Fifteen years after the Global Financial Crisis: Recessions and Business Cycles in the History of Economic Thought

Heretics across the Channel: Joan Robinson and François Perroux on the “Generalisation of the General Theory”

Irace Thomas, Université de Picardie Jules Verne

This paper provides a contextualised comparison of two essays from the same period, bearing the same title: “The Generalisation of the ‘General Theory’”. The one by Perroux corresponded to a series of lectures that he gave at the University of Istanbul in December 1949 and were published in 1950. Joan Robinson’s “Generalisation” appeared two years later. While the two economists had met and discussed the General Theory in 1945 and 1946, there is no evidence (to my knowledge) that Robinson was aware of Perroux’s essay when she wrote her own. Still, their co-occurrence, at a pivotal point in the intellectual evolution of both authors (and in the spread of the General Theory as a reference in debates over theory and policy beyond Britain), warrants a comparative study. While Joan Robinson’s life and work have already been dissected in great detail, historians of economics have tended to use the phrase of “Generalisation of the ‘General Theory’” to refer to the whole of her postwar output in economic theory, usually without focusing on this specific, admittedly transitional essay. As for Perroux, he has been the object of a recent flurry of studies but these mostly focus on his prewar and wartime writings. I attempt to demonstrate that the idea of “generalisation” has very different meanings in the two essays. While Robinson’s project is a thoroughly Keynesian one, of extending to the long period the domain of applicability of what she sees as Keynes’s most important corrections to “classical” theory, and in the process building a conceptual toolkit appropriate to that end, Perroux’s involves a selective absorption of ideas from the General Theory into his own all-encompassing theory of capitalism, putting the emphasis on the (sometimes unstated) institutional assumptions in Keynes’s work. In the first section, I summarily relate both endeavours to the main distinguishing features of their respective readings of the General Theory, and this in turn to the interventions they were making within respective national debates around 1950, on both the theory and policy fronts. National field effects at least partly account for Perroux’s reading of the General Theory as a “special case” and a less heretical work than Keynes claims it to be, as well as for Robinson’s stress on features, such as uncertainty and a historical approach to dynamics, to which Keynes’s more conservative readers paid short shrift at the time. The second section shows that, in spite of those diverging research programmes and appreciations of Keynes, both essays also have in common a number of thematic and analytical traits arising from a shared intent to adapt Keynes’s insights to postwar conditions: relating patterns of accumulation to social structures, questioning the validity of the concept of full employment, and enriching the theory of investment by taking into account institutions, technology and inter-sectoral linkages.

Area: Eshet Conference

Keywords: Robinson, Perroux, Keynes, General Theory, Keynesian economics,

Please Login in order to download this file