To mark the launch of Goldsmiths’s new MA Global Political Economy, convenor Sahil Jai Dutta examines how the programme centres the environment in IPE.
Politics and economics are inseparable. But too often we treat them as distinct. A good example is the energy industry. Many argue that renewables are too expensive and lack the capacity to meet the world’s energy demand. But why is that demand so high, and are fossil fuels really cheaper? The IMF estimates that in 2015, governments around the world subsidised energy consumption by $482 billion. When the broader health and social costs of fossil fuel were included the figure stood at a staggering $5.3 trillion. This dwarfs what the renewable sector costs.
More importantly, the way we organise the production, distribution and consumption of food, textiles, technology, shelter etc – the stuff of life – is for a large part of the world hugely energy intensive. This highlights that there are important questions we need to ask about the history and the future of our current societies and economies. These questions are missed if we analyse markets simply as mechanisms that match supply to demand.
What lies beneath this surface are stories of financial engineering, corporate lobbying, geopolitical wrangling, infrastructure mismanagement, imperial plunder, legalised corruption and more. Public funds, state legislation, political mobilisation, and private profit all work together. This is why academic boundaries that separate public from private, state from market, human from natural, and economic from ecological are misleading.
This reality of capitalism in the age of the Anthropocene demonstrates the urgency of political economic analysis. At its best, political economy is a necessarily transdisciplinary field of inquiry that confronts the world concretely and holistically. That was certainly our aim when we created a new MA programme in Global Political Economy to begin in 2019. The field has flourished in Britain in recent years, bringing to light innovative ‘heterodox’ work that has been locked out of mainstream economics departments for too long. But there is more to be done.
In putting the programme together we wanted to resist the intellectual contortions of disciplinary boundaries to instead ask how is it that we have come to organise our society in the way we have? What rules, institutions and ideas have been established, who have they enriched, who have they exploited, how and why? This meant designing modules that draw from sociology, cultural studies, Science and Technology Studies, history, heterodox economics and anthropology. Uniquely, we are the first department to recognise that questions of the environment are core to the global political economy programme, and not optional additions.
The MA GPE is made up of two central modules. The first is a twentieth-century Theory and History of Capitalism. In this module students learn about the mechanics of the international political economic system, the hierarchies of currency and trade, and capitalism’s crisis-ridden history.
The second examines the Political Economy of the Anthropocene. We trace how the natural world was remade and translated into a framework of US postwar economics. The Great Acceleration in growth since 1945 has seen the production of three-quarters of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. This is a problem of a particular political economic order, not the human species in general. This gives us a firmer grasp of the political faultlines of environmental breakdown and the possibilities and pitfalls of a Green New Deal.
Four optional modules have been developed for the programme. Experts and Economies turns the traditional IPE subject of global governance on its head to ask how knowledge and expertise are crucial to the governance, regulation and representation of the global economy. It examines the political ‘boundary work’ of economics as a discipline, the neo-colonial power of economists and the rise of neoliberal expertise and technocracy.
Finance and Power explores how we developed a political economic system premised on relentless debt creation and how we govern a financial sector that bears such distant relation to the ‘real economy fundamentals’ it supposedly serves. America and the World Economy traces how the US came to play a unique role in the construction of the global economic order. The module examines the historical roots of US hegemony, its continuing structural impact, its current predicaments and future prospects.
The final new option shifts the focus to the Political Economy of the Global South. It examines the role of global labouring classes and logistics in the functioning of the contemporary economy, the dynamics of unequal ecological exchange between the South and North, the political economy of narcotics and the rise of authoritarian right-wing forces in the South.
In all the programme hopes to give students the critical skills needed to ‘read’ the world around them. Rejecting simplistic one-size-fits all methodologies, students will learn how to interrogate the world with rigour and depth. Upholding a true spirit of plurality, the MA will continue PERC’s work of scrutinising the technologies, ideas and institutions that make up the global political economy.