipline in which the messy actuality of social reality constitutes the primary focus of study (so hard to explain the motivations of the Jarrow Crusaders by means of plotting points on a graph). Dealing with politics, class, hardship, material inequality etc does, after all, tend to dirty one's invisible hands quite disagreeably. The high priests, however, appear to occupy the main centres of the department.

It is probably for this reason that I am regularly told by students in my seminars that the trade unions were/are, or labour inflexibilty was/is, to blame for Britain's persistent low-productivity problem because they/it distorts the naturally self-regulating 'free market' and leads to 'disequilibrium'. It is also why I am informed very regularly that the welfare state was/is unstainable and that welfare benefits 'retard economic efficiency'. It is probably also why I often hear that privatisation is self-evidently a good thing and that the post-war Atlee reforms led inexorably to international 'uncompetitiveness'. These ideas are not usually presented as contestable opinions - but as settled truths.

Of course, I try to present as 'balanced' a view as possible (although, I admit, I'm not quite sure what 'balance' means here) and attempt to advance views which run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy - but there's only so much I am able and willing to do. I have to teach within the perameters of the course and must teach with a view to preparing the students for their exams - if I don't stay within 'mainstream' economics the likelihood is that I might fuck things up for some of them when it comes to their assessments. I should also point out, of course, that I am just not knowledgeable or competent enough to roll back neo-classical orthodoxy in the seminar room - I am not trained in Economics. The other factor, here, is that if I do more than mention Marxist economics in passing here and there, there is, it seems to me, a real possibility that I might not get this teaching work again next year. I am not employed to teach them Marxist economics and it might not go down very well. I need the teaching, because I desperately need the money.

The students I teach are throroughly pleasant and very bright. There's no problem here. But it does sometimes frustrate me that they often seem to have undergone an extremely narrow education. In the 1st year Politics seminars I teach there will usually be animated disagreements and a real plurality of opinion amongst the students. In Economics, there doesn't often seem to be any potential for debate between the students (admittedly it's a lot easier to debate political theory than it is to debate British inter-war exchange rate policy - and, let's face it, political theory is a lot more fucking interesting!!) . They approach economic history as, in some way, straight-forward, settled and uncontested - it's something they can simply be 'told' with no real interpretative problems involved. They seem to feel they can simply learn 'what happened', in the same way that you learn how to do long multiplication.

There is, by the way, an excellent essay on the web by Duncan Folley, entitled 'Notes on Ideology and Methodology' (or html version here). It covers related issues.

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