On December 22 2007, Andrew Glyn, left wing economist and prolific author of books and articles about capitalism, died of a brain tumour.
When Andrew began teaching economics at Oxford University in 1969, the capitalist world was experiencing major political turmoil. Memories of the US civil rights movement were fresh, France’s political explosion of the previous May still echoed around Europe and workers in many countries were engaged in the most active struggles for decades.
In this atmosphere large numbers of workers, students and teachers were radicalised and Andrew, already something of a rebel during his Etonian education, was to become one of the most influential of this new generation of socialist scholars and teachers. From his base in Corpus Christi College, he was to spend most of the next 38 years teaching economics and writing critically about the recent history and present state of capitalism. As a teacher he acquired a legendary reputation due to his infectious enthusiasm, bordering at times on the euphoric, and to the fact that, as one student has put it, “he challenges your mind but not your dignity”.
One thread unites most of his books and articles: his interest in the way income and welfare are distributed under capitalism, both among individuals and between labour and capital – in other words the economic manifestations of class, a dimension which is all too often absent from conventional economics. In the 1960s he emphasised the sharp rise in the share of income going to labour (the “profits squeeze”) and warned that the capitalist class would be impelled to use its political power to reverse this trend. To defend its gains, the working class would have to turn to a more aggressive form of politics.
When the capitalist counter-attack came, in the forms of the Thatcher and Reagan governments, the attack on unions and the spread of neoliberal doctrine, Andrew, as well as criticising it, seized the opportunity to play a significant practical part in the resistance. During the historic miners’ strike of 1984–5 he went far beyond expressing solidarity and standing on picket lines; he used his economic skills to produce a series of newspaper articles and pamphlets which destroyed the Coal Board’s economic arguments for pit closures.
Dave Feickert, former head of research of the National Union of Mineworkers, on learning of Andrew’s death, recalled that he was “one of the economists who went to the aid of the mining communities against the pit closures of the 1980s and 90s. Their [these economists’] solidarity was vital…With their help, we won cases against closure, but sadly the National Coal Board — later British Coal — went ahead anyway. Andrew, the first academic economist to join the fray, in 1984, [worked with us] to produce The Economic Case Against Pit Closures” (a pamphlet published by the NUM). John Moyle, the last President of the Kent NUM has said of Andrew: “He will be greatly missed and remembered for his intellectual inspiration and support of the working class. In the great year long strike of 1984/85 his work and philosophy were of great assistance to our rank and file miners and our women’s support group...”
After the end of the strike, labour defeats multiplied and trade union membership and strength declined. By the turn of the century Andrew was writing not about the “profits squeeze”, which he had identified in the early 1970s, but about what might be called a “wages squeeze”. “The extraordinary turnaround in the relative fortunes of labour and capital over the past 30 or so years” is the major theme of his last book, Capitalism Unleashed: fincance, globalisation and welfare, the second edition of which was published only weeks before his death. This book well exemplifies Andrew’s particular style as an economist — a critical perspective on capitalism, a masterly understanding and presentation of complex economic data, an exceptional ability to combine the techniques of modern economics with the concerns of the classical economists, especially Marx, and a readable, not overly technical, style of writing.
He never lost sight of the idea that the ultimate purpose of writing was political. In Capitalism Unleashed, he analyses the current instabilities in the world economy, as he says, not for their own sake but as part of the “difficult task of devising policies to advance the cause of egalitarianism which has taken such a bettering over recent decades”. Another prominent socialist scholar wrote in a letter to me after Andrew’s death: “Andrew was pretty close to my ‘ideal’ of a committed intellectual”.
Among Andrew’s many passions beyond political economy were reading novels, good movies and, most of all, jazz. He would constantly listen to recordings from his incomparable collection. A few days after the diagnosis of his illness, he confided in me that if he had not been an economist he would have liked to be a jazz pianist.
Whatever the loss to jazz, I am happy that this did not happen. If it had, the left would have lost one of its most original and important intellectuals and I would probably never have met the most joyous, affectionate and dependable friend that anyone could wish for.
Bob Sutcliffe was co-author with Andrew Glyn of the book British capitalism, workers, and the profit squeeze (1972)
This obituary was written for Red Pepper magazine — and will appear there in the February/March issue.