The failed experiment and how to build an economy that works, by Andrew Fisher. Book Review by Enrico Tortolano

28 April 2014 Enrico Tortolano reviews a new book by Andrew Fisher, an economist and trade union activist.

Commentary icon28 Apr 2014|Comment

28 April 2014

Enrico Tortolano reviews a new book by Andrew Fisher, an economist and trade union activist.

In recent times we have witnessed fierce debates about the dynamics of capitalism, and especially the rapid rise of the small elite that controls more and more of the world’s wealth and resources. It has ignited arguments about power and money – questioning the myth at the very heart of Western life – that capitalism improves the quality of life for everyone. In fact, the ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor in Britain is costing the economy more than £39bn a year. The 100 wealthiest people in the UK have as much money as the poorest 18 million.

So if ever there was a moment for fresh thinking, this is definitely it. Indeed, in his new book The Failed Experiment and how to build an economy that works Andrew Fisher convincingly argues, “our economic model needs to be overthrown”. With 13 million people living below the poverty line in the UK, rising food and fuel prices, falling incomes, underemployment, mass unemployment and cuts to benefits, Fisher echoes the thoughts of many when he explicates “we need a revolutionary and emancipatory change to build an economy as if people mattered”.

Of course few remain blind to the massive transfer of public wealth into a few private hands. There is a shared public understanding that the neoliberal economy has exacerbated existing inequalities, sent unemployment levels soaring, debt spiraling whilst poverty rapidly expands. Jam-packed with data and argument Fisher gives us the ammunition to challenge those in power who claim ‘there is no alternative’.

It’s proffered that an economist is someone who is articulate with numbers but lacks the personality to become an accountant. But Fisher is not your bog-standard economist – as well as being an economist he is a trade unionist and activist engaged in grassroots struggles – you actually sense he’s having fun with his research. Margaret Thatcher claimed she ‘marveled’ at her old Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s intellect, but Fisher rather amusingly shows that when Lawson claimed “governments cannot create growth” he made this a fait accompli by removing the very levers that could actually stimulate growth.

In a powerful section, The illusion of an economy, Fisher exposes our democratic deficit. ‘A new oligarchy of corporations’ and the super-rich he argues have stolen our democracy. Privatisation, deregulation and cuts in public spending are simply the tools used to oversee a colossal transfer of wealth from the public purse to a few private hands. The financial crisis seems to have done little to change the minds of our political elite. Most mainstream politicians are trapped in the erroneous belief that recovery is underway and that the neoliberal capitalist system – underpinned by profit maximisation – will soon be restored in full.

Ed balls the shadow chancellor has committed Labour to Tory spending plans if elected. He recently pointed out the necessity of cuts saying: “Labour will inherit a deficit currently set to be nearly £80bn and the national debt still rising.” “The next Labour government will balance the books and deliver a surplus on the current budget and falling national debt in the next parliament. So my message to my party and the country is this: where this government has failed, we will finish the job.” This is a terrifying message to millions of people across the country seeing their lives wrecked by a system that serves only the ultra-rich.

With eloquence and passion Fisher argues debt and growth are not the real issues, the economic problems we face are in fact “the consequence of political decisions”. The conditions that neoliberalism demands in order to supposedly free human beings from the slavery of the state – minimal taxes, the dismantling of public services and welfare, deregulation, the breaking of unions – Fisher’s analysis wryly implies, just happen to be the conditions required to make the elite even richer, while leaving everyone else to sink.

He believes the economy, with masses of spare industrial and service capacity, and millions who are either officially unemployed or in work but underemployed, is desperately in need of a serious economic recovery programme. There are hundreds of thousands of houses or flats to be built, and there is a huge necessity for investment in our public infrastructure underpinned by a huge programme of public ownership. He recognises that the global financial architecture needs dismantling and that the UK government’s position is one of the main obstacles to global agreements based on economic justice. He also suggests land taxes, the right to a citizen’s income, stronger rights at work and a shift away from a ‘growth is god’ approach to economics.

Fisher’s book is an antidote and corrective to the mainstream propaganda that opines ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism and private sector dominance. Fisher sees his suggestions as a menu of policy options, not a political programme, but intentionally or not it develops into a manifesto for radical economic change. He contends that neoliberalism is quintessentially a project to restore class dominance to the ultra-rich that saw their interests threatened by the ascent of working class organisations and social democratic / socialist government’s post-1945. Fisher is unique in the world of political economy in that he writes with the passion of an activist and the erudition of an economist. His research and experience leave us in no doubt that the privatisation of our economy has proved ineffective as an engine for economic growth, but has succeeded in rapidly shifting wealth from workers to capital.

Fisher’s book leaves the reader in no doubt that capitalism currently lacks any credible or coherent governing framework. The theories which have legitimated and organised the running of the capitalist economy, especially its financial sectors, are manifest nonsense, sustained only by a conspiracy of silence on the part of those who profited while nobody was watching. Fisher’s solutions rightly concentrate on the collective emphasising that massive social mobilisation and the emergence of solidarity among workers is the only way to break out of the vicious cycle that neoliberal corporate technocrats of all parties have enveloped the rest of us in.

J.K. Galbraith once famously quipped “economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliché, resonant with boredom”. Refreshingly, Fisher has given us a clear-eyed and eminently readable book with huge popular appeal that should stimulate positive action for change. Moreover, any economist that can weave Woody Guthrie lyrics seamlessly into the narrative has almost certainly unlocked the secret to gaining massive readership. This book should be read by everyone interested in economic and social justice.

Contact Radical Read for a copy of The Failed Experiment

Enrico Tortolano

Enrico Tortolano Enrico Tortolano is a Research and Policy Officer at the union PCS. He formerly worked in Latin America, on human rights and economic issues with trade unions and social movements. He is regularly published in Tribune, mostly reporting on the political economy of Europe and Latin America.