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