As our politicians head back to Westminster, we asked our contributors: what should be on the cabinet’s reading list? What book might bring helpful insight regarding the coming challenges? Ralph Leonard recommends Austerity Ecology and Collapse-Porn Addicts, by Leigh Phillips.
The country is in an economic black hole. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown that put all economic life on standby, Britain will soon experience its worst recession since records began. Companies have laid off staff. Unemployment has skyrocketed, and is set to rise further after the furlough scheme ends in October and firms plan for more redundancies.
Britain’s GDP fell in the second quarter by 20.4% — the biggest quarterly decline in recorded history. Particular industries reliant on social interaction, such as hospitality and leisure, are facing economic Armageddon. The gravity of this crisis, which will define the 2020s, still has not been fully grasped yet — but it will be soon.
Above all the current economic orthodoxy — what some call “neoliberalism” — already facing a crisis since the 2008 financial crash, has nakedly been revealed to be obsolete. The Government has tried to reboot the economy through incentivising consumer spending with the Eat To Help Out Scheme, but that is chicken feed compared to the radical transformation that is required. There are huge changes needed, and every shade of the political spectrum will have their own interpretation.
Ever since the beginning of this crisis uber-environmentalists, in true Malthusian style, have claimed that Covid-19 showed humans were the “real virus” all along. Inger Andersen, the UN environmental chief, said in March that nature was “sending a message”. They argue that this crisis has revealed the rotten nature of an economic system based on “Promethean” delusions of grandeur such as dominating nature and “infinite growth” in such a way that humanity is playing with “dark forces” it has no idea of, such as novel diseases transmitting from animals to humans.
Some see the Covid-19 crisis as the perfect opportunity to reformulate global capitalism around an economic regime based on “degrowth” and a steady state economy where economies are relocalised, cities are decentralised and activities like international travel are reined in.
Against this, members of the cabinet should read Austerity Ecology and Collapse Porn Addicts, published in 2015. The author, socialist writer Leigh Phillips, argues for the value of economic growth, industry, technological progress and production, precisely what will be needed to drag Britain out of this depression.
His book was originally a critique of the Left for betraying its founding values rooted in the Enlightenment and surrendering to Malthusianism, moralistic anti-consumerism and anti-industrial “small is beautiful” ideology, but it could apply as a critique of Right as much as Left.
Phillips’s core argument does not deny the reality of climate change or the various environmental challenges that exist. Indeed, he believes that society should grasp onto the forces of industry and technology to lessen the impact on the environment while ensuring innovation and development. For instance, investment in cultured meat could mean Britain satisfying its demand for meat without a single animal needing to be slaughtered — a far more effective way of ensuring animal welfare than moralising vegan puritanism.
Phillips also mentions nuclear power as a way to provide clean energy that is also abundant, while mainstream environmentalists are radically against nuclear energy, not merely because the supposed dangers of exceptional accidents like Chernobyl or Fukushima, but because nuclear can help solve the energy problem without the need for eco-austerity.
Unlike the Government, Phillips is a socialist, so his argument partially holds the free market responsible for the mess we are in, largely because of its irrational tendencies that produce inequalities and externalities against the environment, problems which it can’t solve. He declared: “It is the market that drives planned obsolescence, not growth or consumerism.” Instead Phillips proposes democratic planning as a more rational way to organise an economy. Even if you are against planning, it is clear the state has to take a more intelligent and prominent role to spur innovation in place of cautious private firms who are more concerned about their profit margins.
Overall, the impulse towards austerity should be resisted. The only way Britain can get itself out of its economic rot is to grow itself out of it through an economic renaissance. Which means the government researching and investing in new forms of energy, transport and communication, and in new forms of production and industry that can produce new forms of wealth that will enrich society and raise living standards through plentitude and abundance, as well as tackling egregious hyper-exploitation of the natural world.
Phillips’s important cris de coeur can contribute to an alternative, ecologically intelligent vision of neoliberalism that need not be regressive hair-shirted moralism.