The return of Marx and Keynes

On this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4 we had Eric Hobsbawn talking about a revival of interest in Marxism.  Apparently sales of Das Kapital are rising, even in the US.  If nothing else, that will soon finish off widespread interest in the subject – reading Das Kapital is hard work!

Flippant remarks aside, the discussion on news programmes has also been about the return of Keynesian economics.  Most obviously, Brown seems to be thinking of putting public money into building programmes (or at least bringing planned building programmes forward).  This is a classic Keynesian policy – use public resources in times of economic downturn to stimulate the economy.  The trouble in the past has been that government forgets to scale back its role during times of economic prosperity.  This, the argument goes, is where we ended up in the 1970s.  The welfare state had simply expanded beyond our ability to support it.

For years, teaching public administration and management has felt like giving a history lesson.  We have had to refer back to increasingly distant times – the 1970s and 1980s – to discuss the debates about the role of the state.  You could almost see students roll their eyes when we mentioned Margaret Thatcher and 1979.  So many students do not remember Margaret Thatcher resigning, let alone the events of the early 1980s.  Now it is suddenly topical again.  We can revive these discussions with daily updates as more and more banks are ‘nationalised’.

As we do so, we might also revive the other intellectual currents off that era.  We should not forget that there was a New Left, as critical of the state as the New Right, but for very different reasons.  For years, I have used Ramesh Mishra’s book, Welfare State in Crisis, as a good summary of thinking in the 1980s.  He presents a Marxist critique of the state and puts forward some alternative ideas.  It might be time to dust off these arguments and begin revising the way we teach the subject.  Suddenly, it all feels like it might be up for grabs again.

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