[ Excerpt from an essay in Adbusters #156
September / October 2021]
The First Student Uprising
There’s a word for people who are obsessively focused only on what matters to them, in such granular detail that they lose sight of the big picture, and forget that what they do affects other people and other things, and that not everything needs to happen right now.
That word is autistic.
It’s the word 15 economics students used at Paris’s École Normale Supérieure when they stormed out of their classes in the summer of 2000 and organized protests and teach-ins. They were talking about a cultural disorder, not a neurological one.
The reigning neoclassical model of economics is autistic, they said. It’s so rational it’s irrational. They demanded reform within economics teaching, which they claimed had become enthralled with complex mathematical models that operate only in conditions that don’t exist.
The students were rebelling against the straw man at the center of economic science — a pathetic parody of a human being called the “Rational Utility Maximizer.” This guy runs around making perfectly predictable choices within perfectly functioning markets. He’s never depressed, never sickened by pollution, never emotional, never a dreamy wanderer, never in love.
But of course real humans are not like that. We fly off on wild tangents, have altruistic impulses, do crazy things. We feel guilty when we overindulge, get depressed when we lose our jobs, seek revenge when people do us wrong, and we often refuse to buy something just because our values don’t jibe with those of a corporation. And we routinely thwart our “rational self-interest” by pulling off remarkable feats of compassion and teamwork.
Neoclassical economics cannot handle this truth. It has achieved its coherence as a “science” by amputating most of human nature.
Three Nobel Laureates — Wassily Leontief, Ronald Close and Milton Friedman — had expressed similar concerns. “Existing economics is a theoretical system which floats in the air and which bears little relation to what happens in the real world,” complained Ronald Close.
And near the end of his life, Milton Friedman conceded that the discipline had “become increasingly an arcane branch of mathematics rather than dealing with real economic problems.” .
None of these warnings had any impact whatsoever on economics curriculums. Wrote Mark Blaug: “We have created a monster that is very difficult to stop.”
But the students tried. They called their movement autisme-économie —“post-autistic economics.” These were some of the brightest students at one of the top schools in Europe. They’d done their homework — so they were equipped to handle the blowback from the old guard (like Robert Solow from MIT, who called them “children”).
Networking over the still-budding Internet, the students spread their message: that economics has narrowed to the point where it cannot contend with real-world challenges like inequality, financial instability and climate change.
Their rebellion surged after an open letter signed by a thousand of them was published in Le Monde. In class and in the corridors, they waved signs: “We wish to escape from imaginary worlds!” They mocked their professors’ “uncontrolled use of mathematics,” number-crunching as an end in itself.
Where in our curriculum, they asked, are the alternative perspectives — the hundreds of credible intellectuals and freethinkers who offer fresh ways to explain the world, through the lens of feminism, socialism, behaviorism, even Buddhism? Where is the syncretism that’s the sign of an actual grown-up mind?
“Wake up before it’s too late!” the students shouted.
Their rebel spirit spread to Cambridge and Harvard and dozens of universities around the world. A slogan splashed on a wall on a Madrid campus summed it all up: “¡La economia es de gente, no de curvas!” — “Economics is about people, not curves!”
The post-autistic movement had its shining moment … and then, like other movements before it, it faded away. But it left an indelible mark in the minds of a generation of students. It was a seed that could grow.
2008: The Second Student Revolt
On September 15, 2008, out of the blue sky, a crash.
Twenty percent of global trade wiped out. The beginning of a depression that would last longer than the Great Depression.
Mainstream economists were blindsided. Not even one in a hundred saw it coming.
“How did economists get it so wrong?” asked the New York Times.
“What good are economists anyway?” quipped Business Week.
“Will economists escape a whipping?” wondered The Atlantic.
No “scientific” discipline has ever suffered such a blow to its credibility. Far worse than failing to predict the crash, mainstream economists actually enabled it, producing hundreds of reports supporting the dangerously leveraged mortgages and overconsumption that triggered the meltdown.
One presenter at a meeting of leading economists in London stood and said: “We all got it largely wrong and have been using the wrong intellectual apparatus.”
Who could now deny that the emperor was naked? Student protests flared.
In the UK, a group of Cambridge students — spiritual descendants of the Ecole Normale 15 — waved a manifesto called “Opening Up Economics.”
U of Manchester students founded the “Post-Crash Economics Society” and published a book called The Econocracy: The Perils of Leaving Economics to the Experts, and a second called simply, Rethinking Economics.
The revolt spread to Harvard — home to the best economics department in the world if faculty Nobel-Prize-count is your metric. A hundred students walked out of Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics class. Eight hundred signed a petition to get an alternative to Econ 101 into the curriculum. Over a hundred Rethinking Economics groups sprung up in universities all over the world.
At the 2015 American Economics Association (AEA) conference, delegates were greeted by a barrage of Adbusters’ posters pinned up all over the corridors and meeting rooms of the Boston Sheraton. As night fell, we beamed messages onto the hotel’s façade.
The delegates could feel the breath of the resistance now. We’re coming for you!
This was a much bigger deal than the first round of student uprisings. The post-autistic movement had birthed a couple of dozen resistance groups. This time, more than a hundred mini uprisings spun out, in 70 countries.
But again the fury subsided. The revolutionary tumult of Occupy Wall Street had come and gone and not a single Wall Street exec ended up in jail. Not a single prof lost tenure. Not a single university changed its curriculum. The 24/7 news cycle moved on. A few passionate disruptors kept rattling the cage, but that’s it. The keepers of the old paradigm held the line.
The Next Student Uprising
And so here we are. And things are worse than ever. Cynicism about the global economy is off the charts. The whole game feels rigged.
The rich pay no taxes. Despite proof of a gigantic rogue offshore finance industry, foreign tax havens continue to thrive. Flash trading algorithms whirr away, turning stock markets into cash cows for the rich. Money begets money begets money. And in the wake of Covid we’re being told to go out and consume again. But what about climate change? Does anyone have a solution for that?
Market conditions are eerily similar to just before the crash of 1929. We’re inching toward some invisible tipping point where a runaway automated selloff trips all the circuit breakers on Wall Street. That, or it gets too hot to go outside in August.
Millennials & Gen Z are feeling lost. They immerse themselves in cyberspace and do the best they can, though deep down they know that unless something fundamentally changes, they will continue to live precarious lives and have very little to look forward to.
But something is stirring. Those banked fires of previous stifled revolutions never went out. And now they have found a new fuel. #MeToo and #BLM shimmer as existence proofs: Systemic change is possible!
“This isn’t just about the right way to do economics anymore,” says Australian economist Steve Keen. “It’s about the survival of human civilization. If we are to have a future, then neoclassical economics has to go, and we heterodox economists have to replace it with something properly grounded in the physical reality of planet Earth.”
There’s ferocity in those words. But so far the action to match it — the kind of furious passion that sent #MeToo and #BLM into orbit — is the missing element.
The new economic mavericks are still too kid-gloved. They’re too polite, convinced they can talk sense into the old guard. Most of them still believe that science has its own self-correcting mechanisms and we should trust them to play out.
Isn’t this how scientific progress happens, after all? You just keep doing solid experiments and publishing good work until a critical mass of evidence tips the scales, and the scientific community comes round, and the new paradigm is generally accepted, and the scientists who hatched it win the Nobel Prize, and the community settles back down, with a greater understanding now of how the world works.
This is a myth!
Thomas Kuhn, in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, tells us a different story . . . of how paradigm shifts really happen.
They are almost always nasty, messy, dirty affairs — very much like political revolutions, like vindictive putsches. The old guard jealously protects its turf. The dissenters are ignored, stonewalled, refused publication and tenure, ostracized and obstructed in every way – until tensions reach a boiling point.
Kuhn’s most profound insight is that, contrary to the way scientific progress is supposed to happen, an old paradigm cannot be replaced by evidence, facts, or “the truth” . . . it will not be thrown out because its forecasts are wrong, its policies no longer work, or its theories are proved unscientific. An old paradigm will only be replaced by a new one when a group of maverick scientists orchestrate a coup and throw the old-school practitioners out of power.
• • •
At critical moments throughout history, university students have catalyzed massive protests, called their professors and leaders on their lies and thrust their nations in brave new directions. It happened
in the 1960s on hundreds of campuses around the world, and more recently in South Korea, China, Indonesia, Greece, Spain, Egypt, Chile and Argentina. Now, with inequality reaching obscene levels, financial instability becoming endemic and multiple climate tipping points looming, we’ve reached another of those moments.
Now students everywhere are called upon to seize their birthright and perpetrate the overhaul of a political ideology and theoretical framework that has ruled the world since World War II.
You are the Third Force, and what you do right now will be your generation’s legacy.
The revolt could unfold something like this:
The markets crash again, but this time there’s no next-day correction by bargain-hunters jumping in. Instead, the markets just keep tumbling: New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Tokyo.
Protests erupt on campuses worldwide. Students occupy economics departments, disrupt lectures, walk out of classes en masse, seize the megaphones of campus radio and newspapers.
Three thousand doctoral students at the University of Delhi start nailing #KickItOver manifestos — Martin Luther-style — to their professors’ doors.
Students at the University of Melbourne join in. They use big, symbolic medieval nails and post videos of their raucous ceremonies on YouTube. Police are called in and many are arrested, but every Friday afternoon the rowdy anger keeps erupting.
A ritual is born.
The student revolt spills over into the larger world. A rapidly growing resistance group jams economic conferences. They disrupt symposiums, occupy think tanks, swarm the annual conference of the American Economics Associations. They toss pies and rotten eggs at finance ministers.
And the broader public goes, Yeah, you know what, those dinosaurs had it coming. It’s time.
The global economic consensus begins to crack.
And on one carefully chosen day (maybe on a September 17, anniversary of Occupy Wall Street?) a thousand universities around the world erupt simultaneously in raucous demonstrations.
It’s a whole new beginning.