After the Crash…

On 10th February 2010 BBC Breakfast carried a news item which showed how, in the wake of the credit crunch and economic recession, many planned developments in large UK cities were being delayed.

The report showed footage of boarded up sites, and members of the public were interviewed and expressed their concern that these sites were an eyesore and were not great adverts for the towns and cities. In the light of this, the report went on to show how these sites are being reclaimed for other uses – including urban gardens (allotments), football pitches and walkways, with seats and public art. Whilst these were heralded as being a positive development by many, the report ended by stating, “But these alternatives to rubble-strewn holes are all just temporary. The sport, greenery and gardening will all go when the economy picks up”. The first time the report was shown, one of the presenters commented that it was a pity that these things would be lost. However, she was quickly corrected by her co-presenter that of course, it was more important to get the economy back to normal. When the report was repeated an hour later, the presenters made no comment. This is an interesting moment, since it represents a moment when, to appropriate the words of Roland Barthes, the sparkly capitalist garment gaped. It became obvious that the drive to get the economy back to ‘normal’ would invariably lead to the replacement of something people wanted, needed and valued (green space, conviviality, engagement with nature) by something they already feel they have enough of (retail outlets, expensive city-centre flats). At the same time, it is this commonsense that could never be allowed to challenge the rational discourse of economics.  As Jim Stanford states at the start of his book Economics for Everyone: a short guide to the economics of capitalism:

“Most people think economics is a technical, confusing, and even mysterious subject. It’s a field best left to the experts: namely, the economists.

But in reality, economics should be quite straightforward. After all, economics is simply about how we work. What we produce. And how we distribute and ultimately use what we’ve produced. Economics is about who does what, who gets what, and what they do with it”.

We would argue that geography classrooms are an important space where students are able to critically examine the questions of what happens in places. One of the great tricks of the past decade was to persuade people that there was no alternative to the present way of organising economic and social life and that, in fact, there was no need to imagine alternatives. This is perhaps reflected in the popularity of the idea of social exclusion and inclusion, which served to suggest that any continuing poverty was simply a hangover from an earlier age. However, in the last two years, it has been revealed that we have been living on what Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson call a ‘Fantasy Island’, and the extent to which the neoliberal policies pursued have led to the emergence of a global ‘super-rich’ class who effectively live in a different world.

As the breakfast show example illustrated, there is, at the moment, a great deal of work being done to ‘frame’ the current economic crisis and render it more intelligible. Grahame Thompson (2009) has usefully summarised some of the narratives that are currently on offer to frame the financial crisis:

1. Business as usual – the main task is to re-secure the stability of the financial system, stimulate the consumer boom once again, re-capitalize the banks so they can get credit flowing into the economy and hopefully, re-stimulate the housing market. This argument does not see any major problem with sustaining the making of capitalist places.

2. The globalization frame – which is to blame the collapse on the forces of globalization. This is difficult, because it was globalisation that was seen as having solved the problems associated with cycles of boom and bust. However there is some possibility of the emergence of a new ‘international financial architiecture’ which would presumably limit the flows of finance capital around the globe and hold the banking sector more accountable to the rest of society (e.g. the so-called Robin Hood Tax). This is the one that appears to bother the financial class the most, judging from the headlines of recent editions of The Financial Times.

3. The ‘happy Scandinavian’ frame – this involves a strong critique of the emphasis on greed and profits and growth at any cost. Instead we should pay attention to well-being and happiness and sustainability. This is found in a variety of places, and the idea is gaining ground that we cannot go on. It is well expressed in books such as Madeline Bunting’s Willing Slaves, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level; why more equal socieities almost always do better, and Oliver James’ Britain on the Couch and Affluenza.

4. The ‘conservative’ frame – this involves a refusal to provide more bail-outs for bankers, a willingness to led the market do its clean-out of unprofitable enterprises, and to enact cuts in the budget deficit.

This is a useful summary of the dominant frames, but there are other possibilities though, and geography lessons could explore the ‘alternative economic spaces’ that have continued to operate at odds with and despite the power of neoliberal capitalism, and speculate whether these will gain sustenance from the financial crisis and come to be more important. In the late 1980s ands early 1990s the geography educator John Huckle developed a curriculum project called What We Consume. It was a series of 10 units that explored the social use of nature and environment and sought to link pupils’ everyday consumption choices to people and environments in a global economy. It was uncompromising in its insistence that the ‘treadmill of consumption’ that had accelerated in the post-war period was ultimately destructive of cultures and ways of life and provided superficial pleasures rather than sustainable futures. An important element of Huckle’s approach was to draw attention to alternative forms of economy and social production. This type of education for sustainability remained marginal in the decade that followed. Though students are encouraged to adopt altruistic and citizenly-ethics, they are prepared for a work-world where competitive self-interest and an uncritical commitment to profit win the highest esteem and reward. Geography teachers, tied to regimes of performance-management which ensures that they ‘teach to the test’ and meet students’ needs by ensuring that thet get their ‘5 A*-C’ grades, contribute to this.

 It is perhaps time to revisit these approaches, and to finish, we’ll highlight two contributions from geographers that can be used to explore ‘alternatives’. The first is J-K. Gibson-Graham whose 1996 book The end of capitalism (as we knew it) argues that much economic geography, concerned with mapping the power of capitalism, obscures the fact that much of what goes on in the world is not driven by the imperatives of profit-maximization or gain. When we talk of capitalist schooling or the capitalist family, we neglect to recognise all of the other motives and activities that are done for love, for friendship and so on, with non-monetary reward. This is driven by the idea that ideas such as the ‘market’ should be seen abstractions – they do not exist in real life – but are virtual. This holds the possibility that economies can be made otherwise. Gibson-Graham suggest that there are ‘already-existing’ non-capitalistic spaces that can offer models of alternative forms of economic and social life. This is something that geographers have started to explore in recent years. Most notably is the work of Colin Williams. His book A Commodified World? Mapping the Limits of Capitalism (2005) sets out to challenge the view that the ‘market’ dominates all aspects of life in what he calls ‘advanced economies’:

“The notion that we live in a ‘capitalist’ society organized around the systematic pursuit of profit in the marketplace is something commonly assumed by business leaders, journalists and academic commentators of all political hues” (p.14)

He notes how this process of commodification is usually seen as a natural or organic process. For example, markets are often described as buoyant, calm, depressed, expectant, hesitant, nervous. The pound is said to have ‘had a bad day’. This is not simply a way of making economics more comprehensible to the public by financial journalist. It is a way of imbuing them with the force of nature, even a reflection of divine will.

The prime achievement of Williams’ book is to carefully examine empirical evidence about the extent of the process of commodification. He examines subsistence work, non-monetized exchange, and not-for-profit monetized exchange. In addition he examines the uneven contours of commodification, showing how these are shaped by socio-economic status, geography, and gender. His evidence is that, “for all the talk of a hegemonic, enveloping, dynamic, pervasive and totalizing commodified realm, there exists in the heartlands of commodification – the advanced ‘market’ economies – a non-commodified sphere that is not only as large as the commodified sphere but also growing relative to it” (p.268).

He is careful not simply to argue for a headlong rush to develop the non-commodified sphere, since he suggests that this is not simply a case of the populations of the  advanced economies expressing their discontent with a commodified world by voting with their hands and minds to engage in alternative ways of living. Indeed, the growth of the non-commodified sphere is also in part a product of capitalism seeking to off-load the social reproduction of those no longer of any use to it. However, he challenges geographers and geography educators to explore the possibility that ‘another world is possible’.


4 Responses to “After the Crash…”

  1. 1 kevincooper777 March 6, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    Great stuff.

    Refreshing. Enlightening.

    Much appreciated.

    PS came here from SLN

  2. 2 IanMurray March 7, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Little of this sounds much like any geography lesson or any school I have ever known.

    • 3 DJ March 9, 2010 at 1:57 pm

      Hi Ian,
      We’ve been trying to figure out what your comment means?
      You are possibly objecting to the entry. But which part? Presumably not:
      “We would argue that geography classrooms are an important space where students are able to critically examine the questions of what happens in places”.
      … and not that we should cease to:
      “challenge geographers and geography educators to explore the possibility that ‘another world is possible’”
      So, what exactly is the issue you have?
      Or are you suggesting that the kind of deep subject debates we are attempting c/should shake up geography as a school subject?

  3. 4 crafty bison March 24, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I suspect Ian’s objection relates to the rather uncritical character of much secondary geography teaching; this reads more like a segue between sixth-form geography and university geography, and the effort to stretch “school geographers” further is to be applauded.

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