University of Birmingham and IPEG workshop: Global Economic Crisis - Which economy and what crisis? An exploration of alternative frameworks

Wednesday 02 April 2014, University of Birmingham
David J. Bailey, Paul Lewis and Huw Macartney

A large body of work has been produced focusing on the causes, consequences and alternative solutions to the global economic crisis. Rather than witnessing a narrowing or convergence of perspectives as a result of cumulative research and analysis, however, academic reflection has (perhaps predictably) resulted in a diffusion of alternative accounts of, explanations for, and perspectives on the global economic crisis. What has become most clear as a result of this debate, therefore, is that the theoretical assumptions that underpin different analyses of the global economy have in turn informed sometimes starkly divergent analyses of the crisis. Different accounts have varied in terms of the processes, mechanisms, actors, and social groups of key importance. As a result, they have also varied in terms of their identification of what sort of crisis this is, the causes that have prompted it, the potential solutions that could (or might have) resolve(d) it, and normative perspectives on the resulting distribution of costs (and benefits).

This workshop was set up with the aim of facilitating discussion across different critical approaches to political economy, to develop and clarify the conceptual assumptions that alternative positions have and hence to sharpen our understanding of similarities and substantive differences. The aim was to initiate a research project that moved beyond the current situation of ‘parallel conversations’ and begins a more systematic understanding and synthesis of political economic approaches to the global financial crisis.

The workshop brought together some of the leading scholars in critical International Political Economy (IPE) from across Britain and Ireland, including perspectives such as Feminist IPE, Post-Keynesian economics, the capital-as-power perspsective, neo-Gramscianism, historical materialism, constructivism, and institutionalist approaches. Following a discussion between the contributors to the workshop, each of the workshop’s three sessions were focused around a question that was premised upon apparent differences, but which sought to identify potential opportunities for complementarity.

The workshop succeeded in identifying and highlighting key points of difference between contributors, as well as clarifying some of the core concept, assumptions and claims within each of the approaches discussed. As might be expected from a workshop that sought to bridge differences, whilst opportunities for dialogue and shared theoretical concerns were identified, sources of friction and incompatibilities between divergent first-principles were also present. Key differences focused on the role of class and the primacy (or otherwise) of materialist concerns, concerns for the role of gender in understanding low-paid (and non-paid) work, the role of non-elites in understanding the crisis faced by the political and economic elite, the political nature of definitions (including the definition of the workshop – i.e. is the global economic crisis really global?), and the extent to which period leading up to the 2007/8 crisis was one of excessive or insufficient profit.

Three key questions were returned to throughout the day. First, what is a crisis? Participants touched on the importance of power in narrating the crisis, on the question of whether to define the events of post-2007/8 as a crisis, and how to identify the time during which the crisis took place. Second, who are the winners and losers? A number of participants identified the importance of evaluating who had won and who had lost as a result of the crisis, alongside a consideration of timing in making these evaluations. Third, which voices are missing? A number of contributors highlighted the way in which the use of intellectual disciplines – political science, IPE, economics – acted to silence or omit certain voices, including gendered, racial and regional voices.

As a result of the workshop, each of the contributors have agreed to write up their contributions and thoughts into a brief 2-page summary of their particular approach to the crisis. These are intended to be subsequently uploaded to the POLSIS blog and linked to from the IPEG website – and will provide a good tool for teaching some of the key different approaches to IPE and how they consider the global economic crisis. Some of the participants are also developing a collection of articles, to be further developed through a subsequent workshop and with the intention of a forthcoming journal special issue proposal, titled “Alternative theories and theorising alternatives to austerity”.

The full workshop programme was as follows:

Session 1: Empiricism/eclecticism and/or 'strong theory' in understanding the global economic crisis

Rationale: J.K. Gibson-Graham distinguish between 'weak theory' (which they advocate) and ‘strong theory’ (in which research begins from a clear theoretical starting point). The question remains whether these approaches are irreconcilable. The panel includes lead contributors who are empirically inventive (Montgomerie), who map theoretical approaches empirically (in the Deleuzean sense of ‘empiricism’) (Cameron), or who draw upon an eclectic mix of approaches (Edwards, Stockhammer, Green). In addition, some adopt more certain theoretical starting points in understanding the global economic crisis, especially those of post-Keynesian economics (Stockhammer) and the capital-as-power approach (Green, Hager). In placing these contributors together, there exists the possibility that we might consider different ways in which these different approaches to theorising - empiricism/eclecticism and/or 'strong theory' - lead to different analyses of the global economic crisis.

Lead contributors

  • Johnna Montgomerie (Goldsmiths)
  • Angus Cameron (Leicester)
  • Paul Edwards (Birmingham)
  • Engelbert Stockhammer (Kingston)
  • Jeremy Green (Sheffield)
  • Sandy Hager (LSE)

Session 2: Gendered and/or Marxist accounts of the Global Economic Crisis

Rationale: Arguably, gender continues to sit uncomfortably alongside approaches which focus primarily upon class. Marx can be read in a masculine way - all the workers, and (for that matter) the capitalists, seem to be men, working in the masculine/public sphere of production, or if not that then they are ‘without gender’. This contrasts with approaches to capitalism advanced most consistently by Sylvia Federici in setting out a Marxist critique of social reproduction. The panel brings together lead contributors who consider gendered and sexualised power relations (Smith), as well as different positions within a broad spectrum of Marxist(-influenced) approaches: feminist Marxist political economy (Tepe-Belfrage), Gramscianism (Worth), world-system theory (Wang) and open Marxism (Sutton). In bringing these lead contributions together we hope that one question that might arise is that of how gendered and different Marxist accounts can be (and have been) combined (or not) in understanding the global economic crisis?

Lead contributors

  • Nicola Smith (Birmingham)
  • Daniela Tepe-Belfrage (Sheffield)
  • Owen Worth (Limerick)
  • Zhaohui Wang (Warwick)
  • Alex Sutton (Warwick) 

Session 3: Norms and/or class interests in understanding the global economic crisis

Rationale: It is widely accepted that norms and values matter. But the question remains: how do norms matter for Marxists? Are class interests ‘norms’ or ‘träger’, or both? This panel brings together lead contributors who might be broadly defined as constructivist (Stanley), focus on dominant norms and values (Wiegratz), are constructivist institutionalists (Clift) or who highlight the role of institutional context (Goyer), alongside Marxists with a concern for sense and meaning-making (Jessop) and for whom class struggle is central (Pradella). This combination of lead contributors provides an opportunity for discussion of ways in which (if at all) norms and values can be combined analytically with a focus on economic interests in explaining the global economic crisis.

Lead contributors

  • Liam Stanley (Birmingham)
  • Jörg Wiegratz (Leeds)
  • Ben Clift (Warwick)
  • Michel Goyer (Birmingham)
  • Bob Jessop (Lancaster)
  • Lucia Pradella (Venice) 

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the International Political Economy Research group (Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS)) and the Contemporary Capitalism group (Birmingham Business School), and the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy working group (IPEG):