From the US Maelstrom to Political Economy

Another personal story from the 1960s

Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley recently published Radicals: Remembering the Sixties—select stories of those (including themselves) whose personal trajectories moved them to dissent against the established order during a pivotal period in recent history. I can relate to the project, being of a comparable vintage. 

I was enrolled at Melbourne University during 1963–66, fairly naive. Fragments kept of the student newspaper Farrago refresh the memory. The Cold War dulled sensibilities. Frank Knopfelmacher, philosophy academic, was a noted anti-Communist belligerent on campus; his persona came to national attention when he was denied an appointment at Sydney University in early 1965, ostensibly for political reasons. Cultural mores were struggling to transcend the 1950s. The existence or not of God was still being debated before large audiences. The cultural imagination strained against an environment of ongoing literary censorship (under the auspices of the prurient Victorian deputy premier Arthur Rylah). It cracked a little when the editors of Oz magazine, Richard Neville and Martin Sharp, were sentenced to gaol for obscenity in October 1964. Catholic reactionary B. A. Santamaria gained ready media attention for denouncing the supposed debauchery of the university milieu. In a spot of good news the previous July, a mixed group breached the entrenched convention that marginalised women in drinking holes when it invaded the male-only public bar of the nearby Mayfair Hotel. 

My formal study was in economics, mostly theoretical, with a sideline in mathematics—all other-worldly. I learnt about the world not through formal study but through the new Penguin paperbacks that appeared every month in the university bookstore. The magical eye-opener of the period was the array of classic and cutting-edge films emanating from continental Europe and Britain shown by the University Film Society—an enlightening and liberating force.

Elsewhere, the Czech-born Jan Kmenta, previously an economics academic at Sydney University, had moved to the United States and become a noted teacher of econometrics. He enquired of his Australian contemporaries whether anyone with mathematics in their economics degree (then rare) was interested in studying in the United States. He thought that economics education in Australian universities needed an injection of rigour, which American PhDs would provide. Thus did I end up at the unlikely Michigan State University.

I arrived in the United States in September 1967, still an innocent chap. I had missed going into the ballot for conscription to soldier in Vietnam with a birthday five days before the cut-off date and thus narrowly avoided the associated angst. But my generation couldn’t hide from the escalation of seemingly endless cathartic events. 

The American social order was in crisis. When my plane touched down in Detroit the burnt-out aftermath of the large-scale summer rioting still scarred the landscape.

On 4 April 1968 the 39-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated after suffering a lifetime of harassment in the cause of black emancipation. On 6 June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Seeking the Democratic presidential nomination on a purportedly progressive platform, the then Senator Kennedy had just won his third state primary in populous California. The official explanations for both assassinations are lies.

The year 1968 saw rebellion worldwide. The ‘Prague Spring’ was met in August by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops. The American establishment welcomed dissent against Soviet repression but couldn’t stomach dissent on the home front. At the Democratic Convention in Chicago in late August, Mayor Richard Daley’s police force, supported by army troops and national guardsmen, engaged in vicious beating of protestors. The television cameras delivered the brutality to American living rooms. The Democratic Party machine man, the colourless Hubert Humphrey, was handed the nomination for the forthcoming presidential election. 

Through 1969–70, the country was exposed to the abuse of judicial power with the trial of the ‘Chicago Seven’ (eight, as the defiant Bobby Seale was tried separately), charged with conspiracy to cross state boundaries to inspire a riot at the Democratic Convention. The equally riotous trial was presided over by the partisan judge Julius Hoffman, sometime law partner of Mayor Daley. (The guilty verdicts were overturned by an appeals court in 1972.) 

Members of the recently formed Black Panther Party were being murdered (notably Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in December 1969) by various police departments under the direction of FBI director the pathological J. Edgar Hoover. Black Panther community welfare programs were systematically dismantled. 

In September 1971 there was a mass uprising in Attica Prison in upstate New York due to appalling conditions, with rebel prisoners taking over the gaol. Governor Nelson Rockefeller refused demands for amnesty and sent in troops—a massacre ensued. Such was regular fare in ‘the land of the free’. 

The blood and gore of the Vietnam War was on television nightly and coverage was not to the military’s liking. Television viewers were stunned on 31 March 1968 when a previously committed President Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. The momentous occasion for American science of the first moon landing in July 1969 (‘One small step …’) offered no long-term diversion from the developing storm. In November 1969, an exposé was published of a massacre by US forces in My Lai in March 1968. The reportage grew bolder. Also in November 1969, we trooped off to Washington, D.C., for a gigantic anti-war rally.

Albeit on a small scale, the country woke up to anti-establishment terrorism in the form of the Weather Underground, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society. The SDS had been formed in 1961 as a loose working group to rethink left-wing philosophy and politics. In eight years, earnest talk had been converted into bombs. 

The country was bedlam, under the control of political leaders near universally venal. How could one not be affected?

University campuses across the United States were implacable scenes of angry debate and protest. There were clashes with helmeted police in adjoining streets. Berkeley was a precedent. In April 1968, students occupied administration buildings at Columbia University, one of the causes being the university’s conducting of classified war research. There is an iconic photograph of student leader Mark Rudd sitting defiantly at the university president’s desk (Rudd later joined the Weathermen); the previous order that demanded deference was now to be held accountable. 

In December 1968 at Cornell University, three armed Black students demanded an end to institutionalised racism. On 4 May 1970, national guardsmen fired on students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, killing four and permanently paralysing another. Outrage was combined with incredulity that events of such character could occur. 

In June 1971, the ‘Pentagon Papers’, leaked by privileged insider Daniel Ellsberg, started appearing in the press. The documents highlighted that the administration had been systematically lying to the public about the germination of US involvement in and escalation of the Vietnam War.

Accompanying this escalating mayhem was the paranoid presidency of Richard Nixon. Despite our distaste for the toadyism of Hubert Humphrey, we watched with despair Nixon’s victory in 1968 and again in 1972. In 1972, Nixon vanquished Democrat candidate George McGovern. It was clear from the vote that the Democratic Party machine had abandoned its own candidate, seemingly an anti-establishment choice with a strong popular base (like Bernie Sanders subsequently). Yet Walter Karp, in Indispensable Enemies (1973), argues an even more parlous story: McGovern’s past was machine-compatible, and the machine set him up as a ‘safe, fake, anti-boss candidate’ to maintain its control of the party. It was with much pleasure that we watched the unfolding of Watergate after mid-1972 that would ultimately bring Nixon down. 

The university system in general was deeply implicated in war politics. Soon after the end of the Second World War, the ‘military-industrial complex’ with its associated skills base became the focal point of American industry policy. The National Science Foundation, established in 1950, became the channel for federal funding of the university system. Some prestigious universities, among them MIT, Berkeley and Stanford, enhanced their status through attachment to the military drip. After the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik in 1957, the 1958 National Defense Education Act placed the entire educational system into the Cold War ambit. The universities were drenched in funding originating from military priorities. 

My own university, Michigan State, made its own spectacular contribution to the military-educational complex. An MSU team early received long-term funding for ‘institution building’ to help the fledging South Vietnamese regime fight the communist menace. The connection was instrumental in Ngo Dinh Diem’s installation as prime minister. However, Diem’s autocratic rule and CIA infiltration of the MSU team caused the project to become deeply compromised. The relationship was exposed in a seminal article in Ramparts magazine in April 1966, which incidentally thrust Ramparts into the media limelight and under FBI and CIA surveillance. Divisions over MSU’s involvement debilitated the university until its unrepentant president, John Hannah, resigned in 1971. 

Establishment belligerence over the eternal verities filtered down to entrench pockets of an authoritarian pedagogy. In my economics department, the mentality was that there was never a plateau above which you had ‘made it’ and could independently judge the merits of the discipline’s inherited truths. You were expected to defer to your superiors and to cultivate their patronage. The treatment of students was often indifferent or callous. A polemical booklet called The Student as Nigger circulated widely. This metaphor belittled the profound subjugation of Black America, but the booklet’s contents resonated with students resentful of their treatment. 

A groundswell of dissent against American university administrations surprisingly resulted in dramatic reform of some structures and procedures, especially for undergraduates. Teachers with unorthodox views were being hired across a wide range of disciplines. The syllabus was radically extended; independent study was facilitated. Student evaluation of teachers was institutionalised. The pace of change was exhilarating. 

Within my department the number of orthodox staff was atypically balanced by the number of staff with non-orthodox interests. The latter were mostly hangovers from a previous age of liberal inquiry embodied in a loose ‘institutionalist economics’ school peculiar to the United States, but they were now leavened by a couple of self-conscious young radicals. Of course, orthodoxy controlled the compulsory core, wherein ‘theory’ resided. The theorists were accorded, by structural means, the elevated status. 

The war filtered into and mediated relationships between academics, and between academics and students. It turned out that most of the orthodox economists were in favour of the war, and most of the non-orthodox economists were opposed to the war. The ‘theorists’ recoiled from the dissent, seemingly wanting security in the bosom of value-neutral ‘truths’. Yet the ‘apolitical’ economists were as political as those who were explicit about their stance. The two departmental members who had been in active service in the Second World War were stridently opposed to the Vietnam War. 

The economics discipline had perennially marginalised dissent, but the external environment broke down the discipline’s self-satisfaction. Thus was effected the fusion of broader politics and workplace politics and culture. The war came to the street came to the classroom. The outcome was the heightening of a long period of conflict in my particular economics department that was still simmering when I completed my degree. 

I arrived at Sydney University from the United States in January 1973 to take up a lecturing position in the Department of Economics. The professors (Warren Hogan and Colin Simkin, only recently appointed themselves) had hired me sight unseen, on the strength of my formal credentials. I was to be part of a new broom of young lecturers that would contribute to modernising the department.

Unfortunately for those who hired me, the fresh packaging disguised contents that had already gone off. My credentials were impeccably orthodox. But I had come to the belated conclusion that there was no future in orthodox economics, after having studied it for almost ten years. It was bunk. Worse, I had concluded that the neoclassical paradigm at the centre of economic theory was an intellectual scandal of the first order. 

This was not a conclusion that I had arrived at glibly. I was a novice dutifully seeking revelation from sacred texts pervaded with false testimony. Having finished the comprehensive exams that followed my coursework, I lunged into a thesis oriented to a topic of social relevance—US federal housing policy—but realised that you couldn’t get there from here. By default, I reverted to a thesis of pure sophistry—On the Microeconomic Theory of Optimal Capital Accumulation. The only route to an adequate handling of a socially relevant topic required jumping ship and swimming to a distant unknown shore. Sydney University obliged.

My intellectual trajectory and my experience of fractured American politics found me, by chance again, in another cauldron of dissent. In many economics departments in the English-speaking world there was questioning of the discipline’s stagnant orientation, but it was killed off during the late 1970s and 1980s, and a return to a comfortable orthodoxy ensued. Sydney University differed in two key respects—a critical mass of dissenting students and a critical mass of dissenting staff.

The students held a ‘Day of Protest’ in July 1973, boycotting classes and designing an alternative syllabus. They held a ‘Day of Outrage’ in July 1974 that included presentations and debate on alternative economics approaches. It didn’t help the orthodox cause that Hogan and Simkin were poor lecturers, yet they had placed themselves in the large compulsory core courses in first (microeconomics) and second year (macroeconomics), respectively. Unofficial surveys by the Student Economics Society exposed the rot. Student activist Steve Keen summarised the results in the 18 October 1973 issue of the student newspaper Honi Soit: ‘Prof Simpkin (sic) Tops Poll [as worst lecturer]’. Comments were invited in the questionnaire, and one that summed things up noted: ‘Economics as it is now given is a complete and utter fucking waste of time’. 

As for the staff, professorial arrogance in the economics department (professors possessed full authority over staff at this time) had already led to the creation in the late 1960s of a reactive ginger group among academic staff. Remarkably, among those hired to ‘modernise’ the department along orthodox lines, four (Debesh Bhattacharya, Gavan Butler, Frank Stillwell and myself) joined the dissenting group. An unprecedented critical mass of academic staff had thus appeared who wanted to forge new directions. 

The creation of the Political Economy group (and, belatedly, a separate discipline and then a department) at Sydney transcended the norm. Its mission has been to make the links between economy, society and political interests—to analyse capitalist economy from a critical, historical perspective. (The story is told in Butler, Jones and Stilwell’s 2009 Political Economy Now!) The Department of Political Economy at Sydney University survives (for now). Each staff member, originally and since, has had different intellectual agendas (and different temperaments) in spite of the commonality of dissent. Nonetheless, those differences have been accommodated without tearing the group apart. Members of the group have enjoyed atypical privilege in escaping disciplinary strictures as to what to believe, how to think, what to teach, what to write about. Those who have had no exposure to economics would find it difficult to appreciate the extraordinary hold that the conventional wisdom exercises on those with formal training in the subject. It is essentially a priesthood. In our case, the loose rhetoric of ‘academic freedom’ has had substance, but it was fought for, not granted. 

As an academic and teacher I have been a lucky person, not least in interacting with generations of capable students. Replicating my fortunate experience in the current corporatised university system will be a tall order.

About the author

Evan Jones

Evan Jones lectured in economics, then political economy, at Sydney University from 1973 to 2006. Now retired, his predominant current interests are in bank malpractice in Australia and the French political economy.

More articles by Evan Jones

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