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Talk on Karl Polanyi to the Civil Service Fast-Streamers' Seminar, 'Exploring Economics'

On February 13th 2020 I delivered a talk to the Civil Service Fast-Streamers' Seminar on 'Exploring Economics'. I was asked to talk to them specifically about the work of Karl Polanyi and the most important insights from his Great Transformation. More generally, though, they were interested in what I could tell them about economics that they had not found out when until recently they had been studying the subject at university. The discussion focused on Polanyi's concepts of the economistic fallacy, fictitious commodification and the double movement, especially in relation to some of the more pressing public policy dilemmas of the post-Brexit transition.

I was told that I would be invited back very shortly to talk about David Ricardo and his theory of comparative advantage.

Widening Participation Event at the British Museum

On December 18th 2018 I was involved in the Departmental organisation of what, we are told, was the biggest ever off-campus Widening Participation event in Warwick's history. The event was staged at the British Museum in London, and we had almost 150 Year 11 and Year 12 students attend. It was called 'The Politics of Memorialisation', and I spoke to the theme 'Memorialisation through Speech: The Politics of Apologising for the British Empire'. It was fitting that this talk took place in the British Museum, where a number of the exhibits are now deemed controversial because they came to the UK as a direct consequence of Empire. The day included a tour of the Museum conducted by our undergraduate student ambassadors, who showed the participating school students the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone and Hoa Hakananai'a, all of which have been the subject of ongoing campaigns for repatriation from people who treat their presence in the UK as evidence of imperial plunder. My talk triggered a heated debate amongst the students about the rights and wrongs of issuing historical apologies for actions that were undertaken in other times and under the influence of a very different system of morals to the one in place today. The debate itself has had an important afterlife, as it has sparked more invitations to schools to provide talks and more invitations to engage with school-aged students on the continually controversial question of how Britain made international markets for itself through Empire.

London Mini-Tour of Presentations

On February 13th and 14th 2019 I went on a mini-tour of London universities delivering papers related to my project. I presented one paper called 'David Hilbert and the Mathematisation of the Market Model' to the Political Economy Research Centre's General Seminar Series at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I presented another paper called 'Crusoe, Friday and the Homo Economicus of Econ 101 Courses' to the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. And I delivered a third paper called 'The Postcolonial Writing Back to the Robinson Crusoe Economy' to a Masterclass Lecture and Question and Answer Session delivered to the Department of European and International Studies at King's College London. The abstracts for the talks are to be found below.

'David Hilbert and the Mathematisation of the Market Model': "In general, there is a unified – albeit still deep contested – political language of ‘the market’. This revolves around the process of buying and selling under conditions of free exchange backed, if necessary, by contract. But when we turn from the political language to economic images of ‘the market’, the sense of unity rapidly dissipates. Those economic images are themselves, at heart, mathematical images, and it would be fair to say that ‘the market’ has been thoroughly mathematised in economic theory. It is the assumption that mathematics provides a universal means of exploring all scientific problems – Leibniz’s so-called mathesis universalis – that also underpins the encroachment of economists’ market model into all sorts of realms of social experience. The ‘imperialism’ of the economics imperialism phenomenon is keenly felt and often resisted by social scientists. However, some excellent work by Fine and Milonakis aside, the ‘economics’ of economics imperialism currently remains largely unexplored. My research-in-progress paper will try to shed light on the relationship between economics imperialism and the mathematisation of economists’ basic market model. Yet it will be shown that this is no straightforward matter. Ask many non-economists what is wrong with economics and they will say that it has allowed a mathematical logic to crowd out concerns for real-world experiences; push them further and they will say that it has simply become too mathematical. Looking at the history of economic thought, however, reveals that there have been over time many articulations of the market model, each of which has a mathematical essence, but that it is to mischaracterise what is important about them to think of older variants being less mathematical and newer variants being more mathematical. They are more usefully thought of as being differently mathematical, where the key difference is that they manifest entirely opposed images of the economic relations that they are designed to represent. The two most important attempts to strike out in new directions in mathematical economics – one I associate with the work of Jevons, the other with Arrow and Debreu – were enacted to solve problems that enable the political language of ‘the market’ to continue to resonate but which are largely superfluous to the way in which economists construct their market models today. Jevons used the mathematics of number to overcome the nineteenth-century free will problem, and thus to defend the notion of free exchange. Arrow and Debreu used the mathematics of signs to overcome the twentieth-century coordination problem, and thus to defend the notion that buying and selling at given prices represents coherent economic activity. However, a deeper look at the mathematics of the market models developed both by Jevons and by Arrow and Debreu implies limitations to how far ‘the market’ should be embedded in practice, the very opposite of the general political orientation of studies cast in the economics imperialism mould. Emphasising the colonisation of the market model by mathematics therefore provides an invitation to rethink the putative success of economists in colonising the other social sciences."

'Crusoe, Friday and the Homo Economicus of Econ 101 Courses' and 'The Postcolonial Writing Back to the Robinson Crusoe Economy': "Why should a political economist like me be interested in the technical details of debates presented within literary theory? In particular, why might I have persuaded myself that it is a good use of my time to find out as much as I can about what literary critics think of Daniel Defoe? The answer is relatively straightforward. Much of the discussion of Defoe’s literary characterisations focuses on the extent to which he was able, in the early eighteenth century, to distil the essence of an abstract homo economicus with whom we are still familiar today. However, that same answer also reveals other puzzles. Defoe’s characters in Robinson Crusoe continue to find their way into many economics textbooks, and they are used as pedagogical tools to enable students on Econ 101 courses to begin to ‘think like an economist’. They might remain fundamental abstractions, but they retain a rhetorical power derived from their familiarity which unlocks for students the essential relationships which economic theory attempts to describe. In the absence of appeals to Crusoe and to Friday, the homo economicus of the economics textbooks would usually remain entirely unnamed. But the economics textbooks themselves are almost the last place in which Defoe’s original characterisations remain pretty much exactly as they were in his 1719 novel. Robinson Crusoe is almost certainly the most rewritten story in the English language, with each generation of novelists since the early twentieth century providing multiple rewritings of the basic plot. Postcolonial and feminist authors in particular have engaged in a conspicuous ‘writing back’ to the original novel, in an effort to expose Defoe’s racist and sexist story lines through a mixture of caricature, satire and carefully constructed plot reversals. The absence of any similar attention to rewriting Defoe’s original novel in economics should give us pause for thought about the typical content of Econ 101 courses. Are we happy with a pedagogical approach to economic theory which tells us that we are all approximations in our economic behaviour of either the active white colonial settler Crusoe, or the passive enslaved person of colour Friday?"

Annual Tax Summary: Speculative Design Workshop, University of the Arts London

On March 19th 2018 I was a participant at a workshop held at the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts London in Elephant and Castle. The workshop focused on the Annual Tax Summary that was introduced in 2014 and goes out each year to millions of UK households. It presents a breakdown of how much income tax the recipient pays alongside a pie chart that breaks down in percentage terms the different spending categories that make up state expenditures. The workshop participants were invited to critically deconstruct the content of the Annual Tax Summary so that the accounting story that appears in the official narrative can be contrasted with the political story that can only be read between the lines. As a precursor to further events, the day finished with attempts to think through alternatives to the current structure of the Annual Tax Summary.

LSE Blog Post - Machonomics: George Osborne's Legacy to UK Macroeconomic Governance

George Osborne was a purveyor of machonomics, an approach to economic policy-making revolving around seemingly bottomless reserves of macho self-confidence. In this blog post for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog site, I argue that Osborne modelled himself in this way on the optimal policy-maker of the so-called time consistency problem of abstract economic theory.

This post showcases the analysis contained in my recent British Politics article on the same theme. It is available in open access view-only format from Springer Nature's Shared It facility.

Tue 21 Nov 2017, 09:15 | Tags: blog post, London

Lloyds Bank Inclusion and Diversity Division Future Leaders Event

On October 31st 2017 I was invited to speak at a Future Leaders Event organised by Lloyds Banking Group's Inclusion and Diversity Division. The event took place in The Shard in London. 160 Lloyds staff and guests were invited to hear a range of talks about the difficulties experienced by BAME colleagues in moving through the ranks of their organisation and into middle management. I spoke about the Colonial Hangover project, linking the work that I do on one of my Department's schools outreach projects to the distance that large organisations still have to travel if they are to provide a context for their staff to experience a working environment that survives the charge of being institutionally racist. I argued that an organisation that is only partially aware of its own history is an organisation that cannot guarantee that it will survive such a charge. I illustrated this through reference to the imperial legacies that our Widening Participation students learn about through the Colonial Hangover project and the imperial legacies that all of Britain's banks still have. The evening was a great success, and further talks will follow as a means of deepening the link.

The evening event also grew to encompass an afternoon event where members of my Department spoke in an informal and off-the-record manner with executives from Lloyds, Deloittes, Ernst and Young, Bank of New York Mellon, the BBC and the Black British Business Awards on matters of inclusion and diversity. Documents under discussion were the recent Parker, McGregor-Smith and Black British Business Awards reviews on the restricted opportunities for career advancement amongst BAME staff within the corporate sector. Again, things went very well, and further meetings are planned to move the conversation forward.

Mon 06 Nov 2017, 15:40 | Tags: outreach, London, widening participation

Engagements at the London School of Economics

I spent March 22nd and 23rd 2017 at the London School of Economics, participating in a number of events.

(1) I delivered a paper to the International Political Economy and Public Policy Research Cluster that extends across the Department of Government, the European Institute and the Department of International Relations. It was called 'Crusoe, Friday and the Raced Market Frame of Orthodox Economics Pedagogy'.

(2) I held meetings with a number of Cluster PhD students housed in the Department of International Relations to talk to them about their ongoing research.

(3) I gave a talk to the Grimshaw Club Student Society, which is an affiliated society of the LSE Students Union. It was called 'Brexit and the Economically 'Left Behind''.

(4) I was one of four participants on the 1st Annual International Relations Roundtable in the Department of International Relations. The theme of the roundtable discussion was 'Restating the State of the Discipline'. My invitation came at the request of the International Political Economy and Public Policy Research Cluster.

Fri 24 Mar 2017, 19:41 | Tags: paper presentation, London, roundtable discussion

Firesouls Blog Post: A Conversation with Professor Matthew Watson, Part 1

In July 2016 I was invited to the Firesouls office in London by Dan Ebanks, the company's co-founder and CEO. Firesouls has built the Social Value Exchange, an e-auction that enables community groups to bid for resources that might have a transformative effect on the way in which life is lived locally. Dan recorded the conversation that we had about my project research, in the hope that my work on the market concept might serve as useful background information for what Firesouls is trying to do with its Social Value Exchange. The first part of that conversation was posted on the Firesouls blog site on March 7th 2017, with a further part to come.

Sat 11 Mar 2017, 08:41 | Tags: blog post, London, Firesouls

The Colonial Hangover Project 2017

Along with my Department's Widening Participation Officer, Shahnaz Akhter, I launched the Colonial Hangover project at a Schools Day event we ran for Year 12 students on January 17th 2017. The project will run for the whole year and will invite the participating students to reflect on the images of empire that they continue to find around them on a day-to-day basis. It picks up on an increasing sense that the British Empire might well have been formally disbanded, but that assumptions about empire continue to shape our everyday experiences. This has perhaps never been more amply demonstrated than in the vision of Britain's place in the world that animated the Leave campaign at the 2016 EU referendum and that now provides the dominant imagery for Theresa May's preferred account of what a post-Brexit Britain might look like.

Assisted by our undergraduate student research assistants Taznema Khatun and Jonas Eberhardt, we also put on a Colonial Hangover conference on June 30th 2017. This was designed to allow our schools competition winners to present their work - both essays and spoken word pieces - in an environment in which they could interact with our undergraduates and learn more about university life from the latter's presentations. It proved to be an exhilarating day in which all of the students took the opportunity to really talk about themselves, their experiences of the legacies of empire and what it means to live in a society that continues to be dominated by assumptions of white privilege. Recordings from the day will shortly be available.

A recording of the January lecture is able to be downloaded here.

Kings College London General Departmental Seminar

On October 5th 2016 I delivered a paper to the General Departmental Seminar of the Department of European and International Studies at King's College London. The paper was entitled, 'Market Models, Metamathematics and Economic Theory: How the Market Concept Came to Mean Politically Anything You Want It To'.

Tue 15 Nov 2016, 17:07 | Tags: paper presentation, London

Tax Justice Network Annual Research Conference, City University London

On June 26th 2015 I was one of the participants on the closing roundtable of the Tax Justice Network's Annual Research Conference, 'Should Nation States Compete?'. The roundtable was entitled, 'The Competitiveness Conundrum', and the other participants were Will Davies (Goldsmith's University, London), Ronen Palan (City University, London) and Naomi Fowler (Tax Justice Network).

Sat 27 Jun 2015, 14:52 | Tags: London, Tax Justice Network

Tax Justice Network Annual Research Conference, City University London

On June 25th 2015 I presented a paper at the Tax Justice Network Annual Research Workshop, 'Should Nation States Compete?'. The paper was entitled, 'Following in John Methuen's Early Eighteenth-Century Footsteps: Ricardo's Comparative Advantage Theory and the False Foundations of the Competitiveness of Nations'.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded by clicking here.

Me At TJN Event

Sat 27 Jun 2015, 14:42 | Tags: London, Tax Justice Network

After-Show Discussion, Dumbshow's 'Electric Dreams'

On May 6th 2015 I participated as one of the panel members for the after-show discussion held by the Dumbshow Theatre Group following a performance of their new play, ‘Electric Dreams’, at the Camden People's Theatre, London. This was a play that took shape during a two-week residency at the University of Warwick in January 2015 and for which I was able to offer advice on the political content of the script. I appeared on the after-show discussion panel alongside Michael Bryher (Director/Actor/Writer, Dumbshow), Nicola Cutcher (Actor/Writer, Dumbshow) and Ryan Shorthouse (Chief Executive, Bright Blue Think Tank).

The transcript of that discussion can be found here:

Thu 21 May 2015, 17:09 | Tags: London, theatre group

Paper Presentation, London School of Economics

On June 16th 2014 I presented a paper at the Inaugural History and Theory Workshop at the London School of Economics. The paper was entitled, 'The Misreadings of Conceptual History within IPE'.

Tue 21 Apr 2015, 13:24 | Tags: paper presentation, London

London Political Philosophy Club Presentation

This is a link to a recording of the paper I delivered to the London Political Philosophy Club at St James's Church, Piccadilly on September 30th 2014. The paper is entitled, 'Markets, Markets Everywhere, But Not As You Might Think'.

Tue 07 Oct 2014, 17:19 | Tags: paper presentation, London