Towards a New Industrial Imaginary for Britain

My chapter in the e-book Forging Economic Discovery, published by Goldsmiths Political Economy Research Centre.

British manufacturing is in a very perilous state. We are seven years on from the height of the financial crisis, and more than five years on from the end of the subsequent recession, yet manufacturing output remains 5.4 per cent below its pre-crisis peak. Moreover, it would be wrong to suggest that manufacturing shared in the pre-crisis boom.

The continuing decline of manufacturing foretells doom for the British economy. But policy elites would have us believe anything but. Policy-makers and the narrow stratum of economic commentators whose views are treated as gospel (or worse, as science) by the mainstream media vary between trumpeting a phoney resurgence of British manufacturing, or actually celebrating its decline as representing a higher stage of development.

Accordingly, we are told that Britain must focus only on ‘advanced’ manufacturing. This is a recipe for economic vulnerability and a continuing slide in earnings and job quality. Firstly, manufacturing is not recovering: evidence of a long overdue cyclical upturn is not evidence of resurgence. Any upturn that can be identified is highly dependent on car manufacturing. Output in the transport equipment industry (principally cars) grew by more than 50 per cent between 2009 and 2014; all other manufacturing industries saw either a fall in output or only a small increase over this period.

Secondly, manufacturing decline is not a sign of development. In representing the application of technology to natural resources, manufacturing is the sector where productivity increases benefiting the entire economy originate. The sector has long functioned as capitalism’s ‘learning centre’.

We need to rediscover the value of the wider manufacturing sector, and recognise that the ongoing crisis of economic growth in Britain is to some extent synonymous with the longstanding crisis of manufacturing. Moreover, we need to rediscover what it means to manufacture in a capitalist economy, in order to better understand the invaluable contribution the vast majority of workers can and do make to the British economy.

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