The economy is for us, we are not for the Economy.
Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.`
The paper is divided into three sections. The first looks at what’s wrong with ‘the economy’. The second looks at how art is responding. And the final section looks at what this means for the ‘cultural sector’ – that’s the mish-mash of artists, museums, galleries, companies, arts centres and production houses who are the makers and custodians of our cultural life.
Here is an shortened version of the first section
The word economy is derived from the Greek words Ecos meaning ‘house’ and Nomia meaning ‘counting’. Economy refers to the act of ‘sharing out the house’.
But in our times economy has come to mean much more.
Economic growth is the maxim of politics, pushing all other stories of progress into the shade. If GDP isn’t growing, neither are we. In the pursuit of growth orthodox economists are seen as providing objective truths about the world, crowding out philosophers, religious leaders and artists. Their pre-received wisdom – that we are utility-maximising, self-interested individuals – has become a kind of folk common-sense in the workplace, trickling into the management of public-services, leaking through friendships, conventions and marital commitments. In the most market-orientated economies – all must prove to be ‘economic’, behaviour scientifically ‘incentivised’ and as far as possible, government should stand back and let markets sort it out. With a monopoly on what it means to be human, the advance of the market-economy is neither an idealistic nor a pessimistic way – it is the only way; there is no alternative.
Since the financial crisis of 2008 questioning of the economics profession, economic theory, measures of growth and the extent to which markets benefit society has spread. It seems that we have never had more cause to suspect that the machinations of ‘the economy’ are out of kilter with human and environmental needs. Circumstances vary from country to country but common grievances reoccur. Those who have long believed that the market economy isn’t fair – are today joined by others who now believe that it simply doesn’t work. Their criticisms reoccur in five related areas.
1. The socialised consequences of privately-made problems
The market-economy creates problems, and then enables the costs of those problems to be transfered those who did not create them – the $11 trilllion global bail out being the case in point. Nicholas Taleb Nassim author of ‘The Black Swan’ blames the financial crisis on an absence of ‘skin-in-the game combined with too much money and power at stake’. There are parallels here with the market-economy’s inability to ‘price-in’ the natural resources, on which we rely. The best models say that 1440 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide can be released between 2000 and 2050 before irreversible climate change is triggered. We have already released 420 – 28% of the total. With global emissions currently rising at 3% a year, the carbon carbon budget will be gone within twenty years. It will no doubt be the high consuming richest fifth of global society who will be best able to avert the consequences of climate change.
The most free-market orientated economies are the most unequal. Captured in the image of the 99%, this is now the de-facto source of popular dissatisfaction with the market-economy. It is also a point which will be labored in a forthcoming film ‘Inequality for all’ narrated by Robert Reich. There is no shortage of statistics to draw on here.
3. The corrosion of norms, culture and tradition
Economists like to believe that economics is separate from culture. That markets simply sit on top of traditions, customs and beliefs without corrupting them. But for many, the economy just won’t keep to itself. Michael Sandel argues that we have drifting from ‘having a market economy to being a market society’. Canadian essayist F.S. Michaels believes that we are living in an economistic ‘monoculture’ where ‘being rational, efficient, productive and profitable’ have become ‘the ultimate expressions of being the world’. She fears the reign of one story and the metaphors it forces us to live by.
‘It’s not that the economic story has no place in the world and in our lives – it does. But without these other stories that express other values we have found essential throughout history, we imprison ourselves. When the languages of other stories begin to be lost, we lose the value diversity and creativity that keeps our society viable. We’re left trying to translate something vitally important to us into economic terms so we can justify even talking about it…We end up missing what it means to be human.’
4. The rejection of unquantifiable goods
Economists struggle to value learning, care and the development of human relations, because we do too: in the moment, it is hard to know the importance of experiences, words and people – hence E.F. Schumacher’s concern that ‘if economic thinking pervades the whole of society, even simple non-economic values like beauty, health or cleanliness can survive, only if they prove to be ‘economic’. Russell Akoff’s f-laws are another helpful reference point here which state that ‘because we cannot measure what we value, we settle for valuing what we can measure.’ The concern is that the illuminating measures of economic growth, cannot shine light on qualities we have always valued and in the darkness, they have withered.
5. Hollow Politics
Unwavering faith in the economy and power of economics has drained the imagined and real-power of governments. The more politicians refer to the ‘economy’ as an etherial, untouchable dictator of political decisions, the less people believe politicians have the power to make a difference to their lives. The result is a crisis of collective-purpose and into this vacuum the forces of anti-democracy, indifference & extremism are drawn. Right wing extremist party Golden Dawn in Greece now commands 7% of the popular vote, while the radical nationalist party Jobbik in Hungary holds 12% of seats in the Hungarian parliament. Where extremism has not taken hold, voters are turned-off, disturbed and baffled by their politicians. Others wonder plaintively whether, by viewing politicians as nothing more than the mid-wives of material-prosperity, that maybe we have come to be governed by the politicians we deserve.
Thinking has become impossible
And yet despite so much concern about measures of economic growth, unease at unchecked advance of markets and the tension between capitalism and democracy – the economy and the logic of orthodox-economics reigns supreme. The Economist magazine continues to publish 15-page specials on new national ‘growth-models’ with no mention of how growth can be squared with climate-change. Politicians tremble before the supernal-judgement of credit-ratings agencies. And we are more likely than ever to have qualified economists as Prime Ministers.
Meanwhile governments cling to the hope that printing money, austerity, cutting social-security, forcing down wages is what is required to return the economy to growth and ultimately spread-wealth. The debate in most countries is about the extent to which these policies need to be pursued, rather than whether there are alternatives – today or in the future. Few politicians have the required candor with citizens, who have been conditioned to see them as managers, to try anything else. None are willing to clearly express the limits of markets in society. None will talk of whether environmental concerns can be squared with economic growth. Or whether growth can really ameliorate democratic and social concerns. None dare whisper the ‘inconvenient truth’ that ‘no growth risks economic collapse and unemployment, full-on growth risks the ecological systems on which we depend for survival and increasing inequality’.
For many, economics has become a dogma to rival the religious dogma that The Enlightenment and indeed, economics itself sought to expose 250 years ago. The difference between value-judgements and facts, between the interests of elites and the interests of us, between how the world is and how the world might be is harder to see – as the film-maker Adam Curtis reads it: ‘thinking has become impossible’.
The rise of the Social Economy?
The lack of space in mainstream politics has forced debate elsewhere. Helped by an upswing in technical innovation a counter-culture that aims to surface the interests who benefit from decisions taken in the name of economic growth, to question the role of the economics profession and to rediscover ways of ‘sharing out the house’ is emerging.
It has its symbolic face in the Occupy movement which spread to 951 cities in 82 countries in 2011 and continues today in the spirit of The Indignants, UKUncut, the Avaaz network and in countless other small organisations and movements. More prosaically, there is much soul-searching within the study of economics. Will Davies, editor of online journal Open Democracy’s Uneconomics series of articles puts it this way,
It is time to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth about the public status of economics as an expert discipline: it has grown to be far more powerful as a tool of political rhetoric, blame avoidance and elite-strategy than for the empirical representation of economic life. This is damaging to politics, for it enables value judgements and political agendas to be endlessly presented in ‘factual’ terms. But it is equally damaging to economics, which is losing the authority to describe reality in a credible, disinterested, Enlightenment fashion.
In behind the frontlines in economics and activism others argue that the counter-culture is within the real economy itself. Paul Mason an economics correspondent for the BBC is optimistic that the continuation of the Occupy movement may not be a direct confrontation with politics and power, and wonders whether it may find form in new organisational forms emerging within the economy.
‘What if – instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism – the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order? What if all the dreams of human solidarity and participatory democracy contained in the maligned Port Huron Statement of 1962 were realizable right now?’
In this vein Robin Murray has long argued that ‘A New Social Economy’ is taking shape while Manuel Castelles has also recently written about how the current financial crisis has provoked ‘non-capitalist’ forms of economic behaviour.
Economists are questioning themselves. Activists are on the streets. And maybe behind them there might just be groups people who are forming networks, associations and constitutions that will re-shape the economy. It is hard to know now what these forces amount to. Is this a counter-culture that will identify and challenge power, a cyclical period of consternation prior to a resumption of old growth patterns, or the dent of a blunt protest as power trundles inexorably east? It isn’t difficult to find those who will argue for all of these positions.
What is interesting for us, is the connection between these forces seeking to re-imagine the economy and currents within art and culture today. The discussion of economy is multi-faceted – it is cultural, it runs through politics and it is about fundamental values. It forces people to think-differently and to see the subjective nature of what is presented as objective truth, and to locate what is valuable, to question whether the metaphors we use everyday are the right ones – all aims to which artists can be particularly well suited.