The Political Economy of Good Parenting – New Blog post

Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute has published a new blog on the ‘Political Economy of Good Parenting’ jointly authored by PAGE member Prof. Alex Nunn, alongside Dr Daniela Tepe-Belfrage (Sheffield) and Prof. Shirin Rai (Warwick).

An excerpt is below:

The political economy of ‘good parenting’

‘Good parenting’ is grounded in a white middle-class ideal of what the family is and thus shifts responsibility for nurturing from society to individuals, mostly women

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Daniela Tepe-Belfrage, Faculty Research Fellow, SPERI; Alex Nunn, Professor of Politics, Leeds Beckett University; & Shirin Rai, Professor of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick

Family breakdown and poor parenting have hit the headlines in Britain in recent years as the proclaimed reasons for a large range of societal problems, from youth rioting to youth unemployment to teenage pregnancy.  According to the Home Office:

“There are a small number of families that can be described as ‘dysfunctional’. Two or three families and their wider network of contacts can create havoc on a housing estate or inner city neighbourhood.  It is always in areas of greatest disadvantage that this corrosive effect is seen and felt most clearly.  Sometimes it occurs where there has been considerable family breakdown; multiple partners can pass through the house; children do not have a positive role model; there is little in the way of a predictable orderly routine; and the lifestyle is such that it makes the lives of neighbours a complete misery.”

This thinking – socially conservative, hetero-normative and judgemental – culminates in the idea that these factors lie the root of a ‘Broken Britain’….

… click here to read the rest.

The New Politics of Inequality

This short paper is a summary of my inaugural lecture, given on April 29th 2015. A longer version of the lecture notes are available here, and a video of the lecture will be available in the near future.

In some ways those of us who have long worried about rising inequality ought to be cheered by the prominence now being given to the subject in popular debate. After several decades in which socio-economic inequality was firmly off the agenda, reduced to the discussion only of equal opportunities, inequality is now firmly back on the political agenda. Academic and popular texts, campaigning organisations and powerful international institutions all draw attention to the disproportionate economic and political resources accruing to the ‘1%’ made famous in the sloganeering of the Occupy movement. But I argue in this lecture that this New Politics of Inequality might not be quite so progressive as it at first appears.

My argument is that the New Politics of Inequality is mainly concerned to contain the negative affects of inequality in terms of social and political stability, rather than an ethical commitment to egalitarianism.   This is the case whether it is found in Thomas Piketty’s high profile Capital in the Twenty First Century or OECD and IMF reports (see here for a critique of the New Global Politics of Inequality).

Rising inequality is a common international trend internationally: many countries have experienced increasing inequalities over the last thirty years. Oxfam’s Even it Up campaign has drawn much attention to this.  Elsewhere I argue that this is driven by increasing world market integration, resulting in increasing competition between emerging markets and existing ‘advanced’ economies like ours. However, it is also important to examine the specific conditions that pertain inside particular countries; while many countries have witnessed increases in inequality, they are by no means all the same. For this reason, in the lecture I go on to explore some specific aspects of increasing inequality in the UK.

Inequality has been rising in the UK for some time. It rose dramatically in the 1980s, stalled in the 1990s before rising again just before the great recession. Since then, some people draw attention to the fact that headline measures show that inequality declined after 2008. I argue that this is misleading and that data lag and measurement issues are hiding the true situation. Reductions in welfare generosity after 2012, changes in employment conditions and earnings since 2008 and the recovery of asset values owned largely by better off households in the last two years will mean that over the short-term we can expect to see headline inequality rise again to at least pre-crisis levels.

Source: IFS Incomes Data, derived from the Households Below Average Income, Family Expenditure Survey and Family Resources Survey.  See: http://www.ifs.org.uk/fiscalFacts/povertyStats, accessed 2-04-15.

Source: IFS Incomes Data, derived from the Households Below Average Income, Family Expenditure Survey and Family Resources Survey. See: http://www.ifs.org.uk/fiscalFacts/povertyStats, accessed 2-04-15.

Source Hills et al. (2015).

Source Hills et al. (2015).

In this sense, the effect of the crisis has been to reinforce existing inequalities rather than reduce them. Earnings have fallen disproportionately at the bottom of the income distribution than at the top, full time earnings have declined more for women more than for men, and the household incomes of ethnic minority groups have for the most part fallen by more than for white households. Ethnic minority households also remain more likely to experience poverty and have even larger income differentials than do white households. But perhaps the biggest shift experienced in the crisis has been the structural decline in the position of young people in terms of employment, earnings and wealth accumulation. Given what we know about the prospects for young people who enter the labour market during a recession, we can expect that these disadvantages will continue through their life-course.

Source: Hills et al. (2015).

Source: Hills et al. (2015).

It is the experience of these younger groups that I argue will drive a longer-term structural pressure toward greater inequality, similar to that which Piketty identifies. First, the data shows that younger age groups experience greater income inequality than do older cohorts. Second, over and above their labour market disadvantage in terms of employment and earnings, those who entered the labour market during the crisis are much less likely to own their own home than were those who entered the labour market before the crisis. Just short of 50% of those below 35 are living in private rented accommodation. They are not benefiting from the falling mortgage costs associated with homeowners. Third, because of the unequal accrual of housing, financial and pension assets in their parents’ generation some will be better protected by inheritance than others.

Of course these are long-term pressures and much can happen to contain and offset them, before they are fully realised. This is though the problem associated with the New Politics of Inequality: polarisation within the ‘new middle classes’.   It is this structural pressure toward polarisation, rather than just the experiences and disproportionate influence of the ‘1%’ that I will be discussing in the lecture. One possible outcome of this inter-generational polarisation is increasing political and social destabilisation and of course it is this destabilisation that I claim the New Politics of Inequality is most concerned to avoid.

So what evidence is there of the New Politics of Inequality in UK domestic politics?

The language of the two main parties as they seek to differentiate between a deserving and undeserving poor or to protect a ‘squeezed middle’ from the cost of living crisis is certainly evidence of a recognition of the way that inequality is experienced in ‘everyday life’.

The shifting electoral landscape and the emergence of smaller parties is also partly reflective of this. The SNP may have lost the referendum in which they made inequality a major feature, but the medium term impact of that campaign may be to make them ‘king makers’ in a hung Westminster parliament. UKIP may to some extent look like a two issue (Europe and immigration) party, but its supporters are both socially conservative and very concerned about inequality. The Green Party has made inequality a key issue alongside environmental sustainability. So to that extent, inequality is emergent as a key political issue in electoral as well as protest politics.

This is the agenda for my research over the next few years. In a range of projects with colleagues in our Global Inequalities research programme at Leeds Beckett University and collaborators at other Universities in the UK and beyond, I will focus on:

  1. The way in which household and community structures interact with public services, housing and labour markets to produce and reproduce inequality over time. This research is being undertaken as part of a large international collaboration.
  2. The extent to which the New Politics of Inequality is sustained over time and whether it represents a real and substantive concern to limit or even reduce inequality in order to contain destabilisation. An alternative is that the New Politics of Inequality becomes merely an attempt at discursive legitimation of the status quo.

Alternatives to Neoliberalism? A Challenge within

A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to attend an interesting seminar “ Ideology after Crash” organized by the POLIS at the University of Leeds. It started off with a critical introduction to the crisis by Wiegratz followed by several other speakers. These are my own thoughts on some of the matters discussed.

The crisis of neoliberalism does not date back to as recent as 2008 – to the year when Lehman Brothers announced its bankruptcy. Neoliberalism has been in crisis since its inception. Perhaps not felt by the global North but surely by the South over the decades of its existence. The failure of neoliberal policies to realise growth became clear in Latin American region in the 1980s, the Asian region in the 1990s and in the African regions to date. The 80s was considered the ‘lost decade’ for Latin American countries along with many parts of Africa. But in the new millennium it hit home, the global North. Advocates of Neoliberal thesis including the two Bretton Wood Institutions, the IMF and the World Bank were left baffled. For the first time nobody had a ‘mantra’ to remedy the problem…they still don’t. There was no economy to show as an example and say ‘this is how you should do it, because thanks to the years of endeavouring to establish one global capitalist empire everyone is caught up in this economic hodgepodge. So it appears this is ‘the crisis’. Then comes the question, is there an alternative?

At the seminar Hugo Radice made an attempt to answer the question ‘Why neoliberalism still rules despite the global crisis?’ His argument like many others’ was that so far the left has been unable to conceive an alternative other than to reproduce the state led economy rhetoric which again as we have observed before, eventually gets subdued to the will and the word of the market actors. Therefore there is lacuna in the debate for alternatives.

This is aggravated by the transformation of the individual. Radice argues that the individual mind-set within the current neoliberal system has been transformed by the ideology that state’s role in the economy is that of a facilitator’s where as the market opens the avenue for the potential to achieve success. But here one should also ask whether we consider neoliberalism as an independent phenomenon or as something that we created so that we could be ruled by it. If it’s the latter, then it’s not the system that adjusts the individual’s mind-set but it’s the mind-set of the individual that adjusts the system prolonging its existence. This can be exemplified by looking at the amount of resistance and the current on-going debate over the proposed Obama health care policy. The resistance observed is coming from none other than the individuals (collectively represented) not the state or the market.

Thus what is required right now is not a power shift between the state and the market but a revolution in individual and group subjectivities, which hold these two as the perennial truth about the world order. I’m not talking about one of these ‘revolutions’ that you see as a result of the spread of Internet social media, or a series of goal driven protest campaigns to achieve one or two changes within the existing system. I call these ‘domesticated’ revolutions within the existing system that prolong its existence through distraction. What we need is a change at the core. The core is none other than the individual.  The alternative thus is to challenge ourselves rather than the outside world because neoliberalism is built into us as individuals and exists in us not anywhere else.

In a recent paper Nunn (2013) discusses about the rise of the Neoliberal individual. According to his argument the neoliberal state propagates the idea that the individual citizen is a consumer. This idea of equating individual citizens as consumers tends to help conceal real class differences in the society through increased accessibility to commodities that also become class or status symbols. Haug (2005) argues that the imaginary power of these commodities detaches its consumer from reality. He argues appearance of the use value of a commodity makes the consumer believe that the ‘appearance is the being’ where as all along it’s a deception. But Polanyi (1957) argues that the individual’s interest in material goods is essentially associated with his or her ‘social standing, social claims and social assets’. Thus an individual’s interest in material goods seeks exactly the deception that Haug (2005) assumes that he or she embraces unwittingly. In a class-based society it’s more of a distraction rather than a deception where the individual is trying to distract oneself from the reality. In the process his or her revolutionary instinct is subdued to what’s on offer within the existing system.

Neoliberalism feeds on individualism and it influences day-to-day lifestyle. It infers that the individual exist for achieving his or her interests. But these interests are perceived, not actual. The perceived interests are created for us by the culture we live in and neoliberalism in that sense infiltrates that culture the individual lives in. The perseverance about ‘me’ as the ‘be all’ and the ‘end all’ of things has reduced politics of the world to a combination of perceived individual interests. But all of this does not happen absence of the individual’s knowledge of it. In fact it is the individual who creates space for it in the first place.

Haug. W.F (2005) New Elements of a Theory of Commodity Aesthetics [online] http://www.wolfgangfritzhaug.inkrit.de/documents/NewElementsCommodityAesthetics.pdf [Accessed : November 28th 2013]

Nunn. A (2013) The Contested and Contingent Outcomes of Thatcherism in the UK. Manchester: Transpennine Working Group

Polanyi.K (1957) The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press