The political economy of snow
December 14, 2010
Guest post by PencilCase
“Many schools and offices have been closed for a second day”, said the BBC correspondent, “so at least some people can enjoy the snow”; the implication being that he certainly wasn’t. Of course, he might simply have been expressing genuine sympathy for those people across the country who have been hit hard by the weather this week; those stranded in vehicles, or working for vital services that really can’t shut up shop when the snow starts to fall. However, if I was being a little more mischievous (and I am), I would suggest that our man in the field was just a little put out that he wasn’t one of the millions who could enjoy a day off from the daily grind to build a snow man, or curl up in front of the fire with a good book. Over the coming days and weeks, talk will be of infrastructure disabled, of man-hours lost and ‘lessons to be learned’. Such responses are indicative of a culture that has become drearily fixated with the pursuit of economic efficiency. From the boardroom to the classroom, we have become a nation of po-faced auditors, joylessly (and often counter-productively) assessing, reordering and restructuring every aspect of our little lives to eek out economies here, a smidgen of increased productivity there. To the earnest citizen of this drab, audit republic, there can be few things worse than snow; erratic, unplanned and unstoppable, it disrupts the predictable rhythms of modern commercial society, sending its solemn guardians into paroxysms of despair. But it will be fine. Everyone knows it will be fine. The snow will stop, the economy will not collapse, the sky will not fall in (though that, ironically, was sort of the problem in the first place).
Bound up with this relentless focus on efficiency is a puritanical and unyielding attitude towards work. We all know those people who never miss a day at the office, succumbing neither to illness nor inclement weather. Certainly, there is something to admire in their almost stoical attitude, in their desire, as Churchill would have phrased it, to ‘keep buggering on’. But one begins to wonder where this approach to life comes from and, sometimes, what purpose it really serves. During the summer, writing at the other end of the thermometer, writer and academic Joe Moran published a thoughtful article challenging our assumptions about the moral righteousness of hard work, cheekily celebrating the idle grasshopper in Aesop’s pious fable of the grasshopper and the ant. A timely piece, Moran hoped that the global financial crisis would provide an opportunity for developed nations to take stock, for people to reconsider what is truly valuable in life, and to perhaps place a little less emphasis on economic efficiency and material measures of prosperity and a little more on free time, family and friendship. And yet, as the UK coalition government began to spell out its plans for the coming age of austerity, “which requires us to put a price on everything”, Moran worried that already the opportunity had been lost, “now the ants are on the march again, all of them warning that the grasshoppers will die in penury”.
Earlier this month, the government announced its plans to start measuring the UK population’s happiness and to integrate its findings into the policy-making process. The idea has been met with derision by many who feel it is little more than an ill-timed gimmick; at best fatuous nonsense, at worst sinisterly Orwellian. But perhaps this is the first big political step to be taken in the UK towards a post-material conception of national prosperity, that looks beyond traditional, and somewhat crude, measures of performance such as GDP. Might we, at long last, be turning off the narrow road of efficiency, to stop and admire the view from a different perspective? Might future periods of heavy snowfall be met by serious acknowledgement, not just of the millions of working days lost, but also of the fun days had?
While the idea of better understanding national happiness and its policy potential is laudable, seen in the context of the government’s wider programme, the current plans seem superficial. Set amongst a familiar raft of neo-liberal policies and targets – public spending cuts, privatisation and consumption-based growth – the happiness indicator looks little more than a feeble concession to a more radical political economy. A genuine concern with human happiness and wellbeing leads us inevitably into a more profound discussion about the organisation and purpose of our economic life, about the reasons for pursuing ever more GDP growth and rising incomes when evidence shows that this does not make us happier beyond a certain point and when such growth, without doubt, causes massive environmental damage. A number of books published in recent years make a powerful case for a new politics of wellbeing, which present a direct challenge to the political economy of both Thatcher and New Labour. Madeleine Bunting’s excellent Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruining Our Lives urges a collectivist and interventionist approach to tackle the trend seen in recent years of longer working hours in Britain and the US, which, she argues compellingly, has done enormous damage to the quality of individual and family life. Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is a more general argument for greater equality, but contains specific findings on the link between mental ill-health and inequality, with particularly profound implications for very unequal societies like the UK. What such works reveal, I think, is that the case for a new politics of wellbeing requires a radically new political economy that is the natural territory of the left, not the right. The global financial crisis undermined, in spectacular fashion, the credibility of the neo-liberal argument that, whatever the unpleasant social side effects they may cause, deregulated free markets offer the only plausible path towards lasting prosperity; an argument which has cowed the mainstream left for a generation. The time is ripe for a new paradigm to match the radicalism and vision of both post-war Keynesian social democracy and that of neo-liberalism itself, as its ideas and policies first began to break through in the 1970s. Unlike the last major ideological transition of the Thatcher-Regan years however, this time it is the left that holds the intellectual and moral high ground, bolstered by its traditions of collectivism, economic interventionism and its belief in the possibility of a better and fairer society.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to see where new and bold ideas might come from, and, more importantly, who might champion them. Obama promised much, but, for reasons not necessarily of his own making, he has proved anything but a new Roosevelt. In the UK, Ed Miliband made some interesting statements during his leadership campaign about the need for a new, less brutish, style of capitalism that would yield to the needs of people and planet, yet it is by no means assured that the Labour Party will agree on a radical, alternative policy agenda. But perhaps it is a mistake to look to one person, or one party, for inspiration and answers to all our problems. Solutions are likely not to come from one figure – either charismatic politician or bearded sage – but from numerous individuals, groups and organisations working doggedly for a better future. Take as some starting points, IPPR’s New Era Economics programme, the New Economics Foundation’s Great Transition project and the recent pamphlet published by the Citizen Ethics Network; all of which share an ambitious vision and some practical ideas for a different way of living. If you find yourself snowed in again over the next few weeks, take some time off and have a good read, because that office in-tray really can wait.