Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism"

John Ashton

Richard Norgaard’s essay and the ensuing discussion have been of such high quality, and so valuable for me in my work, that I wanted to express my gratitude to him and to everyone who has responded. I would also like to add something of my own that might, I hope, be helpful.

I should confess immediately that I have no academic credentials and am not formally trained in economics.

My formation was in physics, from which I defected at an early stage. Most of my career has been in diplomacy and politics, where I have at least been an active participant in economic policy debates. Latterly, after six years as the UK’s diplomatic envoy on climate change, I have become a kind of itinerant pontificator, speaking out about questions of politics and society from my experience and, by choice, without institutional or other ties.

The collision between my training and my later experiences pushed me inexorably to a view of the neoclassical orthodoxy very close to that set out by Norgaard and elaborated, with greater rigor than I could ever muster, in this discussion.

I came to feel that our biggest choices as societies were being made according to the reflexes of a system of belief that in many places is embedded in our institutions and has achieved hegemony over our politics. It is as if we had surrendered our destiny to a cult.

This system acts as if its main objective were to tighten its own grip, though it is skillful in equating this falsely with the common good. It displays little genuine interest in what is real (loaded though that word is—in a sense the current crisis is rooted in confusion about reality and what we know or think we know about it). It cannot accommodate any commitment to the integrity of the social and ecological fabric, whose value it axiomatically denies.

In its more flamboyant forms, it even seeks to eviscerate the very idea of virtue (including care, to borrow Norgaard’s word) by claiming to embody it already through its totemic attachment to “efficiency.”

Much of this came into focus for me in conversation last year with Bill Rees, also a member of the GT Network. We found ourselves giving complementary lectures at a meeting in Shanghai, and started talking. At the heart of our discussion was the question of power.

This is a political struggle as well as an intellectual one. There is no point in building a better theory if we cannot at the same time weaken the hold of the prevailing one over the choices made on our behalf.

A political struggle needs a political strategy. Nobody has a comprehensive view of what such a strategy might look like nor of how to build it. There has never been a greater endeavor. If it flourishes, it will be the work of generations. But the following considerations seem important.

Language will be crucial. It is the foundation of this project.

It will not be enough to work conventionally through institutions, old or new, nor merely through campaigns and movements. We need at one and the same time to tell a story about the world and our place in it, and to find a new and compelling language in which to tell it. This is necessary because we are seeking to change the frame, not just to change the view from within the existing one.

We should strive, without losing precision or honesty, for language that brings people towards us, that is accessible not forbidding. The academy must play a role, but reaching beyond its accustomed sphere. Emotion will count as much as analysis; poetry, as much as prose.

We should avoid language that is scarred or open to misrepresentation as a result of past struggles. We certainly need, in our story, a description of modern capitalism and its flaws. Success will result in the eclipse of what many people would call capitalism. But if people feel we simply want to reenact an old play, we will attract allies we do not want and repel those we need.

The contending political forces, and a clear understanding of them, will be crucial. They will be at the center of this project. How they combine and are marshalled will determine its outcome.

At present, the forces of incumbency are well entrenched. Their position can seem impregnable.

But I am struck, at least in post-crash Britain, by the decline in public confidence in the ability of incumbent powers to act in the public interest, and of public trust in their will to do so. As a result, my country, for one, is more divided and disgruntled than at any time in living memory. That is worrying if you live here. But it does mean that there is a large, uncommitted constituency for renewal.

The extent to which young people have turned their backs in disenchantment on mainstream politics is particularly striking. They are a natural force for renewal. My generation (I’m 59) should do all we can to help them find their voice. The campaign by young economists in many universities to break out of the neoclassical monoculture is of special significance and should be encouraged.

Battles will be crucial. Battles provide the drama and energy in any political project. They can sharpen the choices between change and the status quo.

We must choose to fight on the right issues, on the right ground, at the right time. We need not win every battle. But each time we fight, we should be looking to draw new forces into the arena on our side, and to open up new political spaces into which to advance.

It is not for me to judge, but I wonder if now is the time for a concerted intellectual assault, from inside and outside academic economics, on the neoclassical citadels: in teaching, in the peer review process, in wider public discourse, and as an uncontested orthodoxy influencing politics and much else.

The orthodoxy has for some time been subject to incursions, including by participants in this discussion. But there is surely scope for a more sustained and strategic approach, with greater alignment across heterodox economics and the many other disciplines that have much to contribute. The goal would not of course be to search for any illusory “unified theory.” It would have a liberating effect simply to make it more widely evident that the neoclassical emperor has no clothes.

Finally, even more than language, political forces, and battles, values will be crucial.

This is a transformational struggle and therefore, in a sense, a revolutionary one.

Most revolutions either fail or become corrupted in success. And, in this case, the aim is the peaceful overthrow a system of belief, not the defeat by any means of people in thrall to that system. There is indeed no well-defined enemy; or perhaps more accurately, we are all the enemy, so entangled have we become in the current system (its beneficiaries, though, more than its victims).

If this is a revolution, it must at every stage be compassionate and rooted in reality. It is because the current system has rejected compassion and reality that it has become so destructive. We must not under any circumstances take on the form of what we seek to overthrow. Our end can never justify our means. In any political struggle, the values with which it is conducted become frozen into the outcome.

The hegemony of a set of economic ideas is far from the only flaw in modern politics. But wider renewal will remain out of reach until it is broken. And in the end this debate is about our relationship with each other and with the ecosphere of which we are part. There is very little in human affairs that it does not encompass.

John Ashton
John Ashton is an independent speaker and activist whose work spans politics, economics, diplomacy, and culture, with a particular focus on climate change. From 2006 to 2012, he served as Special Representative for Climate Change for three successive UK Foreign Secretaries.

Cite as John Ashton, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Economism," Great Transition Initiative (December 2015),

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