The limits of efficiency: can capitalism be more resilient in the face of crisis?

COVID-19 has demonstrated how we need to rethink the trade-offs between efficiency and resilience if we are to meet the even greater challenge of climate change

This blog is Part 6 of our new series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘ written by members of SPERI’s doctoral researchers network.

What will economic progress look like over the next ten years? If we are to enjoy rising living standards, without increasing pressure on the natural environment past its breaking point, human society may have to become more efficient in using the resources at its disposal. This vision of sustainable development forms the mainstream view for how capitalism can continue with business more or less as usual without sending the planet into a destabilising climate crisis. It emphasises capitalism’s unarguable achievements in driving up productivity and doing more with less over the course of its history. But can this really be a sustainable path for human development? And what happens when attempts to do so run out of road? My PhD looks at the role that globalisation has played in managing political conflict in a state like the UK, frequently through ‘efficiencies’ achieved on the backs of super-exploited workers. In this post, I will explore how the idea of efficiency has been used to defend and legitimate the contemporary capitalist system and what might happen when gains previously taken for granted start to run dry, or even go into reverse.

Efficiency is the concept at the centre of claims that markets are the best way to organise society. The market’s unique ability to absorb information from across society means that the choices actors make will ultimately (it is claimed) result in the greatest output for the lowest level of input. Incentives within this system will exhort firms to innovate and develop technologies that increase this efficiency, to the benefit of all. The objections to the model-world of neoclassical economics on which this assertion depends are shown up by the many profound inefficiencies in contemporary capitalism. Its tendency towards monopoly and concentration drives things like profit-hoarding and anti-competitive practices that represent the tip of the iceberg in this regard. Yet this notion of efficiency is also not entirely a myth. The ability to continually do more with less, distributing the proceeds in such a way that living standards increase for most people, most of the time has been the central mechanism by which capitalism has escaped the predictions of its demise.

The modern supermarket stands as the poster-child of this efficiency. Stores and chains have got bigger, with wider-ranging supply chains subject to more complex management techniques. At the end of many of these supply chains, often far away from the convenience of a well-stocked supermarket, exist workers, labourers and farmers who must pay the price of this efficiency in unsustainable wages and unacceptable working conditions. The upheaval to everyday life brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has given many people pause to reflect on the systems that provision them. The early days of the crisis were accompanied by much publicised shortages, of flour, tomatoes and toilet paper. Yet whilst supermarkets were initially caught by surprise, one of the features of this crisis has been the speed with which normal service returned (subject to appropriate social distancing). In this instance, efficiency just about worked hand in hand with resilience to a crisis. But in many other parts of the economy, the result of this trade off is not so certain.

Beyond our short-term ability to adapt to crisis, there are also important questions to ask about how sustainable the model by which we feed ourselves will remain in the coming decade. The huge corporate edifice of retail and distribution on which the majority of people in advanced capitalist democracies have come to rely is indeed a marvel of efficiency.

Efficiency has been so valorised under capitalism that it has become a central feature of the state as well as the private sector. Much has been made of the impact of austerity on the speed and effectiveness of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. The cuts of the 2010 coalition government were built on appeals of state profligacy, implying that an overlarge state could become leaner and less wasteful. As a political program, it has leveraged the myth of capitalist efficiency to employ the private sector to deliver state services on the cheap. But the implementation has revealed a litany of unintended consequences and demonstrated that cheapness is not the same thing as efficiency.

Efficiency boils down to a simple question of what outputs are produced and at what cost. But this can’t avoid the distributional questions of who gets the value of what is produced and who has to count the costs. For the state, austerity was efficient in simple balance sheet terms. But for the people who have had to engage with reduced and diminished public services, the costs seem far clearer. The efficiency of the weekly shop might mean a few more pounds in the pockets of British consumers, but it transmits the impact of its reduced cost across the globe, highlighting the uneven way people and their labour are valued under capitalism.

My own research asks how this efficiency is experienced and understood in people’s everyday lives, and how robust and stable the forms of legitimacy supported by capitalism’s engine of efficiency truly are. Whilst the level of poverty and inequality in a country like the UK is broadly a matter of the statistical record, the consequences of any political fallout ultimately depend on the much more nebulous concept of ‘living standards’. Whilst these sometimes hinge on questionable appeals to consumerism and materialism, the broad-based improvements in quality of life promised by the affluent society are also not entirely a myth. Our economy and society must resolve itself to do less with less, in the interests of resilience and environmental sustainability. In the facing down of multiple intersecting crises that approach us, costs will inevitably be felt in the material realm of everyday life.

What the political consequences of this may be remain uncertain. From early findings in my research, there is a sense that concerns around planetary sustainability may be causing people to question the role of goods and consumption in their lives in a way that may soften any transition to a more materially austere future. But there remain those trapped on low incomes, for whom small increases in the price of essentials such as food, clothes and homewares will have significant impact on the bottom line.

To move beyond this societal obsession with efficiency, we must be prepared to return to a politics that is more able and willing to thrash out the difficult questions of who gets what. The optimistic accounts of everyone being borne upwards on capitalism’s rising tides is clearly partial, at best, not least with regards to the inequalities and exclusions brought about from gendered and racialised power relations. But in looking beyond our current system, we must also reckon honestly with who benefits from the world as it is currently organised. Certainly, the owners of capital have been living through a purple patch unknown since the 1920s. But the wider population of countries like the UK also owe a lot of the daily conveniences and luxuries they take for granted to the continued operation of a globe-spanning network of production, even whilst the abuses and exploitation this entails are deliberately hidden from view. If these networks are to be made to work on a more just basis, then the narrow efficiencies they represent will also be disrupted and challenged. The consequences of any such transformation will play out in the everyday life of relatively privileged consumers. How they respond may well determine the ultimate sustainability of any efforts to reform our current system of global production along equitable, rather than merely efficient, lines.

Read all the blogs in our series on ‘Studying an uncertain future‘.