At a recent art exhibition I engaged in an interesting conversation with one of the young people employed by the gallery. As she turned to walk off I saw she had on the back of her T-shirt “customer liaison”. I felt flat. Our whole conversation seemed somehow reduced, my experience of it belittled into one of commercial transaction. My relation to the gallery and to this engaging person had become one of instrumental market exchange.
The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of “free choice” – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one’s children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.
This is a crucial part of the way that neoliberalism has become part of our commonsense understanding of life. The vocabulary we use to talk about the economy is in fact a political construction, as Stuart Hall, Michael Rustin and I have argued in our Soundings manifesto.
Another word that reinforces neoliberal common sense is “growth”, currently deemed to be the entire aim of our economy. To produce growth and then (maybe) to redistribute some of it, has been a goal shared by both neoliberalism and social democracy. In its crudest formulation this entails providing the conditions for the market sector to produce growth, and accepting that this will result in inequality, and then relying on the redistribution of some portion of this growth to help repair the inequality that has resulted from its production.
This of course does nothing to question the inequality-producing mechanisms of market exchange itself, and it has also meant that the main lines of struggle have too often been focused solely on distributional issues. What’s more, today we are living with a backlash to even the limited redistributional gains made by labour under social democracy. In spite of all this, growth is still seen as providing the solution to our problems.
The second reason our current notion of wealth creation, and our commitment to its growth, must be questioned is to do with our relationship with the planet. The environmental damage brought about by the pursuit of growth threatens to cause a catastrophe of which we are already witnessing intimations. And a third – and perhaps most important – defect of this approach is that increased wealth, especially as measured in the standard monetary terms of today, has few actual consequences for people’s feelings of wellbeing once there is a sufficiency to meet basic needs, as there is in Britain. In pursuing “growth” in these terms, as a means to realise people’s life goals and desires, economies are pursuing a chimera.
Instead of an unrelenting quest for growth, might we not ask the question, in the end: “What is an economy for?”, “What do we want it to provide?”
Our current imaginings endow the market and its associated forms with a special status. We think of “the economy” in terms of natural forces, into which we occasionally intervene, rather than in terms of a whole variety of social relations that need some kind of co-ordination.
Thus “work”, for example, is understood in a very narrow and instrumental way. Where only transactions for money are recognised as belonging to “the economy”, the vast amount of unpaid labour – as conducted for instance in families and local areas – goes uncounted and unvalued. We need to question that familiar categorisation of the economy as a space into which people enter in order to reluctantly undertake unwelcome and unpleasing “work”, in return for material rewards which they can use for consuming.
This is a view that misunderstands where pleasure and fulfilment in human lives are found. Work is usually – and certainly should be – a central source of meaning and fulfilment in human lives. And it has – or could have – moral and creative (or aesthetic) values at its core. A rethinking of work could lead us to address more creatively both the social relations of work and the division of labour within society (including a better sharing of the tedious work, and of the skills).
There are loads of other examples of rarely scrutinised terms in our economic vocabulary, for instance that bundle of terms clustered around investment and expenditure – terms that carry with them implicit moral connotations. Investment implies an action, even a sacrifice, undertaken for a better future. It evokes a future positive outcome. Expenditure, on the other hand, seems merely an outgoing, a cost, a burden.
Above all, we need to bring economic vocabulary back into political contention, and to question the very way we think about the economy in the first place. For something new to be imagined, let alone to be born, our current economic “common sense” needs to be challenged root and branch.