A new network of university political economy centers takes shape

Brian Kettenring NCS

This piece was originally featured in The New Common Sense newsletter from our Economy and Society Initiative. Read more from this edition.

It feels as though the past two years have marked a significant turning point against the neoliberal paradigm and form of political economy. Though not dispositive, we see it in the return of industrial policy, in public investments, and in the growing force of post-neoliberal thinking on the left and the right in many quarters.

In trying to make sense of this, I have found it helpful to think of neoliberalism as not only a set of ideas, but also as a set of policy and political practices, often buttressed by organized interests and held in place by bureaucratic muscle memory. This permits us to separate different factors out a bit, allowing us to conclude that while neoliberal ideas are increasingly in retreat, they will remain persistent, perhaps even resurgent, in certain arenas for some time.

It’s an approach that leads to contradictory sentiments: On the one hand, it remains essential to offer explanation and critique of present and past failures of the neoliberal project. But it also feels a bit silly at times, since greater threats — particularly ethnonationalism — should occupy much more of our attention. And as the maxim reminds us, “you can’t defeat something with nothing,” so still more important is the affirmative work of drawing up new approaches to how we organize society.

The good news is that scholars and intellectuals the world over are increasingly taking up this challenge. I’m pleased to update our readers about one of the most exciting efforts among these, a new initiative to create interdisciplinary centers at leading universities around the world. These centers — fifteen of them to date, and counting — met recently at the Santa Fe Institute, and are the product of several years of organizational work. The effort also marks an important collaboration in philanthropy, with the seed funders — the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, Omidyar Network, and Hewlett — each bringing unique insights, relationships, and resources to bear.

“Around the world, scholars are wrestling with a host of critical questions about the relationship between the economy, politics, and society, so it’s exciting to take part in this academic network and foster common learning and collaboration across disciplines and countries,” said Laura Juarez, a labor economist at El Colegio de México in Mexico City, a university funded by the Ford Foundation under the effort.

Juarez, who was selected by her fellow directors as the founding chair of the group, added: “For instance, in many countries, the current paradigm has not delivered good jobs for the majority of workers. Today, job displacement, joblessness, job precarity, and informality are common challenges in both the Global North and South. In this realm and others, scholarly collaboration and exchange can renew and reshape our assumptions, so that we may contribute to the improvement of workers and communities around the world.”

There are a few different ways to think about this emerging network of centers. One thrust of this effort, and related ones in academia, is the revitalization or strengthening of political economy as a field of study. In some cases, political economy virtually disappeared from the scene in the neoliberal era as the dominant mode of thinking increasingly drew a hard and fast boundary between the economy on the one hand and society and politics on the other. Political economy survived and even thrived in other (national) contexts, so we see an opportunity to further strengthen it as a field in these places.

The question of political economy as a field raises the matter of the academic disciplines. The centers in the network are largely designed to work across discipline, bringing anthropologists together with political scientists, economists with legal scholars. Leading post-neoliberal thinkers across these fields — sometimes centered in formations like the Law and Political Economy Project or the Consortium on American Political Economy (CAPE) — are often working to shift the dynamics within their respective fields.

Suresh Naidu, an economist involved with the new Columbia University-based center, noted that “since mainstream economics is so large, methodologically advanced, and institutionally tied into policy-making venues, it is important to create bridges from other disciplines into economics. Otherwise we risk producing a political economy that is alien to economists, while having an economics that is still alien to the notion of political economy in other disciplines.”

There is a dual recognition of the nature of the disciplines at work in this conversation. On the one hand, each discipline offers unique insights and methods to the question of political economy. As a practical matter, if an important aim is to foster a diverse, cutting-edge next generation of scholars, it is often hard — perhaps inadvisable — to circumvent the expectations of a given discipline. Meeting those expectations is how you get a job, if nothing else. On the other hand, rigidities in the disciplines have hampered creativity and methodological innovation, in a sense playing into neoliberal hands. So even as there are surely small-p politics about the nature of the disciplinary boundaries — such dynamics are inevitable and healthy — the overriding instinct of the initiative described here is to work across fields.

Another way to think of these centers is to understand the intellectual questions they intend to tackle and the modes by which they will do their work. Many will be taking up broad arenas of inquiry such as inequality, democracy, informal labor markets, or race and other forms of identity. Most will be exploring multiple areas of study. The new Berkeley Economy and Society Initiative (BESI) at UC Berkeley, for example, led by political scientists, economists, sociologists, and legal scholars, has identified four verticals: climate, technology, inequality, and democracy. For its part, the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, like several of the centers in the network, is working at the nexus of political economy and public policy.

SCIS director Imraan Valodia noted that “the vision of SCIS over the next four years is to be at the forefront of driving research and policy development for the two existential inequality challenges facing the global South. The first is ensuring a post-COVID economic recovery that creates a more egalitarian world, and one which is not exposed to the same damaging risks that the pandemic has exposed. The second is the transition to a low-carbon economy, which holds challenges and opportunities for the Global South.”

The question of policy engagement is an important one, for there are urgent public policy questions facing individual nations and the world. That said, careful consideration of how political-economic paradigms rise and fall counsels patience. Both the Keynesian and the neoliberal orders were in gestation for a generation or two before they came to prominence. Many of the centers in the network will balance policy and theory with what Mariana Mazzucato, director of the Institute for Innovation in Public Purpose at University College London, calls “practice-based theorizing.”

For her part, Mazzucato has used this method to delve deeply into questions of how we as society define value. This points to an essential role that the centers will play, which is tackling the deeper philosophical and axiomatic bases of our next paradigm. Neoliberalism colonized so many corners of our world in part because it had a compelling — if wrong — philosophical basis. The foundational texts of neoliberalism — Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” — are much more philosophical and polemical documents than economic ones.

Taken together, these new centers will be wrestling with the issues of the day and the deeper bases on which they rest. In the years ahead, we will look forward to keeping you apprised of the important work of the individual scholars and centers that are a part of this growing movement. The effort, while still quite new, is generating considerable interest from academics and practitioners in different quarters. For her part, Juarez summarized the energy thus: “Meeting at Santa Fe was a great experience. It is inspiring to see such an international, diverse, and energetic group of academics engaging and working, both separately and in partnership, on the most pressing issues of our time.”

University Network

Below is a list of the first fifteen centers in the network, organized alphabetically by country. Where the specific center or project has been named, or if the project is housed within an existing body, that name is provided.




  • American University Cairo, Beyond Neoliberalism: Voices from the Middle East and North Africa


  • Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, New Political Economy Initiative at the Centre for Liberal Education


  • Colegio de México, Program for the Economic Analysis of Mexico

South Africa

United Kingdom

United States

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