The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Rethinking Economics: The story so far

12th February 2015

Rafe Martyn on why a student movement for new economic thinking can change society at large

In 2011 and 2012 small numbers of disgruntled economics students started cropping up in universities across the UK.  In Cambridge, Manchester, then UCL groups formed of those who were unhappy with the state of economics. Why it was only three or four years after the financial crisis that feelings of discontent found a concrete expression is unclear. Perhaps it was only once the magnitude of the social consequences of austerity manifested themselves that student passions were lit. What is clear, though, is that a long-standing dissatisfaction with economic solutions to the environment, inequality, poverty and debt combined with a post-crisis yearning for renewal to plant the seeds of critical thinking and iconoclasm in students’ minds.

The sprouting of new groups continued unabated in the years that followed. Coalescing around the newly-founded Rethinking Economics network, groups sprung up in Essex, Sheffield, SOAS, LSE, Glasgow, Nottingham and Kingston. Central to the movement was the demand for pluralism, fostered by a dissatisfaction with the narrow and often outdated neoclassical economics that formed the basis of the undergraduate curriculum. Further afield, in Germany and in France, it was discovered that networks of pluralist students had already locked horns with the economics establishment since the start of the millennium. An international grouping emerged rallying students from South America, the US, Australia, and many European countries (65 groups in total) to a global call for pluralism in economics. Members of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, as it was known, worked together on an open letter that was published in major newspapers across the world and received messages of support from major figures ranging from Thomas Piketty to the executive director of the Austrian Central Bank.

Meanwhile, Rethinking Economics could boast member groups in China, Brazil, India, Israel, Turkey, Italy and the US. The linchpin of the Rethinking Economics movement was its conferences, with which it raised awareness and attracted interest from inside the university and out. Indeed it was with such a conference that it launched in London in June 2013, inspired by an eponymous conference in Tuebingen, Germany the year before. In September 2014 a conference was held in New York for the first time, attracting speakers as high-profile as Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman, an indication of the seriousness with which the student views were now being taken. This also signalled an important expansion of the student movement into the US, with an additional group forming in Washington DC on the back of the New York conference. These inroads were particularly significant as the US is where the seat of the economic power lies. The university rankings for economics are comprehensively dominated by US institutions and the research agenda of the world is largely dictated by them.

Amid all these expansions and successes it is important to remind ourselves of what Rethinking Economics stands for and why it has importance not just to economics students but for the whole of society. Rethinking Economics seeks to demystify, reinvigorate and diversify economics. The Great Recession that started in 2008 has made economics relevant to everyone’s lives as never before. We live in an economics-centred world where stories of housing bubbles and bankers’ bonuses dominate the press. The rhetoric of debt and austerity is ubiquitous in politicians’ speeches. Inevitably there is a fierce questioning of the discipline that is suddenly at the fore of the public consciousness. Was it the neglect of economists that led to the crash? Is the economics discipline up to scratch? And if so is it still relevant to civil society? Can we trust the experts in whose advice we place so much trust?

Rethinking Economics does not try to answer these questions beyond advocating open mindedness, critical thinking and pluralism. Rather, the achievement of Rethinking Economics is to have brought these questions to so many. No longer will a student sit silently in their class wondering if they are the only one that feels alienated by the economics they are learning. No longer will the public have to blindly swallow economic narratives fed to them by politicians and journalists without the succour of knowing there is another way. And no longer will students emerge from their degrees convinced that the models and economic values they have been taught represent a comprehensive worldview.

Or certainly fewer will be subject to these feelings of disempowerment! Clearly Rethinking Economics has a long way to go to spread its message yet more widely. It should not be forgotten, though, that it is joined by a wealth of civil society groups that have complementary messages. With a plethora of intelligent, motivated and passionate student organisers all dedicating enormous amounts of time to furthering Rethinking Economics’ range of exciting initiatives, the prospects for the future are undoubtedly bright.

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