While neoliberalism’s social consequences have been enough to question its merit as an economic system, it could always depend on its one big strength: economic growth. However, years of slow growth, recurring financial crises, and market failures have resulted in scepticism that attacks the system’s foundational promise. As a result, there is a community of “new economic thinking” slowly entering the mainstream. In our publication Turning the Tide — Landscape analysis of an emergent economic movement in Europe, we map the 100+ organisations in Europe that work tirelessly to design and deliver a new economic system. To shed light more broadly on the state of new economic thinking, we conducted interviews with members of this community in four different countries. Here, we dive into the UK.
Diving into the dynamics of new economic thinking within the UK reveals an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, the nation can be seen as a historic bastion of the neoliberal economic paradigm. On the other hand, as much of our landscape analysis attested, the UK has emerged in recent years as a lively and intricate hub for new economic thinking.
By Nick Lancaster
In total, 25% of the actors mapped through this research are based in the UK. These include think tanks (e.g. New Economics Foundation, IPPR, Autonomy, CommonWealth), organisations aiming to transform economics education (e.g. Reteaching Economics, Rethinking Economics, Promoting Economic Pluralism), or more specific mission-focused organisations (e.g. Positive Money, The Social Guarantee, The Equality Trust), to name a few. Within this large group, there were more established channels of communication and networking between each of the actors. However, interviewees emphasised that these types of connections are in many ways a recent and developing process. For example, an informal WhatsApp group between the leads of different new economy organisations in the UK was only created in the last two years, which provides an agile and efficient platform for communication.
Tensions, disagreements, and how these might be overcome
Despite such positive developments, the actors interviewed also described that genuinely joined-up coordination was a more infrequent occurrence. The predominant explanation provided for these only partially formed interconnections was a simple question of resources — both financial and temporal. Various attempts to ignite substantive collaborations between actors were described as promising beginnings but ultimately struggled to generate momentum. Instead, a familiar story sprung up as “actors gradually become consumed by their own specific organisational agendas“, causing collaborative projects to eventually fall by the wayside. Other interviewees also linked these instances to a deeper reflection about the nature of UK organisational actors. They are set up to prioritise organisational interests before considering the wider interests of a burgeoning new economic movement.
This manifests itself tangibly in debates over conceptual terminologies, with disagreements over a collective definition of basic income cited as a sticking point by numerous interviewees. These debates fit within broader tensions about where it is exactly that UK actors ought to be rallying around. Whilst some vocalise the end of the growth and consumption paradigms as a priority, others prefer to anchor their new economic visions within a more mainstream world of macroeconomics. Crucially though, these tensions were never characterised as insurmountable by the actors attempting to reconcile them, and many communicated a desire to leave such debates in the past. Noteworthy actors trying to accelerate collaboration and mutual understanding within the UK include the Economic Change Unit (ECU) and the New Economy Organisers Network (NEON). Their efforts reflect a genuine appetite within the UK to harness the nation’s diverse actors into some kind of movement.
Filling the gaps
Broader gaps were also identified in the general direction of the UK’s economic thinking, which in turn restricts its impact. Most actors identified the nature of the available funding within the UK as a key explanation for these gaps. Funding streams were often characterised as historically tilting towards either the world of research, policy, and idea generation or, at other times, to more campaigning and grassroots-focused initiatives, despite most actors voicing preferences for a balanced and simultaneous approach by funders to these equally important dimensions of new economic thinking.
Such perspectives are reinforced by our research findings: at present, it is campaigning-style groups that receive less visibility within the UK’s new economic landscape. One explanation for this dynamic is a pressure to deliver outputs that can easily break through the mainstream media bubble. These tend to come in the shape of a report or blog, rather than a much longer-term campaigning initiative. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) is one example of an organisation attempting to straddle both of these worlds through a varied portfolio of work. Still, a fairly consistent message throughout our research on the UK was that more can be done on this front.
A patient but proactive approach to the future
Perhaps, as one interviewee suggested, this surge in new economic actors reflects the scale of the task at hand—especially in the UK, where neoliberal thought is so baked into the economic system. Regardless, it is evident that dynamic new economy actors continue to both emerge and connect inside the UK. There is a shared sentiment that even if the UK’s new economic thinking has not yet formed into a cohesive movement, this does not feel like a reality that is too far away. Inevitably, the pace of this change will be determined to some extent by the wider political context. Whilst some argue that the UK’s dominant Conservative government is becoming more experimental in its economic policy, others frame these developments as more of a smokescreen to cover up the prevailing status quo. Nonetheless, new economic thinking within the UK is growing both patiently and proactively, as it works to develop the tools to eventually spark systemic economic transformation.
This article was written for Demos Helsinki’s landscape analysis of new economic thinking in Europe. It has been slightly edited for style and to provide enough context as a standalone piece.
Want to read about the state of new economic thinking in other countries?
- New economic thinking in Greece — “Pregnant” with promise
- New economic thinking in France — Small but vibrant
- New economic thinking in Finland — Action on the fringes
Feature Image: Jack Finnigan / Unsplash