Students at the prestigious Harvard University walked out of a class that they felt was biased towards the neoliberal economic system, and did not teach them wholesome economics. Then, they proceeded to join the Occupy Movement, expressing their support for a "movement that is changing American discourse on economic justice". Placing this event in the context of the ongoing four-month old global 'Occupy Movement', which started on the iconic Wall Street on September 17, Dr. Sudipta Bhattacharya asks, "Is the edifice of neo-liberalism finally crumbling?"
On November 2, 2011, students at Harvard University made history when they walked out from Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s ‘Economics 10’ course lecture. The students did so because they felt the lecture had a heavy neo-liberal bias. The Economics 10 is a course on preliminary economics. It had enrolment of more than 700 students, which is the highest among all the courses in Harvard.
But who is Professor Mankiw? Apart from his identity as a Professor of Economics, with a heavy neo-liberal bias, he is well-known as the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisor during the second Bush-Administration. Many Americans believe that Professor Mankiw’s conservative ideology created the collapse of American economy, and led the country in the deep financial and economic crisis it has witnessed since 2007.
What Mankiw taught in Neo-liberal Curriculum
Students staged walk-out not against Mankiw as an individual. Mankiw is a symbol of conservative ideology; the text books he authored are in the curriculum of the universities in America and also in many developing countries including India. I would like to mention two important text books of Mankiw on elementary economics education which are taught in many universities worldwide. The first one is ‘Economics: Principles and Applications’ and the second one is ‘Macroeconomics’. The first one Mankiw taught in the controversial ‘Economics 10’ course. Both books are written in a fashion as if the ideology expressed in this book is the last word, beyond which no other opinion can exist. American and European capitalism gave recognition to Mankiw brand of economics as the ‘mainstream’ one. The so-called ‘mainstream’ economics is based on some crucial assumptions that human being is selfish – the ultimate success of an individual is in the maximization of utility and maximization of profit.
There is a myth that Adam and Eve fell from heaven on this earth and started human civilization after committing sin of swallowing the apple of knowledge. Mankiw would have led his students to believe that some utterly selfish (neo-classical) individuals, without any semblance of history, dropped from the sky one fine morning and initiated the capitalist market economy. Not only that; the human civilization is destined to end up in capitalism itself. In Mankiw’s book there is no mention of ‘feudalism’ as the existing social order before capitalism. And what is the possibility of socialism as the logically next social order after capitalism? Mankiw nips in the bud any such possibility by ridiculing the erstwhile socialist countries.
In his teaching and books, there is a total blackout about all the great personalities who do not fit into this "mainstream" picture. It must be pointed out here that the man who crusaded till the last day of his life, Karl Marx, finds no mention in Mankiw's book. Even after 128 years of his death exploited people of the globe are waging a war against capitalism in his name. Karl Marx described capitalism as ‘the last antagonistic mode of production’ where exploitation of man by man reaches the climax. This is why Karl Marx refused to include capitalism along with previous exploitative social orders as a part of human history. According to him capitalism is still an epoch of human ‘pre-history’. It is no wonder that there is no mention of Karl Marx in Mankiw’s book. As a matter of fact some of the personalities who were protagonists of capitalism but do not strictly subscribe to mainstream ideology are also missing from the book.
For instance, there are no references to David Ricardo who is referred just after Adam Smith in the chronology of economic literature. Two Nobel Laureates of our times, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, too do not find mention presumably because of their advocacy in favour of state-intervention. Surprisingly John Maynard Keynes is only referred in two places. It is well-known that capitalism could revive from collapse during Great Depression from 1929-33 only by following Keynesian state interventionism. It is understandable that discussing Keynesian economics at length is tantamount to opening up the great alternative of state interventionism to students and general readers – something that Mankiw cannot endorse. Rather Mankiw chooses to shield himself behind Adam Smith and reiterates that everybody is selfish in a market economy, and there is no place for any concern about the society. But there is a ‘magic’ in Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ that keeps everybody well-off. Keynes formulated his theory against this orthodoxy and showed that if everybody expands their savings, through petty selfish acts, it would in effect reduce the overall income of the nation. Is it not enough to understand why Mankiw had bypassed Keynes?
Students Gave Open Letter to Mankiw
Concerned students of Economics 10 issued an open letter to Mankiw explaining their position. At the outset the students complained about the ‘bias’ in the course. The students felt that ‘this bias affects student, the University, and our greater society.’ The students stated that they enrolled in Ec 10 course "hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today." According to the students except the sole ‘mainstream’ approach the students ‘have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.’ The students claimed that ‘Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.’
In their last paragraph, the students dared to put their ideological card on table. They link their walk out with the global 'Occupy' movement. According to them, ‘We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously."
Occupy Movement is Ready to Overthrow Neo-liberalism as the Garbage of History
Like an inferno, the Occupy movement has spread now from America to Europe. As we have seen that Harvard students claimed that their walk out was also inspired by this movement. A large section of Americans has begun to think that indeed they constitute 99% of population, but the majority assets and political power in their country sits in the hands of 1%, comprising corporations and politicians. Now it is their (99%) turn to occupy the major assets and political power.
The Wall Street, New York happened to be the epicenter of the share market in US, which symbolized the financial and economic collapse due to the market and corporate failure. This is the reason the first slogan of the occupy movement was ‘occupy wall street’. The inferno soon spread all over the globe with new slogans like ‘occupy London’, ‘occupy Paris’ etc. The police imposed a reign of terror among occupying students and protesting people. Of course, the ‘biased’ media could not see this movement beyond leaderless anarchy. In our view it may be the beginning of a renaissance of Leftism in the capitalist fortress. The books on basic Marxian literature that includes Marx’s Capital are sold hugely in the venue of the movement.
Respected British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm expressed the great possibility of the Occupy Movement to Sitaram Yechury, the Politburo Member of Communist Party of India (Marxist). From the greater platform of Occupy Movement some new progressive and heterodox curriculum have been suggested for economics and social sciences, that can be introduced to overthrow the corpse of Neo-liberalism in the garbage of history. In India some fearless Left Progressive economists and social scientists have been carrying on their teaching and research against the strong tide of Neo-liberalism. Recognising this, the United Nations hosted Professor Prabhat Patnaik’s valuable lecture on financial and economic crisis of capitalism, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) offered Decent Work Research Prize to Professor Jayati Ghosh.
The time has come to re-cultivate the great fertile accumulation of knowledge left by the ideologues, who also raised similar mantra to occupy the world in the last line of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848: ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’