Why are Leftists Today Econ Illiterate?

A response to Nick Srnicek’s Disorder of Things blog post “Has the Left Given up on Economics.” Basically, I agree with Srnicek: 1) There is too much economic illiteracy, 2) There is too little economic innovation, and 3) We need to organize. 


My two cents (argued below) is that we would do well to think about the challenge strategically, keeping in focus class’ impact on social networks and the legitimacy and spread of ideas.





Where have you gone Maynard Keynes? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Mrs. Robinson, Lemonheads version

It has been argued here that Marxian economics are stalled because Marxists have not done the work needed to capture the Left’s imagination, which is, according to the blog author, designing post-capitalist transitionary structures and “expanding the variables” in its economic models.(*1) I might support the author of that blog in exploring these projects (Again, I’m all for the proliferation of Marxist work, including packaging old wine in lovely, new, well-written bottles.), but I can’t agree that this (more writing, or adding variables and some tiny academic community’s jargon du jour) is all Leftists need to become political-econ literate. (Although if thinking so motivates you to hit the keyboard, good on you!)


Leftists are political-econ illiterate because 1) outside of social democratic countries, there is no union confederation that employs prominent Marxist economists and disseminates political-economic literacy, and 2) there is no social gravitational force making political-econ literacy a normal thing. For example, there’s no critical mass of political-econ literacy, and unlike earlier eras, there are no Leftist economists from capitalist backgrounds today. 


The Left will readily accept the first explanation without controversy, so I will do my best to elaborate here why I think the second point matters.





The Siren Call of The Fancies


The problem I see for the spread of Left political-economic literacy has partially to do with why Keynes is so influential. Keynes is influential not because he was the most imaginative lefty-liberal of the 20th century (though he was an iconoclast and brilliant), but because he was a very centrally-elite independent thinker. (And even then, Keynes’ most important ideas were not implemented in policy, and they were censored in the economics discipline.) Even Marxist  economist Paul Sweezy was revered and could influence government, develop his work, and support the development of Marxist economics partly because he was a super guy, and partly because he was a hegemonic elite male. 


Wait. Do not go fetal on me here. This is not a love song an identity critique.


(OK, Sweezy was a dick to Schumpeter’s wife in “The Future of Capitalism” 1946-47 debate, so it could be an identity critique, but it won’t.)


There are no radical, square-jawed, econ-literate, white-hero elites anymore. They were methodically wiped out by a campaign organized throughout the Anglosphere by conservative economists and their funders. What  we’ve got left are weak-jawed, middle class, econ-literate heroes,(*2) and that means that de facto they’ve got smaller influence networks. So small Srnicek fails (Really, we fail. I’m just being literary there, blaming it on Srnicek.) to notice a lot of them.

We have fantastic political-economic ideas right now and for a long time (including many from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, etc. that have yet to be translated into English). But their spread is actively suppressed, first by the assault on unions–which can disseminate alternative ideas about how to run society, and second by the assault on non-neoclassical economists, the political economists. 


For one late example, just at the moment that the neoclassical econ emperor was fully exposed as naked and bereft (post-2007), the last dean here, with the support of mobilized conservative econometricians within the department, destroyed the nonorthodox base of this “N.A. Siberia” university’s holdout econ department and loaded the department up with econometricians and other economic servants of capitalist hegemony. Those marxist economists (eg. John Loxley) spent years strategizing, designing and implementing economic alternatives–including nascent social enterprise networks. They have a lot to contribute right now.

Left political-economy is not dead and it’s not irrelevant. Go into an anarchist bookstore (eg. Viva Mondragon in Winnipeg), and there are shelves and shelves of contemporary and historical books describing and proposing alternative economies. They’re just written by insufficiently-connected people. It’s not their individual fault they’re not Weber’s apocryphal charismatic prince.

Moreover, there are still some of us sociologists who (semi-)self-teach political-econ, as well as great non-neoclassical economists who’ve been forced out of economics, to hang their shop sign in sociology, geography and business departments. The Union for Radical Political Economics, for one, is full of them. Monthly Review folks are terribly proud of their political-econ analyzing record.

The problem right now is that while decent job markets have constricted with decades of neoliberal inequality initiatives–including the campaigns to wipe out working class institutional bases such as unions and social citizenship rights, at the same time, we’ve been assaulted by a concerted, coordinated, funded conservative campaign to ferret the non-conservatives out of the paid-ideas market.  Zombie econ and postmodernism are symptoms of that doxa chokehold, not failures we need to take responsibility for. They are the epistemologies over which elites still cast their heartening, radiant blessings.


To address the continuing political-econ literacy and innovation deficit, in and out of paid employment, knowing we have no shining elite knights to grant us courage through the long dark night, we need to be collectively committed to honing the work (that is, in a disciplined way, forgiving temporary missteps, forgoing ego indulgences, and pointing out fruitful paths), connecting to past thinkers, promoting, and celebrating the leftist political-economists who have managed to haul themselves through this hegemonic war period, rather than waiting for another Keynes.

We are not Blaine.



Elites aren’t any greater minds or men than non-elite intellectuals; they make mistakes and develop too; they just have head starts and better PRespecially in a high-inequality era. It’s not a deal breaker that non-elite intellectual contributions tend to have to occur later in life. But we need to make up for no PR–Because relentless exposure to oppositional framing can wear away at individuals’ and communities’ confidence and sense of purpose, undermining development and the adoption and diffusion of ideas. 


Advancing ideas broadly is very hard to do without the grease of money and the protective social networks money forges. But as MR’s John Foster reminded us (but hardly practiced) at UO, feminist successes came with promoting their own institutions and networks. Do we need another White Hope (White Emigration)? Why not recognize the special social challenge of a movement that valorizes and champions the working class within a capitalist milieu, and strive to husband socialist political economics to the very best of our social abilities?

(*2) This statement is tongue-in-cheek. Signals: 1) the context: I am saying that “middle” (working)-class intellectuals contribute good econ work that can be more widely distributed if such intellectuals recognize and strategically act upon the knowledge that they are working without the facilitative social status conveyed elites; and 2) I symmetrically apply the complementary “heroes” trope in this sentence to both left elite intellectuals and left middle class intellectuals. These two constructions should be able to indicate to a good-faith reader that I am not actually critical of working class people’s facial features. If this were a real publication instead of an obscure blog entry, I would probably get rid of it, but it’s not and the phrasing is intended to reinforce my point that working class people are not viewed with as much credit as elites are–a social phenomenon. However, I readily concede that as rhetoric, the tongue-in-cheek phrase’s (“weak chinned”) castrating qualities  probably outweigh its metaphorical utility. 


Further clarification:


Building Credit for Non-elite Political-economic Ideas

The point I was making above is that rather than getting frustrated with leftists for leftie social movements’ current lack of access to economic knowledge, we ought to recognize something sociological–that at this historical juncture there is a lack of political-economic leadership– both a lack of union leadership (due to the decimation of unions), and a deficit of critical mass or elites engaged with left political-economics (Compared to the early 20th century. Because of the lack of legitimate communist threat/alternative.), and because of deliberate conservative organizing as well as neoliberal drift, and this means that the spread of left political-economic ideas in the contemporary era is excessively constrained. Without critical mass or the (capitalist elite) leadership that can jumpstart it (example here), the motivation to economic literacy in the left is dampened.



We (Americans, Leftists, scholars) hate to think of ourselves as impressed with elite leadership; but it’s time to face it. We’re human. We’re social. We respond (not necessarily happily or healthily) to social status. Frankly, we are not living in an intelligence meritocracy, and as brilliant as they are, the contemporary editors of Monthly Review don’t have enough capitalist gravitas to impress even Leftists into becoming literate in political-economics. This is a social problem that can’t be beat by simply doodling a bit more upon a gigantic, diverse body of elaborate theory and observation.


Yes. This is quite a conundrum for the Left. It’s a strategic challenge to take seriously.

If we analyze the political-economics literacy deficit and strategize how to combat it, which I agree is important, I suggest what we need is some creative thinking about what to do about the smaller social networks, and especially-contested legitimacy accompanying good work by non-elite intellectuals. 



Screw it. Our work is good. And the only instance in which  a liberal or conservative is going to acknowledge that is for divide-and-conquer purposes. Fuck ’em. Hold up your head and don’t apologize for another Leftist’s work, even if apologizing is an oblique way to flatter your own doubtlessly-, comparatively-superior work, you easily-manipulated psychological weakling.


Discourse, communication is far from simple. Intention is difficult to discern without being able to grant people a certain amount of credit; the elite sense of entitlement and elite social networks help a lot with that. Does the Left have social strategy that can compensate for a lack of elite leadership?


Obviously, we need to organize working-class unions as a long-term strategy. As well, movements such as OWS can help develop the credit needed for sowing political economic ideas and literacy. 



My simple suggestion was that we ought to consider as well whether political-econ leftists could be better disciplined to support each other–to simulate the credit that people give over to elites, which allows ideas and influence to develop and spread. 


A war of position is going on around us. Capitalist conservatives, their conservative managers and hegemonists, and their multiple layers of publicly-funded police are one obvious bloc opposing Left community and ideas development. As well, capitalist conservatives’ ally, liberals (including North American unions, which are not by, of and for the working class) will continue to counter the non-elite credit conditions for the spread of political-economic literacy. 


A bit on their back foot right now, liberals will, for one, simply lie about the content of left or Marxist political economics. Brad DeLong does this. Today he claimed that because of the labor theory of value, Marx opposed Keynesian monetary policy. Yeah, um, WTF? For two, they may invoke Magical Rectitude, reasserting the traditional, elite-sanctioned, pomo de-valorization of political-economic literacy, which in the present case may be boiled down to, “This [Occupy movement] is trivial. Who cares how ‘white Americans’ (contemporary global elite code for ‘working class’) are faring? They’re a mob of assholes. Won’t someone please think of the [insert identity group].” 

The liberals’ Helen Lovejoy strategy



To foster the credit conditions needed to improve Left political-economic literacy, the Left needs to keep liberals on their back foot, by not engaging their opposition directly, but recognizing their identities and cultural contributions, while continuing to build and assert an inclusive working class praxis


The Left has to take a page out of Corey Robin’s analysis of conservatism, successful Occupy mobilizations, Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” model, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets analysis, and create a privileged space for passion–writing with passion, speeches with passion, singing and dancing with passion–and figure out how to link it to economic literacy. Most (though not all) people who live in unequal societies are mobilized with passion. The sign that our own minds have become colonized and crippled by the opposition is when we’re incapable of expressing ourselves with passion. People read (masculine) passion as confidence, and we need confidence in our political economic literacy.


Have and build confidence in our capacity for solidarity. Have and build confidence in our capacity for political-economic literacy. Have and build confidence in our capacity to disrupt the system and, if not overcome it at this moment, at least modify its components.



(*1) The blogger appears to be a student of Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai. His post is interesting in that if you follow comments and links you will find out part of what Alan Freeman is up to intellectually, which I’ve personally found impossible to pry out of him in polite conversation; and you’ll find out that Radhika and Alan are part of an effort to publish a series (including their own writing as well as works by Marx, Keynes, & Perry Anderson) on “The Future World of Capitalism.” 





Actually, over the weeks, I’ve come to disagree a little bit with the “economics-ignorant Left” formulation of the problem. As Nancy Fraser discusses in “The Cunning of History,” 1970s anti-economism met neoliberalism and devolved into excessive mass disengagement with political economy. But that is not all. Economics promoted itself as a capital-serving profession by becoming proudly divorced from, contemptuous of, and unaccountable to Left constituencies and intellectual perspectives. It has been personally hardest on the Left economists, and they are due respect for their monk-like perseverance. For the Left it was a tragedy of separation and cloistering that cannot be resolved quickly with simple exhortations for everyone to submit to the economists. While I argue above for confidence, I think economists could stand to recognize that their oftentimes-prohibitive competitiveness and lack of cooperative humility extend from their deep socialization and  identity within a social-professional group that crippled its own critical capacity.

Well, I’m accustomed to the smooth ride. 
Or maybe I’m a dog that’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more. 
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.
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