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Oppose Book Worship // Evan Jones

Political economists have to sort out what constitutes useful knowledge. This is seldom easy: many academic works are based on shaky foundations or are disengaged from what is happening in the world around us. Meanwhile journalistic works often embody more prejudice than information. Navigating a productive path needs continuous attention to what really matters. Long-standing JAPE co-editor Evan Jones writes engagingly about the pitfalls and problems in this article. His starting point Mao Zedong’s exhortation to ‘oppose book worship’…
"Whatever is written in a book is right – such is still the mentality of culturally backward Chinese peasants. … It is quite wrong to take a formalistic attitude and blindly carry out directives without discussing and examining them in the light of actual conditions simply because they come from a higher organ. …
The method of studying the social sciences exclusively from the book is likewise extremely dangerous and may even lead one onto the road of counter-revolution. … Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions.
We need books, but we must overcome book worship, which is divorced from the actual situation. How can we overcome book worship? The only way is to investigate the actual situation." Mao Zedong (Tse-Tung), Oppose Book Worship, 1965.
Well might Mao and his coterie have followed his own prescriptions, and this after the disastrous Great Leap Forward and before the lamentable Cultural Revolution. But the dictate remains a powerful adage.
And not just for culturally backward Chinese peasants. The worship of ‘the book’ is entrenched in the academic vocation.
In my third-year Honours Methods class, I used to note, only half in jest – ‘If it’s written down, it’s not true’. Academics are employed to research, think and write full-time, but they are removed from direct experience. When academics do research, it is perennially through reading the work of other academics, themselves also removed from direct experience – thus involving an infinite regress of increasing meaninglessness.
Lacking completeness but steeped in convention, academics are often inclined to reify their theoreticist and/or crude empiricist constructions as representing complex reality itself. I explored this tendency in a 2001 essay, ‘I think therefore it is … .’ The academic engaged in this ruse thus lives in a bubble of illusory wholeness.
In short, those who write don’t know. Those who know, typically don’t write – because their employment denies them the time or the right. Or perhaps because what they know can’t be made public because it is too dangerous.
Shall the two worlds be joined? Ironically, there was in mid-20th Century a large-scale accidental laboratory experiment. Swathes of academic economists went into war bureaucracies, often in key administrative positions. Many stayed on after the war, placed in key posts of reconstruction bodies and/or negotiating teams. What impact did the significant personal experience have on this cohort who mostly returned to academia?
This question hit me when I was reviewing a book containing potted intellectual biographies of the profession’s ‘best and brightest’, in ‘What do Economists Do, Who are They, and Does it Matter?’ (1997). The answer appears to be, with some exceptions, not very much. (Keynes, tragically, was dead.) In general, one would be hard pressed to discern any significant impact on the dominant trajectories of academic economics post-1945.
But back to the orientation of recent academia, filled with full-time academics. There are various means (outside the natural sciences) to peer into the other world for those without direct experience. Thus: survey techniques, archival research, interviews, etc.; the collection, processing and interpretation of available mass data through statistical techniques. All these techniques are important (and complementary) as means to bridge the divide.
Coming from the other direction are occasional reflections, memoirs, of those with experience – people who have done things, have been present in history, have been ‘in the know’. Politicians, advisers, bureaucrats, diplomats, etc., fertilise the terrain. Thus, most recently, Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister.
This is the ultimate genre in which the advantages and the flaws are extant – more, integrally mixed. The self-serving selective nature of memoirs pervades the genre. But we also learn things from memoirs that we could not have learned otherwise. Some facts and insights come covered in grime or not at all.
From this ‘other direction’, there is also the more quantitatively significant material emanating from journalists, great mediators between the hidden and minutiae-laden ‘real world’ and the ill- or non-informed broader public that includes the denizens of academia.
So there are bridges between academia and ‘the real world’, but the culture of academia perennially acts to minimise their utility – to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw to the ivory tower, to coin some hackneyed phrases.
One. There is one particular predilection of the academic mind, that towards pure theoreticism. The real world is of no consequence. Academia has provided fertile soil for this potential pathology to thrive. More, there are intellectual fields that have allocated to this mentality and its bearers an elevated prestige. Economics is an exemplar. Assume a can opener. Perhaps it is not unexpected that such a contrivance as ‘general equilibrium’, for example, could be concocted; but bizarre and shocking that this oddity could be powerfully entrenched as something of worth.
Two. The empirical techniques outlined above are sometimes used with delicate skill by the academic. But all such techniques have their inbuilt flaws, and have to be handled with care. Often such techniques will be taken up uncritically (perhaps from poor teaching or in spite of critical teaching) by enthusiastic but in-experienced students and subsequently applied with gusto, uncritically. Alas, some academic reputations are forged on the basis of such myopic single-mindedness.
Three. Information and opinion generated from ‘the other side’ by journalists and memorialists is typically denied because its sources are not seen as de rigueur for respectable scholarly pursuit. Such information and opinion thus is assumed out of existence. There is a great deal of elusive facts and opinions and ‘dangerous’ happenings out there of which the representative academic remains oblivious, by choice. The pursuit of ‘truth’ in practice might boil down to the far more prosaic pursuit of emotional self-preservation.
Four. Academia is cleaved into ‘disciplines’. Perhaps an organisational necessity, disciplines are nevertheless the implacable enemy of truth. Economics is again the exemplar. Self-designated as the ‘Queen of the Social Sciences’, Economics was self-constructed in the late 18th Century via the dangerous artifice of ‘economic man’ – giving us, successively, Classical Economics and (worse) Neoclassical Economics. The ‘discipline’ has ultimately fought off endless healthy attempts to broaden the vision from within and without the fortress ever since.
Moreover, each social discipline is selective regarding what empirical bridges to the real world are seen to exist (with their specific advantages) and implicitly considered admissible. Economics simultaneously ignores some bridges and has elevated one statistical apparatus, econometrics, to god-like status – a status maintained in the face of its near-comprehensive failure to produce results of substantive utility.
Fortunately, there are pockets within academia, ‘Centres’ of this or that, which are intrinsically trans-disciplinary and thus atypically productive of insight and of social and political relevance. But such Centres remain abnormal and under threat, luxuries in an administrative structure of self-reproducing intellectual silos.
This generally tight structure does have its soft spots. History, fortunately, is a discipline both respectable and with inevitably permeable borders. History is the true queen of the social sciences.
Occasionally, trans-disciplinary ‘disciplines’ are generated for historically unique reasons, with some surviving, if tenuously. Human Geography at Sydney University was almost abolished because the systematisers could find no unique location for it in the supposedly cognate disciplinary clusters that are rewarded with physical locations to embroider their ‘cognateness’. The human geographers were not asked their opinion on a ‘problem’ that the systematisers had created with spatial dimensions. Fortunately, the very important human geographers were saved by resistance and some belated acquiescence to common sense amongst the egg heads.
Political Economy at Sydney University has perennially been questioned because Sydney University is, as much as ever, pervaded by academics and academic administrators (including in cognate ‘disciplines where they ought to know better) who can’t find a place for it. Where does Political Economy fit? Nowhere. It’s an historical accident, and demands to be fitted back into a universally recognised ‘discipline’ (thus guaranteeing its dissolution). In spite of all the formal trappings of normality, Political Economy survives by default, lacking the legitimacy imparted by the all-powerful, innately anti-intellectual disciplinary matrix. The contrast with the unquestioned legitimacy of the ghostly Department of Economics could not be more stark and more preposterous.
Five. The long-term push by governments and administrators to measure and evaluate academic ‘output’ is reinforcing rather than ameliorating the divide with ‘the real world’. The ‘Research Assessment Exercise, the last in a series, is innately anti-intellectual, and is a farce, a disgrace and a disaster for meaningful and socially useful scholarship.
At base, the RAE, relying on discipline-driven research categorisation, acts to reinforce disciplinary silos. Then it acts to reinforce orthodoxy/ies within each discipline.
The RAE is a technocratic version of the Inquisition. Heretics are no longer burned at the stake. The RAE’s dogsbodies, in copying but refining the methods of totalitarian regimes, impose censorship behind a deep and opaque bureaucratic network enforcing subjugation to the rules. Dissidents face forced conversion to the correct line or, ultimately, expulsion from the ranks of the academic chosen. And the general public will be none the wiser.
Thus does real-world-suffused scholarship face significant hurdles in modern academia.
In the last decade, I have accidentally become involved in helping small business and farmer victims of their bank lender’s corrupt practices. This process has required the awareness of and working with new empirical sources and their associated materials. Such ‘new’ empirical sources include the bank victims themselves (in turn involving materials such as victim reconstruction of events – typically partial; documentation – with all the problems of an archeological dig; etc.), court judgments, relevant legislation, legal texts, correspondence with bank, regulatory and political personnel, Parliamentary reports, and evidence on the general economic context.
The end product has been a new understanding about how our economic system works – an understanding that was not available to me even after a career as a Political Economist (i.e. an heretical academic).
New subject, new methods, new sources and materials, an unexpected but significant outcome. This is an impossible trajectory for an academic following the conventional rules. And confirmation that ‘Oppose Book Worship’ is not a comic but a substantive directive.
This piece serves as a prelude to a subsequent blog on Australian banks and their myriad borrower victims and the lessons therein on the nature of economic power.
Associate Professor Evan Jones is a retired political economist. He joined the Economics Faculty in 1973 and taught in the Political Economy program until 2005. Past publications have been oriented to the political economy of industry and economic policy, Australian economic development, and the methodology and sociology of the economics discipline.
Disclaimer: Evan Jones did not receive any funding from institutions, public or private, in the preparation of this post, and the views expressed are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Journal of Australian Political Economy or the University of Sydney.