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Political economy at the University of Sydney: challenging the orthodoxy

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By Susan K. Schroeder and Lynne Chester

In the 1970s, a movement began at the University of Sydney to provide and protect the academic freedom and space of staff and students interested in political economy.   The movement culminated in the emergence of an independent department in 2007 – over 30 years after the initial push for its creation.  Within this space intellectuals have explored and continue to explore alternative frameworks with which to understand how societies organize themselves to recreate the material conditions for their continued existence.   Economic phenomena and processes are not treated as occurring in isolation from social, historical and political processes. Hence the department engages a broad range of methodological approaches with an openness to incorporate historical, political and sociological considerations, besides the economic.  That is, the characteristics of social-economic systems, capitalist or not, are examined with a multidisciplinary approach.

The department held a conference this past April to celebrate the contribution to political economy by Emeritus Professor Frank Stilwell after some forty years at the University of Sydney.  Outside of Australia the name Frank Stilwell is not well known.  Within Australia, however, is another matter.   Originally from Southampton, England, Frank Stilwell arrived in Sydney in 1970 to test his fortunes as a young academic in the Economics Department at the University of Sydney.  At the time, the department was beginning its shift towards a dichotomous, American-style approach to the discipline – under the guidance of another recent arrival, the New Zealander and Head of Department the late Warren Hogan (1929-2009).  Stilwell had been trained as a neoclassical microeconomist, specializing in regional and urban development.   On paper he appeared to be well-suited to the Americanization of the Economics Department at Sydney.   What Hogan didn’t count on was the radicalization of Stilwell and two of his colleagues who arrived shortly afterwards – Evan Jones and Gavan Butler – by the likes of the late Ted Wheelwright (1921-2007).

The April 2013 conference commemorated the contributions of Frank Stilwell and laid out future directions for the Department of Political Economy.   Participants were presented with an array of research from political economists, both from Australia and abroad, whose research entails a strong link to Stilwell’s own writings on topics such as economic inequality, cities and regions, economic policy, teaching political economy, the environment and history of economic ideas.  A book containing selected papers from the conference is about to be published by Springer and includes the invited keynote contributions by John E. King, Jane Kelsey, Andrew Mearman, Gabrielle Meagher, Brendan Gleeson, and Mark Diesendorf.  We are delighted to have Geoff Harcourt provide the foreword for the book.

There are a number of challenges posed for the Department as it goes forward from the Stilwell era.   One challenge is the evaluation of research output from the staff of this department.  Most university departments align with conventional structures.  However, political economy is an amalgam of economics, history, political science, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies and other social sciences.   A typical mainstream economics department will incorporate aspects of these disciplines within the narrow confines of the closed methods it employs.  The methods are that of economics.   Political economy involves open methods which cross disciplinary boundaries right at the start of any analysis.  As universities are pressured to compete for research funding, the scrutiny of research output has increased.   Political economy is not an easy discipline to evaluate.  The diversity of opinion which gives Political Economy its strength, also makes it vulnerable to its research not being recognised by the very metrics used to rank and compare disciplines and institutions.

Another challenge faced by political economy is the competition with mainstream economics for the attention of progressive policy makers.   In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, mainstream economics has been searching for some form of paradigm shift to maintain its viability in the policy arena.  It is well-understood that at its heart the current mainstream frameworks which underlie policy are quite conservative.  Their present methods will not permit more effective progressive policies.  Progressive economists such as those within political economy have an advantage with its open methods.  However, policymakers are accustomed to support in the form of mainstream analyses slid into their hands by lobbyists on behalf of vested interests.  Political economy faces a challenge, then, increasing its exposure within the policy arena.   How can we, for instance, be better at exposing policymakers to our analyses?  It’s a challenge needing the support of progressive networks within Australia and internationally.

To rise to this challenge the department is increasing its presence at international conferences and with collaborative research projects.   And, we are also expanding our range of policy issues – beyond the generation that Stilwell represents – that we seek to address.   Important focuses of our contemporary critical analysis have included: the global financial crisis; the relationship of country risk assessment to international financial crises, business cycles and financial fragility; struggles around employment and human rights, and international labour migration; the creation of gendered and racially-specific visions of economic progress; the hegemony of neoliberalism and its relationship to the social foundations of capitalism; the short-term consequences and longer-term implications of restructured energy markets; de-industrialisation and the restructuring of production; the operation and outcomes of markets for social provisioning previously provided direct by government; and the impact of financialisation.

We need to maintain and extend this research contribution as we engage with, and contribute to the development of heterodox economic traditions such as Post-Keynesian economics, institutional economics, Marxism, evolutionary and feminist economics. In this sense, we need to not only continue but extend the legacy of Frank Stilwell’s contribution to the Department of Political Economy and Australian political economy more generally.

The book to be published by Springer,

Challenging the Orthodoxy: Reflections on Frank Stilwell’s Contribution to Political Economy, is a collection of papers by not only well-known heterodox economists but also emerging scholars of political economy, political activists, not-for-profit researchers and alumni of Sydney’s Political Economy program, a further reflection, we think, of the contemporary relevance of the discourse generated by the analytical frameworks which fall under the rubric of political economy.

Pre-orders of the book are available through the Department of Political Economy at the discount price of A$88 (incl GST and shipping). To purchase a discount copy go to:

The listed price on Amazon for this book is US$129 (not including shipping).

Further details about the book can be found at:

From: P.2 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(5), October 2013

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