With the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression continuing to slowly unfold, one of the most surprising consequences has been a non-event: the dearth of high-quality economic theorizing in leftist groups.  This is in spite of the opportunity the crisis presents for alternative economies, and in spite of the economic conundrum that developed economies find themselves in: too indebted for stimulus and too weak for austerity. This differend between austerity and stimulus indexes the insufficiency of either and yet few have taken up the necessity of thinking proper alternatives.
The leftist response to the economic crisis has instead been mostly been to focus on piecemeal reactions against government policies. The student movement arose as a response to tuition fee and EMA changes; the right to protest movement arose as a response to heavy-handed police treatment; and leftist parties have suggested a mere moderation of existing government policies. The project to bring about a fully different economic system has been shirked in favour of smaller-scale protests. There is widespread critique, but little construction.
Admittedly, the left is not entirely devoid of high-level economic theorizing. Rather, the more specific problem is that those few who do such work are a relatively tiny minority and are typically marginalized within the leftist scene. The attention and effort of the leading intellects of leftism (at least in the UK) are on social issues, race issues, rights issues, and identity issues. All important, to be sure, but there is no equivalent attention paid to economic issues.
The current academic literature on leftist economics is little better. In the words of Alex Andrews, this body of work can be roughly separated into three general tendencies:
1. Marxists – tend to operate in a critical mode. They provide the best analysis of the conditions of capitalism of the other groups. But in terms of talking about the economics and organisation of a post-capitalist society, the analysis is rather thin. This is part because economics was historically associated with a vulgar economism (which Marxism is not ultimately) that was linked to Stalinism. And it is part, of course, partially to do with the idea that the democracy of the workers movement would generate this construct.
2. Critical Realists, “Post-Autistic” school people, Tony Lawson, Cambridge Social Ontology group – strong critique of neoclassical economics, but lets be honest, this is shooting fish in a barrel. No positive project. Unlike mainstream economics that never talks about methodology, they *only* talk about methodology.
3. Keynesians – no class analysis, no wider politics, no understanding of why Keynesianism may have failed politically, or how it is the flip side of current situations.
As Alex notes, none of these approaches is sufficient on their own. Yet even more worryingly, I’ve been present at a number of events where it’s argued that leftists needn’t worry about such issues right now. Instead it’s suggested that all we need is to bring about a revolution (as though revolutions were some clean cut with the past, rather than being a complex mixture of diverse social forces). The presumption implicit in this response is that once leftists are given the opportunity to create a new society, the answers will just become clear. Perhaps through consensus decision making we’ll come up with a sophisticated answer…!
But the risk of relying on such unreflective people power is that when the opportunity comes to effectuate change, the actors involved fall back on habitual ideas simply because they can’t imagine an alternative. This is a crisis of imagination, but also – more significantly – of cognitive limits. Very few have done the hard work to think through an alternative economic system. And as a result, we remain embedded within capitalist realism – unable to think outside the socio-economic coordinates established by an all-encompassing capitalist imagination. Slavoj Zizek has been a popular exception here by consistently arguing for the necessity of thinking “the day after tomorrow”. Yet few appear to have taken up his call, and he himself seems to have ignored it as well.
This all raises the question of why this is the case. Here it seems to me there are three primary reasons for this neglect of economics in contemporary leftist circles.
In the first place there is the continued adherence to a form of ‘folk politics’ – the avoidance of systemic and abstract thinking in favour of immediate and bodily forms of action. Getting struck by a cop at a protest becomes a sign of success, at the same time that it displaces the conflict from incorporeal structures to physical individuals. Yet the systems that determine economic outcomes are complex and abstract, making them alien to everyday experience. We experience their outcomes, but only at a deferred distance (see my last post for more on this). It’s much more intuitive for individuals to protest and occupy spaces than it is to trace out causal chains and uncover more abstract spaces of contention (e.g. bank capital reserve requirements). Yet the latter are exponentially more effective in the long-run, albeit much less exciting. (This has led some to posit a protest trilemma between being effective, being risk-free and being exciting.)
Another part of the explanation for the missing economics has to point towards the cultural turn of the 1980s in the theory and activist scenes. Rather than continue to read Sraffa, Hilferding, Baran and Sweezy, a generation of students grew up focusing more on the issues of identity politics and the post-structuralist critique of subjectivity and desire. This is not to begrudge cultural theory for its achievements, but simply to point out that this became the dominant pathway for most students during this time. Those with a broadly leftist sensibility were immersed in this milieu, and opportunity costs dictated this was at the expense of economics training.
Yet this leads to the third, and more important, explanation. Because while most leftist students may have been raised in an era of cultural theory, one would still expect the current crisis to have brought about a major turn in leftist circles. One would expect a massive influx of leftists suddenly interested in economics and the scholarly work it requires. Yet, for the most part, this shift remains unseen. It seems to me that, as a result of the training of students in cultural theory, many leftists consider themselves to be incapable of doing proper economic work. We can make broad claims about cuts and austerity, but ask a leftist to analyze the consequences of a change in eurozone bank collateral and most are lost. Thus, the third major explanation of the lack of economics in leftist circles is that we don’t have the institutional basis to grapple with the nuance and details of modern economies. This, to put it simply, is a major failing. And moreover, it’s one that can’t be solved overnight.
So there is a massive gap at the heart of contemporary leftism, yet there is also space for collaboration. There are pockets of interesting work being done. From modern monetary theory to complexity economics to ecological economics to Parecon, along with people like David Graeber, Doug Henwood and Paul Mason, trajectories of innovative thought are being launched. But in the current conjunction, leftists in general need to be literate about economic matters and stop surrendering this ground to the scholars of capitalist realism.
 I should be clear from the start, the ‘left’ referred to here excludes the broadly Keynesian supporters ranging from Paul Krugman to Christina Romer to Matthew Yglesias. Instead, the term ‘left’ here indexes a mostly non-Keynesian group of thinkers – typically with Marxist tendencies, but more generally interested in post-capitalism.