Category Archives: Feminism

The Economics of the School Playground or Free Market Economics

Recently I met a group of friends who like me are nearer to seventy than sixty. What surprised me was that the ethics of the school playground still prevailed amongst us. As we had not met for several years, there was an immediate struggle within the group for supremacy. One particularly made a determined effort. First through trying to put down what he saw as the weakest member of the group, by making a slighting references to his speech impediment. Once having demonstrated his superiority to over him in his mind, he went on to list his recent achievements to demonstrate his superiority over the others. This competitive behaviour is apparently typical behaviour of men in any social situation. Once he felt that he had achieved top dog status he calmed down and returned to a more normal conversational mode. This is little more than a grown version of the  playground behaviour we indulged in as children. In my primary school it  was superiority in the traditional sports of marbles, conkers or any athletic activity that counted.  There was inevitably one boy who excelled at all things and who had the admiration of all, the alpha boy (male). What struck me was that if the behaviour and the ethics of the playground still governed the behaviour of this group of near seventy old men, surely these playground behaviours must come to the fore in all spheres of activity in which men participate.

Obviously it is possible to overstate the influence of the learnt playground behaviours on adult males; however there do seem to be striking similarities between behaviours of boys in the playground and those of adult males.  Is this not demonstrated in the male obsession with competitive sport? Men are taught from their earliest age that life is a competition in which its necessary to win or at least do well. Losers are beneath contempt, I still remember with horror the way us boys treated the designated loser in the playground. The vital social skill of co-operation is placed well below that of competitive ability. Until very recently economists were men, the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-83) being one of the exceptions. Does the dominance of men in economics with their competitive behaviours influence there understanding of the economy? The answer is a probable yes. Economists see the competitive market as the infra structure upon which the economy is grounded. All sectors of the economy are nothing more than competitive markets in one guise or another. Economic theory is a theory of winners and losers. Losers play an essential role in the economy as through their failure they remove from the market those producers that are inefficient, those that produce the wrong products and those workers that are less efficient. Unfortunately the losers suffer the penalty of unemployment, but they have a function in that they provide an incentive to those in work to try harder to avoid the penalty of unemployment.

Co-operation rarely gets a mention in economic textbooks, except in negative terms;  trade associations and trade unions are seen as nothing than barriers to the efficient working of the market. However this ignores the fact that society as a whole is largely a co-operative enterprise,in which people co-operate for the greater good. Education and healthcare in this country are  examples of collaborative enterprises. Even in the commercial market the rival traders see the benefits of collaboration. When I worked for a London insurance broker, my employers and others collaborated in the financing of the Lloyds insurance market and its management. They co-operated because they knew a regulated and well organised market would attract more business as people with place their money with businesses they trusted. Unfortunately with the deregulation of the market in the 1908s there has been a falling away of standards and trust particularly in regard to the life assurance companies.

There is one example from the playground that male economists seem to have forgotten. Rules are needed to make the games boys play work. One game that we used to play at the Scout hut was British Bulldog. There would be two teams of boys, one trying to stop the other team from  reaching the other side of the room. The easiest way to stop the members of the team trying to cross the room would have been  through extreme violence, such as a punch. To prevent this game degenerating into a fight rules were imposed which prohibited any contact apart from the grabbing and tackling of opponents. Just as British Bulldog needed rules to make the game work, so does the economy needs rules as without them bad practice thrives.

Seemingly economists have voiced their approval of the actions of the playground bully, he who but for rules would have got his pleasure from hurting others. All influential economists are of the Neo-Liberal school which sees government regulation hampering the legitimate activities of business entrepreneur (bully).  Their mantra is that business knows what is best for business. The malign impact of this abandoning of all rules is demonstrated clearly in the food market. There successive governments have since the 1980s weakened or removed much of the legislation governing food hygiene, In tandem with this they have reduced to an almost insignificant number, the number public health and food inspectors. One consequence of this has been shown in the recurrent food scandals, most recently the beef scandal in which supermarkets were found to be selling horse meat instead of beef in many of their processed meat products.  Criminal gangs have also found that lax food and healthy regulation make it possible to relabel and process food that unfit meat to the supermarkets for sale to the public. Food writers write of a food mafia that is exploiting lax food and hygiene regulations to the detriment of public health.

There is hope for change as there are now many more women becoming economists. I don’t want to make the suggestion that women are any less competitive than men, having two daughters I can testify that women can be extremely competitive. However women value co-operative behaviours more highly, they learn from an early age the value of supportive groupings. One example of this co-operative behaviour is the support that mothers offer each other with childcare. All the pre-school child care groups in my locality were organised and run by local women with or more usually without government support (funding). What I am trying to suggest is that the different life experiences of women make them value collaborative behaviours more highly than men.

Many of these new economists reject the  social darwinism of the mainstream, one economist such economist is Ann Pettifor. She has warned of the dangers of the unregulated financial markets in her book ‘The Coming First World Debt Crisis’. These unregulated market she explains are in danger of bringing about an economic crash greater than that of 2008/9. In the UK private sector indebtedness amounts to 2000% of GDP, the highest in the developed world. This level of debt is a threat to the future viability of the economy, yet the government persistently ignores their problem. Lord Oakshot described the British Treasury as the bastion of free market fundamentalism. It almost goes without saying that the senior economists at the Treasury are male and are so wedded to the idea of competitive markets, that they refuse to consider any other than the most minimal of regulation in the financial markets.

This is not to deny that some of the new women economists are of the orthodox persuasion, as a number of them work for that centre of economic orthodoxy the British Treasury. What I suspect is that a greater percentage of female economists are of the non-mainstream variety, than is true of their male colleagues. If men tend to see the world as nothing more than a series of competitive interactions, they will have a preference for those economic practices that encourage competition and they will see any regulation of the competitive market as anathema.  Unfortunately despite its public statements to the contrary, the male dominated Treasury sees little reason to do other than minimally regulate the financial markets, despite the likelihood of an unregulated financial market repeating the experience of the crash of 2008/9.

In Memoriam – a tribute to a feminist sister

The Yellow Rose a symbol of joy and gladness
A recent personal tragedy made aware that philosophies of kindness are regarded more highly than is widely assumed, many remain impervious to the worse excesses of our materialistic culture. The values associated with a more traditional culture still exist within contemporary culture, values such as friendship, compassion and caring. The respect shown towards my sister by her many friends demonstrated how these highly these values are still regarded. The turnout at her funeral and the grief expressed showed how much people value this individuals whose life demonstrated these principles in practice. She was a woman who worked in the caring services, most recently teaching children that had been excluded from school because of behavioural problems. Even accepting back into her class a violent teenager who had made an attack on her. She was a central figure in many friendship groups and social activities such as the book club. These friends all supported each other through the problems that life throws up, illness and death for example. Men seem to lack these support groups as we seem much more one dimensional in our relationships.When I started my last job I made friends with Keith, yet it was a number of years before I knew he had two children in their teens. We just talked about work, philosophy and politics, never our families. One sociologist made a study of language use and she came to the conclusion that women make much more use of relational language. Going back to my example if we had been women, we would asked each other about family and known almost immediately how many children each had. I think one writer wrote that it is woman kind that civilises mankind. Perhaps illustrated by a remark made by my wife. When hearing that the British army was to allow women to engage in combat on the frontline, who said that, ‘I thought we were capable of better than that’. What the life of my sister reminded was that there is a different culture within our society of which I as man was unfamiliar.

Feminist philosophers and theologians believe that their gender gives them a very distinct life, which makes the dominant male oriented philosophies and theologies of our society irrelevant to those who don’t have the male experience of life. Grace Jantzen is one of these writers. She in her book ‘Becoming Divine”,redrafts Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality to give it a distinctly feminist context. For Arendt natality is a philosophy of rebirth, a philosophy of revolution and change. There are times when the power exercised by the dominant group in society weakens and falters.This is becomes a time of opportunity, a time when a public space opens up which allows all those feelings and ideas that had been repressed to be expressed. It is a brief moment of time in which change in the social order can occur as new ideas are given the time and space to take root. The Arab spring briefly appeared to be one such moment of natality, it seemed as if Arab societies could be reborn on more egalitarian lines, when fairness established as one of the founding principles of a new society. Unfortunately, in all but Tunisia the old repressive forces reasserted themselves with renewed vigour.

People of mine and my sister’s generation thought the 1960s was such a time of rebirth and the remaking of society. A time of the ‘the Age of Aquarius’, certainly it was for many individuals, who in response to the times entered into the caring professions or adopted an alternative lifestyle. Unfortunately this brief spring time of liberation was crushed by the forces of reaction. Not the cruel reaction of a repressive police state, but the overwhelmingly seductive power of the consumer society. Potential revolutionaries were bought off by the promise of wealth. I can remember conversations between avowed Marxists in which the main topic of conversation was house prices and how they would benefit from the rise in these prices. The wealth on offer was so much greater than any of our parents knew so young people it easily seduced into becoming willing participant in the consumer society. What remained of the revolution of ideas and behaviours, quickly metamorphosed into a revolution of style and appearance. Revolution was to be expressed in liking a particular type of music or through dress, revolution segued into glam rock, it was a revolution of style. This revolution left intact the very fundamentals of the old unequal society, the power of the old order was never really challenged. When the opportunity came in the mid 1970s this group savagely reasserted its claim to wealth and privilege. The welfare state was slowly dismantled, poverty appeared again on our streets in the person of the beggar.
One interview I saw on television encapsulated this change. A representative of a country landowners association said how the fashion for large country houses had changed. In the 1960s these great houses were being knocked down, whereas in the ‘noughties’ there was a renewed interest in building great country houses. He failed to mention that this was a consequence of increasing inequality of wealth and income in the country.

Grace Janzten was part of new rising group of feminist thinkers who reacted against the philosophy of the times, that of Neo-Liberalism in its many forms. These new patriarchal philosophies were as the old male religions the philosophies of anti-life given new guises. These old new philosophies for her sprung from the inability of men to directly experience the act of creation, that is giving birth. It was the experience of or the potential experience of this that gave women a different understanding of life. Central to women’s lives are the acts of creation and nurture, as without nurturing that created thing, life would not thrive. Masculinist philosophies such as Neo-Liberalism make the nurturing society impossible. Its very Darwinism emphasis on winners and losers is anti-nurture, as in such a society only the winners thrive. Rather than thrive the great majority of society, that is the losers languish and flounder. The number of children in poverty is rising and those malnourished children lose out in the academic race that is now schooling. They cannot compete with their better fed and resourced rivals. Neo-Liberal Britain is the society of the precariat and the underclass, where only the possession of wealth is celebrated. A Jantzenist society would be very different, in that all its children would be nurtured and all have an opportunity to succeed. This would mean the removing of those barriers to aspiration, that is the many barriers placed in the way of the children of the poor by low income and poverty. Motherhood would be the basic principle around which society would be structured, rather than the very masculinist one of power.

Jantzen never really develops how her philosophy/theology in the context of remaking society, her interest is in power. How to grab back power from the patriarchy. Her solution is the development of a feminist philosophy of natality and life as a counterweight to dominant masculinist philosophies of power and violence. She wants equal recognition in society for the very different life experience of women. This in turn brings me back to my sister and I, as our childhood experiences demonstrate the two very distinct philosophies of life. She would work as a volunteer for the St.Johns Ambulance Brigade, which meant giving up her spare time to work in the wards of the local hospital. While I went out with my friends fishing or shooting, more usually the former, inflicting pain and suffering on the local wildlife. Although Grace Jantzen can justifiably be accused of presenting a very idealised view of women’s life experience, it does not diminish her claim for the need for a powerful feminist philosophy of natality to oppose and limit the predatory masculinist Social Darwinist philosophies of today. It is the latter that have wreaked havoc on society reintroducing to it, poverty, insecurity and ill health all the evils of the societies of the past.