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I'm not an economist. Despite a very basic introduction to economics course, I will sheepishly admit that my eyes glaze over at the slightest mention of per capita expenditures or financial derivatives.
Luckily, Jim Stanford's Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism does away with the theoretical mumbo jumbo, and grounds all economic discussion in real life example and takes you back to the very basics.
It's like a gentle friend telling you "remember this?" instead of a smug friend tell you "actually..."
Stanford starts off by addressing this reluctance on the part of economists to call our current system "capitalism," joking that "even talking about "capitalism" makes it sound like you're a dangerous radical of some kind."
He goes on to say that this deliberate obscuring on the part of economists muddies our understanding. We no longer know what is general to all types of economies and what is specific to capitalism. And while capitalism might be our dominant economic paradigm, if we equate the economy with capitalism, Stanford says we cannot consider other (possibly better) ways of organizing our economy.
Although economics might be the dismal science, this book is never dismal in its outlook. While acknowledging that capitalism is the system we have, Stanford insists there is hope for a more humane alternative.
This idea is in contrast to the litany of books that firmly adheres to the idea that we are doomed and that capitalism is our only option -- the sort of morose left-wing acceptance of Margaret Thatcher's declaration "there is no alternative."
There is plenty of (valid) criticism that capitalism has invaded and co-opted different movements and spaces often irreparably, but Stanford never relents from his position. He reminds us that "if the entire history of Homo sapiens to date was a 24-hour day, then capitalism has existed for three-and-a-half minutes." From this wider, long-term perspective, Stanford assures the reader that not all hope is lost.
And Stanford makes a good point that this moroseness is really a byproduct of neoliberalism.
"A central goal of neoliberal economic and social policy has been to alter the fundamental balance of power in the employment relationship, by recreating a broad degree of insecurity and discipline among workers," says Stanford.
It's a sentiment that rings true personally. As someone who graduated during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, I joined an economy that barely had work for young people, and the work that did exist was precarious (short-term or part-time contractual work). My cohort has faced unemployment and struggled to find permanent jobs, hopping from one contract to another.
All of this to say once we do secure that elusive permanent position (with benefits!), we are far more reluctant to do anything to compromise our own position through organizing or unionizing against our employer.
The fear, as Stanford describes, of losing the ability to support oneself in the wage economy, is very real. However, Stanford places this insecure, fearful workforce in the larger context. "Workers and poor people get only as much from the economy as they are able to demand, fight for, and win," he says.
Overcoming this fear is one of the ways Stanford says we can shift power dynamics in our current capitalist economy.
His other suggestion for change is focused on the environment. We will always have to produce food and goods from the raw materials of our natural environment, and this is where he thinks change can come.
Stanford makes the interesting suggestion of waging a "war" against pollution -- something China declared in 2014. He makes a parallel to the significant economic boom after the Second World War. He says like defeating fascism, we could harness labour, create incredible innovation and improve the material condition through a concentrated effort against the evil of environmental degradation.
"We should protect the environment by doing more, not by doing less," he says. From this perspective, he says we don't necessarily have to stop economic growth, just make sure that growth occurs in productive (non-destructive) directions.
Overall, this is still more a textbook than a manifesto. It's a clearly written, thought-provoking and inspiring textbook, but a textbook nevertheless.
For me, as a non-economist, this book was a good overview of the economic basics, though you have to invest the time to work through it. But if you do make that time, this book is a pretty great substitute to an introduction to economics lecture (and far more engaging!).
I'd recommend this book to anyone wanting to (re-)learn the pillars of our capitalist economy from a critical perspective.
Roshini Nair is a multi-media journalist based in Vancouver. Follow her at @rohsini980.
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