How Do We Reclaim Control Of Our Lives When the Economy Looms So Grim?
As my friend David Fleming once wrote, conventional economics ‘puts the grim into reality.’
Something of a radical, back in the 1970s Fleming was involved in the early days of what is now the Green Party of England and Wales. Frustrated by the mainstream’s limited engagement with ecological thinking, he urged his peers to learn the language and concepts of economics in order to confound the arguments of their opponents.
By the time I met Fleming in 2006, he had practised what he preached and earned himself a PhD in Economics. But he never lost his aversion for the ‘economism’ that presumes that matters of public policy, employment, ecology and culture can be interpreted mainly in terms of mathematical abstractions.
Worse, he noted that even the word ‘economics’ has the power to make these life-defining topics seem impenetrable, none-of-our-business and, of all things, boring. Fleming’s work was all about returning them to their rightful owners—those whose lives are shaped by them, meaning all of us.
Fleming was a key influence on the birth of the New Economics Foundation and Transition Towns movement, but it was only in the aftermath of his sudden death in 2010 that I discovered the breadth of the powerfully-different vision of economics that underpinned his life. On his home computer I discovered a manuscript for the book he had been preparing to publish after thirty years’ work entitled Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It.
Reminding us that our present growth-based market economy has only been around for a couple of hundred years (and is already hitting the buffers), Fleming’s lifework looks to the great majority of human history for insight: “We know what we need to do,” he writes, “We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.”
What he found was that—in the absence of a perpetually-growing economy—community and culture are key. He quotes, for example, the historian Juliet Schor’s view of working life in the Middle Ages:
“The medieval calendar was filled with holidays …These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting, drinking and merrymaking …All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancien régime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year.”
Reading this took me back to a childhood fed by TV programmes like the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World, which had informed me that by now robots would be doing all the menial work, leaving humans free to relax and enjoy an abundance of leisure time. So it came as a shock to realise that the good folk of the Middle Ages were enjoying far more of it than we are in our technologically-advanced society. What gives? Fleming explains,
“In a competitive market economy a large amount of roughly-equally-shared leisure time – say, a three-day working week, or less – is hard to sustain, because any individuals who decide to instead work a full week can produce for a lower price (by working longer hours than the competition they can produce a greater quantity of goods and services, and thus earn the same wage by selling each one more cheaply). These more competitive people would then be fully employed, and would put the more leisurely out of business completely. This is what puts the grim into reality.”
So in an economy like ours, a technological advance that doubles the amount of useful work a person can do in a day becomes a problem rather than a benefit. It tends to put half the workers out of work, turning them into a potential drain on the state.
Of course, in theory all the workers could just work half-time and still produce all that is needed, much as Tomorrow’s World predicted. But in practice they are often afraid of having their pay cut, or losing their jobs to a stranger who is willing to work longer hours, so they can’t take the steps needed to solve their collective economic problems and enjoy more leisurely lives. Instead, people are kept busy partly through what anthropologist David Graeber memorably characterised as “bullshit jobs.”
How, then, can we feed, house and support ourselves without working as relentlessly as we do today? Fleming’s work explores the answer, making a rigorous case that we need to get beyond mainstream economists’ ideas of minimising ‘spare labour’ if we are to sustain a post-growth economy. This ‘spare labour’ is what most of us would call spare time—a welcome part of a life well lived rather than a ‘problem of unemployment.’
He highlights that the holidays of former times were far from a product of laziness. Rather they were, in an important sense, what men and women lived for. ‘Spare time’ spent in feasting, performing, collaborating and merrymaking together formed the basis of community bonding and membership. Those shared cultural ties hold people together, even in the absence of economic growth and full-time employment. When productivity improves, as one of his readers put it, “in our system you have a problem, in Fleming’s system you have a party.”
Under the current economic paradigm, the only way to keep unemployment from rising to the point where the population can’t be supported is through endless economic growth, which thus becomes an obligation. So we are damned if we grow and damned if we don’t, since endless growth will eventually cross every conceivable biophysical boundary and destroy the planet’s ability to support us. That’s why, in practice, we just keep growing and cross our fingers that somehow it will all work out. As Fleming writes:
“The reduction of a society and culture to dependence on mathematical abstraction has infantilised a grown-up civilisation and is well on the way to destroying it. Civilisations self-destruct anyway, but it is reasonable to ask whether they have done so before with such enthusiasm, in obedience to such an acutely absurd superstition, while claiming with such insistence that they were beyond being seduced by the irrational promises of religion.”
Technological fixes do not help, as we are all discovering to our cost. We are already working ever harder, and with ever more advanced technologies, yet the hope of a better future dwindles day-by-day. Take heart though, for when the current paradigm transparently provides nothing but a dead end, we can be sure that we are on the cusp of a fundamental shift.
Fleming provides a radical but historically-proven alternative: focusing neither on the growth or de-growth of the market economy, but the huge expansion of the ‘informal’ or non-monetary economy—the ‘core economy’ that allows our society to exist, even today. This is the economy of what we love: of the things we naturally do when not otherwise compelled, of music, play, family, volunteering, activism, friendship and home.
At present, this core non-monetary economy is much weakened, pushed out and wounded by the invasion of the market. Fleming’s work demonstrates that nurturing it back to health is not just some quaint and obsolete sharing longing but an absolute practical priority.
The key challenge of today, for Fleming, is to repair the atrophied social structures on which most human cultures have been built; to rediscover how to rely on each other rather than on money alone. Then life after the painful yet inevitable end to the growth of the monetary economy will start to seem feasible again, and our technological progress can bring us the fruits it always promised.
Lean Logic finally reached posthumous publication with Chelsea Green Publishing in September 2016, alongside a paperback version edited by me called Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy. Needless to say, both books are deeply controversial, overthrowing as they do the central paradigm of our economy. As the writer Jonathon Porritt said at a launch event for the books last month, “there is no conventional political party anywhere in the world that doesn’t have economic growth as the underpinning foundation, but David Fleming developed unique, astonishing ideas about resilience and good lives for people without growth.”
It’s increasingly clear that this is the conversation we all need to have, and Fleming’s compelling, grounded vision of a post-growth world is rare in its ability to inspire optimism in the creativity and intelligence of human beings to nurse our economy, ecology and culture back to health. I am proud to have played a part in bringing it to the world; in fact, it might just be the best thing I have done.