John Weeks obituary | Books

John Weeks obituary | Books


John Weeks, who has died aged 79, was one of a group of prominent economists who, after the global financial crisis of 2008, began to push back against the dominant economic ideology of neoliberalism. Based in Britain after moving from the US in 1990, he took part in the Occupy movement against economic inequality and blogged on the Open Democracy and Social Europe websites. Latterly he was the driving force behind the Progressive Economy Forum (PEF), a body of academics and economists that was influential – although arguably not influential enough – in the development of Labour party policy during the Jeremy Corbyn years.

As PEF coordinator, John established links between its economists and Labour’s shadow treasury office under the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. Through various means, including the commissioning of papers on a universal basic income and shorter working hours, the setting up of a workshop with McDonnell’s office to consider Bank of England macro prudential policy, the staging of a series of public lectures and through informal meetings with McDonnell and members of his team, PEF was able to work up policies that appeared in the 2019 Labour manifesto.

For the most part it was successful in persuading Corbyn’s Labour of its viewpoint, although John was unable to get McDonnell to ditch his fiscal credibility rule, which committed to balancing day-to-day spending with the amount raised in taxes.

For John it was self-evident that market economies always and everywhere are characterised by unemployment and wasted human resources, requiring remedial public policy. In this view he consciously harked back to Keynesian economics, as well as to Roosevelt’s New Deal, as inspiration for what could limit the worst effects of the free market.

From 1945 to the early 1970s such policies were (more or less) accepted. But thenceforth a growing neoliberal orthodoxy took hold, seeing economies as necessarily subservient to global financial markets rather than political choice. Monetary policy became a set of technical tools, insulated by central bank “independence” from democratic oversight. Expansionary fiscal policy was rejected as inflationary and public policy amelioration of market economies was thereby abandoned.

Crucially for John, so too was its democratic oversight. For him the key question was always “who decides?” All of his efforts in the economic sphere were therefore inspired by a vision of collective decisions being reached through a democratic process; only this, he argued, could lay the basis for sound economic policies.

Who gained after the 1970s debacle of policy? John’s answer was unequivocal: it was the top 1% and their hangers-on, whose activities are inimical to a democratic society. John increasingly saw his profession as corrupted by subservience to those activities, and much of his work was devoted to exposing that intellectual corruption. Indeed his 2014 book, Economics of the 1%, was subtitled How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy.

Instead of a harmonious competitive world of full employment, John saw a darker reality. The financial system was deeply intertwined with criminality, with oligarchs and plutocrats the world over looting states for private gain and laundering the proceeds through offshore financial havens and the City of London. Economic life, he argued, is now dominated by “new economy” companies of unimaginable wealth; climate change is destroying the planet, and firms in production sectors such as bespoke engineering, armaments manufacture and pharmaceuticals are operating without ethical controls. By contrast, ordinary people are forced to put up with the scourge of unemployment, poor housing, low wages and a health, social care, education and benefits system starved of resources.

Against all this, John advocated balanced policies rather than balanced budgets, railing against what he saw as the economic myths of austerity: that we should all live within our means, that governments should do the same, and that we should tighten our belts by reducing expenditure, raising taxes and staying out of debt. In his most recent book, The Debt Delusion (2020), he argued that exposing these myths is the only way “to foster hope over despair, infuse optimism in place of pessimism, imagine a brighter future, and achieve it”.

Born in Austin, Texas, John was the youngest of three children of William Weeks, a civil servant, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee Andrews), a shop assistant. After attending Stephen F Austin high school in Austin he gained a degree in economics at the University of Texas in 1963 and then enrolled at the University of Michigan for a PhD, studying Nigerian industrialisation.

Active in the US anti-war movement, in 1968 he helped found the Union for Radical Political Economics, set up to find radical economic solutions to social problems. On completion of his doctorate in 1969 he taught at Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria, moving to become an economics lecturer at the University of Sussex in 1971 and then switching to the newly-established economics department at what is now Birkbeck, University of London in 1973.

In 1974 he met Liz Dore, an academic specialising in Latin American studies, and he joined her for a summer of backpacking in the Peruvian Andes; they married in 1975. Soon afterwards John left Birkbeck and joined Liz in Lima, collecting data that would form the basis of his book The Limits to Capitalist Development: The Industrialization of Peru, 1950-1980. Then, working at the American University in Washington, he wrote Capital and Exploitation (1981), in which he argued, against the orthodoxy, that crises are an outcome of the strength of capitalism, not its weakness.

He moved to Managua in Nicaragua in 1981 to be an advisor within the government’s planning ministry, but finding that the Sandinista leadership rarely tolerated critical advice, he left there the following year to work for a Sandinista thinktank before returning to the American University, where he wrote The Economies of Central America (1985) before moving to teach at Middlebury College in Vermont.

In 1985 John was named on a list of “dangerous” academics by the conservative organisation Accuracy in Academia, and so when Soas University of London asked him to create an MSc programme in development studies in 1990, he accepted with enthusiasm the chance to move away from an increasingly hostile US environment. The Soas programme began small and grew large, with John remaining there until retirement in 2006, holding joint appointments in two departments, development studies and economics, and chairing each at various times. He also helped Soas set up the Centre for Development Policy Research.

Development economics remained a lifelong focus. He worked on projects funded by United Nations organisations, national governments, central banks and trade unions in many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of his greatest legacies is the many people he influenced in emerging economies and the global south who are now in positions to shape or influence public policy.

A committed fan of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, an amateur astronomer and a passionate gardener, he was still writing about economics two weeks before his death from leukaemia.

He is survived by Liz, their children, Matthew and Rachel, and two grandchildren.

John Franklin Weeks, economist, born 1 April 1941; died 26 July 2020


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