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November 2000 (Volume 52, Number 6)

» Notes from the Editors
November 2000 (Volume 52, Number 6)

Dissatisfaction with what has happened to the study of economics is producing a rapidly growing revolt among economics students in France, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Within a matter of months, this new movement has made considerable inroads in exposing the meaninglessness of orthodox economics in contemporary capitalist societies. Students are eagerly looking for answers about the issues of the day, such as expanding globalization, growing dominance of international finance, increasing polarization between the rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor of each nation. But orthodox economics has no meaningful answers to any of these questions—a fact that has fed the widening rebellion among economics students in numerous countries. Before reporting on this new discontent, we need to provide some background on how economics has been transformed, since its classical period, into a study that is becoming more and more irrelevant.

Marx and Engels and their classical predecessors understood political economy to be the study of the production and distribution of what MR founding editor Leo Huberman called our “worldly goods.” To them, it was obvious that production and distribution are social activities; and that the nature of the social relations of production and distribution are of most interest to the political economist.

The political economy of Marx and Engels differed profoundly from that of the other classical theorists, but it would never have occurred to any of the classical economists to consider production and distribution in isolation from the social relationships people engaged in as they produced the output and contended for its distribution. Yet this is exactly what modern, “neoclassical” economists do. They presume an isolated, autonomous, and totally self-serving individual. This “homo economicus” has unlimited wants and is never satisfied. However, an unlimited supply of goods cannot be produced because resources are “scarce.” Therefore, each individual has to make choices, and economics is the “science” of the individual’s choice-making.

Economics, then, is reduced to the study of the relationship between individuals and things. Such a procedure lends itself nicely to the techniques of mathematics. Just assume that each one of our insatiable choice-makers is single-mindedly trying to maximize his or her well-being or “utility” (which is called profits when applied to the capitalists). Then economics becomes a problem of maximizing something subject to constraints (scarcity), and the tools of mathematics can be applied to find the conditions necessary for the achievement of the maximum.

Such an economics is capable of only the most trivial results. And since it takes the social relationships once central to the subject as given, it quickly becomes an ideology supportive of the status quo.

Economists increasingly gained fame not by helping to solve important social problems but by becoming masters of mathematical manipulation. Eventually the discipline was virtually taken over by abstract mathematical models and became almost completely divorced from reality, with its usefulness lying not in its practicality but simply in its scientism, which serves to disguise its ideological support of the status quo.

This conversion of economics into a sort of pseudo-physics has not gone unchallenged. In the 1930s, the Great Depression moved many economists to the left, and something similar occurred in the 1960s. Today, a new revolt is in the making. Centered in France, where over eight hundred students and 150 professors have signed petitions protesting the “excessive mathematical formalization” of economics, an anti-neoclassical movement has been spreading across Europe and even into the United States. French newspapers and magazines report that students now think of economics as a form of “autism,” divorced from reality and lost in “imaginary worlds.” But unlike autistic people, who cannot help their social isolation, neoclassical economists seem to revel in it and routinely deny entrance into the profession to anyone daring to profess unorthodox ideas. At a meeting in Cambridge, England, participants decried the “Stalinization” of their discipline. For some time now, schools have been removing History of Economic Thought courses from the curriculum, lest inquiring students “question or place in perspective orthodoxy.”

These are heartening developments and we applaud the rebellious students and teachers. While their goal now is simply to open up economics to other ideas, to create a “post-autistic” economics, we are confident that as they succeed, they will move inevitably to the one theory of capitalism that yields the most profound insights, namely Marxism. To subscribe to the postautistic economics newsletter (pae_news [at] btinternet.com)., send an email with the message “subscribe” to pae_news [at] btinternet.com.

For some years, university and college libraries have purchased books based on approval plans, usually arranged through a single vendor (for example, Academic Book Center http://www.acbc.com/dir.htm). Often, in the case of major universities, this has meant little more than automatically purchasing every book released by all university presses. But recently, in the interest of efficiency, university and college libraries have been extending their approval plans to cover a select group of nonuniversity publishers.

In one case with which we are familiar, major academic departments, around which the budgets for books are organized, are each given a “profile,” which consists of the nonuniversity publishers that are considered important for that particular field. All books from the publishers included in that profile are then purchased, on top of university press titles. In this particular case, the libraries’ area specialist constructed a profile for a social science department. In examining this profile, this department’s own faculty library representative discovered that it excluded four of the most important radical/independent publishers in the United States and Britain, including Monthly Review Press. A subsequent appeal by the department to the library to change the department’s profile to include these publishers was eventually successful.

For those versed in political economy, it is clear as day that what is happening is an economic rationalization of university and college library purchases, creating monopolies for certain well-established publishers in the name of market efficiency. The result is likely to be a further squeeze on small, struggling publishers outside the mainstream. We encourage our readers who are associated with colleges and universities to take an active role in making sure that the profiles for their departments, and the approval plan for the fulfillment of university library purchases through vendors at their institutions, accurately represent the needs of the university or college in which they are engaged, and are not designed so that they shut out those radical publishers that best represent the spirit of critical social inquiry.

The Greek daily Imerissa recently featured a special 23-page supplement on Paul Sweezy, which included a reprint of Paul’s essay Cars and Cities and photographs of Paul and comrades over the years. It sold sixty thousand copies in the Athens metropolitan area. Many thanks to Yanis Varoufakis for bringing this project to fruition. Some comments from readers of the supplement: Vassilis Droukopoulos, Economics Professor at Athens University, wrote “…it reminded me of the good old times when we used to think about things that mattered.” And Vassilis Goulandris (an advertiser!) remarked, “How did they let you publish this supplement? Sweezy’s thought is so subversive (because it is so logical) that one would have thought a financial rag would rather commit suicide than publish….”

We are happy to welcome Andrew Nash as the Editorial Director for Monthly Review Press. Andrew was an anti-apartheid activist and taught at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa for twelve years. His most recent MR article was Mandela’s Democracy in vol. 50, no. 11 (April 1999). Andrew was a tremendous help in organizing our trip to South Africa last February and a gracious host during the tour’s visit to Cape Town. He is joined in New York by his wife, Tana, and son, James. Andrew can be reached by calling the office.

We would also like to welcome Claude Misukiewicz to MR. Claude will be here three days a week, sharing the Assistant Editor position with Vicki Larson, and comes to us from The Nation. Claude can be reached by calling the office or or using our contact form.

October 28 was Al Ruben’s seventy-fifth birthday. The staff and extended family of Monthly Review salute our friend and comrade and wish him the very best for the future.

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