Economic Primitivism, a doctrine for the 21st century


George Osborne (British Chancellor of the Exchequer) words on the EU prompted me to write this essay. He said that unless the EU modernised it would decline. What struck me was his understanding of the verb to ‘modernise’, what he meant by this was the freeing of the labour market and society from those regulations that hamper business. He wants the end of employment protection laws, those that limit the ability of firms to hire and fire workers as they please and that those keep wages unnecessarily high, the elimination from the workplace of all organisations such as trade unions which limit the freedom of the employer to innovate (particularly in employment conditions, insisting on minimum and maximum hours of work as opposed to the flexible British practice called ‘zero hours’ contracts.) There was a recent example of what George Osborne means by ‘modernising’ in Scotland. Jim Ratcliffe the owner of Ineos a petro-chemical plant in Grangemouth, Scotland, wanted a change in working conditions that would benefit the company but of little benefit to the employees, he wanted the ending ‘final salary pension schemes’, a no strike deal etc. To get the workers to comply, he shut down the plant, threatening unemployment for all the staff employed there. Added to this was pressure from both the UK and Scottish government’s on the employee’s union to agree terms which included government ministers supporting the company in media appearances. Obviously the unions and workers gave into to the employers demands. It was a good example of that effectiveness new phenomenon, the employer’s strike. Ineos now has a modern flexible labour force, willingly adopting modern work practices which enable Ineos to extract the maximum profit from each worker. It is this new barbarism of contemporary labour relations that I find unacceptable.

Society must also be modernised to achieve a good fit with modern industrial society. One enemy of the modern economy is the settled community. The British Treasury has long complained that the pattern of housing tenure limited labour mobility. Security of tenure, either long term tenure in social housing or as home ownership, stopped workers from moving from areas of high unemployment and low wages to areas of low unemployment and high wages, because they did not want to give up their good homes for less desirable ones in the areas of high growth. The Treasury achieved its aim through changes in government policy; now increasing numbers are living in private rental accommodation with little security of tenure. This means such housing can be put to its most productive use. When the Olympics came to East London, hundreds of tenants could be evicted to make room for higher paying Olympic visitors. Modernism in society means the breaking or dismantling up of any community organisation that might threaten ‘economic progress’. Perhaps the best example is the remorseless attack by all governments on local authorities, all changes in legislation have prioritised the needs of the business corporation over the local community. The powers that local authorities have to control unwelcome planning developments have been constantly diminished by government after government. Even if the council rejects an application from a ‘fracking’ company on the grounds that it was environmentally damaging, all the firm has to do is appeal to the government minister. It is extremely unlikely their appeal would be rejected.

From what I have written I cannot be called an economic moderniser; I need to find a term to describe myself. Reflecting on this I remembered a city trader who described the restrictions imposed on some dubious trading practice as Neanderthal and that made me realise that I am an economic primitive. As a believer in the regulation of the market place, I must be a believer in economic primitivism, or better put as economically regressive and socially progressive. I am amused by the screams of protest that echo round the board rooms, when it is suggested that their should be quotas for women on their boards. Obviously these men don’t recognise women as fully functioning human beings, capable of making the decisions necessary to run a successful company. Not much has changed in the City of London since I worked there in the 1960’s, when one senior member of the company explained his opposition to equalities legislation by saying ‘women are for the night’. What economic progressives such as George Osborne want is an end to all that regulation that has modernised society that is incompatible with business profitability. Gay marriage is fine but legislation that improves the conditions for women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the workplace is wrong because it places burdens on business. All that most of us believe that makes modern society the good society he wants removed. What is his demonisation of the sick and disabled other than socially regressive. This is the same attitude as that of the Parliamentarians in the nineteenth century who opposed regulation to protect children in the workplace on the grounds that it would place an intolerable cost burden on employers. The economic moderniser is the one who opposes any social improvement that could possibly adversely affect the profits of any business.

Legislation to reduce the harmful effects of excessive alcohol consumption are vigorous opposed by the economic moderniser. They employ the strange argument that a minimum price for alcohol would penalise the poorer sensible drinker; ignoring the fact that the whole purpose of increasing the price of alcohol is to reduce consumption by making it more expensive. Also alcohol includes a toxin, ethyl alcohol and it can be damaging at even low levels of consumption. In fact the modernisers in government are very supportive of the drinks industry, ensuring that local authorities lack the power to regulate this industry in their own city. Both modernisers and the drinks industry think there is nothing wrong in recreating the conditions that gave rise to Hogarth’s 18th century painting ‘gin street’. A policy that looks to the 18th century for its inspiration is retrograde.

Unlike the members of the political class I don’t want Europe to be ‘modernised’, the modernity experiment has gone far enough. A good society cannot be one in which the average income is insufficient to pay for good housing. Does George Osborne really believe the modernisation of Greece, Italy and Spain has brought any real benefit to the people of those countries? Yet he wants the modernity experiment to continue.

If George Osborne is right, there is at choice between being an economic moderniser and a social regressive or being an economic regressive and social moderniser. There for me is no choice, GB business must accept some cut in its paper profits and some ‘regressive’ social legislation to bring about the good society. Paraphrasing George Osborne, if there has to be a choice between the ‘good economy’ and the ‘good society’, I would always choose the latter.


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