If you read a lot of books on politics or economics, you can generally tell where an author is coming from within the first chapter or so. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a good book will strengthen the tradition it stands within and push forward that perspective. Uncategorisable books are more rare, but Human Politics, Human Value is one of them. Martin Whitlock ploughs his own furrow through the complications of globalisation and free market economics, with an unusual originality and clarity of thought.
Whitlock sees a crisis in British politics. Democracy has eroded, participation is low, and there is little trust between the governed and the government. Successive governments have failed to get a handle on poverty and exclusion, and bureaucracy has proliferated. It’s a crisis of imagination, doomed to endless tinkering, while “frustration is rapidly becoming the defining characteristic of political engagement.”
The problem lies in setting ourselves the wrong measure of success, according to Whitlock. By championing GDP as the one metric to rule them all, we have made economic activity a good in itself, whether or not that activity is useful and productive. The more transactions there are between us and the goods we require, the more GDP is created, but the result is “an economy in which so much work has no productive or useful value.”
Whitlock illustrates this through the supermarket, which adds so many layers of activity between the farmer and the consumer. Or a pair of trainers made for £3 in Asia and sold for £80 in Britain, with 90% of their price taken up with marketing, branding, shipping, retail overheads and shareholder profits. Perhaps worst of all, consider Britain’s housing crisis, and the fact that we have half a million estate and property agents.
Branding, marketing and retail do at least give us goods that we want at the end of the line, however complicated the chain. Other forms of work are best seen as a cost to be avoided. “If someone could get through their life without paying a penny to a lawyer,” Whitlock suggests, “they would count it a good result.” Accountancy, insurance, legal and management services are things we want to access as little as possible, but are an ever growing slice of the economy. The tendency towards activity as a good in itself is something the book calls the ‘transactional economy’:
“A transactional economy is one in which far more of the work people do is spent transacting (buying, selling, negotiating, managing, administering and checking) than is spent in producing real, usable wealth – the things that people want and need.”
What we should be after instead is ‘human value’, which includes “basic needs such as food and shelter, material goods and the time and opportunity to satisfy emotional, intellectual, creative, physical and social needs too.” These are not measured by GDP in its current form, so the economy inevitably fails to deliver everything we want from it. That’s where politics can come in, reshaping our priorities and re-balancing the economy towards greater participation. “The objective of human politics” says Whitlock, “must be to prioritise true collaboration in economic activity, to place the production of human value at its centre.”
The later chapters of the book explore this idea in practice, re-thinking insurance as a collaborative safety net with low overheads, for example. Global trade, democracy, debt and education are covered. There is a chapter on land and its importance to the economy. (If I had a criticism, it’s that climate change and environmental sustainability only comes up in any detail in the afterword.)
Each of these topics is approached with new perspectives and unusual ideas, some theoretical and some practical. Creative thought experiments bring in new arguments along the way. My favourite is the idea of tracing financial power by ‘following the builders’ – a journey that goes from the pyramids to the cathedrals, to stately homes, to the skyscrapers of corporate banks.
Human Politics, Human Value doesn’t settle for the usual answers. You might not agree with all of them, but at a time when our politicians seem so desperate for new ideas, it’s well worth taking the time to explore what politics could be if we put human benefit at the heart of the economy.