Liberation and living well

This week I’ve been busy in two distinct areas of “scholarly activism”.  At first sight they might seem very disparate, but I think they are part of the same overall project.

On Monday, the Steady State Manchester collective, of which I’m part, published The Viable Economy, a pamphlet that provides an outline of an alternative economic, political and cultural model that integrates economic, social and ecological well-being.  It draws on ecological economics – especially the idea of limits to growth, but also on the ethics of social justice and the critique of capitalism as a system whose goal is the accumulation of surplus in private hands.  The influence of alternative and post-development thinkers such as André Gorz, Manfred Max-Neef, Maria Mies, Arturo Escobar, Serge Latouche, Vandana Shiva, Franz Hinkelammert, Samir Amin, Enrique Dussel, Eduardo Gudynas, and many others is also there.

It is that tradition that provides a link with the other big event, the 25th anniversary of the murder, by US trained Salvadorian army unit of the founder of Liberation Psychology, Ignacio Martín-Baró (along with colleagues at the University of Central America, and two witnesses, their housekeeper and her daughter).  Through the English Language Liberation Psychology Network, I have commemorated this by inviting, and publishing a set of contributions to reflect on Martín-Baró’s work and legacy and its relevance for our own times.

Martín-Baró can be seen as part of the de-colonial movement in Latin America, something that unites not just the engaged intellectuals of fields like popular pedagogy, liberation theology, liberation philosophy, social ecology, anti-dependency economics, and militant sociology, but also the social movements like the Zapatistas of Chiapas in Mexico, the Brazilian landless workers movement (MST), those opposing the devastation caused by extractive industries throughout the continent, and some elements in the coalitions behind the more left wing governments of the region, governments that are nevertheless sites of struggle between orthodox social democratic, mitigated, trickle-down capitalism, and more radical ideas that question the received models of development and well-being (ooh that was a long sentence, sorry!).  An example of the latter is the extensive work on vivir bien / buen vivir.

There are several connections with Steady State Manchester’s work on alternative models of development for our own region in this rich core capitalist country:

The unbalanced nature of our own economy, with its dependence on global supply chains, its industrial past and de-industrial present, and the isolation of its urban sprawl from its rural hinterland, has its roots in the dispossession of our own peasantry, and the colonisation of what is now the Majority World.  At the same time our society has been colonised, dominated by an economic rationality from which we need to escape.  It is no surprise that before the term “neo-liberalism” came into widespread use, and while in the UK we spoke of the New Right, in Australia the term most used was “economic rationalism” which echoes the thinking of André Gorz who first used the term “decroissance” (degrowth).

For a Gramscian like me, committed to an alternative (to) development, there is a challenge.  We need to build alliances with others who oppose the hegemonic project of neoliberalism, and the longer term domination of capitalism itself.  But that means allying with those who have quite conventional, indeed uncritical, understandings of development, growth, prosperity.  This can be seen in the alliance of post-Keynesians with ecological activists, both in the New Economics movement and in continental movements like Syriza and Podemos/Los Indignados.  We need to understand and use the insights from Keynesian thought, but not surrender to the idea that all we need to do for salvation is reflate demand to restore GDP growth.  And that goes for the green variant of (post?-)Keynesianism, the restart of the economy by investing in climate-friendly schemes like retrofitting housing with insulation, and renewable energy.  If those things only lead to a resurgence of the treadmill of material consumption, all it will do is contribute further to alienation, status insecurity, inequality, and to human and natural exploitation on a global scale.

We don’t know what Martín-Baró would have said about this, but from the frugal lifestyle of the UCA jesuits (and I’m no Christian), his prioritisation of sharing through culture, and his selfless prioritisation of the dispossessed, I think I know where he would be standing now.


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