Orthodoxy Prevails in Academia

Notre Dame University has announced the closure of their long-standing department of “economics and policy studies”, to which it had condemned heterodox economists after splitting the formerly mixed Economics department in two. The university was so frightened of the pervasive discussions about ideology and methodology in this supposed social science that instead of fostering an atmosphere of debate, it wanted to separate the orthodox and the unorthodox as much as possible. Of course it has now used the situation as an occasion to get rid of the unorthodox entirely, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (1)

In the meantime, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has decided that every academic must prove their research project to be of immediate ‘relevance’ to society in order to be provided funding.(2) This is a softening of the initial proposal, which was to abolish peer review entirely and to rely exclusively on ‘quantitative’ measures such as numbers of citations, despite their utter irrelevance to academic research quality and the manner in which this favors only research with results that are popular or that have good public relations. Nonetheless, there is a real danger that theoretical studies and more philosophical approaches will be severely undermined by this policy, as will more speculative programmes in the natural sciences, which often pay off only in the longer run.

Both of these recent developments are mere examples of the consistent fight in academia for orthodoxy, which promotes that which suits the needs of capitalist society and hinders and marginalizes that which challenges it. Although academia in the West is still a place of relative strong ideological resistance to liberal dogmatism, ever since the collapse of the 1968 movement and even more so after the fall of the USSR the social sciences have been under constant ideological pressure to conform to the norms of ‘relevance’ and ‘mainstream’ thought, by which is meant anything that either doctrinally defends liberal capitalist societies or somehow technically aids the bourgeois governments in running such societies. Economics, already a discipline extremely regressed since World War II under constant political pressure and censorship, is the main victim of this; there are now indeed very few places in the Anglosphere in which anything but orthodox economics is taught, and practically none on the European continent. This poisonous medley of second-hand utilitarianism and vulgar marginalism has done the capitalists a great service in ideologically legitimizing their neoliberal policies, with the sad result that although very few people are inclined to actually listen to orthodox economists (to their great dismay)(3), few people now have the intellectual weapons to combat them. These are systematically denied to them by marginalizing or eliminating heterodox, including Marxist, political economy, or by shoving it into Sociology and Anthropology departments where it will not reach the right students and detract from the pressing matters in those fields.

Similarly, the drive to ‘quantify’ science by means of utterly arbitrary rankings (often from dubious sources such as popular magazines or third-rate universities in China), citation lists that prove nothing but researcher’s PR qualities, and research contract value serve no other purpose but to make academics more dependent on capitalist enterprises for funding and on their popular standing with governments or boards of regents composed of former businessmen. Often universities are forced also to promote specifically disciplines which are outright for no other purpose than to aid bourgeois management. At Notre Dame, the excuse to foster only orthodox economics henceforth was as follows, as the social sciences dean explained: “Mr. McGreevy also says that the university’s investments in the new econometrics department since 2003 have paid large dividends, including a sharp growth in the overall number of economics majors and stronger visibility for Notre Dame in the world of mainstream economic research.”(4) ‘Econometrics’, of course, is nothing else than the skill to make market predictions for the purpose of fostering capitalist policy.

Indeed, orthodox economics itself, outside its econometric form, more generally reveals itself to be not even that, a useful theory, but really a game played by highly mathematically trained intellectual mercenaries who are hired to provide comic relief in the form of ideology to the bourgeoisie. Its main goal is always to give a scientific veneer to circular reasonings, preferrably expressed in the form of graphs and models, with the goal of destroying as much as possible the natural appeal socialist thought might have, including but not limited to even such innocuously human traits as altruism. As Philip Mirowski, himself an economist at Notre Dame, describes the general approach very well: “This game of acknowledging something called “altruism”, only then to explain it away as simultaneously Natural and nonexistent, has become one of the major academic pastimes of our upbeat infotainment scene. Through the instrumentality of sociobiology, which is just neoclassical economics foisted upon some innocent unsuspecting animals and insects, it reveals its ambitions to become a Theory of Everything. The theory is as easy to learn as any proleptic two-step: posit an ontology of “individuals” (selfish genes, isolated consciousnesses, strategic organisms, anomic atoms) and then run the numbers in a “disguised self-interest” narrative. This game of “gotcha” resonates nicely with a certain free-floating paranoia which itself thrives in the interstices of the Information Age.”(5)

In an age where neoliberalism has almost openly declared war against not just socialism, but even the social-democratic consensus of the First World, and where as a result ideologies of atomism and individualism are on the rebound, the decks are being stacked against the few defenders of progressive thought that openly agitate against the onslaught in our regions, mainly in academia. The pressure to conform will be ever greater as universities too are more and more subjected to the logic of capital and professors become commodified as much as anyone else, or if they are stubborn replaced by cheap and temporary ‘adjuncts’. Meanwhile, petty bourgeois populations frightened by the competitive threat of the new possessive individualism are increasingly fleeing to the refuges of fascism and xenophobia, encouraged to do so by the lack of serious left presence in the political arena. In this context, it is ever more important that in academia as well as elsewhere the left wing stand its ground, and not let itself be seduced by the new ‘common sense’ even when it presents itself as the ‘left foot of capitalism’. As Mirowski notes about such ‘reasonable’ bourgeois professors as one finds in the new Economics: “The attempt of the “liberal” George Akerlof to present a repackaged neoclassicism with a human face must likewise be judged a minor and insignificant diversion. Indeed, his use of Marcel Mauss to motivate the idea of “labor contracts as partial gift exchange” only goes to show that an interdisciplinary neoclassical is an oxymoron. The movement by the economics orthodoxy to “take ethics seriously” proposes the Sisyphean task of rolling the gift up the utility gradient. Finally, the whole massive literature with endlessly disputes the possibility and nature of altruism in an economic or rational-choice framework is merely a make-work project designed to keep a few underemployed academics busy, and should be one of the first targets of any budget cuts.”(6) When better politics prevails in academia, it will be time we start following this advice when it comes to budgeting, rather than relying on the hammer of orthodoxy to keep unruly thinkers in place.

1), 4) David Glenn, “Notre Dame Plans to Dissolve the ‘Heterodox’ Side of Its Split Economics Department”. Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 16, 2009).
2) Polly Curtis, “‘Pointless’ university studies to be weeded out by new government panel”. The Guardian (Sept. 23, 2009).
3) E.g. Peter van Doren, “Should Congress Listen to Economists?”, in: Journal of Politics 51:2 (May 1989).
5) Philip Mirowski, The Effortless Economy of Science? (Durham, NC 2004), p. 381. Internal references and italics omitted.
6) Mirowski, p. 395. Internal references omitted.

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