When the history of how a good crisis went to waste gets written up, it will surely contain a big chapter on the failure of our academic elites. Because just like the politicians, the taxpayer-funded intellectuals at our universities have missed the historic opportunities gifted to them by the financial collapse. And it will be the rest of us who pay the price.
At the start of the banking crisis, the air was thick with the sound of lachrymose economists. How did they miss the biggest crash since 1929? Professors at the LSE were asked that very question by the Queen – and were too tongue-tied to reply. A better answer came from Alan Greenspan, until recently the most powerful economist on the planet, who went to Capitol Hill and confessed to a “flaw” in his model of the world. Clearly, the economic crisis was also a crisis of economics.
With the all-powerful dismal-ists temporarily discredited, an opportunity opened up for the sociologists, the political scientists and the rest to charge in, have their say – and change the way public policy is shaped.
If all that sounds like a battle of the -ologies to you, then consider: no discipline has so profoundly shaped Britain or America over the past 30 years as mainstream economics, with its almost unshakeable faith in markets, and its insistence on taking politics out of the public sphere. Displace that narrow, straitened form of economics from its position as the orthodoxy on modern capitalism, and you have a shot at changing capitalism itself.
So have the non-economists grasped their moment? Have they hell. Look at the academic conferences held over the past few weeks, at which the latest and most promising research in each discipline is presented, and it’s as if Lehman Brothers never fell over.
Britain’s top political scientists met in Belfast a couple of weeks ago, and you’d have thought there’d be plenty in the crisis for them to discuss, from the technocrat governments installed in southern Europe to the paralysis of British politicians in the face of the banks. But no: over the course of three days, they held exactly one discussion of Britain’s political economy. There was more prominence given to a session on how academic research could advance dons’ careers.
Perhaps you have more faith in the sociologists. Take a peek at the website for the British Sociological Association. Scroll through the press-released research, and you will not come across anything that deals with the banking crash. Instead in April 2010, amid the biggest sociological event in decades, the BSA put out a notice titled: “Older bodybuilders can change young people’s view of the over-60s, research says.”
Or why not do the experiment I tried this weekend: go to three of the main academic journals in sociology, where the most noteworthy research is collected, and search the abstracts for the terms “finance” or “economy” or “markets” since the start of the last decade.
Comb through the results for articles dealing with the financial crisis in even the most tangential sense. I found nine in the American Sociological Review, three in Sociology (“the UK’s premier sociology journal”), and one in the British Journal of Sociology. Look at those numbers, and remember that the BSA has 2,500 members – yet this is the best they could do.
Sociologists are reliably good at analysing the fallout from crises: the recessions, the cuts, the dispossessed, the repossessed. I’d expect them to be in for a busy few years. But on the upstream stuff, the causes of this crisis, they are practically silent. At Oxford, Donald MacKenzie has pulled off remarkable close-up studies of financiers in action but without context or politics: the view is all cogs and no car. Indeed, leave aside three remarkable books from Karen Ho, David Graeber and Alexandra Ouroussoff, all of whom are anthropologists (and all discussed here previously), and the bigger picture is still in the hands of those formerly shamefaced, but now rather assertive, economists. One promising initiative has just begun on the Open Democracy website called Uneconomics, where non-economists do chip in on the upstream causes of the crisis. But that’s it: a cheap and cheerful internet forum. The Second International it ain’t.
It wasn’t always like this. One way of characterising what has happened in America and Britain over the past three decades is that people at the top have skimmed off increasing amounts of the money made by their corporations and societies. That’s a phenomenon well covered by earlier generations of sociologists, whether it’s Marx with his study of primitive accumulation, or the American C Wright Mills and his classic The Power Elite, or France’s Pierre Bourdieu.
But those sociologists were public academics, unafraid to stray outside their disciplines. Compare that with the picture of today’s teacher in a modern degree-factory, forever churning out publications for their discipline’s top-rated journals. Not much scope there to try out a speculative research project that might not fly, or to collaborate with specialists in other subjects.
Nor is there much encouragement to engage with public life. Because that’s what’s really missing from the other social sciences. When an entire discipline does what the sociologists did at their conference last week and devotes as much time to discussing the holistic massage industry (“using a Foucauldian lens”) as to analysing financiers, they’re never going to challenge the dominance of mainstream economics. And it’s hard to believe they really want to.