Reviving a Progressive Economics: A new Organization for a Long and Distinguished Tradition

By John Weeks

The explicitly conservative nature of mainstream (“neoclassical”) economics might give the impression that all economists line up on the political spectrum somewhere between the moderately and extremely reactionary. This is especially the case with the vast majority of the profession in North America and Europe supportive of fiscal austerity.

While free market fundamentalism characterizes for the vast majority of economists, there are very important exceptions. I am proud to have been among a growing group of economists that has formed an organization to revive the progressive traditions of the profession, the World Economic Association (see details at

Begun earlier this year with a few hundred founding economists, it now has over 4500 members from over the globe. In the early 1960s I chose economics to study at the University of Texas (Austin) because I wanted to help make the world a better place. It is safe to say that if today a student is so motivated, there is almost no university in the developed world that would make even a pretension to provide such economics training. On the contrary, especially in the English-speaking countries economics departments are dedicated to a dogmatic free market ideology that permits no descent.

In the European Middle Ages the dogmas of the Catholic church enforced daunting barriers to scientific inquiry. The pernicious effect of mainstream (neoclassical) economics is far worse and considerably more powerful ideologically. It is a virus of the mind. Once implanted in the mental processes, it systematically destroys the ability to conduct rational thought. As an intellectual method, it does not render the exoteric into the esoteric (explaining what we observe by what we cannot observe but theoretically infer), which is the function of science. Rather, it renders the complexities of what we observe into ahistorical and anti-social trivia, with its triviality obscured by cabalistic mathematics.

The obviously social nature of human existence is rejected by the neoclassicals in favor of the absurdity that each person is an isolated individual (I recommend that the progressively minded not use the word “individual”, but “people” and “person” in its place). Bereft of the hopes, fears, anxieties and feelings of personal responsibility that make us human. These “individuals” are driven by pure personal greed. The goodness of greed is defined as “rational” behavior. This individualized, irresponsible greed allegedly results in the general welfare. It is difficult to image a doctrine either more vulgar or more flagrantly in the interest of capital.

Adam Smith, who lived in a largely pre-capitalist society dominated by the reactionary vestiges of feudalism, can be forgiven for embracing this defense of raw capitalist greed, but neoclassical economists of the 21st century cannot. During the first half of the 19th century people who identified themselves as political economists actively debated the fundamental questions of capitalist society: distribution, growth and human welfare. They fiercely debated trade policy, monetary policy (including the nature of money), public debt, and regulation of conditions of work.

The re-branding of the discipline and its members, from political economy to “economics” and “economists” (W S Jevons, 1835-1882), marked a major step towards a systematically reactionary and intellectually intolerant dogma. Jevon’s contribution became sacred writ in the next century with the distinction between “positive” and “normative” economics. This distinction is frequently attributed to Milton Friedman, though it can be found at least two decades before his famous article (for example, in the work of the neoclassical founding father and nominal Keynesian, Paul Samuelson).

By the 1950s the professional guidelines were clear. When acting “scientifically”, economists reached conclusions that were “value free”. Being a member of the profession was contingent upon accepting this conclusion. For example, an economist was free to be supportive of trade unions in private life, as long as he/she accepted the theoretical dogma that trade unions caused unemployment and/or inflation. The vast majority of policy-oriented (and usually more progressive) economists accepted these guidelines because they did not appear to weaken the de facto hegemony of the neoclassical Keynesians.

A few committed progressives challenged the intellectually vacuous positive/normative distinction. They sought to shift the profession from its acceptance of the moribund “microfoundations” that were little more than mathematical elaboration of the Jevonian marginalist banalities. These progressives (among the prominent were Joan Robinson and John Kenneth Galbraith) fought a lonely struggle largely ignored within the profession, though of they had considerable influence outside its dogma boundaries.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, as politics in the Anglo Saxon countries shifted decisively to the right, the neoclassical fundamentalists made their move: if the profession accepted the validity of self-adjusting, general equilibrium full employment, wasn’t it time that the true believers took control of the profession? In ideological terms, the subsequent purge of all non-neoclassical tendencies, no matter how mild, closely tracked the Spanish Inquisition.

Like the central purpose of the Inquisition, the consolidation of the Spanish nation state (through purging of Islamic and Jewish influence in Iberia), the neoclassical purpose was to create a reactionary, pseudo-intellectual bastion in defense of capitalism, in its most vulgar and anti-social form. The transformation of the economics profession from a field of intellectual inquiry into a closed, dogmatic servant of the status quo is unprecedented in academia. This transformation would be equivalent to Creationism taking over the field of genetics.

The fundamental mission of the World Economic Association and other heterodox economists (and a mission it is) is to recapture the discipline and re-establish rational inquiry. Experience shows that success in this mission requires a return to a more progressive political context. In the meantime, the WEA seeks to remind, revive and elaborate the proud tradition of progressive economists.

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