August 28, 2010 1 Comment
I studied economics for a year at college. At the end of the year I was as wise about economics as when I started – and today I am still none the wiser. At first glance it is surprising that the British public, with all their cynicism, so easily accepts the pronouncements of politicians about how a government should act based on economic ‘facts’. It is almost as though economics has become a religion, an absolute ‘Word’ against which there is no appeal.
Two things come together here. On the one hand, in the UK, any political thought or action that might be construed as either ‘idealistic’ or ’ideological’ are unfashionable, the one because it is deemed too personal and therefore unrealistic, the other because such overarching ideas are thought to be too full of prejudice, too set and unadaptable for the needs of the populace. But on the other hand there is the - apparently – socially acceptable magician’s trick of economics, a way for ideology to get through without it being presented as such. Because, in the guise of being a science, economics is driven first and foremost by the political and philosophical prejudices which the economist already possesses and which sets the agenda for his or her (usually his) economic and financial projections. In other words economics is used as the ‘science’ to justify actions which – if the economics were to be stripped away – would reveal the politicians properly as the ideologues they are.
The current rock of this religion – which everyone (or almost everyone) is so accepting of is the DEFICIT. Moreover there is no truth other than the DEFICIT.
And – just as the mainstream religion, to maintain its exclusivity, rails against graven images – one will find economists (albeit thin on the ground) who argue (as the economists for the Green Party do) that there is another economic religion – one which says we shouldn’t be having cuts at all, that – on the contrary - we should be creating jobs in the public sector. As it happens I would myself support these actions. But not for economic reasons. For cultural reasons – reasons which understand economics as part of the mechanics of a culture, but not its driving force.
I am an idealist – one who unashamedly wears certain political and philosophical ideas – and I would like to say NO to economics and economists. Forget the deficit. In fact forget economics.It is an illusion presented to us by politicians who also – just like me and indeed like most people - have their own personal political and philosophical ideas but who cowardly refuse to properly display these ideas to the public. Instead they hide behind economics.
And yet - in my own attempt at a trenchant, simple, forceful analysis perhaps I also underestimate the ‘enemy’ economics, with its own subtle force and substance, indeed as something which is now almost (virtually) an ideology itself. Even the most progressive political parties will now automatically give economic arguments to bolster what logically or ‘naturally’ ought to be understood as cultural ones. The taglines of pressure groups and campaign organisations cite ‘economic, social and cultural value’ in that order without stopping to think that perhaps social and economic values are included in the first, ot even that there might be no such thing as economic value in itself.
Economics has historically been a significant aspect of political philosophy – both of the right and of the left, even if as an aspect it has been a complex one often difficult to separate from the philosophy of which it is a part . But it has always been that, an aspect - not a ‘value’. But what seems to have happened in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century - as there has been a rejection of the progressive development of political philosophy, so ‘economics’ and its concomitant ‘economic value’ have flooded into the vacuum to take its place. This is a politics of the right, of the market, of privatisation, but it is a politics ruled – both on the left as well as on the right – by the language of economics (working alongside its henchman management-speak), a language which defines the new philosophy. Money in the early twenty first century is desecularised: it is the universal cultural currency, and economics is its political equivalent. Yes, economics is a shield hiding this politics in an era when such freely expressed ideology is frowned upon as being divisive, but it is also the thing itself – the unarticulated political philosophy driving ’the politics of economics’.