On Joan Robinson

Joan Robinson was a brilliant economist at the University of Cambridge and a member of the ‘circus’ of thinkers led by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. In the lecture below, John Eatwell, a pupil and co-author of Robinson, and who advised the British Labour Party on economic policy in the 1980s and 90s, gives a very clear and stimulating introduction to her life and work.

Eatwell covers topics in economics addressed by Robinson that remain highly relevant today, such as disguised unemployment and the trade protectionism that tends to result from a deflationary global economic environment.

As the talk makes clear, Robinson published path-breaking work on imperfect competition as distinct from theories of perfect competition and monopoly; she later contributed to the development of Keynes’ magnum opus The General Theory, which put forward an explanation for the persistence of mass unemployment under capitalism and gave birth to the modern discipline of macroeconomics. After the war she attempted to extend Keynes’ theory to deal with problems of economic growth in a number of books and papers, particularly her own magnum opus The Accumulation of Capital.

A strong intellectual personality and something of a zealot, one of Robinson’s most notable quotes regarding economics was: “I never learned mathematics, so I’ve had to think”.

As a liberal socialist, latterly she increasingly favoured central planning to achieve full employment and social justice, as well to promote economic development in the poorest countries. On this, as well as in her enthusiasm for Maoist China, she was perhaps naive and misled and these aspects of her thinking discredited her somewhat in her later years.

Robinson also supervised Amartya Sen who went on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize for his work on welfare economics.

Thanks to the blog The Case For Concerted Action for sharing this video.

6 thoughts on “On Joan Robinson

  1. The truth about the worst aspects of Maoism in China was not always fully appreciated at the time in the West. Insightful academics like David Harvey were not necessarily aware of all the facts on the ground. It is hard to say that economists can be viewed as discredited for their ideological excesses when the reputation of Hayek has largely survived despite his lack of appreciation for democracy: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/friedrich-hayek-dictatorship/

    In other words, I would argue that Joan Robinson should be cut some slack. Thank you for sharing the video.

    • Hi cheepcheepcopy, thanks for your comment. From what I know what you say is fair re Joan Robinson. She visited some of these countries, but perhaps she was given a distorted picture of things, as was not uncommon I guess. If you haven’t seen it already, there is an extended interview with another of her pupils and colleagues at Cambridge, Geoff Harcourt, in two parts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dcznyj1zo4c followed by https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpSNiWBfabE Geoff has written extensively on Joan and post-Keynesianism, culminating in an intellectual biography in the Great Thinkers in Economics series, which is very readable.

      Re economic planning, a mixture of state guidance and private enterprise taking the form of industrial or technology policies seems to have caught on these days, and I am all for that, whether as a vital aid to development in poor countries or for pushing the tech frontier in richer countries. I think that offers much more than what may in fact be a false choice between just central planning or ‘free’ markets.

    • Hi cheepcheepcopy,

      You put your finger on it by pointing out that Hayek was anti-democratic. And there are more aspects of his ideology that are hugely objectionable.

      However, I find it difficult to condone someone of Joan Robinons’s competence in economics becoming infatuated with totalitarian societies like China and Albania.

      I take the view that Hayek’s failure can not — as it were — be offset against Robinson’s equally doubtful judgement.

      I surmise that Keynes had a good sense of the limits of both extremes, the command economy and the economist’s concept of free markets. And one would think that Robinson had a fair chance to incorporate his sensibilities into her discrimination.

      Ultimately, instead of looking at the facts or at least remain sceptical in the absence of robust evidence, she succumbed to the global warming mania of her day: the belief in pure, human, and efficient communism represented by figureheads like Mao and Enver Hoxha.

      One wonders what her life’s work was for?

      • As far as I can see Joan Robinson’s life’s work contained many gems of original theory that are still taught, and are still relevant today: the economics of imperfect competition; combining the theories of Marx, Keynes and Kalecki in her theory of economic growth; and her more popular books such as Economic Philosophy. She continues to inform and inspire today, not least in the post-Keynesian school and others influenced by the Cambridge School of economics.

  2. Nick, I fully agree with you.

    When I wrote

    “One wonders what her life’s work was for?”

    what I meant was: with all the fruitful effort that she put into economics, why would she throw this treasure of knowledge away for a trendy flirt with communism.

  3. Unfortunately, John Eatwell — in this wonderful lecture — does not respond to the question posed at time mark 41:47:

    “I am wondering which economies have actually taken on Joan Robinsons’s ideas, which governments are actually putting into practice her insights?”

    Also, I would like to modify this question by replacing “economies” and “governments” by “(influential) economic schools”.

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