The two sides of the neo-liberal syndrome: competition, innovation, efficiency, freedom and choice.

22 September 2013

Robert Peston  recently took viewers of his RP goes shopping series through a history of British retailing. Among the footage of the first supermarkets he showed a clip from That Was The Week That Was, the satirical TV reflection on the week’s news in 1962/3 that launched the career of David Frost, in which Bernard Levin eloquently argued for the abolition of resale price maintenance. Levin was a ferociously clever journalist and interviewer, with a regular column in The Times in the days before Wapping when the broadsheet newspapers were unashamedly intelligent, when news mattered, when discussion mattered, when an informed public mattered. (Incidentally for a thoughtful and thought- provoking history of newspapers and journalism Andrew Marr’s My Trade starts in the coffee shops of The Enlightenment, introduces the formidable newspaper proprietors of the early C20, and discusses roles and behaviours over the whole of this period.)


The arguments Levin used in the early ’60s were that the abolition of RPM, so that retailers rather than manufacturers could decide on the price at which goods could be sold, would result in competition leading to innovation, greater efficiency and lower prices, and greater choice (freedom of choice) for the customer.


Those words (competition, innovation, efficiency, freedom and choice) are now so familiar that it was rather a shock to see them being used in an identical argument 50 years ago, at what must have been the start of the neoliberal era. It made me wonder what their collective noun is. These powerful but abstract concepts – what could we call them? Could we think of them as societal virtues perhaps? The admirable qualities or traits that allow a society to flourish? But no, not virtues of a society, we have to think of ourselves instead as an economy for them to take on a virtuous tinge.  As a society we’d list very different virtues  wouldn’t we? Perhaps fairness, dignified relations, warmth of regard, concern for physical and emotional health, widespread realising of potential. We might even use the list of five components of human wellbeing that seems to have been arrived at from numerous traditions including our own evidence based one: physical activity, connectedness with others, never-ending learning, a sense of meaning and purpose, and a practice of staying mindfully aware of the present moment.


The word syndrome means ‘things that run together’ and that seems to apply here, we don’t ever hear of competition without also hearing of innovation, choice, efficiency, and freedom. And this syndrome acquires the halo of a set of virtues, based on assumptions that these are all inevitably good things, but in reality (rather than rhetoric) they are wholly neutral, they can result in better outcomes or worse, or (most often) both. In the real world, with every innovation things of value go out of the world as well as coming into it. So, for example, the abolition of RPM contributed to the growth of supermarkets and today’s fantastic array of goods for sale. And also to the end of the myriad of local parades of small shops to which almost every child could skip unaccompanied to buy a pint of milk from people who knew them. Those shops are now houses we drive past on our way to the supermarket, or dropping off our children at the school we once walked to. I’m not wishing for a return to those days just pointing out that innovation has upsides and downsides and also that it always takes place within a context and is largely shaped by the context in which it takes place. Indeed if we look at the innovation we can see what it says about the context.


Take cars for instance. There has certainly been a lot of innovation in the motor industry, partly the result of competition, also new technologies and legislation. Here in Islington about 40% of households own a car. Yet every street in dominated by traffic. So that innovation is rooted in a belief that it is alright for people’s lives to be profoundly affected  by products they themselves do not want or can never afford. Suppose we stopped thinking of the wellbeing of the motor industry and thought of our own? Can you imagine a zone from the North Circular to the river in which private cars were banned? No, don’t lose patience, this is a thought experiment, just try it….


Bus journeys would become as quick as the tube and  imagine all the other means of getting around that would spring up: we’d have people of all ages on bicycles and skate boards, we might have rickshaws, perhaps jeepneys.There could be shops and stalls along the roadsides, a whole industry in clothing that keeps people warm and dry in the cold and wet, Dyson would get together with GHD to invent a means of fixing frizzy hair within 30 seconds of arrival at the office…


We’d certainly be manifesting innovation, almost  certainly competition, our freedom to choose our mode of transport would be hugely greater, lots of journey times would be much shorter as well as more enjoyable, so we’d score on efficiency too. But we’d also deliver other things: greater health, sense of connection and community, of achievement – not only for ourselves but for the planet …This is looking suspiciously looking like that list of the five components of wellbeing.


So perhaps whenever we advocate that neoliberal syndrome (competition, innovation,  efficiency, freedom and choice) , those ‘economic virtues’,  we should make sure they are in the service of these Big Five societal virtues (physical activity, connection between people, ongoing learning, meaning and purpose, and mindful awareness of the present). At the very least we should challenge anyone touting them as virtues in themselves to specify the outcomes they are trying to achieve and what of value may be lost in the process.

If you found this interesting you might also like Chapter 6 of Why Reforming the NHS Doesn’t Work

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