Culture //

An economist and a political economist walk into a tent

Pranay Jha and Liam Donohoe were satisfied by their experience

Radical Education Week is a new initiative organised by a group of activists on campus. Though we were broadly unsure what it would entail, we anticipated that the political economy seminar would align with the week’s broader desire to make knowledge more accessible outside the structure of academic institutions. We both have different experiences with political economy and activism more broadly: Pranay comes from an orthodox economics background while Liam has previously studied political economy. And so, with different expectations, we ventured to the white tent on Eastern Avenue with a shared sense of intrigue.

In keeping with the week’s broader iconoclastic spirit, the seminar took the form of a roundtable discussion, deviating from the authoritative, lecture style of learning that tends to characterise formal and informal education. Most of the attendees had a background in political economy, though there were a few newcomers.

The talk began with an interesting overview of political economy’s history, one marked by radical agitation and a quest for validation, a timely discussion given current efforts to save the Sydney College of the Arts. The relationship between political economy and activism was a defining feature of the seminar, one highlighted by the profound wisdom of attendee Janet, who discussed her experiences in student, workplace, and union spaces to the delight of the grateful attendees.

The roundtable format invited robust discussion and a flexibility rarely seen in conventional education structures. Attendees offered competing, well-reasoned perspectives, and it was encouraging to see newcomers gradually contribute more to the debate. Towards the end, a particularly valuable discussion centred on the shortcomings of political economy and the broad left in winning over the masses. Attendees offered lots of different explanations, ranging from ‘gutless’ union officials, to unfavourable media representation, to the dissolution of the USSR.

One explanation, though, struck at the heart of a broader issue. Andy Mason, a co-organiser of Radical Education Week, observed that discussions and methodologies in political economy are marked by a unique commitment to democratic discourse and critical examination. This, they explained, often creates a “mess”, where political economy cannot offer simple answers in the same way that orthodox, neo-liberal approaches can.

This insight seemed to hint at some of the seminar’s limitations. Attendees often utilised academic language and abstract ideas that were vague and confusing to Pranay as a newcomer. Similarly, the answers that were offered tended to be quite complex and not particularly definitive. Ultimately, we got the sense that the discussion was but an intellectual discussion among friends and activists in a ‘bubble’, a separation elegantly captured by the white tent that obscured the outside world. Importantly, however, this fact was not lost on attendees, who pre-emptively hinted that these shortcomings are inherent to the structure of political economy itself.

To be sure, it is unfair to dwell on these criticisms, especially given that political economists are already engaging with them. Considering this, we still enjoyed the seminar and found it insightful. At the very least it successfully introduced new ideas to new people, provided cause for further research, and shed light on the complex situation that the broad left faces going forward. And that can surely only be a good thing, “mess” or otherwise.