The state of political economy

Reflections on 50 issues of JAPE

Frank Stilwell


The publication of the fiftieth issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy is an appropriate moment to reflect on the state of political economy. JAPE began twenty-five years ago as an outlet for critical alternatives to mainstream economic theory and policy. Its declared aim was to 'represent and encourage a social movement ... for a democratic economy, as a necessary precondition for a fully democratic society; for a radically new conception of the values to be observed and advanced in the planning and conduct all facets of social life, for new theoretical perspectives on society and new forms of organization ...' In practice these rather grandiose aims translated into publishing a journal which would disseminate political economic alternatives to orthodox economics, exploring critiques of contemporary capitalism and fostering debates about the interactions between capital, labour and the state in the Australian context.

The launching of JAPE reflected the concerns of the mid 1970s. The quarter century of sustained economic growth that followed the second war had petered out, and a surge in both unemployment and inflation ushered in a new era of economic uncertainty. The government of Australia had become more volatile, twenty-three years of conservative rule having been ended by the election in 1972 of a Labor government under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. That reformist government had then been ousted by the controversial constitutional coup' of 1975. Meanwhile, the 'green bans' movement had shown the possibility for progressive alliances between trade unions and community activists to confront the power of capital and the state. Activism on university campuses was widespread, albeit sporadic, following the demonstrations to end Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, and flowing into diverse concerns about university governance and progressive education.

The Australian Political Economy Movement (APEM) had been formed in 1975 to coordinate the activities of progressive students, academics and activists in the broader community who were seeking to develop alternatives to the prevailing economic orthodoxies, in theory and practice. Well-attended annual conferences were held by APEM, variously in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Wollongong. A newsletter reporting on political economic developments was produced periodically. The decision to launch JAPE was taken at an APEM meeting in Sydney in 1976. Initially the journal was edited by regional collectives in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and, later, Canberra, each taking turns to produce different issues. Some articles focused on critiques of Australian and world capitalism. Others were more targeted on the Coalition government led by Malcolm Fraser which was seen as a major stumbling block to progressive social change - indeed, many articles in the early days of JAPE were deeply critical of its policies (and cartoons in the journal regularly lampooned Fraser and his senior Ministers). Overall though there was genuine optimism that developing a critical political economic analysis would help to 'make a difference'.

At the start of the twenty first century the political economic situation is significantly different. The long period of Labor government in the 1980s and early 1990s, although sidelining the Liberal and National parties for 13 years, did not produce a more equitable or ecologically sustainable economy. In some respects, it paved the way for the more explicit neoliberalism of the Howard government. During the last decade the effects of corporate globalisation, together with the effects of neoliberal assaults on public policy and the public sphere, have left a legacy of more defensive, even defeatist attitudes, among many people. That is currently evident in the lack of momentum within the ALP for the d