Saturday, October 10, 2009

thoughts on the department talk

On Tuesday:

A lot of what was said had to do with the events leading up to the package deal in the spring of 1973. Some things were said about what happened immediately afterward: the battles fought between the faculty and the grad students, for instance. However, almost nothing was said about the state of radical economics or the department in the 1980s. A few things were said about the 90s, and of course Sam and Steve gave their thoughts on the current state of radical economics and where it might go in the future. While I do have some issues with what some people said about the present and future, I was more interested in the past: specifically, what happened in those early years of the department that led, so quickly, to things changing?

In our digging up of EGSO records over the summer, we came across a variety of memos and minutes beginning in the late 1970s. These were really helpful in constructing a memory of some of the debates which occurred (such as the controversy over the Affirmative Action committee). But they also painted a picture of EGSO's thoughts on their situation as graduate students in this unique department. Their views on TA allocation, funding issues, and other matters of cogovernance are strikingly similar to the views expressed by EGSO today on the same or similar issues. Their views on the changing direction of the department can also be captured in these documents. Indeed, as early as 1983 when students expressed concern over the change in curriculum they noted the changing direction of certain professors' work in the department, towards more mainstream ideas and techniques.

What I find so interesting about this early look at the orientation of the department is how quickly things changed. It makes me wonder, what was the lifespan of this radical movement in economics, both here and in the profession as a whole? If these economists really were riding a wave of social movements, when that wave died did the movement die with it?

This is the reason why I ask: does it really make sense to talk about "the history of radical economics and a radical department, 1973-present" or is it more like "the history of radical economics and a radical department, 1973-79" or some proximate date? The framing of the study, I believe, is essential to understanding both the nature of a radical department and what we can do today to change things for the better. Why? Here is my point: because if radicalism more or less lost steam after this early period (the "to 1979" scenario) then we must look at what things were like at that time, and try our best to go back to that time. Otherwise, in the "to present" scenario, we are left wondering whether radical economics is a simple skirting of the mainstream by people who mostly ask alternative and slightly more interesting questions without relying entirely on neoclassical tools to answer them.

My personal thoughts on the issue are that radicalism was most likely a punctuated event in the history of economic thought in the U.S. I have very few doubts that things were quite different in UMass econ by the mid-1980s and probably even earlier. The question is then, what are the reasons for this change? Like most questions in history, there are both agency and social institutions dimensions to the story, related through some notion of dialectics which I won't go into too much :) I will briefly sketch out what I see as some of the main factors.

1. Sam plays a central role in this history because he was the organizer of the group of professors who were hired in the spring of 1973. Before coming to UMass he researched other attempts at radical institutions that had ultimately dissolved. While he was hesitant at first to share the lessons he learned in studying these departments, later on he admitted that lack of group cohesion was a central element to all of the failure stories. While the initial pact amongst the five did exist, Sam turned towards a different set of questions and ideas in the 1980s which dealt less with critiquing capitalism and more with studying topics that were excluded by neoclassicals at that time, and criticizing the neoclassical theory. He admits this himself.

In fact, by moving more in the direction of Hayek (criticizing the Walrasian model) than, say, Rawls (providing moral critiques of capitalism), Sam had not only given up on the intellectual challenge posed by the construction of a post-capitalist society but he also became increasingly engaged with the academic aspect of his research program. (Find a previous post here on where I see the relationship between radical academics and society.)

2. The problems facing the world in the 1970s when some economists got interested in radical ideas were monumental: global inequality, imperialism, and at the same time a fear of Marxist ideas as "dangerous and subversive." This is definitely a volatile point in global history in terms of what was being talked about and the severity with which people held oppositional views. The 1980s, in contrast, were a period of social conservatism, government crackdown of unions, and the beginning of an era characterized by leftist economists as "neoliberalism." Given that to at least some extent social movements informed these radical economists, you can possibly make an argument that it works in the other direction as well: specifically, that this period gave new theoretical strength to the fundamental neoclassical doctrines of competitive markets and little government intervention.

What does this mean for an understanding of radical economics and what radical economists can do about it? First, as Jim Crotty pointed out near the end, the social problems (partly outlined in -2-)which they confronted in the 1970s are no bigger than the problems radical economists face today. The conditions exist for radical economists to criticize capitalism and face the greater intellectual challenge of constructing an alternative, so what radical economics had in the 1970s is similar to (if not less important than) what radical economists have today.

Second, so much of this is about individual choices, and that is something I find both amazingly beautiful and powerful but also very dangerous. Here, I believe all we can do is trust in education and fruitful debate. In fact, lots of debate -- open communication is absolutely central. And, it might be necessary to make some pacts at times :) but we should not view them as necessary evils but as opportunities for cooperation.

Finally, I would strongly differ with Sam concerning open engagement with the top of the mainstream. There is no a priori reason to do this, and in fact it may compromise our position by fetishizing the elite, which is directly contrary to radical principles.


  1. If lots of debate and open communication is absolutely central, why are you excluding an open engagement with mainstream? How is this contrary to radical principles? By the fact that we might be 'buying into' their hegemonic position by doing so? But is it really as simplistic as that?

    Do you think "gender" is something most mainstream (so-called) development insitutions (UNDP, FAO, WB etc ) would even considering paying lip service to had it not been for activists and academic locking horns with the mainstream (policy-makers and academia)? Yeah, there a LOT of ground to be covered beyond the token (and insufficient) 'gender mainstreaming' that happens in these institutions. At the same time, it is precisely a combination of advocacy and academic work the past 30 years have led to changes that are beneficial for women's movements and the goal of gender equality-- time use studies moving to the national level, public policies that seek to bring about gender sensitivity in public places incl. the workplace etc. Without the thousands of women (and men) working and banaging their heads against the state or quasi-state institutions (or looking further back, other historical over-determinants), these would not have come about.

    If being radical means seeking path-breaking/revolutionary change; then of the many strategies that need to be simultaneously employed is engagement with the mainstream. And since the "mainstream" itself keeps shifting, this means a continuous updating of strategies themselves.

    To me, our department has been a unique place bringing together graduate students who (despite their diversity in thinking about it) have visions and thoughts of how to bring about a world that is different from the one we live in today. Being a feminist economist, my vision is one where gender equality prevails at a very fundamental level. Bringing this about will take more than one revolution with all kinds of other gradual changes (in the workplace; in schools,colleges, universities; within households across a mindboggling array of contradictory cultures).

    It is in this sense I am inclined to agree with Sam. And while many parts of his talk might have been disappointing; I do think he raised a very pertinent point --- we have not thought concretely enough about alternatives... what will the alternative look like? Leave alone how to bring it about.

    Do we have any semblance of an answer, yet? What Rick has been talking about is indeed interesting, but I am pessimistic. Unless you have a complete erasure of the existence and the idea of nation states it is difficult to imagine how, say worker owned cooperations, would come to being. I am lot more inclined towards thinking about what community based development (not in the WB/IMF sense but in the decentralized, bottom-up, participatory models that are truly by and for the people) looks like... and it is in this sense I am more sympathetic to Sam's work because it does try to look at how individual and group behavior makes this feasible or not. Of course, this does not mean I do not appreciate Steve and Rick's work. I do see the relevance in the kind of academic work they inspire amongst their students which in turn will lead to directly (or indirectly by n degrees) influencing public policy or thinking about how radical change can be brought about.

    Beginning to ramble.. so ending here.

  2. Related to the question of involving with the mainstream or not: I guess the question one has to answer is why. I agree with Dan; there is no a priori reason for doing that. If someone wants to have influence on the (environmental, gender, labor) policies of, say the US/Indian/Greek government, yes - they clearly have a better chance of succeeding by employing mainstream methodologies and utilizing the institutional channels that are best suited for that job (academic posts, advisor positions to governments, etc.).

    Is this reformist? Yes - and there's nothing wrong with admitting it.

    Is this radical? I'd answer this question in the negative, as I believe that the order that produces the problems that we'd be responding to is still in place (whether that be capitalism, patriarchy, or environmental degradation).

    So, in response to the claim of "relevance", I'd say that the fear of being irrelevant refers to a very particular type of institutions - and that is a well-established academic and political order. I, personally, care more about being relevant to the communist and the environmental movement. In order to do that, I feel that the tools of the mainstream of the economic discipline are ill-suited, to say the least.

    Now, I know little about feminist issues. I would probably agree that it was a combination of activist struggles and academic advocacy that produced some (insufficient) change in gender equality. I cannot say which was more important - I do not know. But I know that reforms do not happen only because of academic advocacy - without activist struggles, there is no pressure to governments and no intellectual stimulation to academics. Therefore, I care more about activist struggles, rather than direct communication with policy makers.

    Comparing Resnick and Wolff's theory to Bowles' work. It is not clear to me why you think that the idea of the nation state is determinant for the success of worker-owned cooperatives - and why you see that their work faces such a constraint when Sam's doesn't.
    I don't argue that the nation-state is irrelevant. But Spain is a nation-state and yet the worker-cooperatives of Mondragon have been thriving for the past 60 years, allowing tens of thousands of people to have control and ownership over their workplace. I was just yesterday reading about similar cooperatives in Kerala, in Mararikulam. So, at least there is experimentation - that's something to take seriously and to learn from (not just for academics but also for activists).
    What doesn't Steve and Rick's work offer? Policy prescriptions. I am wondering whether you pose the nation-state (and its policy-makers) as the natural counterpart in every academic conversation and every political intervention. I would argue that it doesn't have to be this way.

  3. This comment was made by Swati --

    On the departmental question I have not much at stake though I must
    say I would have liked to hear Resnick's thoughts on future agendas
    and the past "radicalism" of the department. The peculiarity of the
    UMass economics department also speaks to the weird dynamics of U.S
    political radicalism and how it comes to find safe spaces within
    modern institutes like university campuses. The department is also a
    story of how political activity in the US becomes segregated and
    contained within the campus. So I think we should retain a certain
    degree of skepticism about its future role.

    However, moving from the specificities of your department, I am
    skeptical that the question or complaint about departments and even
    universities should be that of whither/whether radicalism. These
    spaces have been liberal humanist and are now (since 60s in the U.S)
    shifting away from their ideological function to generate human
    resources for global capital. If you go the U-Store you will see
    people being encouraged to buy cups and mugs and pencils and skirts
    with UMass logo on it- like a corporation that needs branding. I
    don’t think the critique is to be on the turf of radicalism- that
    radical critics are sell-outs or people are insufficiently radical,
    which seems to be the underlying tension here. The political fight is
    no longer essentially on those terms because I think the university is
    no longer a space for producing able citizen subjects or for national
    prestige/culture/character as in World War 2 times. Instead now we
    see a battle against the transnationalization and a cash-nexus-ization
    of the University, for want of better words. The US university is a
    labor market for international talent, thats all. The fact that the
    Econ department came to be and existed is in and of itself an
    interesting history but where it fits in within the university, in
    other words why do we need radical department of economics (or poetry)
    can easily be an internal critique. What I am trying to say is that
    any critique of the university can be easily made (quite fashionable)
    and comes to serve as policy documents- in as much as they do not
    profoundly question the structures of the institutionalization of
    thought. For me that is where the battle should be fought. And if
    that is where the battle is to be fought then necessarily it cannot be
    fought using the tools of the mainstream, whatever they might be,
    since those are intended to promote further institutionalization. The
    question of using mainstream tool is not new- dismantling the house
    with the master’s tool and whatnot is not new to feminism. I agree
    with Audre Lorde here, we will never beat the master at their own game
    using their own tools- the categories, the questions, the themes and
    the methods that haunt that turf are designed to make certain
    questions intelligible leave alone even choosing to answer them.

    Coming to Avanti’s point about open dialogue, some of this engagement
    is not even “strategic”. Time use is one useful example. So much
    effort and resources spent to answer how women are spending or
    distributing their time within different responsibilities, the unequal
    burdens they have, their leisure and whatnot. Quantifying all of this
    for what- pushing for a better pay-scale, for recognition of the
    different regimes of work. 1) do we really need sophisticated methods
    for making these issues visible? Ask my great grandmother she will
    tell you exactly how she is oppressed by the husband, the family and
    the children! There are numerous folk songs about the gendered
    division of labor, or the violence (physical, emotional) that women
    face at the hands of their husbands and male relatives. But we cannot
    hear them so we invent a method and go to the field- because we are
    the ones with the institutional means to speak and be heard.

  4. This is the continuation of Swati's comment --

    Instead of counteracting the very mechanisms or the language i.e.- the
    terms on which some issues are being heard, we feed into the politics
    and economics of knowledge production. I mean all of this feminist
    research- the talks in IAFFE in Hilton, the networking, the coffee and
    the wine and the bullshit all of this within the terms of the current
    institutional frameworks which renders the situation so oppressive in
    the first place. And we support this industry for the incredible
    comfort it provides us- an easy chair, an office to write in, jets to
    fly and present. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for open dialogue, but
    the terms have to be set forcefully by the ones who have the least
    voice in the current process. And the same is true on the question of
    alternatives, I think I would prefer to keep my
    privileged-academic-from-the-U.S.-ass out of it and let others who are
    most marginalized talk about their visions. That discussion is
    intensely political and collective; and in the context of India the
    lesser the middle class Englishwallahs speak the better, they talk
    crap more often than not besides being the loudest.

    The most troubling to me is Avanti’s point on
    gender-feminism-critical/radical perspectives- These three terms have
    a very uneasy and much fought over history. In that context I am
    unable to understand 2 things:
    a) What is feminism? What makes something feminist- feminist
    methodology, feminist themes, or a focus on women? These are really
    old debates and I am not sure we can resolve them here but there needs
    to be a separation of the question of women from issues of gender-
    women understood as a biological category. Can feminism, however it
    is defined, bear the burden you have charged it with? Gender equality
    we all know is based upon the particular location of differently
    gendered subjects in racial/class formations and heterosexual
    economies. In as much as feminism takes the mantle of a liberal
    modernist position that understands gender as largely an empirical or
    descriptive category- without asking how the overdetermined relation
    of woman with women (as historically constituted) comes to be, power
    and its constitution of the subject then I am not sure how such
    feminism can be considered as feminism? Simply by virtue of looking at

    b) Your tirade against Marxism seems to be hard to relate to. You seem
    to be referring to either particular political formations or people
    who have ignored the gender question but since you level a
    non-specific charge its too soon to understand and argue with. Can
    you clarify, which Marxists schools and people you speak of? In
    particulars of what context? Lastly, mainstream feminists who always
    like to claim a persecuted position in the academic market and/or
    political spaces often make remarkably violent exclusions. There are
    so many examples but I am going to name a few- in years 2007 and 2008
    womens’ group marching for Women’s day and on the May day parade in
    Delhi refused to let prostitutes, hijras and queers march with them
    because they were not workers and/or women. Last year’s Bangalore
    based Pink Chaddi campaign made a great deal of the harassment middle
    class women face on streets. While I do not wish to trivialize what
    they face the blog campaign was full of classist, casteist and
    aesthetic-elitism remarks against the unemployed men. These women
    were more conservative and oppressive than some of the men. Gender in
    that sense is not about men and/versus women, its a question of
    gendered subjectivities, gendering of the economy etc. You are asking
    people to identify a politics based on their biological sex and social
    grouping based on an injunction of women as the subject of feminism. I
    find it hard to identify myself with some of the chaddi campaign
    politics for example.