To boldly go where no economist has gone before

Economists tend to write relatively dry, but succinct abstracts. José Gabriel Palma, a professor at the University of Cambridge, dares to break the mold.  The title of the paper gives you a hint of things to come: Latin America’s social imagination since 1950. From one type of ‘absolute certainties’ to another — with no (far more creative) ‘uncomfortable uncertainties’ in sight.

The abstract is long (the paper itself is 33 pages single spaced!) but definitely worth checking out in full.  I’ve underlined some of my favorite parts:

Latin America is a region whose critical social imagination has stalled, changing from a uniquely prolific period during the 1950s and 1960s — revolving around structuralism, ‘dependency analyses’, Baran and Sweezy’s-type analysis of ‘monopoly capitalism’, French structuralism, the German Historical School, Keynesian and macroeconomics, and the ideas of endogenous intellectuals (such as Mariátegui) — to an intellectually barren one since the 1982 debt crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although this has happened in most of the world, in Latin America both the process of re-legitimisation of capital, and the downswing of the cycle of critical thinking have been particularly pronounced as neo-liberalism has conquered the region, including most of its progressive intelligentsia, just as completely (and just as fiercely) as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain — transforming critical thinkers into an endangered species.

As pre-1980 critical analytical work had been characterised by an unremitting critique of the economy, once the mainstream left conceded the economy as the fundamental hub of the struggle, there seemed to have been little else left in terms of basic ideological principles to hold onto in a thoughtful way — i.e., it was as if the mainstream left had lost not just some but all its ideological relevance, making it particularly difficult for them to move forward in an innovative way. As a result, in terms of development strategies and economic policies both the traditional and the ‘new-left’ are in one way or another still stuck in the past.

While in some countries the former basically wants to recreate the past, in others the latter seems to be unable to do anything more imaginative than to attempt to create a future which is simply the exact opposite of that past — the main guiding economic policy principle being to transform practically anything that before was considered “virtue” into “vice”, and vice-versa. This narrow ‘reverse-gear’ attitude of the ‘new-left’ has delivered not only a disappointing economic performance (particularly in terms of productivity-growth), but also rather odd political settlements characterised by a combination of an insatiable capitalist elite, a captured and unimaginative progressive political élite (the dominant classes are quite happy to let them govern as long as they do not forget who they are), passive citizens, and a stalled social imagination — a dull mélange that from time to time is sparked off by spontaneous outbursts of students’ discontent. Meanwhile, the world (with its new technological and institutional paradigms) moves on, and Asia forges ahead.

Continuing to chart his own path, Palma also has the longest list of key words that I’ve ever seen, including “Foucault,” which might be a first in economics:

Latin America, Ideology, Critical Thinking, Structuralism, Dependency, Neo- liberalism, Fundamentalism, ‘New-Left’, Top 1%, Keynes, Foucault, Prebisch, Hirschman.