Patrice Riemens on Mon, 15 Oct 2018 08:18:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Lynsey Hanley: What’s the point of growth if it creates so much misery?

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What’s the point of growth if it creates so much misery?
By Lynsey Hanley

Forget the ‘high-skill, hi-tech’ obsession: we should invest in everyday services to create a society run for collective good

The Guardian, Monday 15 Oct 2018

The late Prof Mick Moran, who taught politics and government at Manchester University for most of his professional life, had, according to his colleagues, once had “a certain residual respect for our governing elites”. That all changed during the 2008 financial crisis, after which he experienced an epiphany “because it convinced him that the officer class in business and in politics did not know what it was doing”.

After his epiphany, Moran formed a collective of academics dedicated to exposing the complacency of finance-worship and to replacing it with an idea of running modern economies focused on maximising social good. They called themselves the Foundational Economy Collective, based on the idea that it’s in the everyday economy where there is most potential for true social regeneration: not top-down cash-splashing, but renewal and replenishment from the ground upwards.

It hurts nobody to bring local services back into local authority control and to divest from outsourcing firms

Foundational activities are the materials and services without which we cannot live a civilised life: clean, unrationed water; affordable electricity and gas without cuts to supply; collective transport on smooth roads and rails; quality health and social care provided free at the point of use; and reliable, sustainable food supply. Then there’s the “overlooked economy” – everyday services such as hairdressing, veterinary care, catering and hospitality and small-scale manufacturing – which employ far more people, across a wider geographical range, than the “high-skill, hi-tech” economy with which recent governments have been obsessed.

For the Foundational Economy authors, focusing on the fundamental value of invisible and unglamorous jobs “restores the importance of unappreciated and unacknowledged tacit skills of many citizens”. It’s a way of looking at economics from the point of view of people rather than figures, and doing something revolutionary (yet so blindingly obvious) in the process. What is the point of “growth” if the basic elements of a decent life are denied to a large and growing number?

Because everybody has these everyday needs, their provision is not – or ought not to be – specific to one or a few regions, and is comparatively resistant to automation. If applied by government as a central plank of industrial strategy, prioritising the foundational economy could fundamentally transform people’s quality of life outside London and the south-east – which would be the direct opposite of the dire “northern powerhouse” template that has only created even more cynicism.

Visions of an economy run for social good, rather than individual gain, are being developed by Labour through a series of regional workshops on the “new economics”. As the examples of Preston, Enfield and Oldham councils have shown, it hurts nobody to bring services back into local authority control and to divest from the outsourcing firms whose own definition of “growth”’ is extracting profit from social misery.

Any future government will have to take this vision seriously. Take Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of “a million climate jobs” at last month’s Labour conference, which could be a conservative estimate for the task at hand. In 2012, Oxfam reported that 4.7m jobs could be supported and £280bn added to the economy if the government invested in retro-fitting the entire existing housing stock for lower energy consumption. (It could also save a total £8.7bn a year from our domestic fuel bills.) Our homes are the most expensive to heat in Europe, and the oldest, with more than 60% built before 1960.

A change in thinking is urgently required to bring about a permanent and ongoing renewal of the foundations of a good society.

This brings to mind a long-buried yet prescient quote by Raymond Williams. In his 1960 novel Border Country, he describes a character witnessing “a slow and shocking cancellation of the future” in the wake of the 1926 general strike. This quote has been leapt upon in recent years by a reinvigorated and youthful left.

It’s as though, nearly 60 years later, we’ve woken up to the idea that a better future can be reinstated, but that we have to get it back ourselves. Restoring decent basic services for everyone, then keeping the bar high for everyone, is a task akin to painting and repainting the Forth Bridge, and this alone is enough to keep millions of people in stable, valuable work.

For a future better than the one we’re dreading, we need to start rebuilding the foundations now.

• Lynsey Hanley is a freelance writer and the author of Estates: an Intimate History and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide
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