post-autistic economics review
Issue no. 30, 21 March 2005
article 6



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Joan Robinson and the Post-Autistic Economics Movement

Antonio Garrido   (Madrid, Spain)

© Copyright 20003 Antonio Garrido


This is Joan Robinson’s centenary year.  She died in 1983 after more than 50 years of providing  relevant, original and significant contributions to economic theory.  As is well-known, unlike many less outstanding economists, she never won the Nobel Prize or a peerage.  (I suspect that she would have declined them both.)  These are facts explained by extra-curricular matters: being a woman, lucid, radical, nonconformist and dedicating most of her writing to unveiling the fallacies of orthodoxy (from liberal to Marxist).  This is a difficult mixture for the establishment to digest and a good reason why we should read her works today.  Such a reading reveals how much Joan Robinson anticipated and developed the analysis that nourishes the now mushrooming global challenge in economics to the neoclassical tyranny.   Her thoughts are echoed not only in the petitions of the students of Paris and the two Cambridges, but also in the articles of many distinguished contributors to this journal.  Here are a few examples of her PAE thoughts.


1.       The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready made answers to economic questions, but to avoid being deceived by economists. (1951-1980, vol. II, p. 17)

2.       It is often said that one theory can be driven out only by another; the neoclassicals have a complete theory (thought I maintain that it is nothing but a circular argument) and we need a better theory to supplant them. I do not agree. I think any other “complete theory” would be only another box of tricks. What we need is a different habit of mind - to eschew fudging, to respect facts and to admit ignorance of what we do not know. (1951-1980, vol. V, p. 119)

3.       The victory of Keynes’ theory over the orthodoxy of sound finance was not due to his superior logic but to the pressure of the events in the world. Perhaps we shall finally owe the defeat of neoclassical complacency to the public indignation at the devastating accidents which highly profitable technology is always bringing about. (1980, p. 119)

4.       Economic reasoning alone cannot offer a solution for any economic problem, for all involve political, social and human considerations that can not be reduced to “the lore of nicely calculated less and more”. The object to an introduction to analysis should be, not to propound solutions, but to suggest to the reader what he must take into account in trying to make up his own mind about the issues presented to him by the age in which he lives. (1973, p. 293)

5.       I believe, however, that there is a lot of difference between good analysis and bad, apart from ideological tendences. Logic is the same for every one (though I could never get Professor Samuelson to admit it) and the reading of evidence, though always biassed to some extent, can be more or less faire...........Honesty and hard work are required of radicals, while the orthodox can doze over their dogmas. (1951-1980, vol. V, p. 118-119)

6.       The professional economist keeps up a smoke screen of “theorems”, and “laws” and “pay-offs” that prevent questions such as that (why the USA keeps an appreciable proportion  of its population in perpetual ignorance and misery) from being asked . This situation is, I think, inevitable. In every country, educated institutions in general, and universities in particular, are supported directly or indirectly by the established authorities and whether in Chicago or in Moscow, their first duty is to save their pupils from contact with dangerous thoughts. (1951-1980, vol. V, p. 98)

7.       The task of deciding how resources should be allocated is not fulfilled by the market but by the great corporations who are in charge of the finance for development.These questions involve the whole political and social system of the capitalist world; theycan not be decided by economic theory, but it would be decent, at least, if the economists admitted that they do not have an answer to them. (1951-1980, vol. V, p. 30-31) 

8.       Private enterprise is wonderfully flexible in jumping from one profitable market to another, but is very rigid in resistance to social control. . . . There is no point in thinking of what we really want, such as abolishing poverty and restoring peace. All we can ask for is what they choose to give us. We must keep the show going or else they won’t give us anything at all. (1951-198, vol. V, p. 129)

9.       The student of economic theory is taught to write O= f(L,C) where L is a quantity of labour, C a quantity of capital and O a rate of output of commodities. He is instructed to assume all workers alike, and to measure L in man-hours of labour; he is told something about the index-number problem involved in choosing a unit of output; and then he is hurried up to the next question, in the hope that he will forget to ask in what units C is measured. Before ever he does ask, he has become a professor, and so sloppy habits of thought are handed on from one generation to the next. (1978, p. 76)

10.   A generation well educated, resistant to fudging, imbued with the humility and the pride of a genuine scientist could make contributions both to knowledge and to the conduct of affairs that no one need be ashamed of. (1951-1980, vol. III, p. 6).

             “He who is convinced against his will
              Is of the same opinion still”. (1978, p. 125)


References: Works by Joan Robinson
Collected Economic Papers, six volumes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1951-1980.
(with John Eatwell) An Introduction to Modern Economics.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1973.
Contributions of Modern Economics.  Oxford: Blackwell, 1978.
Further Contributions of Modern Economics. :Oxford: Blackwell, 1980

Antonio Garrido,
“John Robinson and the Post-Autistic Economics Movement”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 22,  24 November 2003, article 6,