- Radical remedies?
Developing and promoting an analysis of neoliberalism is a key interest of this journal, as set out in the Kilburn Manifesto. The books reviewed here can also be considered part of this wider project: both are analyses of the current economic settlement aimed at non-specialist audiences, with the hope that this will help build momentum for alternatives.
The Failed Experiment starts with the financial crash of 2007-8 and travels backwards, detailing how thirty years of free-market idealism led inexorably to the meltdown of the banks. The author outlines the familiar objectives of this ‘great experiment’, instigated in its British form by Thatcher: reductions in government spending, privatisation, attacks on labour rights, and deregulation of private industry, especially the finance sector. Fisher points out that one of the political consequences of the hollowing out of the industrial base has been the disempowerment of elected government: it is far harder for governments to exercise control over the speculative value of non-tangible assets, such as mortgages and credit loans, than over physical goods. Ultimately, he arrives at the current post-crash situation, in which the ‘recovery’, unsurprisingly, is fuelled by yet more debt. This will once again direct our economy towards disaster unless the neoliberal model itself is challenged.
The End of The Experiment is also framed in this same language of failed experimentation. And the evidence produced for the broader argument is in many ways very similar, demonstrating how competition, privatisation, deregulation and [End Page 114] financialisation have led to the polarisation of wealth, decline of public services and banking disasters. The authors also draw out the significance of medicalised language in discussing the ‘experiment’, where emotive terms such as disease, cure and so on have generated a sense of urgency towards achieving ‘recovery’ - however illusory this may be.
The book’s central chapters provide more detail in relation to three case studies from within what the authors describe as the foundational economy: telecoms and broadband; supermarkets and dairy; and retail banking (all of which supply local needs on the ground). In each of these areas they show how the pursuit of profit, unhindered by regulation, has led to the exploitation of workers and suppliers, additional costs for the public, and poor results for consumers. These examples help connect the argument with everyday experience: they look at sectors almost none of us can avoid.
As a starting point for understanding trends within the British economy in recent decades, both books are extremely useful - informative while not being not overly technical or academic. The figures and charts in The Failed Experiment clearly highlight the impacts of Thatcherite policies, and would make good teaching materials. The End of the Experiment - perhaps benefiting from having eight co-authors - brings a broader range of perspectives.
However, neither is as effective at tackling the second halves of their respective titles - how to make an economy that works, or to move away from competition. Fisher considers alternatives such as land value tax, financial regulation and changes to housing and business ownership, alongside a shorter working week and a citizens’ wage. But these are presented extremely briefly, and almost entirely without references to more detailed financial modelling or analysis. While he calls for a movement like the Chartists or Suffragettes to fight for economic democracy, he does not actually point the reader in the direction of any such movements, or even to institutions such as the Green Party, whose aims include many of his suggested alternatives.
The End of The Experiment, for its part, focuses on the foundational economy, defined, as we have seen, as the part of the economy that is focused on activities which provide essential goods and services - food retailers, energy providers and so on. It is particularly important to bring these activities under democratic control, the authors argue, precisely because for the vast majority of the population there can...