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The perils of leaving economics to the experts

One hundred years ago the idea of ‘the economy’ didn’t exist. Now, improving ‘the economy’ has come to be seen as one of the most important tasks facing modern societies. Politics and policymaking are increasingly conducted in the language of economics and economic logic increasingly frames how political problems are defined and addressed. The result is that crucial societal functions are outsourced to economic experts. The econocracy is about how this particular way of thinking about economies and economics has come to dominate many modern societies and its damaging consequences. We have put experts in charge but those experts are not fit for purpose.

A growing movement is arguing that we should redefine the relationship between society and economics. Across the world, students, the economists of the future, are rebelling against their education. From three members of this movement comes a book that tries to open up the black box of economic decision making to public scrutiny. We show how a particular form of economics has come to dominate in universities across the UK and has thus shaped our understanding of the economy. We document the weaknesses of this form of economics and how it has failed to address many important issues such as financial stability, environmental sustainability and inequality; and we set out a vision for how we can bring economic discussion and decision making back into the public sphere to ensure the societies of the future can flourish.

Elites at the end of the Establishment
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This book surveys the elite state of play in Britain as it is now. It argues that the Establishment, as it has been conceived, is coming to an end. The book looks at how elites, by trying to get ahead, have destabilised the very institutions on which their power is based. It also looks at how leaders have adapted to get to the top. Those most suited to pleasing their assessors get there first. The book reveals some of the ways elites use to stay at the top once they get there. It looks at the secrets and lies that underpin elite power and control. Some are systematic and organised, and some are simply the lies leaders tell themselves. The book shows how leadership has been transformed into a numbers game because numbers can be tallied up in a way that ideas cannot. And because elites co-create the game, they can also change the rules as and when they need to. The book focuses on exit strategies and how canny elites survive when it all goes wrong. It briefly explores what solutions there might be to the current problems of leadership.

The well-being of Europe’s citizens depends less on individual consumption and more on their social consumption of essential goods and services – from water and retail banking to schools and care homes – in what we call the foundational economy. Individual consumption depends on market income, while foundational consumption depends on social infrastructure and delivery systems of networks and branches, which are neither created nor renewed automatically, even as incomes increase. This historically created foundational economy has been wrecked in the last generation by privatisation, outsourcing, franchising and the widespread penetration of opportunistic and predatory business models. The distinctive, primary role of public policy should therefore be to secure the supply of basic services for all citizens (not a quantum of economic growth and jobs). Reconstructing the foundational has to start with a vision of citizenship that identifies foundational entitlements as the conditions for dignified human development, and likewise has to depend on treating the business enterprises central to the foundational economy as juridical persons with claims to entitlements but also with responsibilities and duties. If the aim is citizen well-being and flourishing for the many not the few, then European politics at regional, national and EU level needs to be refocused on foundational consumption and securing universal minimum access and quality. If/when government is unresponsive, the impetus for change has to come from engaging citizens locally and regionally in actions which break with the top down politics of ‘vote for us and we will do this for you’.

Reclaiming art and culture for the common good

This book is about what happens when we turn culture into an industry, and how we can fix this. Culture is central to what it is to be human, to live in a social world. The key argument of the book is that culture, as an object of public policy, should be moved out of "industry" and back into the sphere of public responsibility alongside health, education, social welfare, and basic infrastructure. The book outlines the policy context for Chris Smith's adoption of "creative industries", a folding of art and popular culture into a dynamic new knowledge economy. It discusses the current situation of "polycrisis" as neoliberal capitalism gives way to a period of uncertainty and insecurity. The book confronts the common idea that culture is a luxury, something to be enjoyed after the essentials have been met. It outlines the Foundation Economy Collective's foundational approach, showing how it can be applied to the cultural sector. The book argues that any cultural policy must address both the small-scale local economies and the large-scale corporate cultural industries. It addresses the question of the everyday local economies of small and independent businesses. These were addressed by the Greater London Council, whose "SME approach" was very influential in New Labour's adoption of cultural and creative industries.

A new politics of provision for an urbanized planet

This book examines how material systems such as transportation, energy and housing form the basis of human freedom. It begins by explaining this linkage by defining reliance systems, the basic way in which we become free to act not only as a result of our bodily capabilities or the absence of barriers but because of collectively produced systems. As virtually all of us rely on such systems – water, food, energy, healthcare, etc. – for freedom, the book argues that they must form the centre of a twenty-first-century politics. Rather than envisioning a healthier politics of reliance systems exclusively through rights or justice or deliberative democracy, we argue that they must become the centre of a new social contract. More specifically, we discuss the politics of reliance systems as a set of spatial contracts. Spatial contracts are the full set of politics governing any given system, and as such they are historically, geographically and system specific. In order to fully understand spatial contracts, we develop an analytical framework focused on three areas. Seeing like a system shows how systems thinking can enable us to avoid ideological approaches to understanding given spatial contracts, repurposing key ideas from mainstream and heterodox economics. Seeing like a settlement shows how systems come together in space to form human settlements, and exposes key political divides between urban and rural, and formal and informal. Adapting Iris Marion Young’s five faces of oppression enables an understanding of the specific ways in which reliance systems can be exploitative.

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Private greed, political negligence and housing policy after Grenfell

As the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017 has slowly revealed a shadowy background of outsourcing and deregulation, and a council turning a blind eye to health and safety concerns, many questions need answers. Stuart Hodkinson has those answers. Safe as Houses weaves together Stuart’s research over the last decade with residents’ groups in council regeneration projects across London to provide the first comprehensive account of how Grenfell happened and how it could easily have happened in multiple locations across the country. It draws on examples of unsafe housing either refurbished or built by private companies under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to show both the terrible human consequences of outsourcing and deregulation and how the PFI has enabled developers, banks and investors to profiteer from highly lucrative, taxpayer-funded contracts. The book also provides shocking testimonies of how councils and other public bodies have continuously sided with their private partners, doing everything in their power to ignore, deflect and even silence those who speak out. The book concludes that the only way to end the era of unsafe regeneration and housing provision is to end the disastrous regime of self-regulation. This means strengthening safety laws, creating new enforcement agencies independent of government and industry, and replacing PFI and similar models of outsourcing with a new model of public housing that treats the provision of shelter as ‘a social service’ democratically accountable to its residents.

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How to fix Britain’s broken railways

Britain’s railways are broken. They no longer serve the needs of passengers or the general public. Train services are unreliable, too often delayed, too expensive and complex to use, and marred by strikes. This book takes the reader on a journey to discover how years of under-funding and privatisation have deprived the public of a usable rail system. It is only through understanding how Britain’s rail system has been broken that we can know how to fix it. As it shows, fixing the railways means going beyond simple demands such as ‘renationalise the railways’ and asking instead ‘what do we want the railways to be for’? It is only by attempting to answer this question that we can rebuild the rail system into something that genuinely meets people’s needs. The answer is far from straightforward, but this book argues that, if they are to be useful, the railways must be part of the solution to the twin crises of the climate emergency and social inequality. This means significant increases in government investment, but the current state of the railways stems largely from successive governments’ unwillingness to properly fund them, mostly to protect the wealthy from tax increases. Given the uneven distribution of political power in Britain and the rigidity of public policy, those who want to see the railways fixed have no choice but to fight to take rail policy out of the hands of the political and financial elite who have led us into this mess.

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Infrastructure, financial extraction and the global South

No struggle for social justice that lacks a grounded understanding of how wealth is accumulated within society, and by whom, is ever likely to make more than a marginal dent in the status quo. Much work has been done over the years by academics and activists to illuminate the broad processes of wealth extraction. But a constantly watchful eye is essential if new forms of financial extraction are to be blocked, short-circuited, deflected or unsettled. So when the World Bank and other well-known enablers of wealth extraction start to organise to promote greater private-sector involvement in ‘infrastructure’, for example through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), alarm bells should start to ring. How are roads, bridges, hospitals, ports and railways being eyed up by finance? What bevels and polishes the lens through which they are viewed? How is infrastructure being transformed into an ‘asset class’ that will yield the returns now demanded by investors? Why now? What does the reconfiguration of infrastructure tell us about the vulnerabilities of capital? The challenge is not only to understand the mechanisms through which infrastructure is being reconfigured to extract wealth: equally important is to think through how activists might best respond. What oppositional strategies genuinely unsettle elite power instead of making it stronger?

Why anger and confusion reign in an economy paralysed by myth
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For a number of decades our economy has failed to work for ordinary citizens. Stagnant wages have been combined with underemployment and rising costs of basic goods like healthcare, education and housing. At the same time, a small minority of the population make obscene profits, while in the background we continue to hurtle headlong into an environmental emergency. However, despite there being no shortage of anger and anti-elite sentiment expressed in what is often referred to as the ‘culture wars’, no significant challenge to the dominant economic model has broken into the mainstream. The pound and the fury argues that behind this failure of imagination are a set of taken-for-granted myths about how the economy works – myths that stifle debate and block change. The book analyses these myths, explores their origin, how they circulate and how they might be dispelled at a time when, away from the public gaze, economic theory is opening up new possibilities of economic action. Possibilities that, as we emerge from the chaos of Covid-19, could lead to the radical structural changes we desperately need.

From competition to the foundational economy

For thirty years, the British economy has repeated the same old experiment of subjecting everything to competition and market because that is what works in the imagination of central government. This book demonstrates the repeated failure of the 30 year policy experiments by examining three sectors: broadband, food supply and retail banking. It argues against naïve metaphors of national disease, highlights the imaginary (or cosmology) that frames those metaphors, and draws out the implications of the experiment. Discussing the role of the experiments in post-1945 Britain, the book's overview on telecommunications, supermarkets and retail banking, reveals the limits of treatment by competition. Privatisation of fixed line telecoms in the UK delivered a system in which the private and public interests are only partially aligned in relation to provision of broadband. Individual supermarket chains may struggle but the four big UK supermarket chains are generally presented as exemplars because they have for a generation combined adequate profits with low price, choice and quality to deliver shareholder value. The many inquiries into retail banking after the financial crisis have concluded that the sector's problem was not enough competition. In a devolved experiment, socially-licensed policies and priorities vary from place to place and context to context. However, meaningful political engagement with the specifics in the economy will need to avoid losing sight of four principles: contestation, judgement, discussion, and tinkering. While others can be blamed for the failure of the experiments, the political responsibility for the ending and starting another is collectively peoples'.