Economics Workshop

November 2021

With the aim of making our research process open and accessible, we are posting notes of some of our meetings and events. These summarise the discussion and/or background readings. These are presented as provisional interpretations which will be refined in later writings.

This month we have been assessing different models of political economy in order to evaluate their ethical efficacy and operational appropriateness in facing the climate emergency. We have focused on aspects of the economy that relate to spatial production, including land, but have not restricted our research to this. Understanding the intersectional nature of economics—that is, the management of resources in relation to human and non-human impact —is crucial if we are to care for the wellbeing of people and the planet adequately. How a society views labour power, therefore, and factors such as gender, class and race, and people’s relation to other species and natural resources, plays a substantial part in determining its economic systems. Defining economics as the management of resources is helpful to our project, Architecture after Architecture, because it enables a transition away from profit-oriented financial models of growth, towards economies that serve the common good through the holistic provision of resources for individual, community, and ecological wellbeing.

Through a short workshop and diagramming activity, Mould mapped various (sometimes complementary, sometimes competing) economic approaches to facing the climate emergency. These were mapped on the accompanying diagram, which positions various approaches in a relational manner. We were then able to interpret which economic models have the potential to empower spatial practices aimed at greater ecological and social care, and which run counter to a ‘care-ful’ management of resources – using the diagram a visual structure against which to test our own position. This digest summarises these various models and evaluates their helpfulness in cultivating an alternative and more socially and ecologically careful architecture after architecture-as-spatialisation-of-capital.

A major difference between many economic models is their position in relation to business-as-usual capitalism and the state. Some anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, or more recently, Murray Bookchin, see their goals for emancipation and independence as incompatible with existent state and corporate structures where businesses shape policies and investments through political funding, lobbying and other forms of engagement. Eco-socialists including Joel Kovel and Richard Smith also see their goals for collective struggle and class solidarity as incompatible with conventional forms of profit-led capitalism. But economic models including the Commons (Elinor Ostrom) and the Green New Deal (Ann Pettifor, Kate Raworth, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) understand the state as a potentially helpful agent in providing financial and legalistic structures to encourage green investment, carbon reductions, meaningful employment, and welfare provision, and they understand the potential benefits that markets and businesses can contribute when adequately regulated. Economists including Marianna Mazzucato, for example, emphasise the potential that private enterprise can play in forming alliances with governments on projects for green infrastructure. Terms including ‘transformative innovation’ (used by Graham Leicester and Bill Sharpe) describe this method of working from within existing private and public structures towards socially- and environmentally just reforms.

In the context of spatial practice and the built environment, examples of such ‘working from within’ include green loans for retrofitting buildings and an increase in community infrastructure levies to capture or recover value that public infrastructure generates. In the workshop, we agreed that such reforms can play valuable parts in transitioning towards more green and socially equitable futures; there is little use in ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ when policymaking can be used to create green employment in wind farms, for example, or to ensure that private landowners do not profit from publicly funded investments. Furthermore, we agreed that grass-roots initiatives such as housing coops, credit unions, community food banks, and community land trusts are far from incompatible with reformed public policies and green markets, and might even benefit from the regulated and scaled-up provision governments can provide through support such as green bonds. A very concrete example occurs with land: economists working at the New Economics Foundation including Josh Ryan-Collins proposed a reform in taxation so that land value can be taxed in a manner inspired by Henry George in the 19th century, reducing the unfair concentration of asset wealth in property. Land Value Taxation would help separate the market for ‘bricks and mortar’ property from that of land as property, and prevent landowners from profiting on speculative investments without investing money or sweat equity on improving that land themselves. This would help address the UK housing crisis and a supposed scarcity of land.   

The goal in many of these projects that ‘work from within’ is not to dissolve markets, but to have them serve community and ecological good, rather than the other way around (whereby natural resources and people work to expand a growing market). Mazzucato and Raworth both emphasise this shift from market-led to market-served economics. Raworth introduces the diagram of a doughnut ring as a metaphor for the social and ecological boundaries within which any viable economy must operate. In architectural contexts, groups working to reform building practice by working with legal and policy frameworks, including Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) prove the positive potential of bridging between existing policymaking tools and green and social politics.

Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is one of many economic models and theories that criticise the continued use of GDP as a metric. The measurement of a nation’s ‘gross domestic product,’ they argue, overlooks too many crucial forms of labour and service. Moreover, GDP reflects the busy-ness of an economy, rather than the social or ecological virtue of its economic activity. One of the clearest critics of GDP is the green politician Marilyn Waring, who emphasises its patriarchal and anti-environmental biases. An oil spill, she explains, generates an increase in GDP because of the vast amounts of material throughput required to contain and clear it. The spill devastates habitats and yet shows up as a positive in a nation’s accounts, suggesting that the nation’s economy is flourishing. The labour of mothers in raising children, or growing food to feed their families, meanwhile, is not measured by GDP. By the overriding economic standard of measurement in use today, most care work and subsistence agricultural labour is ‘worthless.’ As an alternative to GDP, Waring and others (Marvin Brown, J. K. Gibson-Graham) propose civic, community, or wellbeing economies that employ varied metrics to measure the economic health of a nation—for example, metrics of health, happiness, working hours, housing provision, and access to green space, contraceptive, nourishing food, and clean water. If the emphasis falls on such metrics, rather than GDP, the question of whether a country’s economy is growing, remaining at a steady state, or declining, lessens in importance.

Maintaining a steady-state economy, as described by economists including Tim Jackson, and before him, Herman Daly, requires a constant flow of throughput (material consumption) at a sustainable (fairly low) level, with population and capital stock free to adjust to whatever size can be maintained by the constant throughput. Important in this definition is an absence of GDP as a metric – the description of flows and levels reads more like an ecological than an economic account of a system. Characteristics of a steady state economy include its sustainable scale (within planetary boundaries), fair distribution (with limits to inequality), efficient allocation (whereby markets are used only where appropriate), and a high quality of life (that focuses on wellbeing rather than on material and monetary accumulation). In our workshop, we agreed that this careful adjustment and monitoring of throughput is important to maintaining a steady economy and keeping within the ‘doughnut’ space of planetary and social wellbeing. The stead-state model also helps reconfigure a persistent and dangerous discourse concerning limits to population growth, and scarcity of resources, that too often manifests racist and classist biases whereby populations with insufficient access to contraception are blamed for exacerbating supposed scarcities of land, food, or water. In reality, there are enough resources on the planet, but they are not distributed fairly.

Distribution also pertains to ownership and governance equity. We agreed that a focus on planetary and social wellbeing, rather than profit margins, must guide technology, and that technology must be accessible. Technologies of mechanisation and automation are often sold as means to reduce human labour and toil, when in fact this is a smoke shield for the driving motive of increasing private companies’ profit margins by reducing labour costs. Technology that promises to mitigate the climate disaster can sometimes conceal ‘disaster capitalism’ goals for securing new markets and, again, securing private profit margins. But technology does not have to perform like this. Technologies old and new, from ground source heat pumps to state-of-the-art vaccines, can transform lives. We must build safeguards such as commons laws to ensure that publicly funded projects for the common good are not patented to siphon profits for private companies. The driving goal for technology must be service to the common good. And the questions we must put to all technological innovation is ‘who owns this? whom does this benefit?’

If the end goal of technological innovation is planetary wellbeing, then other parts of the world, and other peoples, must be cared for. This shift in thinking and responsibility requires that more affluent nations invest in less affluent ones as a form of redistribution. This investment (in funding green energy sourcing, for example, or in developing vaccines) is not the same as IMF and World Bank loans that have crippled so-called ‘developing’ nations through debt (see Walter Rodney). Thinking in a planetary way will also require extraction and waste disposal to become transparent processes—affluent nations and private corporations should be fined and prosecuted for unfairly extracting natural resources, disposing of waste matter abroad, and offshoring their companies to avoid taxation.

For all these planetary reforms, we agreed that we need governments, legal structures, monetary and financial instruments, and technologies to serve us, rather than the other way around. The bottom line is this: the economy must serve the wellbeing of people and the planet. If our future economies continue to use tools and systems such as private businesses, profit margins, and technology, their driving motive and end goal must be social and ecological wellbeing—not asset accumulation in the hands of a few. Economic education, and its cousins in schools of architecture and planning, must push a curriculum for understanding economic and spatial structures as infrastructures that should help humans, animals, and ecosystems flourish. Tools and technologies are often neither intrinsically good nor bad, but depend on who uses them and for what purpose. Democracy, and systems of common and collective ownership and governance, will help ensure the equitable use of tools and the values derived from them.

Becca Voelcker for Mould

If you only have time to read, watch, or listen to one thing:

Read: Short article by Gibson-Graham, J. K., ‘Cultivating Community Economies’, in The New Systems Reader, ed. by James Gustave Speth and Kathleen Courrier (New York: Routledge, 2021), pp. 410–32

Watch: Marilyn Waring on planetary and patriarchal injustice in economics

Listen: Podcast on climate justice and global reparations

If you want to dig deeper:

Daly, Glyn, ‘The Discursive Construction of Economic Space: Logics of Organization and Disorganization’, Economy and Society, 20.1 (1991), 79–102

Gibson-Graham, J. K., The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, First University of Minnesota Press edition, 2006 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Jackson, Tim, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism, 1st edition (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021)

———, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Routledge, 2009)

Kovel, Joel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (London: Zed Books, 2007)

Leicester, Graham, Transformative Innovation: A Guide to Practice and Policy (Axminster, England: Triarchy Press, 2016)

Mansbridge, Jane, ‘The Role of the State in Governing the Commons’, Environmental Science & Policy, Interrogating The Commons, 36 (2014), 8–10

Mazzucato, Mariana, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2021)

Ostrom, Elinor, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Parvin, Alastair, A Right to Build (Sheffield: / Architecture 00/ University of Sheffield/ issuu, 2011)

Pettifor, Ann, The Case for the Green New Deal (London: Verso, 2019)

Raworth, Kate, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Penguin, 2017)

Ryan-Collins, Josh, Toby Lloyd, and Laurie MacFarlane, Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (London: Zed, 2017)

Speth, James Gustave, ed., The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy (New York London: Routledge, 2021)

Varoufakis, Yanis, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: A Brief History of Capitalism, 1st edition (London: Bodley Head, 2017)

Waring, Marilyn, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988)