Hubble, bubble, double struggle: the coming elections.
I’ve been meaning to write something on the elections for a while. But this is not so much about the elections as about the approaches on offer. Which elections anyway? My main focus is on the forthcoming UK General Election in May, 2015. But to approach that topic I will also mention what’s happening in some other places: principally Latin America and Southern Europe (Spain and Greece). I often think that we know ourselves better when looking, as it were, from the outside, and social processes elsewhere can tell us a lot about the peculiarities of our own situation.
Hubble bubble, the present context.
To start, it is worth identifying the real political, economic, social and ecological issues at stake. I have written extensively on these issues before, both here and on the Steady State Manchester site, so here I will just identify in blob-list form the key ones as interlocking crises:-
- The planetary crisis whereby through over-use of hydrocarbon fuels, the earth’s stability is severely threatened as a benign host for the ecosystems that sustain us. We know this through the accumulation of greenhouse gases, setting the scene for irreversible and catastrophic global warming and climate change, through ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, nitrate pollution, soil depletion and fresh-water exhaustion and through the consequent geopolitical upheavals causes by ecosystem destruction, resource competition and price volatility. This all makes human populations very vulnerable, with far less system resilience than we might think.
- An economic crisis characterised by the exhaustion of the capitalist accumulation regime and of its various short-term fixes (State fiscal management, global expansion, labour repression, primitive accumulation by dispossession, financialisation). This crisis, catalysed most recently by the collapse of over-leveraged banks, itself consequent on neoliberal deregulation, has set the scene for a new wave of accumulation by theft and State-capture – privatisation, bail-out of financial institutions, money creation that has flooded the financialised economy (e.g. Quantitative Easing that has lined the pockets of the elite), and the imposition of austerity on the population (but not the wealthy layers) supported by dishonest econo-political propaganda.
- A social crisis characterised by anomie, stress, mental and social pathology, itself erected on successive waves of de-culturation through community destruction and commercialisation. This is then exacerbated by rising inequality and exploited by right wing populist demagoguery.
- A political crisis whereby, irrespective of the fates of the mainstream political parties, people have lost faith in the representative process and either withdraw from any political engagement or seek alternatives.
When the “mess we are in” is stated in these terms, the inadequacy of the mainstream “political offer” becomes clear. The Tories promise a heady mix of more austerity (55% more of the total 100% reduction yet to come in terms of public spending), and ecological hooliganism, while gesturing on the European Union in the name of sovereignty as they sign up to TTIP. The Liberal Demagogue Party merely offer a less severe version of the same – the clue is in the title Liberal – social and economic (neo-)liberalism.
My ambivalence with Labour
The other main party, Labour, presents me with a real problem. To explain, some autobiography. My parents were active in the Labour party (as well as in CND, and in my Dad’s case the NUT). From them I got my basic socialist outlook, and an affection for the values and commitment of most of the grass roots of the party. As a teenager I took those values to what I still see as their logical consequence, the idea of a fully socialist society. I discovered the Cuban revolution through the work of C Wright Mills (Listen Yankee), read Morris, Mao, and histories of the Russian revolution. I read books on the impact of colonialism in Africa (e.g. Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite). My father’s influence also led me to ecology, and awareness of the ecological overshoot of humanity and the growing crisis has been with me since my mid-teens (a particular landmark was listening to Frank Fraser Darling’s Reith lectures, Wilderness and Plenty).
As a student I became an ecological activist (something I’ve returned to in the last few years), starting an eco-action group and taking part in the first Friends of the Earth campaigns in the UK. I heard Kenneth Boulding speak on the problem of economic growth.
I then flirted with anarchism, before discovering Gramsci (whose insights I still use with frequency). Becoming interested in Euro-Communism, I nearly joined the Communist Party (but was put off by the closeness of the CPGB to the Soviet line. and joined the Labour party in my early 20s as a kind of eco-libertarian entryist. I was active in the Labour-affiliated environmental group, SERA, but found Labour organisational politics stultifying. I campaigned (for Tony Lloyd) in the 1979 and 1983 General elections. I left when Neil Kinnock became leader and in trying to placate a hostile press, ejected socialists (mainly but not only the Militant Tendency, whose politics I didn’t share, always being less then attracted to the Trotskyist sects): but the crunch for me was the reversal on unilateral disarmament. It suddenly became OK to have a weapon of mass-destruction. I was briefly in the Green Party but appalled by their, then, disorganisation. Becoming a bureaucrat, accountable to local government, I shied away from local politics and focussed on international solidarity campaigns. I worked with local Labour politicians, and respect most of them as sincere, committed people, with good human values, not out for personal gain, doing a pretty thankless job. There is more to my history than this, but it should explain something of my highly critical but basically friendly perspective on UK Labour. I am not a member of any party: if I were to join one, it would either be a broad and re-aligned Left, or the Greens – preferably a combination of the two, but I can’t really see that happening soon.
So let’s look at Labour.
On socialism: Labour was never a socialist party, but at times it has had a socialist majority of members. Typically British, it has always been empiricist, eschewing the political, social and economic theory so essential to navigate a principled path through the mess we call society and economy. But it has had its socialist leaders and its socialist moments. What Ken Loach calls the Spirit of 1945 is one, with the creation of the National Health Service, building on the prefigurative experience of emergency health services in the Spanish civil war, and the mutual aid-based systems piloted by Trade Unions, notably the Welsh Miners. There was the opposition to the inter-imperial World War I by most of the leadership, Later there was the Open University, comprehensive education and the National Girobank (both of these owing a lot to Tony Benn). But the party was captured by neoliberalism, under the leadership of Blair and Brown, building on the platform erected by Kinnock and Smith. In 1997 an anti-Thatcherite electoral majority voted in Labour by a landslide and the Blairites set about the implementation of yet more privatisation and financial de-regulation. The party in government represented the interests of the City financial industry. They presided over increasing inequality, while doing useful things for the most deprived and for young children. As a public service manager my budget was cut year on year, and then increased again, within a regime of targets and invalid performance measures: managerialism joined forces with marketisation. At the time many of us struggled to make sense of what was happening. I remember characterising it as a kind of late-Fascism, and I don’t think I was very wrong. And I haven’t mentioned Labour’s dismal, Atlanticist, record on foreign policy.
Those on the Left of the party, and many to the Left of the Party, believe that a “big heave” can lead to a recapture and a return to something like a 21st Century Atlee government. I don’t. Despite my sympathy for and friendliness to many in the party, I know that this isn’t going to happen. Labour’s centre of gravity these days is right-wing social democrat: it aims to manage capitalism, harnessing it for social good, or at least mitigating its worst effects. Transformation is not on the agenda, despite a slight leftward move since the Great Financial Crash. In power, Labour will do some useful things, and will prevent a vicious Tory party doing much worse. They are by no means equivalent. But Labour will be pressured by and play to the interests in the City of London and the majority right-wing press (including much of the BBC) again. Their outlook will be short-termist, concerned about the next election and about Capital flight and market revenge. They will enact authoritarian social policies and do little to reform the banking system, reverse privatization or repeal anti-labour legislation. They will sign up to TTIP and connive with the worst of the EU’s neoliberal single-market model. Their economics will be broadly neoliberal, not even Keynesian, and should they adopt any Keynesian measures they will be to grow an economy that is already too large, too demanding on our planet, and yet failing to deliver meaningful prosperity, security or well-being to an increasingly unequal population. Not only does Labour reproduce an incoherent Osbornomics (we will cut the deficit year on year: both Miliband and Balls promise the press and city more cuts), but if it didn’t, then it would blow the country’s carbon budget. And this is despite a leader who put the UK on the map with a binding Climate Change Act – but even that is subject to market models and means like the European Emissions Trading Scheme.
An alternative, the Greens?
The Green Party, on the other hand, does have a credible policy framework. It would bring railways and other strategic industries back into public ownership, ending the feasting of the privateers. It would facilitate investment in renewable energy and reduce hydrocarbon dependency. It would promote ethical and social business and take seriously the questions of equality and exclusion, while potentially acting responsibly on the global stage. I’m not sure they’ve got their thinking clear yet on what one of their MEP’s calls “the paradox of Green Keynesianism” (discussed here). But the main problem is that under the UK’s First Past the Post (FPTP) elections, they have perhaps a very outside chance of 4 parliamentary seats, more likely 1 or 2 (and potentially in a two-party squeeze, none). A further problem is that despite its watermelon politics (green on the outside and red on the inside), it is still widely perceived, unfairly, as a single issue, middle class, party. It is particularly vulnerable to damaging propaganda from its enemies, with, for example Labour tweeters seizing on pieces in Tory rags The Economist and Spectator that, in classic de-contextualising manner, carp about the performance of the minority Green administration in Brighton.
It will be clear, though, that my perspective is a Green-Left one which supposes a double struggle. We need to fight austerity / inequality / a system based on the primacy of capital accumulation and the market. But in doing that we need to find a new way of living equitably and in harmony with the ecosystem that we depend on, and that means a reduction in overall consumption, energy use, mineral extraction, pollution – in the economy.
The degrowth movement and its allies.
The best thinking about this direction is coming from the De-growth movement, still small, but growing and attracting to it thinkers and activists from related traditions (the Anglo-American steady state economy tradition, social justice movements, solidarity economy activists and critiques of the Eurocentric development model from the Global South). I’ll point to three manifestations of this, none of them a model or a success story yet, and the third of them a decidedly cautionary note.
In Greece, a snap General Election will take place on 25 January. The new left party, Syriza, is leading in the polls and could even form a majority government. It will be ruthlessly undermined, both before and after that eventuality. Interestingly, their central committee includes Haris Konstantatos, a political science graduate student who spoke at the Leipzig degrowth conference. He argued that the ecological roots of the economic crisis have been widely ignored on right and left, and contrasted the “progressive productivism” of the traditional left with the “social-ecological transformation” of the new ecological left of the social movements, arguing that the degrowth movement has a unique political opportunity. I do not know a great deal about the Greek political situation, but if Syriza works with these ideas in power, it could well be a “game-changer”.
A more detailed idea of what this might look like can be found in the debate in Spain between Syriza’s approximate equivalent, Podemos, and the Barcelona Research and Degrowth group, especially in the work of Giorgos Kallis. I posted a translation of one of their interventions together with a contextualisation in relation to the UK austerity debate on the Steady State Manchester website. Kallis and colleagues are broadly supportive of Podemos but caution against a growthist, neo-Keynesian approach. They therefore suggest ways in which Podemos could go beyond the economic programme drafted by Navarro and Torres with 10 policy imperatives, all of which also make sense for our UK context, and some of which appear in the Green Party programme.
A recent article in that encyclopaedic resource for the Spanish speaking left, rebelion.org, argued (I’m not sure with how much authority) that Podemos represents an articulation of vivir bien, living well. The author, Fernando Moreno Bernal of Attac Andalucia-Cadiz, prefaces this essay with a quotation from none other than John Maynard Keynes at his most philosophical:
When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession–as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life–will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease….
English original text taken from http://bit.ly/1K98c8b
I will quote from Moreno’s conclusion, for it suggests great synergy between Podemos and degrowth, while skettching out the dimensions of this vision in a rather attractive way:
“The programme of PODEMOS, our response to the crisis of finance capital from vivir bien or buen vivir, seeks to meet human needs while guaranteeing the continutity of human Life, going to the root: inequality and the social polarization of incomes. With a basic citizens income subsistence is guaranteed and it gives autonomy and dignity to people over Capital. With the reduction of the working day and sharing of employment with a living wage [sueldo digno] for all the population in equality, the production of necessary goods and services is guaranteed, as well as the necessary demand for autonomous firms and productive activity. With participation in company management and the extension of the social economy all the creative potential of a true society of knowledge is liberated, where innovation isn’t orientated to the society of consumption and waste but towards increasing well-being and happiness of people with the lowest possible social cost. With the simultaneous incorporation of an environmental vision, considering ourselves as humanity, part and parcel of Life (the Earth is not ours, we belong to it; its conscious part, responsible for its continuity) we renounce irresponsible waste and suicidal consumption. Against the limited and spurious concept of productivity and profitability of private firms, for the exclusive benefit of their boards, the idea of wider and mutual social productivity and benefit is counterposed. With the social audit and restructuring of the debt we will break the chains of today’s slavery. With the establishment of the financial transaction tax [Tobin tax] and a local public or social finance system, with negative interest, as well as with progressive direct taxation, we will eliminate financial speculation and deploy a finance system that promotes and dynamises productive activity, employment and the meeting of social needs, including the continued research and development of new technologies and knowledges. Offshore tax havens will be denounced and attacked using legal means. With the extension of participative assessment of public policies we will extend participative democracy, deepening its quality with everyday citizen participation in determining objectives, implementation, management and evaluation in a continuous cycle, at the same time guaranteeing by these means citizen’s control of corruption and abuse of power.
The programme of PODEMOS also has a universal component, the development of a conscience [conciencia – also consciousness] of global citizenship. ….”
from http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=193886 My translation.
Vivir-Bien and Latin American social democratic governments: some notes of caution.
Vivir Bien (in Bolivia, Suma Qamaña in Aymara) or Buen Vivir (in Ecuador, Sumak Kawsay in Quechua) is a concept that has emerged as a “transmodern” synthesis rooted in indigenous thinking about the relations among people and with the natural world. I have assembled a collection of quotations on the concept(s), many of them translated by me, HERE.
Vivir Bien suggests an alternative to the Eurocentric model of progress and development. While it has emerged in a regionally specific context, it is nevertheless of relevance in our search for alternative perspectives on the growthism so prevalent here. Yet its existence also highlights the nature of the double struggle that is needed. In Latin America, the success of the centre-left should be of great inspiration to those seeking alternatives to the politics of business as usual with austerity in Europe. Indeed it would seem that Podemos, in particular, seems well aware of those developments. The governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, in their various ways have all shown that an alliance for transformation can take and use power, via elections, in the service of the people. That is not to say that there aren’t contradictions and I by no means want to justify things like Brazil’s military presence in Haiti, nor Nicaragua’s anti-women abortion laws. There is a central problem, shared by all these governments though, and that is their dependence on the global economy which means their economic strategies are basically extractivist: based on the mining or pumping of minerals and hydrocarbons, the proceeds from which are used for social programmes, lifting people out of poverty and establishing proper education and health provision, among other things. The right constantly tries to undermine all this, most notably in Venezuela whose oil wealth has supported poorer economies, notably Cuba and Nicaragua. A further aspect is the agribusiness export model that marginalises peasant movements like Brazil’s Sem Terra, forever postponing land-reform and frustrating those who need access to land to support family incomes in an uncertain wage-based economy. Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff has even appointed a right-wing advocate of agri-business as minister of agriculture in her new government, and an environment minister who appears sceptical about climate change. This whole orientation is termed neo-extractivism by the critical Uruguayan ecologist, Eduardo Gudynas. who has, with others, proposed a transitional strategy to move beyond the extractivist style of the “old development”.
In both Ecuador and Bolivia, the ideologies of Buen Vivir / Vivir Bien have been adopted by the governing parties. This was due to alliances between the centre-left “desarrollista” (developmentalist) and indigenous/social movement “Pachamamista” (Mother Earth) currents. For a while it looked like this could lead to a rethinking of the nature of economic development along the lines of a vivir bien / degrowth model. In Ecuador, the Yasuní-ITT initiative to get overseas investors to pay to keep oil in the ground, under a rainforest area of unequalled biodiversity, was an example, but this collapsed when the proposed investment did not materialise. Since then the government has pursued repressive actions against indigenous and ecological activists (and often against those with both identities), for example in the harassment of the Yasunidos caravan en route to the Lima climate conference, and the eviction of its former ally, CONAIE, the indigenous alliance from its government-owned headquarters building, because of its opposition to government policy.
In Bolivia, the President, Evo Morales, described to me as the one person who can hold together the two factions, frequently uses the language of vivir bien to argue against globalised, neoliberal capitalism and to suggest an alternative kind of development, yet the government’s actions in general bely this, with an economic strategy that is based on extraction of minerals and hydrocarbons and the use of the income for social development. This means the development of the Uyuni salt flats for lithium extraction, and the building of roads in the Amazon rainforest region. The policy is understandable, given the priority of poverty alleviation after years of racist neglect by previous oligarchic governments, and the re-founding of Bolivia as a plurinational state was a great advance. But we do only have one planet, and a strategy based on extractivism in the globalised system can be at best a temporary expedient, and at worst it adds to the problems of the people, for example the increase in extreme weather facing altiplano peasant farmers as a result of climate change.
I mention all this to indicate the kind of tensions that arise between orthodox “productivist” left of centre-left economic strategies and ecologically safe alternative approaches that articulate a completely different ethic of real security, stewardship, conviviality and resilience, based on an understanding of prosperity as frugal abundance (the term is from Serge Latouche, a rather iconoclastic, yet eloquent, ecological economist, one of the key thinkers in the degrowth movement).
The possible influence of some other nations – Scotland, Wales, Ireland and … Catalonia?
I have strayed some way from the question of the forthcoming elections. This was to indicate the shape of possible alternatives while also noting the problems inherent in putting together the ecological and leftist currents whether as a red/green, anti-austerity/degrowth or desarrollista/Pachamamista alliance.
Now I want to return to the question of general elections to the nation State’s government. We are witnessing a kind of rebirth of politics in Scotland as a consequence, proximally, of the independence referendum. But behind that has been the same crises as elsewhere: capitalism’s crisis, austerity driven by metropolitan financial and government elites (1), and the crisis of social democracy / Labour. But in Scotland there was what to many on the left looked like an alternative, the Scottish Nationalist Party and independence. I will not go into the debates about national independence and whether or not that would help or hinder a red/green alternative, but while sympathetic to the aspirations, I am sceptical. What I want to note is firstly that public opinion in Scotland seems to be well to the left of that in England, and that the presence of a centre-left alternative to the discredited neoliberally captured Labour Party, together with a debate about what in effect is the nation’s constitution, has led to a resurgence of political participation, thereby suggesting that a response to the crisis of representation is possible. The circles of the Podemos movement in Spain are another example.
Recently the three excluded women (from the captured BBC’s planned pre-election debates), the leaders of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (Wales) and the Green Party (in England) met to agree common approaches. I applaud this and hope for a UK election in which Labour as the biggest party, forms a minority government, dependent on these three more radical parties for support, but also subject to their principled negotiations. Perhaps even Sinn Fein, the historically absentist party representing left Irish republicanism, (and now the principal alternative in the Irish republic), could be tempted into Westminster to help force a re-founding of British democracy, with a proper citizens’ constitutional convention, and a deep red/green political strategy.
But remember, nationalism is not necessarily a friend of radical politics. In Catalonia, a movement that to me (and contrary to what some of my Catalan nationalist friends protest) is reminiscent of Northern Italian right wing regionalism, and seeks to exit Spain, so far as I can tell, largely because the economy of Catalonia is stronger than that of the South. This is an unholy alliance of right and left, and Podemos has wisely stood outside it while opposing the quasi-falangist approach of the governing PP in denying the people their democratic right to a referendum.
And that leads me finally back home, to the North West. We are to get a stitched-up devolution of powers to the “city-region”. As currently envisaged, this will continue the democratic deficit at Greater Manchester level, merely adding a mayor to the present council leaders, with nothing equivalent to the regional assemblies or governments in most other democratic States, or come to that in London. Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, an urban city region is the wrong governmental and strategic unit. Consideration should be given to defining regions in bio- or eco-regional terms, since for resilience and adaptation we need to democratically manage relationships, material (food, energy, water, carbon sequestration, etc., etc.) and human (population, settlement, transport, money and finance) with the non-urban hinterland of the cities.
How should you vote?
So if you want advice on how to vote: vote for policies, and vote for credible candidates, while thinking tactically. Where the cross goes will depend on where you are! But remember the double struggle will continue after any election.
updated with corrections, 4 January, 2015
1) By this I mean not just the “Westminster bubble”, but that wider hegemonic alliance among legislators, the neoliberal priesthood of the think-tanks, the press, big business and the financial sector, with its revolving doors.
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