Have the social sciences failed us?

by Professor Andrew Gamble FBA

20 Apr 2012

On 16 April, Aditya Chakrabortty wrote an article for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, arguing that social scientists have failed to step up and offer alternatives in the wake of the economic crisis. Here, Andrew Gamble FBA responds.

In his article for the Guardian on Monday 16 April Aditya Chakrabortty paints a grim picture of taxpayer-funded intellectuals fiddling while Rome burns and missing the historic opportunity created by the financial crash to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics and fashion a new alternative. They are too busy he thinks studying holistic massage to engage with public policy and the urgent challenges of our time. Their gaze is elsewhere. What is the use of them, he muses.

Chakrabortty should get out more. The session at the Political Studies Association conference in Belfast on the UK political economy, which he mentions and to which I contributed, was packed out, and provoked strong and passionate discussion. There are many excellent multidisciplinary research centres including CRESC at Manchester, CSGR at Warwick, and the newly launched SPERI at Sheffield, all of which have been producing original and innovative research about the causes of the crisis and what should be done, organising conferences and public events, and publishing a stream of books, articles and reports. The Policy Centre at the British Academy has recently published New Paradigms in Public Policy, a series of reports examining major current policy issues, analysing the assumptions underlying them and how those assumptions should change. The topics covered include climate change (Ian Gough), new politics (Gerry Stoker), economic futures (Andrew Gamble) and the mismatch of demands and resources (Peter Taylor-Gooby).

Contrary to Chakrabortty’s lazy caricature of British academics as a bottomless pit of irrelevance, there is a ferment of ideas and writing, and some excellent thinking both about how we got here and where we might be going. He focuses on particular disciplines, but the real action takes place between disciplines, and not just in universities but in the engagement of academics with the wealth of institutions, media and thinktanks which constitute the public sphere, ranging from the British Academy to ippr, the Resolution Foundation, the Guardian, YouGov, Policy Network and Compass among many others. Chakrabortty cannot see this because he misunderstands the relationship between ideas and action. He seems to think that if all the sociologists in Britain spent their annual conference discussing the financial crisis revolution would come overnight. But producing ideas is one thing. Changing the ideas that govern policy is very different. It concerns power, and politics.

It is hard to think of someone more engaged in public debate than Keynes in 1931 or more scathing about the Treasury orthodoxy of his day. The May report recommended cutting the dole of the unemployed and the wages of all public employees in order to correct the budget deficit created by the growing slump. Keynes thought it ‘the most foolish document I ever had the misfortune to read.’ But that did not stop the report being implemented by the National Government, formed after the Labour Cabinet split on what to do. What stopped it was the mutiny by naval ratings at Invergordon, angered by the cut in their wages, which led to the collapse of confidence in the pound and forced Britain off the gold standard. Keynes published his revolutionary economic treatise The General Theory in 1936, a full seven years after the Great Crash of 1929, but even then it was the second world war and the political changes it brought, which made a much more active role for the state in managing modern economies finally accepted as essential if capitalism was to survive.

Chakrabortty thinks there was a Keynesian golden age in the 1950s and 1960s which was destroyed by the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in the 1980s. But Keynesianism and an active state never went away, as Austrian economists have always complained. The response to the financial crash of 2008 was very different from the response in 1929, and this is partly due to what Colin Crouch has called ‘privatised Keynesianism’ on which the financial boom of neo-liberalism depended. If we are now to shift direction, as Chakrabortty wants, we need not just a fundamental re-imagining of our political economy but also the building of a new coalition of interests which can force change. Academics as public intellectuals have a role in helping build that coalition, but ideas by themselves are never enough. We need politics too.

Andrew Gamble FBA is Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge and author of Economic Futures and The Spectre at the Feast

Aditya Chakrabortty responded further on 7 May 2012 in his Guardian article ‘Angry academics can’t answer my criticism that there’s too little analysis of our current crisis’.

Find information about the British Academy Policy Centre project New paradigms in public policy

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