democracy economics politics

Guest post: What’s the opposite of neoliberalism?

I reviewed Martin Whitlock‘s book Human Politics, Human Value a few years ago, which I thought approached some familiar political problems in an imaginative way. When Martin got in touch about revisiting the idea of a more human politics, I suggested a guest post. Here it is.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This ancient Greek proverb, famously applied by Isiah Berlin to writers and thinkers, is an equally apt description of the state of current economic discourse.

The progressive movement has the green new deal, degrowth, the wellbeing economy, land reform, the Robin Hood tax, social enterprise, UBI, sovereign money, beyond-GDP and literally dozens of similarly reform-based framings; but the established neoliberal order has only one principle, which is the power of market capitalism. So while the progressive fox is nipping hither and thither the neoliberal hedgehog just stays put and does its thing.

There are thousands of groups and organisations all working for progressive economic and social reform. The collective effort is enormous, and the demand, according to opinion polling, is equally great. But that effort remains too segmented to become a truly transformative force. For example, environmental and economic outcomes are intimately related, as many climate change activists and poverty campaigners understand, but they are not united in a single big idea supporting both objectives.

This problem arises partly from the diverse ecology of the change movement, which ranges from well-funded academic groups and policy think-tanks to small, local campaigns run by volunteers. This diversity reflects the fact that change operates at different levels: systemic, policy and reactive.

Often the reactive level is the only one that is available. It offers a rapid response to events and will settle, if necessary, for a short-term objective such as the postponement in the closure of a hospital. The fuel for this is anger and hurt, often articulated on campaigning sites such as 38 Degrees

Policy is where much of the money goes, and that’s because it’s closely related to politics. This, in turn, depends on personalities and circumstances. In the case of Brexit, for example, personalities and circumstances were everything and very little thought was given to the effect it would have on people’s lives.

What determines that effect is the system level, which dictates the direction of everyday decision-making. When the rules of the system change, things happen differently because decision-making is rerouted to different outcomes.

Systemic change is rare, but highly consequential. It ushered in the welfare state after 1945, and neoliberalism in the 1980s. It becomes possible when it is widely recognised that the current system is not working. Something moves in to fill the vacuum, but it is not necessarily something better. The vacuum is filled by whatever most effectively asserts its claim.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, neoliberalism was discredited but it managed, nonetheless to reassert its claim at a system level. The outcome was a sharp increase in the wealth of the asset-rich, while those whom neoliberalism had failed were asked to take the hit for the rich through austerity policies that were neither necessary nor effective. 

To what extent the progressive movement could have asserted itself after 2008 can be endlessly debated, but the important question concerns now, not then. As the reality of Brexit dawns and Covid changes our perception of what an economy is for, the post-Covid reconstruction offers a real opportunity for any who can seize it.

For this to be the progressives’ moment, a new uniformity of purpose and message is needed. All the serious, well thought-out and appropriately nuanced policy proposals that have sustained progressive thinking since the 1980s will have to be subordinated to a form of messaging that is easily stated and has intuitive resonance.

To put that another way, the fox needs to start behaving like a hedgehog. For all the diversity of ideas-making, now is the time for everybody to be talking about the same thing. Agreeing what that thing is, and finding a way to describe it, is the progressive movement’s key task.

As a way of moving this forward, my colleague Joshua Malkin and I have published an open letter about “human politics”. I used this term in the title of a book some years ago and it still feels resonant. The power of “human” is that it is real, it is both strong and vulnerable, and it goes to the essence of who we are. In economic terms it is almost the only quality that outranks money. Unlike freedom, opportunity, health and prosperity, humanness cannot be bought, owned, traded or commodified. And it makes intuitive sense that we would place our real human needs at the centre of our economic endeavour.

In practical terms human politics identifies as a counterpoint to the money politics of neoliberalism and as an answer to what lies beyond that failed approach. It is politics because there is no economic reform without a political intention. It is human because we can no longer go on making policy as if people are self-interested economic units – homo economicus, in the economists’ jargon.

And just as neoliberalism refers to a set of market-oriented principles that defer to the power of private capital, human politics references a set of people-centred principles that defer to the boundless human potential to create the real wealth of human and environmental wellbeing.

These human centred principles that could unite the progressive movement within a shared framing should include:

  1. Land and housing: land ownership and use should create real value for people and communities, including truly affordable housing;
  2. Responsible business: all companies should embrace social and environmental values;
  3. Money: bank lending should prioritise beneficial human outcomes over the accumulation of money-assets;
  4. Public services: hospitals, schools and social care should be seen as creators of value, not costs to be reduced;
  5. Economic outcomes: GDP should be reformed to prioritise human wellbeing over resource depletion, environmental destruction and asset price increases.

These principles illustrate descriptively how a human politics and a human economy would differ from the current, money-fixated system. With a focus on human rather than money outcomes they connect the diverse elements of the economic reform movement within a shared picture of what we are all seeking to achieve.

A unified vision of this sort describes the hedgehog which the progressive movement has to become if we’re serious about changing the system before vested interests do it for us. Whether it’s “human politics” or some other shared framing, we can’t afford to keep running hither and thither while thinking of ourselves as foxing clever.

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