Is austerity ideological?

Hello!

I know this post isn’t immediately topical, particularly with the focus on the fallout from the ‘Panama Papers’. But, sadly, austerity remains topical after eight long years now and it’s a point I’ve wanted to make for a while, so here goes…

Is austerity ideological?

Very often we hear left-wing critics of this and many other governments’ programmes of austerity describe these policies as ‘ideological’. Indeed, here is the widely read blogger ‘Another Angry Voice’ calling it ‘ideological austerity’. Here’s another example on alternet. And here’s the opposite claim: Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, a crucial figure in the imposition of austerity, labelling critics as ideologues (the original source of Tusk’s comments are behind a paywall on the FT’s site).

Ideological austerity

These accusations of ideology seem to come more from the social-democratic, reformist left-of-centre rather than the more radical and revolutionary left. This is not surprising because the claims betray a somewhat naive misunderstanding of the nature of both austerity and ideology that springs from an initial unquestioning acceptance of the permanence of the current political-economic order and a desire merely to ameliorate conditions within it. In stark contrast, a more radical position – one that literally gets to the ‘roots’ of issues – situates itself, as best as possible, outside of the system, seeing, in this case, capitalism’s historical contingency and ultimately terminal contradictions, and imagining and building alternative futures.

Permit me then, dear reader, to make the following two points:

First, since ideology is the name we give the intellectual apparatus that allows us to make sense of our world, everything is ideological. We could not imagine human life nor society without ideology. Consequently, austerity as economic strategy is obviously ideological; equally ideological are all alternative strategies.They are both the products of beliefs and assumptions about: the nature of the problems in the economy, their origins, and how to fix them; the nature of an economy itself; the ethics of economic production, labour, exchange, consumption, and distribution; the nature of an economy as a discrete social realm of action; the nature of human beings as economic agents; and far more besides.

Second, by labelling austerity as ‘ideological’, Keynesian reformists seek to assert that the strategy is irrational, i.e. that, since it should be patently clear to all that the policies of austerity are economically damaging and counter-productive, the only possible explanation for their continuance is a blind ideological devotion on the part of policymakers to a discredited neo-classical economics. However, from a different perspective – the perspective of capital itself – austerity is totally rational. Through the austerity strategy, capital can: put the cost of the crisis onto workers; accumulate further through the regressive policies of austerity and the state support for financialisation, asset inflation, and debt-based money creation; and, perhaps most crucially, depress workers’ wages to a point that profitability can be revived. This perspective is revealed by a Marxist critical political economy that recognises capital as wealth/social power in continuous need of expanding accumulation. The same perspective identifies the contradictions within capitalism that austerity exacerbates, particularly politically destabilising inequality and poverty and the impoverishment of the working people needed to keep buying commodities that exacerbates a debt crisis and depresses economic recovery, and, of course, first and foremost, the labour-capital contradiction that defines and cannot be reconciled within capitalism. Finally, it is also a perspective that recognises that the current crisis is not, as the Keynesians insist, a crisis of ‘effective demand’, but is, fundamentally, rather a crisis of profitability. However cheap central banks have made their money (and now we even have negative interest rate policies (NIRPs!) in countries like Sweden and Japan and even talk of the need for ‘helicopter money‘!), banks and ‘investors’ are taking it and sticking it in financial markets and property rather than investing it in productive economic sectors. This is resulting in dangerous asset market bubbles and is also turning many economies, the UK economy above all, into perfect structures for parasitism, sucking up the money of the poor (and middle class) through rent and debt. This will soon end in a new, more violent financial and subsequent economic crisis that will lead to far more serious political turbulence across the world that will, once more, lead us to fascism or democratic political revolution.

For far more details and for a Marxist political-economic perspective from a real economic expert, check out Michael Roberts’ outstanding blog, The Next Recession. I urge you to read it.

Thanks, as ever, for reading my blog. I’m off now to Aarhus, Denmark to go to this!

Best wishes,
Joel

Unconference for Transformational Learning and Culture (UTLC2016)

Dear readers,

Sorry for the prolonged silence. It’s been Easter holidays time for me and my family. I’m currently writing to you from the Canterbury YHA Youth Hostel where we’ve been based, touring around the Kent coast. It’s been breezy…but beautiful!

Anyway, I’m very excited because this weekend is the ‘Unconference for Transformational Learning and Culture‘ (UTLC 2016). I’ve set this up with support from Warwick University where I’m (for just one more week) a research fellow and the Independent Social Research Foundation who have funded my research over the past 12 months.

The UTLC brings together 25 wonderful people who are in their own ways reimagining and seeking to recreate this world. We have political economists, artists, foodies, permaculturalists, knitters, dramatists, life coaches, and many more.

I want to use the UTLC to properly launch the Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture (CTLC) (website to come soon) that I’ve been busy building the foundations of recently with five other friends.

The overarching goal of the CTLC is to create opportunities for people to come together to produce knowledge and culture together – knowledge and culture that helps us see ourselves and our world in a different light and empowers us to change our lives and our world too. This can be by creating projects or events, works of art or drama, or even websites that invite people in to the process of collective creation.

The short-term goal, as we see it so far, is to create a wide network of individuals and organisations interested and involved in producing transformational learning and culture. The medium-term goals are to create a website showcasing output from the projects of affiliated organisations as well as research, zines, blogs, podcasts, and films produced by CTLC members. The longer-term goal is to secure core funding to establish a physical centre for the CTLC – a space to teach/learn, create, grow, eat, and from which individuals and communities emerged ready to take power for themselves.

While the current institutions that produce knowledge and culture in our society – the media, the university, the art school, the think-tank, etc – do so in authoritarian, hierarchical ways that passify and deform us, the CTLC seeks to become and create institutions of democratic knowledge and culture co-production that active and empower us, helping us all to become active, understanding citizens and, indeed, agents of our personal and collective history so that we can transform ourselves and our world.

The creation of such centres, of such institutions, is an urgent historical necessity.

I’ll be back with a report from the UTLC2016 and with much more information about plans for the CTLC. I really hope you’ll consider joining us and being part of the CTLC.

In the meantime, you can follow events at the UTLC2016 on Twitter here.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Joel

Flipping the script: Example No.1 – from ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

Dear Reader,

Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’m sooo busy. It’s a bit of a crunch time for me. My research fellowship ends and with it any regular money. I’m not realistically gonna get any university jobs mainly because instead of focusing in and carving out a particular academic niche, I’ve done the opposite and tried to incorporate many more ‘ologies’ and perspectives. I’m keen to understand and respond to the fundamental challenges we all face and that means transcending the artificial disciplines that compartmentalise knowledge and research within the university. It also means doing more than research and actually acting in/on the world. It means also not acting upon others, but acting with others in democratic processes of knowledge co-production. And it also means working with other kinds of people, especially artists.

Therefore, I, along with some like-minded friends, have decided to establish the ‘Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture’ (CTLC). We’re working on a model and plan now, but we’ll fill you in very soon along with an invitation to join us and be a part of it.

Anyway, this brief post is about something different and related. It’s about language and how language is used by powerful elites to deform us and how language can be taken and used by us to transform ourselves. We need to flip the script wherever possible.

The war over ‘benefits’

Here in the UK, it’s all kicking off within the ruling Conservative Party and a civil war is breaking out on two main fronts: 1) Whether the UK should remain in the European Union and 2) The economic and political merits of further public spending cuts (austerity). I don’t have the will to bring myself to comment on the first issue – a choice between staying part of transnational undemocratic, corrupt institutions or leaving it to advance the self-interest of those committed to our own national undemocratic, corrupt institutions. I guess I slightly prefer the former option.

On the second front, after the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) declared cuts to disabled people’s so-called ‘benefits’ alongside tax cuts for the richest, the long-serving Minister for Welfare and Pensions, one Iain Duncan-Smith, decided that enough was enough and resigned. Suddenly, after six years and countless deaths later, he claimed to have reached his moral limit. Enough has been written speculating on this internal conflict. My proposal here is to suggest that we strike while the iron is hot and strike with language.

Iain-Duncan-Smith-001Iain Duncan-Smith

Flipping the script: From ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

The word ‘benefits’ is a classic example of how the ruling class constructs political reality. A benefit sounds like something good, something generous, something not earned, but received. The mass media, particularly the tabloid press, hammer this home each day with stories of the lavish lives of the feckless, lazy poor. Again, enough has been written debunking these ridiculous, toxic myths. We know, of course, that benefits are meagre and condemn their recipients to lives of poverty, even when they are working.

scroungers4

We should not accept this word. Rather than the ‘benefits system’, I propose that we start talking about the ‘compensation system’. ‘Compensation’ is much more accurate. This system offers paltry compensation for the dehumanising experience of having lost the right to a decent livelihood, access to education and training, and, increasingly, access to transport, health, and justice. In short, it offers shameful compensation for rendering people surplus to, and reconstructing them to meet, the capitalist system’s requirements.

Imagine the potential political impact if everyone who opposed austerity and recognised its barbarity swapped ‘benefits’ for ‘compensation’! It could be huge. So, why not join me. Any time you’re in a conversation or debate, especially if you’re on TV or radio, start calling it the ‘compensation system’.

If you have any other ideas for ‘flipping the script’, let me know.

Thanks

Joel

On value and values

Hi there,

I’ve decided to produce a Soundcloud podcast of each blog I write. If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to things as much as reading them. I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, so it’s a great way to learn new stuff while I do my housework. I’m hoping that the podcast will attract more people to engage with my blogposts.

Let me know what you think. Read/Listen on!

Thanks

Joel…

On Value and Values

I’ve recently revisited a wonderful group exercise called ‘Draw a Fire’ that invites people to explore the values they hold most dear. I ran it with all three of the community learning groups I currently help to run: Oxford Democracy-Builders, My Life My Choice, and Hodge Hill. All three groups are very different and, indeed, each group itself is made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, what this exercise shows very clearly is that the values cherished by everyone in each group are really very similar.

The exercise is taken from a practical community education book called Partners Companion to Training for Transformation (p.118). Here’s what you do…

“Everyone in the group is asked to take paper and pencils and to draw a fire with the help of the following guideline questions.

1. By what was my fire shaped and formed?

2. What is it that motivates me or gives me energy?

3. What is at the heart of it all?

4. What has kept me going/nourished me?

5. What kindles me, what causes me to blaze, smoulder, quench, rage, warm, destroy, bake, spark, etc?”

Participants work alone, drawing their fire. Then, depending on the size of the group, people can come into small groups or can reform as a whole group to share their fires and stories.

I will share three photos of the key words and phrases I took by listening to each participant in my groups when they shared their fires. 

Fire of vision and values

MLMC fire

 

Bromford fire

What do you notice about these three collections of words and phrases? What values do you see? What visions for the good life and society do you see coming through?

What I see coming through so clearly are a set of values that I believe to be almost universal among us common folk, a central emphasis not on ‘money and things’, but on ‘relationships and experiences’, as one participant put it. The values that everyone throughout these three groups here cherishes are friendship, freedom, community, love for others and for our natural world. Money, riches, possession sare all conspicuous by their absence. This is certainly not because all the group participants have enough money and enough things. Numerous people in these groups very often have not had and/or do not have enough money for some of the most basic things in their lives. So, what is going on? In our Oxford Democracy-Builders group, some questioned whether these values were indeed widespread, suggesting that they might just reflect the values of an already self-selecting group of people passionate about social justice and change. Let’s explore this question…

 

The universal human value system: extrinsic and intrinsic values

For decades, psychologists have been conducting studies with thousands of people throughout the world in an attempt to understand what humans value. Reviewing this research, one psychologist, Prof Tim Kasser, points to clear evidence for a universal human value system:

“…the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having fun, understanding one’s place in the universe, being healthy, and having close relationships. People in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, although of course to varying extents.”

So, we share a universal value system, but, says Prof Kasser, this system can be divided quite clearly between what he calls ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ values. Extrinsic values give primacy to ‘financial success, image, and popularity, each of which involves a strong focus on rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic values emphasise ‘self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, which tend to be more focused on helping to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs’.

 

universal human values

 


According to Kasser, these psychological studies have shown that extrinsic values are linked with unhappiness and poorer health and that intrinsic values are associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. They also show how people’s values are linked to their social behaviour and how these values ‘bleed over’, so, if someone has intrinsic values in one area of their life, this is much more likely to ‘lead them to express stronger desires to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations’.

So, maybe my friends in the Oxford Democracy-Builders group are right. Maybe the complete and consensual emphasis on intrinsic human values we expressed just reflects the values of a small minority, while most others out there actually emphasise those antithetical extrinsic values. Or maybe not…

 

The intrinsic majority and the perception gap

A recent report by the UK-based Common Cause Foundation presents evidence from its UK Values Survey to show that actually almost three-quarters of all UK citizens ‘attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values’. And, guess what, just as some of my group-mates thought that our intrinsic values might not be shared by most of the rest of our compatriots, the Perceptions Matter report shows that a huge 77% of respondents also believed that their intrinsic values weren’t shared by their fellow citizens. The Common Cause Foundation’s research reveals a large gap between the intrinsic empathetic values that most of us espouse and the extrinsic self-interested values we think others hold. And the Foundation finds that the larger the gap between the two within a given individual, the less likely it is that they will vote in elections or generally be politically engaged.

 

values perception gap

 

To recap, here’s the story so far. Three separate and diverse groups perform a group exercise that reveals a universal emphasis on those intrinsic human values of friendships, nature, community, love. The extrinsic values of wealth, possessions, image are entirely absent. But, are we just atypically nice people? There is evidence to suggest that we aren’t; that, in fact, the values we stress are the same values that 3 in every 4 people share.

Two questions come to mind now: (1) If we’re primarily all about cultivating intrinsic values, how comes our whole media and culture is totally dominated by materialism, consumerism, superficiality of body and image, in short, extrinsic values? (2) What about that fourth person? What’s up with them?!

 

The fourth person: the cultural production of subjectivity

Now we get political. Politics is about power and power isn’t just about making people do what you want them to do. It goes way deeper than that: it’s about creating the very human beings you want or, alternatively put, the creation of political subjectivities that the social system requires through the production of ideology and culture. Who we are, what we think, the values we hold are overwhelmingly related to the kind of society we live in and are influenced by the institutions of communication, culture, and education that structure and reproduce it.

So, what values do our institutions inculcate within us today? For author F. S Michaels, our institutions are seeding within in us a ‘monoculture’ in which the sole narrative we are taught is the ‘economics story’ to the extent that we are forgetting all the other rich stories that make up the human experience. Michaels is undoubtedly right. However, while I haven’t read her book, Michaels seems to be an idealist thinker (believing that ideas are the dominant force driving history). I am a materialist. The monoculture of economism that Michaels identifies reflects the dominance (hegemony) of capitalist class power since the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1960s. To establish political hegemony, a ruling class must naturalise its dominance; it must make us think that the way the world is is not socially contingent, but is as natural as the air we breathe. The fact that every area of life must be beholden to the economy, to the market and every thing we do as a society justified in economic terms – the fact of the monoculture – reflects the success of this capitalist hegemonic project over the last five decades.

The ideological, cultural, and financial resources at the disposal of the ruling class and the depths to which this monoculture has been sown is incredible. Just think of our daily life: the radio/TV/newspaper messages; the images of happiness-through-consumption we are bombarded with; the government propaganda. When one thinks of all that, one should probably be amazed that, after decades of increasingly intensive and sophisticated targeting of this stuff, after countless trillions of advertising, still only one in four people explicitly avow the extrinsic values of the monoculture! But, I’m not surprised! Human beings are intelligent, conscious beings. We know what makes us happy; we know what makes us sad. We might make bad choices for ourselves under conditions of stress, peer pressure, desperation, but, deep down, we know-feel universal truth and we seek love.

 

Towards a transvaluation of values

There’s a phrase in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that I think I get, but might not! The phrase is the ‘transvaluation of values’. Nietzsche’s work was about showing us that the values or ‘morals’ that dominated a society were not natural, but were the outcome of a long historical development. He developed a philosophical/social scientific method of ‘genealogy’ to look back into history to show us why we believed what we believed. It led him to rail against his own society and its Judeo-Christian ideological/moral foundations.

Just like me, Nietzsche believed in values that transcended history. In stark contrast to me (and, it seems, three-quarters of the UK population at least), Nietzsche’s universal values were individualism and a ‘will to power’ at the heart of which were ‘exploitation and competition’. I like Nietzsche’s historical method (taken up later to incredible effect by Michel Foucault), but deplore his values. Instead, I argue for a transvaluation of intrinsic values as described by Tim Kasser.

 

Value: the foundation of political economy

At the heart of political economy is the question of value. Human beings come together and use the natural world to produce and exchange goods. These can be produced and exchanged in many different ways. Today, in our capitalist society, of course, goods are produced as commodities for market exchange by wage labour in increasingly complex, global, hierarchical organisations. However they are produced and exchanged, the fundamental question always is one of value: how do we establish how much of one thing we exchange for another? For over a century, the dominant school of neo-classical economics says it’s just a question of ‘utility’: the value of something was simply how much people were willing to pay for it. This subjectivist view really defined economics as a distinct discipline because, prior to the late 19th Century, classical political economists (most famously, Adam Smith and David Ricardo) held the objectivist view that value wasn’t just determined by supply and demand, but that there was an objective, scientific underlying determinant of value, namely labour. Karl Marx took their theories and radically developed them to reveal the secret of capitalist profit-making: capitalist profit (surplus value) comes from human labour-power (and nature).

Capital needs to grow; it needs to accumulate value; it needs to exploit human labour and nature and it needs consumers to continue to buy more and more in order to convert this value back into money capital and start the cycle of accumulation again. Consequently, the values that the capitalist class must promote are extrinsic: wealth, possession, status-through-consumption. There is a conflict between our instinctive and latently universal intrinsic values and capitalism’s relentless extrinsic values.

 

The political task: a society where our values determine value

One way, then, to frame our political task is to create a society in which value no longer determines, but is determined by our values. In such a society, rather than the economy and economism dominating society and nature and telling us what we should and must be, we would begin with our vision for our lives, our society based on our values and only then would we ask the economic question: how can we produce and exchange what we need in harmony with our values?

As it stands, value dominates values. Our world is upside-down and our suffering, as a consequence, is great. But, in this time of terminal crisis for capitalism, things are already changing. The stakes could not be higher, but, as I work with wonderful people in learning groups and read research that reinforces my beliefs, I feel a surge of hope.

The most important thing I’ve probably ever written in my life

Hope that blogpost title lured you in! Read on, dear friend, read on!…

 

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

M-C-M’/C-M-CU-I-U’/I-U-I’

I am currently organising an ‘unconference’. I’m inviting a diverse group of around 30 people to a weekend workshop in April focused on the issue of transformation. That’s intentionally left very broad.

One of the people I have invited, a gent by the name of Matthew Painton, has so kindly offered to give me the gift of five free hours of his time. Matthew is a ‘life coach’. This title has perhaps cheesy connotations, but there is nothing cheesy about what Matthew has done for me. There are no words to express my gratitude to him…And we’re only two hours in!

What I’m asking you to read for me below, dearest reader, is probably the most important thing I’ve ever written in my life. I wrote this immediately after the experience I describe in the writing. This experience came soon after Matthew and I had completed our second session. The experience I describe took place about 10 hours ago. It’s now 21:10 and I’ve tidied what I wrote up a bit, added a few explanatory sentences, but intentionally left it as raw as possible.

If what you read here resonates with you, if it moves you then please do let me know. You can leave a comment or you can email me at joel underscore lazarus at hotmail dot com. I would love to hear from you.

With thanks and with love

Joel…

 

M-C-M’ (M = Money; C = Commodity; M’ = More Money)

This equation – the equation that reveals the alchemic secret of money – comes from Capital, Vol I by Karl Marx. What it shows is that, in our world, money isn’t the object we think it is. Money is the subject. Money capital uses us! It uses us to grow, to incessantly grow. We are the objects it uses for self-valorisation. Hence vampire and zombie analogies in Capital and many popular cultures. Capital is vampire; we are zombies.

But if we accept this real abstraction as the total force forming the organising principle of our world, the subject controlling our lives, we must also be open to the possibility that we are or could be the objects of an alternative subject. Something else could drive our lives instead of money capital.

Today, with the help of Matthew Painton, I found that subject – it is the universe, the totality of life itself. It is inside me. It is inside you.

We cannot possibly feel it constantly. How could we function in our daily lives? We need, to an extent, to suppress it and, in the process, we anaesthetise ourselves. But the totality and incessant pressure that money puts on us inevitably makes us unconsciously and almost permanently repress this subject in favour of serving money.

But what we suppress or repress doesn’t go away. It is there.

What motivates us to stand up for, to even give our lives, for others – for family, for friends, for community, society, for a forest, for a mountain, for Nature? First and foremost, it’s not an argument, it’s not an idea, an ideology; it’s a feeling. We feel the injustice, the pain, the suffering. Only then comes the intellectual rationalisation. And that’s crucial, but that rationalisation does also function to limit the feeling, the raw emotion. So…

What if we turn off the mind for a bit and just let the feelings flow?

Can one possibly even begin to feel the totality of pain and suffering in the world? I don’t know. But today I tried to do just this…

I sat still, closed my eyes and tried to feel the pain and suffering in the world. I felt the searing, shattering pain of a parent’s grief; I felt the physical and spiritual agony of a human being violated, of another imprisoned, another tortured; I felt the stabbing hunger of a starving belly. I felt the humiliation of a Muslim woman vilified, a disabled person taunted; a young black man demonised.

I felt the numbing silent devastation of a forest burned, a river poisoned, a sacred mountain decapitated.

There is a unity to every living thing on this planet. There is a unity to body and mind. Until today, I couldn’t see the unity that connected Marx’s revolutionary science of historical materialism to a spirituality that emphasises above all the interconnectedness of all things, of materiality and consciousness. Today I see it.

In our society, it is money capital that is the organising principle, the totality, the subject, the absolute Emperor of our society. Marx’s revolutionary formula reveals this:

M-C-M’

Money feeds on our bodies and minds to grow. In this Emperor’s world, we are objects. We are C-M-C. We sell our bodies and minds, our labour-power, for money in order to use this money to sustain our existences and consume the energy needed to reproduce ourselves once again for money.

The money world, the society of capitalism, is ecocidal and it is genocidal. This is the death equation.

But, there is another revolutionary equation – the equation for our time, the equation that tells us the true source of life, the life equation. It is, I think, this…

U-I-U’ and I-U-I’

In this pair of equations, U stands for the universe or universal life. I is I, myself. This is the life equation.

In the first pair, the death pair (M-C-M’/C-M-C), money flourishes at our expense – a zero-sum situation. In the second pair, the life equation, life itself and I, as both independent subject in and object for life, flourish. A positive-sum situation.

Rather than money, the totalising subject here, the Emperor, is the universe, universal life, the totality of all living beings. Universal life is expressed and embodied in specific living beings (I) and through us all it seeks to flourish and grow. In contrast to living in order to serve the money emperor of death, if I seeks to live its life guided by and in harmony with the infinite power of U, I itself flourishes.

U is life. U is truth. U is beauty. U is love. For some, U is God.

This is an intellectualisation of U and we do need to think about U and how we live practically, how we organise our society, in a flourishing relationship with U, but U is not primarily an idea. U is not an ideology. U is a power, a power that is felt.

Today I felt U. I sat, closed my eyes and flowed…

I was the whale deep down in the dark blue sea. I was a blind pelican being fed fish by other fellow pelicans, the sun on my face, a writhing fish in my mouth. I was a murmuration of starlings, thick, pulsating. I was a bison. I was a herd of bison. I was a penguin sheltering with others from a blizzard. I was a hare running. I was a chimpanzee perched in a tree, eating fruit. I was even a spider creeping forward slowly. I was a child running towards the sun…

 

Do this for me, for yourself, for universal life today. Take 10mins that you think you desperately need in your work (to serve M). Sit down, close your eyes, breathe with all your belly, deep breaths, and explore what you feel. What do you feel? Feel the feeling, be in the feeling, and let it take you on a journey.

I’d be honoured to hear from you what you felt and where you went. This is inside all of us, all the time – a feeling of infinite power and goodness there to guide us.

The goal is to destroy the deathworld of money, yes, but through empowering the world of life that money is sucking dry. The feeling will guide us. Through it, and only through it, we see that what we think is impossible, we feel and know to be possible and the only real way – the loving way.

To the flourishing of all life!

Joel

Momentum – original post plus apology

Dear all,

To end this mini saga, I attach the original post on Momentum saved by one tech-savvy reader with the apology over the apology…Well, just read it! 🙂

Thanks

Joel

The apology re the apology

So, last week, I deleted my original article on Momentum last week, after two friends told me it read like an attack. I replaced it with an apology. However, since then, I’ve now received three responses from friends telling me that my original article did not read as an attack and was instead an important and necessary critique. Two of these friends told me that they forwarded it to others who said that it also chimed with their own experiences of Momentum and the Labour Party more generally.

I agree that any individual and organisation should be open to critique and that was the spirit in which I wrote the original piece. I was not silenced by anyone. I was just wary about attacking anyone.

I planned to restore the original article to this site, but I’ve deleted it now.
So suffice to say that in the article I critiqued the organisational practices of Momentum which, I believed, would not enable the group to recruit enthusiastic new members, cultivate internal democracy, nor achieve the political goals it set itself. In short, from my personal experiences, I couldn’t see Momentum sustaining momentum and argued for a more inclusive, participatory, decentralised approach that focused on building relationships as a priority. I also argued that if Labour Party people saw their fight as against the Blairites then this also meant that they should focus not on the Blairites, but on reaching out in democratic alliance with grassroots groups, movements, and campaigns. Momentum rises from below, was the main message.

In conclusion, thanks to those who both critiqued the article as attack and to those who assured me that it was well judged and important. I’m very glad to receive your feedback. I hope this brief journey shows all my readers that I’m very open to criticism, I’m prone to errors of judgment, and that I seek to attack no one.

Thanks,

Joel

 

The original article: Momentum rises from below

‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’ (Socrates in ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior’ by Dan Millman)

Momentum is the name of an organisation formed by Labour MP Jon Lansman MP in order to ‘continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy [Corbyn]’s campaign’. It describes itself as a ‘network of people and organisations’. However, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat skeptical about the democratic credentials of a top-down attempt to build a grassroots democratic mass movement by a small clique within a centralised party bureaucracy. Now, after two interactions with Momentum, I feel, unfortunately, that my instincts were right.

My first interaction came two months back after a friend told me that Momentum were planning to develop a ‘People’s PPE’ course. This refers, of course, to Oxford University’s ‘Philosophy, Politics, and Economics’ degree that is the conveyor belt for producing the British and global political class. I contacted Momentum by email to tell them about a community education project I had co-founded a few years back called ‘PPE’ (People’s Political Economy). I wrote that there were many people and groups all around the UK with huge knowledge and experience in this field and that I was ‘sure many of us would be glad to speak with you and share our experiences, skills, and ideas’. After two weeks, I received a reply from someone on the ‘Momentum Team’ telling me that he had forwarded my email to ‘the man organising People’s PPE’. That was over two months ago. I have had no further reply.

My second experience was at the inaugural Momentum Oxford meeting two weeks ago – my first political meeting for years. I came quite late to find around forty people split into small groups and brainstorming answers to various questions. I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out, however, that Momentum Oxford had already received a mission statement from HQ and spent the rest of the evening debating matters of substance and protocol raised by this statement. The nature of the debate was respectful, but tense, occasionally frantic, and ultimately only marginally productive. I recall one participant insisting that this kind of ‘hard work’ was the unavoidable ‘nature of politics’.

The central focus of the most fractious debate was whether to allow non-Labour Party members into Momentum Oxford meetings – a largely ‘academic’ debate since all conceded that the ultimate decision was to be made by the central clique in Westminster anyway. Some participants insisted that Momentum meetings should be open to all. Others equally passionately demanded that they be for Labour Party members only. At this point, not being a LP member, I offered to leave. Two neighbours gently asked me to stay. Most seemed to agree that meetings should be open to non-LP members, but not to members of other, rival parties. One participant argued that if Green Party members were allowed in they could discover Labour activists’ strategy for the forthcoming council elections. To this another replied that he had more in common with all Greens than he did for many on the right of his own Party. It was a bit of a mess, frankly. There was certainly no feeling of momentum and there was simply no way that this form of political organisation was going to attract disaffected and dispossessed people into political action.

I made one intervention later in the evening. I took the marker pen and drew the following triangle on the flipchart paper.

I pointed out that usually when people come together to try to achieve a goal, they focus on the ‘task’ ahead and on the ‘process’ – how they plan to achieve it – but what they tend to neglect is the relationships – the cultivation of strong relationships grounded in mutual trust, respect, and solidarity needed to achieve any task. This tends to lead to failure and breakdown. I said I felt like this neglect of relationships was what was happening in this room right now. I recommended that they focus more on relationships.

I actually wished I had emphasised my point even more by arguing that relationships were the key to everything they sought to achieve. If they had begun by suspending any notion of establishing the tasks they wanted to achieve and the process by which they would achieve them and had started instead by simply speaking with each other, cultivating listening and empathy, they would soon realise that the tasks and processes appropriate to their group would organically emerge. This would be much easier for a group like Momentum Oxford who share many political (i.e. life) values already. But then they might find that they would have to sever the strings that tied them to the puppeteers at HQ. This is probably an overstatement, since there are to be elections through which local groups will be able to be represented and purportedly take place in central decision-making, but we shall see.

The principle of building relationships should also serve as the Labour Party’s guide in their desire to capitalise on and grow the momentum of Corbyn’s victory. Rather than constructing something according to a preordained master plan, if the Labour Party leadership were to actually engage with and listen to grassroots community groups and campaigns then they could be a central part of growing and representing something very powerful indeed. This is very unlikely to happen. The century-old centralised party machine is most unlikely to cede central control.

Political power comes only from legitimacy given by people. Without legitimacy power becomes violence. This is why we see such violent and frantic outbursts from those on the right of the Labour Party. They see the tide of history, their grasp on power, turning decisively against them. Violence of language, and acts of fratricide, are their sole remaining weapon as they stare the abyss of political obsolescence in the face. The Conservative Party is also dying. Its current control of state power makes its violence physical and social. The violence of both parties expresses the slow, painful death of the capitalist system and the class they represent.

If Labour and Momentum want power, they should focus not on their political enemies, but on co-creating a new democratic politics in partnership with the society they seek to represent and transform. What is more likely to happen, as in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere, is that movements from below will force the Party to change or die. Corbyn’s victory was an expression of political momentum, but this momentum rises from below.

Five ideas for hacking television

Dear readers,

Here is an article out today on OpenDemocracy in which I offer five ideas that might guide any attempts to democratise the production and viewing of television. I’m trying to apply these ideas and more to my own project – the Capital City Project. Early days yet for that, but some good stuff in this piece if I say so myself! 🙂

If following a link feels a little like hard work, just read the article pasted below instead!

All the best and, as ever, comments most welcome

In Solidarity

Joel

In this article, I present five ideas for democratising television. The ultimate goal in mind is the democratic transformation of our society. All five ideas derive from a field of practical philosophy commonly known as ‘critical pedagogy‘. The question of transformation is a pedagogical one: people, communities, societies can transform themselves through processes of learning and the practical application of what they learn.

The practice of ‘hacking’ entails the deconstruction of a technological device or practice in order to fully understand its logic and function so that it can then be reconstructed or reconfigured to perform additional or alternative functions. What I am proposing in this piece are practical ideas for hacking television.

These are ideas that are evolving in train with my plans for the ‘Capital City Project‘ – a project aimed at producing a TV drama series and accompanying website. The drama will be based on and around the trading floor of an investment bank, telling the contemporary story of money. The website will be produced by a team of philosophers and social scientists, inviting viewers to use social theory to analyse the drama.

Before starting on the project, I had little idea of how television was really made. I now understand that accessing the television industry requires first penetrating the outer walls guarded by affiliated production companies. To do so invariably requires an already established track record of production success. Perhaps all obstacles can be overcome by a combination of money and contacts, but most of us don’t have those things.

This could lead most to abandon television and develop our own alternatives online – a process already in train. Yet, those committed to democratisation through intellectual empowerment need to think seriously about scaling up in order to catalyse a mass praxis: a society-wide process of learning and transformation. We have to think about how to democratise our use of contemporary media technologies in order to engage millions, rather than dozens, of our fellow citizens.

To attempt mass praxis, we also can’t give up on public service broadcasting. Though I feel the BBC has seriously reneged on its mandate to ‘educate, inform, and entertain’, under changed political conditions the corporation could yet play a central role in cultivating intellectuality and democracy in the UK.

So, in this spirit of optimism, here are five key principles that could guide our attempts to democratise television:

(1) Breaking down boundaries between television’s producers and consumers

Following Walter Benjamin, fundamental to the democratisation of television is the democratisation of the means of its cultural production. The barriers to achieving this are political not technical.

Democratising the production of a film or TV programme would require a practice of giving voice, ensuring that the objects of our documentaries or dramas become active, speaking subjects. Ultimately, however, the camera itself must be handed over. The universal male, straight, bourgeois gaze must be joined by a multiverse of gazes: female, queer, black, disabled.

We must also pursue the democratisation of our consumption – our viewing – of television, ending the paternalistic and manipulative concepts of the passive spectator that shape current television production. Here, a cornerstone of critical pedagogical thought is essential. Jacques Ranciere’s ‘equality of intelligences’ is a pedagogical universalism: ‘I learn everything the same way – translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate and understand’. As viewers, we actively make sense of what we experience in just the same ways as we do in our daily lives. Any democratisation of television must recognise the active intellectuality and emancipatory potential of the viewer. A more direct way of putting this might be to endorse David Simon’s maxim of ‘F*ck the average viewer’!

Jacques Ranciere. Credit: Petitfestival

(2) Creating dissensus

The transfer of cultural productive power generates a plethora of voices and perspectives. It is now that the possibility for producing television capable of creating ‘dissensus’ emerges. The concept of dissensus comes, once more, from the philosophy of Jacques Ranciere. What we understand as politics Ranciere sees as a relentlessly policed consensus. Creating dissensus means disrupting our sensibilities of our naturalised social order so that we recognise its artifice and contingency. Other realities, other worlds suddenly become conceivable. It is this experience that is necessary for us to begin to remake ourselves and our society.

(3) Empathy for disorientation

Dissensus does not just disrupt what we see and believe, it disturbs our very subjectivities and identities. Dissensual culture creates the antithesis of what Theodor Adorno described as the ‘feeling [of being] on safe ground’ and the ‘infantile need for protection’ that our current mainstream ‘culture industry’ generates. Dissensus also reintroduces the personal and social conflict that television’s production of reality sweeps away or constructs and smoothly resolves. Consequently, initial responses to dissensus can include feelings of denial and anger. Producers of democratic television need to be empathetic toward this experience of cognitive dissonance or disorientation. We need to work with psychologists, psychoanalysts, and critical pedagogues to explore strategies for helping individuals, communities, and even whole societies convert feelings of initial disorientation into positive energy for transformation.

4) Theoretical glasses

Probably only artistic interventions can create a dissensus capable of provoking initial emotional response strong enough to open up transformational possibilities. Yet, the fact that dissensus can help us see our world anew makes the role of social theory vital. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theoria’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. Producers of democratic television should invite viewers to use social theory to analyse the films and the issues they raise.

We can understand our own ideological perspective as the particular pair of glasses we wear to see the world. Transformation involves changing our proscription, enabling ourselves to see further and deeper. Critical pedagogy as a radical democratic philosophy is committed to self-driven transformation. We must avoid what Pierre Bourdieu rightly called the ‘paternalistic-pedagogical’ television of the pre-neoliberal era. To quote Bourdieu, we might regularly ask ourselves: ‘Am I seeking to get people to see what I see or am I trying to help people to see for themselves?’

5) Harnessing the emancipatory potential of the website

It is the internet that provides exciting technological solutions to the challenges of democratising television. We can build websites to facilitate and encourage online and real life dialogue – safe spaces for people to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas; to help viewers use social theory to analyse the issues raised by our films; and to help viewers come together to join existing or create new social initiatives. The pedagogical website can also liberate the film from any direct need to be overtly didactic. In short, the combination of critical pedagogy, television, and the website has vast emancipatory potential. It can form the pedagogical bridge connecting art and emotion with critical reason, leading on to action and transformation.

Crowd Watching Television at Kings Cross, 1955-56. Credit: ABC

Why now?

We are all living in a state of permanent crisis. Even capital’s high priests speak of long-term ‘secular stagnation’. Utopian promises have been superseded by endless austerity and disciplinary technologies of ‘responsibilisation’ and ‘resilience’. So many of us are ill – physically and mentally. So many are paralysed by what Mark Fisher calls a ‘reflexive impotence’: we don’t believe we can change anything; we prove ourselves right.

The crumbling of capital’s neo-liberal hegemony and the emergence of the internet makes the media a central site of political struggle. As the gap between our lived realities and the reality we see on our TV screens grows, the legitimacy of our media organisations and their ability to perform their ideological functions decreases.

It may be that the BBC is steadily abandoned as new media enabling more democratically-produced output emerge. However, with its near-universal broadcasting reach, the BBC is uniquely placed to attempt the kind of mass praxis envisioned here. Furthermore, its publicly funded and owned status means that the BBC has a legal duty to serve us. A central element of this service is education. I believe that the BBC’s tiresome defence of ‘neutrality’ has, in reality, meant a withdrawal from the field of political education, leading it ever rightward over recent decades till arriving at what Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ of today.

Last year, I was in the audience at a couple of events featuring senior BBC journalists. What was clear was that they had abnegated any sense of a duty or even desire to educate in a crucial political sense. They poured scorn on the idea, for example, that they should educate their viewers about quantitative easing. ‘Who am I to insist that people should know about QE?’ one asked. ‘Who would watch a 45 minute documentary on that!?’, declared another. We desperately need our BBC to serve our needs for political education. As the model I sketch in this article makes clear, this must and can be done in democratic ways.

British telly has always been blessed with gifted satirists offering us what we might call a beautiful fatalism. Yet, if our goal is to build a better world, we need more than critique. Neo-liberal capitalism has decimated our belief in ourselves and our ability to change our world. It’s time to produce television that seeks both to empower all those involved in its production and viewing. For those seeking to produce culture in all its forms aimed at democratic transformation, our goal must be to cultivate our collective self-belief and educated hope.

 

An apology re an apology re Momentum!

So, last week, I deleted my original article on Momentum last week, after two friends told me it read like an attack. I replaced it with an apology. However, since then, I’ve now received three responses from friends telling me that my original article did not read as an attack and was instead an important and necessary critique. Two of these friends told me that they forwarded it to others who said that it also chimed with their own experiences of Momentum and the Labour Party more generally.

I agree that any individual and organisation should be open to critique and that was the spirit in which I wrote the original piece. I was not silenced by anyone. I was just wary about attacking anyone.

I planned to restore the original article to this site, but I’ve deleted it now.
So suffice to say that in the article I critiqued the organisational practices of Momentum which, I believed, would not enable the group to recruit enthusiastic new members, cultivate internal democracy, nor achieve the political goals it set itself. In short, from my personal experiences, I couldn’t see Momentum sustaining momentum and argued for a more inclusive, participatory, decentralised approach that focused on building relationships as a priority. I also argued that if Labour Party people saw their fight as against the Blairites then this also meant that they should focus not on the Blairites, but on reaching out in democratic alliance with grassroots groups, movements, and campaigns. Momentum rises from below, was the main message.

In conclusion, thanks to those who both critiqued the article as attack and to those who assured me that it was well judged and important. I’m very glad to receive your feedback. I hope this brief journey shows all my readers that I’m very open to criticism, I’m prone to errors of judgment, and that I seek to attack no one.

Thanks,

Joel

An apology re Momentum

Dear readers,

A few days ago, I wrote a post about Momentum, the movement that the Labour Party leadership is trying build across the UK.

I meant to be reflective and constructively critical, but, after two friends (one being my wife!) told me that the email read like an attack, I’ve decided to delete the post.

I know that I share many values and goals with Momentum and many Labour Party members, so I never meant to attack them at all. I only wanted to point out alternative ways and principles of organising.

I’m not writing this apology out of any misplaced sense of my own importance. I know that thousands don’t read this blog and I know that my words have little political significance.

I am writing it because I wrote a post that could be interpreted as an attack and that’s the last thing I ever want to do on this blog. I want it to be above that always and to be constructively critical and to offer a reasoned vision for positive change.

So, to anyone who read the piece and took offence, please accept my apology.
Thanks

Joel

What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?

 

Question: What does the economy look like?…

The mainstream economist’s answer: ‘Why! GDP, of course!

‘An economy,’ a mainstream economist might retort, ‘is nothing more than the combined economic activity of all ‘households’ in any given location – say, a region, a nation, the world. So, if you want to see what an economy looks like, consult the charts that portray these aggregated numbers’. The specific chart that visually depicts our national economy is, of course, that portraying ‘GDP’ (Gross Domestic Product).1

GDP ONS

 

To be fair to mainstream economists, the GDP figure and chart does spur subsequent investigations into, and depictions of, other, subsidiary sectors: trade, manufacturing, consumption, employment, etc. But, it remains the case that were one to ask most economists what the economy looks like they’d probably show you the GDP chart.

 

The supply-demand curve

The historical GDP chart tracks our interminable quest for that holy grail – economic growth. If economic growth is the proclaimed overarching objective of our society then the path to this objective lies through the venerated ‘market’. Aesthetically, the sanctity of the market is revealed to us in the ‘supply-demand curve’. This simple two line chart shows us how the Lord weaves his miracles daily, bringing forth social order and justice from atomised chaos with each wave of his ‘invisible hand’. For atheist free-marketeers, God is the market itself.

 

demandsupplycurve

 

This sanctification of the market serves as a foundational myth of our economic religion – established in the ‘scriptures’ of founding texts, peddled by the priesthood, and reinforced and institutionalised in schools, universities, TV programmes and films every day of our lives.

 

The minimalist aesthetic of hegemonic microeconomics

This is not a blogpost debunking the preposterous myth of the free market. It is a post focused on how our economy is portrayed aesthetically. From this perspective, then, I think it is safe to share Susan Buck-Morss’ conclusion that that the hegemonic economics of today, neoclassical economics, is ‘microeconomics’…

‘Minimalism is characteristic of the supply-demand curve, none of the substantive problems of political economy are resolved, while the social whole simply disappears from sight. Once this happens, critical reflection on the exogenous conditions of a ‘given’ market situation becomes impossible, and the philosophy of political economy become so theoretically impoverished that it can be said to come to an end.’

What does this all mean? As I understand it, a central political function of neoclassical economics is to depoliticise our society. By using their technical equations and graphs to depict the economy, economists perplex us into accepting that the status quo is the natural and only possible social order. They also point our attention to exchange and consumption away from the politics of production and work. Neoclassical economists, the aspiring physicists of the social sciences, using their ‘scientific expertise’ to close down political possibilities.2

Only by reducing the complexity of individual and social life to this degree can one create an aesthetic as minimalist as the GDP or supply-demand curve chart to represent the ‘economy’ – an entity that structures, and is structured by, millions, indeed billions, of human beings.

This is not to dismiss the usefulness of using graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors. It is, instead, to argue 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.

 

Seeing the unseeable

Visibility and invisibility are at the very heart of the issue here, for repoliticising our economy means attempting to somehow show that it comprises billions of unique human lives connected and structured through social relations of power. Above all, a political economic attempt to answer the question of what the economy looks like must try to show that what is invisible when we try to see the economy is just as real as the visible, if not more so. This, on first consideration, shouldn’t be that hard. We all believe in the existence of things we can’t see: electricity, gravity, microorganisms even. But, the complexity and dynamism of social systems and structures mean that their existence can’t be scientifically seen or aesthetically represented in similar ways. They are, as Karl Marx put it, ‘real abstractions’.

 

turkish food porn.png

 Gratuitous Turkish food porn!

Take a look at your next plate of food. Now try to think of all the human beings, animals, and natural contributions involved in ensuring its presence on your table. When you really start to work it through, you soon realise that we’re talking about countless combinations of literally millions of human beings and living creatures. Just because we have not met them does it mean we have no relation to and with them? Their labour, their very lives, have played a vital role in sustaining our own. There can be no more materially real relation than this, yet, no visible trace of this collective labour, energy, life can be seen on our plates. An understandable response to this is to feign blindness. But, if we remain blind to our place within the complex social system that we call our economy how can we see beyond the end of our own forks? How can we how to change our economy, our society, for the better if we can’t or won’t see it?

 

‘Cartographies of the Absolute’!

This is the dilemma admirably addressed by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel in their recent book Cartographies of the Absolute. When one gets past the intellectually terrifying title, one finds, in many places, some no less terrifying prose. Yet, Toscano and Kinkel’s contribution to our question is important.

 

1439234375_Cartographies

This graphic was produced by William Bunge as appears on the front cover of Toscano & Kinkle’s book ‘Cartographies of the Absolute’

 

Writing in the Marxist tradition, and taking us on a wonderful tour of contemporary art and film, the ‘absolute’ that the authors confront is none other than capital itself – the entity, the force that binds us all in relations of coercion, exploitation, and alienation each day, each very minute. Capital is everywhere, pulsing ceaselessly through our transplanetary and biological veins, making our very world go round, making and remaking our very selves. Capital produces us and we produce capital. And, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, since capitalism is full of antagonisms and contradictions, we are too. Capital is, then, for the vast majority of humanity, the ‘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. Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’.

 

The view from below

There is no need, however, as Toscano and Kinkel themselves emphasise, to let this conclusion paralyse us intellectually or politically. 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. Frederic Jameson contends that ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’.3Let’s proceed instead then from the bottom. 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.

So, what does the economy look like from below? Here’s one view. Dear readers, I proudly present what I call the ‘Flo Chart’!

 

The Flo Chart

The ‘Flo Chart’!

 

This picture was drawn by me, but it’s reproduced from memory of the original which was drawn by a wonderful woman called Flo during the first PPE (People’s Political Economy) learning group I ran at The Hub, a community centre in Hodge Hill, Birmingham back in the Autumn of last year. I asked the group to express in any way they wanted what they thought and felt when they heard the word ‘economy’. This is the picture that Flo produced in response to that question. Flo is an older woman who, by her own admission, has no formal understanding of economics or what an economy is. Listening to her tell us all, quite openly, the extreme challenges that life has thrown at her, it was clear where Flo saw herself and others at The Hub within her Flo Chart: very much at the bottom.

It’s an amazing picture to analyse. What I see I’m tempted to call ‘the absolute’. I see everything, everyone contained within this balloon (this bubble?). I see a few on top and others falling down to join ‘the masses’ at the bottom. I see the huddled folk at the bottom keeping the air in the whole thing by plugging up the balloon. The Flo Chart shows our ultimate interdependence – those on the top need those on the bottom. They would quickly fall to Earth if those below were to unplug the balloon.

Clearly, the Flo Chart makes no scientific representation. No data is being displayed here. But, if the GDP chart shows us an economy then the Flo Chart shows us the politics of, the unequal social relations structuring, that economy. Moreover, the Flo Chart shows us the artistry, the eloquence, the intellectual and creative power (and potential) of the dispossessed. 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 to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

 

Re-envisioning our economy

People are intelligent, insightful, and creative. Without knowledge of social theory, they might not always have the words or concepts to articulate their intelligence, but, still, their intelligence and creativity comes out, often with devastating power. The task of folk like me (I’m falling slowly in the middle), with knowledge of social theory, is to help people at the bottom to cultivate their own intelligence to see further. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theories’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. When we combine the social knowledge that everyone has with the scientific knowledge that some are privileged to have then we can produce the transformational knowledge we need to reimagine and recreate our world.

The question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Seeing our economy to the best of our abilities requires looking from multiple vantage points not least from below. We need to create a vision (or visions) of our economy that combine our shared experiential with our scientific/theoretical knowledge and, indeed, our emotions. It’s important because only from this foundation can we start to re-envision – to reimage and recreate an economy within our society – in a truly democratic fashion.

In the second part of this blog, I will 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.

1The Gross Domestic Product figure measures the total monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy over a given period of time. It is usually expressed as a percentage rise or fall compared to the previous year or quarter.

2Although we see the establishment of a separate realm of human activity in classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Smith and Ricardo were still very much interested in understanding where economic value came from and, while they reduced social and political relationships to the bourgeois technical language of inputs/outputs, investments, profits, and returns, they did at least recognise that value was created by human labour. It was the ‘Marginalist Revolution’ of the final third of the 19th Century, lead by William Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Austria, and Leon Walras in Switzerland, that sought to bury any notion of the origin of value as somehow social and political, dethroning classical political economy with the theory of marginal utility. Instead of any consideration of social theory and value, economics became, and remains to this day, a consideration of utility and prices. The only social theory here is really that ‘man’ is out to satisfy his desires and minimise his work. This quest for ‘marginal’ utility (and avoidance of marginal disutility) – how much he will give for any additional unit of something he desires – combines with the positioning of the market as optimal mechanism for blindly, but efficiently, allocating scarce resources in the economy to form the cornerstones of the neoclassical economic religion.

3I understand this to mean that, rather than enhancing our understanding of our common humanity, our ability to see our planet the Earth from above, for example, has, conversely, increased our sense of bewilderment and powerlessness.