Contribution of E. L. Wheelwright to Political Economy: Public Scholar, Economic Power and Global Capitalism

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Abstract: (1) In this paper I examine the contribution of Edward Lawrence Wheelwright (1921-2007) to political economy and start by highlighting the important role that Wheelwright played as a Public Scholar and contributor to the building of institutions. This is followed by an overview of his analysis of the major contradictions of capitalism. Consideration is then given to his work on the concentration of economic power and transnational capitalism. In the last major section I scrutinise his history of capitalism in Australia, which is set within a political economy framework and its global and regional contexts. In the conclusion an assessment is made of his contribution to political economy, with suggested areas of further inquiry also identified.

1 Public Scholar and Building Institutions

Ted Wheelwright was born on 19 August 1921 into a working class family in the 'old' Ecclesall Bierlow Ward, Sheffield. (2) He had two sisters, one older and one younger than him. His father was a 'working class Tory'; while his mother, Gladys (nee Kirk), was a dedicated homemaker who worked for a time as a shop assistant, being more sympathetic to the plight of the working class than his father. Neither of his parents was educated, either formally or informally, and his father 'got very upset' when he brought left-wing ideas and people into the household during his teenage years. (3)

This was a very poor family, and his father was unemployed 'the whole time he was in high school' (Wheelwright 2000, p. 714). His father's civilian employment was interrupted, first by active service in the First World War, and again due to many years of unemployment during the Great Depression. The young Ted Wheelwright gained a scholarship to attend high school, and, due to family poverty, his parents had an argument about whether he could go to high school: his mother won the argument, 'otherwise I wouldn't be here' (Wheelwright & Kuhn 1990, p. 3). Out of necessity, therefore, he left school in 1937, at the age of 16, and became a bank clerk to supplement his family's paltry unemployment relief. He gained a Certificate of Commerce as part of a correspondence course to advance his promotional and employment prospects.

He left the banking industry in 1941 to undertake active service in the Royal Air Force (1941-46), rising to the rank of Squadron Leader. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in 1943 for his 'acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy' (Yahoo 2009). During the war he also specialised in providing instruction to his fellow nightraiders 'in the arcane skills of navigating night bombers over Europe', which, he said, was extremely helpful in teaching him the importance of lucidity and specificity in teaching (Wheelwright 2000, p. 716). He became radicalised by his war service, especially due to the active class structure among servicemen, including the officers' privileges while the 'rank-and-file' suffered, which 'was enough to turn anybody into a bolshie' (Wheelwright & Kuhn 1990, p. 5).

After the war, Wheelwright used his war service scholarship to attend university. In the choice of university he saw, again, the operation of class privilege and prestige. He first applied to Cambridge University, but the colleges there placed a lot of emphasis on 'old school tie' connections: one college was willing to put him up if he practised the Anglican religion, but he refused to do so. He finally chose the University of St Andrews in Scotland, which was very helpful to returned servicemen, graduating with first class honours in the Masters of Arts of economics and politics (1949). His motivation for studying economics and politics was to understand the factors behind unemployment, war and social cleavage. Specifically, why was it that so many workers, including his father, were unemployed for so long? Why is war service so well remunerated relative to normal working class civilian remuneration? …