[Marxism] Reviving a Progressive Economics

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 8 06:54:27 MDT 2011


Reviving a Progressive Economics: A new Organization for a Long 
and Distinguished Tradition

by John Weeks

The explicitly conservative nature of mainstream (“neoclassical”) 
economics might give the impression that all economists line up on 
the political spectrum somewhere between the moderately and 
extremely reactionary. This is especially the case with the vast 
majority of the profession in North America and Europe supportive 
of fiscal austerity.

While free market fundamentalism characterizes for the vast 
majority of economists, there are very important exceptions. I am 
proud to have been among a growing group of economists that has 
formed an organization to revive the progressive traditions of the 
profession, the World Economic Association (see details at 

Begun earlier this year with a few hundred founding economists, it 
now has over 4500 members from over the globe. In the early 1960s 
I chose economics to study at the University of Texas (Austin) 
because I wanted to help make the world a better place. It is safe 
to say that if today a student is so motivated, there is almost no 
university in the developed world that would make even a 
pretension to provide such economics training. On the contrary, 
especially in the English-speaking countries economics departments 
are dedicated to a dogmatic free market ideology that permits no 

In the European Middle Ages the dogmas of the Catholic church 
enforced daunting barriers to scientific inquiry. The pernicious 
effect of mainstream (neoclassical) economics is far worse and 
considerably more powerful ideologically. It is a virus of the 
mind. Once implanted in the mental processes, it systematically 
destroys the ability to conduct rational thought. As an 
intellectual method, it does not render the exoteric into the 
esoteric (explaining what we observe by what we cannot observe but 
theoretically infer), which is the function of science. Rather, it 
renders the complexities of what we observe into ahistorical and 
anti-social trivia, with its triviality obscured by cabalistic 

The obviously social nature of human existence is rejected by the 
neoclassicals in favor of the absurdity that each person is an 
isolated individual (I recommend that the progressively minded not 
use the word “individual”, but “people” and “person” in its 
place). Bereft of the hopes, fears, anxieties and feelings of 
personal responsibility that make us human. These “individuals” 
are driven by pure personal greed. The goodness of greed is 
defined as “rational” behavior. This individualized, irresponsible 
greed allegedly results in the general welfare. It is difficult to 
image a doctrine either more vulgar or more flagrantly in the 
interest of capital.

Adam Smith, who lived in a largely pre-capitalist society 
dominated by the reactionary vestiges of feudalism, can be 
forgiven for embracing this defense of raw capitalist greed, but 
neoclassical economists of the 21st century cannot. During the 
first half of the 19th century people who identified themselves as 
political economists actively debated the fundamental questions of 
capitalist society: distribution, growth and human welfare. They 
fiercely debated trade policy, monetary policy (including the 
nature of money), public debt, and regulation of conditions of work.

The re-branding of the discipline and its members, from political 
economy to “economics” and “economists” (W S Jevons, 1835-1882), 
marked a major step towards a systematically reactionary and 
intellectually intolerant dogma. Jevon’s contribution became 
sacred writ in the next century with the distinction between 
“positive” and “normative” economics. This distinction is 
frequently attributed to Milton Friedman, though it can be found 
at least two decades before his famous article (for example, in 
the work of the neoclassical founding father and nominal 
Keynesian, Paul Samuelson).

By the 1950s the professional guidelines were clear. When acting 
“scientifically”, economists reached conclusions that were “value 
free”. Being a member of the profession was contingent upon 
accepting this conclusion. For example, an economist was free to 
be supportive of trade unions in private life, as long as he/she 
accepted the theoretical dogma that trade unions caused 
unemployment and/or inflation. The vast majority of 
policy-oriented (and usually more progressive) economists accepted 
these guidelines because they did not appear to weaken the de 
facto hegemony of the neoclassical Keynesians.

A few committed progressives challenged the intellectually vacuous 
positive/normative distinction. They sought to shift the 
profession from its acceptance of the moribund “microfoundations” 
that were little more than mathematical elaboration of the 
Jevonian marginalist banalities. These progressives (among the 
prominent were Joan Robinson and John Kenneth Galbraith) fought a 
lonely struggle largely ignored within the profession, though of 
they had considerable influence outside its dogma boundaries.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, as politics in the Anglo Saxon 
countries shifted decisively to the right, the neoclassical 
fundamentalists made their move: if the profession accepted the 
validity of self-adjusting, general equilibrium full employment, 
wasn’t it time that the true believers took control of the 
profession? In ideological terms, the subsequent purge of all 
non-neoclassical tendencies, no matter how mild, closely tracked 
the Spanish Inquisition.

Like the central purpose of the Inquisition, the consolidation of 
the Spanish nation state (through purging of Islamic and Jewish 
influence in Iberia), the neoclassical purpose was to create a 
reactionary, pseudo-intellectual bastion in defense of capitalism, 
in its most vulgar and anti-social form. The transformation of the 
economics profession from a field of intellectual inquiry into a 
closed, dogmatic servant of the status quo is unprecedented in 
academia. This transformation would be equivalent to Creationism 
taking over the field of genetics.

The fundamental mission of the World Economic Association and 
other heterodox economists (and a mission it is) is to recapture 
the discipline and re-establish rational inquiry. Experience shows 
that success in this mission requires a return to a more 
progressive political context. In the meantime, the WEA seeks to 
remind, revive and elaborate the proud tradition of progressive 

More information about the Marxism mailing list