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Economic Ideas in Political Time: Reflections from a Grumpy Feminist

by Penny Griffin on February 22, 2018

It doesn’t surprise us any longer, I think, to hear stories about how middle-aged, white, probably Anglo-American, men have ruined everything.

The media, and various academic texts, have presented to us stories of the so-called global financial crisis that invariably centre responsibility in and for that crisis in the hands of Western financial capitalism, and its malestream cadre of ‘experts’, as argued in my article in Men and Masculinities and in a chapter in Scandalous Economics.

Such experts have also — apparently because the crisis ended at some point (2011? Ever?) — represented the process of mopping up the messy effects of that crisis in the hands of said malestream. We are used to thinking about the financial crisis, I think, in terms of the men who created, governed and responded to it, as I have also argued here in Politics.

So it isn’t a surprise to hear recounted in a book on the history and context of the global financial crisis names like those of Hamilton, Jefferson, Keynes, Galbraith, Minsky, Hayek, Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy, Bernanke, Summers, Greenspan, Geithner, and so on, or to see reference to Phillips curves and Taylor rules.

So many men. With SO much power.

These people have to be discussed in recounting the story of financial crisis in the modern(ish) era, don’t they? And so I had to do some serious self-reflection to work out why it bothered me so much that I had to read their names again.

  1. I wonder if we are missing something always beginning our analyses of the global financial crisis with the US. I also see the reasoning behind doing this and have been someone that presents the crisis in this way. The global financial crisis wasn’t originally called a subprime mortgage crisis for nothing. I am, I think, just a bit sick of Trump, and US hegemony, and the fact that my life is beholden to Apple and Google and Netflix (I’ve also just finished Daniel Drezner’s 2014 book, The System Worked, which I did actually enjoy, but oh-my with the smug America-is-the-best-place-ever-ness). So I think I might keep this point as a note-to-self for my own research and try to start somewhere else (anywhere else) in describing the global financial crisis.
  2. I also wonder, at the moment, how much #MeToo has infected my engagement with academia as an industry and my understanding of our practices as academics. Again, nothing in Wes’s writing is problematic in this regard, and I say this only because even just the thought of reading about middle-aged white men ruining everything brings back the grumpiness. I have recently been reading a few Black feminist responses to White feminists and their inability to interrogate their own privilege (I particularly like Clarkisha Kent’s appraisal in The Root, January 2018). So, I suppose my point is to remind myself to think about how much potential damage I am doing in propping up accounts of crisis that centre white men, and their many and varied abuses of power. Writes Kent:

the goal of white feminism . . . is to simply emancipate white women from white men. Meaning, in simpler terms, that white women want to be able to get out from under white patriarchy . . . but do not necessarily want to get rid of it, because doing so would destabilise white supremacy—and then boom! Suddenly, even they would be left with no power or privilege when the dust settled.

I think a lot of this applies to how we think about the global financial system, resistance, and the role of white hegemony there.

Do white people who say they want a different economic world really want a different colour of economic world?

Economic Ideas in Political Time doesn’t challenge our vision of the global political economy as white and masculinist, nor does it try to say anything overtly subversive about cultures of power and privilege in the global political economy. Rather, this book aims, in deceptively modest terms, to reveal the context in which financial crisis in 2007 was made possible. I say ‘deceptive’ because Wes is interested in how ideas have actual, physical, material power (and effects): they are so powerful in fact that they can create their opposites just by simply becoming deeply embedded enough. This is a big point, and allowing ideas to carry independent power does not always place oneself in International Political Economy (IPE)’s comfort zone.

Especially important here, I think, is the outline offered of the role of intellectuals and intellectual autonomy. By opening a space for discussing the possibility that human actors are not inherently the rational automatons of economic modelling, it becomes a much easier project, for those of us who follow in Wes’s wake, to interrogate the powerful and privileged boys clubs in which economic ideas have been born, tried, failed and reinvigorated, ad nauseum.

What did surprise me in reading Economic Ideas in Political Time is the book’s reminder that Economics has been allowed to proceed as if Politics doesn’t exist, and for so long.

There are, of course, economists who get quite excited about the political content of their work (I have even met some).

The question for me is when will we start narrating crisis, recovery and global finance as if people, of all shapes, colours and types, mattered?

The ‘key figures’ approach is clearly significant in and to Wes’s account, which lends this story of crisis and ‘recovery’ a personalised reading of authority. My question is how can we write accounts of the crisis that centre non-Western voices and experiences in an accurate and not-just-adding-this-on-now sort of a way; accounts that also decentre white, middle aged men in everything (is this even possible?), while representing the crisis fairly and truthfully? This I what I am grappling with at the moment, and my thoughts on Economic Ideas in Political Time are therefore quite instrumentally self-focused in this regard.

The most important part of this book, for me, is twofold.

First, Economic Ideas in Political Time makes it really obvious that the dangerous cycle of ideas, self-reinforcing expectations and mythic stability has not been broken, or even fundamentally challenged, during and following the global financial crisis. The suggestion that ‘efforts at “preventing the last crisis” help to bring on the next one’ (p. ix) is excellent grist to my (and other’s) mill and I have been, in my own work, intent on nutting out the finer details of the liminality of financial governance, for example here. The global financial crisis is over and it really isn’t, in so many ways. I am always a bit fascinated by media representations of the prospect of a, for example, Chinese slump, or in Australia often rather sad references to sluggish economic activity – there is an implicit but undeniable hint of panic in so many reports of our financial lives.

Second, Wes’s analysis is inherently interested in, and focused on, the psychology of financial discourse, and I find this approach significant. Policy and practice is created, always, by ideas, at the most basic level. But ideas often take on a life of their own – such a life, in fact, that they seem entirely entrenched and reliable when actually they are contingent and unstable. The appearance of the stability of ideas, especially dominant economic ideas, allows for policy-makers and financial practitioners a certain over-confidence, and here they fail to consider their shifting foundations, be it the changing dynamics of political orders, subtle deviations in so-called rational, or acceptable, behaviour and practice, institutional pathologisation and the peculiarities of agents’ interpretive frameworks (see Economic Ideas in Political Time p. 10, and also Stephen Bell’s work). How this is not completely obvious to Economists is beyond me, but what Wes does so deftly is show that policy-makers and practitioners over the course of the crisis have behaved as if this is totally news to them. I loved the work on how a certain misplaced certainty among policy-makers enables them to consistently and often overrate their own ability (p. 22). There is so much about global finance that begs someone in a position of financial authority (i.e. possibly not me) to shout at everyone that they are not as clever as they think they are.

In Economic Ideas in Political Time Wes does exactly what good IPE should do, which is to show how economy cannot function without politics. For much IPE analysis, there is no meaningful separation between politics and economics anyway, but you wouldn’t know this necessarily, especially if you followed only the ‘cliometric’, neoclassical, hegemonic Economics script that has been telling everyone how to design policy since the 1960s. Wes is asking to fashion a form of IPE that pays attention to psychology and sociology, a kind of IPE that notes the big stuff by recognising the smaller level, human flaws that create and sustain systems of misinformation, complacency and technocratic bias.

The saddest part of this whole sorry story (this is also the case in Drezner’s book) is that there is no feasible alternative that has emerged or is emerging with enough coherence to overtake neoliberalism’s pathological grip on economic ideas and policy-making. Decades, centuries, of recurring crises have not reshaped neoliberal power in meaningful ways. Sigh. Economic Ideas in Political Time knows this, of course, and so the imperative to generate incisive and applied knowledge remains as pressing as ever.

Economic Ideas in Political Time forms an integral part of that project and will, I have no doubt, go down as one of the great works of economic history of our time.

Penny Griffin
Penny Griffin is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at UNSW Sydney. In 2010 her book Gendering the World Bank won the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group book prize. Her 2015, Popular Culture, Political Economy and the Death of Feminism: Why Women are in Refrigerators and Other Stories is published with Routledge. Webpage: Twitter: @psgriffington

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