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De Morgen

2 March 2002

‘Economics basic propositions unrealistic’

‘Post-autists’ attack economic sacred cows


Modern-day, neoclassical economy has become detached from reality and too much focused on itself. It is, in short: autistic. That is the opinion of the counter-movement of post-autistic economists, who are getting more and more support.




Johan Vandaele

(translated by Jeroen Vanstiphout)


It started, as often, with a group of French students. In June 2000 they distributed a petition on the internet in which they harshly criticised existing economics courses and called for a different kind of economics education. The group believed (and believes) that the economics courses are too far removed from reality, use mathematical models as an end to themselves instead of as a means to an end, and are far from pluralistic. The students experience contemporary economics as ‘autistic’, detached from reality and aimed at itself. “We want a pluralism of approaches, that is adapted to the uncertainties that characterize most big questions of our time, like unemployment, inequality, the role of financial markets, free trade, globalisation and economic development.” What the students want, is, in short, ‘post-autistic economics’.


The appeal must have been responding to a real need – in France and elsewhere – because fairly quickly a movement started to grow. Le Monde paid attention to the petition and a real public debate started. Then the French minister of Education Jack Lang had the problem investigated by a commission led by the famous economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Less than a year later, the commission recognised the problems and made suggestions for a more pluralistic economics education.


The Anglo-Saxon world began to find their feet too. Already in September 2000 in England an electronic Post-autistic Economics Newsletter was started. The second edition found readers in 36 countries; nowadays the Post-Autistic Economic review has 5.000 (non-paying) subscribers in a hundred countries.


A counter-reaction from the neoclassical side failed to halt the movement. On the contrary: 200 French economists signed the student petition and in November 2000 a website was launched (


Early in 2001 James Galbraith (son of) met the French leaders of the post-autistic economists in Paris, a sign that a worldwide movement was growing with offshoots in every continent. In June 2001 a group of Cambridge students sent off a petition, that has meanwhile gathered some 600 signatures, and in August 2001 economists in Kansas City wrote an open letter that convinced 300 collegues. Every time the same desire returns: don’t pigeonhole economics but tie it to other social disciplines, situate it in an historical-philosophical framework and aim it at the challenges the world faces these days.


Up until now three economists who work in Belgium have signed the Cambridge petition. Bert Mosselmans, post-doctoral researcher at the university of Antwerp, is one of them. “I oppose the one-sidedness that governs now: what is not neoclassical or econometric, is marginalized. Subjects like the history of economic thought get pushed into a tight corner. Putting our own models in perspective happens less frequently.”


Mosselmans doesn’t see any political motive behind all this. “It’s a self-reinforcing phenomenon: economists conduct the kind of quantitative and mainstream research that will get them published in top-class reviews. If they succeed, they will continue on that same road.”


Professor Robert Scott Gassler, who lectures at the Free University of Brussels and has signed the Cambridge petition too, does see a clear political connection: “Neoclassical economics is based on basic presumptions that are narrow and unrealistic. Like, for instance, that a rational human being is automatically egocentric, and doesn’t care about the community or others. Students are taught this, but it simply isn’t right. In that sense, mainstream economics does have an ideological content. It’s clear: a certain right-wing view has taken over the whole branch.” So Gassler sees the rise of post-autistic economics as a reaction against neoliberalism and as favourable to antiglobalism*. Post-autists believe the economy hasn’t seen such pressure to change since the 30’s. Gassler thinks so too: “We have seen other reactions to the neoclassical model in the past, but now different movements, post-Keynesians, institutionalists, feminist economists, are coming together – and this will make this countercurrent stronger”.



Picture: a beggar in New York. Contemporary economics is heedless to the problem of inequality in the world, the post-autists say.


(*) Note: John Vandaele uses the word ‘andersglobalisten’ here (literally: ‘different globalists’), which is a term people from the movement itself suggested to oppose the negative qualification given (basically by the mainstream press) to the word ‘anti-globalists’. This way they want to emphasise they aren’t necessarily against globalisation in itself (which can have different meanings) and stress the fact that they do have alternatives to the neoliberal, capitalist kind of globalisation the world is subjected to. (JV)