What does the economy look like, Part Two: Developing the view from below

A brief summary of Part One of this post

In an earlier blogpost entitled ‘What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?’, I critiqued mainstream graphic representations of the economy, giving the examples of the commonly spotted GDP chart and supply-demand curve.

GDP ONS

demandsupplycurve

Without dismissing the usefulness of graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors, I argued that ‘when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent’. In short, economics depoliticises by hiding the deeper reality which is that the economy is ultimately made up of social and natural relations, that is relations between ourselves and nature. I gave the example of something as everyday and essential as a plate of food and asked readers to think about all the human and non-human life that contributed to producing and delivering this food. It is almost impossible to account for all contributing lives here. Yet, they are real and we are bound with them in global systems of relations of production, exchange, and consumption. There can be no more materially real relations to us than the ones between the lives that make our life possible and yet these people, these natural elements are invisible to us. If we wish to change our economy, we need to somehow see our economy, and this means making the invisible somehow visible. We need to see, to some degree at least, the social systems structuring our economy.

I then introduced a recent book by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel called Cartographies of the Absolute. Don’t let the title frighten you! It’s a good one actually because it refers succinctly and directly to the central issue. How can we make visible something that is both at the same time everywhere and seemingly nowhere? How can we render static that which is constantly moving and changing? Toscano and Kinkel are interested here in the absolute that is capital, that ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed.

1439234375_Cartographies

Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’. But, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, this mustn’t paralyse us. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. If, as Frederic Jameson contends, ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’, why not start from the bottom instead?

In the final section of Part One, I proposed that if the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see. I then introduced what I call the ‘Flo Chart’, a pictorial representation of the economy produced by a wonderful woman called Flo who participated in a learning group I ran in Hodge Hill, Birmingham. Here’s the picture of the Flo Chart.

The Flo Chart

You can read Part One to see what I wrote about it in detail. Suffice to say here that the Flo Chart shows us that, even without the technical language, people can demonstrate remarkable insight and have much to teach others about our world. In this case, what Flo captures, beyond the charts and graphs, are the social relations of the economy, the exploitative nature of those relations, and our ultimate interdependence.

Finally, in Part One, I argued that, beyond merely recognising and including the knowledge and insight generated by people at the bottom of our society, the view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central and vital to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

Seeing the Economy, Part Two: Learning inspired

In Part Two of this blogpost here, I offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society. I focus on role-playing exercises that I have conducted with two groups of people in recent months.

The role play

Ken Loach is a now legendary film director who has spent six decades making beautiful and brave social realist films. He has allowed us to see them all here. His films have directly influenced society and politics in this country and beyond. I haven’t seen Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake yet. The film recently won the ‘Palme d’Or’ award for the best film at the Cannes Film Festival. What I have seen, however, is a two-minute clip from the film which you can see here.

When I saw this clip I was immediately struck by how similar it was to the role play scenarios devised and performed by the participants in the learning groups I facilitate. In two separate learning groups, I have worked with participants to devise role plays set in benefits offices/job centres like this one. Our sessions go from sharing our stories, performing a role play, discussing the experience of the role play, and then, finally, analysing the role play politically.

Sharing our stories and performing the role play

The sessions begin with each other sharing their stories. I then invite participants to use their own experiences and stories to imagine the setting of the benefits office or job centre, to take roles within the office, and to perform these roles. I then allow the participants themselves to develop the scenario. My job is only to ask them occasionally if they think that what they are performing feels realistic, authentic to them. I loosely use the techniques of ‘Forum Theatre‘ developed by Brazilian dramatist and educator Augusto Boal. Hence, I invite other participants watching to take the place of the current actors in order to try to develop, or ideally resolve, the situation.

In one group, a young father whose benefits have been frozen for missing an appointment tells a benefits officer that the reason he missed his appointment was because his son had broken his arm and he had to take him to the hospital. The benefits officer, in a similarly officious and detached manner to that displayed in the film clip, informs the young man that he should have written a letter to that effect and will now have to reapply. The young man protests, saying that he is here in person now, that he has no money at all and two hungry kids at home. He appeals for understanding, for empathy, and for support. He is told that he can apply for a hardship fund, but that this application would still take two weeks.

In another group, the scenario is of a young man with learning disabilities who needs to be accepted for a particular disability benefit in order to qualify for assisted housing. When his case is rejected, he meets a similar bureaucratic wall. In this group’s case, it ended up with an emotional and irate applicant being physically removed from the building by the security guard just like the scenario in I, Daniel Blake!

The final step in our process was to ask participants, still in their roles, about their lives and their position in the scenario. We then ended our role plays and discussed what had happened in them.

The discussion

We focus very much on feelings in our discussions. There are feelings of fear, anger, frustration, and powerlessness, of course, on the part of those playing the roles of the applicants. I recall people saying how they just wanted to be understood, to be recognised, to be treated as a human being. For the applicants it is a very dehumanising experience. But, what of the benefits office staff? When I ask the people who played those roles, I get similar responses too. They speak of the stress, the pressure of their jobs; the long hours and low pay and the constant line of ‘clients’; and how they feel they have to disconnect from the people they serve in order to protect their own sanity. This is a fascinating and important insight. It’s easy enough to watch the film clip above all come away thinking that the benefits office staff are the bad guys, but are they? They too are suffering, they too are dehumanised. In a recent meeting with my friends at My Life My Choice where we watched and discussed this film clip, one participant did a quick internet search to find out what a security guard in the North East of England might earn. She found an advert for a security guard in Middlesborough with G4S offering £7.50 per hour! So, if not one of the people present in that situation is benefiting, who is? What is going on?

The analysis

From our discussion we then moved to analysis. We focused our analyses on the issue of power. Who has the least, who has the most power here? In our MLMC meeting, we agreed that those with the least power – those most silenced, unable to speak and act, and most threatened by the material consequences of the situation – were the young woman’s children. Then came the young woman herself, then the security guard, the benefits officer, and finally the manager. Yet, we also agreed that the manager himself had very little actual power and was just implementing rules and laws set from elsewhere. You can read a summary of this session here on the MLMC website.

So, in all these sessions, we start following the power and that leads us upwards – to regional managers, yes, but then to the Department of Work and Pensions, the Minister in charge of the DWP, the government, the Prime Minister, the political parties, the Houses of Commons and Lords that make the laws and decide the budgets. But, then who are the people in these institutions? What backgrounds are they from? Are they rich or are they poor? Are they black, brown, or white? Are they male or female? Able-bodied or disabled? Do they know what life is like on the bottom or not? From where do they and their parties get their financial support? From the people or from the large corporations and banks? What about the media that is so important a political and cultural force? Who owns and populates the highest ranks of the media?

Asking such questions leads us to draw ‘maps’ of power like this one from our recent MLMC session. Sorry this one’s not a great example – it was hastily drawn and is incomplete, but it gives you enough to see where it can and does go.

Power-and-job-centre-diagram

We begin to draw a map of one small area of the capitalist system and we begin to see how it is linked to political power. But, we could go further and we must. We must also ask why. Why does this woman have to claim benefits? Why do we have a benefits system? Why are benefits being cut so savagely? This brings in economic power – austerity and its roots in the global financial crisis. We could go further and further, wider and wider, geographically, historically, socially. There is a limit and we cannot, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly say, actually map the absolute. But, just to make a start here is crucial. We can actually see how relations of power, very real and violent ones, are not always, indeed are rarely, between people in the same place at the same time. Power flows through us in systems of relations that connect billions of human beings over huge distances, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

One final thing of the utmost importance to point out is the function of the security guard. The security guard’s presence shows us that this is a system that is always ultimately underpinned and secured by physical violence. The security guard represents violence and the violence is that of the nation-state. In turn, the nation-state is the embodiment of all social relations of domination that we experience. The person selling their labour-power as the security guard may have little power in their own lives, but as a security guard s/he embodies the violent power of the state. This is a painful schizophrenic life to lead for anyone.

The power of role play-led analysis

I find role plays really powerful, potentially transformative, exercises for several reasons. First, as I say, it helps us to see invisible but very real systems of relations of power and violence. Second, by using our bodies as well as our minds, we come to embody this new understanding in deeper, more sustainable ways. Third, and related, we learn with an energy and we work to produce our own knowledge based on our own experiences and insights. Fourth, by inhabiting the lives and roles of other people, even supposed enemies, we can develop our understanding, our empathy, our humanity. This is what makes such exercises and analyses potentially transformative.

The big challenge, however, is the next step. Seeing the vastest of the system can be helpful and is necessary, but it can feel disempowering, of course, and we need to all feel empowered so that we can change things. I will write more about this in future blogs, but, for me, the general approach is three-fold: First, we can take things back to the level of our own lives, to our own local communities and ask ourselves what we can do for ourselves and each other right now; Second, we can explore the system more, see the contradictions within it that lead to crisis, see how historically contingent it is and that there was a world before it and will be a world after it; Third, this leads us to think in more utopian ways about the world we actually want. We have to develop a shared sense of what we want, both in the short-term and in the long-term. This is the work we all need to do.

Conclusion

In Part One of this blogpost, I emphasised the importance of social theory – that even without knowledge of social theory, people’s intelligence, insights, and creativity shine through, but that social theory can give us all a richer language to cultivate our own intelligence and understanding. It’s the combination of experiential knowledge (that we all have) and scientific knowledge (that social theory can give us) that can produce transformational knowledge.

A central focus of developing this transformational knowledge that we need for our new lives and society must be on our economy. Here, the question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Only from this foundation can we start to reimagine and recreate an economy within our society in a truly democratic fashion. Democratic work always starts from the bottom-up. It is challenging, but truly rewarding and socially necessary work and it brings me into wonderful relationships with amazing, intelligent, and creative people. I am very fortunate to be blessed in this way.

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