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.
Econocracyeconocracy (e·con·oc·ra·cy) n. A society in which political goals are
defined in terms of their effect on the economy, which is believed to be a
distinct system with its own logic that requires experts to manage it.
Living in an econocracy
The existence of econocracy is apparent in everyday language. It is
commonplace for the media to talk about ‘the economy’ as an entity
in itself, and how something will be ‘good for the economy’ or ‘bad
for the economy’. The economy can speed up, slow down, improve,
decline, crash or recover, but no
Speaking to students who are part of the movement to reform economics education, it is clear that many decided to study the subject
for similar reasons. One talked of wanting to learn ‘the language
spoken in the highest spheres of power today’. Another explained
how he wanted ‘to understand how society as a whole functions’.
With the rise of econocracy it has become increasingly apparent to
many young people that to be able to follow, engage with and influence the great social debates of our time one must be able to speak
the language of economics.
a technocratic system that marginalises citizens and restricts their
ability to engage with economic issues. Econocracy is a system where
some have access to economic knowledge and authority and others
do not. While improving the quality of experts would undoubtedly
be good for society, the wider system will still be incompatible with
democracy and with some of our most deeply cherished political
beliefs. Therefore, to finish we must return to the wider question
of society and politics in order to show how we need more than
just better experts; we need a new
appeared in the
media giving opinions about the health of the economy and predicting how this event or that policy would affect it. These men (and it
is mostly men) were confident and authoritative and their opinions
were respected. They conversed with each other using jargon, graphs
2 The econocracy
and statistics which made them difficult to understand. We felt
that to understand and shape the world we needed to speak their
language and that’s how we all ended up studying economics in the
same year at the University of Manchester in 2011.
After that it felt like we
Exhibit 3.1 Economic perspectives
a variety of
use rules of
act in their
do not have a
a class and
stable in the
formulation of the purpose of a liberal education is given
by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU):
An approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares
them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. This approach
emphasizes broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture,
and society) as well as in-depth achievement in a specific field of interest. It helps students develop a sense of social responsibility; strong
intellectual and practical skills that span all major fields of study,
124 The econocracy
limited relevance to some of society’s
most pressing problems, has not gone unnoticed. Consequently, the
final section of this chapter documents how students are campaigning to persuade the discipline to renew itself. We recount the modern
struggle for the soul of economics that is taking place in universities
across the world.
The struggle for the soul of economics 93
The rise of econocracy and the narrowing of economics as a
discipline are not historically coincidental. By presenting economics
as a single, unified theoretical framework that can provide unique
of digits: capitalism, financialisation, public accountability. There is another which sounds rather more mundane. We have them because leaders don't know how else to lead.
If the liberal ideals of democracy don't really function in ‘actually existing democracies’, 1 if the grand theories of economics and business are too abstract, there are always numbers and targets instead. These become workable proxies for ideas and policies. They are the way leaders evaluate each other. They are how twenty-first-century econocracy 2 functions
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’.