A little over a month ago, in early November, more than seventy students in Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics course at Harvard University stood up and walked out of the lecture. They organized this walk-out to protest the course’s neoliberal predispositions, the corporatization of higher education, and the growing burden of student debt. The students explained that their action was in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, and went on to join a march in downtown Boston.
In organizing this action, the students drew attention to a problem that has its roots in the mainstream neoclassical theory that dominates today’s economics departments. According to such theory, the discipline is a positive science that can be used to reach empirical judgments free of bias and ideology. This way of thinking about economics has generated elegant mathematical models, but these cannot compensate for its incorrect assumptions. The Harvard student protest, and the Occupy movement more broadly, prompt reconsideration of what it might mean to walk out on mainstream economics.
The primary problem with neoclassical economics is that its conceptual apparatus is supposed to transcend social and class relations. In fact, however, this supposed transcendence conceals capitalism’s natural inequality. Focused only on the way economic relations look superficially (i.e. like relations between things), neoclassical economics is not able to analyze the exploitative and alienating relations that underlie the process of exchange, relations that are becoming clearer and clearer to masses of discontented and dispossessed workers as a result of the current crisis.
The fact that the majority of academic economists rarely address these concerns is certainly not a matter of intelligence, but rather one of ideology and class allegiance. As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci developed this analysis further, drawing attention to the role of intellectuals in capitalist society: “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s deputies exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise… The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”
It is because of the above reasons that orthodox economics is normative and apologetic. It is more interested in defending the interests of the capitalist class and its hangers-on (the 1%) than in critical inquiry. Neoclassical economics is, in short, the economics of capital.
The urgent need now is for a political economy of the working class, one which includes the ‘old’ proletariat of the factories and the ‘new’ precariat of part-time work, exhausting ‘flexible’ hours, intensive exploitation, and, in general, of precarious employment circumstances. Such an economics would provide a theoretical foundation for the liberation of humanity; that is, for a society where the free development of each individual is a condition for the free development of all.
Although radical political economists do integrate capitalist class relations into their theories, for orthodox economists to join their heterodox colleagues would require nothing less than a revolution in their way of thinking. It would involve understanding capital not as a thing, but as the independent social power of capitalists over workers, of the primacy of profits over human needs and rights. Politically, it would entail abandoning the principles of neoliberalism, resisting the commodification of the commons, and fighting for an economy geared towards the satisfaction of human needs and built upon the foundations of dignity, justice, equality, decentralized planning, and workplace democracy.
Economics is thus both a social science and a contested battleground – one that the Occupy movement needs to fight for. The most enduring critiques of established economic dogmas – Marxist critiques, Keynesian, and others – were backed by popular movements that demanded radical social and political change. People fought for new economies, and social and political change, in their workplaces and in the streets. Today, after years of political and ideological defeats at the hands of the 1%, we can and must draw conclusions different from those of economic orthodoxy. It is imperative to show that working people do not have to pay for capitalism’s crises through cuts to social services, unemployment, lower living standards, poverty, and depression. Furthermore, as part of this struggle, it is necessary to emphasize the unity of the 99%: those engaging in both manual and intellectual labour, unionized and non-unionized, legal and ‘illegal’ workers, regardless of skin color or sex.
In order to confront the prevailing economic thought, however, it is necessary to make clear that economics is not pure mathematics and economic thinking is not fit only for technocrats. The disciplines of political science, sociology, economics, history, and philosophy are deeply interconnected. Their connection reflects of the real interactions between the market economy, the state, the political sphere, social and class relations, and ideology. To argue that economics is an objective science divorced from these spheres is precisely to misunderstand it. It is to view capitalism’s crises as natural disasters rather than as products of the system’s contradictions.
Against such a perspective, we must approach social science with the courage, as Marx urged, to undertake “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” not afraid of its own conclusions or conflicts with the powers that be. To take a step in this direction means deciding between real democracy and cannibalistic capitalism. It is to take sides on the burning question that confronts humanity in our time: socialism or barbarism.