New Roots

Bella Caledonia, by Mike Small
17th May 2020

As the psychological impact of the virus experience lands heavier with every week that passes, both the immediate individual stress and anxiety, but also the deeper awareness of the global consequences, so too does the looming economic disaster. The same people who have been found out for their gross incompetence and criminal negligence in public health are also in charge of our economic destiny.

Much has been made of the ideological roots of the cabal that published Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity: Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, and there is the wider Free Enterprise Group that also advocates for a more “unfettered capitalism” with admiring glances at other countries where more “red-blooded” free markets operate. Certainly in the immediate responses to the corona crisis Rishi Sunak has been forced to make the sort of state interventions that would have made Jeremy Corbyn blush. However, look a bit closer and the picture looks very different.

As George Kerevan points out:

“Even at the upper bound of £100 billion to support furloughed workers, that sum is a tiny fraction of the £1.2 trillion that both Labour and Tory governments forked out to save the big banks, following the 2008 financial meltdown.  Even if you add in the £350 billion the Chancellor is spending on directly supporting companies during the lockdown, the banks got three times as much in total to protect their arses.”

Kerevan concludes: “The rise in public investment is designed to bail out global capitalism, not to benefit ordinary folk. Austerity in the shape of cuts to wages and welfare spending is still very much on the cards – and COVID-19 will be the convenient justification”.

But if the stream of people packed into trains and tubes and buses across England was a chilling sight of the new precariat, mainstream economic thinking is not just one that can’t cope with the coming depression, it’s one that was already completely dysfunctional. Worse still the radical right that is mismanaging this crisis have terrifying ideas about the world.

A few years ago Dominic Raab wrote a paper for the Centre for Policy Studies  urging that “the definition of fair dismissal should be widened … to encompass inadequate performance … [This] would help employers get the best from their staff.” The paper also argued for exempting businesses from paying the minimum wage for under-21s, then the princely sum of between £3.68 and £4.98. Interviewed about the book Britannia Unleashed Raab said: “The talented and hard-working have nothing to fear.”

The Conservatives who penned Britannia Unleashed attacked what they saw as the UK’s “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation” and, most memorably, derided British workers as “among the worst idlers in the world” (“We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”)

The worldview of shirkers and idlers has been transferred, from the rabid right’s mauling of ordinary people and creation of endless imagined grievances for its Brexit fever-dream, neatly to the corona virus and the release of the lockdown being presented as a form of liberation. The Daily Mail’s union-bashing front page urging teachers to be “heroes” like nurses and other frontline staff is perhaps the high-point of this sickness.

But the wider problem is not just their punitive and nasty view of humanity. That can and will be opposed and fought against. The wider problem is that they do not know what the economy is for other than to accumulate wealth and produce endless stuff.

New Roots

But as the western world staggers in rudderless incomprehension new economic and political stories are rapidly emerging which make sense of the world.

As the economic anthropolgist Jason Hickel argues: “If your economy requires people to consume things they don’t need or even want, and to do more of it each year than the year before, just in order to keep the whole edifice from collapsing, then you need a different economy.

The new big idea is “degrowth” and it’s taking fire.

Put simply degrowth is “a planned yet adaptive, sustainable, and equitable downscaling of the economy, leading to a future where we can live better with less.”

There were 3,200 scientific articles published on degrowth in 2019 (up from less than 100 in 2000, and 600 in 2010), with contributions across economics and philosophy, anthropology and ecology.

On May 11 Positive Money UK launched a brilliant new report outlining how the UK can achieve a post-growth economy that prioritizes human well-being and ecological stability.

Read the Tragedy of Growth report here.

A new poll out last week finds that 8 out of 10 Britons want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth. 89% of people in Scotland though that health and wellbeing should be the priority in these times.

“Positive Money, the campaigning group that commissioned the research, said the poll showed that the government should publish statistics on social indicators, health, the environment and quality of life to give a truer picture of the UK’s status and help policymakers better target what the public wants.

The explosion of degrowth theory is seen everywhere.

More than 1,100 academics from around the world have signed this open letter calling for a shift to postgrowth and degrowth economics in rebuilding after covid19. This letter is the result of a collaborative process within the degrowth international network. It has been signed by more than 1,100 experts and over 70 organizations from more than 60 countries.

In Degrowth: New Roots for the Economy they argue:

“The crisis triggered by the Coronavirus has already exposed many weaknesses of our growth-obsessed capitalist economy – insecurity for many, healthcare systems crippled by years of austerity and the undervaluation of some of the most essential professions. This system, rooted in exploitation of people and nature, which is severely prone to crises, was nevertheless considered normal. Although the world economy produces more than ever before, it fails to take care of humans and the planet, instead the wealth is hoarded and the planet is ravaged. Millions of children die every year from preventable causes, 820 million people are undernourished, biodiversity and ecosystems are being degraded and greenhouse gases continue to soar, leading to violent anthropogenic climate change: sea level rise, devastating storms, droughts and fires that devour entire regions.

For decades, the dominant strategies against these ills were to leave economic distribution largely to market forces and to lessen ecological degradation through decoupling and green growth. This has not worked. We now have an opportunity to build on the experiences of the Corona crisis: from new forms of cooperation and solidarity that are flourishing, to the widespread appreciation of basic societal services like health and care work, food provisioning and waste removal. The pandemic has also led to government actions unprecedented in modern peacetime, demonstrating what is possible when there is a will to act: the unquestioned reshuffling of budgets, mobilization and redistribution of money, rapid expansion of social security systems and housing for the homeless.

At the same time, we need to be aware of the problematic authoritarian tendencies on the rise like mass surveillance and invasive technologies, border closures, restrictions on the right of assembly, and the exploitation of the crisis by disaster capitalism. We must firmly resist such dynamics, but not stop there. To start a transition towards a radically different kind of society, rather than desperately trying to get the destructive growth machine running again, we suggest to build on past lessons and the abundance of social and solidarity initiatives that have sprouted around the world these past months. Unlike after the 2008 financial crisis, we should save people and the planet rather than bail out the corporations, and emerge from this crisis with measures of sufficiency instead of austerity.”

They argue for five principles for a genuine and lasting recovery:

1) Put life at the center of our economic systems

2) Radically reevaluate how much and what work is necessary for a good life for all

3) Organize society around the provision of essential goods and services

4) Democratize society

5) Base political and economic systems on the principle of solidarity

The analysis recognises that we are at a crossroads that is both global and intergenerational, operating both within the “developed” world and across the world: “Redistribution and justice – transnational, intersectional and intergenerational – must be the basis for reconciliation between current and future generations, social groups within countries as well as between countries of the Global South and Global North.”

These are some profound insights in terrible times. No doubt they will be resisted and ridiculed because they very idea of growth, endless growth and limitless choice, is so hard-wired into your brain you take it to be an unassailable truth. But the virus experience and the coming collapse is exposing the redundancy of our economic systems and the fantasies they are based on. The experience is forcing us to re-evaluate our base values and core assumptions about the world. The coming changes will be resisted by those who are too invested in the collapsing system, and must be fought for by those of us who survive and want to continue.