7 Jun. 2006

Political Economy at the University of Sydney


This blog has already attracted its fair share of hecklers. Not trolls, per se, but hecklers, who have been relatively thoughtful and reasoned in their criticism, for which I am grateful, because I am aware how outlandish this blog seems to most.

One criticism that has been leveled is the old chestnut about how leftist academic thought is not rigorous or scientific. There are of course certain leftist academic tendencies which are amenable to this critique. And it's unsurprising that I may be included in this given my apparently social constructivist basis.

However, I think that intellectual rigour is the main thing. The most intellectually rigorous left-wing thought in Australia I suspect is that produced by the doyens of the Discipline of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. And this facility is now threatened, which is not altogether surprising, as its existence has rarely been more than tolerated. I am completely unclear about the nature and extent of this threat, and have heard contradictory reports, ranging from apocalyptic to blasé. I'm not sure anyone really knows what the deal is. Despite USyd undergraduate rag Honi Soit devoting three pages to talking about PE last issue, all the content was about the discipline rather than its institutional status and the threat to its existence.

The internal politics of Australia have long been based on an historic compromise between the demands of the working class for egalitarian treatment and the demands of the rich to make as much profit as they want. This being the 'lucky' country, i.e. sitting pretty on a whole expropriated continent ripe for exploitation, there's been enough plunder to go around. Of course, today this compromise is degenerating somewhat under the demand for greater profits.

While much of the academic left is caught up in more ephemeral concerns of a more identity politics-oriented flavour, PE is the one place of dissent in Australian society where a critique of what's going on here as a socio-economic trend can be articulated. Political economists understand the imperialist basis of Australian society, and understand the unsustainable short-termism of the current economic haymaking, in which an usustainably bouyant economy allows the Liberals to strip workers of rights without those workers in most cases immediately feeling the deliterious effects.

As such, PE at Sydney is probably the most important engine of intellectual dissent in Australia. That said, it's existed for thirty years, and in this time has been powerless to prevent the rise to hegemony of the neo-liberalism which it was born to oppose, so I'm not suggesting that saving it can in itself do much to change the conjuncture. I'm rather claiming that the attempted suppression of PE represents a intensification of the clampdown on internal dissent in Australia.

PE is not an unviable department, in that it has a lot of enrolments. But its position is largely untenable because it is a small fraction of a faculty, the Faculty of Economics and Business, which has as its dual function
1. the accrual of large profits for the university through an immigration scam in collaboration with the federal government based on getting mainly Chinese students with a smattering of English permanent residency through degree courses utterly lacking in academic credibility, while paying the university $40,000 in for the privilege, thus propping up the now chronically underfunded university, and providing a pool of cheap labour for the Australian economy and
2. the defence of and active participation in the ideological structures of neo-liberalism in Australia, which it gives a veneer of academic respectability to.

PE obviously lets the side down on both counts, since it doesn't attract large numbers of fee-paying international students, only large numbers of Australian students, who don't actually pay enough in HECS contributions to make their presence profitable, while at an ideological level the department does nothing less than to undermine the overall ideological function of the faculty. Seems to me like the obvious move would be for PE to somehow move over to the Faculty of Arts where these characteristics would not make it unduly conspicuous, though perhaps some other departments would there be embarassed by its intellectual rigour. Or, quite likely, there's simply no money to be made in, hence no reason to offer, undergraduate courses for non-full-fee-paying Australian students any more, since, as Andrew Norton never tires of telling us, HECS + government funding < the cost of a degree, due to the continuing cutting in real terms of government funding for student places (or, as Andrew sees it, due to the political cowardice of not demanding more fee contributions from students to make up the shortfall).