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Economics for millennials: an interview with Grace Blakeley

The economist talks to Andrés Lomeña about power relations, feminism and what an economics designed by young people would look like.

Grace Blakeley Andrés Lomeña
20 February 2020
Image: Kevin Walsh, CC by 2.0

Millennials emancipate later, delay starting a family, rent apartments at exorbitant prices, suffer job insecurity, and, despite everything, have had the opportunity to attend university. Young people remain, like it or not, one of the engines of social change. If they have no hope, who will?

In the United Kingdom, in the shadow of a bleak Brexit, brilliant figures have emerged. One of them is Grace Blakeley, a very young commentator on economic issues, defender of the Green New Deal and author of Stolen, a book that fiercely attacks the financial extractivism of economic elites. She is a millennial, for better or worse. I interviewed Grace to understand what an economic theory designed by millennials would look like. If you have not yet been robbed of your youth, read on:

ANDRÉS LOMEÑA: First of all, I am an xennial while you are a millennial. Do you think that there is a generation gap in economics? For instance, perhaps I would view economics in a different light if I had lived as a member of the emergent precariat. Moreover, I would like to know if you have ever been subject to ageism due to your youth.

GRACE BLAKELEY: I do think there is a generational gap in economics – one defined by the financial crisis. Those economists who made their names in the pre-crisis world accepted the dominance of neoclassical economics. You couldn’t really be an economist before 2008 without accepting the mainstream framing. Of course, it was exactly that mainstream methodology that failed to predict the financial crisis – largely because its account of money, banking and the financial cycle was woefully inadequate.

Those of us who came of age in the post-crisis world know that mainstream economics has massive flaws and are much more willing to experiment with different ways of looking at the world. For example, different schools of economics – like institutional economics, feminist economics and post-Keynesian economics – and different disciplines – like political economy, economic history and economic geography – are all resurgent. For my generation, economics feels like a much more varied subject – but of course those with the power, and those who teach us, still tend to favour the neoclassical approach.

In the UK, some university students have taken matters into their own hands and demanded that their discipline expands beyond the neoclassical framework, giving rise to organisations like Rethinking Economics. There is some ageism when it comes to these young people – older economists often dismiss younger students and campaigners when they demand to be taught different ways of looking at the world. That tension will be very important in determining how the discipline develops.

A.L.: How would you reshape our ideas and misconceptions about the economy?

G.B.: The area I focus on is political economy, and particularly Marxist political economy, so for me the most important question to ask when analysing the economy is ‘who has the power?’ For example, many mainstream economists still maintain that wages are determined by supply and demand, which is mainly determined by labour productivity. But if you look across countries throughout history, a far more important factor seems to be union density and other measures of labour’s bargaining power. Mainstream economists doesn’t have an account of class struggle, which often means they have a static and occasionally politically naïve approach to the world. I think that any way of understanding the economy – or, more accurately, economic relationships between people – has to start by asking ‘who has the power?’

A.L.: Michael Roberts has written about your book Stolen. Basically, he disagrees with you because you only focus on financial capitalism, while he rejects capitalism as a system.

G.B.: I think Roberts mischaracterizes my book in his review – I haven’t had time to write a response yet but there is a lot I have to say about it! My approach is to analyse financial capitalism as part of the development of capitalism – not a different kind of system, a particular historical phase within one overarching mode of production. Obviously the productive sectors (mainly concentrated in the global South) are very important in understanding how financialisation has come about – but that doesn’t mean that one can’t also look into the challenges and opportunities that financialisation presents for socialists in the global North.

The reason I wanted to write the book was to give ordinary people who were involved in the UK Labour Party, trade union organising and wider anti-capitalist social movements an understanding of how capitalism in the global North has changed over the last several decades and – most importantly – how these changes should impact how we organise. That probably means it’s not as academically rigorous as some people who only approach Marxism from a theoretical perspective would like, but to really be a Marxist you have to attempt to change the world rather than just understand it.

A.L.: I think of Adam Smith’s mother after reading Katrine Marçal. I am sure that economics should be more feminist, but how?

G.B.: Economists from all schools – including some Marxist economists – have presented very patriarchal understandings of how capitalism works because they completely fail to account for the subjugation of women under capitalism, and the importance of social reproduction (often seen as ‘women’s work) in the maintenance of wage labour. Traditional economic models see ‘the household’ as a black box, and don’t pay much attention to what goes on inside it – but throughout history without the unpaid labour provided by women within the household, workers wouldn’t have been able to reproduce themselves.

Marxist feminist economists have attempted to re-centre the work undertaken by women in their analysis of the production process – most working class women are generally not only workers themselves, they also undertake unpaid labour that allows workers to reproduce themselves, ultimately benefitting capital. The way in which gender interacts with race is also important to consider – today, many well-paid women in the global North will hire poorly paid migrant labour to undertake caring responsibilities on their behalf, and these women will also often have their own caring responsibilities.

The layers of exploitation and oppression that exist within capitalism are all conditioned by political power – traditionally, women have had less of this than men – but migrant women, women of colour and queer women have far less than relatively privileged well-off straight white women in the global North today.

A.L.: What do you think about a Universal Basic Income? Some leftist political parties reject a UBI because they prefer to support a job guarantee or Universal Basic Services. What is your opinion?

G.B.: For me, the question is ‘will UBI boost the power of labour relative to capital?’ On the one hand, UBI sounds like a good idea because it could ensure workers have an income regardless of whether or not they are employed. But, when you look into the detail, most UBI proposals are too low to provide even a basic standard of living for the average person.

Some on the right also argue that the entire welfare state, which provides greater support for the disabled, single parents, the elderly etc., should be demolished in order to pay for UBI. The fact that UBI has support from libertarians in the US is very telling – ultimately, if implemented on its own, it wouldn’t do much to change power relations in capitalist society. In fact, it would simply support a failing capitalist system by boosting demand at a time of low investment and very high private debt.

If it was combined with a socialization of the means of production – with collective public ownership of the most important economic assets – then I can see it working quite well.

A.L.: According to El País, Generation Z is better than millennials. Perhaps we should be optimistic, after all.

G.B.: As a socialist, I see it as my duty to be optimistic! One of the biggest reasons it has taken so long for the left to rebuild itself after the financial crisis is that we stopped believing the idea that ‘another world is possible’. We became accustomed to living under capitalism, with all its exploitation and oppression, and stopped believing in our capacity to change it. If there is one thing I would like young people – and indeed all people – to take from my work it’s the idea that we can make a difference. Not by recycling plastic bottles and cycling more, but by coming together, organising and fighting to build a different world.

A.L.: Bernie Sanders is not an inspiration for economist Richard H. Thaler. Who serves as an inspiration for you?

G.B.: The economists who inspire me most are all Marxist economists who use his insights to understand the kinds of problems that exist in the world today, a century and a half after Marx was writing. There are too many to mention here, but my favourite living Marxist has to be David Harvey – his Companion to Marx’s Capital is brilliant. I’m also fascinated by the way capitalism changes our understanding of space and geography and these are obviously concepts that Harvey deals with extensively.

A.L.: Recommend us a (millennial?) movie. I assume you like Ken Loach and Costa-Gavras.

G.B.: I do! But I think for me it’s got to be The Big Short – it’s such a brilliant explanation of what went wrong during the financial crisis.

A.L.: A book or a novel?

G.B.: Can I say Marx’s Capital?! Only joking – I think a really good book explaining the kind of movements and campaigns that underpin millennial socialism is Jack Shenker’s Now we Have your Attention. He looks at how young people are organizing alongside pre-existing social movements and the labour movement to challenge capitalism in the UK.

A.L.: What about an app? I should say that Tinder seems to me to be a great example of neoliberalism.

G.B.: The commodification of our social relations, and the monopolization of the data generated through that process, certainly is a good example of neoliberalism! I really like the Financial Times app – it’s how I keep up to date with the news, but it also has some really great articles, videos and other content. I don’t agree with it all but it’s very interesting nonetheless!

Originally published in Spanish in HuffPost Spain.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

Sign up to take part in a free live discussion on Thursday 13 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET

In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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