The many faces of the new economy

In a recent article in Stir to Action magazine I came across a list of titles the new economy might be found under. I won’t type the word ‘economy’ after all of them, but it included the ‘caring economy, sharing economy, provisioning, restorative, regenerative, sustaining, collaborative, solidarity, steady-state, gift, resilient, participatory, the new economy.’

To that list we could add a good few more, some familiar, some more esoteric: the circular economy, postgrowth, sufficiency, the blue economy or the constant economy. So many ways to tweak, rebalance or redirect our current economy, some of them overlapping, some not.

Yes, it can be hard to keep up, and it’s tempting to argue that perhaps all these people should get together and sort out what the genuinely viable alternatives are, pick a name and drop the rest. I’ve been in such discussions myself, and so far none of them have been conclusive.

I would suggest that if you have an idea about how to improve society or have spotted a trend, you should think twice about adding another ‘the something economy’ to the list. But otherwise I don’t think there’s any great problem with this diversity and there are a couple of reasons why.

First of all, the economy we already have isn’t homogenous. It’s impossible to talk in general terms about the global economy as if everyone is pursuing the same ideology. Even if we narrow it down to capitalism or even consumer capitalism, there are a host of differences. And besides, no country is 100% capitalist. Even the most capitalist society the libertarians can imagine would keep some things in public hands, such as the military and the judiciary and maybe a central bank. Every country in the world is a hybrid, defining for itself where the boundaries of public and private lie.

As you would expect from such a mixed world, the problems that the new economy addresses aren’t neatly defined. If you were so inclined, you could sub-divide the problem too, and talk about the linear economy, the growth economy, carbon, debt, or extractivist economy, and many more. Each of these would highlight a certain aspect of the problem without describing all of it.

Secondly, the world we have today wasn’t chosen and built from a standing start. We didn’t stop as a human race and deliberate over a catalogue, and all agree on capitalism as the one true path. History emerges, one decision follows another. Neither did we end up with our modern world by ideologies competing with each other until capitalism triumphed, which is a story I hear from time to time. The fact that every economy in the world is a hybrid to one degree or another shows that ideologies don’t actually compete in that winner-takes-all way. We accomodate and incorporate other ideas, sometimes ending up with a synergy and sometimes with a compromise.

When these sorts of things come up in conversation, one of the common questions I get is ‘so what’s the alternative?’. But there is no single alternative, no one system that we could somehow collectively choose and switch to. That’s not how it works, because we don’t have a ‘system’ right now anyway. We should be wary of anyone touting a total system, an ‘ism’ that purports to have answers to everything.

There is no one alternative because there is no one system, but there’s a potentially infinite pool of ideas and combinations of ideas that can improve things. So let’s not worry too much about attempting to reconcile the many visions for a new economy. The future is hybrid. If you much choose an ‘ism’, be a pluralist.

4 Comments on “The many faces of the new economy”

  1. DevonChap May 24, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

    Good old Hegel. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The only good bit of Marxism is that which Marx nicked.

    I don’t think you can say there isn’t competition between ideologies or economic systems Taking ideas from others is part of a competitive process. Britain and Australia compete to be the best in cycling. Dave Brailsford’s idea of marginal gains has been adopted by the competition. That doesn’t mean they are compromising or merging into one. It is still red in tooth and claw.

    The key test is always comparative. Which of the systems operating at a given time provide the best standard of living for its inhabitants.

    • Jeremy Williams May 25, 2016 at 10:08 am #

      I think you see what you look for. Those who see competition as the driving force of progress will no doubt see competition between ideologies, and competition in nature, as well as in business. Other views are available.

      • DevonChap May 25, 2016 at 1:14 pm #

        Thing is, nature is driven by competition. It is widely accepted as the main force in evolution.

        Ideologies also compete, otherwise what was the Cold War?

        Since there are never enough resources to do everything there is always going to be competition for what is done with them, even if that competition results in compromise.

        I mean you have to compete with other writers for work don’t you?

        • Jeremy Williams May 26, 2016 at 4:58 pm #

          Competition is one of several dynamics at work in nature, and tends to get overstated because we read it back in from a capitalist mindset. Survival of the fittest is widely interpreted as survival of the strongest, when it’s actually more about specialisation than competition. Altruism and cooperation are important too.

          Same in politics, including the Cold War. Yes, there’s competition going on, but there’s also collaboration on a huge scale.

          I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as competition, but that ideologies are not clean cut categories that can face each other down and deliver a black and white outcome. That view of history is highly reductionist.

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