Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The welcome return of utopian economic thinking

Suddenly people are questioning the idea that the future involves all of working harder for ever and ever.

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said recently:
"In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. 
"So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone. It’s time to share the wealth from new technology, not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves."
Sian Berry, co-leader of the Greens, said at their conference earlier this month:
"It’s time to shift away from the culture which sees us work harder and harder for longer and longer, often without reward or satisfaction. And to recognise that true freedom will only be found when people have more control of their time and how it is spent. 
"That is why Greens want the next Budget, and every future Budget, to include a new economic indicator that measures people’s leisure time."
And the philosopher Kate Soper has called for an 'alternative hedonism':
Most politicians and business leaders seem likewise incapable of thinking ‘outside the box’ of consumerism.
Obsessed as they are with economic growth and GDP,  they do not invite the electorate to think about other ideas of progress and prosperity, and are more than happy for advertisers to retain their monopoly over the imagery and representation of pleasure and the ‘good life’. 
Even the left-wing critics of capitalism have been more bothered about the inequalities of access and distribution it creates than about the ways it confines us to market-driven ways of living.
I would want to read the small print before I endorsed her ideas, but she is right to point out how the narrow is the strip of ground usually occupied by economic debate in Britain.

And this has consequences. Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership because none of his rivals had anything interesting to say or much to say at all. And he, when you get beyond the noise on social media, was offering what was not much more than a conventional social democratic programme.

I welcome this flowering of utopian economic thinking. It's proponents have to make the sums work if they are to be taken seriously, but when I am told such ideas would bankrupt industry I recall what Charles Dickens wrote in Hard Times:
Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined, when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone.
And, I must ask, what would utopian Liberal Democrat ideas look like? It feels an awful long time since we had any.

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