The Econocracy calls for reform and democratisation of the field of Economics so that it may suit the present needs of our society, finds Orlando Hill
Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins, The Econocracy, the Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts (Manchester University Press 2017), xx, 212pp.
General elections are less than a month away and voters have been asked to choose a ‘strong and stable leader who can deliver a strong and stable economy’. Forget the NHS, housing or proper funding for education. ‘It’s the economy stupid’, as Bill Clinton once said. The media try to portray Jeremy Corbyn as a leader of a coalition of chaos who would bring the economy crashing down. He might have good intentions, but he has little understanding of how the economy works. The Labour manifesto of renationalising the railways, building council housing, funding the NHS and schools might be popular, but is a recipe for economic disaster.
If you ask why, the experts will tell you the economy is much too complicated and should be left to them. A neoliberal economist will be brought to the studios of the BBC and with the aid of graphs, complicated jargon and mathematical formulas will explain that those policies are just economically unsound. Achieving a sound economy as the main goal of a society is what the authors of this book call econocracy:
‘A society in which political goals are defined in terms of their effect on the economy, which is believed to be a distinct system with its own logic that requires experts to manage it’ (p.7).
Since the financial crash of 2008, various books have been written on the topic of the dominance of economics and its failings. I have reviewed two for Counterfire: Henry Heller’s The Capitalist University and John Week’s Economics of the 1%. What differentiates The Econocracy is that the authors ‘are of the generation that came of age in the maelstrom of the 2008 global financial crisis’ (p.1), and they are committed to making a change from the bottom up.
What motivated them to study economics was the same I had back in Brazil in 1977. I wanted to understand and transform the world for the better. Economics seemed to be just the subject that would equip me with the knowledge and skills to do just that. The difference is in the late 1970s economics was not yet dominated exclusively by neoliberalism. I had a choice between a university that saw economics as an exact science dominated by mathematical formulas and abstract models or the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that treated economics as a social science. I chose the latter. I studied a wide range of economists, while history, anthropology and geography were also compulsory modules. One of the objectives of the course was to develop critical evaluative skills and independent judgement.
That is not how The Econocracy describes the way economics is taught today - even in top-ranked universities. ‘Economics education (today) involves memorising and regurgitating neoclassical economic theory uncritically’ (p.50). Students are taught through textbooks and are not given a chance to read a range of works by different authors. It seems that gone are the days when if you got two economists in the same room you would have three different perspectives. In their attempt to move beyond neoclassical economics, the authors present Ha-Joon Chang’s table of ten different economic perspectives (pp.62-3), but I am sure there are more.
Large proportions of Economics exams are made up of descriptive questions. In their curriculum review the authors found that ‘76 per cent of questions entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever’ (p.51). At the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE) that figure stood at 83%. Compare that to A Level Economics where we spend a significant time developing evaluative skills to the point where students in their frustration demand a simple answer: “Just give us the answer.” To which we reply, “There is no right or wrong answer in economics. It depends on your analysis and the evidence you have to support your argument.” That is what this book tries to achieve.
The authors are all active members of Rethinking Economics, a network of over forty groups, consisting of students, academics and professionals, in fourteen countries. Econocracyis about the history and arguments of this student movement to reform the economics curriculum and democratise Economics, making it more pluralistic and reflective of the present time. The movement ‘calls for more openness, diversity, engagement and reflection in economics’ (p.5). In their opinion economics is too important to be left to the experts.
The students in the school where I teach economics A level have set up a Rethinking Economics group. They might in fact be the first group of sixth formers to do so.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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