Economists Dissing Economics

Unlearning Economics

For whatever reason, I found myself compiling a list of 20 or so quotes, mostly from well known economists, criticising mainstream economics. What’s most interesting is that although the quotes come from a wide range of economists, with different political views and from different times, they seem to have a lot in common.

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.

― Joan Robinson

Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

― John Kenneth Galbraith

…the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.

― Thomas Piketty

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American Indian Culture: Traditionalism and Spiritualism in a Revolutionary Struggle

How are we supposed to view movements that are culturally different to ours? Isn’t it true that many Marxists always try to view things from a modernist perspective and the traditional Marxist way of looking at things will naturally consider these cultures, which believe in elements of spirituality and they are likely to be considered as “primitive” or “pre capitalist” or whatever…What should be the approach? This may be easily construed as racist and patronizing, with good reason too….as has been elaborated in this post..

Comrade Kim Goes Flying

This is extremely problematic. It reminds one of the propaganda that used to emanate from USSR even when it was at its repressive best. I think it is about time communists and other socialists start paying some attention to the harm that blindly supporting “actually existing socialisms” brings.
Even if one ignores the reality [or debate] regarding what the North Korean regime is truly like, one cannot overlook the usage of individual glory, which is very uncommunist-like. Marxism and other theoretical tool for social transformation speaks of the masses being the prime movers of history and not some individuals.
But it is no surprise, because in a regime where the supremo simply chooses the next one in line, as it happened in some damn monarchy, individualism of the most dangerous type is being practiced. Glorifying the leader and indeed glorifying any individual and then using it for political gains is definitely bourgeoisie individualism. The culture of personality cult in several such “really existing socialism”s is refused to be seen by many Maoists and many other brands of socialists.

Bombard the Headquarters!

No nation is as demonized today as North Korea. Portrayed on corporate media as a belligerent and militaristic “hermit kingdom” ruled by a mad man, it is said to be one big gulag labor camp guarded by nuclear weapons and perpetually suffering from famine.

Of course, as a country that challenges US imperialist hegemony, this antagonism from the world’s leading capitalist powers is to be expected. This is bound to intensify as the US continues its pivot to the Asia-Pacific and entrench its military forces in the region.

ckgf_posterA 2012 joint British-Belgian-North Korean film called Comrade Kim Goes Flying challenges these crude distortions. Telling the story of a North Korean coal miner who dreams of becoming a trapeze artist, the film offers valuable insights on life in North Korea.

Instead of the usual fare served by US imperialist propaganda we are shown how North Korea upholds  the rights and welfare…

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The Misogyny of India’s Cultural Elite: Kavita Bhanot

good article, but , with its own set of problems. Notions about “unthinking embrace of the ways of the West”, “love between a man and a woman” [as if it has to be of a certain way only] etc are problematic.
However, what almost every single article from progressive sections has failed to address is this:
That this was a position of power that the man acted from AND had the greater chance of getting away with it. It is not just a question of upper class women accepting the patriarchy and misogyny of suave and sophisticated English speaking men from the upper classes. It is also a matter of hierarchy, which the white collar workplace has created. This can be explained from the numerous ways hierarchical exploitation, mostly psychological, works in these workplaces.
Without a theory of hierarchy, the social legitimacy that sexual exploitation of the Tejpal sort, cannot be explained adequately

KAFILA - 10 years of a common journey

Guest post by KAVITA BHANOT

Thanks to the brave actions of a woman who had the courage to speak out against her very powerful boss, something huge has happened in the last week in India. The very sophisticated, cosmopolitan English-speaking cultural elite of India has been forced, for once, to look at itself, to face up to the sexism and misogyny that it has long harboured.

For many years this elite has been protesting, exposing, judging, mocking the patriarchy of the lower classes – of the policeman, the religious fundamentalist, the ‘unpolished’ politician, the working class urban migrant, the eve-teaser on the street.  But rarely have the men, or the women of this class, looked, in public, at themselves – the men examining their attitude towards women and the women thinking about their own complicity, the ways in which they have allowed or turned a blind eye to the misogyny…

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On the Non-Existence of a Revolutionary Student Movement in West Bengal

student power

student movement? Where is one to speak of?

Okay, I know I am about to embark on a very controversial exercise now. I am going to criticize the student “movement” in West Bengal and in particular, Kolkata. The reason I have put the word movement in quotes must already be abundantly clear from my title. I don’t believe that there is one to speak of in the state at present. So why am I writing about something that I don’t believe even exists in the first place? Well, because many seem to think it does. I want to challenge this notion, and hope that some of them [not all, excluding some I find precariously inclined towards the reactionary side and on whom I will be speaking of shortly] will consider this opinion and start pulling up their socks.

What is the nature of the student’s organizations in West Bengal? It is and has been dominated by the ruling party’s student’s body, of course. For 34 years, CPM’s misrule was significantly aided by its student and youth wings, SFI and DYFI, by not only carrying out hooliganism in college and school campuses, but also by totally destroying any culture of building student consciousness through ideology and political education. Thus CPM and its reactionary, revisionist and blatantly corrupt, bourgeoisie-appeasing politics must be blamed for creating the totally reactionary nature of the student masses. But they are not the ones to be blamed of course. The 1960’s and 70’s saw for a brief period the rise of revolutionary fervor, inspired by massive peasant uprisings in several parts of Bengal and other states. That of course led to the formation of some staunchly leftist [however much we may agree or disagree with their line of revolution etc, but their dedication cannot be denied] student organizations. However, with the administration cracking down upon the student organizations as well as the naxalite parties/groups, they started to dismantle. Moreover, the waning of the peasant movement and the rise of factionalism and ideological and personal disputes led to the groups breaking down into smaller and smaller capsules, their activities reducing practically to nominal and insignificant activities, like maintaining some magazines and presence of just a few students in Kolkata or in districts.

Such has been the background of student politics here. Not many on the “radical left” will dispute these facts. But we need to go a bit deeper. How and where do these radical student organizations operate? What is the relationship among them? Starting with the last point, they do not generally represent any form of convergence, but are largely antagonistic and only show a formal “unity” on the basis of certain programs. The general culture of political practice is pretty abhorrent – it is basically one of “recruiting” students. Every year, the freshers will be targeted by these groups and they compete among each other to win over these students. There wouldn’t have been a problem with this also – as long as this would have been limited to a competition based on ideology. However, in reality, what happens is a dirty game of spreading misinformation and outright lies about other organization, belittling them and basically ensuring that their image is a rather negative one in the eyes of the students. This is something that is practiced by nearly every organization, it may only vary in degree.

To add to that, student politics in Kolkata, or rather that of the radical left is almost entirely focused on the two premier institutions – Jadavpur University and Presidency University. There is some activity in other elite institutions like the medical colleges and ISI, but in general, there is practically no presence to speak of, of these radical organizations. Additionally, most of these student organizations seem to carry the burden of the disputes that the senior gentlemen who influence these groups. So basically if you belong to X which is under the influence of a mother organization A, you will be inheriting the bitterness towards Y which is under B, because the leaders of A and B share bitter relations. Some of this rivalry may be ideological, but the bitterness has almost always some personal history attached to it, much of which do the rounds in different versions, depending on who you hear them them. That is why even the genuinely leftist organizations also cannot seem to achieve the minimum level of unity that they should have achieved if the rivalry were merely ideological.

Let’s come back to the two institutions where much of the attention seems to be given. There are forces active within these organizations and which are part of what is commonly referred to as the “third current” [i.e. those not aligned with the major mainstream political parties or their student orgs like Congress, BJP, Trinamool as well as the in-your-face fake left parties like CPM and CPI] who seem to suggest that “Presidency is revolution” and “Jadavpur is an idea”. Let us investigate these claims.

We will look at the movements from several dimensions: a) the ideological level of those involved and their motivations b) the nature of some key struggles in recent times and c) the reality behind the claims mentioned above

a) ideology: While the ideology of the different groups vary depending on their mother orgs, it is nonetheless interesting to note the compromises they may reach within these two campuses. Anyone familiar with the discourse among students, parents and teachers in West Bengal will know the enormous elitism surrounding these two institutions. So it is not surprising that there will be truck loads of elitism in students of these universities. But surely, any genuinely progressive, radical and leftist student organization would identify this elitism as a huge problem. Elitism obscures clarity in thinking; it introduces another form of hierarchy and basically legitimizes the extreme disparities that the state wants to keep among institutions. it is in the interest of the state to create some “elite” institutions, like oases in the desert, from where lackeys and stooges will be created, and who will not only contribute well to the bourgeoisie production machinery but also pay lip service to the bourgeoisie justifications of the present exploitative order. We will see that some of the latest demands from these institutions or the mindsets behind the movements only corroborate such ideological corruption but worse still, compromise with such mindsets by the radical forces.

b) Let us take up Presidency university first. Ever since the hoopla surrounding giving Presidency an autonomous university’s status began, the new government has been showering on it huge amounts of resources, both human and monetary, for it is to be deemed an institute of national importance. Not surprisingly, some elements have been constantly supporting this move, and indeed asking for more, not for once realizing how huge this disparity is going to become and how it serves the ruling machinery. The relationship between the state and this section of the students is quite clear – the state feeds them, they lap it up.

Then take the case of Jadavpur university. Apart from some positive examples during the Nandigram and Singur movements, almost all “movements” have been entirely campus centric. That is because the only organizations existing in Jadavpur that have any discernible strengths are campus centric.

But the outrageously reactionary line is apparent even from among sections of these organizations. Utterly elitist in nature, their claim that “Jadavpur is an idea” and Jadavpur is the only institution that offers resistance and others only compromise blah blah, flies straight in the face of truth – whether in the recent ragging related agitation or in the CET based agitation, the sole purpose of the movements inside the institution have been conservative, defensive – to protect the special status that this institution receives. Anybody who has any idea of colleges in West Bengal would know that a much more democratic space exists in Jadavpur university. Of course it is welcome that such a space does exist and whatever credit that should go to the “third front” student orgs, should be given. But to defend the special privileges is clearly visible when you see the students actually protesting against the rule than to get admission in post graduation in Jadavpur, another entrance test has to be given. This must not be confused with the general opposition to CET. The opposition was merely on the basis of protecting the totally unacceptable and elitist and above all opportunist mindset of ensuring that all the graduate level students get admission in the post grad without any opportunity to outsider students.

Even during the ragging movement, there were sections which opposed giving punishment to ragging and though the demand was for reinvestigation [which was perfectly justified given the circumstances], there were slogans that openly declared that it was not a case of ragging – the slogans and demands therefore were contradictory. Besides, the general mood was clearly to belittle the offence of ragging in general. c) Therefore, it is no exaggeration to call the general slogan that “Jadavpur is an idea” and that it is the hotbed of student movements when in reality the masses are full of reactionary and elitist viewpoints, as reactionary only.

The reality is this: that there is no student “movement”, in the revolutionary or even progressive sense, to speak of. This can be gauged from the fact that apart from some small [and often dubious] “victories” in the elite institutions, no major landslide victory has been achieved by the student community in recent times. Whether the temporary ban on elections or the continuing privatization of education, none of the onslaughts that concern the student masses at large has been won. Groups like PDSF, AISA, USDF, AIRSO each different in different ways are among the few ones currently with any possibility of opening up new spheres in this arena, but so far, their presence is rather limited. Even among them, due to the general reactionary nature of the student masses thanks to the bourgeoisie hegemony, there is a huge amount of elitism among individuals. But the bigger threat is from an unlikely source – from an extremely petty bourgeoisie, post modern and class collaborationist crappy trend that has gripped many students by appealing to precisely what forms the class nature of their politics – petty bourgeoisie sensibilities. But such reactionary forces are able to exist precisely because of the vacuum resulting from the absence of revolutionary forces. Without a candid confession and thorough challenge to this problem, there is little hope for rekindling the revolutionary student movement in West Bengal.

A Critique of Jayati Ghosh’s View on “New Left”

Indigenous Movements – Invalidating Class Struggles, or Reiterating them?

In a lecture series on “Emerging Left in the Emerging World“, noted economist Jayati Ghosh recently claimed to have found several distinct traits in the new left, that according to her, is breaking with certain old traditions of Marxism. As a person who is interested in heterodox left political theories and practices and not just a dogmatic Marxist, I was indeed keen to know what these new trends were. This, especially because the Latin American movements and other Asian people’s struggles have recently been making the left circles for several reasons.

These distinct traits that Jayati Ghosh was talking about happen to be:

1. Democracy 2. largeness and scale 3. private property 4. rights 5. class and identities 6. gender 7. environment 8. nation state and 9. imperialism

Now, indeed what she said about “procedural” democratic practices emerging among this so-called new left is very promising. The indigenous struggles in Latin America, the anti land displacement efforts in Asia and the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the anti austerity protests in Europe – everywhere, among certain sections, there has been an attempt to break away from the past rigid methods practiced by traditional communist parties, often referred to as “democratic centralism”. The concept is heavily debated even among Marxist Leninists. The Occupy movement in particular, tried to use the concept of direct democracy, for greater participation in decision making. Indeed, it sometimes posed difficulty for the activists, because it sometimes meant trying to get a consensus on even the most trivial of matters. This was admitted by the activists themselves. Nor is there any reason to believe that there was perfect unanimity regarding the decision making processes. But in general, there was a good attempt to try and make the protests more participatory and less hierarchical. The failure of Occupy movement to achieve any discernible results [in fact, this too can be challenged] or that there was no strongly socialistic or grand social transformation ideology coming through in the movement and it was all kind of blurry, with even anarcho capitalists or reformists etc joining the movement, was attributed by several Marxist Leninist organizations and individuals to this lack of “regimentation” and the hierarchical structure of the party, for the lack of the strict adherence to democratic centralism. They justify it by saying that since the more class conscious and politically advanced sections did not seize the opportunity and provide leadership, because of their “mistaken” notions about “horizontal leadership” etc, the movement ended up becoming a failure.

While I agree partly with the fact that the more socialistic sections of the movement should have tried to take the initiative a bit more, I don’t think that the movement was a failure because of that. In fact, I think the movement cannot be considered as a failure at all. It did put forward a direct challenge to capitalism and has made a lot of people think and will continue to have a strong influence in later generations too. Let us forget that the movement managed to have a huge impact beyond the US border and spread across several countries.

Also, that many of the movements have given a lot of stress on the environmental aspects is quite a good progress and we have a lot to learn from them. Few people can deny the importance of addressing the serious climatic threat that is being rendered by capitalism. As John Bellamy Foster argues in The Ecological Rift:

the planet is being assaulted on many fronts as the result of human-generated changes in the global environment.

This obviously brings up a large number of questions: is it only under capitalism that such rampant disregard and destruction of nature can occur? One dominant view is that under socialism, the society will be geared towards meeting collective needs, and since protecting the environment will be in the collective interest, it will indeed be a prerequisite of a socialist society to not carry on in this path of natural devastation. However, if we look at past experience of building the alternative society, then nature has not been given too much priority, or in the correct manner, and short sighted political ideologies often scored over sound scientific reasoning and empirical evidence, resulting in harm being caused to nature.

In a post revolutionary society: Should we go towards big dams or small dams? Should we build such big infrastructure, or should we make do with a simple lifestyle and reduce our level of consumption? Should we need mining or should we live our life such that we don’t need so much metal to be extracted by a process that causes so much pollution? Are we opposed to nuclear energy now only because corporations cannot be trusted to use it responsibly, or are we opposed to it on principle? These may seem to be hypothetical questions, but still arise now and however much in a limited way, we must address them and try to work out ideas of the alternative.

But where I found Jayati Ghosh’s article problematic, was the way she talked about these movements with regard to class and private property. It is one thing to challenge the hierarchical organizational structures of traditional communist parties, the concepts of democratic centralism, the traditional narratives of industry fetishism with zero regard for nature, but to question the very foundations of class struggle and the socialistic agenda of socialization of means of production and destruction of private property and hence that of a class divided society, is another thing altogether.

Indeed, identities are important. For instance, the Gorkhaland movement or the caste based movements in India have their importance. But can they ever assume greater importance than class? In other words, aren’t these contradictions in the grand scheme of things, secondary to the antagonism between capitalist and proletariat? Jayati Ghosh argues that it is indeed a positive thing that these movements are challenging the traditional socialist orthodoxy over the question of private property. She even goes to the extent of suggesting that because of this stand, they stand the risk of being totally rendered irrelevant.

Far from that, I will argue. Even if we look at the case of the adivasi struggles, like the one in Niyamgiri, we can see how it is global capital and its pursuit for newer avenues to extract wealth from, that is at work. And naturally, private property forms the basis of this exploitation. It is ownership of means of production and natural resources or rather the legal right to do anything with them to generate profit, the right to generate surplus through dispossession, apart from directly extracting surplus value from labor power, that is behind this present onslaught of capitalism. It is another matter that we may have to understand and respect certain cultural aspects and values, temporarily and for strategic reasons. But if the culture also includes considering private property as sacred, in whatever form, should we simply change our political understanding and align ourselves accordingly?

But that is exactly what Jayati Ghosh is suggesting.