British Lord and economist to give the Joan Muysken Lecture

British Lord and economist to give the Joan Muysken Lecture

Headstrong, erudite and contrary 

03-11-2021 · News

The human condition in the age of machines. That is what the Joan Muysken Lecture is called that Robert Skidelsky will give next week. He is a Lord with Russian roots, a member of the British House of Lords, emeritus professor of Political Economy, and a self-willed thinker. In 2009, he published a book about Keynes, who is dead and buried for most economists. But he called it: The Return of the Master.

What is it like to live among machines? What is the impact of technology on our lives? And do we have any influence on that? Skidelsky (82), invited by the School of Business and Economics and Studium Generale, will deal with these questions in his lecture.

Skidelsky is not an economist but a historian who specialises in economic history, says Tom van Veen, emeritus professor of Economics at SBE. "It is how he characterises himself. He always looks at things from a wider perspective, with Political Science and Psychology never being far off." 

The most remarkable thing about him is his love for Keynes, the pre-war economist who felt that the government should invest when the economy has become stuck. John Maynard Keynes, Adam Smith and Karl Marx constitute the 'big three', but with the arrival of neoliberalism and commercialism, Keynes went out of fashion.

Not for Skidelsky, says Van Veen, who gave the Joan Muysken Lecture in 2019. "And that makes him so obstinate. In a time when Keynes only has a handful of supporters, he publishes The Return of the Master. His point is that the market does not promote stable economic development, as neoliberals reckon. You only have to look at the banking crisis in 2008."

The neoliberals work on the basis that consumers will behave rationally, says Van Veen, but that is not always the case. "People are uncertain, they are led by psychological motives and can suddenly lose faith in the future. That is why Skidelsky argues for an active role by the government, which can invest at times when things are tough." 

In columns in - among others - The Guardian, he shines his light on the question whether machines provide jobs or destroy them. At any rate, he sees the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdowns as catalytic of ongoing automation. That is partly due to the increase in online shopping and other parallel developments such as cashierless shops that are filled with detectors to follow the customers’ every move. Amazon was the first, but many will follow.

Working from home during the pandemic has also given automation an extra push, Skidelsky writes. In the UK, the number of people working from home went from 27 to 37 per cent in one year. One of the effects was an increase in the technology that people had to keep an eye on at home, including cameras and microphones. Something that has broadened the discussion about automation: it is not just about jobs but also about freedom.

Lecture by Robert Skidelsky (in English), Monday, 8 November, Franz Palm Lecture Hall, Tongersestraat 53; also available via a live stream

Photo archive Skidelsky

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