Last week I went to my first reading group meeting. Ever. Whilst reading is one of my biggest passions, since graduating from university I have found it hard to get to grips with academic reading outside of work.
But with the impacts of the financial crisis hitting the poorest people the hardest, the cuts being pushed through in the UK, and a growing movement against austerity; I thought it was time to brush up on my knowledge of economics. The ‘Econo…what?’ reading group project put together by a group of organisations including Jubilee Debt Campaign and War on Want, provided the perfect opportunity for doing so.
Spread over ten parts, the Econo…what? reading group aims to explore “how the financial crisis happened, the history of how it built up, who is to blame, and who is paying the price”. The website provides a list of suggested readings and short films, along with a regular commentary from one of the three bloggers - who are all women - which is great to see when economics and finance are subjects that tend to be dominated by men.
So I arranged to meet up with my friend to take on part one: It’s the economy, stupid.
We met in a café, and after about an hour of catching up, we decided we should probably get going with the reading group. At first it felt a bit awkward trying to structure our conversation – a bit like when you try to have a language exchange with a friend and you both speak to each other in a different language, but you’re really not used to it and it’s quite embarrassing. The awkwardness didn't last long - after a few tentative responses to ‘what did you think of the reading?’, we quickly found that we had lots to say.
'The first week's reading provided a really nice introduction to the reasons for studying economics, and helped to demystify it. On the reading list were a couple of chapters of Jim Stanford’s book Economics for everyone: a short guide to the economics of capitalism, the animation The story of stuff and the film Supersize Me.
In two hours, we covered issues from ‘what does capitalism mean?' to looking at alternative ways of organising such as a cooperative economy. We questioned individual ownership and thought about a sharing-based economy as a way to cut down on consumption and the overuse and abuse of natural resources.
We also talked about how much the current system is built on the idea of ‘choice’ (e.g. choice of where to travel, choice of what to eat, choice of shampoos) but that actually this is a false choice and much competition – particularly in supermarkets – is orchestrated to make people feel they have chosen a product and so are more attached to it and satisfied as a result. In reality, many products are produced by companies owned by the same conglomerates, such as Unilever. We also talked about alternatives to the cuts, and how we can reclaim money from corporates and reduce public spending on arms trade subsidies.
A Uk Uncut action which aims to highlight alternatives to the government's cuts such as stopping corporations avoiding tax.
We found that having the readings as a starting point gave us a way of structuring our thoughts and talking about different projects or campaigns we’re involved in and how they relate to each other. The chapters from Jim Stanford’s book were really reassuring in making economics seem accessible and understandable. For the first time in ages it made me want to go home and read the rest of the book. I also felt really energised and excited about doing the future readings (geeky, I know).
Economics isn’t a science, it’s inherently social and political – and learning more about it can be really empowering and help understand what’s wrong with the system we’ve got, and what we can do about it. As the reading group states: “[the system] in the UK over the last four decades has seen rising inequality, the selling-off of public services and spaces, huge publicly funded bank bailouts and massive cuts to welfare and public services.”
By trying to reclaim economics from the ‘experts’, and debunk economic myths, projects like the reading group will hopefully encourage more people (including women) to be confident about speaking out about the current economic system and taking action.
For more information about the Econo...what? reading group and how you can take part click here.