The existing economic vocabulary is one of the roots of the elite’s ability to maintain the straitjacket we are in, argues Doreen Massey. We need to challenge the current terms of debate and establish a new political terrain.
One of the things that most frustrates me about the current moment is that while there has been a catastrophic crisis of the dominant, neoliberal economic model, in general public political debate there has been no serious challenge to the political and ideological consensus that supports that model. A whole raft of assumptions, running so deep we forget even that they are assumptions, remains stubbornly in place.
There is, in other words, a hegemonic ‘common sense’. It is a common sense of market relations, of competitive individualism, of private gain, the denigration of ‘the public’, and much else besides. It is a common sense that invades our imaginations and moulds our senses of ourselves. It is driven home by constant repetition, reinforced by a powerful media that is either militantly right wing or submissively acquiescent. Above all, it excludes alternatives from political contestation.
If we do not challenge this common sense we shall always be arguing on ‘their’ ground; we end up having to answer their questions; in effect, we are always on the defensive. We need to turn the tables.
For instance, instead of constantly having to respond to their questions, why don’t we ask some questions of our own? Perhaps we could even ask that most basic (but almost never asked) question: what is an economy for? What is it that we want an economy to provide? There may be disagreements about the answer, but even having a debate would raise some political issues which at the moment don’t make it on to the agenda. I’d suggest something like ‘the enabling of decent lives and the flourishing of human potential for all’. Current economic policy fails on both counts. And while there are a number of good alternative individual policies around, they need to be set within a bigger picture that shifts the vision towards an economy run for everyone. It is this overall vision that could transform the debate from being about policies to being about politics.
Or again, we could challenge head-on some of the terms of the current common sense. We are not all just competitive individuals – there is also cooperation, care, solidarity. Without them, the economy, let alone society, could not flourish, and with them our lives are fuller and more nourishing. We also need a clear defence of the public sector not only in terms of the jobs and services that it provides (though they are clearly important) but because of the necessity for a public realm, a sense of ‘the public’ as being part of what helps to build a good society. Or again, I’d love to see a bold defence of taxation. The common-sense assumption is that ‘we all hate paying taxes’. Yet taxation, for the right things, is part of what constructs our collectivity. People lay out money in the market sector, including for things they could perfectly well get through the state, and it doesn’t come in for such opprobrium. Private transactions – OK; taxation for social investment and services – almost universally resented. What is in contestation here is social solidarity. The knee-jerk language reflects, and reinforces, the prioritisation of individual choice over collectivity, over the very notion of (the construction of) a society. Words and oft-repeated phrases carry, and reinforce, understandings that go well beyond them.
We need to challenge this language. The existing vocabulary is one of the roots of the elite’s ability to maintain the straitjacket we are in.
Or again (one final example of how we might turn the tables of economic debate), we need to challenge how we even think about the economy. Take that weasel-word ‘investment’. When money is advanced for productive activity we call it investment, and that is fine. But money advanced to buy something that already exists (an ‘asset’), so that it can be sold later at a higher price, also gets called investment. But it is not; it is speculation. It doesn’t produce anything new; what it does do is redistribute existing wealth towards those who already own assets or can afford to buy them. This matters: much of neoliberal economic activity over the last four decades has been based on this. Not on value-creation, but on speculation, in art, property, land, commodity futures. This is one of the things that lies behind the rise in inequality, and the surge in food prices and malnutrition around the world (this is an issue of internationalism too). And it is much of what lies behind the new financial imperialism of the City of London. Cracking open our current deceptive language would be one way into challenging these things.
Trying to change the whole frame of debate on the economy will of course be met with incomprehension if not horror. And it will take time. But we’re going to get attacked anyway, so we might as well get attacked for something we believe in and that might actually make a difference. And that means challenging the current terms of debate and establishing a new political terrain. It might even wake people up, tap into their discontents, and convince them that economic policy can be interesting.
This piece is based on a talk given at the first annual conference of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS). The wider project it draws on is The Kilburn Manifesto, especially the first two contributions; see also Soundings: a journal of politics and culture, issue numbers 53 and 54.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Doreen Massey is Emeritus Professor of Geography, Open University.
“A whole raft of assumptions, running so deep we forget even that they are assumptions, remains stubbornly in place… a hegemonic ‘common sense’. ”
As good of a definition of ideology as I’ve read. And neoliberalism is truly pervasive. I entirely agree with your challenge to these assumptions, yet I find myself framing issues using these same assumptions more often than not.
To add to your suggestions for promoting a shift in thinking, I would like to see the presumed independence of economics from politics challenged more regularly. I would suggest that references to “economics” or “the economy” should always and everywhere be restored to refer instead to “political economy” as a clear reminder that economic life is fundamentally political. Too often, “the economy” refers to a reductionist neoliberal politics masquerading as an independent sphere of inquiry which imposes itself on policy only after it has reached its supposedly apolitical conclusions. The restoration of “the political economy” would serve as a reminder that our choices about how we distribute the wealth we generate as interdependent beings is political first.
There is hope for economics if it can be restored to the realm of politics, where it properly belongs and where the ideological conditions are more favourable. For at least the prevailing political discourse remains committed – though often in rhetoric more than in fact – to the notion that we ought to be governed by democratic structures informed by public debate and evidence-based science (both natural and social).
To help readers understand my point, and to give a Wendell Berry a greater chance to be heard (read, at least), here’s the link to his Jefferson Lecture from April of 2012. Berry left a written copy on the seat of each attendee, whom I imagine to be, without being able to prove it, a pretty good cross section of the inside the beltway Washington power elite, perhaps a slightly left of center sampling, given Berry’s reputation.
Yes, I quite agree, but what a task. Would that hegemonic economic ideas stayed only within “the profession,” where they do enough damage.
Several observations to elaborate on your points from the other side of the Atlantic – but we are dealing with one neoliberalism doctrine, no?
First, I agree with Lord Skidelsky that economics students need a grounding in economic history, including the history of economic ideas before they plunge into the world of micro-mathematical modeling. Some quick elaboration on why:
President Abraham Lincoln was the formulator of “The American Dream,” without naming it as such, and it came out of his own experience in what I maintain was the world’s “purest” form of capitalism ever: the United States of the Jacksonian era – roughly the 1820’s-1840’s. But as historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in a wonderful biographical essay about Lincoln, that Antebellum economy (speaking of the North and Mid-west, not the South) was hardly a static world, and it set in motion, along with the institutional changes in banking and money stemming from the Civil War, the economy that would emerge in the Gilded Age, the Robber Baron period…another version of which, with variations suggestive of our contemporary troubles of “financialization,” emerged in the Roaring ’20’s.
These trends – enormous historical variations in the size of firms, concentrations of wealth, are the groundwork for criticism of theories of economics which emerged in the late 18th-early 19th century meant to be for all time – with a flourish of late 19th century mathematical “certainty.” If one has historical memory, the various facts of various eras “before one’s eyes” would demand, at minimum, a skepticism of eternal economic truths and formulas.
That same historical eye would note very familiar sounding accounts of how economic power affected, acted upon the supposedly democratic political system. US political institutions in the Gilded Age, railroad, manufacturing and banking influence….today’s whirlwind “revolving door”…Goldman Sachs in the corridors of political power…and so on…
It is not as if there are no voices of deep and serious dissent here in the US. But they have been unable to get the full and serious hearing they deserve inside the corridors of political power, nor in mainstream media, with the exception of Bill Moyer’s program on PBS; the actual commentators about economic events there and on CNN are fully Center-Right, neoliberal. The deeply credentialed Paul Krugman’s lamentations on his inability to change the policy consensus even from his quasi-establishment column is proof of the troubles.
Let me give two more illustrations of the problem of getting enough “intellectual standing” in the broader culture to begin to change the balance of ideas. In the spring of 2012, the United States awarded Wendell Berry its highest honor in the humanities, the right to deliver the “Jefferson Lecture” in the nation’s capital at the Kennedy Center, which he did in a formal speech entitled, most un-neoliberally, “It All Turns Upon Affection” (not efficiency, higher profits and shareholder satisfaction – my commentary). I only learned of his “award”) – (or was it punishment?) from – and take note – the “food editor” at the NY Times, who got wind of Berry’s assignment and reported on his difficult time working up the speech. And what a speech it was, which diverted a bit from Berry’s “economic” work in reforming modern American agriculture – to commentary on the mood of the nation and the nature of its economy. Berry lamented two historical tendencies of capitalism – towards oligopoly and monopoly, and towards the elimination of human labor – automation, as well as the “inhuman” pace of tech. change.
It made me recall George Orwell’s written comments upon the publication of Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” – which I had only learned about through a recent book on the Keynes-Hayek “relationship”: Orwell said, of capitalism’s great competitive race (echoing Lincoln’s use of the “race of life” – the scramble to get ahead), that it is the fairest only the first time it is run, then the winners have an added and cumulative advantage – a great summary of what the idyllic capitalism in Antebellum America became in the Gilded Age.
I’ve always wondered if there are no deep truths, echoing this criticism of Lincoln’s inability to see ahead to logical consequences and Orwell’s pithy observation, and Berry’s, in the history of American agriculture, Jefferson’s dream of the basis for American democracy build on many small capitalists. Well, where have all the farmers gone…amazing productivity and prodigious environmental damage…but essentially have eliminated the family farmer, farmers themselves as a numerical base in employment statistics.
But let us not draw our lines and criticisms solely within economics itself…David Harvey has reminded us of the power of capitalism to affect and shape our cultural lives, especially in his book “The Condition of PostModernity.” Let us not forget the minds, thoughts, and habits of the American worker, middle on down in the economy; the farmers of the 1890’s revolted, built there own critique of Gilded Age capitalism, produced an outpouring of books, pamphlets and magazines….they did not succeed in 1896, came very close…but there is nothing quite like their efforts today, although I think that is beginning to change…Harvey’s book helps why it has perhaps taken so long…
And one last example of how challenges to neoliberalism have difficulty finding traction. Professor Gar Alperovitz has written an intriguing, timely challenge to the Left called “What Then Must We Do?” which came out in early 2013. It has received almost no serious review, good or bad, in the major journals of the day, not even in “The Nation” magazine, arguably the “flagship” journal of the left.
I have attempted to make up for that and got about 60% of my seven page review up at Amazon, here: http://www.amazon.com/review/R2TUIIU9IAGINQ
Readers who would like the full review just drop me a line at email@example.com.
There is simply no excuse for not giving Berry’s speech and Alperovitz’s book more prominent attention…except they are deep challenges to the intellectual hegemony of neoliberalism in our age…their treatment reflects not just economic pathology, but the deep trouble our inegalitarian age has placed democracy in…