Should Economy teach us economics?

“At Economy, we want our content to encourage people to think through all the nuances and implications of their opinions and decisions, in the hope that it helps them develop a deeper interest and connection to their world, their political systems, and their economies.”

Economics is a complex discipline. The international economy has a massive impact on the way we live. And it is sensible for citizens to take an interest in the subject. The emergence of protectionism in the UK has cast a long shadow over our society, while the development of counterproductive economic policy under President Trump has shown just how important it is to take the long view.

Clearly, economics is inherently political. It determines who is rich and who is poor. It causes a great deal of damage to the planet. One cannot look at economics from a neutral position. A feminist approach to the subject will differ from a neo-liberal take. What one sees is dependent on where one stands. J.K. Gibson-Graham demonstrated the value of looking at capitalism in an imaginative way. The pair of academics were creative in their postmodern appreciation of the world. No non-political British charity would promote their distinctive and illuminating vision.

Charities tend to be regulated by the Charity Commission for England and Wales. This board may take a dim view of political campaigning. Educating people in economics is a political activity. Shaping the minds of citizens is normally the responsibility of the media and the educational system. The idea of Economy is that economics should be simplified to aid understanding. But simplification always comes at a cost. This charity could be fooling people into thinking that they are informed.

Heterodox understandings of the economy allow people to make up their own minds. Marxist and Keynesian approaches to macroeconomics are valuable. A charity could focus its attention on less controversial ways of thinking. However, a smattering of behavioural economics does not make someone cognisant of the radical changes that are reshaping the way people work and consume. If a charity narrows the curriculum it is engaging in a politics that serves the elite.

Bite sized chunks of economics are highly misleading in as much as they do not enable the reader to gather detailed knowledge. Perusal of long texts is required if one wants to have a decent grasp of macroeconomics. Economy produces content that is glib and colourful. It delivers a disservice to what the writer Thomas Carlyle apparently termed “the dismal science.” The truth is that all economics is political economy. Neutral objectivity is not possible in a world which is conflict-ridden and polarised.

Simply put, learning economics from Economy is not learning economics. It was founded after an opinion poll by YouGov highlighted apparent ignorance. The problems with opinion polling are widely appreciated. And it is better to be completely ignorant than someone who is the plaything of inexpert experts.

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Interesting times?

Under international capitalism, a state has several functions. Firstly, it must secure law and order. Secondly, it has to facilitate the accumulation of capital. Thirdly, it needs to appear legitimate in the eyes of the public. During crises of the capitalist state, one or more of these functions becomes quite difficult to sustain.

It is no coincidence that the adjacent capitalist states of France and the UK are going through crises. Since the Great Recession, elites have chosen to largely ignore the economic discontent of the people. Within the UK, there has been a concerted effort to deflect blame from the financial sector to vulnerable groups. Immigrants did not crash the economy, but Brexit is an exercise in the reassignment of culpability. However, bumbling Prime Minister Theresa May has alienated most thinking people in her complex efforts to push a deal through. Last week, her government held the legislature in contempt: this week, her government refused to face the music of voting. In France, the President thought he could impose neo-liberalism on the poor without serious repercussions. While competing groups seek to take control of an emergent social movement, the legitimacy of the French state has been challenged. This has had an adverse economic impact and there has been a loss of control; it remains to be seen whether or not the arrogant elite can continue to divide and rule.

There is something about Brexit which is undemocratic. The point is that it is impossible to hide behind the will of the people permanently. It is not easy to maintain that Brexit must be achieved at all costs because of demographic and ideological changes. The intransigence of the European Union is not the issue. Brexit dealt the British elite a bad hand. And the mistakes of May have compounded the difficulties. Her habit of procrastinating is irritating, while she is not communicating properly. And whenever she performs a volte-face it reminds one that she is not committed to the national interest. Her political gymnastics are about self-preservation; there is nothing dutiful about her dancing.

Nonetheless, May is not disposed of for a reason. The British ruling class is undecided. The paralysis is making its salespeople hesitant. There is a concern that the wrong move might deepen the crisis of British capitalism. It is not clear how the country can adapt to climate change, regardless of the British relationship with the institutions of the European Union. Inequality and crime are also problematic. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the state is being tested by resurgent Scottish nationalism.

Capitalism is always prone to crisis. But in Britain and France the extent of the contemporary crisis is becoming sharper. In France, we have seen how an out-of-touch elite can mismanage the response to climate change. Macron might not be in as much trouble as May, but he lacks experience and ideological coherence. He came to power as the result of the flawed candidacy of someone else. Nor is the French turmoil simply homegrown, the rise of Trump and the onset of trade wars have exacerbated political volatility. Macron is likely to hang on, but he does seem to be a damaged figure with little room for manoeuvre.

The regulation theory of Robert Boyer suggested that capitalism fared well when there is a match between the political and the economic spheres. Thinkers like Bob Jessop have paid tribute to the stability of National Keynesian Welfare States during the era of Fordism. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed less organised capitalism. But this period seems the least stable one for decades. Monetary policy has not revived national economies in a sustainable way. The onset of the next recession could be catastrophic.

Notwithstanding the lessons of regulation theory, one must remain focused on the core functions of the state. It seems that the constitutional crisis in the UK is partly a matter of the superstructure. The economic base is not as unstable as the poorly codified British constitution. Hence, it is climate change that is the primary threat to the reproduction of British capitalism. Brexit could unseat May, but the long-term challenge would remain.

The situation in France seems less risky for Macron but riskier for the future of the French economy. There is no Brexit-shaped excuse for the loss of direction. Reform was never meant to lead into a quagmire. And the environment would be under pressure even if Macron got his tax changes through.

During the 1970s, European capitalism was facing genuine dilemmas. Stagflation upset the Keynesian apple cart. Painful adjustments were made in the subsequent decades. Europeanisation helped the elites escape from the mire. This time around, ‘more Europe’ does not seem to be on the cards. These are interesting times for progressive individuals in a fluid period of political history.

The Super-Rich Shall Inherit the Earth by Stephen Armstrong

This text shows that oligarchs are not confined to certain states. While the archetypal oligarch may have made their fortune in the privatisations that followed the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, oligarchs have proliferated around the globe. For journalist Stephen Armstrong, the oligarch category includes Lord Sugar as well as Roman Abramovich. It is important to note that an oligarch is not simply an affluent person- he or she typically has political connections with which to advance and protect their power.

Some may suggest that this book fails to illuminate the contemporary world in two ways. Firstly, a critic could assert that the narrative is out-of-date. Secondly, a critic might claim that there is too little theory to give significance to the work. While the stories detailed by the author were assembled a few years ago, the subsequent development of the international economy has not reduced the influence of oligarchs. Furthermore, the gossipy style does not mean that the reader is necessarily distracted.

A major strength of this effort is that it does not engage in conspiratorial thinking. It does pinpoint networks and it does talk things up, but it is straightforward in its dismissal of the paranoid mindset. Persuasive and percipient, Armstrong wrote:

“It would be beyond idiotic to imagine a secret cabal of international bankers- really alien lizards in disguise- who are plotting to take over the world and condemn us to salt mines for eternity. The fact that oligarchs and ministers know each other is not the symptom of some vast plot…If you were to own a multinational company, you would be a fool not to cultivate the regulators and the law-makers who decide your corporate future.”

Perhaps this argument should not need to be made. However, conspiracy theories are more popular than they were since the Great Recession upended the neo-liberal consensus. Labour’s Momentum has been educating people so that they do not subscribe to such erroneous beliefs. The problem is that sinister individuals like David Icke are still spreading their nonsense. It has even been argued that the content of his current speaking tour might be anti-Semitic.

It is worth remembering that some of capitalism’s harshest critics have been of Jewish descent. Both Marx and Trotsky had Jewish parents. While the parents of Marx apparently converted, the parents of Trotsky spoke Yiddish. It is hard to imagine postmodern socialism without a Jewish influence, so critics of neoliberalism should recall the rich tradition of Jewish socialism. Although socialism is often an atheistic ideology, it would be extremely absurd for somebody opposed to the status quo to lapse into anti-Semitic thoughts.

Obviously, oligarchs come from many different nations and do not share one religion. However, these cosmopolitan individuals are part of a wider system. The current era of postmodern disruption is dangerous for everyone, but it can even be risky for oligarchs. In many countries, an oligarch can be arrested or worse. Since Thomas Piketty published Capital in the Twenty-First Century five years ago, the problems caused by the super-rich have become more evident. It would appear that the best response is an international crackdown on tax evasion and tax avoidance. In the UK, the advent of a Labour government would be a start.

The liberation of political science

Unpredictability is at the heart of politics. No expert can discern precisely what will happen next. However, this does not mean that expertise is devalued. On the contrary, we need to pay attention to the cognoscenti more than ever. This does not imply that we can give up on our critical thinking. Bias detection remains essential. But it does suggest that creative intervention is only possible when one combines abstract and concrete knowledge.

The open future should not alarm us. While climate change is a genuine danger, the fact that we do not know what will happen politically is empowering. Who predicted the emergence of the gilet jaunes? President Emmanuel Macron was correct to be concerned about the impact of pollution, but he never took adequate account of what might happen if he neglected the living standards of ordinary citizens.

In the past, orthodox Marxism was haunted by the notion of scientific prediction. Theoreticians without the subtlety of Karl Marx believed that knowledge of the class struggle was a map to the future. Marx admitted that there was no “royal road” to science, and learned to be cautious from the political ups and downs of the 1850s. His language might have been replete with the discourse of science, but close reading of his philosophy means that one can appreciate his nuanced political opinions.

It is clear that Marx was sophisticated in his thinking about the state. While his critics complain about a lack of specificity, his work shows that he was aware of how states could be altered by democratic and revolutionary methods. This showed that he was aware of the importance of disparate political cultures.

Academic critical realists may only be influenced a little bit by Marx. But there is also an understanding among them that the future is highly uncertain. This is positive because it facilitates political activity. If we could tell what was around the corner, we might not try to have an impact. Collective action works because of this radical uncertainty.

Radical philosophers like Alain Badiou share this scepticism about political fortune-telling. Badiou has taught his students to be wary of opinion polls. The truth is that polling tries to shape the opinion of the public. The individual who sets the questions can help to form the agenda.

Thinking outside the academy is also really important. We need to know that people are liberated when they see through the fictions that govern their lives. Expertise can assist us to understand our past. And it can give us insight into what we want to do in the future. But ultimately Professor Colin Hay was right. The study of politics is not a scientific activity. And no amount of psephology should persuade people otherwise.

International Volunteer Day

It was a wet night. It is a sombre morning in December. And it is still raining heavily. But in the afternoon, I will be volunteering again. My motivation is simple. I want to do something each week which is outside the compulsory realm of making money. Exercising outdoors is a bonus. As an underemployed individual, I would also like to upgrade or maintain my skills.

Around the world, millions of people work for free. Some of them are retired; many others are not. In 2015, a report for the United Nations Volunteers stated:

“Volunteers are of course a highly diverse group across location, the structures of volunteering, age, education, sex and abilities.”

Young volunteers might want to polish their CVs. However, we should not underestimate the idealism of volunteers. Many people care a great deal about the natural environment. And lots of us have strong feelings about our communities.

Nobody would pretend that everything in the British voluntary sector is rosy. Some critics highlight issues about austerity, while others pinpoint excessive competition for scarce resources. And whistle blowers might contend there is state complicity in the sector. Nevertheless, volunteers do their best in difficult circumstances.

Without the UK voluntary sector, there would be less social cohesion. Alienation and poor health could be much higher. Volunteering is a public good, and it is also good for volunteers. The discourse of win-win solutions might be discredited, but there are mutual advantages to be had.

Investment is urgently required to bolster the British public sector. But this should not be viewed as crowding out the third sector. There is always more to do because even a strong state cannot deliver everything we need.

How hard is it to change somebody’s mind?

If the Labour Party cooperates with other parties to push a so-called People’s Vote, it will be taking a big gamble. Liberal ideology often assumes individuals are rational actors. The upshot of this is that a voter is perceived as having the desire to base their choice on evidence. However, factors like identity and partisanship have a big influence on the way citizens vote in the real world. Economists like Keynes may have changed their minds when the facts altered, but people without such expertise can be more obstinate than flexible thinkers.

Austerity has caused a disconnect between ordinary people and the political class. If the Labour Party abandons its Leave voters completely then this gap will grow. Individuals who have been left behind by neoliberal globalisation may resent being asked their opinion again. There is the issue of democratic fatigue. Furthermore, dislike of immigration is not based on the empirical impact of the movement of people on wages.

Nevertheless, fractions of capital are desperate to prevent Brexit. Moreover, the political drift towards a second referendum seems clear. Civil society has not been won over by the deal which has been agreed by Theresa May and the political disarray is such that another referendum might happen. While most Labour members would vote Remain, many people will do so without enthusiasm. The European project is flagging in France and Germany, and a second referendum could presage a third one. Although Brexit may be inflationary and risky, it would allow for the construction of an up-to-date industrial strategy.

If the British people trusted the political elite and the mass media it might be easier to engineer a positive outcome. Unfortunately, there is a high degree of scepticism about. This means that a further referendum would not be a clean fight. Those in favour of Brexit would articulate a discourse of betrayal. It is hard to be sanguine about what that would do to a fractured society.

One hope is that demographic change would help to deliver a positive result. Campaigners could also learn from the problems associated with the effort to Remain. Complacency would not be problematic if a second referendum was called. The trouble is that the electorate is in a febrile mood, liable to be swayed by unreasonable dreams and morbid anxieties. In such a crisis, opinion changing is not likely to be simple.

It does seem that left populism has a potential appeal which transcends traditional liberal ideology. Professor Chantal Mouffe is brilliant at making the case for a postmodern socialism that is unafraid of the nation state. She is clear that agonism is a political constant. And she recognises that democracy is always a work in progress. A left that seals itself off from the powerful thinking of Mouffe will lose momentum. Populist movements caused the Pink Tide in South America- there is nothing necessarily right-wing about populism. In the current era, it seems that voters are being won by irrational appeals. The SPD has paid a heavy price in Germany for backing the elite. If the Labour Party ditches its constructive ambiguity over the European question it may forfeit some of its support forever.

Hence, British social democracy stands at an authentic crossroads. It can try to represent working people as they are. Or it might effectively accuse elements of the working class of false consciousness. It does seem that the Labour Party has a heavy responsibility. It would be better for living standards if the UK remained in the European Union. But pushing for a general election seems much more attractive than collapsing into a so-called People’s Vote. Nobody should forget that many aspects of the European Union are undemocratic. And nobody should forget the political lessons of Greece and the Mediterranean. Only by being honest about the dark side of the European Union can people be persuaded that their original vote was not wrong nor stupid. Listening is critical to mind changing.

Scapegoat by Katharine Quarmby

This illuminating text looks at the way disabled people have been failed in the UK. It may be several years out-of-date, but it highlights the cruelty of mainstream society effectively. The main focus of the perceptive author is on hate crime, but the impact of austerity does receive some comment. Clearly, the maltreatment of individuals with disabilities is an important social problem seven years after the work was published.

We should be shocked by the lived experiences of people with disabilities in Britain. The discourse of social inclusion should fool nobody. Katharine Quarmby did everyone a favour by examining the data about the segregated lives of people with learning difficulties, the mentally ill and the physically impaired. She was brave enough to investigate the gruesome murders of disabled people.

What shines through the narrative is the normality of disabled people. They can be tricked like anybody else. It is often their desire for friendship that gets them into a great deal of trouble. Less than scrupulous individuals can exploit them for money or sex. Extremely unfortunate victims can be assaulted or killed because they are different. The authorities can lack the intelligence and the resources to protect the vulnerable from harm. A lack of cooperation between diverse institutions and agencies can have highly negative consequences.

Quarmby did something really special because she took a historical approach to the issue. This means that the reader does not fall into the trap of thinking that disabled people are targeted for no reason. A glance back at Greece, Rome and the Third Reich shows that individuals can be victimised in different empires. Persecution can come in various forms. It may be justified by tradition or by pseudoscience. A disabled person might be featured in a freak show, killed or institutionalised. The reaction of society to ‘the other’ could be triggered by fear or contempt. Economic downturns are especially dangerous for people who do not blend into the crowd.

The truth is that postmodern society is obsessed with image. Reality television and social media have disturbed people in profound ways. It is hard to live when one is under surveillance. These problems are experienced intensely by many people who are classed as ordinary. Lots of individuals with disabilities are unable to begin to compete in this make-believe world. Keeping up appearances is a joke on those without an appearance that sells.

In these circumstances, there is no panacea. But honest communication can help. This can only take place under the auspices of a government that aims to represent the whole of the UK. Such a government could accede to power sooner than we think. If the status quo is preserved, disabled individuals and their families will have to be careful out there. Brave New World was intended to be fictional.