Comments on Pluralism and Economics 10 Years after the Crisis and 200 years after Marx’s birth

William Waller
Hobart and William Smith Colleges

COPYRIGHT: American Review of Political Economy; William Waller

The Crisis

The Great Recession precipitated by the Financial Crisis of a decade ago was followed by the usual hand wringing and gnashing of teeth by economists.  These acts of contrition are customary after crises—especially when the crises is unexpected by the overwhelming majority of mainstream economists. Some commentators actually said intelligent things (Hodgson 2008, Mirowski 2009, Shaikh 2011).  Students in particular used the crises as an opportunity to argue that the time was ripe for the serious consideration of alternative perspectives in economics in the economics curriculum.  Some alternatives to mainstream analysis saw the light of day—briefly.  But for the most part economics as a discipline and profession rapidly returned to business as usual.  After a few, mostly insincere, mea culpas the mainstream proclaimed they would, and indeed did, mildly tweak their agent based-DSGE models and went back to work largely unaffected by the enormity of the tragedy that befell large swathes of humanity as a result of this crisis.  Thus is the character of the autism of the economics profession.

I do not mean this metaphorically.  The mainstream of the economics profession selects as new members people who are most comfortable seeing the world as made up of atomistic, asocial agents whose behavior can be represented in a similarly asocial way.  This makes the modeling of such behavior as closed mechanistic systems and searching for (and of course finding) equilibriums not only intellectually, but also mentally, comfortable and satisfying.  The profession is thus populated by individuals who do not see the complexity and openness of economic and social systems and as a result see no problems with their intellectual endeavors.  Indeed, many have inadvertently through self and professional selection mechanisms, been chosen because they can see the world in no other way (Lawson 2017). Evolutionary processes of selection have resulted in an economics profession largely overspecialized and fitted to an academic niche that does not allow for serious consideration of alternatives.  That is because this niche is essential to providing the intellectual foundation, legitimacy, and cover for the neoliberal ideology that dominates our society at this time.  There are prominent exceptions to this characterization, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule.  If someone in the mainstream is going to challenge this tendency they better have a warm Nobel Prize in their pocket or they will be completely marginalized from the mainstream and will find themselves presenting in this venue.

So as mainstream economics determines how many agents can be in equilibrium on the head of a pin what can the pluralist elements in the economics discipline do to provide alternative analyses, propose serious alternative policy proposals, and reproduce themselves in order to provide intellectual resources and support for social movements directed at building a more humane society?

Pluralism as a response has merits and dangers

Some of the organizations in ICAPE are internally pluralist.  They have memberships consisting of people who work in different intellectual traditions but share a common set of foundational principles or perspectives on economic thought—IAFFE and ASE seem to fit this mold.  Others member organizations are organized around adherence to a general approach (or intellectually and historically connected approaches) to economics that are distinct and their members’ work on developing that approach (or approaches) within a limited range of parameters—URPE, AFEE and AFIT fit this mold.  The strength of pluralism is largely political.  It brings groups of people with different ideas and agendas together to discuss their ideas—both their areas of agreement and disagreement—together in a civilized, open, inclusive and collegial manner.  This facilitates shared understanding.  But as important, when areas of commonality or convergence occur—on matters of theory, methodology, and especially policy—we can speak with a collective, and thus more effective, voice that is less likely to be silenced, or more likely, drowned out by the droning white noise of mainstream economics.  That is our most important strength.

Our other strength, also political, is to collectively resist the attempts of the mainstream to marginalize and in fact eliminate us from the profession.  There is very little space left in the profession for non-mainstream thought of any type that cannot be incorporated and sanitized by the mainstream.  Indeed, kinds of faux heterodoxy have emerged that lead to the proliferation of alternative voices, sufficiently sanitized, within the mainstream to comfort the mainstream into thinking that they allow alternative thought within their ranks.  This has led to even less room for genuinely alternative perspectives within economic departments and curricula.  With a few exceptions at the research university level and in some small liberal arts colleges, there are only a few places where more than one non-mainstream, non-faux heterodox economists are present in a department. And many departments have no alternative voices at all.  Where there is a non-mainstream presence the person is usually give responsibility for teaching all of the history of economic thought, economic history, comparative systems, and alternative perspectives plus anything else “real” mainstream economists do not wish to teach—and this is in departments where having an alternative presence is actually valued.  This is what we currently have left and it must be protected.  Pluralism is a political rallying cry for ICAPE and importantly, student groups, to use to maintain this small space that remains.

In this same vein ICAPE by holding this conference strategically conjoined to the location of the ASSA conference acts to offset the attempts by ASSA to marginalize us in that forum.  The AEA with the complicity of other smaller mainstream association have whittled away at our traditional space in the ASSA venue.  This space is and remains important.  It is the only venue where a mainstream economist can sample what non-mainstream economists are doing and saying.  It is a venue where we can confront the mainstream directly with our panels.  This must be preserved.  Additionally, we must insure that we, and most importantly our students, have access to the job market.  ICAPE expands our presence and our venues to share our ideas.

The dangers of pluralism as a movement are simple.  Pluralism is not an alternative to mainstream economics.  I have deliberately avoided using the terms neoclassical, orthodox and heterodox to describe the economic discipline and its divisions because these terms are all problematic.  But to be clear, heterodoxy is not an alternative to mainstream economics.  But the individual research programs within ICAPE might individually become viable alternatives to mainstream economics.  The reality is there is much that separates alternative perspectives in economics.  And there is much within those alternative perspectives that are non-commensurable.  While there may be areas of shared views on matters at many levels of analysis, there is little (and I would argue no) possibility of a grand theoretical convergence.  There are some shared elements that might lead to movements in a compatible direction and such opportunities should, of course, be explored thoroughly.  There may be some shared appreciation for particular methods and empirical work.  But theoretical and methodological commitments are likely to keep us separated.  And the separate progress of each school of thought and by each school of thought are crucial to the development of genuine alternatives to the mainstream around which a successor economics or new discipline can begin to organize.

The institutional economist in me agrees with Geoffrey Hodgson who has forcefully expressed the view that we need to build the best non-mainstream departments we can.  We need to develop more departments where non-mainstream students can study, get funded, and get degrees.  We need to hire more non-mainstream economists whenever we can and not just for special one-off ghettoized slots in an otherwise mainstream department—though we will take that when it is all that is available.  We must continue to publish, and indeed, strengthen the quality of all of our journals—they must be of indisputable quality and recognized as such.  We have to make spaces where young non-mainstream economists can make a career in teaching and scholarship through institutional means.  We need to build and rebuild our institutional structure in the academy.  It is to this project ICAPE should turn its attention.

This project has implications for all of us.  Those of us who are senior in the profession (meaning old) must use our access to resources to mentor and support those new to the profession.  Make sure new people get on panels.  Invite them to conferences.  Co-author with them when appropriate.  Produce an edited collection that includes their work.  Don’t just support your students—though do support them—support your colleagues’ students when you can.  Offer them advice on their work in a constructive fashion.  Referee their work as if you really wanted them to succeed.

To those of you new to the profession.  Don’t wait for us senior (meaning old) folks.  Propose panels.  Put together your own edited collections.  Take feedback as constructive and use it—even when it infuriates you (by the way—it infuriates everyone) Introduce yourself.  Send your work to people who might be interested.  Apply for any job you are qualified for and don’t get discouraged.  Go to conferences of people who share your perspective and those who don’t (especially other non-mainstream groups).  You will learn a great deal and you will become known to those who may wish to work with you.  You will also become known to those who can help you.

Marx and Marxism

In addition to the recent (on-going) crisis the title of this plenary refers to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Marx.  The history of Marxism vis-à-vis the mainstream of economics is instructive.  In a way Marxism gave rise to the mainstream.  It united disparate strands of classical and marginalist thinking into what became the mainstream.  The economists in the time of Marx had to respond to his challenge to their theoretical position.  In many ways the so-called marginalist revolution is, as Guy Routh argued, a conservative response to Marx and the theoretical use he made of the labor theory of value.  Conservative economists gave up their theory of value and reconfigured their entire economic theory to avoid and delegitimize Marx’s conclusions.  The mainstream is both a very jealous and chameleon-like ideological construct.  It tolerates no real dissent that challenges its core, but if it has to it can completely reconfigure itself in the face of a significant challenge. But that reconfiguration always supports the prevailing structure of capitalism of its day.  So we have a tough road ahead of us. Marx and Marxism’s history reminds us that ICAPE and today’s conference is not the beginning, but it is a beginning.


Hodgson, Geoffrey M. “The Great Crash of 2008 and the Reform of Economics.” Cambridge Journal of Economics. 33(6). November 2009. Pp. 205-221.

Lawson, Clive.  Technology and Isolation.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2017.

Mirowski, Philip. “The Great Mortification: Economists responses to the Crisis of 2007-(and counting).” Hedgehog Review. Summer 2010. Pp. 28-41.

Routh, Guy. The Origins of Economic Ideas.  New York: Vintage Books. 1977.

Shaikh, Anwar. “The First Great Depression of the 21st Century.” Socialist Register.  New York: Monthly Review Press. 2011. Pp. 44-63.