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Has The Economy Failed Society?

Posted By Administration, Friday, January 4, 2019
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Esmee Wilcox has published her first installment in our Emerging Fellows program. She recaptures socioeconomic theories in the light of realities being experienced in our modern age. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Societies have sleepwalked into an acceptance of the predominance of capital. We have gone far beyond Karl Marx’s theories of capital driving the ordering of society. We no longer question the consequence of this imbalance for our existence. We need to rebalance the needs of capital and society. Not simply as an end in itself, but primarily because we need new social norms to tackle future global issues. How has this imbalance come about?

Is Marx right that the ordering of society is necessarily driven by the needs of capital? If so, what does this mean for the assumptions we bring to our conception of society? What does this mean for the widely-held view that capitalism has triumphed other economic models?

The 1990s view of the ‘triumph of capitalism’ came out of the toppling of the old communist order in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire. Alongside this came a slow opening up of China to trade and privately run enterprise from the late 1970s. However, there is a flaw in the logic to present capitalism as the only alternative to communism. Without any credible alternative models on the table, it is easy to see why the ideology of capitalism took hold. 25 years on, with rising populism coupled with pervasive neo-liberal power, there are three interconnected trends that illuminate the contradictions and flaws in the predominance of the economy in our patterns of local and global behaviours.

First, the enduring power of the interests of capital at the heart of government. Politically-centrist governments have gained and retained power with policies that appeal to lower-income communities. They appeal to the interests of capital because they have done so without transferring political influence.

At the same time, the interests of capital have subtly influenced the organising of public and social value to be more ‘commercial’. It has confused being responsive to citizens needs with being economically driven. The ‘McKinsey effect’ on public policy-making should not be underestimated. In more recent years there has been some recognition of the need to rebalance social with economic value within UK local government: the 2012 Social Value Act created a space for public policy-makers to utilise its purchasing power to balance economic efficiencies with social benefits. However, it hasn’t challenged the underlying economic model whereby one’s life expectancy and life chances can be predicted by one’s mother’s educational status and the extent of your vocabulary at age two.

Second, our attachment to material possessions – aptly described as ‘affluenza’ – at the heart of our economic growth model, placates the reality of our diminishing ability to influence capital power. Credit is freely available, we can buy our housing association property, but we can’t persuade governments to pay for sufficient modern housing stock to have a home and a family life. This consumerist economic model drives income generation over friendships and developing community capital. Coupled with business interests creating a more precarious working environment, we are increasingly squeezing out time to care.

Third, the status anxiety that comes from our awareness of our social position in any social interaction. We’re so worried about people who have more income. More luxurious experiences than us. Retaining our rung on the ladder. Our status dominates our social interactions and reduces the joy in them. As social encounters become harder to have, we shy away from them and become lonelier and more isolated.

This is why it’s interesting to consider alternatives to the predominance of economic drivers on our society. It doesn’t just affect people at the bottom of income distribution, but the powerful interests of capital. Society can’t be divided into economically self-supporting strata when social phenomena exist as a response to the whole. We can no longer ignore these feedback mechanisms.

Marx’s theories were conceived of in far less connected societies. They have remained intact as we have become more globally connected. However, they are not a guide to our future that is more complex, interconnected and unpredictable. We know that self-organised, adaptive and resilient communities are more able to respond to changes in the external environment. This requires high levels of co-operation and collaboration, the antithesis of atomised economic self-supporting behaviours. These are a clue to the social norms that have to be in abundance if we are to tackle global late 21st Century issues.

The triumph of capitalism is a binary argument suited to the interests of 20th century phenomena. It has taken hold because we have become seduced by its simplicity and its immediate rewards. It is much more difficult, and yet more compelling, to seek out the 21st Century socio-economic norms that will help us face up to scarce physical resources. It will be disruptive but offers hope for future generations.

© Esmee Wilcox 2019

Tags:  capitalism  economics  power 

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Ticket to the Future

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Polina Silakova, a member of our Emerging Fellows program accomplishes her blogging mission successfully in 2018 by publishing an interesting post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

People introduced tickets as a mechanism to control access to limited goods and services. We are surrounded by tickets. A ticket on a plane reserves us a seat in a machine which will take us to new horizons. A visa allows us to stay in a place that is usually attractive enough to create an artificial contest for the right to be there. A membership provides you with services not available to others. You invest – you get access to an opportunity. If we are in a lucky position, we can choose the ticket and the destination. If we overlay this concept with the idea of a variety of possible futures awaiting us ahead, a ticket to which future do we want to get?

Over the past 12 months, we discussed this by looking at potential pathways for the post-capitalist economy. We were especially keen to know whether the universal moral values or the capitalistic cult for possessions will guide our future. The search for the answer took us to different corners of the planet where people’s responses to the side-effects of capitalism are sparking hope that we might be heading towards a better future.

We saw young entrepreneurs jumping off the big and clumsy steam train of global corporations (successful if measured by their share price), because these people could not agree with the direction that they were heading towards. In the smog from ever increasing unsustainable production, they could not see the purpose to align with. We applauded to the municipalists movement in Barcelona, who understood that improved equality and long-term sustainability will make citizens happier than infinite growth benefiting a few. Not only they challenged the current understanding of democracy, but could demonstrate already in the first couple of years that their approach is working. We even joined a hearing in a US courtroom, where boys and girls from iMatter, already at a young age have become disillusioned with their government’s ability to protect their needs and those of future generations. They refused to accept tickets to the future valid only till the end of the government’s election term.

These steps towards the increased consciousness plant seeds of hope that the next iteration of economic system will be more sustainable and just. And yet, the embodiment of this hope to a greater extent depends on the choices that powerful global businesses will make. Many quoted this year’s annual letter from the CEO of BlackRock – one of the most influential global investment firms. It stated that following new expectations from customers and community, they are now evaluating companies based on their response to “broader societal challenges” and whether they “serve a social purpose.” The New York Times called the letter “a watershed moment on Wall Street” raising “questions about the very nature of capitalism”.

The question remains though: what is driving the companies to make this shift? Does it happen out of fear to lose customer trust or investors’ support, with profit remaining the underlying motive? If so, how significant can this social impact be? Does it become just another marketing tool for the same old endgame: more sales, more growth, more money?

Even then – we could hope – this shift could take us a little closer towards a more positive version of the future. Remember the coffee-cup example from our previous posts? Initially driven by a bunch of innovators, reusable coffee cups are now conquering the world, helping it to become a tiny bit more sustainable. Similarly, the new generation of businessmen growing up in the environment where creating positive social impact is becoming a norm might nurture values quite different to those ruling the capitalistic economy. In the face of increasingly challenging global issues, these values will help them to genuinely engage in revisiting unsustainable business models.

To what type of future humanity is heading depends on the tickets that each of us will choose. These tickets are a combination of choices that we make every day. These are our “investments”, each associated with a specific type of future. Can I give an example? Here you go.

We started this series just after last Christmas and as we finish it, the new Christmas season is approaching. If you are wondering what choices you could still make this year to contribute to a “good future destination” ticket, think of your Christmas presents. Consider not buying new stuff. Give your loved ones experiences. Give surprise visits to people you haven’t seen for a long time. Give them your time and take them for a walk in a forest. Give them a ticket to joyful moments of life – they will never end up in landfill.

 
© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  United States 

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Economics lessons from wild nature

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s sixth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores some economics lessons to be learned from nature. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If we try to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic systems, would we conclude that capitalism “better suits to the environment” (better suits us) than communism? After all, most of the ex-communist countries shifted to capitalism and the majority of the few remaining are now transitioning to free market economies. Have we naturally selected the better way? Apparently, only a half of us would agree. According to a recent online survey of twenty thousand people in 28 countries run by the research company Ipsos, half of respondents around the globe think that now, in the XXI century, “socialist ideals are of great value for societal progress”.

What exactly are these ideals? Here are some stats:
•9 in 10 believe that education should be free and that free healthcare is a human right
•7 in 10 think that everyone should have the right to an unconditional basic income (UBI).
•Interestingly, about the same number (7 in 10) also agree that it is right for people who are talented to earn more than those who are less gifted, and that free-market competition brings out the best in people.
It seems that although the benefits of free markets in fostering progress are valued when it comes to the essential aspects of life – health, welfare, education – many of us are craving for a more egalitarian system; the one alleviating the polarizing inequality that capitalism has created.

With so many innovations fostering humanity’s progress being inspired by nature, we are curious: what examples of democratic distribution of resources exist in the wild world? One study particularly attracted our attention. A Belgian-French group of scientists studied self-organised collective decision-making by animals when it comes to choosing between alternative resources.

They ran an experiment where 50 cockroaches (Blattella germanica) were presented with three shelters, each with a capacity to hold 40 individuals. For cockroaches, who prefer dark to light, such a shelter is a resource, and they quickly filled them in. But instead of doing this in a chaotic manner, the cockroaches split into two equal groups of 25 occupying two shelters and leaving the third one empty. While in a scenario with larger shelters – each big enough for the whole group – only one of the shelters got occupied. The researchers were astonished by how cockroaches maximise the benefit of limited resources, trading off being together and access to shelter resources and finding a balance between collaboration and competition. “Without elaborate communication, global information, and explicit comparison of available opportunities, […] the collective decision emerges from the interactions between equal individuals, initially possessing little information about their environment. It is remarkable, then, that these rules should produce a collective pattern that maximizes individual fitness.”

Economic democracy observed in behaviour of cockroaches presents some of the features where capitalism and representative democracy did not quite succeed: egalitarian distribution of resource and decision-making benefiting all (or at least the majority of) individuals. It might seem too simplistic to directly compare the economic problems faced by Blattella germanica and those of Homo sapiens. But if we think of some emerging movements – collaborative mobile democracy, participatory budgeting, commons-based economic governance – are they not technologically empowered forms of truly collective decision-making, replicating those observed in nature? With new technologies making us more interconnected, we now have a unique opportunity to access the knowledge and opinions of all interested citizens and reshape the way we, as a society, take decisions and distribute value.

Following nature’s principle of evolution, only a better system, distributive by design and maximising the fitness of more individuals, will be able to replace capitalism by making it obsolete. Mother nature offers us many lessons, and the lesson of balancing collaboration and competition has been one of the hardest to comprehend. It requires both individual engagement and strong leadership ability to connect knowledge and talents from the community and to facilitate the best ideas evolving in something new.

As American sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests, we cannot smash or escape capitalism, but we can tame or erode it. By slowly introducing new elements, inspired by nature and enabled by technology, we might start shifting the focus from maximising financial value and growth to real value creation and more equality. And then who knows… maybe one day this will make capitalism in its classical form obsolete.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  governance 

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Get Real

Posted By Administration, Friday, February 2, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article written for the program. In it, he explores the real economy and asks a few questions along the way.

Our current economic system and all the social and political systems tied to it require perpetual growth. Growth not only underpins the financial economy but the real economy as well, which requires new goods and services (or more demand for the same) to expand. The end of growth would mean the collapse of financial markets and stagnation in the real economy. It would also lead to social and political upheaval due to financial inequality. The socio-political perspective that underlies our obsession with growth is the presumption that lower and middle-class citizens will accept massive inequality as long as their lives (and wages) get incrementally better, year after year. We would all love to have that private yacht, but are content as long as our annual salary increase allows us to take that Alaskan cruise. And this incremental improvement does not come from increased economic equality or financial redistribution; it is a result of growth.

Another long standing economic assumption is that, as jobs are automated, new forms of work will emerge. While some estimates follow a historically consistent trend of 10% job displacement in the foreseeable future, other estimates predict an acceleration of displacement, up to 50%. If job displacement does enter the 50% range, the creation of as-yet-unknown jobs, at such significantly high numbers in a relatively short period of time, seems unlikely. Even minor displacement can have a significant disruptive effect on political and social cohesion. But there is another option for continual growth in the real economy: instead of creating new jobs, simply commoditize things that people are currently doing for free.

Paul Mason alludes to this in his book “Post-Capitalism” when he suggests that in order to make this a scalable economic area of growth, “would require the mass commercialization of ordinary human life.” Late capitalism appears to be stealing a few plays from the feminist economics playbook. While media attention has largely been focused on pay equity between genders, some of the foundational work in feminist economics has focused on care work and intra-household bargaining. It is not much of a stretch to interpret Mason’s “ordinary human life” as the traditional perspective of unpaid “women’s work”.

If one is looking for a macro-trend in the real economy, one need look no further than the colonization of social interaction by the economy. This is evident in the more ubiquitous forms of social media but is also increasingly prevalent in more innocuous forms. Consider the cuddle party, a social media coordinated interaction where strangers come together out of a desire to cuddle (and watch a movie). Organizations such as “Nurse Next Door” look after the elderly, Christmas dinner can be ordered online, and Chore apps convince kids to (continue) to do work around the house “for free”. The company “Do My Stuff” has succinctly defined the overall trend with their slogan “Outsource your life”.

Anyone considering a new business could start with the question “What are people doing today for free, that I can get them to pay for tomorrow?” Of course, the question now must be asked, if every tiny component of our existence becomes commoditized and outsourced, are we even real anymore?



© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  work 

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