The Rebel Economist’s Notebook

Installment Three: Revolution Planning 101

Who should a rebel economist turn to for inspiration? Typical candidates might include Marx, Veblen, Daly or Piketty. But how about Michel de Montaigne? Though an unlikely choice, the French Renaissance writer offers some solid strategic advice for any would-be revolutionary: “No wind helps him who does not know to what port he sails.”

Revolutionary history teaches that the winds of revolt tend to descend suddenly and powerfully. Making the most of them means not only having a precise fix on our destination, but charting a clear course to help us navigate safely around the rocks and shoals of indecision, infighting or counterrevolution. Accordingly, if you plan on fomenting rebellion in your economics program, you need to ask yourself: when the winds of revolt whip up, when my classmates rise in righteous anger and our sails are full, what then? To what port will we steer our insurrection? What does victory look like?

To answer this question is to define a concrete goal for your rebellion — step one of the planning process. Say your professors have offered you a seat at the bargaining table to discuss changes to the curriculum. Would you have a particular model curriculum to point to — a program of study which would not only add much needed plurality to the curriculum but could stand the test of academic rigor and value? Without a proper understanding of the deficiencies of the curriculum and the appropriate pluralist fixes, you’ll find it hard to get your revolt taken seriously. That’s why student groups with the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) have devoted so much time to addressing this curriculum content question. In France, the PEPS-Économie (PEPS) network made a media splash after undertaking a rigorous survey that revealed the near absence of real-world economic content, economic history, or interdisciplinary content in nationwide curricula. The survey enabled the PEPS students to construct a smart and strategic model curriculum. Meanwhile, UK students across the Channel, operating as a part of the Rethinking Economics network, have used similar survey work to inform the list of demands they’ve registered with their national higher education standards agency.

Step two is power mapping. This amounts to understanding the field of the struggle and the nature of the contending forces. Who are your allies and opposition? Who are the key power holders? What messages will win you support? What messages will the opposition use to attack you? What will influence the power holders? What resources (financial, material, human and otherwise) do you need to win? Where are the opposition’s vulnerabilities? This crucial reconnaissance work will enable you to develop the right strategies and tactics and avoid missteps. For example, by taking note of the way in which the orthodox thought police attempted to smear the earlier Post Autistic Economics movement as being mathematically averse or inept, PEPS students have crafted a messaging strategy which avoids such pitfalls. In a bit of messaging jiu-jitsu, they’ve now turned the math critique around, arguing that training in qualitative analysis, reflexive thinking and epistemology will only enhance the ability of economists to use their quantitative skills effectively.

Power mapping does not only hone strategies and tactics, it also provides a clearer view of your port of call, your goal. Consider the courageous walkout of Gregory Mankiw’s Econ 10 course staged by Harvard students in 2011. If their goal was to grab media attention and make a public statement about the glaring deficiencies of such mainstream courses, then they succeeded admirably, and their walkout was the right tactic. But if they had a long-term goal in mind, if they sought to launch a campaign that might in time transform the way economics is taught at Harvard, then in all likelihood they should have charted a different course — one that reserved the walkout as an escalation tactic for use at a critical rather than initial juncture. Power mapping helps you make such tactical distinctions.

The final trick to planning is to keep it flexible — don’t get wedded to any single course of action. The winds of revolt can shift at any time, and unforeseen obstacles can arise, necessitating a change in strategies and tactics. A smart rebel economist knows to keep an array of strategies and tactics on the table, and in future installments of this series, I’ll take a closer look at some of them and discuss other resources you’ll need to keep your rebellion afloat.

Meanwhile, with a new academic year about to begin, now’s the time to develop plans and get ready to launch your own campus rebellion. As you do, share your own strategies or ask questions in the comment section below. Together we’ll make this the year when the thought police start to retreat.

Keith Harrington is a campus rabble-rouser, student of economics and North American representative for the activist group International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, ISIPE.

REN — Installment One: Organizing Insurrection
REN — Installment Two: Strength in Numbers
REN — Installment Three: Revolution Planning 101