I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then

I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.

And knowing that they come from the beautiful book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ we may feel tempted to recommend Lewis Carroll’s book as reading for Joseph Stiglitz.

Sure, there is always some temptation to go to events like the one today at LUISS Università Guido Carli, listening to Joseph Stiglitz looking at the question

Can the Euro Be Saved? An Analysis of the Future of the Currency Union.

Part of the temptation may actually sometimes be simply seeing economics another time as questionable subject and as such not so much an academic discipline (sure, fouling the own nest – but there had been more outstanding economists that did so, thus I am only doing the usual thing: standing on the shoulders of giants, though I am not sure how much further I can see).

Be it as it is, my first irritation came right at the beginning of Joseph’s presentation, hearing about recession and subsequently recovery. The terms had been used in connection with the locating European economies in respect of their development.

It is an often-discussed point and an extremely tricky question – recession and depression had been mentioned in the presentation. And indeed it is somewhat funny then to hear that during the time Joseph Stiglitz worked for the World Bank the term depression had been admonished – it would sound so negative, and have such bad effects especially at times where people are already depressed. Still, the question remains if talking about a recession is not as misleading as the reference to depression. Isn’t it much more precise and honest to say what all this is about:

A crisis – and indeed a structural crisis.

And it is not a structural crisis just of the Euro. In fact we are confronted with a crisis of the fundamentals of the capitalist economy. Actually I talked with Marco today in the morning exactly about this question – and we should accept that it is a question and any claim to give an unequivocal answer is pretentious. Before shortly looking at this, there is at least the following that Joseph valuably emphasised: austerity policy is causing huge problems for a majority of the people, not contributing to solve economic problems but evoking a major social downgrading for many.

There are at least the following perspectives waiting for some thorough reflection. One can be seen as capitalism returning to its pure form. There is surely some truth saying that in one way or another, capitalism as it emerged and became known as Manchester Capitalism had been tamed: social and welfare state being one aspect, general working conditions and some forms of respect of workers (also political) rights have to be mentioned. So one way of looking at the current crisis and the harsh ‘restructuration’ may be interpreted in this way: we are returning to pure capitalism.

Another perspective, however, is to see the structural change in connection with some fundamental shifts caused by the development of the means of production. We may then suggest that we are witnessing the emergence of a new mode of production – it is not (necessarily) about capitalism or not-capitalism. It is just about recognising a more fundamental shift that is not directed towards establishing a status-quo-ante. Instead, it is about the emergence of a new system that goes ‘beyond’ the current system.

The social consequences then – not least visible in the development of precarity – would then be somewhat comparable with the development that went hand in hand with the emergence of capitalism. The machinery – i.e. progress – showed devastating consequences for example for the weavers who lost their work. At the same time, the new inventions allowed also progress by way of developing new ways of work and working conditions – objectively surely progressive at the time.

Coming back to the presentation then, there had been two striking points:

* Stiglitz did not engage in any of those questions that had been raised in the 2009-report The Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (see my own comments specifically on this report from a Social Quality Perspective in the article Economic Performance, Social Progress and Social Quality [International Journal of Social Quality 2(1), Summer 2012: 43–57 © Zhejiang University, European Foundation on Social Quality and Berghahn Journals 2012 doi:10.3167/IJSQ.2011.010204]).

* This means at the same time that he oriented very much on a traditional perspective: economic recovery, seen as matter of industrial policy.

Actually I would agree with the need of recovery, but only under strict observation of the following qualification:

  • It has to be a matter of ‘covery’, meaning a policy that is fundamentally oriented on covering the entirety of economic and social challenges in an integrated way and also covering on a global level the entirety of the population – surely something on which we can easily find agreement. – Actually one of Joseph’s remark pointed into this direction, saying that there cannot be a surplus in all countries – yes, and indeed something also Germany has to accept.
  • Talking about recovery means that we have to find an integrated approach in terms of bringing the issue of soci(et)al sustainability thoroughly on the agenda. This is not just about ‘balancing different policy areas’ as it had been issued in the Economic Performance and Social Progress-report. A much more fundamental consideration is required.
  • This means not least to revisit the hugely valuable work issued by Karl Polanyi in his opus magnum on ‘The Great Transformation’, talking about the political and economic origins of our time (if I am not mistaken there is a more or less new edition of the book available – with a foreword/introduction by Stiglitz). Polanyi looked extensively at processes of dis- embedding, i.e. the separation of ‘the economy’ from the soci(et)al context. If we talk about the lost connection between finance and real economy, we surely have to look at the underlying loss of the connection between ‘society’ and ‘economy’.
  • This brings me to the last qualification when looking at the need for recovery. In a contribution I wrote together with Marica Frangarkis, we spoke about The need for a radical ‘growth policy’ agenda for Europe at a time of crisis (in: Dymarski, Wlodzimierz/Marica Frangakis/Leaman, Jeremy, 2104: The Deepening Crisis of the European Union: The Case for Radical Change; Poznań: Poznań University of Economics Press, 2014). And the kind of recovery, and even the way of thinking of recovery has to start at this point: the quid pro quo. It can only make sense if we start by overcoming the dichotomisation between economic and social thinking, demanding for both a sustainable orientation.

Indeed, the cart in front of the horse is always in danger to be pulled back – and at least this is something where I would strongly agree with Stiglitz: Austerity policies never did any good. But for the rest, we should remind ourselves of the little discussion between Alice and the cat.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where –”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

(from Alice in Wonderland)

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