Lively conference debunks academic economics

Submitted by martin on 14 November, 2010 - 10:21 Author: Martin Thomas

Several hundred people attended the annual conference called by Historical Materialism magazine in London on 11-14 November 2010.

It showed that there is a wide and lively interest in Marxist ideas among university students and lecturers.

One centrepiece was Ben Fine and Dimitrios Milonakis speaking in a Friday evening plenary on their book From Economics Imperialism to Freakonomics: The Shifting Boundaries between Economics and other Social Sciences. It was a vigorous knockabout polemic against mainstream academic economics.

That economics is skewed, according to Fine and Milonakis, by two methodological quirks: methodological individualism (all its theories are based on suppositions about individual market responses) and axiomatic model-building (based on axioms about those individual responses, axioms often held to even when they are admittedly untrue).

They had some nice quotes. Here is Eugene Fama, one of Chicago's leading right-wing academic economists: "There’ll be a lot of work trying to figure out what happened and why it happened, but we’ve been doing that with the Great Depression since it happened, and we haven’t really got to the bottom of that. So I don’t intend to pursue that. I used to do macroeconomics [i.e. the study of broad economic aggregates, rather than of the price, demand, and supply of individual items (microeconomics)], but I gave it up long ago".

Or again: an opinion survey asked economics PhD students in the USA what knowledge they considered important for their work. 3.4% said that knowledge of the real economy was important. 57% said that knowledge of maths was important.

I can't give an overview of the whole conference, in part because of its strengths. From Thursday midday through to Sunday evening, and starting at 9 or 9.30 on every day bar Thursday, there were usually seven or eight sessions going at the same time.

It would be good to report that the weekend brought out Marxist analyses of the crisis shaming the academic mainstream. Sadly, I can't claim that, and I doubt I could claim it even if I'd attended more sessions.

On the Friday I made a presentation which generated an interesting discussion. On the Sunday, Simon Mohun gave a more worked-out version of ideas which he previously introduced at the Workers' Liberty winter school of November 2009, on the long-term patterns of profit-rate movements within capitalism and their effect on crises.

On Friday Greg Albo gave a comprehensive survey of the "fourth phase" of the current crisis, the public sector cuts phase.

IMF and OECD papers, he pointed out, are calling for 20 years of fiscal austerity, and "virtually every OECD state" is introducing some structure like the UK's Office of Budgetary Responsibility to drive the cuts process outside the previous political and civil-service structures.

Michalis Spourdalakis gave a sober account of the Greek left's fight against the cuts there.

There have been six 24 hour general strikes since May, and the recent local election results show a total score of 20% for candidates to the left of Pasok.

But as yet this is "far from constituting an effective and enduring resistance". The Pasok government been able to impose anti-strike legislation without adequate resistance.

The "sectarianism" - in fact, old-style Stalinist third-periodism - of the Communist Party, the main left-of-Pasok force, and its nationalism, are destructive. The "nihilism" of anarchist groups, especially in Athens, is "not helpful".

In a 2008 article Spourdalakis had held out hopes for Syriza, a coalition built around the ex-Eurocommunist Synaspismos and including bits of the Trotskisant left. But, he said in his talk, Syriza has not adjusted strategy enough for the new situation, and has been wracked by factionalism: it is now effectively divided into three groupings, which competed with each other in the local elections.

Spourdalakis saw signs of hope in "new unions emerging, especially among precarious workers" and new "network of civil and social rights movements".

A session on the Sunday about the work of the French Trotskyist Daniel Bensaid, who died in January this year, to my mind showed the "academic Marxist" culture at its worst.

Although Bensaid had a job at a university, he was no "academic Marxist". Even his most abstruse philosophical works were geared into political issues - centrally, for him, readjusting the "Mandelite", ever-ongoing "rise of the world revolution" version of Trotskyism which he learned as a young activist, in the light of the collapse of European Stalinism in 1989-91, and of the terrible error (as he came to see it) which his movement made in not denouncing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-80.

He pursued that readjustment more keenly than any other leading former "Mandelite", and came explicitly to reject the old "orthodox Trotskyist" idea that the USSR and the states modelled on it had been "degenerated and deformed workers' states", or "post-capitalist", or "transitional", or had represented a "progressive" camp as against capitalism.

However - it seems to me - he allowed his critique to be "displaced" too much into general "philosophical" arguments, about the non-linearity of the flow of time, and so on, leaving much "Mandelite" baggage in the thinking of his organisation (the LCR, then NPA) undisturbed.

The session had started with three platform speeches, mostly given over to flat expositions of Bensaid's philosophical writings, delivered in such a way that you could scarcely have guessed that any other than the most abstract philosophical arguments ever concerned Bensaid.

I raised my question about Bensaid and the Stalinist states from the floor - without any polemic. Another floor speaker quickly declared: "We should get away from the sectarianism", drawing applause. (I suspect some people saw "sectarianism" in the very fact that I had referred in a hostile way to the old Stalinist states in Eastern Europe - implicitly disputing the view put by Stathis Kouvelakis from the platform that their fall had been a "defeat", a "terrible catastrophe". Others will have seen "sectarianism" in the fact that I raised political issues in a discussion about philosophy, and did so in a way implicitly critical of Bensaid).

Alex Callinicos from the SWP oilily declared that he also privately disagreed with the "workers' state" description of the old USSR, but it was "not helpful" to discuss such things in the session. Instead, he, Callinicos, would talk about something more appropriate: Bensaid's critique of the French philosopher Alain Badiou's concept of "event"... All very professorial.

I was reminded of an SWP (then IS) meeting many years ago, when I ventured to dispute with the speaker on the correct Marxist characterisation of the USSR (the meeting was about the USSR!) and got told by the chair that it was shocking and improper to raise such "sectarian" questions "when there was a worker present".

Today... it is "sectarian", shocking, disgraceful, to disturb university professors with such things...

The session seemed to me a demeaning insult to the memory of Bensaid. He was a revolutionary, concerned for the truth, and, I'm sure, as disdainful of academic mutual congratulations as any of us.


Submitted by martin on Sun, 11/14/2010 - 23:12

In his summing-up Stathis Kouvelakis made a big deal of Bensaid's allegedly appreciative attitude to Louis Althusser, a philosopher who was one of the leading (though very slightly dissident) intellectual figures of the French Communist Party in the 1960s and also strongly influenced one of the Maoist movements that emerged in France in the 1960s.

Aha, said Kouvelakis, when Bensaid's organisation, the LCR, published a book of polemics against Althusser in 1974, Contre Althusser, Bensaid was the only leading writer of the LCR not to contribute.

And later on Bensaid came to be positively appreciative of Althusser.

This seems to me another attempt to reduce the revolutionary Daniel Bensaid to a Professor Bensaid who of course appreciates the "interesting contribution" of Professor Althusser and would not dream of raising any "sectarian" disputes about Stalinism.

It is not true. Bensaid contributed to Contre Althusser. (And, as it happens, many leading writers of the LCR at the time did not).

The second, 1999, edition of the book omits Bensaid's article from the first edition, on the grounds it was too ephemeral, and includes instead a new article by him, prefaced by reminiscences by Bensaid on how, as a young student, in winter 1965-6, he studied Althusser and "decidedly" rejected his ideas - and does not regret that!

The tone of Bensaid's comments in 1999 is more laid-back than that of the 1974 book. Althusser had died in 1990, and had been a recluse (much of the time in a mental hospital) since 1980; and had been somewhat critical of the CP in 1978.

But in his acknowledged major work, Marx l'intempestif or Marx for our times, discussing many themes of Marxist philosophy, Bensaid mentioned Althusser substantively only once, and then scathingly.

By the way, Bensaid definitely did not see the fall of Stalinism in Europe as a "terrible catastrophe" (as Kouvelakis does). He wrote explicitly that the fall was "not to be regretted - quite the contrary".

Kouvelakis himself quoted Bensaid's quip that Marxists should celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall with champagne and alka-seltzer. Not what you'd drink to mark a "terrible catastrophe".

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 11/19/2010 - 22:58

...that he only fights the class struggle on one front (the ideological)?

Even if everything he says on that front of struggle (I don't know anything like enough about him to make a judgment there) is 100% correct, doesn't the fact that he has very little at all to say about struggles on the other fronts make him, at best, limited?

When was the last time Zizek had anything to say about, or anything to do with, a strike? (Genuine question.)


Daniel Randall