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The new reformation: challenging the monopoly of mainstream economics

Last week a document called 33 Theses for an Economic Reformation was nailed to the door of the London School of Economics. Comparing today’s adherence to economic dogma with that of Catholic Christianity before the reformation, the theses set out a new economic agenda, as David Boyle explains

I think it was the former civil servant and new economics pioneer James Robertson who first noted the parallels between the current economic system and unreformed Roman Catholicism.

What he noted in particular was the tendency for the financial system to require whole armies of different, but abstruse jobs, pardoners and almoners for the banking world. It was these jobs that were swept away by the Reformation – not just because they were pointless, but because they were, at heart, cons.

As long ago as 1990, in his book Future Wealth, Robertson wrote this:

‘Today’s army of accountants, bankers, tax-people, insurance brokers, stock jobbers, foreign exchange dealers and countless other specialists in money, is the modern counterpart of the medieval army of priests, friars, monks, nuns, abbots and abbesses, pardoners, summoners and other specialists in religious procedures and practices.

The theologians of the late Middle Ages have their counterparts in the economists of the late industrial age.’

This week’s 33 economic theses were not just because of James Robertson.They also marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s challenge to the established church. That was why New Weather Institute and campaign group Rethinking Economics tried to emulate Luther and hammer home their new economic theses to the equivalent of a cathedral.

After considerable input from a wide range of economists, academics and concerned citizens, the theses emerged to challenge the mainstream teaching of economics and to try to launch the reformation. Hence the title: 33 Theses for an Economics Reformation.

There was some discussion about where the equivalent of Luther’s cathedral door might be. The Treasury? The Bank of England? In the end, the organisers opted to target the source of mainstream economics dogma – the London School of Economics – because that is where it was likely to cause most discomfort.

That was why a diverse group of us arrived with plastic hammers to remember the moment when Luther launched the last Reformation. And have no doubt: the same semi-mystical horror of heresy applies in economic orthodoxy as it does in religious orthodoxy – and for the same reason. Heresy seems to cut away our chances of salvation, however defined.

This is how the new theses document explains it – in terms of diversity:

‘Five hundred years ago in Europe, a single belief system dominated all public discourse: Catholic Christianity. Those held to be experts in this set of beliefs held immense power, since it enabled them to claim unique authority in all matters – from the rules of behaviour, to the right to rule.

‘Kings and queens listened to their advice, and feared their criticism. Intellectuals submitted to the confines of their ideology, as to break free from it took exceptional imagination and courage. Ordinary people may have had misgivings, but the priests protected their theories by speaking in a language that the public could not understand, concealing any contradictory evidence. There is now a similar situation in neo-classical economics.’

There was criticism that the time has moved on, that we agree with the critique of worn-out economics and its tenuous grip on reality – that it is time to move on to what we do instead. But the opportunity to frame the message was too good to miss.

This is how economic historian Victoria Chick put it:

‘In economics today, the path to truth is mediated by its priesthood. Economics Reformation, in its theses nailed to the door of LSE, argues that students should read the scriptures, in all their great variety, for themselves. Thus they will learn that the Pope (formerly Samuelson, now Mankiw) is not infallible and that they must search for truth in the contest of ideas.’

  • Read The New Reformation here.

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