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Joseph Halevi

Interview with Joseph Halevi

Originally published: Figure/Ground Communication by Judie Cross (March 6, 2018)   | 

Joseph Halevi was born in 1946 in Haifa, which then was part of British Palestine but since 1948 in Israel. Most of his earlier life was spent in Rome, where he graduated in Philosophy and Political Economy. He has been Professor of Economics at the International University College Turin, Italy, since 2010. In Australia, Dr Halevi founded and taught one of Sydney University’s most interesting and difficult courses in Political Economy namely, Economic Theories of Modern Capitalism, introducing students to the major (classical, Marxian, neoclassical, and Keynesian) attempts by economists to explain how capitalism works. He retired from lecturing at Sydney in 2016 but has continued his association with the Institute of New Economic Thinking (INET), New York City in addition to his current work at the International University College of Turin.

How did you enter academia?

Actually, I entered university life almost by chance. For personal reasons, I had to leave Italy, where I had been involved intellectually but not academically, except as a student at the University of Rome La Sapienza. In Italy I worked for the Italian General Confederation of Labour, Italy’s main labour union where my economic interests found a niche as I hoped to eventually become a cadre in, if it’s not too shocking to say, the Central Committee of the Italian Communist Party. The Italian Communist Party was then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, extremely intellectually sophisticated as were most of the polititcal parties in Italy. I had already split from Israel because I was critical of Zionism as I do not distinguish anti-Semitism from other forms of racism. In fact I see racism as part of Western culture sustained by positivism; that is, a pseudo-scientific view of race. I had already acquired internationalist ideas in Israel, thanks to people like Tawfik Toubi and Emile Habibi whom I knew personally; both were leaders and MPs of the Communist Party of Israel and major intellectuals of the Palestinians in Israel. Tawfik Toubi directed me to read a classic on Middle East history: the 1938 book by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening. At any rate, it was the Italian Communist Party that suggested my name to the Italian General Confederation of Labour (my name was made by the exquisite Giovanni Berlinguer, the brother of the world famous Secretary General of the PCI Enrico Berlinguer. Berlinguer told me that I should now study economics. I was enrolled in the Faculty of Mathematics then. I did not want to study economics and commerce. For me economics meant first and foremost philosophy and history and then the great Classics from Adam Smith to Marx but also Marshall. I omitted Keynes at the time because I misleadingly thought he wanted just ‘to save capitalism’. Within the Italian Communist Party they suggested I meet with Maurice Dobb, a major Marxist and Communist economist who taught at Cambridge University. Early in the Summer of 1969 I flew from Rome to London and then by train to Cambridge to talk with Maurice Dobb on what was to be done with me given the new task I had been assigned to. After consultations with Dobb I decided to read his books and then move to Paolo Sylos Labini’s major book on oligopoly and to Baran and Sweezy’s parallel work on monopoly capital. In Rome I met with Sylos Labini and upon seeing the list of readings I prepared for him, he told me in no uncertain terms that I ought to include Keynes via Harcourt’s book as a guide. This is how the journey into economics began.

Are you still a Communist?

Yes, I am. Although this requires rephrasing after all that has happened, but the idea of overcoming capitalism and establishing a system of socialised means of production are two important principles I still endorse. There is no longer that much difference between socialism and communism, but I call myself a Communist because I don’t deny the importance of the Russian Revolution. I became a Communist during the de-Stalinist period and I consider the processes that happened during the period of the Russian Revolution and the emergent Soviet Union to be historically significant and valid, transforming our world and empowering many more people although the outcomes were not sustainable. For example, one cannot talk about the current rise of China without considering the role the Chinese Revolution played.

And what about the “principle” that the only way to overcome capitalism is by violence?

Well, it’s not actually a principle. Engels spoke about the possibility of changing the social system through elections. Lenin became a Marxist after they tried and shot his brother. His brother was a Narodnik, a populist, one of those who thought that by using violence against officials and the aristocracy, such as the tsars, they could change the regime. Lenin, however, became very critical of the Narodniks, as he believed a different type of action was needed, one informed by a different type of analysis and principles. In fact, Lenin’s first set of writings was a critique of the populist movement of the Narodniks. In other words, the notion of revolution is historically determined. Revolutionary situations emerge not from a plan, but from the social context and events rather than being determined a priori. The important point is to understand whether the situation is revolutionary or not. More often than not, it’s not understood or simply people get it wrong and this leads to disaster as happened in China in the late 1920s during the first urban based revolutionary uprising. Fortunately after that failure the CP under Mao-Tsetung understood that urban uprisings were inappropriate for China and took a different road which made the CP the major force of resistance against Japanese imperialism, enabling it to win in 1949.

Returning to academia …

Anyway, having to migrate from Italy to the United States meant I needed to work when I arrived, but the only thing I knew was how to talk. Owing to my various studies, I was quite multi-faceted and the New School for Social Research in New York, a very open-minded and non-mainstream institution, hired me in 1975.

Leaving Italy meant I wouldn’t be returning to a politico-economic career as it was in the days before the internet and hence, it was much more difficult to keep the contacts and follow the convoluted system of university appointments in Italy where, indeed, I would have badly wanted to return to.

After a few years in New York, my time in the United States was coming to an inevitable close, owing to the fact that I was only there courtesy of the visa of my partner at that time and her UN office was moved to Nairobi. Rather than follow her to Nairobi where I could not work, at the end of 1978, I was hired while still in New York by the University of Sydney. This offer was facilitated by the Head of the Department of the New School for Social Research, who knew my time was up. I was actually looking at the likely possibility of a three-year fellowship in Sweden, thanks to an interest in me shown by the late Professor Gunnar Myrdal, a Nobel Prize Laureate whom I met in NYC. However, one day Professor Ed Nell, the chairperson of the New School Economics Department stressed how important it was to see him about a position in a new political economy programme (it was not yet a department) in the University of Sydney. For that purpose Ed Nell introduced me to Dr Gavan Butler from the University of Sydney who was visiting New York City. In other words, it was strongly suggested that I apply for this position, which was continuing and thus allowed me to be a resident and subsequently become a citizen in Australia. It was therefore just what I needed although I was afraid of how isolated Australia was.

Who have been some of the important influences/mentors on you, in your work and career?

In New York, I gained some valuable experience. For example, at the New School for Social Research, I met a most interesting professor, Adolph Lowe, an émigré from Germany, whose work I found very stimulating. Then I met and worked with two of the greatest world Marxist intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, the latter worked alongside Sweezy as co-editor of a journal entitled Monthly Review. He was another fantastic person and I developed a phenomenal relationship with both of them. They died in their nineties early this century. The essence of our relationship was not a mutual respect for Soviet style regimes, which they didn’t endorse, but their open mindset. In fact, their independent way of thinking probably made them freer than me … I “died” with the end of the Soviet Union, December 26, 1991 and I am now essentially a ghost. The Soviet Union collapsed as a result of internal contradictions that no one foresaw except Lev Davidovich Trotsky.

Anyway, Sweezy and Magdoff were incredible people in terms of their political and historical knowledge and especially because their aim was to build an American Marxism, fine-tuned to the United States, which is an example of the third stage of capitalism. The first stage is Marx himself, using England as the model of competitive capitalism for Germany; the second stage sees Germany as the model at the beginning of the twentieth century because Britain did not develop heavy industry as much as Germany did. Then the United States, with its monopolistiic large scale accumulation of capital set the stage for the most modern model which Sweezy, Baran and Magdoff saw.

Two days after I arrived in Australia in late August 1978, I met Peter Kriesler and this completely justified my move to this continent. Peter Groenewegen introduced me as Peter’s co-supervisor. Despite the disparity in our ages and positions at the time, within two weeks we had become wonderful friends and have since maintained a decades-long fantastic intellectual and personal relationship. I include Peter Kriesler as a major influence in my life along with Sylos Labini, Pasinetti, Lowe, Sweezy, Magdoff and Harcourt.

Moreover during my prolonged and frequent stays in France from 1987 to 2009 I developed a strong intellectual friendship with Redouane Taouil, Professor at the University of Grenoble, with Riccardo Bellofiore, Professor at the University of Bergamo near Milan and with Professor Jaime Marques Pereira from the University of Amiens. They are truly exceptional people crucial for my intellectual evolution. Taouil is one of the finest epistemologists of economics, nothing escapes him (on sait tout we used to say jokingly when together at the University of Grenoble). He helped me in thinking about the course I founded at the University of Sydney in 2004 since I wrote the first draft of the proposal in 2003 when I was Visiting Professor at Grenoble. Bellofiore combines Marxian philosophy and critical political economy with modern economics in a unique way. Together we published several relevant (for us) papers on Europe and some of the papers I wrote with Peter Kriesler were printed in books edited by him. Jaime Pereira is an excellent economics sociologist and together with a Brazilian friend we published our research on the impact of China on Brazil in France. I should also mention Roberto Finelli, Professor of Philosophy (now retired) at the Third University of Rome. I have known him since 1969 and his advice and guidance was vital in navigating the combination of economics and history during my studies. He was already at the time a junior academic at La Sapienza. Without him I would not have finished my studies the way I wished following the talk with Maurice Dobb in Cambridge. Finelli is one of the best philosophical Marxists in Europe. His last book was shortlisted for the prestigious Isaac Deutscher Prize in London in 2016.

There is, of course, also my great internationally-known Professor Paolo Sylos Labini as I did my thesis under him and he remains a fundamental reference in my work. He is the author of Oligopoly and Technical Progress, a very famous book translated into many languages. Luigi Pasinetti from the Catholic University of Milan and, with Geoff Harcour t, a major figure of Cambridge Economics, also played a crucial role in my understanding of modern systems of production. Pasinetti wrote a path breaking book entitled Structural Change and Economic Growth. Geoff Harcourt was another person I admired as I came to know of him through his textbook which was included in the courses I took while I was studying in Rome. Upon landing in Sydney I made sure I would visit him often at the University of Adelaide where he held a research Chair until his move to Cambridge in the early 1980s. I have since collaborated on writing with him; e.g. the four volume Post-Keynesian Essays from Down Under in 2016 also by Peter Kriesler and John Nevile.

In your experience, how has the role of university lecturer “evolved” over recent years?

My role has never changed because I did not allow it to. I have always been a rather difficult person. I’ve never obeyed orders in my life, as distinct from the self-imposed discipline I maintained when I was in the Communist Party of Italy, but I do think that in most places the role of the lecturer has changed. And, I think it had already begun to change during the 80s; that is, it’s basically textbook-oriented lecturing for many now. Hence, the role of the lecturer is essentially being routinized and degraded to that of an instructor or trainer, not a teacher.

Although I continue to work as a professor in Italy, my role remains much as before. However, the fact that they too in Italy are starving us for money in effect means a downgrading. At the University of Sydney, the increase in the number students in the first and second year courses in Economics meant they were organised into streams of “horizontal equity” and that’s when I first refused to teach in that way and moved lock stock and barrel to Political Economy which was in the process of becoming a separate department. The government plays an increasing ideological role in universities by even setting what journals one has to publish in, both here and in Europe and in this way limits the scope of a liberal education.

I think that there are no longer any good universities, in the sense of having independence, anywhere in the world, except for the top ones in the US. In the U.S. they know what they are doing; i.e. their role is to reproduce the ruling class. In the US, they also know that if you want to have a hegemonic ruling class, then you cannot just feed students ideology. The ruling class needs intellectuals and the U.S. recognises this. They have no ERA (institutionalised ranking of journals as we have here) because their standards are constructed from a hierarchical consensus arising from the top universities. Here in Australia, in contrast, our institutions do not concern themselves with creating intellectuals but, instead, focus on copying what happens elsewhere mostly from the United States, and in a wrong way. However, also in the top U.S. universities the discipline of economics is probably the worst, being choc-a-bloc full of ideology. In economics I would save the Judge Institute at Cambridge University, and the Economics Department of the University of Leeds, both in the UK.

In fact, the only place where I was ever given total academic freedom was in France, (although I doubt this would be possible nowadays) where I have been invited every year for two decades. It began in the 1980s when I was invited by Professor Alain Parguez, a highly distinguished scholar of Keynesian economics. I had two parallel academic lives: one marginalized at Sydney University and another blossoming in France. I decided to come back for very personal reasons (lady-partner etc). Yet just as well, since staying in France would have weakened my ties with Peter Kriesler and he is one of the best thinkers in economics today and the person who gave me the strongest possible support. I intellectually and personally miss Bellofiore, Taouil and Marques Pereira though. Also in France the situation worsened despite the existence still of a greater diversity but always at the margins and always under threat.

At the University of Sydney, life was always difficult, made only slightly lighter by the friendship with Louis Haddad, a most refined thinker who has written the best critical book to date on the economics of transition in the former socialist countries. Just the same, I would have quit if it had not been for Peter Kriesler at UNSW. The issue was that the area of political economics, to where I had been recruited, clashed with the other section of the department. The objective of the political economy group was to set up another separate department, non-mainstream, but I found I didn’t actually agree with these people.

Why?

Because this heterodox group, to which I should have felt affiliated, based their thinking more on social issues than on deep theory. So I found myself, not so much in terms of ideas, but as regards stressing the importance of theory, in agreement with people in the mainstream group even though we might have favoured different theories. I suppose the people who hired me (i.e. those from the heterodox group) therefore felt a little betrayed by me as I talked and argued but didn’t clash with people in the mainstream faction, such as the very intellectually sophisticated Professor Simkin. In fact, I had already found myself in a similar dilemma in the U.S. where the radicals also eschewed theory in favour of protesting on issues.

It’s been said that you enabled Economics and its major figures to come alive for your students as you are a master story-teller. It’s also said that you taught it in a way that allowed students to fall in love with the material; i.e. by setting the historical context and by encouraging students to believe that they knew what they were talking about. Can you provide an example of how you managed to enthrall your students?

This is what a Sydney Morning Herald journalist so kindly wrote about me but I’m reluctant to judge myself. I believe I just tried to simplify my content without making it simplistic. It is also fair to say that the political economy group at the University of Sydney, whatever our disagreements, did allow me to teach economic theory that was seen through the history of economic thought, rather than an ideologically limited version of economics. This Political Economy course that I taught at the University of Sydney was one I thoroughly enjoyed creating and teaching. My interest in this subject probably contributed to its popularity.

My objective in teaching it was to demonstrate that there are many theories, not just one, as may appear in many textbooks of today. And, in order to avoid making the content too heavy for the students, I endeavoured to outline the main points of theories that followed each other in a sequence. In doing so, I needed to move from the simple to the complex and then back again to the simple. I constructed the theme of this course around the thread that united all these theories and this probably also made the course interesting for the students.

The problem is that mathematics is not compulsory for political economy students at the University of Sydney, but you cannot do economics without mathematics – you have to know differential calculus and matrix algebra to get to the depth in a theory. Marx, interestingly, developed primitive matrix systems. Das Kapital is full of theoretically based numerical examples, numbers from which he derived theorems. Marx was a true pioneer since many of the matrix algebra tools did not yet exist and yet he managed to get the theorems basically right as shown by the celebrated work of Michio Morishima on Marx’s Economics. Mathematics gives you the conditions under which certain propositions hold or do not. Dr Roni Demirbag who helped me as a tutor in the course on economic theory in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, helped me create a course that effectively overcame the flaw regarding the lack of mathematics in the curriculum of Political Economy. That, I can openly say, was a big success, not easy to achieve.

It seems you have developed an ongoing relationship not only with Kriesler, but also Harcourt and Nevile, as you published Post-Keynesian Essays from Down Under Volume I: Essays on Keynes, Harrod and Kalecki: Theory and Policy in an Historical Context in 2016 alongside three more volumes with the same three co-authors, whom I have also interviewed for FigureGround. Can you explain, in layman’s terms, the significance of Keynes, Harrod and Kalecki?

I published all the four volumes with them, although in the third on ethics I have only one paper. In my view the chief importance of Keynes is that if you decide not to have dinner tonight – thus performing an act of saving for the economy as a whole – you won’t increase investment by making more money available for lending. This is because by not having dinner you will destroy demand for the food catering industry with negative repercussions on the level of employment in that industry etc. This goes totally against the still ruling ideology. Roy Harrod, a quite conservative economist from Oxford of the Keynes’s period and after, argued that although greater savings do warrant a higher growth rate, this warranted growth may not be objectively sustainable. I view Harrod’s contribution, aside from his political views, as crucial for modernizing Marx’s economics. Harrod introduces a fundamental limit to capital accumulation which cannot be solved by flexibilities, competition and all that nonsense. By the way, a Marxian understanding of Harrod requires going through the work of Adoph Lowe, published in his book The Path of Economic Growth in 1976. Kalecki, with Sweezy-Baran-Magdoff and Sylos Labini, is really what today’s classical economics should be had it been allowed to develop freely not just in some niche tucked away God knows where. He brought together business cycles with the issue of effective demand, linked the latter to the issue of market power and the conditions of production. He was an absolute giant. He also formulated the modern theory of socialist planning.

In your 2011 journal article, The global crisis and the crisis of European neomercantilism, Bellofiore, Garibaldo and you argue “the solution to the problem of effective demand is seen as lying above all in a positive trade balance”. How is this solution received by mainstream economists ten years after the GFC?

In post-war Europe, economies have been constructed around the notion of generating net export surpluses, which essentially became the mainstay for reinserting Germany into the western world after WWII. Germany then overwhelmed the rest of western Europe with its net export surpluses, thereby creating the aim for most other European countries to copy Germany and also generate these net export surpluses. But it’s not possible that this is the case for the whole world – unless we start exporting to the moon or a place like that. So this “solution”, i.e. seeing the value in exporting beyond your borders, is a major stumbling block. And, since the GFC, countries believe in this even more; for example, the squashing of domestic demand in Italy as a result of all the austerity programs.

What about the recent measures adopted by Trump?

The idea of blanket free trade or total tariff impositions is not appropriate – it all depends on the situation and particular goods or products. You can encourage growth in different ways. Final outputs, such as machinery, deserve protection, but blocking aluminium and steel (inputs) is probably not a good idea.

Although you have a host of publications in several reputable journals and have refereed for many, you describe this as a task you’ve taken on “(very) reluctantly”. Can you elaborate on reasons for your reluctance?

Basically because I don’t like the articles, but I know the writers are going by the book, so I prefer not to be the judge. The whole profession is concerning itself with irrelevant things. As a result I have pulled out of most reviewing although I do it very occasionally if a friend requests me to review something. I then try to judge within the confines of the context.

What are you currently working on?

I would like to work on nothing so I could think about other things like what was wrong with the communist movement and analyse the downfall of the Soviet Union, However, to do this, you need a lot of people because, for instance, the great Cambridge historian E.H. Carr wrote 12 volumes only on the Bolshevik Revolution during the years 1917–1925. Moreover, this took him a lifetime with a whole institute behind him. I would need something similar and so I cannot do this, except for little bits.

What I am doing is something I fell into with an institution in the US: European political economy since 1945. What I don’t like doing is academic writing; I prefer intellectual writing such as that of Elias Canetti’s Crowd and Power. He actually received a Nobel Prize in literature for this non-fiction work in 1981. It began with Canetti having an argument with Freud whom he accused of not understanding the process by which a person becomes part of a crowd; i.e. not understanding crowd psychology. This is great intellectual writing but, unfortunately, it is not encouraged by academic journals.

I am also working on two projects with Peter Kriesler. One is motivated by our desire to complete our intellectual love story; i.e. our view of economics. The second one is with the same U.S. foundation and it’s about Asia.

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