“I think we really are the victims of a discursive shift, since the late 1970′s, toward economics”, the late historian Tony Judt said in a recent book.
“Intellectuals don’t ask if something is right or wrong, but whether a policy is efficient or inefficient. They don’t ask if a measure is good or bad, but whether or not it improves productivity…Until you’ve generated resources, goes the refrain, there’s no point in having a conversation about distributing them. This, it seems to me, comes close to a sort of soft blackmail.”
Judt talked of ‘intellectuals’, but his point is surely more relevant to the general public sphere than the fusty rooms of academia. Our national discourse in media and politics focuses relentlessly on economic questions and technical matters rather than fundamental questions of ‘what should be done?’. It is as if the latter has already been decided behind closed doors by a panel of superior minds without the rest of us getting a look-in.
The prevailing narrative that dominates our public life as a result is relentlessly narrow in focus. Ever-expanding air travel is treated as a matter of growth and jobs alone; decent wages and working conditions are subject to remaining ‘competitive’ with sweatshop economies whose people would rather live here; a couple of decimal points off economic output is hyped up into a national crisis, as if we were really at war.
Advocates of this economic determinism effectively see politics as a branch of economics rather than vice versa, while proclaiming a quasi-Marxist ‘inevitability’ of economic progress and ignoring or denying the legitimacy of opposing viewpoints.
On the right wing of politics, this narrative manifests itself mostly through a free market fundamentalism in which the runaway train of global capitalism is reinvented as some sort of supreme moral arbiter.
On the left, we have our own, muddier and more pragmatic versions.
Particularly for Labour, a narrative focusing only on economic growth is an easy choice in practical political terms. It fits in with the dominant media narrative. It winds up Conservatives on the economy and encourages those, not least in the unions, who want more spending in their favoured areas.
This pragmatism is particularly evident on aviation, a touchstone issue for both left and right which asks us to commit on core issues like what sort of economy we want, how serious we are about climate change and our attitudes to the countryside and green spaces.
The New Statesman’s Rafael Behr showed off this tendency when he wrote:
“The point about the need for more airport capacity has effectively been conceded [my emphasis], so the environmental argument is much diminished. Ultimately reducing the UK’s carbon footprint will be as much a question of cleaner planes as fewer flights. Eventually, the government will U-turn on the third runway. [Ed] Miliband would be smart to get in there first.”
This is a stealthy form of authoritarianism that is all-too-common from those of an economic determinist tendency – a willingness to shut people out, even from discussion.
The strength of this narrative in politics today can also be seen in the sight of power-hungry politicians falling over each other to give away powers to ‘independent’ bodies. The Government’s aviation inquiry is headed by Howard Davies, a former director of the CBI (which is one of the most vociferous lobbyists for expansion).
So many of the left’s ‘Elephants in the Room’ can be placed under the generally unspoken and undefined division between those of this tendency on the one hand and the disparate advocates of meaningful political change on the other.
On immigration, Ed Miliband has said of Labour’s record, “by focusing exclusively on immigration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – whose living standards were being squeezed. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people”.
Our cost of living crisis is exacerbated in London and the South East by an insane property market that shuts out ordinary young people. At the same time the internationalised super-rich guzzle up properties (many left empty) in the poshest areas, pushing the merely wealthy elsewhere and squeezing the market all the way down.
Land and housing is a finite resource, yet the political consensus tells us that we should welcome this ‘investment’ because it makes the country wealthier.
These are examples of a democratic society that has lost (or perhaps never found) a sense of itself and what it is for.
Alexis deTocqueville, that great chronicler of democratic societies, regarded ‘associations’ as vital to prevent them from sinking into ‘despotism’.
The state of our main political parties offers cause for concern here, with memberships decimated over the years and coffers stoked up by vested interests. The ‘despotism’ they are submitting to is of a feral economics that is making claims on the whole of existence, despite its many failings (as evidenced in repeated financial crises) and against the wishes of its more intelligent practitioners.
Edward and Robert Skidelsky for example have pointed out that John Maynard Keynes, a hero of many left-leaning economic determinists, believed that increasing wealth would enable us all to work less.
Instead, here and now, we are told how we need to work harder to serve the economy, as if there are verdant uplands over the horizon that we will reach whenever we achieve whatever it is the continuously growing economy is meant to achieve (which is never specified).
From the politicians’ point of view this growth narrative is surely linked umbilically to the tax receipts that make tax cuts and spending plans possible.
Nevertheless, it is not an attractive political project.
As the Skidelsky father and son point out, “all we can offer our children is insecurity and hard graft”.