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Anger at Malikane reflects fear at failed neoliberal indoctrination

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

Let Professor Chris Malikane be the new voice that refuses neo-liberal indoctrination.

Professors, by dictates of their education, must be able to argue for or against, with equal fervour and depth, irrespective of their own chosen preference. This means whatever preferences professors like Chris Malikane have on economic ideology, that does not make him incapable of giving deeper and passionate advice on the preferred government economic thinking. Whether the preferred thinking is Marxist ideology or neoliberal thinking, Malikane is a professor who can still be counted on to give guidance. The idea that his preferred ideology would render him incapable to advise the minister on preferred government policy is in itself a worrying line of thinking.

The real shock, however, on Malikane’s views, particularly from the neoliberal cabal, is how a professor at Wits University, itself a cauldron of neoliberalism, would come out with such aggressive and strong beliefs and leftist thinking. Is this a sign of a failed neoliberal experiment or, even more worrying, that these previously white universities are finally losing their grip on black academic thinking?

According to one economics expert, “The neoliberal indoctrination of young economics students in universities around the world all starts with one textbook – N. Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics. It is important here to note that almost all universities use American textbooks as prescribed. Most economists that have been covered historically tend to be Anglo-Saxon.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a Harvard economics professor and former adviser to George W. Bush and is considered one of the most gifted economists of our generation. His greatest talent, however, as stated by his detractors, is that of being an effective and talented propagandist of our times. His target is said to be young economics students. His field of operation: the world’s universities. His weapon: the best-selling textbook in the world. It includes 36 chapters and 800 pages of nice colours, graphs, cool stories and interesting asides.

But what is most worrisome, and this worry is even more pronounced now that professors like Malikane are being vilified, is that Mankiw’s text presents economics as a unified discipline, entirely committed to the neoliberal agenda. Mankiw believes that markets are the solution to everything – and he would like students to think likewise. According to Mankiw, if a problem persists, it can only be for one of two reasons: the market is imperfect, or it is inexistent. No other explanation for persisting economic or social problems is permitted.

For Mankiw and his cabal, unemployment is an example of the market being imperfect. If unemployment exists, it is only because of human inventions such as unemployment benefits, trade unions and minimum wages. Without them, there cannot be unemployment. Mankiw presents this view as being consensual among economists. In fact, quite a few of them admit that the labour market is a very special “market” indeed, where the price – the wage – is not set the same way as the price of other “goods”, say, tomatoes. As Alan Krueger has put it, “It is a gross oversimplification to say that ‘wages are set by the competitive forces of supply and demand’ or that there is a unique, market-determined wage.” This is the same thinking university students from UCT and Wits and other colonial institutions are subjected to every day. That the markets are the answer to all our prayers, if only that government did not get in the way.”

Some of the students at Harvard have described Mankiw’s course as “massive conservative propaganda”. One of them said he thought Mankiw has managed to “indoctrinate a whole generation”. By repeating his trivial examples, Mankiw accustoms the students to the idea of individual choices and preferences. The words “poor” and “rich” are rarely used. But, more surprisingly, there is also no mention of the power of corporations to shape tastes. This is because Mankiw’s world is one of small firms operating in perfectly competitive markets. “Corporate America” is not part of the picture. No McDonald’s, no Nike, no Microsoft.

What has been evident is that Mankiw’s interest is in shaping the minds of thousands of citizens and future leaders around the world. Mankiw’s world, much like the Democratic Alliance’s world, is one where “there is no such thing as a society”. Rather, the world is made up of isolated individuals. But it is a world where fairness prevails: everybody gets what they deserve. It is also a world where, thanks to the magic effect of markets, private enterprise and property rights, standards of living rise constantly. It’s a beautiful world … if only it existed. This is the same thinking of the Democratic Alliance, with its half-baked leaders spewing their half-baked ideas from their international advisers. Unfortunately, the world they speak of does not exist.

While Mankiw’s text is easy for professors to use, it oversimplifies economic theory and leaves out the ways in which markets can degrade human well-being, undermine societies, and threaten the planet. Each year, tens of thousands of students go out into the world, with Mankiw’s biases as a road map to the future.

But we know that the neoliberal agenda is more and more disputed outside universities. And within universities, alternative textbooks are flourishing. One can thus hope that these new textbooks, with their greater relevance to real-world problems – and their better acknowledgment of the diversity and complexity of economic thought – will soon out-compete Mankiw’s bible. As a believer in competition, Mankiw could only consider this to be fair game.

Neoliberalism, a socio-economic theory that rejects governmental intervention in domestic economy and promulgates materialism, consumerism, and the commodification of many public goods, is a powerful force that has come to dominate the discourse and behaviours of many aspects of our lives (Giroux, 2004).

There’s been increasing discussion of the power and impact of neoliberalism on a variety of domains, including Noam Chomsky’s (1998) investigation of the political impact of neoliberalism and effects on the news and media, and Lisa Duggan’s (2004) work on the cultural power of neoliberalism in shaping the behaviours of Americans.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 24, 2017, said: “The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”

Ward Connerly, former regent, University of California, while making a commentary on a David Horowitz book, said, “David Horowitz has single-handedly exposed the intellectual corruption that exists within the classrooms of American colleges. Like all forms of corruption, indoctrination flourishes when kept in the dark. Here, Horowitz turns on the bright lights to expose what has become profoundly wrong with our colleges and universities. We are all in his debt.”

Let Professor Malikane be the new voice that refuses such neoliberal indoctrination. We may go to the same universities, but dare not be neo-liberal clones. DM


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