Why is political science not in crisis as a result of the crisis?

Economics is beginning to rethink many of its presuppositions as a consequence of the financial crisis, but political science sails blithely and complacently onwards

Mick Moran
Mick Moran

It is a commonplace that the financial crash of 2007-9 also caused an intellectual crisis in the discipline of Economics.  That sense of crisis has had healthy results: while a minority of economists still maintain the view ‘do not adjust your mindset, there is a fault with reality’, for most there has been a refreshing willingness to think again about the presuppositions that led so much of the discipline to act as a cheerleader for the madness of the markets during the ‘Great Moderation’.  This makes a striking contrast with the situation in what might be called mainstream political science.

The separate discipline of International Political Economy was indeed sensitive to the dangers of ‘casino capitalism’, in Susan Strange’s graphic phrase.  But political science just hived off these concerns.  Indeed, not only was it blind to the dangers of a crash; it was largely blind to the very importance of power in financial markets, despite the fact that, since Robert Dahl, its very stock in trade was supposed to be the analysis of power.

Moreover, since the great crash, while International Political Economy has produced a stream of analyses of the crash, political science has been largely silent.  It is striking that the most graphic narrations of the crash and the political processes that led to it have come from outside political science: from journalists with a training in anthropology, like Gillian Tett; from high-class investigative journalists, like Michael Lewis; from policy-focused economists, like Simon Johnson.  There are indeed exceptions in political science, but their fate emphasises the obtuseness of the discipline.

I recently read an outstanding comparative analysis of the politics of banking regulation in the crash.  It tries to answer the question: why did some countries escape the crash, while others suffered its full weight?  The paper was rejected without going out to review by a leading US political science journal on the grounds that it failed to offer a theoretical contribution!  Explaining the most catastrophic economic event for seventy years is thus less valuable than advancing the theoretical frontiers of political science.

The crash was as big an intellectual challenge for political science as for economics.  But, whereas the latter has begun to recognise this, political science sails blithely and complacently on.  The roots of this stupidity plainly do not lie in the obtuseness of individuals concerned.  They are more alarming, because they lie in the historical mission of the discipline, and in its established intellectual practices.

Political science emerged as a significant discipline after the rise of its main sister – or rival – disciplines: economics, law, history, anthropology were already entrenched in universities when political science began to expand, principally in the two decades after World War Two.  That created an obvious institutional problem: how could political science carve out a place for itself in the expanding university systems?

The answer is neatly expressed by Bob Goodin in his history of the discipline: it invented itself as ‘the discipline of the state’.  It prospered by accepting a division of labour: the past was left to the historians; the economy to the economists; and politics outside the state to the anthropologists and the sociologists.  Political science ‘did’ the state, and the processes like elections that abutted onto it.  It left everything else to its rivals – and in the madness of the ‘Great Moderation’ left the politics of financial markets to others.  That is how we arrive at a state of affairs where the best ‘political science’ of financial markets is done by anthropologists, journalists, and analysts in business schools.

The disciplinary project I have sketched here was of course hugely successful.  In the Anglo-American world in particular it laid the foundations of great academic empires: big university departments that could rival the economists and historians, and eclipse the anthropologists, in university politicking; a thriving world of professional associations and journals; plus big graduate schools that are still in fact expanding.  Political science has become a respected ‘profession’.  Indeed, this is precisely the word that leaders of the discipline now routinely use to describe the activity of being a political scientist.

Yet, in its very obsession with its own internal professional conversations around ‘the discipline of the state’, it is now suffering the disease of professionalism: it has retreated into its own self-reflexive world and, in so doing, defined the greatest economic crisis for two generations as the business of others.

The first step to dealing with any and all crises in life is the recognition that you are faced with one. Economics, for all its continuing shortcomings, has at least taken that first step.  Political science has yet to do so.  The crisis is also its crisis.