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Hardly a Surprise

By Samuel Bowles

THE DECISION BY THE TENURED FACULTY of the Economics Department not to rehire me and Arthur MacEwan hardly came as a surprise. Over the past two years the senior members of the department have made it clear that Marxian economics would not be made a part (even a small part) of the core curriculum offered to graduate students and undergraduates. Tom Weisskopf and Herb Gintis, both popular teachers with substantial reputations for scholarly research in the Marxian tradition were let go. Demands that the department hire a Marxist economic theorist, passed virtually unanimously at meetings of the graduate economics club, were rebuffed. The writing was on the wall.

But why? The decision reflects a committment shared by all but a small minority of senior faculty to defend the structure of power and privilege, both within the Economics Department and in the larger capitalist society.

Among the senior faculty there is a clear consensus that the hierarchical power structure of the department should be maintained. Non-tenured faculty and students are systematically excluded from responsibility and influence. Student demands are in any case rarely given serious consideration; the students' need for good teaching (whatever the subject matter) is treated as a matter of secondary importance. Thus, the fact that there was a strong student demand for the kind of economics that Art and I do was just about irrelevant to the decision makers in this case.

Those in power in the department are taking no chances with the future of this system. The last several years, student demands for the democratization of the department, which MacEwan and I vociferously supported and which were passed overwhelmingly by the graduate economics club, have been met either with an arrogant "we know best what's in your interest" or the evidently false statement that the senior faculty and students have no differences in interests.

The dramatic turn-around on Herb Gintis (three years ago his bid for an assistant professorship, though actively supported by students, garnered only two senior faculty votes) is a transparently hypocritical attempt to legitimize the decision not to hire MacEwan and me. And safe, too, for as chairman James Duesenberry pointed out to The Crimson, Gintis was not offered tenure. This can scarcely be viewed as responsive to student needs, though they will benefit greatly if Gintis should decide to accept the offer. Student outrage and the intervention of a few powerful members of the Economics Department with the University administration and the adverse nationwide press and television coverage of the case. It was a concern for public image, and for keeping peace in the department, not a committment to meet student needs which explain the strategic retreat which led to the job offer to Gintis.

Perhaps moot revealing of the commitment to the power structure of the department, is the candid remark made to me some time ago by a prominent member of my department: "Sam, I certainly wouldn't vote for you if I thought you would attempt to disrupt the normal way of doing business in the department." (I replied that that was precisely what I had been trying to do for the past few years, and that I would expect to continue trying should I receive tenure.) Perhaps this is what was meant when during the debate on my rehiring a member of the executive committee commented that I had been "un-cooperative" in the department. I conclude that the decision against me and MacEwan at once reflects the fact that students are excluded from power in the department and is part of an on-going strategy to keep things that way.

The second point of consensus among the senior faculty is that Marxian economics sheds little light on what they define as the exhaustive content of their discipline: the development of a "science" of resource allocation which will serve as an aid to those who have the power over resources. There can be no doubt that our definition of economics is substantially different. As might be anticipated from my account of our struggle against the hierarchical structure of decision making in the Economics Department, our objective is not to advise or serve those with power, but to develop an economic analysis which can contribute to the elimination of the structure of power which characterizes the social, political and economic institutions of the capitalist system.

Most economists who are now radical came to the study of economics with the expectation that the discipline would provide a critical understanding of a number of important problems of the late 20th century U.S.: inequality, alienation, sexism, militarism, racism, imperialism, ecological destruction and others. The fact that these pressing problems have important economic roots and economic consequences did not, of course, insure that they would be dealt with as part of the economics curriculum. In fact, it is still possible to sit through an entire year of (defacto) required courses in the graduate program and hear no mention of these issues.

The crux of the problem is that the evolution of economic thought in the U.S. has been shaped by the same institution that brought scientific racism, apologetics for U.S. imperialism, sexist psychology, and other perversions of social science. It's called the free market place in ideas; the basic principle is that those who finance research and teaching get what they want. In my discipline, this has meant that the overriding problem of the capitalist class has become the subject matter of economics: namely, the identification and implementation of the most profitable allocation of resources, both within the individual enterprise and in the society at large.

Thus, even for those economists with a strong committment to a more equal and humane world order, the basic assumptions of the conventional economics proved to be a powerful drawback to understanding the new problems brought to the fore by the social movements of the 1960s. Thus, the assumption that human nature, as expressed in individual preferences or consciousness, can be treated as independent of the structure of economic activity, is an unfortunate starting point for an economic analysis of worker alienation, sexism or racism. A discipline whose main analytical tool is the concept of equilibrium and whose conceptual apparatus does not admit the notion of power proved to be a misleading guide to the study of inequality or imperialism. A school of thought virtually devoid of tools of dynamic analysis and which takes the institutions of capitalism as given did not even attempt to understand where the advanced capitalist economy was going. Nor did it provide the basis for a critique of capitalism. The result has been that where conventional economists have attempted to deal with these problems, the result has borne the unmistakable mark of an ad hoc analysis using tools totally inappropriate to the task at hand. When conventional economic analysis is used as the basis for public policy in these areas, the result is generally a program of superficial and ad hoc palliatives, as in the so-called war on poverty.

The experience of the 1960s and early 1970s and a reading of U.S. history has persuaded us that the problems we confront cannot be solved within the framework of the capitalist society. (The argument is spelled out in some detail in R. Edwards, M. Reich, and T. Weisskopf, The Capitalist System, a book that grew out of our experience teaching Soc. Sci. 125.)

Our basic analytical concepts amount to a modern restatement of Marxian theory. We see the individual as a product of the economic system in which he or she lives and works. We relate the development of social institutions--like education--to the evolution of the social relations of production and the associated class structure. We focus attention on the exercise of power and the generality of conflict in the process of production and in other spehres of social life. Our analysis is historical and dynamic, oriented towards both understanding and furthering the process of social change.

The differences in theoretical outlook reflect conflicting committments concerning the relationship of the economist to the larger power structure. Underlying the theoretical shortcomings of the conventional economics is the definition of the professional role of the economist: as teacher and researcher alike, the economist is seen as developing analytical tools to aid corporate or government decision makers in resource allocation problems.

Not satisfied with being once removed from power, many economists--a good portion of the senior faculty of the Harvard Economics Department among them--have gone into the lucrative and gratifying business of directly advising corporations, government bureaus and presidents. "Relevance" in economics has come to be synonymous with service to governmental and corporate policy makers.

Not surprisingly, conventional economists have proven of more service in hiding the costs of the Vietnam War than in ending it; they have done better at explaining away poverty than in eradicating it. In their advisory roles, conventional economists have reflected the bias of their theories as as well as the political requirements of remaining "in favor" by at best accepting and more often justifying the institution of capitalism as the framework within which decisions are to be made.

Our definition of economics and of our roles as economists stems from our committment to serve the people who suffer under the capitalist system, not those who run it. The differences between us and the conventional economists is thus intensely and (on our part at least) openly political. What is "useful knowledge" to us is often outside of, or even in conflict with their definition of their discipline, not to mention their own personal role in the capitalist order.

This, I believe, is why Arthur MacEwan and I were fired.

Samuel Bowles is associate professor of Economics.

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