|The Friends House courtyard during Britain Yearly Meeting|
David used the metaphor of the economy as a kind of organism that is always moving towards an equilibrium, in response to changing conditions. This economy is now so 'broken' that it is 'seeking a transformation' to a new form that may be very different indeed to the 'old' economy; dependent on infinite growth and 'addicted to debt'.
There is much to stimulate reflection in this image. In the session itself it seemed to encourage an avenue of utopian thinking about the future of the economy, perhaps based on our attachment to the myth of progress, which tells us that the future will always somehow turn out 'better' than the present. So this gathering was anticipating the economy of the future to be based on sustainability, co-operation, economic and social justice etc. The only discordant note in this general theme was struck by a teenage Friend, who rose to suggest that 'there is no proof that this new economy wouldn't be unfair as well'.
The young Friend speaks my mind on this, for at least two reasons. Firstly, although there are some aspects of the economy that are largely beyond human control (including a long-term rise in energy costs due to oil depletion), many other aspects of the economic system are deliberate creations, including the tax system, trade tariffs, financial regulation, incentives and subsidies, credit mechanisms etc. These policies are all deliberately designed (albeit sometimes with unintended consequences), with the principal objective of benefiting the elites which implement them. The decisions to dismantle regulation of the finance industry in the USA and UK in recent years were conscious political choices, intended to increase financial sector profits by enabling huge increases in bank lending and speculation. The last time I looked, the same political and economic elites are still in charge of the decisions that determine the structure of our economic system, with a ruthlessness undiminished by their achievement of bankrupting the public finances of the USA and most of the EU.
The second, and more fundamental reason why I am not expecting the ideal society to bloom naturally from the ashes of the current economic system, is that the financial crisis we are experiencing seems to me just the start of a very long-term process of de-industrialization and economic contraction, what John Michael Greer calls 'the long descent'. In a submission to the Friends Quarterly essay competition on the future of Quakers in Britain in 2008, I summarized the grounds for expecting future decades to see a contracting world economy (chiefly to do with the depletion of cheap and easily accessible energy sources), and some thoughts on how British Quakers might be affected and led to respond.
Based on the contributions at Yearly Meeting, many British Friends seem to be at the stage of starting to question the possibility and desirability of continual economic growth, but fewer have begun grappling with the question of how to live through a future of very long-term economic contraction (what economists amusingly insist on calling 'negative growth').
The biggest problem for most of us with trying to advocate for or even imagine alternatives to continued economic growth, is that our current incomes and lifestyles are so dependent on a growth economy. The great majority of British Quakers of working age are employed directly or indirectly by national or local government (especially in the teaching, health and social welfare professions), and are dependent for their jobs on the continuing flow of tax revenues from a growing economy. Retired Friends are even more directly dependent on constant economic expansion for steady returns on their investments (including ethical ones) and pension funds.
As long as our way of life is completely dependent on the expectation of continual economic expansion (including shepherding our children into higher education that will leave them burdened by huge debts before they start their working lives) we will need to embrace an attitude of 'double-think' to even imagine an alternative.
But this is already starting to change, as the steadily accumulating failures of the current economic system, including long-term recession, public-sector cuts, sovereign debt and eurozone crisis, are already threatening the livelihoods of many British Friends - especially through recent cuts to public sector jobs and services. Over the last year, it seems as if most of the people I know have either lost their jobs, been threatened with redundancy, or experienced a substantial reduction in income. As this hardship continues to grow among previously well-insulated British Friends, it will undoubtedly help to focus our minds on our realistic prospects and options for the future.
It may be that we will gradually come to concentrate on more achievable economic aims than the utopian transformation of society. One such achievable objective would be to recover the tradition of being communities of mutual aid – a role that Friends' Meetings frequently played in the era before the Welfare State. Friends' Meetings once played a huge role in the provision of essential economic and welfare services for their members. They provided facilities for savings and loans, education (the origin of Friends' Schools), vocational training and employment, and medical care as well as emergency relief in cases of extreme need. Friends' Churches (in common with many other religious and secular associations) are performing these functions now in Africa and South America, wherever the State cannot be relied upon to provide them.
If governments continue to be starved of funds by a long-term process of world-wide economic decline, many of these functions of Quaker Meetings may acquire a renewed relevance for us in Britain. Friends around the country are already starting to experience job insecurity and unemployment - especially among young people, with graduate unemployment currently around 20%. If the economy doesn't resume growth, and even contracts over the next 5 years, or 10, or 20, what will that look like in our lives and our children's?
Rather than sharing vague dreams of a utopian future economy, we might do better to start imagining ways that Quaker communities can support each other in adapting to a world of growing energy and resource scarcity. We might start to explore ways of working together, investing in each other, sharing our skills, apprenticing our young people in genuinely useful occupations, and supporting each other in hardship.
At our Meeting in Sheffield we are already starting to make some small steps in this direction, prompted by financial challenges to the Meeting's lettings business (a direct consequence of reduced Council spending), as well as our attempts to work towards becoming a low carbon, sustainable community. We are exploring new ideas for generating income and sustaining employment through our Meeting House, and starting to learn and work together to grow food on our edible roof garden. These and many other approaches being adopted by Meetings around the country are steps towards embodying 'good economics' as part of our Quaker communities. We may not see the emergence of a 'good economy', but we might usefully work to build some 'good communities', with the resilience to survive and sustain us through the long descent of the growth economy.