Tag Archives: Enclosures

There is an alternative – moral economics and economists

Economists see the free market economy as the end point of social evolution. Industrialisation and the market economy are but inevitable stages in the development of society. Sophisticated developed societies are market economies. They are the high point of social evolution, a belief best demonstrated in Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the development of liberal democracy. All these democracies were of course free markets. Human freedom has reached it’s zenith in the free market. (Milton Friedman even thought the killing and imprisonment of thousands in Pinochet’s Chile, as a price worth paying for the restoration of human and economic freedoms.)

This triumphalism of the market economists is a recent phenomenon. In the period after the second world war and as a consequence of the Great Depression, free market economists were a small discredited minority. Instead economists such as Karl Polanyi, Nicholas Kaldor and John Maynard Keynes who supported the state management of the economy were those held in the highest regard. However with the economic crisis of the 1970s, these economists fell out of favour to be replaced by the free market economists, who persuaded governments institute the new era of neo-liberalism.

Karl Polanyi is now one of those unfashionable economists that is now being studied again after the collapse of the market economy. What makes him so different from the free market economists is that he did not believe that free markets were a product of social evolution. He sees the economy as part of an integral part of a network of social institutions. Changes in the economy were a consequence of changes in wider society and changes in the economy in its turn changed the society in which it was located.

Polanyi traces the origins on the free market industrial society of today to Tudor society. The old military aristocracy was losing power to a new rising class comprised of small landowners and the merchants in the towns and cities. It was the demands of these two groups that kick started the social and economic change that led to industrialisation and development of the free market. Landowners wanted the rural peasantry off the land, so they could introduce new and more profitable farming methods. This was enclosure of common lands. Legislation made it almost impossible for the poor ‘inefficient’ peasant farmers to continue to farm the land. They could not afford the costs of enclosing their farmland. . The great merchants in the cities wanted the end of the guild system, which they believed restricted their ability to make money. Guilds imposed regulatory controls on their members, which the great merchants believed placed unfair restrictions on their ability to trade. These two groups were over represented in parliament. Also the great merchants (Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell) were the source of loans for a government that was always short of money. Consequently the government introduced measures to help both groups.

Once example was the vagrancy laws which could be used to control the landless peasantry. Landless peasants without work and no support within the community could be whipped and driven out of the community, so relieving the landowners of the obligation to support them. E.P. Thompson about the Black Laws introduced in the 18th century) which further disempowered the working poor. These acts introduced capital punishment for offences such as trespass or for destroying a farm gates. These had the effect speeding up the exodus of peasants from the land. Formerly the rural peasantry could collect fallen branches from the woods, now this was illegal. Similarly poaching as means of supplementing a poor diet was now a hanging offence. This created a new class of landless proletariat who would supply the labour for the new industries that were developing in the towns and cities.

This breaking of the link between the poor and the land, created the flexible and mobile workforce that the new industries would need. Obviously there were other important factors that facilitated the industrial revolution such as advances in technology.

If I understand Polanyi correctly the free market and industrialisation, were accidental changes following on from a power grab by the landowning and merchant classes.

Social and economic change produced a new ideology, that of capitalism. In the new social environment, people thought differently. What now ensured societies well being was Adam Smiths ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Now the price system would be responsible for distribution of wealth, and consequent responsibility for people’s well-being. Poverty now was not deserving of amelioration, it was a consequence of a personal failings. However even Adam Smith was shocked at the brutal way the new capitalists were treating there employees in Glasgow. However the moral coda that he inserted at the end of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ stating that employers owed a duty of care to there employees was ignored. Capitalist ideology dehumanised society, people and land were now valued according to their utility. They were now things, society was commodified, people and land were things that were bought. Valued only according to their usefulness. This was according to Weber the process of disenchantment. What today has become known as financialisation. Society was an inhuman affair in which people only had value in their functionality.

Perhaps the best illustration of the new way of thinking is represented in the writings of those twentieth century economic historians who wrote that the introduction of the Factory Acts were responsible for the slowing of economic growth in the 19th century, as the money that should have been reinvested in the business was instead spent on wages or improving the welfare of the workers. This was the cause of Britain’s relatively poor economic performance compared to foreign rivals. There spokesman was the liberal MP John Bright who argued that the country’s continued prosperity was dependent on the continued exploitation of children in the Mills. An attitude that still prevalent today. During the 2015 election campaign Ed Milliband was criticised by a member of the audience for not understanding that the success of his business depended on his continued ability to continuation of that exploitation of his workers through the zero hours system. Some employers certainly in the medieval period treated their workers equally badly, but they did not boast of the fact, or claim that their behaviour had moral sanction from the nations code of ethics. Then the prevailing Christian code of ethics would have condemned such behaviour. The stocks were often occupied by tradesmen who had cheated there customers. Whatever the failings of the Middle Ages a different and anti capitalist ethics prevailed.

Polanyi writes that the unregulated free market is a threat to social order. The example he uses to demonstrate this is the Speenhamland system which was introduced in the late 18th century. Until industrialisation there was a thriving cottage based textile trade. With the introduction of new technology and the growth of the factory system, these people faced impoverishment. Trade was lost to the new mills taken and payment for whatever they produced was reduced to the price paid for such products by mills. In France the impoverished peasants together with the urban proletariat provided the foot soldiers that made revolution possible. This was avoided in Britain, because the poor could apply to the parish for relief. They never became as desperate as the working poor in France. The parish money enabled these workers to remain in their homes and provided them with sufficient money to satisfy there family’ basic needs. Unlike their French counterparts desperation did not drive them to revolution. There were no equivalence in England of the Chateau burnings of France.

One writer rightly describes Polanyi as a moral economist. All new economics students in the U.K. are taught that moral preoccupations have no place in the study and practice of economics. It is a science different in nature from ethics. Even today economists and writers prefer Polanyi without the moral dimension. Threats to the social order posed by the economy are said to bring forth a reaction, societies develop protective measures that seek to minimise the disruptive effects of the free market. Anybody who has read ‘The Great Transformation’ cannot fail to note his suppressed anger when he describes the impact of the Great Depression on people in Europe.

Polanyi is important today not just because he offers an alternative vision of economics and society; but because he was one of that great generation of economists, who persuaded governments that a new way of managing the economy was possible. A way that would prevent a recurrence of both the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately a later generation of economists have persuaded governments to abandon the policies of these economists and revert to the failed economic policies of the 1920s.

One last point Polanyi makes and that is that the market based price system is only a recent historical development. Only in the last two to three hundred years have households satisfied a majority of there needs by exchanging money for goods and services in the market. Prior to take the market only provided a minimum of a households needs. There is no reason why the price system and free market will always be the means by which goods and services are distributed. When the managing director of the IMF warns of another Great Depression, all that can be certain is that the free market so beloved of the Neo-Liberals will disappear.

Xenophobic and racist behaviours as understood by an economist

Neo-Liberalism or the practice of free market economics is claimed to be responsible for the decline in living standards, but it is not usually blamed for the decline in public behaviours. In the UK ever since the vote to leave the EU there has been an increase in racism and xenophobic behaviours. (A policy decision desired by NeoLiberal and Libertarian politicians.) What I want to suggest is that the adoption by Western European governments of Neoliberalism and in particular by Britain, has been one of the main contributory factors in the increase in racism and xenophobic behaviours.

One of the great economists but who is rarely read today gives an insight into the processes by which the practice of Neo-Liberalism gives rise to anti social behaviours. This economist is Micheal Polanyi and any reader of his book ‘The Great Transformation’ on reading the first chapter would think that he is describing today’s society, whereas in fact he is describing that of the 1930s. The great insight that he reveals in this book is that the unregulated free market is destructive of social order. He demonstrates that this was a fact known to rulers in the past who insisted on regulating the market to minimise its most destructive effects. Although he does not quote this particular example, the biblical story of Joseph shows that the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were all to well aware of the destructive effects of an unregulated market. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to as a warning that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then Joseph and the Pharaoh store grain during the good seven years to distribute to the people in the years of need. The Pharaoh’s understood the importance of controlling the market, they knew that food shortages and their exploitation by the merchants who took the exploit the situation to raise prices for the scarce  supplies of food could lead to food riots and possible threats to the rule. A careful reading of folk tales shows that good rulers regularly opened the warehouses of the greedy merchants to the hungry people.

Evidence seems to suggest that the great Greek dynasties of the era of the Trojan wars and Agamenon, were overthrown by internal revolt. One possible cause is the shortage of food caused by adverse climatic changes, a problem worsened a self indulgent aristocratic elite failing alleviate the hunger of the poor and preferring to spend the wealth of their society on conspicuous consumption by creating ever grander palaces.

When reading Polanyi’s book I noted uncanny resemblances between the England of today and that of the 18th century. He writes about the plight of the workers in the cottage based textile industry, as they lost work and income to the large cotton manufacturers who employed the latest technology in weaving and spinning. These people were reduced to a life of misery, having to rely upon handouts from the parish  to feed their families. Their contemporary counterparts are those workers in the so called ‘gig economy’. The development of the mobile phone has made it possible employers no longer to have workers on site or in situ, as its possible to call them in for work when they are needed. No longer does business have to keep a large staff team on site to deal with those busy periods, instead they can be called in when needed.

These workers are also disadvantaged by the lack of employment protection legislation, as ever since the Neo-Liberal revolution of the 1980s, successive governments whether of the centre right or left have seen as it as their task to remove as many as possible of the labour protection measures. These measures it was believed hampered the efficient operation of the labour market. What this legislation did was to leave the worker increasing defenceless against the actions of the exploitative employer. The gig economy is made possible by two things, the mobile phone and the lack of legislation to protect the rights of the worker.

Not surprisingly this was paralleled in the 18th century when legislation removed workers access to common land. Prior to the 18th century workers in the countryside had access to the common land on which they could keep cattle and raise crops. This meant that in time of hardship they could rely upon this as a source of income and food for their family. These people were often the workers in the cottage based textile industry, who when trade was bad could rely on the produce from the common land to keep the family fed. A series of enclosure acts deprived rural residents of their rights to common land. When the collapse of the home based textile industry happened these people were deprived of two sources of income and reduced to abject misery. (These hungry and desperate people were the workforce of the new textile mills willing to endure the most dreadful of working conditions as the alternative was going without.).

When society falls to deliver people look to alternatives. In the 18th century  it was to France where the  revolution had otherthrown the old exploitative landlord class and promised a fairer society. In England many revolutionary societies were formed and the aristocratic government was in constant fear of revolution. They were only able to suppress the revolutionary instincts of the poor through repression and through a system of regional handouts (the Speenhamland system) which prevented workers being reduced to that state of despair that would make them resort to dangerous measures. The Speenlandham system was not unlike our current tax credits system.

The depressed poor not only turned to thoughts of revolution, but also to xenophobia. There is the story of the monkey that was cast ashore from a shipwreck in Yorkshire. This unfortunate monkey was then hung as a French spy. Whatever the truth of this story xenophobia thrives when people are in need and society appears to be failing them. They look for scapegoats to blame for their misery, then it was the French, now its immigrants. When resources such as housing are scarce, its easy to see it as being caused by the foreigner who has taken the house that by rights should have gone to a native born citizen. Politicians have used this xenophobia as a means of winning popular support. They have constantly used the EU as a convenient scapegoat to blame for the nations economic and social ills, ills which were often of there making and so it was no surprise that when people were given a choice they would opt to leave the EU.

Now there is a situation in which a government refuses to acknowledge its culpability for the increasingly dire economic circumstances, and instead relies on scapegoating the other (the foreigner) to distract from its failures of governance. It has boxed itself into a corner and now the only policy measure that it can offer to alleviate the misery of the people is the limiting of  immigration.They promise that no longer will the European immigrant take the council house or job that should have gone to the native born Englishman or woman. What they fail to realise or the brightest and most cynical politicians fail acknowledge, is that their anti immigrant policies will make the situation much worse for the so called ‘just managing class’. Even when the negative effects of abandoning the EU become apparent the politicians will be unable to acknowledge there policies are failing. What instead they will do is to to adopt more and more extremist language to disguise their policy failings. Economic decline will be blamed on those opponents of Brexit who have talked down the economy. Already one Conservative party councillor has suggested that the people and politicians that oppose Brexit should be charged with treason. The only hope for a xenophobic government is to turn up the volume of abuse directed at their opponents in the expectation of silencing them. This of course is the policy pursued by the current government, when any reasoned criticism of Brexit is answered with abuse. The opponents are the ‘Bremoaners’ or whatever catchy phrase of abuse that they can conjure up.

When the government’s sole claim to legitimacy is that it embodies the xenophobic instincts of the people, it language will be that which both implicitly and explicitly gives sanction to racist and xenophobic behaviours. The government will not act effectively to discourage such behaviours or to  condemn them without fear of alienating its most xenophobic supporters. Next year when the negotiations start in earnest and the impact of the uncertainty accompanying those negotiations will cause increasing unemployment, increasing inflation and falling house prices, what can be expected is an increase in the abuse directed at those who dare to suggest that these are a consequence of Brexit. Incidences of racism will increase as the government’s abusive language towards its opponents will seem to give a green light to their extreme behaviours. A government that suggests the actions of its opponents is bordering on the treason will be seen to sanction violent racist actions, as they can be described helping the government cleanse the nation of that element that is responsible for the ills that beset society.