Can Joan Robinson’s ideas cast some light on today’s profound economic challenges?

By Carolina Alves and Jan Toporowski

Cambridge Journal of Economics Special Issue / Deadline for submitting papers via CJE refereeing process: 30th April 2022.

2023 marks the fortieth year since the passing of Joan Robinson and her one-hundred-and-twentieth anniversary. This special issue of the Cambridge Journal of Economics aims at presenting a collection of papers that reflect the extraordinary breadth of Robinson’s career and examine what insights these might offer the economics profession and policy makers to address our seemingly most intractable problems of inadequate demand, rising margins with falling competition, and widespread and seemingly intransigent inequality and its consequences. For Robinson the purpose of our discipline is in understanding the real world to enable all global citizens to enjoy life to the full. It is therefore fitting that we follow her lead and demand that we ask of ourselves whether we have done enough to address her challenges to economic theory.

Despite making her international reputation in the Marshallian tradition of economics, she came to regard her generalisation of John Maynard Keynes’s theories and their integration with Kaleckian and Marxian insights as her more substantial contribution, along with a vigorous defence of rigorous evidence-based thought over inductive mathematical modelling. Among an impressive body of work, three books by Robinson mark key moments in the evolution of her ideas: The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933), An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942), and The Accumulation of Capital (1956) (Marcuzzo, 2003).

In 1933, she made her international reputation with brilliant work within the orthodoxy on imperfect competition, offering an internal critique of the marginalist theory of distribution. Only a decade later, her reflections on reading Karl Marx persuaded Robinson to question the Marshallian methodology, in particular its polite theory of income distribution which became so incongruous during and after the depression (Marcuzzo, 2003).1 Finally, in 1956, she had the courage to follow the logic of her argument to examine the whole neoclassical theory of income distribution and its predominant method, facing the might of the now dominant American economics profession in the [in]famous capital controversy. She had to accept the pyrrhic victory of her interlocutors accepting she was right, yet the profession moving on regardless.

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Walter Rodney’s Lost Book: One Hundred Years of Development in Africa

By Leo Zeilig.

One of the most astonishing books that Walter Rodney – the Guyanese revolutionary and historian – ever wrote was published several years after he was assassinated on 13 June 1980. The story of this book and how it came to be published is almost as remarkable as the life of the revolutionary himself. In 1978, Rodney was working as a full-time activist of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. The WPA was a revolutionary organisation seeking to unite the African and Indian working class in the highly divided country, then run by the brutal Forbes Burnham. Rodney was the group’s principal organiser and intellectual, and to support himself and his family, and to fundraise for the WPA, he travelled overseas to teach and work.

One trip to Germany in 1978 shows us how his last book came to be. Rodney travelled from Guyana to Hamburg in April of that year. He was already the celebrated and outspoken author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and his arrival was eagerly anticipated. He had been invited by the radical German scholar, Rainer Tetzlaff, to teach a course on the history of African development at the University of Hamburg.

The lecture course Rodney was employed to teach was titled, ‘African Development, 1878-1978’, and comprised, according to the one-page programme, ‘(i) a brief introduction to development concepts; (ii) a survey of African colonial economies with special reference to East and West Africa; and (iii) an examination of post-colonial developments in Kenya and Tanzania.’ According to the brief programme there were going to be twelve lectures, comprising, ‘The debate on development concepts in Africa’ and ‘Post-colonial development strategies’.1

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The Uncomfortable Opportunism of Global Development Discourses

Since the 2008 financial crisis and the end of the Millennium Development Goals, academics and practitioners working in ‘development’ have been groping for a new development paradigm. Yearning for the end of neoliberalism and stumped by the rise of China, academics hopped on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bandwagon to call social scientists to think ‘globally’ beyond national-centric analyses. This was, of course, a noble goal – no different from the motives of the hopeful SDGs. New ‘Global Development’ proponents argued that we must think globally and relationally, surprising some within development studies that this had not been happening already (think Dependency theory).

As Development Studies departments found themselves new names and new networks were established, some academics took the opportunity to stake claim over the meaning of Global Development. New scholarship argued that a new Global Development paradigm would rescue us from development studies’ oppressive past, which obsessed over distinguishing between a backward developing world and a utopian ‘developed’ heaven. They reasoned that this was necessary because the ‘South’ was actually rising in comparison to the ‘North’ on the basis of growth and human development indicators. But in presenting this trend as a paradigm shift, these scholars misdiagnosed the problem. They presented the entire ‘South’ as rising, failing to isolate China’s rise and obscuring the fact that countries may have experienced very different trajectories.

In a Forum section that appeared in Development and Change, the case for Global Development was subjected to open debate. The case for Global Development is based on ‘converging divergence’, which suggest that there is increasing convergence between the North and South while there is increased evidence of sustained within-country inequalities (divergence). This elaboration of ‘Global Development’ selected 1990-2015 as the time series within which convergence was identified in terms of growth, health and education. The paper was roundly criticised for its sloppy use of indicators. For example, generalisations of wellbeing were based on the widely-criticised (in every intro to development studies course) Human Development Indicators. In selecting the time period 1990-2015, the paper implies that convergence resulted from the implementation of market-led policies, implicitly condoning neoliberalism, as Andrew Fischer argued. Of course, such claims stand directly opposed to the experiences of most countries in ‘the South’ where structural adjustment and the legacy of market-led reforms has limited prospects for structural transformation.

The paper was also criticised within the Forum on several other counts (see Jayati Ghosh’s contribution for example). For their part, Global Development proponents acknowledge most criticisms. However, they refuse to nuance their claims of converging divergence. They replied that the study was a purely empirical exercise and converging divergence was a stylized fact. It is as if selecting which data you use, as well as the time period, is not a choice.

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Enduring Relevance: Samir Amin’s radical political economy

By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Maria Dyveke Styve, Ushehwedu Kufakurinani and Ray Bush

In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.

The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.

Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.

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Economics Through the Lens of Women – A Review of Giandomenica Becchio’s A History of Feminist and Gender Economics

There is a long-standing debate on how economics as a subject is gender blind giving rise to various branches within the subject that seek to address ‘the woman question’ (as early feminism has been labeled) within the discipline. Giandomenica Becchio’s book A History of Feminist and Gender Economics is not merely an attempt to understand the history of economics and how the various dimensions of ‘the woman question’ have entered the discipline of economics over the years. The book also explores the work of women economists who mostly remained unheard in the discipline, the women who struggled to enter into the academic realm and the debates within these economists about addressing ‘the woman question’.

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Oikonomia is Back, for Now

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Plato and Aristotle, at The School of Athens. Photo by By Raphael – Web Gallery of Art.

The current pandemic is a human tragedy on an enormous scale, not only in terms of death and illness but also in loss of employment, disruption to education and increased anxiety. Perhaps of most concern to politicians, the various restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have had large negative effects on national and regional economies. 

As a result, many leaders have opted to ‘re-open’ their economies prematurely, partly since economic performance affects electoral cycles. In some cases there have been disastrous consequences to such loosening of social distancing restrictions, with spikes in infections in various countries or states. This has led to a discussion of a false dichotomy – between protecting human life and reviving the economy. 

This dichotomy is false for several reasons. At the most basic level, if large parts of the population get infected and either die or are unable to work, this would not bode well for the economy either. But more fundamentally, what we think of as ‘the economy’ is really broader than just profits and asset values. Read More »

Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-2019)

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Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh

Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein, historical social scientist, anti-colonial militant, world systems theorist, intellectual provocateur and polymath, has passed – and with him has passed the last giant of the golden age of anti-Eurocentric history. Wallerstein was born in 1930, educated at Columbia, from where he successively received BA, MA, and PhD degrees by 1959. From his early adulthood, he was seasoned and beguiled by national liberation struggles, reading the texts of Nehru and Gandhi, attending youth congresses alongside participants from African countries in the heat of anti-colonial militance. His earliest works focused on colonial and post-colonial African governments, including a number of neglected monographs and co-authored document collections on the African liberation movements.Read More »