Revolution Planning 101

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Who should a rebel economist turn to for inspiration? Typical candidates might include Marx, Veblen, Daly or Piketty. But how about Michel de Montaigne? Though an unlikely choice, the French Renaissance writer offers some solid strategic advice for any would-be revolutionary: “No wind helps him who does not know to what port he sails.”

Revolutionary history teaches that the winds of revolt tend to descend suddenly and powerfully. Making the most of them means not only having a precise fix on our destination, but charting a clear course to help us navigate safely around the rocks and shoals of indecision, infighting or counterrevolution. Accordingly, if you plan on fomenting rebellion in your economics program, you need to ask yourself: when the winds of revolt whip up, when my classmates rise in righteous anger and our sails are full, what then? To what port will we steer our insurrection? What does victory look like?

To answer this question is to define a concrete goal for your rebellion — step one of the planning process. Say your professors have offered you a seat at the bargaining table to discuss changes to the curriculum. Would you have a particular model curriculum to point to — a program of study which would not only add much needed plurality to the curriculum but could stand the test of academic rigor and value? Without a proper understanding of the deficiencies of the curriculum and the appropriate pluralist fixes, you’ll find it hard to get your revolt taken seriously. That’s why student groups with the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) have devoted so much time to addressing this curriculum content question. In France, the PEPS-Économie (PEPS) network made a media splash after undertaking a rigorous survey that revealed the near absence of real-world economic content, economic history, or interdisciplinary content in nationwide curricula. The survey enabled the PEPS students to construct a smart and strategic model curriculum. Meanwhile, UK students across the Channel, operating as a part of the Rethinking Economics network, have used similar survey work to inform the list of demands they’ve registered with their national higher education standards agency.

Step two is power mapping. This amounts to understanding the field of the struggle and the nature of the contending forces. Who are your allies and opposition? Who are the key power holders? What messages will win you support? What messages will the opposition use to attack you? What will influence the power holders? What resources (financial, material, human and otherwise) do you need to win? Where are the opposition’s vulnerabilities? This crucial reconnaissance work will enable you to develop the right strategies and tactics and avoid missteps. For example, by taking note of the way in which the orthodox thought police attempted to smear the earlier Post Autistic Economics movement as being mathematically averse or inept, PEPS students have crafted a messaging strategy which avoids such pitfalls. In a bit of messaging jiu-jitsu, they’ve now turned the math critique around, arguing that training in qualitative analysis, reflexive thinking and epistemology will only enhance the ability of economists to use their quantitative skills effectively.
Power mapping does not only hone strategies and tactics, it also provides a clearer view of your port of call, your goal. Consider the courageous walkout of Gregory Mankiw’s Econ 10 course staged by Harvard students in 2011. If their goal was to grab media attention and make a public statement about the glaring deficiencies of such mainstream courses, then they succeeded admirably, and their walkout was the right tactic. But if they had a long-term goal in mind, if they sought to launch a campaign that might in time transform the way economics is taught at Harvard, then in all likelihood they should have charted a different course — one that reserved the walkout as an escalation tactic for use at a critical rather than initial juncture. Power mapping helps you make such tactical distinctions.

The final trick to planning is to keep it flexible — don’t get wedded to any single course of action. The winds of revolt can shift at any time, and unforeseen obstacles can arise, necessitating a change in strategies and tactics. A smart rebel economist knows to keep an array of strategies and tactics on the table, and in future installments of this series, I’ll take a closer look at some of them and discuss other resources you’ll need to keep your rebellion afloat.

Meanwhile, with a new academic year about to begin, now’s the time to develop plans and get ready to launch your own campus rebellion. As you do, share your own strategies or ask questions in the comment section below. Together we’ll make this the year when the thought police start to retreat.

Keith Harrington is a campus rabble-rouser, student of economics and North American representative for the activist group International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, ISIPE. The views represented in his posts are entirely his own.

Strength in Numbers

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Imagine yourself in an introductory macroeconomics class.

The topic is economic growth — mainstream macro’s holiest of holies — and your professor is singing its praises. In the midst of his psalm, you raise your hand and ask a very reasonable question about the feasibility of endless growth on a finite planet. In return for this blasphemy, he shuts you down with a diatribe on efficiency, substitutability and the environmental Kuznets curve. You’re unsure how to respond, other students nod and take notes or derisively smirk at you, and the lecture moves on.

This is the indoctrination process at work. The process of molding your mind to the mainstream dogma, getting you to toe the line, narrow your thinking, swallow your questions. To be an effective rebel economist — to subvert the dead-end status quo and revolutionize economics education—means learning how to resist this process. And as I discussed in the introductory installment of this blog series, a successful resistance begins with organization.

Getting organized means, first and foremost, building a moral and intellectual support network among your classmates. From the above illustration, it’s easy to see why this needs to be done. Being a rebel economist is hard to tackle alone. For starters, it involves challenging your professors — the putative experts, the very people who grade your work and hold your career prospects in their hands. Without a support network, you can quickly find yourself isolated and alienated as a disruptive contrarian with a head full of half-baked notions. That shouldn’t stop you from speaking truth to power, but to be an effective agent of change, you need to ensure you’re not the only student who keeps raising her hand to challenge the dogma.

There is no single blueprint for building solidarity among your classmates. If you’re aware of other potential rebel economists in your midst, then the first step could be as simple as inviting them to a meeting to share experiences and frustrations with the curriculum, and to talk a little treason. Such meetings can also double as extracurricular opportunities to hone your chops in pluralist economic thought through the sharing and discussion of pluralist readings, or through critical analysis of the orthodoxy and its flaws. As those within the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) community have learned, student-led reading groups are not only a useful way to supplement curricular deficiencies, but also help build the intellectual arsenal you’ll need to take on the thought police.

If you find yourself in a staunchly mainstream department, you may need to get more creative to draw your rebel comrades out of hiding. The trick here is to open their eyes to pluralist alternatives, and instill a sense of outrage at the extreme narrowness of your curriculum. For instance, you might organize a “rethinking economics” or pluralist teach-in wherein guest speakers from inside or outside the department give workshops on subjects not included in the mainstream curriculum, such as ecological, Marxian or feminist economics. Or you could go big, and expand the teach-in into a multi-day seminar or conference. Make it exciting, but don’t take it for granted that your classmates will show up. Put up posters, pass around sign up sheets, chalk the sidewalk — whatever it takes to pack the room and swell the ranks of your potential recruits.

But no matter what you do to grab your fellow students’ attention, once you have it, make sure you’re ready to redirect it towards a compelling plan of action. A successful insurrection requires more than a compelling vision of change; it needs a practical plan to achieve it. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy, and especially in the world of academia, to get bogged down in the world of deliberation — spinning your wheels with endless discussions and seminars — and never gain traction in the world of action. To help you avoid that, in my next notebook entry, I’ll turn to the crucial question of planning with a brief overview of goal-setting and campaign-strategizing tips for rebel economists. Watch this space.

Keith Harrington

Organizing Insurrection

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“Economics students are in rebellion.”

In May of this year, you could find a version of that headline splashed across the pages of newspapers and other publications in over 18 countries across the globe. That month, a global network of econ students calling ourselves the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) released our open letter calling for an overhaul of economics education and research. Overall, it was a very diplomatic call for change — demanding a simple widening of the range of schools of thought, methodology and interdisciplinary options offered in the standard econ curriculum. But the headlines read “rebellion!” Why?

Some students might shy away from the rebel label, but given what we’re up against, it’s a fitting one. The world of mainstream economics is a monolithic empire of thought if ever there was one. Any whisper of dissent against its fundamental tenets is bound to incur a crackdown from the thought police, who invariably brand us as misguided, and seek to tame our revolutionary fury with mild reforms.

To be a rebel in such a world is a badge of intellectual valor. It’s a mark of allegiance to free-inquiry. It’s a label we need to embrace and encourage others to embrace. But as economics students from Harvard to Sydney have found out, against the power of empire, rebellions can easily fizzle out.

So how do we build the power and resilience needed to challenge the orthodoxy, dislodge its high priests, topple their ivory towers, and bring reality back into the economics classroom? Speaking out in class is a start. Putting up provocative posters is a start. Issuing manifestos is another step forward. But to overcome the power of the thought police we have to get organized. Individual actions may help stir the waters of rebellion, but to transform our discontent into a relentless, transformative tide requires long-term strategic thinking and collaboration.

Thankfully, for the would be revolutionaries among us, there are some strategic precedents and organizing models to draw upon.

ISIPE provides a great case in point. Where past flare-ups of student discontent were relatively isolated, and insular, ISIPE now provides rebel economists with a global support network to share ideas, best practices, inspirational stories and other resources to keep our insurrections going and growing. Moreover, within the ISIPE community there are dozens of national-level student networks whose experiences can yield lessons for those of us working to launch national networks of our own, as in the United States.

If you’re a budding rebel economist, hopefully you’re wondering: How do I build a student group, get it active on my campus and get connected to the growing global movement? As another school year approaches, this blog series will explore exactly those questions in several more installments over the coming weeks. Drawing on the experiences of ISIPE, national networks, and other campus organizing models, I hope to shed some light on everything from how to recruit your classmates, to how to plan a campaign and keep your rebellion rolling for the long haul. Tune back in for tips on how to turn on the heat needed to beat the thought police and transform our the economic student rebellion into a full on revolution.

Keith Harrington