Recently I created a mailing list called the Progressive Economist Network (PEN-L) in order to bring together academics and non-academics to exchange ideas from a left perspective. It honors the memory of Michael Perelman who created the original PEN-L in the early days of the Internet. Dying unexpectedly at the age of 81 in September 2020 before turning over moderation duties, his absence as moderator made it impossible to subscribe to the old PEN-L. It also left the list in limbo since Michael was no longer the helmsman.
When a former PEN-L subscriber asked for my help in getting resubbed, something beyond anybody’s capability, I decided to create a new list that can function as a forum for exchanges on the pressing issues of the day, such as the economic impact of the pandemic, the growing tensions between the USA and China, and prospects for Biden’s ambitious economic program. If the only result of this initiative is to make possible the kind of vigorous and productive discussions that distinguished the original PEN-L, it will have been more than worth it.
Not long after going to work at Columbia University in 1990, I noticed a daily email coming from the library (I believe) that listed dozens of mailing lists. At the time, I had no idea what a mailing list was. I strolled into the next cubicle and asked someone working in Academic Information Services what they were. He smiled at me and said, “Welcome to the Internet”. This was not only long before Facebook but long before AOL. At the time, you generally could not get on the Net unless you had a government or academic job.
As for the mailing lists, most of them were of little interest to me. Typically, they would be within the narrow confines of some academic discipline, such as clinical psychology or Jane Austen studies. Each day I scoured the lists to see if there might be something relevant to my own interests and was happy to spot PEN-L one morning. That was my introduction to the Internet and to Michael Perelman, who I considered a great friend even when I was wreaking havoc on PEN-L’s neo-Keynesians.
Michael was among the academics who helped create a culture of critical Marxist studies in the sixties. He understood that PEN-L could be part of the radical challenge to economics departments in the USA that were peddling liberal nostrums at odds with the reality of racism and imperialism. PEN-L stood arm and arm with the Union for Radical Political Economics, a group that continues to this day and that was an initial sponsor of the magazine Dollars and Sense. Other academics also helped to challenge orthodoxy, most notably those who created Science for the People. Sensing the need for a revival in a time of growing anti-science humbuggery generated by Trump and other Republicans, it began escalating its presence in 2014.
To round out this bird’s eye view of radical academics from the 1960s and their institutions, Monthly Review should be part of the mix. While Marxism and radical economics in general became more and more ingrown as the 80s and 90s wore on, MR always had its eyes on the prize. The magazine and the publishing wing always had an orientation to the working class and the Third World and will remain so as long as people like John Bellamy Foster and Michael Yates are on the editorial board. In addition to writing 19 books, Michael had a prolific presence online both through his blog and articles for various left publications. Six of them are on the Monthly Review website and well worth reading. Although Michael did not have any kind of special ties to MR, I always saw him in the same way I saw Harry Magdoff, Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman. All such intellectuals understood exactly what Marx meant when he said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
As someone who created the Marxism mailing list (aka Marxmail) in 1998, I have given a lot of thought to the value of what some might consider antediluvian when compared to social media. While I am on Facebook and Twitter (barely so), I am still committed to the value of a mailing list. Let me explain why.
To start with, to have an intelligent discussion on Twitter is impossible since there is a 280 character limit. Furthermore, the ubiquitous use of fake names cheapens an exchange since you have no idea who you are really speaking to, a contrarian leftist or someone working in a Moscow basement. I generally use Twitter to circulate my blog posts and find few other uses for it. There are some exceptions to the sterility of Twitter that are worth mentioning. Adam Tooze always has something interesting to say and so do The Nation’s Jeet Heer and New Yorker magazine film critic David Brody. But of what possible value can there be the Tweets of someone identified as “DJ Quik is a goat in human’s clothing” (an Aaron Maté follower)?
With all the knocks against Facebook, I almost feel it is overkill to offer my own thoughts on its uselessness for a serious discussion of serious ideas. But let me indulge in a bit of overkill, anyhow. To start off, it is very difficult to track down a thread that occurred even a couple of days earlier. FB does have a search capability but it is so unfocused that you end up wasting your time. Furthermore, since FB is based on the idea that we are all “friends”, you end up with people having little background in, for example, the early history of the USSR, hijacking the discussion with puerile salutes to Stalin or Trotsky. As is the case with Twitter, I use FB to provide links to my blog posts or articles in the left press, as well as to receive valuable posts from serious contributors who are the counterpart of Twitter’s Adam Tooze. For example, Jairus Banaji’s are priceless. My recommendation is to see for yourself. I am not sure if only his friends can read them but I’d give it a try nevertheless at: https://www.facebook.com/jairus.banaji
Finally, on the benefits of the old-fashion mailing list. To start with, it is much easier to deal with trolls since a moderator controls who is a subscriber or not. While undoubtedly the new PEN-L would attract libertarians just as it did in its predecessor, it would be easy to keep them on a short leash. You also get searchable archives that always make it easy to look up a discussion that took place either yesterday or ten years ago. So, if you are interested in how the left regarded the Obama administration during his two terms in order to understand how his history is being repeated today, the archived messages can be highly revealing.
To subscribe to the new PEN-L, go to https://groups.google.com/g/pen-l/.
To subscribe to Marxmail, go to https://groups.io/g/marxmail