Well, it's what we're good at making.

Socialism-on-Thames

Just watching Evan Davis’s Made in Britain. Davis visits some of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing successes; he tries to correct the self-flagellation we tend to adopt when talking about our economy. And, yes, I can see his point about the way industry moves on, and the way in which the British economy has kept on moving into the high value areas: design and selling both make loads more money than running the factories. And it is nice to see a programme which isn’t completely downbeat about Britain – but … living in Hackney, it’s all too obvious that the successes he pulls out share one key factor – they don’t need so many people. Again and again, manufacturers wander around their factories pointing out that a process which used to need a small army can now be handled by one person.

Here in Hackney, lots of people are making a good living out of the new economy. Lots more are making no living at all. Britain is making more money, but as today’s numbers tell us, right now average take-home pay is on its way down, not up. My last post suggested that a Christian view of economic life, whatever else it might contain, had to start from looking at how well or how badly the poorest in society are treated. Reading today the Richard Bauckham’s The Bible in Politics, I was glad to find I was in reputable company. In the introduction to the second edition he says: ‘If the Bible has an economic preoccupation, it is with the plight of the poorest people’. The globalised economy that Evan Davis describes might not have been a disaster for GB plc, but it has been bad news for many of its now-unnecessary inhabitants.

And I wondered – what next? Right now, service industries do what the factories used to: provide unsatisfying low-paid jobs for a vast number of people. But that won’t last for ever. It was once agriculture, then it was manufacturing, now it’s Starbucks and call centres. If the pattern continues, those jobs too will be replaced – probably not by factories in Shanghai, but through increasing automation. I’m an example myself. I scarcely ever talk to anyone at my bank: I can do it all more easily online.

The what does everyone do? The money will continue to be made, even more of it, but it will flow into even fewer hands. And given the globalised nature of finance and power, it’s unlikely to become easier for governments, even if they want to, to reclaim that income for the poor by taxation. So what next? The other book I’m reading is Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right. Many things I still don’t buy into, but Marx’s vision of human flourishing beyond capitalism is right on the button:

“production” in Marx’s work covers any self-fulfilling activity: playing the flute, savouring a peach, wrangling over Plato, dancing a reel, making a speech, engaging in politics, organising a birthday party for one’s children. It has no muscular, macho implications. When Marx speaks of production as the essence of humanity, he does not mean that the essence of humanity is packing sausages. Labour as we know it is an alienated form of what he calls “praxis”—an ancient Greek word meaning the kind of free, self-realising activity by which we transform the world.

Maybe we will be finally forced to look for something else, which isn’t about the continued increase of wealth – and start to think about what is the point of having it. Maybe we won’t have any choice but to question the ‘latest phase of the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress’ (Bauckham’s description of globalisation as an ideology). But there are always choices. Dystopia or utopia? I think it’ll be one or the other – the middle way is disappearing ahead of us.