Posts Tagged ‘book review’

The Old American Dream

I just received my copy of Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics, by Kalle Lasn and Adbusters, which I’m finding to be a disconcerting critique of economics.

On one hand, Meme Wars is clearly an attempt to question and point in the direction of a radical alternative to neoclassical economics. But, on the other hand, it is discomfiting for other traditions of radical critique in economics.

Let me explain. Meme Wars is a beautifully designed anti-textbook (there are no page numbers) aimed at students of economics,which encourages them to question some of the basic assumptions of both capitalism and of the hegemonic economic theory that serves to celebrate capitalism. Throughout the book, students are prompted to “ask your professor” the kinds of questions that can only serve to make the usual teachers of neoclassical economics uncomfortable— from “Do economists suffer from an academic inferiority complex called ‘physics envy’?” to “Do you think the economic and political framework which has ruled the world for the past fifty years is about to heave?” These are exactly the kinds of questions those of us who teach economics would love our students to raise when we present neoclassical (and, for that matter, Keynesian) economics.

But Lasn’s critique is very different from the kinds of issues many of us have been raising about both neoclassical economics and capitalism. There’s virtually no discussion of class exploitation or inequality, power, discrimination, imperialism, and so on. And there’s no attempt to introduce students to the work of Marx or Veblen, Baran and Sweezy, Polanyi, Hymer, Nearing, and other previous critics. Instead, the focus of critique is consumerism and the fetishism of economic growth. Thus, students are treated to interviews with and essays by such contemporary figures as Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, and Lourdes Benería, and encouraged to become familiar with such “early pioneers” as Keynes, Frederick Soddy, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Howard Odum, Kenneth Boulding, E. F. Schumacher, and Herman Daly. (OK, I had to look up Soddy and Odum.)

Now, this is not meant to be a critique of Lasn’s critique. And, in fact, I suspect that Lasn’s approach is exactly what many of my more critical students and the young people I met in the Occupy movement are open to and want to see more of. Issues of happiness, ecological sustainability, and the aesthetics of the future.

What I like about Lasn’s approach is his rejection of a return to the supposed golden age of the old American Dream (which I detect in many critical approaches today). And, while I’m not convinced that we can move forward without paying attention to other critical traditions, including the Marxist critique of political economy, it really is up to the rest of us to make the theoretical and political connections between those traditions and Lasn’s critique for contemporary students of economics and young activists—and to begin to sketch out what a new American Dream of spontaneity might look like.

My review of Donald Katzner’s book on the history of the UMass Economics Department, At the Edge of Camelot: Debating Economics in Turbulent Times, is now available on the Economic History Association web site.

Here’s the concluding paragraph:

Given the richness of its detail and insightfulness of its author, Katzner’s book will serve for years to come as a principal source of how the UMass economics department was fundamentally transformed – in many ways, against all odds – into the premier program of radical political economy in the United States. It is also, in Katzner’s view, a reminder of how the “ideal university is a place where free and open discourse on any intellectual topic, no matter how mundane or outlandish, frequently occurs.” Finally, it is a reminder to all of us – who are debating economics in new turbulent times – that a fundamental alternative to mainstream economic theory and to departments devoted exclusively to mainstream economics at both the undergraduate and graduate levels can be imagined and created.