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An economic system that supports people & planet still possible

An economic system that supports people and planet is still possible
No new vision arose from the ashes after the financial crisis exposed the failings of today’s economic system, but while the task is daunting it’s still within reach
vision for the economy to rise from the ashes. Photograph: DEDY ZULKIFLI/EPA
Stewart Wallis
Tuesday 4 November 2014 14.53 GMT

I direct an organisation with an ambitious mission statement: to transform the economy so that it works for people and the planet.

For 30 years the New Economics Foundation has been working with others to shift our economic system away from the current model – growth no matter the cost – to one where the primary goal is maximising human wellbeing, fairly, and without destroying the environment on which we all depend.

We’ve had successes. We helped reform the EU Common Fisheries Policy for the better and created over 800 businesses in the most deprived parts of the UK. We coordinated the Jubilee 2000 debt coalition that lead to the cancellation of $100bn (£62.5bn) unpayable poor country debt. And we really thought our moment had come when we persuaded the UK government to start measuring human wellbeing.

But when the financial crisis exposed plainer than ever the failings of today’s economic status quo, it wasn’t our vision that rose out of the ashes. In six short years the banks responsible have gone back to business as usual, while the dominant political narrative insists it is the public sector that should pay the price.

As well established as this narrative may seem, I am as confident as ever systemic change is possible. After all, fundamental shifts in the economic mainstream have happened twice in my lifetime. When I was growing up, it was the shift to Keynesianism with its emphasis on government intervention and social safety nets. And in my adult life, the shift to neo-liberalism with its focus on free markets and smaller government.

Looking back at what powered these shifts has helped me understand the depth of our task today. In both cases the focus was not on short-term policy change but on four key strategies. The discrediting of the existing dominant narrative and theory about how the economy works; the creation and championing of a new narrative and theory about how the economy should work; the weakening of power bases that reinforce the current system; and the creation and growth of new power bases that drive a new narrative and theory.

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It took the first neo-liberal economists 30 years to win the debate – from their first meeting in the secluded Swiss resort, Mont Pelerin, in the late 40s, to Thatcher and Reagan attaining power in the late 70s. In this time they created new institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). They become dominant in key university economics departments and academic journal editorial boards; they influenced case law. But above all they created a powerful new narrative or story that was both simple and tapped into people’s concerns. A narrative based on three core principles: individual freedom, free enterprise and limited government.

We and many other civil society organisations have been much better at saying what is wrong with the current system than providing a positive new story about how we can flourish while living within planetary ecological limits. We have tended to argue over detail rather than collaborating and building the infrastructure to support a powerful movement for change. We have been playing our own instruments to our own scores in different orchestras, and the result has been noise.

It’s time to change tactics. The challenge ahead is bigger than any one organisation, and at NEF we know from experience the power of partnerships. Faced with such systemic social, economic and environmental malaise we need to build a broad base of campaign leaders from across civil society – people from major non-profits, trade unions and environmental, social justice and faith groups. What so many of our campaign issues stem from is the desperate need for a new kind of economic system.

The question then, is what exactly are we standing for? How do we work together to turn today’s progressive noise into a compelling new story about the economic system we need?

My colleagues and I are working now to identify and test out a new set of key principles to underpin this narrative. If the key ingredients of neo-liberalism are individual freedom, free enterprise and small government, what will a new, fairer and sustainable economy be built on?

We don’t have the answers – at least not yet – but our shortlist so far includes strengthening natural systems (instead of merely sustaining them), investing in the long term, developing strong non-market economies and democratising ownership and economic governance.

These could well change but my current sense is that if these principles were put into action, humanity has a chance of providing enough good jobs and livelihoods for everybody on this planet without destroying our life support system. If you think I’ve misplaced anything, please let me know below the line.

Politicians are only going to make such changes if there is strong enough public pressure and this in turn requires the generation of an exciting new story and a strong new power base pushing it. This is the task: it is daunting, yes, but it is both crucial and possible.

Stewart Wallis is executive director of the New Economics Foundation

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/nov/04/economic-sys...