"Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you." – William Blake (1757-1827) from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Thursday 31 October 2019

Contributions to the Critique of Political Economy: Joan Robinson (1903-1983)

Joan Robinson (née Maurice), who was born on this day in 1903, in Surrey, England, was a Cambridge-educated economist. Her work in this field has led her to be regarded as a key figure of so-called 'Post-Keynesian school' of thought. However, she is also noted for having devoted considerable time to the study of Karl Marx and his contribution to the development of economic theory – e.g. An Essay on Marxian Economics (1942). Such works are even said to have helped to revive debate on this aspect of Marx's legacy.

She visited many countries – including the Soviet Union, China, Korea, India – during her lifetime. She expressed particular interest in the experiences of 'the developing world' and those countries emerging from the shackles of colonialism in the period that followed the end of World War II.

These excerpts from her work and public statements of her views, have been chosen mainly for presentational purposes and their quotability. They are not put forward as representing any kind of summation or broad assessment but, do help to focus on some of key challenges that practitioners of the study of modern-day political economy needs to address.

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists. - Joan Robinson

The only thing worse than being exploited by capitalism is not being exploited by capitalism. - Joan Robinson

It's a terrible thing to be a worker exploited in the capitalist system. The only worse thing is to be a worker unable to find anyone to exploit you. - Joan Robinson

The first essential for economists ... is to ... combat, not foster, the ideology which pretends that values which can be measured in terms of money are the only ones that ought to count. - Joan Robinson

Ideology is like breath: you never smell your own. - Joan Robinson

One of the main effects (I will not say purposes) of orthodox traditional economics was ... a plan for explaining to the privileged class that their position was morally right and was necessary for the welfare of society. - Joan Robinson

The very nature of economics is rooted in nationalism. ... It [was] developed ... in the hope of throwing light upon questions of policy. But policy means nothing unless there is an authority to carry it out, and authorities are national. - Joan Robinson

Marxism is the opium of the Marxists. - Joan Robinson

The fundamental differences between Marxian and traditional orthodox economics are, first, that the orthodox economists accept the capitalist system as part of the eternal order of Nature, while Marx regards it as a passing phase in the transition from the feudal economy of the past to the socialist economy of the future. - Joan Robinson

Unemployment is a reproach to a democratic government. - Joan Robinson

Even if the crises that are looming up are overcome and a new run of prosperity lies ahead, deeper problems will still remain. Modern capitalism has no purpose except to keep the show going. - Joan Robinson

I do not regard the Keynesian revolution as a great intellectual triumph. On the contrary, it was a tragedy because it came so late. Hitler had already found out how to cure unemployment before Keynes had finished explaining why it occured. - Joan Robinson

It is the business of economists, not to tell us what to do, but show why what we are doing anyway is in accord with proper principles. - Joan Robinson

Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true. - Joan Robinson

If a rise in wages does not raise prices, a fall will not reduce them. - Joan Robinson

Unequal distribution of income is an excessively uneconomic method of getting the necessary saving done. - Joan Robinson

But, as soon as speculators become an important influence in the market, their business is to speculate on each others behaviour. - Joan Robinson

science progresses by trial and error, and when it is forbidden to admit error there can be no progress. - Joan Robinson

Rosa Luxemburg maintained that the capitalist system can keep up its rate of investment (and therefore its profits) only so long as it is expanding geographically. - Joan Robinson

A depression is a situation of self-fulfilling pessimism. - Joan Robinson

we make a great fuss about national conscience, but it consists mainly in insisting upon everyone ascribing our national policy to highly moral motives, rather than in examining what our motives really are. - Joan Robinson

Reality is never a golden age. - Joan Robinson

It seems that neither the Keynesian nor the Marxian prognosis of the future of capitalism is being fulfilled and we are left without any particular theory as to what will happen next. - Joan Robinson

I came away from the talk with the perception that the risk of adverse side effects is so much greater than the risk of cervical cancer, I couldn’t help but question why we need the vaccine at all. - Joan Robinson

Marx, however imperfectly he worked out the details, set himself the task of discovering the law of motion of capitalism, and if there is any hope of progress in economics at all, it must be in using academic methods to solve the problems posed by Marx. - Joan Robinson

owning capital is not a productive activity. - Joan Robinson

The orthodox doctrines of economics which were dominant in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had a clear message. They supported laisser faire, free trade, the gold standard, and the universally advantageous effects of the pursuit of profit by competitive private enterprise. - Joan Robinson

Not only subjective poverty is never overcome by growth, but absolute poverty is increased by it. ... Absolute misery grows while wealth increases. - Joan Robinson

If there is any law governing the distribution of income between classes, it still remains to be discovered. - Joan Robinson

It is the rate of investment which governs the rate of saving, and not vice versa. - Joan Robinson

New ideas are difficult just because they are new. Repetition has somehow plastered over the gaps and inconsistencies in the old ones, and the new cannot penetrate. - Joan Robinson

It is much easier to organize control over one industry serving many markets than over one market served by the products of several industries. - Joan Robinson

It is impossible to add the stock of money to the flow of saving. - Joan Robinson

Income from property is not the reward of waiting, it is the reward of employing a good stockbroker. - Joan Robinson

An economy may be in equilibrium from a short-period point of view and yet contain within itself incompatibilities that are soon going to knock it out of equilibrium. - Joan Robinson

In all the talk in the Principles (as opposed to the formal analysis) it is not the saving of rentiers but the energy of entrepreneurs which governs accumulation. - Joan Robinson

At any moment there is certainly not balanced trade between the various areas of the habitable globe that happens to be under seperate national governments - there is an ever-changing pattern of deficits and surpluses. - Joan Robinson
"Capitalism with near-full employment was an impressive spectacle. But a growth in wealth is not at all the same thing as reducing poverty. A universal paean was raised in praise of growth. Growth was going to solve all problems. No need to bother about poverty. Growth will lift up the bottom and poverty will disappear without any need to pay attention to it. The economists, who should have known better, fell in with the same cry." ~ Joan Robinson
"It is a popular error that bureaucracy is less flexible than private enterprise. It may be so in detail, but when large scale adaptations have to be made, central control is far more flexible. It may take two months to get an answer to a letter from a government department, but it takes twenty years for an industry under private enterprise to readjust itself to a fall in demand." ~ Joan Robinson


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