At the start of the 21st century there are clear challenges the are fundamentally shaping the global political economy: the ecological crisis posed by climate change, the economic crisis of financialisation, and deepening social inequalities that are shifting global power dynamics. Unfortunately, much of positivist social science – in particular, economics and political science – remains on the sidelines of global debate because it is unable to offer a decisive understanding of these challenges or plausible solutions to address them. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the fundamental inadequacies of economics and, in the same way, the recent UK referendum unmasked contemporary political science’s inability to even predict or explain how Brexit actually materialised. Of course that does not stop hastily cobbled together ex post analysis of these events, which simply entails re-asserting well-worn theories of rational agents acting under conditions of uncertainty to explain away what you fundamentally don’t understand. However, when credibility is waning no one is listening.
Why Political Economy is different?
For those of us that study Political Economy we see these events differently. Our approach draws on a rich history of economic thought, which predates the marginalist revolution that spawned the current economic orthodoxy. For nearly 40 years the loosely defined field of International Political Economy (IPE) has sought to explore the areas that the established disciplines of economics and political science ignore. As such, we have long seen ecological crisis as a key challenge of global capitalism, long argued there were significant downsides to globalisation, loudly pointed to the crisis tendencies of financialisation, and since the almost the beginning showed that intensifying inequality is a driver of instability as much as it is an expression of power. However, now is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. Triumphalism is not enough, we need more!
A very stark reality is now setting in of deep-seated perpetual crises – without new ideas, concepts and theories to inform practice, policy and politics there is no prospect for renewal. In the midst of this deepening crisis there are many prospects for change. For the study of political economy to continue to offer relevant and meaningful accounts of contemporary capitalism it must also change with the times. We must abandon the “orthodox” and “critical” dichotomy that always leaves critical as ‘anti’ or in opposition to positivist social science and/or orthodox neoclassical economics. Of course political economy eschews sterile formalism, and does not consent to analysing the social world primarily in terms of the degree of relationship between variables based on a priori assumptions about individuals and markets. Nor should it, given that this is not credible way of understanding how the economy works or explain why it is in perpetual crisis. Pluralism is our strength, and as such we seek to build bridges between the theoretical traditions of political economy and cultural economy, but also between structuralism and post-structuralism, or Marxism, Feminism and any other of the endless lists of isms that divide us into different schools, approaches or ‘disciplines’. At this juncture, these divisions only serve to discipline us and effectively mute our contribution to contemporary debates.
International Political Economy Working Group (IPEG)
Over the next three years, Daniela Tepe-Belfrage and myself, acting as co-Convenors of IPEG, will foster four interrelated themes that shape the study of international political economy in order to advance theory and engage with practice:
Acknowledging our Blindspots – this theme is dedicated to getting to grips the persistent blind spots that inhibit a collaborative understanding of political economy. For example, by acknowledging that the inequalities of gender, class and race are being re-produced through the very processes of international political economy as much as they are enacted in economic and social policy. Thinking about how political economy as a methodology cuts across the macro-micro to interrogate forms and mechanisms of governance,we want to engage with the impossibilities and opportunities that offer new empirical material and theoretical innovations.
Discovering alternative political economic futures – this theme takes seriously the passage from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’ by fostering new alternative ways of thinking about the future of the global political economy. It seeks to foster the theoretical pluralism of contemporary political economy research, where it is precisely the interplay and interconnections between discourse and material structures and outcomes that are most relevant. In particular, when they examine and articulate modes of governance in the global economy that perpetuate crisis or, alternatively, offers potential avenues for revival.
Political economy is a methodology not a ‘discipline’ – this theme seeks to foster collaborative advancement of the study of political economy, cultural economy or cultural political economy, in terms of both theory and practice. Therefore, the focus is on shared understanding or methodologies that provide a collaborative means of both engaging different theoretical camps as well as reaching across formal disciplinary boundaries (for example Geography, Sociology, Anthropology, Cultural Studies, Business Studies) to advance our understanding of political economy. Established distinctions between different critical theories are just that: established. Forging a new path does not entail a rupture with the past; rather, the aim is to make a useful contribution to our shared methodological approach. A dedication to pluralism or ‘dis-sensus’ means we must openly acknowledge the significant theoretical differences while working together to advance a common field of study.
Teaching Political Economy in the 21st Century – this theme will provide an opportunity for scholars to discuss and debate how they teach the many facets of this interdisciplinary field of study. The focus on teaching as an expression of practice seeks to bring the same peer-led engagement of research focused workshops & conferences to the teaching element of academic work by sharing teaching methods – such as course outlines, resources (newspaper articles, films, blogs etc.), types of assignments, social media tools, games and simulations. The hope is that by fostering collaborative engagement on teaching as practice we can begin transforming how political economy is taught and learned.
Activities and Events
Over the next two years IPEG will host bi-annual workshops that engage with one or more of these themes. Our aim is to ensure these events bring together dynamic and diverse groups of academics that are well-balanced in terms of not just theoretical and methodological perspectives but also gender, ethnicity, and career-stage – ensuring IPEG embodies the very diversity it seeks to create. We will also seek geographical diversity by hosting one workshop in the North and one in the South, making IPEG more accessible to participants outside the major metropolitan centres.
Daniela Tepe-Belfrage will Chair the annual IPEG Bookprize, which has just celebrated its 10th year, to showcase the exceptional work done to advance the study of IPE.
We will also reinvigorate the Papers in International Political Economy –PIPEline – to facilitate debate and discussion around the leading ideas, themes and research presented at the IPEG events and the annual BISA conference, also to facilitate a platform for graduate students to showcase their research.
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