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Challenging the vocabulary of "common sense" - The Kilburn Manifesto

The Kilburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the Western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. Its principal authors, Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin have had a long association with the New Left, since its first days in 1956, and have been significant figures in its various initiatives, such as the founding of Universities and Left Review and New Left Review, the May Day Manifesto (just reissued) and the Greater London Council led by Ken Livingstone. They are the founding editors of the journal Soundings, which is responsible for the Kilburn Manifesto, and which has reissued the 1968 May Day Manifesto in the context of this initiative.

Our Kingdom will publish a discussion of each instalment of the Manifesto. After the Introduction an Framing Statement, this is the first instalment - Vocabularies of the economy.

flickr/ epSos.de. Some Rights Reserved

‘Vocabularies of the Economy’ is the first instalment of the Kilburn Manifesto, after our framing statement ‘After Neoliberalism’. It draws on the overall analysis in terms of social settlements and notions of hegemony to begin to explore the idea of ‘common sense’, which is crucial to them both.

On this reading, common sense is that bundle of ideas that are so ingrained as to be beyond question. Ideas that mold both our identities and our relationships, and frame our understanding of society.

Such common-sense ideas take political work to establish (they appear to be natural, but are absolutely not). For that reason they can be challenged and changed, as neoliberal hegemony has challenged – to the point of destruction – the social-democratic common sense of previous decades. We need now to challenge the current, neoliberal, common sense.

One obvious example from economic relations is the way we are now so often called ‘customers’ – rather than students, or passengers for instance. It’s a terminology that not only characterises our identities (tell us what we are), but also characterises all our relationships as commercial transactions. It erases the specific character of our relations and activities – we’re not students, or visitors to an art gallery, but just customers. All our activities are just about buying and selling. 

This instalment takes on some of this common-sense vocabulary specifically in relation to the economy. For our economic language not only affects how we imagine the economy, but also defines the range of economic policies that are thinkable. The main paper tackles some of the ‘economic theory’ behind all this, and goes into more detail. Here, I shall point just to a few examples.

Think, for instance, of that bundle of words ‘investment/expenditure/speculation’. Each term bears moral connotations: investment – good thing; expenditure – a cost, possibly a burden; speculation – in a financial sense a bit dodgy. Now think about how we use these terms in popular and political discourse.

The couplet investment/expenditure for example. Investment, in the national accounts, is money laid out for things such as buildings and infrastructure. Expenditure on the other hand is money laid out, for instance, on the wages of people operating the services for which the investment provides the infrastructure. So building a new school is investment (moral connotation: a good thing) but paying for teachers and dinner ladies is expenditure (a pure cost, a burden). (Ponder, immediately, the gender implications of this.)

Moreover, that distinction is often cross cut with another – that between private and public. Here, money advanced by a private firm is seen as worthwhile investment, while money advanced by the state is seen as only increasing the deficit. In combination, these two ways of defining investment and expenditure have devastating consequences for employment in public services. Yet if we thought about the economy in a different way, money advanced for employment in education and health say, could be seen as social investment - investment in the future of society. A theme – a question – that runs through this instalment is: what is an economy for? What do we want it to provide? (And – relatedly – what should be the relation between ‘economy’ and ‘society’?)

Next take the couplet investment/speculation. This, in contrast, is a distinction that is ignored in popular political debate, but that we should insist upon. Money advanced for productive activity is called investment – fine. But money advanced for buying an already-existing asset for sale at a higher price is also now usually called investment. Not so fine, because in fact it is speculation, it involves no value creation but only value extraction (it’s just – precisely – buying and selling). Its effect is not value creation, but redistribution.

This is important right now because much of what lies behind the recent decades of neoliberalism is precisely this: not value creation but value extraction, whether it be through property, land, commodities, derivatives, wine, or carbon futures. It is one of the things that lies behind the rise in inequality, the surge in food prices and in malnutrition around the world, and – on the other hand – the new financial imperialism of the City of London.

This is serious. If we are going to take on the financial sector, as we need to, then we need also to insist on this distinction. It is not just casual terminology – it matters.

There is a whole host of economic words, terms, phrases, that we should take on in this way. “Taxation”, for example is universally seen as horrible – ‘we all hate paying taxes don’t we’. But what is at issue with taxation is collectivity, the reproduction of society, social solidarity. Do we not have the political nerve to argue that taxation – for social investment and reproduction – is good?

Another example the full paper deals with at some length, but which I’ll just signal here, is growth. Growth is seen, without doubt, as positive not only by neoliberals, but also by most social democrats. The social-democratic argument is that we need growth in order to redistribute to make society more equal. But, at the very least, that assumption must be questioned. Briefly, we need to question it because: (1) there’s likely to be insufficient growth in the near future for adequate redistribution; (2) it’s a bizarre arrangement anyway, first to produce inequality through market relations, only then to redistribute (why produce such inequality in the first place? We need a model of the economy that is less inegalitarian to begin with); (3) even a progressive social-democratic growth model keeps political contest distributional – it does nothing to question the inequality- producing capitalist economy itself; (4) anyway redistribution is only allowed to go so far (the social democracy of the 1960s was actively undermined because workers (the share of labour as against capital) had gained too much; (5) we must question inexorable growth for ecological and planetary reasons, from climate change to resource exhaustion – and the global North has primary responsibility here; and (6) ‘growth’ certainly in the way we measure it now, in purely monetary terms, seems from all the evidence not even to be making us happier, or to be contributing to human well-being.

So can we use this crisis to re-think? Can we challenge this dominant vocabulary and imagination – this economic common sense – so that we enable not just a scatter of different economic policies, but a different vision of an economy? If we don’t, we’re always going to be arguing on enemy terrain, and thus be on the defensive. Can we integrate our understanding of the economy with an image of social reproduction, and ask what an economy is for?

The opening statement of the ‘Kilburn Manifesto’ can be found at: 

 http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/manifesto.html

The full version of ‘Vocabularies of the Economy’ can be found at:

 http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/pdfs/Vocabularies%20of%20the%20economy.pdf

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