2016 9th Annual Wheelwright Lecture in Political Economy
David Ruccio (Professor of Economics, University of Notre Dame)
Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney
18 October, 2016 – 6:00pm (drinks and bookstall in the Foyer beforehand from 5:15).
“Utopia and the Critique of Political Economy”
2016 marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. We know More’s text opened the floodgates for waves of utopian writing, as well as social movements and community experiments, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. But what we have learned from these centuries of ideas, aspirations, and projects?
It seems, at first glance, practically nothing. The communal ideal is still attractive but has been declared unworkable. The 1% are still being allowed to wreck the economy, shape government policy, and capture most of the new income and wealth. As for the rest of us, we’re encouraged to get along as best we can, without much in the way of utopian hope.
That’s the conventional wisdom. But, in recent years, a fundamental change has in fact taken place. One kind of utopianism has clearly failed—while the elements of an alternative are on the ascendance, if still only dimly perceived.
It’s the utopianism of mainstream economics that has, in fact, collapsed. After the spectacular crash of 2007-08 and with the uneven recovery that has benefited only a tiny group at the top, mainstream economic thinking—which promised the Land of Cockaygne but delivered a world more akin to Mad Max—is widely recognized to have failed.
Mainstream economics, and the economic and social system celebrated by mainstream economists, was based on three key premises and promises. The first was “just deserts,” that everyone gets what they deserve. However, the rising level of economic (income and wealth) equality beginning in the mid-1970s demonstrated that not everyone was getting what they deserve. No matter how measured (e.g., in terms of the portion of income going to the top 1% or profit-wage shares), the obscene levels of inequality we’ve seen over the course of the past decades are simply impossible to understand or justify as a form of “just deserts.” The second was economic stability. The problem of capitalist instability, especially the exaggerated boom-and-bust cycle of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was supposed to have been solved. They even gave it a name: the Great Moderation. And then we were faced with—and forced to suffer the effects of—the crisis of 2007-08 and the onset of the second Great Depression. Neither conventional nor unconventional economic policies were able to stem the tide, and the negative consequences of both the severe crisis and the lopsided recovery will be felt by the majority of people for years (perhaps even decades) to come. Finally, if capitalism doesn’t (and can’t) deliver “just deserts” and stability, at least it can produce economic growth and rising living standards. More stuff—an immense accumulation of commodities—will be produced. Or so the third claim goes. But now, according to all the key national and international sources (including the International Monetary Fund), the prospects for renewed economic growth are growing dimmer and dimmer. Already before the crisis, potential output growth in advanced economies was slowing. Shortly after the crisis hit in September 2008, economic activity collapsed, and more than eight years after the crisis, growth is still much weaker than had been expected. The old promise has now been reduced to “secular stagnation.”
Mainstream economics has failed, then, on all three counts. So, what’s the alternative? New books appearing on the shelves indicate there’s a new-found curiosity about the utopian experiments of the past. But still most people are unaware of the utopian ideas and schemes that inspired earlier generations in their own countries—including the United States and Australia—and around the globe. We need to rediscover that history.
We also need to recover and refresh the tools of critical thinking with regard to economics. It’s beginning to happen within the discipline of economics but much more needs to be done across the academy as well in mass media and political discourse.
As it turns out, the most important part of More’s Utopia was not the ideal state he envisioned, but the “ruthless criticism” of the existing order, his critique of the ideas and world he saw around him.
Today, half a millennium later, that utopian project means the critique of political economy.
The previous Wheelwright Lectures have delivered by Walden Bello (2008), Jim Stanford (2009), Fred Block (2010), Sheila Dow (2011), Diane Elson (2012), Susan George (2013), Leo Panitch (2014), and Erik Olin Wright (2015).