A radical response to world events

Also posted on Concrete.

Faced with the barrage of distressing news from around the world, reporting endlessly on shocking events and atrocities committed by those in power, it is tempting to curl up into a ball and cry, or attempt to smash everything – y’know, banks, parliament, corporations, police cars, police… However, neither of these are constructive outlets for one’s rage. Formulating a radical response to world events such as the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, or the bombing and killing of innocent civilians in Gaza, or the illicit invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops is as difficult as it is critical.

The ballooning in popularity of the ice bucket challenge is one response to the wrong in the world – but it’s a misguided one. Giving to charity is in principle a great thing to do – in practice, however, it is important which one you give your money to. Some charities plough the majority of their funding into on-the-ground activities such as research or aid work, and some… don’t. Take the ALS foundation, which has been mistakenly wedded to the ice bucket challenge, for instance – their tax returns reveal that they spend a paltry 27% of their revenue on research, and pay their 11 executives over $100,000 apiece each year. Giving to grassroots foundations and organisations that do truly amazing work or fund highly effective campaigns should be prioritised; I’m thinking something along the lines of local foodbanks, Skateistan or Greenpeace. It’s great to donate to charity – but it’s unnecessary to dump ice on your head to do so. The main problem with the craze is that it seems like some bizarre publicity stunt – a self-congratulatory ego trip for celebrities and facebook sensations that achieves very little and trivialises the act of charity. If you give to charity: great, keep doing it… in private. We don’t need to congratulate you on every £3 a month you give to Oxfam.

A radical response to the problems of the world recognises that many are about abuses of power and the oppression of vulnerable and subjugated groups. All three of the examples given above concern the exercising of authority and power. Palestine has been historically screwed over by the state of Israel and international institutions since the early 20th century, with the aggression ramping up considerably post-‘67. Operation Cast Lead 2008-09 (AKA the Gaza War) killed 1,400 Palestinians by the UN’s count, and three Israelis. Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 killed hundreds of people too, and both sides were accused of committing war crimes. The most recent conflict is yet another expression of the unequal power dynamic between the two states: although Hamas is of course responsible for violence against Israel, its existence is in retaliation against the systematic structural violence that Israel submits Palestine to every day. The state of Israel systematically oppresses Palestinian civilians, by refusing to grant entry and exit visas to those in the Gaza strip – not to visit dying relatives, not to work, not to go to the market and buy food. Gaza’s borders are more restrictive than some of our prisons. Hell, we let a man called Skull Cracker waltz out of HMP Standford Hill on a whim. Israel denies Palestinians the right to a livelihood – they destroy key infrastructure such as water wells, and do not allow Palestinians to abstract drinking water. More than 80% of the water in the shared Israel/Palestine aquifer is extracted by Israel. 95% of Gaza’s water supply is too contaminated to drink due to over-abstraction. Palestinians have no access to water to irrigate crops, and so their economy is stunted, thereby preventing people from earning a living and improving their lives. Israeli troops frequently destroy olive groves full of trees centuries old, either in ‘punishment’ for supposed crimes against Israel, or as a deterrent. Houses are destroyed, schools are destroyed, wells are destroyed, people’s livelihoods are destroyed. It is a systematic abuse of power by one group over another, and the most recent events are another manifestation of that. Israel holds de facto power through force, and de jure power through legislation. The UN and powerful countries like the USA and UK support Israel, and even arm them, condoning the atrocities committed by the state. The Oslo Accords for instance unashamedly prejudice in favour of Israel, allocating more than half of water resources there, and building in institutional obstacles to Palestine obtaining their fair share – Israel has much better representation at the negotiating table.

What happened in Ferguson is another example of those in authority – the police – abusing that power. The USA is famously unequal, particularly along race lines in certain areas. Black students are three times as likely to be expelled from school as their white counterparts, and young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. The US justice system is institutionally racist, and the shooting of Michael Brown in early August is yet another tragic reminder of the role the police play in perpetuating a racist status quo. The police are essentially the guard dogs of the elites, and the strong arm of the state – they are sworn to protect life and property, and in so doing criminalise and discriminate against those in poverty who do not have property. Institutionalised racism means that many black communities are poor, which results in higher levels of unemployment, violence and crime as people are forced into situations by necessity and lack of opportunities. Thus, when significant protest erupts against an unlawful killing, the state labels it ‘rioting’ and sends in the riot police. Ring any bells? This exact same thing happened in London in 2011 following the killing in Tottenham of Mark Duggan, an unarmed black man, in a community that has traditionally been relatively deprived, like Ferguson. Police violence is the ultimate abuse of power over socially and economically vulnerable or oppressed groups, and it is tolerated by the state because the state is run by elites, for elites. The shooting of innocent civilians, regardless of whether it is by a foreign government or your own, is a systematic waging of class warfare against the poorest members of society.

The situation in Ukraine is more complicated, but still involves the assertion of Russian authority over Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. No matter how much Vladimir Putin tries to convince us that the thousands of Russian troops that have reportedly joined separatist rebels have done so whilst off duty, it is clear that what world leaders, including Obama, are calling an “incursion” is almost certainly an underhand invasion. Russia’s combative stance speaks volumes; a territorial standoff and geopolitical wrangling whereby Russia re-asserts its waning power, reminding the West that the might and influence of the USSR has not diminished entirely.

All of the above represent an assertion of dominance by the powerful over the weak. ‘Weakness’ is here engendered by institutions, geopolitics or both. The prejudice of American law against young black men, and non-white communities in general, represents institutional oppression and structural violence committed against communities that are typecast, stereotyped and brutalised by an unrepresentative and largely white police force, whose job is to protect the state and elites. Post-curtain geopolitical dynamics, corruption and the erosion of Ukrainian institutions by ‘revolution’ have created a vulnerable state susceptible to meddling by power-hungry Tsars. The situation in Israel/Palestine is a combination of the two: institutionalised structural violence continues to oppress citizens, while international geopolitical institutions stand idly by and condone the situation. Israel is granted the green light by nations like the USA and UK who do not condemn their acts of barbarism, which evidently violate international law. Beyond that, they actively arm Israel, providing firearms, aircraft components and drones that are used to wage war against Gaza. Not only is this behaviour contemptible, it makes the leaders of such countries complicit in genocide.

Of course other sides are causing trouble too; Hamas fire deadly rockets, there is violence in black communities, and there is conflict on both sides in Ukraine. However, there is clear inequality between sides: Hamas have greatly inferior weaponry, and Israel has the backing of many international powers. The police in Ferguson have the weight of the state behind them. The disparity is apparent and it is clear that abuses of power are creating these problems. Not only do we need to redistribute resources, but also address the power imbalance at local, national and international levels.

Why I didn’t shake Edward Acton’s hand

The grad season is upon us: the time for sweaty palms, nervous, tipsy grins and synthetic wizard robes. Thousands of third year students graduated last week amidst cheers and storms of applause celebrating three years of (mostly) hard graft. Like the rest, I was pleased that it was all over and happy that I could finally get my hands on a tangible recognition of all that work. There was one small hurdle though: the small matter of a certain pompous ceremony. I’m not sure there are many people who relish standing in a billowing Harry Potter gown in front of 800 people, but looking like a prat was lower on my agenda than it might otherwise have been. Sure, I was worried that I might stack it up the stairs or walk off the stage by the wrong exit, but more than anything I was rehearsing what I was going to say to the man I would have to refuse to shake hands with before collecting my certificate. Unfortunately for me, my ceremony was presided over by Edward Acton, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of UEA who will be replaced by David Richardson this coming September. In the run-up to this day, I’d gladly, and perhaps misguidedly, trilled that I would refuse to shake the hand of a man who had overseen such a shocking and deplorable track record of management during the course of my university career. Now, I had to stick to my guns and actually do it.

lair of edward acton

Here’s the back story: spurred by the climate of austerity, UEA management has jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the ConDem government’s decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year. Meanwhile, funding for the arts has been slashed dramatically, and diverted to more revenue-intensive schools (i.e. the ones that make them money, like the business school). The closure of the School of Music is possibly the most deplorable and reprehensible act of Acton’s management stint (in my time at least), and epitomises the attitude of managers high up in the university – if it doesn’t make money, cut it. It’s merely a symptom of a wider trend of marketisation and commodification of higher education, forced by free market government policy and liberalism. The recent decision to hike accommodation fees for new students beginning in 2014/15 smacks of further attempts to squeeze yet more money out of already heavily indebted students. Acton’s period as VC of the university has seen a liberalised approach that seeks to increase income from students and cut supposedly ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. One such example of this is the way in which university management keeps some staff members on temporary contracts, rather than granting longer-term permanent contracts with the associated benefits (read expenditure) such as sick pay, holiday, and pensions. Some people may remember the UCU strike that threatened to jeopardise this whole glorious week of pomp and rigour – third year students would not have been able to graduate if lecturers wouldn’t mark scripts. They were striking over a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, as the university hadn’t raised wages in line with inflation. In the end, they settled for a 2% pay rise, which although a small victory, did not satisfy many of their demands, and is certainly not sustainable into the future.

 

I’m not a naturally confrontational person (though I’m sure there will be many raised eyebrows at that statement) and the thought of saying to his face that I thought he was a twat (obviously more eloquently) was giving me the kind of butterflies you wouldn’t believe. There I was, standing in the hushed and silent corridor with my political convictions and better instincts wrestling uneasily in my guts, while the surnames being read out on the list were marching steadily towards G and I was inching closer to the stage. Finally it was decision time: there he was, looking like a medieval birdman, resplendent in squishy orange, and suddenly I was walking up the stairs and determinedly keeping my hands clasped, jaw set, avoiding the outstretched hand. He looked flustered and embarrassed when he realised that I wasn’t going to shake it “due to his deplorable management of the last three years” but it was over almost before it began and he had 180 other graduands to attend to. My heart was going like the clappers as I collected my certificate and walked my jelly legs back down the aisle, but I was pleased I hadn’t flaked out on my own morals. The speech that closed the ceremony seemed to seal the deal – Philip Lowe, veteran multi-disciplinarian who received an honorary degree from ENV, spoke of lateral thinking and staying true to ones’ beliefs. It seemed to confirm everything, and I went off feeling enlarged with self-righteousness to drink as much free champagne as I could without bubbles coming out of my nose.

Can Science be radical?

I’ve been busy recently. This was originally published here at the Norwich Radical, a new magazine with alternative takes on diverse subjects. It’s wicked. Check it aaat.

 

One of the most fundamental rules of science that any student will learn is the importance of objective thought. The strength of scientific observation lies in the ability to weigh up evidence without assuming pre-defined outcomes, while investigating all possible hypotheses with equal exactitude. The triumvirate of ‘reliability, accuracy and precision’ are concepts drilled into students throughout their education, and the importance of withholding judgment until conclusions can reliably be drawn is underlined in experimentation and practice. Indeed, the process of science in itself is about careful, reasoned consideration of the available evidence, rigorous data analysis and logical extrapolation and conclusion. Science’s strength lies in its claims to objectivity – it wouldn’t work without it. Any deviation from these well-defined parameters and rules constitute ‘bad science’, tainted with opinion, ideology or personal belief. So, in this context, can science be radical? Or should it?

Certainly, science needs to remain out of politics – once scientists become embroiled in the confused and complicated world of political sniping, loaded and underhand behaviour, their credibility is violated. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is arguably the most broad-reaching and respected authority on Climate Change, yet its remit is “policy relevant, not policy prescriptive”; very wisely, the IPCC does not involve itself in policy-making nor politics, leaving that up to bureaucrats and politicians. Instead, the IPCC relies on probabilistic statements, asserting for instance in its most recent report that the catastrophic release of methane hydrates from continental shelves before 2100 is “unlikely” (with rare 99% confidence), which can be frustratingly vague for policy-makers and the public. Scientists and policy-makers speak different languages, and therein lies the problem: science is translated poorly from the research to the public domain. These disconnects can mean research is incorrectly interpreted, and effective policy is formulated based on incorrect information. It can also lead to a failure in implementation, confounded by the short political lifetimes and priorities of politicians, which contrast with the long-term effects and actions required to tackle an issue such as climate change or antibiotic resistance.

Scientific conclusions, although weighted heavily in analysis of certainty and considerations of error, are drawn based on the available evidence and others’ research, which can often be a considerable body of work. After years of looking at data pointing to a certain conclusion, surely it is justifiable to make a stand based on what is glaringly obvious? If you truly believe that action is needed to avert catastrophe, should you not speak out? Furthermore, seeing a scientist, whose entire professional life has been dedicated and guided by these strict conventions, taking direct action on their subject is surely more powerfully persuasive than the likely bunch of anarchists and greenies (important as they are) you see at protests and summits – right?

Academic institutions and academia are inherently conservative – radicalism doesn’t pay in science, where being too vehement can bring disrepute. Non-scientists frequently misinterpret scientists’ inability to ‘prove’ things, or to conclude with 100% certainty as evidence that something is not true – the greenhouse effect for example. Scientists are as sure as they can be that fossil fuels are causing greenhouse gas concentrations to rise (in fact, the theory has been around for a very long time) but they still cannot be sure that some previously unconsidered force is at work (like black magic for example), and hence cannot say with 100% certainty that this is the case (although they can say with 99.9% certainty). Again, this gets lost in translation, and non-scientists interpret this as evidence of doubt. So: academics tend to hedge their bets, and tend to err on the side of caution. This lends itself to conservatism, and the poor translation into the public domain means that policy remains decades behind the research – politicians are not willing to risk their necks on what they perceive as ‘uncertain’ facts. It is a vicious cycle; academia recoils from unequivocal statements, and no self-respecting scientist would dream of citing a result without including caveats of error and uncertainty ranges.

Although science is in itself radical, at the forefront of new, independent thought, radical expression is suppressed. The academic world often ostracises and disregards those who speak for themselves (not just scientifically) – for instance David Graeber, who was controversially pushed out of Yale for his public political views as a self-proclaimed anarchist. There is a new wave of academics brave enough to stand behind more radical statements – people like Graeber, Kevin Anderson, and George Monbiot, who regularly make ripples. People like them are needed to challenge the stifling conservatism of institutions, which is often augmented by the perverse incentives offered by funding models for research. Many scientists are pressured into releasing results that are favourable to those who commissioned or funded the research – and market titans like pharmaceutical giants and the fossil fuel industry are big funders. It comes as little surprise therefore that many scientists feel unable to publish results that contradict the aims and objectives of their donors – being under the thumb of oil companies must bestow a great weight indeed.

What is needed is a radical change in the way science and knowledge is produced, doing away with the commodification of knowledge. Changing that releases academics in institutions from the straitjacketed requirement to produce a quota of publications per year, or that eliminates the paywall of journals, which sells knowledge only to those who can pay, therefore keeping science exclusively within the reach only of those who have paid to be a part of an institution like a university – thereby justifying and perpetuating a system where students are customers, paying £9k per year in fees. A more autonomous funding model is required, free from the tyranny of corporate sponsorship, which allows free thought to shape knowledge, unhindered by external pressures to represent data in a certain way.

Where this money is going to come from is irrelevant – it could not happen on a large scale under a system like capitalism, where profit is the ultimate motive. Autonomous knowledge creation is a grassroots process – incorporating the expertise of academics and ordinary people requires work from the bottom up, but such knowledge would be more representative of and better understood by the population at large. Free from the pressures of top-down, imposed funding structures and institutional demands, science would be free to be what it is at heart – truly radical thought.

The importance of Unions

This article was originally published in Concrete.

 

The statistics we repeatedly hear about graduate employment are bleak – Concrete has reported on the disturbingly high levels of joblessness on many occasions. Nearly half of all graduates are still unemployed six months after finishing their degrees according toTotaljobs,  and EU Agency Eurofound recently pegged the numbers of people under 30 still living with their parents in the UK at just under a third. This is testimony to the difficulty with which young people are finding jobs and homes. Add to this the unsympathetic attitude of the current government, who would like to scrap benefits for those under 25, and the message becomes clearer: austerity disadvantages students.

Trades union have been in decline since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, and before Margaret Thatcher’s government caused numbers to decline dramatically from the 1980s. The UK Government’s Department for Business and Skills reports that 6.5 million employees nationwide were trade union members in 2013, down from their peak at just over 13 million in 1979. Many people frame this decline in the context of rising affluence and better living and working conditions. However, union membership is important as ever, particularly in these increasingly worrying times. Conditions are not improving for many people: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  notes that income inequality reached its highest levels since 1961 during 2009-10, and shows a drop in median incomes of 7.8% from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The living standards of poorer households have fallen as a result of welfare cuts and falling earnings, and poverty among working-age adults has steadily risen over the last few years. As graduate unemployment rises, and employers use zero hour contracts to mask the true levels of unemployment among the workforce, union membership can be a key to success.

A demonstration in Barcelona by the European Trade Union Confederation Photo: www.eutc.org

There are several reasons why being in a trade union can be a boon to students. Solidarity comes high up on the list: being part of a union improves one’s chances of achieving change (be it longer breaks, more flexible hours, childcare options, or a pay rise) via collective action. Collective action is often framed negatively, for instance regarding the UCU’s recent action over pensions that threatened to leave year students unable to graduate. Collective action was essential in this dispute, and the support of the students’ union at UEA added weight and credibility to the UCU’s campaign campus. Despite the bad press, collective action and solidarity achieved some of the demands of lecturers, though not all, demonstrating the importance of organising and working with colleagues.

Students are often employed in low-paid, low-skilled jobs such as bar work or retail (despite often being highly qualified). Young people dominate the workforce in industries like these because they are so energy intensive and are easy to enter, but they are traditionally under-represented. This means however, that union representation can be incredibly successful or instance, the Norwich Bartenders’ and Hospitality Union has recently been established, and has so far succeeded in increasing the prospects of many of its student (and non-student) members in an industry that is characterised by low pay, terrible hours and difficult conditions. Workplace organisation and solidarity puts pressure on employers, encourages good practice, and discourages actions that take advantage of young, inexperienced employees. It can educate members their rights and inspire political or labour activism, potentially bringing people with divergent (or perhaps absent) political beliefs and ideologies together under a common cause.

Although political and ideological motivations are important, particularly for those on the left, this can be a turn-off for many people, especially for those in part-time employment with a high turnover, which inspires an attitude of “it doesn’t apply to me”. Trade union membership is arguably even more important for transient jobs because employers have more opportunities to take advantage. Zero hour contracts, for example, allow employers to call the shots – if they don’t like you, you won’t get fired, but you won’t get any shifts either. Students have historically been a politically empowered group society, but the promotion of career and employability skills in British universities has forced a shift in the focus from radical politics to employment and job prospects. Union representation appeals to both of these foci – it can augment one’s work life as well as encourage political awareness and mobilisation – and is therefore a win/win strategy.

Union membership is important to bring together class people, students and the unemployed in a society that has steadily become fragmented, with undue focus on consumerist ideals. The way in which the wage system and capitalism works serves to reinforce inequality between employees and employers and students play an important role in any struggle to create a more equal society, poised as they are between being part of the oppressed working class and as being potential employers, entrepreneurs, and part of the educated middle class. The abolition of the wage system is the focus of more radical trade union such as the IWW but the role of unions is also important to challenge the status quo that separates workers and bosses more dialectically. To build a stronger and more egalitarian framework requires both discursive and practical radicalism, ranging from a centre-left critique of austerity to militant direct action such as sabotage(commonly misconstrued as damage to property, but taken to mean deliberate withdrawal of efficiency).

In the current climate of austerity and the erosion of civil liberties, union membership can present a challenge. As all students are painfully aware, the Coalition government increased the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year, making the average cost of an undergraduate university education upwards of £26,000, pricing many poorer students out of , and into (frequently low-paid) employment. This year, it was also agreed that £900m of student debt is to be sold off to private companies, meaning that students may be forced to retrospectively pay even more for their degrees if private financial institutions decide to increase interest rates in the future. This is part of a wider trend of privatisation, for instance of the NHS, education (shown by the rise of free schools) and public services such as the Royal Mail. Wages are not increasing in line with inflation (for instance, lecturers at have received a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, which was the reasoning for the proposed UCU marking boycott) and a bachelor’s degree is sadly no longer the ticket to success it once was. With the rise in graduate unemployment, more students are using masters degrees to guarantee a leg in the door, though this is a pursuit reserved for those that can afford fees of £5000+ per year. The ONS announced last week that house prices increased by 9.9%, largely driven by swollen costs in London (18.7%). Wages can’t keep up with the inexorable march of spiralling rents and inflated living costs, thereby marginalising those on low incomes, such as students, the unemployed and the working class.

While rents continue to soar, homelessness is on the increase and corporations further marginalise and denigrate those forced to sleep rough, for instance by installing anti-homeless spikes. This is symptomatic of the contempt with which the ruling classes, corporations and governments treat the most vulnerable in society. Right-wing media outlets target vulnerable groups, who fall foul of fear mongering and scapegoating, illustrated by the attitudes of people who believe benefit recipients to be ‘scroungers’ and migrants to be after their jobs. Strong unions create solidarity, improve conditions, and challenge the austerity rhetoric of governments. This erodes the pre-conditions for conservatism and the counters the arguments of extremist groups like Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the EDL, which flourish in difficult economic climates. Trades union represent a challenge because they bring together such broad coalitions of members, and present strength in numbers.

The situation is looking bleak, and apathy and a lack of action are not going to change anything. Students need to reignite a love of radicalism, and embrace trade unionism as a proactive form of activism that can realise achievable and legitimate goals. Collective action can be an empowering and effective tool to challenge the austerity that preserves the privilege of elites while undermining the ability of the 99% to lead rewarding and enjoyable lives. Union organisation works on a multiplicity of scales – from challenging unjust practices in the workplace to contributing to the creation of a better society at national and international level. The struggle against injustice must be fought on all levels if it is to succeed. Collectivism is strength, and only together can we change the world.

Against Economics

This piece has been a long time coming. I’ve grappled with economics in the last 3 years, but it has come to a head in the last 3 months, while I have been trying to understand it academically – which was driven by a desire to “know thine enemy”. I see economics as embedded in a wider paradigm – a tool employed by political groups and ideologues to further reinforce their messages. That is not to say that economics cannot be radical, yet the work of Marxist, socialist and green economists is rarely aired, and neoclassical economic theory dominates and underpins political rhetoric in our capitalist world. It is all-pervasive: used to justify the systemic erosion of our rights and autonomy, narrowing our vision and perspective, and telling us how we should think. So, this is my case against economics. When I say economics, I generally mean neoclassical economics – I do not mean to disregard the work of radical economists, who are working against an inherently conservative and slow-witted discipline, but sadly they are a minority voice against the clamour and neoliberal din.

 

* * *

 

The only part of Thomas Carlyle’s dismissal of economics as the “dismal science” that I disagree with is the ‘science’ part – economics is not even worthy of that title. It is a pseudo-science that propagates the illusion of scientific authenticity by using numbers and graphs to make it look cleverer than it is. Economics as a way of thinking about social decisions and choice is useful – as a framework it makes sense because the majority of what economics has to say about the world, and about human behaviour, is intuitive. However, the use of graphs that show very little, symbols that mean nothing, and numbers that ascribe irrelevant ‘value’ to incomparable things like human happiness is absurd, and fatally misleading. Even economists question how you can place a value on human happiness, wellbeing, or in econo-jargon, ‘utility’. For instance, the use of π to symbolise ‘price’ is a case-in-point. What other purpose is there to using this symbol (instead of, I dunno… ‘P’??), other than to legitimise a non-science, to make it look important and difficult, and ultimately make it appear inaccessible and unattainable for the poor proles who never studied Greek at school.

 

The first problem with neoclassical economics is its elitism… It presumes that there is a specialist group, the master of its arcane language and techniques, who are the only ones who can successfully solve economic problems

(Ward, 1979: 301)

 

Neoclassical economics is the science of the society of the rising bourgeoisie

(ibid: 302)

 

Economics constantly tries to validate itself as a science, like the kid at school on the peripheries of the in-crowd, desperate to prove themselves. Economists like Drakopoulos inadvertently illustrate my point – in a 1997 paper he discusses how the debate over the possibility of inter-personal comparisons of utility and the rise of ‘positivist’ (objective) traditions from more physical, traditional sciences forced a move to adopt more scientific methods. The marginalism movement, which included economists such as Vilfredo Pareto (who was a fascist – just sayin’), attempted to boost the scientific credentials of economics, branding it a mathematical pursuit, which was ‘value-free’. Drakopolous notes that the definition of ‘value-free’ had to change to fit economic practice – changing what was once subjective into an ‘objective science’ – how very scientific.

 

[The notion of] value seems…quite devoid of operative meaning

(Sherman, 1972:37)

 

It is true that “economists know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. By their own admission, economic valuation techniques are flawed – take the example of Twyford Down. Reliance on pricing methods to investigate the alternative uses of the area, namely build through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or build a more costly underpass beneath it, yielded predictable results. Of course, economic rationality won out, and the Tory government voted to cut their financial costs rather than protect an irreplaceable environmental resource, which was shockingly undervalued by economic analysis. The decision sparked the massive roads protests of the 1990s, and although valuation techniques have since improved, they are still highly contentious and riddled with many inaccuracies.

 

Commodifying and marketising something as essential to human life as the environment, and turning the destruction of our planet into something as trivial as an ‘externality’ belittles the essential role environmental resources play in human life. David Suzuki considers conventional economics to be a “form of brain damage”, because it reduces environmental issues to trifling matters that are simply conundrums, to be ‘internalised’, rather than truly pressing global problems. I do not mean to be a doomsayer, because the framing of such issues is highly deterministic of the outcome, and problematising things doesn’t solve anything, but environmental issues like the destruction of vast swathes of land as a result of open cast mining, the devastation of rainforests or contamination of enormous bodies of water are genuinely potentially disastrous problems.

 

The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, recognised the difference between marginal value (AKA market price) and true value (consumer surplus), in his discussion of water and diamonds. The true value of water is incommensurably larger than that of diamonds, yet the market price does not reflect this because water is far more plentiful than diamonds are. Diamonds, a highly valued commodity, only fetch such ludicrous sums because there is a limited supply of them. Were we to discover an easier and cheaper method of diamond extraction, the price would collapse and the rich would have to find some other way to display their ostentatious wealth. The market needs scarcity to exist, so it manufactures it. The same is seen in privatisation struggles – transnational corporations granted concessions (often in developing countries with inadequate infrastructure) manufacture scarcity discursively. It is an entirely political endeavour, designed to justify privatisation of the resource, and the appropriation of property rights to goods like water from the people who use it traditionally and/or the public utilities that supply it cheaply. Without scarcity, markets cannot make money; therefore economics is bound up with political representation of resources as finite and scarce – this creating a case for enclosure of the commons in the name of ‘efficiency’.

 

If economists are wont to change the definition of value, and if they fail so spectacularly to value even market goods with a price, how can we trust economic valuations of non-market, inherently immeasurable, resources like environmental resources? Economic analysis so regularly conflates price with value that public goods are virtually always undervalued. For instance, the notion that you can estimate the value of a resource for which there is no market (like the recreation value of a forest, peace and quiet, trees, birds in the sky, just the knowledge that the Amazon is there…) by looking at the house prices in an area sounds like utter nonsense to me. Like someone drew an idea from out of thin air and the rest of the economic community decided to run with it. For real, this happens: an example that springs to mind is Garrod & Willis (1992), who estimated the value of broadleaved trees by this ‘hedonic pricing’ method. Turns out we don’t like conifers, and we do like deciduous trees. Simple. But the answers do tend to the obvious when you strip away all the heterogeneity by making so many assumptions.

 

That politicians and policy-makers give economic analysis so much credence is terrifying, when one considers the enormity of the assumptions underpinning it. Consider one of these: perfectly competitive markets. In an ideal economic world, there are no monopolies, oligopolies or monopsolies (like Tesco, Walmart, or the ‘Big Six’), no companies are unscrupulous (like virtually any transnational corporation – many buy into unethical practices, whether it’s workfare, investment in the arms trade, or paying overseas workers peanuts to work in horrific conditions); they are all homogenous, rational entities that maximise economic profit and nothing else. Economics smoothes over everything, and removes any complicating detail that alters the outcome from the ideal economic model. McFadden (1998) comments on economists’ unswerving determination to defend oversimplified models, such as ‘Chicago Man’, who is an ideal rational individual that functions perfectly in an ideal, perfectly competitive market. Despite repeated evidence from psychology, lab studies, and even economic research, the fallacy of economic man is still relied on for economic analysis. Economics keeps its head in the sand and stubbornly sticks by its flawed theoretical constructions, despite multiple lines of evidence attesting to their limitations.

 

Take another simplifying assumption: that of symmetric information. In the real world, people don’t know everything about the things they want or need to buy. Companies in a capitalist system spend millions on PR and advertising, to overhype the shiny, consumerist, ‘desirable’ characteristics of their latest products, and conceal the fact that the mine they bought their aluminium ore from is run by local militias who employ child soldiers to brutalise their workers, who, incidentally, they also pay a pittance to extract said ore under dangerous conditions. To some extent, the assumption of economic rationality is correct – companies do care about their bottom line. In fact, that is all they care about: huge corporations will relocate to developing countries where they can escape taxes and pay their workers much less. Big manufacturing industries that have recently closed down operations in the UK to do just this have cut thousands of jobs, many of which employed largely working class people. It sounds bad – yet economic theory suggests that there is a silver lining, and that the market will create a socially beneficial outcome. Supposedly, trimming production costs will translate to lower prices in the product market for consumers, which is better for everyone… right? Outside of the perfect world of economic theory, however, this does not hold true. Prices increase, while profits continue to rise, and the money lines the bank accounts of rich shareholders, while ordinary people in the UK and across the world struggle to pay the rent.

 

Recent increases in energy bills illustrate this perfectly – of course the corporations blame it all on green taxes, distracting from the vast dividends they pay shareholders. It is part of a sustained onslaught of rhetoric about ‘austerity Britain’ and how we’re ‘all in it together’. Tory dogma tells us that we must all tighten our belts – take fewer hours at work, agree to zero-hours contracts with no paid holiday, pension or sick leave, work longer hours and postpone retirement until we’re dead. It’s part of a systemic assault on the unemployed and disabled, who, because they require the assistance of a state welfare system, must be demonised and stigmatised by the red tops as ‘lazy, cheating scroungers’. The Daily Mail is the right hand puppet of the Tory government, just as the police are its bulldogs, protecting private property and tightening restrictions on protest. They stir up fear and hatred in an attempt to turn us against each other to distract from the shitstorm around us. Police keep us in check, to protect us from ourselves. They are necessary because people are angry – they are seeing bankers receiving unprecedented bonuses and politicians like Maria Miller claiming for their second homes at the expense of ordinary people, and even when they get rumbled, getting away with a slap on the wrist. At the same time, horrific tragedies can happen in the developing (and developed) world as a result of the negligence and incompetence of capitalism. A failure to enforce rigorous safety standards in the mining industry recently led to the death of at least 245 miners in Turkey: a shocking demonstration of the criminal negligence of companies who trade off the health and safety of their employees against increasing their profit margins by minute quantities.

 

Economics takes no account of the day-to-day corruption of capitalism. Power, money and greed warps people, and they distort the playing field. Economics may be a framework to evaluate decisions, but it is used to defend the powerful and further invalidate the weak. By focusing on things that provide financial rewards rather than social benefits, which are inherently difficult to quantify in an economic framework, the very system is biased towards things, towards commodities, towards money. And everyone knows, money can’t buy you happiness.

 

Depending on whether you accept the idea that you can compare the welfare of individuals (I would suggest that you can’t – how do you objectively measure happiness, pleasure, pain or welfare?), you belong to opposite sides of an ideological divide within economics. Economics is a discipline in ethical turmoil – one the one hand, positivist economics rejects any decision that requires interpersonal comparisons of welfare because these require value judgements to be made. In the words of W. S. Jevons: “every mind is…inscrutable”. On the other sits the school of thought that thinks comparing such personal values is meaningful. Although there are debates within any discipline, there are rarely debates about such fundamental tenets. This internal contradiction surely says something about the integrity of its claims – it’s hard to trust a framework that causes such distinct differences of opinion.

 

In a market economy the regime of property rights implies the very opposite of Marx’s charge. The market provides access to the means of production for all those who can afford to participate

(Ward, 1979:360)

 

Economics doesn’t give a fuck about equity. Decisions are made and analysed on the basis of economic efficiency. Of course, efficiency is the realm of economics – but equity – that’s political, and economics ‘doesn’t do politics’. Yet economics is political, no matter how hard it tries to deny it. All decision-making involves politics because decisions require trade-offs to be made, and different variants and schools of economic thought are used to justify certain perspectives on the world. Neoclassical economics is an ideology unto itself, wholly bound up with neoliberalism and elitist ways of perceiving the world. It is deployed by conservatives to justify the destruction of the welfare state, deregulation and Thatcherism. Economists like Winston are shamelessly neoliberal, promoting deregulation, privatisation, and free-market principles despite their glaringly obvious failings. Equity is an optional add-on – an afterthought – for neoclassical economists. Whereas Marxist economics is embedded within a wider social analysis, neoclassical economics codifies the status quo. Marx presents a human analysis of relations and interactions that goes beyond graphs and statistics and meaningless, incommensurable numbers. The sickening reliance on free market principles is hopelessly entrenched across the world, and shamelessly facilitates the pillaging of culture and environment, and the exacerbation of vast inequalities between and within nations.

 

A centralised state capable of doing all the shit jobs is an essential part of most free-market economics. The state gets to build the infrastructure, mend leaky pipes, bear the significant costs of maintaining the power lines and pay the admin costs on tax collection, while private companies reap the considerable benefits of private control, often to the detriment of the consumer. Water privatisation (a fad for global financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank in the late 90s and early 00s) is a perfect illustration – people pay more money for lower volumes of worse quality water. The same is true for the railways – public utilities may have their failures, but the hikes in rail fares seen since privatisation, coupled with the failure to improve services meaningfully demonstrate that the private sector is far more incompetent and greedy. So: libertarians would have a state that picks up the pieces, and merely serves to enforce property rights and correct market failures when they (inevitably) occur. Correcting market failures with regulations and taxes requires a state and strong, centralised bureaucracy. But what if there was no state? Marxist economics is accepted as a doctrine because it is still founded in the institution of the state. Alternatives, such as anarchist economics, are rarely discussed – they are not compatible with economists’ worldviews. Environmental problems are frequently transboundary, and hence are governed by no overarching state (except, maybe the EU, but let’s not get all Nigel Farage). Perhaps then, the discipline of environmental economics has something to learn from anarchist economics – how to function without government. Crack out the Kropotkin, I say.

 

Remoteness from ordinary people and the privilege of academic life acts to reinforce this [conservative political] tendency

(MacFarlane, 1982:48)

 

Economics is conservative enough as a discipline that even radical economists are fairly middle-of-the-road. With some notable exceptions (Kropotkin, Bakunin etc.), radical economists are reformist, rather than critical of the system as a whole. Anarchist, syndicalist or Marxist economists who advocate abolition of the wage system are often ostracised by the mainstream profession, and their ideas are rejected as heretical or ludicrous. The rest of them tend towards conservatism and careers in the World Bank and IMF, writing nonsensical, Westernised, ill thought through and often devastating policy that has severe impacts on people in the developing world.

 

Economists are conservative, and work within the capitalist system to validate it. Economic justifications are more often than not the clincher of political decisions, making economics inseparable from politics and ideology. The people that present it as an objective discipline serve to mislead and misrepresent what is essentially merely an interesting way of looking at human behaviour. Economics is an over-simplified framework that is used to prop up neoliberal policy and political rhetoric, which makes it invariably bound up with the capitalist status quo. It’s no wonder that an economics degree can get you so far in politics – economics is the study of business as usual, after all.

 

Capitalism is a permanent state of war, a constant struggle which can never end.” “It’s not always the same people doing the fighting

(Houellebecq, 2003: 284)

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