Tomorrow, my department (UMass Amherst Economics) is hosting a workshop on its history and the history of radical economics in the U.S. more generally. I'm very excited about this talk for a number of reasons. First, the speakers for the workshop were some of the leaders of this movement in the 70s. Second, the place of radical economics in the history of economic thought is quite an interesting one. Let me briefly explain why.
Even though they are often identified this way in the media, I don't usually think of academics as the most radical force in society. Consider the social sciences. Often, the dominant theories of social sciences reflect the prevailing social consensus. So, neoclassical economics is more popular in society than heterodox economics at least partly because neoclassical economics affirms the dominant economic order. In other words, neoclassical economics provides theoretical justifications for capitalism. While I don't know as much about sociology or psychology, etc., I think the situation there is similar. Even some academics who teach radical ideas in their classes hold conservative views about the academy and society.
I think this blurring of what radicalism means to academics is fairly demonstrated above ... at least it's enough to drive my main point that to think about a truly radical department or academic tradition means challenging the boundaries between the academy and society. It is of utmost importance to keep this in mind when discussing the radical tradition of the econ department here. Why? Because UMass Econ imported radical economists in the early 1970s, economists riding on a wave of social demonstrations such as the civil rights movement and workers' strikes. These same economists turned in the early-to-mid-1980s toward answering radical questions using neoclassical techniques (see work by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis for two examples). Radicalism in the department slowly died, and now (in 2009) radical economics has nothing of the attention it received in the 1970s, when mainstream journals such as the American Economic Review were publishing work by these radical economists.
Why do I think it's so important to frame the story in this way? Because it gets away from the tendency some people have of saying "the field of economics is quickly changing, we need to identify those changes and keep with that current if we are to establish ourselves as a premier heterodox institution." People making this argument are operating under a severely flawed impression of the relationship between the academy and society and what it truly means to be a progressive institution of higher education. The "dominant" field of economics is swayed by the slow tectonic shifts of orthodoxy. Attaching oneself to that in the hope for radical change is intellectual complacency, and downright conservative at worst.
Of course, I'm no radical myself, I want to get a PhD for my own reasons. These are simply my thoughts on the state of radicalism in economics and the reason for why I'm so interested in tomorrow's talk.