Oslo, by rail and boat, in January

We made another trip to add to those in the previous post. Carolyn was invited to examine a PhD in Oslo and not having been there, I went along too, as tour organiser.

This was similar to the Gothenburg and Malmö journeys. As far as Copenhagen, but from there we took an overnight DFDS ferry to Oslo. Everything went well, except for missing a tight connection at Hanover on the way back: Deutsche Bahn (DB) like giving tight connections in their routings but unfortunately the trains don’t always run on time (ours from Hamburg was 9 minutes late) and we just missed our onward train to Cologne. The DB staff re-routed us on the next train but from Cologne we had to take the Thalys rather than the DB ICE. On going to the Thalys office for seat reservations we were told we had to buy another ticket and reclaim it. We refused since the CIV and Railteam conditions (DB and Thalys are both part of this alliance) mean you just “hop on the next train”. We did this: the train was about 15% full so finding a seat was no problem and although the conductor started to question our tickets, the mention of CIV led to his hasty retreat. As a result we just made our original Eurostar connection in Brussels.  [Update 15/2/17: Thalys have just responded to my complaint about what the Cologne staff told us: “You’re totally right. The HOTNAT allows you to take the next available Highspeed train. Unfortunately you were misinformed. “]

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

Leaving Copenhagen on a very cold day

The ferry crossing reminded us of the former DFDS crossings from Harwich to Esbjerg and to Hamburg. Now there are no UK-Scandinavia ferries, incredible really – especially for us after visiting the Viking boat museum in Oslo where there are preserved Viking boats from burials – more than a thousand years old and preserved by the clay under which they lay. If they could cross the North Sea and beyond (to what became called America) in these craft surely our abundant industrial “civilisation” could arrange a ferry crossing. Crazily it was environmental regulations on sulphur emissions that meant the end of those DFDS ferries- there was talk of restarting them but nothing has transpired, so most people make far more damaging emissions by flying. Next time we’d try Hull-Rotterdam and then Kiel-Oslo.

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Sunrise on the boat: Oslo fjord

Here again is our cost and carbon data for the trip. Again note that aviation is highly subsidised (e.g. no tax on fuel) and pays nothing for its environmental damage, so price comparisons are misleading. Carbon metrics are not a precise science, at least as applied to such activities since precise figures depend on the assumptions made. This time I provide two estimates for comparative aviation emissions – flying direct to Oslo would make for between 4 and 7 times the carbon footprint.


Oslo was cold on arrival, about -4 degrees and we experienced the first snow of the year, late and not much of it. It warmed up a bit with temperatures around freezing point. As you’d expect (the latitude is that of Lerwick), short days and very low sun. We visited lots of museums and galleries, went to a New Year concert (where Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no 2 was played, with the audience singing a patriotic Norwegian song to it!), and got a feel for this very quiet city. Highlights were the Viking ships, the polar exploration museum (Fram), the Munch collections (we hadn’t realised what a great painter he was) and the Vigeland and Ekeberg sculpture parks. And of course riding on trams!

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Tram emerges from the fog: Ekeberg Park

Yes, it was expensive – mitigated by some good hotel deals and the Oslo pass. Take a hip flask!

Viking ship.

Viking ship.

Snowy Oslo

Snowy Oslo

Edvard Munch - a phenomenal technique

Edvard Munch – a phenomenal technique

One of Vigeland's many sculptures.

Oslo in freezing fog.


One of Vigeland’s many sculptures

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Statue by Hilde Moehlum, Ekeberg Park

Late c19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

Late C19th Norwegian hyper-realism: Girls of Telemark

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Train travel in Europe and the UK

We’ve covered a lot of miles by train this year, both in the UK and on the continent.  Here are some brief  notes about it.

We did several long journeys: the bare facts first and then some reflections.

Manchester to Inverness in May.  The sleeper was all booked up so we had to take day trains.  A bit of a nightmare when the first train, to Edinburgh was cancelled on our arrival at (Manchester) Piccadilly.  Wrong information from station staff meant a longer time to get to Preston than was necessary to pick up another Edinburgh train. Of course all our seat reservations were to no avail and we had to stand for some of the way to Stirling.  We got into Inverness about 90 minutes late which entitled us to a refund of the full price forthe outward journey.  The return journey went smoothly (and it was Sunday too).

Manchester to Budapest in August/September.  Down to London, an overnight there and then Brussels and Cologne before taking the Austrian Railways sleeper to Vienna.  A couple of days there and then a morning train to Budapest for the 5th International Degrowth Conference.  Return to Salzburg for a couple of days and then all the way back to Manchester by daytime trains.  A lot of this journey was on First Class as there were some very cheap advance deals.

Manchester to Gothenburg, later in September.  Down to London and just caught Eurostar after delays due to a prior derailment near Watford.  Then Brussels, Cologne again and Hamburg for an overnight.  Hamburg-Copenhagen (see previous post about this interesting journey on the “boat train”) and up to Gothenburg over the Oresund Bridge.  Back via Hamburg and an overnight in Bremen and then all the way to Manchester in one day.

Manchester to Exeter, in October.  Direct train via Birmingham and Bristol.

And of course several trips to London and around the NW region.

The UK trains and network compare very poorly with the continental ones.  Remarkably little is electrified so on long journeys you end up chugging along in rattly multiple unit diesels which are crowded.  Prices are also high in comparison.

Long distance continental journeys needn’t be costly, although it does help to have flexibility of dates.  Here is my comparison table for the Gothenburg trip.  The flights taken by other conference attendees from Manchester are used as comparison.  Carbon emission estimates are also given.  (NOTE: problems with table formatting- will fix shortly).The carbon emission figures aren’t (particularly) to claim a high moral ground, because carbon is systemic rather than individual. Cost per person (two made the jouney by train) was about £20 cheaper than the flights.  Of course we also had three nights accommodation extra but we’d calculated for three city-breaks in addition to the Gothenburg stay. The costs are a bit misleading because railways have to pay tax on fuel while airlines don’t – to name one hidden subsidy among many. Two late trains made for a dash in London on the way out and Copenhagen on the way back, but that’s all part of the fun … afterwards. Carbon emissions used the German DB calculator, pro-rating for Manchester-London, and using as comparison 2 separate flights via Frankfurt each way – assumptions, assumptions.  The advantage would have been less had our colleagues flown direct to Gothenburg, but still considerably in favour of the train.  Moreover, within Germany you can opt for green energy (a bit like green electricity tariffs here – a bit meaningless maybe since it doesn’t really change the big energy production picture).


Minor niggles are the general lack of adequate luggage space.  Continental trains do a lot better (and have the advantage of bigger size due to the UK’s first mover disadvantage, with its lower “loading gauge” – clearance under bridges etc.).  But on the fancier German ICE’s there were no rack at the end of the coach so big cases had to be manouevered onto the luggage rack.  British trains are totally inadequate for luggage leading to dangerous obstruction of gangways and doors and no doubt great frustration for staff.

We went on a sleeper from Cologne to Vienna.  These are great because you travel while you  sleep – a cost and time efficient way to go.  But Germany is terminating its remaining sleeper services this year.  OBB, Austrian Railways is taking over some of them, but others will not be replaced.  French railways is doing the same with just three left and those threatened.   There have been some good articles about this (e.g. HERE) and campaigns, including a petition to French railways SNCF.


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Labour again: Corbyn’s victory and the growth narrative

This is a short post to note Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership re-election and ask some fundamental questions.  Despite some misgivings in the last post, I’m delighted.  This is all about rejecting the politics and economics of the last 30 years or more: how impressive that the party has a socialist majority and the membership has the ascendancy over the parliamentary party.  This could lead to a renewed approach to politics, linking extra-parliamentary action with an electoral strategy.  There is a long way to go but this is most definitely not about one man who we should see as an honourable place-holder.  But politics is full of surprises.

I was really pleased to see the paper on energy and environment released by Corbyn.  It is far better than I had anticipated.  But as we learn that the concentration of CO2 will not return below 400ppm, then it has to be said again and again that if the Labour team is serious about the environment, about the climate, and about a future for humanity, then it needs to get a grip on economic growth.  The economy (or at least its material flows) must be downsized.  Continued “growth” makes it far more difficult to realise the radical emissions cuts that are needed, probably no longer to prevent runaway climate change, but to delay it.  I wrote at length on this in a recent post – one that proved impossible to get into more mainstream outlets.

That knowledge presents some extremely challenging dilemmas: how do you ensure that the population has sufficient to live on.  How to you prevent extreme economic turbulence of the kind that will lead to extreme social conflict (including a further rise in xenophobia and the demonising of minorities)?  More immediately, how can a Labour party with productivist ideology and reliance on environmentally reactionary working class organisations (Unite, GMB for example – trade unionist consciousness has never been the same as socialist consciousness, although the two can work together and the one can set the scene for the other) resolve the internal conflicts that a truly redistributive, and environmentalist strategy will provoke (a dilemma for all of us in the degrowth movement – the left of the environmentalist movement)?  How can the realities of climate and ecological security be translated into the bread and butter realities facing people and which will decisively influence their behaviour at the ballot box?


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Labour’s post-Brexit woes and a possible solution

Updated, 30 June, 2016
It turns out that the party’s rules make my suggestion unfeasible in its present form: the leader of the party is ex officio the leader of the PLP (Chapter 1 clause vii).  However, there appears to be nothing to stop a leader delegating part of their role, maybe pending a rule change….
But my more fundamental point is that a creative solution is needed to manage the tension between the different parts of the party and their differing requirements and expectations of the leader. Maybe not this solution but a solution that maintains a left-leaning hegemony, which is to say brings together those elements of the party except for anyone still self-identifying as a Blairite neoliberal.  That really ought to be doable.  Beyond that I support the idea of a progressive electoral alliance with cross party primaries to select candidates across England and Wales.

The UK Labour Party has descended into seemingly terminal conflict after the defeat of the remain campaign by a narrow margin (52:48 – just 35% of the electorate opted to jump off the cliff and many of them are now having second thoughts) in the EU referendum.

This has been used as a pretext for a coup against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP).  This was expected but the scale of the revolt is surprising.  Corbyn has clearly lost the confidence of the majority of the PLP, including former centre-left allies.

Meanwhile in the Labour Party itself (outside parliament) he still has strong, majority support.  This was demonstrated by an almost spontaneous rally outside parliament attended by maybe 10,000 people.  Corbyn’s supporters are uncompromising, as he is, refusing to countenance his resignation.  I have a great deal of sympathy with this view: the PLP is no longer representative of the Labour Party.  Corbyn and the movement behind him represents a clear break from the neoliberal consensus and has led to some innovative policy development, particularly on the economy, that could speak directly to the left behind citizens who voted for Brexit.  But it is not so easy as that.  Like it or not the Labour leader has to lead the entire Labour Party, its members, its affiliated organisations, and its elected representatives.  For whatever reason, Corbyn has not managed to maintain hegemony over all sections of the party, although the party under his leadership has actually done better electorally than under his two predecessors.

I have a simple solution, that at the very least would buy time for the Party to heal itself and restore its credibility.  It is not necessary for the leader of a political party to be the leader of the party in parliament, nor even to be Prime Minister.  In other places this kind of arrangement is normal.

So I suggest Corbyn concedes to the vote of no confidence by Labour MPs by agreeing to stand down as leader of the PLP, but not of the party as a whole.  MPs would then elect a parliamentary leader who would work with him.  To ensure a consistent approach I suggest either giving the national leader (Corbyn) a veto on nominations, or putting nominations in the hands of the National Executive Committee.

Under this formula, Corbyn could get on with what he’s best at – building a strong national party with innovative socialist policies, and the MPs (excluding the Blairite rump) get a potentially more charismatic and combative leader who they will see as legitimate.  The big challenge of this arrangement will be to ensure a coherent, united approach between the two leaders, but an arrangement such as those suggested in the previous paragraph could help to make this possible.  Without such a compromise the party will tear itself apart just when it needs to take on a divided Tory party and win back the UKIP/Brexit voters.


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Biodiversity day – a diverse salad

Salad from the garden on biodiversity day, 22 May, 2016

We ate this green salad – we have one of these most days in the growing season.  The ingredients vary. Some are cultivated, some are edible weeds (you do need to research both identification and edibility).  Some we encourage and some we don’t.  Some are annual and sown / self-sown while some are perennial.  We do grow lettuce but there is none at the moment and actually it is the most vulnerable of our crops to slug attack.

There are so many edible plants and yet we rely on a handful for our food.  That’s why we grow unusual crops and varieties, partly to preserve them and partly to help spread awareness of alternatives.

Here’s what was in the salad.

  1. Garlic mustard

  2. Ground elder

  3. Wild rocket

  4. Salad rocket

  5. Mizuna (an oriental mustard)

  6. Chinese mustard

  7. Sorrel

  8. Mint

  9. Marjoram

  10. Vine tips

  11. Sweet Cicely (flowers and young seeds)

  12. Perennial buckwheat

  13. Chives

  14. Hairy bitter cress

  15. Claytonia

  16. Columbine (flowers only are edible)

  17. Nipplewort (young leaves)

  18. Fat hen (young leaves)

  19. Dandelion

  20. Musk Mallow

  21. Red veined sweet dock.

Also availble:

  1. Young hawthorn leaves – getting a bit tough by now.

  2. Garlic chives

  3. Parsley

  4. Land cress

  5. Nasturtium (tropaeolum) – just starting

  6. Good King Henry (young leaves)

  7. Chickweed.

  8. Pelagonium (“geranium”) flowers.

  9. Turnip tops.
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Progress as a trap.


Craig Bennett is the Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth UK. Last night (11/2/2016) he gave a lecture at Manchester Business School, “What is Progress: how are we doing and where next?” It was an interesting topic for a largely business-orientated audience and the lecture was eloquently delivered.

A look at definitions of “progress” highlighted, following Sidney Pollard, the idea of irreversible changes in one direction leading to improvement. The idea of progress is an ideology of relatively recent origin. Craig might have noted the intimate connection of “progress” with the Eurocentric world view, itself rooted in the colonial domination of other “less valuable” humans, and of nature, an ideological nexus going back 500 years or so. This would suggest that the problem has rather deeper roots than those of either the enlightenment or industrial revolution.

However, he then went on, this time drawing on Ronald Wright’s Short History of Progress, to identify a potentially very helpful concept, that of Progress Traps: “seductive trail of successes that may end in a trap where we cannot survive without the technology”, or perhaps more accurately, where the technology creates intractable problems while tending to close off alternative solutions or exits. Craig identified three particular important ones for our times:

  • The path dependency and lock-in arising from adopting certain technologies, such as the motor car or the jet aeroplane. Antibiotics might be another one where the health-industrial system is ill-geared to the development of alternative approaches to infectious disease.

  • Fossil fuels, which relying on pre-historic stock rather than current flow (of solar-derived energy), supply such a huge subsidy to the economy while creating the conditions for runaway global warming (1 degree already and according to current, unenforced Paris pledges, set to rise to somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees this century).

  • Economic growth itself, which seems so difficult for our “civilisation” to do without, but which produces ecological, social and indeed economic grief. As Bennett noted, while mainstream economists whether of left or right bemoan the lack of adequate demand, the real problem is too much demand (although this is intimately linked to too much production).

Now by his articulation of this last trap, I would say that Craig placed himself firmly in the degrowth camp, a movement that is indeed growing in its adherents and its persuasiveness. The concept of Progress Traps, which I had not come across before, seems to me to be just the kind of concept that we can use to popularise the understanding that we have to collectively find another way, with an alternative perspective on what is most important and a strategy for how to get there. It is easy to understand, easy to illustrate, and it directly identifies the need for a change in direction rather than a technological adjustment to the current course.

Where I was less convinced was with Craig’s attempt to rescue the idea of progress. He used Maslow’s set of human needs as a set of criteria for what he called “Real Progress”, but he might as well have spoken of conviviality, right livelihoods, common wealth, or of the social and solidarity society and economy (or come to that The Viable Economy. Had he explored some alternative conceptions of a decent society, in keeping with its ecological base, then he might have indeed spoken about degrowth, ecological swaraj, ubuntu or buen vivir. For all these conceptions the notion of a linear conception from a less developed to a more developed state is very suspect, resting on a narrow means-ends rationality (ill suited to the systemic, recursive, open, emergent and unpredictable complexity of ecological, planetary and human systems) and most likely rooted in the politics of exploitation-domination.

But then this was a business audience and there is a limit to what can be said and heard. As it was the reception seemed sympathetic, something I would not have predicted five years ago: this indicates what a parlous state we are in politically, socially, environmentally and economically.

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Corbynomics: let’s be sceptical about the growth rhetoric.

“So all our emphasis and work and campaigning is about an expanding economy and investing in an expanding economy”
Jeremy Corbyn,
quoted by The Independent, 29 February 2016

“El socialismo puede llegar sólo en bicicleta.”
Socialism can only arrive by bicycle
attributed by Ivan Illich to José Antonio Viera-Gallo
Assistant Secretary of Justice in the government of Salvador Allende

Revised version posted 5 March, 2016. Minor revisions 17 March, 2016, 16 April, 2016
pdf version.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn and the appointment of John McDonnell signals a refreshing break from the politics of austerity and the economically illiterate notion of running a permanent government surplus. At last we are seeing Labour openly recognise that a government can borrow at advantageous rates and can, where necessary and appropriate, create money. While the new leadership is widely portrayed as of the “far left”, the new approach is economically broadly neo-Keynesian rather than Marxist. Far from overthrowing capitalism, it recognises that the State needs to intervene in the capitalist economy, both to regulate it and to moderate the cycle of boom and bust (and provide protection to those who would otherwise be vulnerable). Much of the inspiration seems to come from a small group of thinkers who could be called post-Keynesiani, some of them associated with the Green New Deal Group, (Richard Murphy, architect of proposals for the National Investment Bank and Green, or People’s Quantitative Easing, and Ann Pettifor, one of McDonnell’s advisory team). Indeed, with Corbyn’s generally high commitment to the environmentii, we might see Corbynomics as Green Keynesianism.

Limits to Keynes

But herein lie some problemsiii. The first of these is in the idea, spelt out very clearly in the original Green New Deal paperiv, of stimulating the economy for environmental benefit. That means using things like investment in public transport, housing and massive programmes of insulation for buildings, to create jobs, whose occupants then spend their wages in the economy, so contributing to taxes, and to broader economic well-being: this is the so-called “Keynesian multiplier” (for some caution about the generality of multiplier effects see here). The problem, what Green MEP and former professor of ecological economics, Molly Scott Cato calls the “paradox of Green Keynesianismv, is that those multiplier effects are likely to mean greater consumption, meaning greater resource throughput, and hence increased greenhouse gas emissions and other kinds of damage to the ecosystems we all depend on. It is sometimes argued that there is a distinction between stimulating investment (for example for infrastructure) and stimulating consumption. Yet the distinction seems difficult to sustain after the first round of expenditure, since the whole point of Keynesian stimulus is to re-energise economic activity, now usually subsumed under “economic growth”, a concept that is so much part of everyday political and economic parlance that we hardly notice it, let alone question what it means, and what impacts it has.

The decoupling myth

Now, the International Panel on Climate Change, in their most recent report, make it very clear that economic “growth” is the main culprit for the inexorable rise in Greenhouse Gas concentrations in the atmosphere, which seriously threaten runaway global warmingvi. Some commentators, notably the New Climate Economy NGO led by Nicholas Stern of the LSE and former right wing Mexican president Felipe Calderón, suggest that it is possible to de-couple economic growth from emissionsvii. The problem, with that, as Tim Jackson (commissioned to research this by Ed Miliband) and others have shownviii, is that the evidence to date only demonstrates decoupling in relative terms: the rate of increase of emissions may decrease with GDP growth but in absolute terms they are still rising, just more slowly. Claims have recently been made that some economies have achieved absolute decoupling (where GDP growth goes with either no increase or a reduction in emissions), but I have shown them to be unfounded because they turn out to be based only on emissions made within the national territory, ignoring all the emissions their consumption causes elsewhere in the world (most of our consumer goods are made in China and other majority world countries and then shipped here, entailing yet more emissions)ix. So, the paradox of Green Keynesianism is that it turns out not to be green at all.

Growth and social justice

This is not the only “diseconomy of growth”. Firstly, “growth” is typically seen as the way to deal with poverty and the metaphor of “lifing all boats” is invoked, or implied. But the metaphor doesn’t work: the bigger boats actually rise more than the little ones, some of which capsize (investment leads to technological investment – Marx’s “organic composition of capital” – which puts people out of work). And even if all the boats floated upward, the inequalities would still be there – we know full well that wealth does not trickle down: poverty reduction requires specific economic and social interventions to redistribute (and indeed pre-distribute) both income and wealth, while securing meaningful and economically resilient occupation for all that want it. So it makes more sense to focus directly on increasing equality than to try and improve the lot of the disadvantaged “remotely” by general material growth of the economy. Corbyn’s calls to to limit pay multiples and incentivise companies to pay the Living Wagex are just what is needed.

Secondly, there is the so-called Easterlin paradoxxi: increases in GDP (or personal income) do not lead to increases in life-satisfaction or well-being The measurement and statistical issues here are complex, but it seems that once a reasonably comfortable standard of living has been reached, then the gains in well-being are uncertain, and levels of inequality are a better predictor of population well-beingxii. This is not so surprising: accumulating more and more material possessions can lead not to happiness but to an emptiness, in contrast to cultural and social growth which is less dependent on material consumption. Again, there is a class dimension to this: the more disposable income a person has, the higher the carbon emissions (richest 10 per cent emit three times that of the poorest 10 per centxiii): hence the call for a frequent flyer levy, which would hit the rich but not the person with the occasional overseas holidayxiv.

Socialism without growth?

So we need a different approach. While the dominance of the economic growth narrative makes this difficult, there is a growing body of work to identify practical policies for an economy that does not grow but that nevertheless delivers economic, social and ecological well-being, what we have called the “Viable Economy”xv. There are several places to look. The work of ecological economists such as Tim Jackson (University of Surrey) and Peter Victor goes into detail about the macro-economics of the steady state economyxvi, while Dan O’Neill (University of Leeds) has put together a compilation of policies for practical implementation, with an emphasis on social justicexvii. Our group, Steady State Manchester, has been focussing on what such policies look like in a regional contextxviii.

Yet both Corbynxix and McDonnell are posing growth-orientated policy as the counter to Tory austerity. Investment in areas like health, social care, education, low cost housing, renewables and insulation would be desirable, and to a significant degree self-funding via incrased tax receiptsxx but we are left with the problem identified above of the inability to select the subsequent economic and environmental impacts (indeed in an economy like the UK one, with so little domestic manufacture, one consequence of stimulus would be increased imports of consumer goods). Probably the only way that Keynesian demand stimulus could be made to work without contributing to environmental damage is to combine it with a cap on carbon emissions. As Herman Daly shows in his textbook Ecological Economicsxxi, capping resource use is a more effective policy than trying to put a price on it, either by taxation or through some kind of market mechanism (the effects of both are rather unpredictable). The Irish think tank FEASTA has suggested a policy called “cap and share”xxii where an annual reducing global cap on fossil fuel extraction is allocated to citizens, who can then elect to trade it with one another: this is inherently redistributive, since it is the richer people who engage in higher carbon activities – they would have to pay someone else for the privilege. Maybe it is hard to see this being put into place, but it is just the kind of creative and innovative approach that we need, and which could work, possibly funding the increasingly discussed citizens’ basic incomexxiii. Why not trial this in the UK?

Perhaps of most interest in relation to “Corbynomics” has been the set of proposals drafted by Giorgos Kallisxxiv and colleagues from the Barcelona Research and Degrowth group in response to the economic strategy published in November 2014 by Podemos (which does include a variety of very welcome proposals such as forgiveness of a proportion of citizen debt, a reduction in working hours, and shifting investment towards caring, education and the green economy). It is worth listing their suggestions, which are intended to be complementary, rather than “pick and mix”, to give a flavour of what John McDonnell’s team could be considering. Here I list them with some re-contextualisation for the UK context.

1. Citizen debt audit to not just restructure but eliminate the debts via their “pardon” (already implemented in Slovenia). This shouldn’t penalise savers and those with modest pensions but the debt of those that have considerable income and assets should not be pardoned, and those who lent for speculation should certainly take the losses.

2. Work-sharing by reducing the working week at least to 32 hours and develop programmes that support employers that want to facilitate job-sharing.  Loss of salary from working less should only affect the 10% highest income bracket. This has from time to time been a demand of the Labour movement (in the 1980s in Australia and more recently, with some success in France).

3. Basic and maximum income. This involves a minimum income for all. Despite poor publicity for the Green Party’s proposal on a citizens’ income, studies in the UK (including one by Richard Murphy) point to its feasibilityxxv. (However see our discussion of the issues involved).

4. Green tax reform. Implement an accounting system to transform, over time, the tax system to one based on the use of energy and resources and combine this with a wealth and property tax.

5. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving the liberated public funds towards clean production. Pretty much the opposite of Osbornomics!

6. Support the alternative, solidarity society. This is probably stronger in Southern Europe, although there are elements here that can be supported and promoted, through subsidies and tax exemptions. It also means the de-privatisation of public space, opening up resources to community groups.

7. Optimise the use of buildings. The Barcelona group suggest this means a halt to building new housing, which probably makes sense in Spain with many vacant, speculatively built properties (and a high level of evictions). Here it would suggest a hierarchy starting from expropriation of vacant housing, incentives for people to down-size and share, to prioritise retrofitting and refurbishment, and then responding to any remaining need by building social housing on brownfield sites. To this should be added a jobs-generating deep retrofit programme to ensure that property brought back into use is both cheap to heat and has very low emissions.

8. Reduce advertising.  Establish very restrictive criteria for allowing advertising in public spaces, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption – something that has been done in both Grenoble and São Paulo and which we have called for in Manchesterxxvi.

9. Establish environmental limits, as discussed above, via absolute and diminishing caps on the total of CO2exxvii that can be produced and the total quantity of material resources (material, water, land) that the country uses, including, via a footprinting approach, emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

10. Abolish the use of GDP as indicator of economic progress. If GDP is a misleading indicator, let’s stop using it and look for other indicators of prosperity. Indeed, as Ann Pettifor has arguedxxviii, and shown how, in some of her writing, we shouldn’t be talking about growth at all, but instead (as Keynes did), focus on what is actually going on in the economy, things like jobs, incomes, activity, investment. Richard Murphy has recently made a similar pointxxix. Interestingly, US social democratic candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, who has been loosely compared with Jeremy Corbyn, makes very little mention of economic “growth” in his campaign speeches and publications, despite promoting a similar reflationary approach. However this demonstrates that the issue here is not merely one of language, but of the need to change the narrative in conjunction with implementing economic and social policies that are neither growth-generating nor growth-dependent.


The above suggestions make it clear that an economic policy can be generated from a degrowth perspective without being labelled as such (which might be too scary for some supportersxxx). Although mutually complementary, the proposals should not be taken as a definitive final list. There is a need for them to be refined, modelled and above all debated within the movement and with the public. There are other proposals that could be added, particularly in the context of the UK with its overblown financial services sector. Whatever the final mix though, Corbyn and McDonnell really do need to stop the blether about “economic growth” and tackle, using less abstracted terms, the puzzle of maximising economic and social well-being while making and keeping safe the global and national ecosystem we share and depend upon.


iThat is, they build on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, also bringing in more recent theory and research.

iiiLeaving aside whether these measures would actually work. See https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/keynes-marx-and-the-effect-of-qe/ for a sceptical view.

vCato, M. S. (2014). The paradox of Green Keynesiansim. In J. Blewitt & R. Cunningham (Eds.), ‘The Post-Growth Project: How the End of Economic Growth Could Bring a Fairer and Happier Society’. London: London Publishing Partnership. http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/files/greenhouse/home/Green_Keynesianism.pdf

viIPCC. (2014). Summary for Policymakers. In Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://report.mitigation2014.org/spm/ipcc_wg3_ar5_summary-for-policymakers_approved.pdf

viiiJackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy. London: Sustainable Development Commission.

ixBurton, M. (2014). Less levity Professor Stern Economic growth, climate change and the decoupling question. http://steadystatemanchester.net/2014/09/21/less-levity-professor-stern-economic-growth-climate-change-and-the-decoupling-question/ and Burton, M. (2015) The decoupling debate: can economic growth really continue without emission increases? http://www.degrowth.de/en/2015/10/the-decoupling-debate-can-economic-growth-really-continue-without-emission-increases/, Burton, M (2016) Again and again: supposed evidence for decoupling emissions from growth is not what it seems http://www.degrowth.de/en/2016/03/once-again-supposed-evidence-for-decoupling-emissions-from-growth-is-not-what-it-seems/ , and in response to more robust recent studies, Burton, M (2016) New evidence on decoupling carbon emissions from GDP growth: what does it mean? https://steadystatemanchester.net/2016/04/15/new-evidence-on-decoupling-carbon-emissions-from-gdp-growth-what-does-it-mean/

xiiCostanza, R., Kubiszewski, I., Giovannini, E., Lovins, H., McGlade, J., Pickett, K. E., … Wilkinson, R. (2014). Development: Time to leave GDP behind. Nature, 505(7483), 283–285. http://doi.org/10.1038/505283a

xivCampaign site: http://afreeride.org/

xvBurton, M., Irvine, B., & Emanuel, J. (2014). The Viable Economy (1st ed.). Manchester: Steady State Manchester. https://steadystatemanchester.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/the-viable-economy-master-document-v4-final.pdf

xixMost recently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, 11 January, 2016 For an example where “growth” almost takes on the qualities of a mantra through repetition, see the Northern Future paper: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/jeremyforlabour/pages/103/attachments/original/1438626641/NorthernFuture.pdf?1438626641.

xxi Daly, H. E., & Farley, J. (2011). Ecological economics : principles and applications. Washington, D.C: Island Press.

xxiii ibid.

xxiv This has appeared in several versions. I have used the one that appeared in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/jan/15/spain-podemos-should-further

xxviiCarbon dioxide equivalent: the usual measure of greenhouse gas emissions since gases such as methane are far more potent than CO2 in preventing re-radiation of heat from the Earth.

xxixhttp://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2015/12/08/what-does-growth-mean-for-the-left/ See the first comment, from me, and Richard’s response.


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Policy as contestation

Every year the University of Manchester puts on a week of lectures, symposia and other events concerned with the relationship between research and policy: “Policy Week”. Generally there is plenty to interest. I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to a symposium “We need to talk about growth” in 2012, just prior to launching our “Steady State Manchester” initiative. Last year I contributed a couple of times to events concerned with inequality. This year the theme has been “Science, Technology and Public Policy”, but as always the scope is defined broadly. But in some of this year’s discussions I have been struck by an implicit, and I think naïve, understanding of the policy process.

This view seems to situate researchers on the one side, trying to provide “evidence” to “policy makers” on the other side. These policy makers are generally seen to be politicians and State employees (in the civil service, other government agencies, including arms-length ones, and local government). This is consistent with what I often characterise as a Fabian ideology, where experts armed with facts, and science inform political leaders who then produce and implement policies.

But this misses the idea of the policy nexus as one of contestation, of struggle, and in what follows I will draw on my previous work (my 2013 article “In and against social policy”) to describe this and then draw out some implications.

Social Policy and the State

In order to understand the policy process it is first necessary to consider its contradictory nature in relation to the modern State. It is worth noting that the nature of the State itself has been the focus of considerable controversy in theoretical analysis (for the classical Marxian debate, see Harvey, 19851 ; Miliband, 1969, 1970; Poulantzas, 1969; Therborn, 1980). The State can be seen as a set of relations and processes, whereby social and economic interests compete for influence in its nexus, and then exert influence on the rest of the society, using the resources that the State then affords them. It is the dominant social interests that exercise the most influence, but the process is not automatic, given that it is a field for contestation, and that the State, although much “captured” by commercial interests, enjoys a degree of relative autonomy from the economy and from the various interest groups. However it is not possible to generalise about the extent to which State power reflects a particular dominant social interest, without being explicit about the particular conjuncture of forces and relations that apply in a concrete context in time and space. We know that different States follow somewhat different models, and also that States from time to time undergo crises of legitimacy whereby the concordance between State power and the dominant social interests becomes dislocated, what Gramsci discussed as a crisis of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971).

It is through the governmental organs of the State that social policy is formulated, agreed, operationalised and implemented. There are several potential levels, which differ somewhat in different countries and regions. British writers on Critical Social Policy (e.g. Gough, 1979, 2000, 2008; Jessop, 2003; Mishra, 1999) from the end of the 1970s onwards, following O’Connor (1973), see social policies in terms of the interplay between the role of the state in the service of capital and the realisation of emancipatory struggles by a variety of subjects (workers, women, disabled people, ethnic minorities, and so on). In this view the State reproduces the interests of the ruling class, but it does not do this mechanically or deterministically. Rather, it is also responsive to what can be termed subaltern pressures, typically in the form of struggle and pressure from social movements that represent the interests of labour, women, ethnic groups, environmentalists, disabled people and so on. The State then is a site of conflict but also of negotiation and the resolution of conflict, both on a ‘grand scale’, as in the post-war settlement between capital and labour after the 1939-45 war, and at a more particular level, for example in the reforms to the mental health system over the post-war period.

A consequence of this understanding of social policy is that concrete examples are inevitably messy, difficult to ‘decode’ in terms of the interests in play and the likely consequences of implementation. Our (Burton and Kagan, 2006) analysis of policy for intellectually disabled people in the UK demonstrates this. That policy framework (Department of Health, 2001) involved an emphasis on employment, personalisation through market mechanisms such as personal budgets, but also an emphasis on the responsibility of a wider set of actors than the traditional health and social care sector to facilitate the inclusion and participation of intellectually disabled people in community places and everyday life. The policy stems from a blending of the social model of disability (Barnes, 1998; Chappell, Goodley, & Lawthom, 2001; Goodley, 2001), produced through the organised action of disabled people, academics, family members, and some groups of professionals, with the neoliberal imperatives of marketisation and the conversion of social needs into sources of corporate profit (Lister, 2005; Pollock, 2004; Whitfield, 2006; Whitfield, D, 2010). This ‘unholy alliance’ was cemented by a romantic imaginary of intellectually disabled people and a downplaying of the collective dimensions of community life and participation. This policy mix did lead to some positive openings, including the establishment of multi-stakeholder boards to oversee implementation in each municipality, which included intellectually disabled people and family members. While this could and did lead to silencing through co-optation in some areas, in others it opened up policy and provision to improved public scrutiny and introduced new sources of imagination and challenge to the welfare bureaucracy. But the romantic simplification of the task of social inclusion, together with the increased reliance on the for-profit sector meant that some people who were difficult to include (because of the complexity of their needs) were excluded to congregate settings that on occasion had standards poor enough to allow abusive regimes and a national scandal (Oakes, 2012).


What this means is that it is unlikely that presenting sufficient or persuasive “scientific evidence” in isolation is the key factor in arriving at good policy. The policy process doesn’t work like that. Instead, it may be best to see evidence as a rhetorical tool in the hurly-burly of politics that is the stuff of the contested State policy process. Decision-makers are not being “irrational” when they fail to act on evidence, as one speaker at Policy Week suggested, but rather their rationality is not restricted to a cold consideration of research evidence: they are also responding to their own and others’ interests, refracted through the lenses of ideology, amplified by propaganda, yet also subject to particular experiences – which is why it is always important to emphasise the human stories, the emotional, when presenting scientific evidence, or even better to find ways of bringing people in positions of power face to face with those affected, or potentially affected by State policies.

1References can be found in the article from which this section is adapted. http://www.gjcpp.org/pdfs/burton-v4i2-20130522.pdf

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Jeremy Corbyn and the double struggle

Cor byn Protecting our Planet

Jeremy Corbyn‘s campaign for the Labour leadership is about doing things differently, about re-discovering the basic Labour values of social and economic justice, but in a way that harnesses the knowledge, commitment and energy of the many, in the changed world of the twenty-first century.

As a Labour affiliate (via the Socialist Health Association, and a union member prior to retirement) I have voted, for him, a decent man and a good communicator, who could lead the majority in both seeing the need to reject,and finally dispensing with the disastrous 35 year history of neoliberalism here in the UK and beyond.

His economic framework (Investment, growth and tax justice: Corbyn outlines economic vision & fairer taxes for Britain 2020) includes a lot to agree with, not least its emphasis on tax justice and the real economy. It is about a re-ordering of priorities, putting people and planet first, rather than profits. Yet at heart it is much the same as other left Keynesian variants. It owes a lot to Richard Murphy and others who I certainly respect, but who seem to assume that using mechanisms like Green Quantitative Easing (or Corbyn’s similar “People’s QE”) it is possible to support the good things (warmer homes, more jobs, cleaner energy…) without the multiplier boosting general consumption and hence the material throughput that inexorably means more emissions (maybe 50% outside the UK). Listen to Richard at Corbyn’s Nottingham rally (37 minutes in), for the repetition of the growth mantra.

The challenge is to articulate credible managed degrowth policies (see the work of people like Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Giorgos Kallis, Molly Scot Cato, Kate Raworth and Dan O’Neil) that reduce the size of the economy to a sustainable level while guaranteeing decent living standards – it really makes for a focus on equality and community well-being.  It’s a double struggle, against austerity/neoliberalism and for a society and economy that is ecologically viable.

The Corbyn environment plan is excellent: it could have been written by the Green Party. But the contradictions with what’s being said elsewhere are a bit concerning. In addition to Corbyn’s suggestion of re-opening coal mines (with unproven Carbon Capture and Storage) there is a totally uncritical growthism, for instance in his plan for the North.

Now, the totally unexpected phenomenon of Corbyn’s campaign and the broad-based support for it means that there is inevitably a bit of a cobbling together of policies and proposals. What distinguishes him and his campaign is its openness: its inclusive and participative style. This means that these ideas and proposals are not a finished programme, but elements to be developed, as the gaps and contradictions are explored and resolved. Yet they do represent different interests too. When push comes to shove which tendencies would win? It would come down to a struggle within the contested ground of policy articulation and implementation. We are in for a double struggle, indeed.

I am grateful to comrades of the New Economy Organisers’ Network for some of the points summarised here.

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Politics as action research? Corbyn, People’s QE, and Syriza.

Politics as action research? Corbyn, People’s QE, and Syriza.

These brief thoughts have been triggered by the Jeremy Corbyn campaign to be Labour Party leader, and by Syriza’s negotiations with the Troika.

  1. First Labour. There is a lot being written about the Corbyn campaign. On the one side there is horror (from the political commentariat and Labour’s establishment) that he is doing so well. They can’t see that an authentic and honest politician might have some appeal, and speak to the interests of many of the 99%. They recall the Michael Foot moment, when Labour did fail to convince. Yet there is little to connect the Foot style of windbaggery, honed in the Commons debating chamber, with Corbyn’s impressive abilities as a communicator. These commentators suggest that the public isn’t eager for a socialist alternative to vote for. But this misses the first important point – that political support is built by a process of dialogue between political activists and the public, wherein the activists learn more about people’s realities and ideologies, while educating the public about the nature of the social and economic system and entrenched power, so that it might be changed. Labour has ignored that process, engaging either in a “weather-vane” practice, based on focus groups and reading the popular press, to adapt its message to the dominant propaganda and ideology. Or they have engaged in a patronising one-way process of telling people what’s what. In the kind of process that I mentioned earlier, an effective, galvanising ideology can emerge that unites diverse sectors. This is broadly what happened in 1945 with Labour’s landslide that ushered in the “post war settlement”; it happened in Greece with Syriza’s election, and also where Left governments have been elected in Latin America. It might yet happen in Spain.

  2. Now, is Corbyn articulating that new, counter-hegemonic ideology? I think to some extent. It has elements of that, and could evolve into that, with the kind of genuine interactive process I envisage. An example is the way he is talking about public ownership: not a Statist, bureaucratic model, but one with popular participation (but I think State strategic direction). Could the party support that? I don’t know, but maybe if 140,00 new activists were to join or (better?) ally themselves with a renovated Labour leadership, then maybe. That would mean countering UKIP’s nationalist populism, while allying with progressive elements in the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and non-party elements. It probably means working with the SNP in Scotland, but finding ways help them to live up to their left rhetoric rather than retreating to the neoliberal comfort zone, as they have just done following an EU ruling that pushes back their investment policy to something akin to the Private Finance Initiative.

  3. Of the four leadership candidates, Corbyn has by far the most coherent economic story. His common-sense policies could be something on which a broad progressive1 coalition could agree on. But, there is a flaw, our old “friend” economic growth. He uses the concept of Green Quantitative Easing (QE) (explained here by one of its main advocates, Richard Murphy), developed by a number of broadly neo-Keynesian economists, and OK’ed as feasible by the Bank of England. But Corbyn renames it People’s QE. The idea is that, without creating more public or private sector debt, the money is generated for investments in socially and environmentally needed projects (improving railways, insulating homes, installing solar panels on schools, etc etc.). This creates employment and the improved incomes feed into the boosting of demand in the economy, which in turn means increased tax revenue. It is an elegant plan, and one that avoids what existing QE does, which is to give money to private banks which then tend to invest it in speculative things (hence the property bubble here). It also gets out from the austerity trap that Labour has fallen into: no money is not a problem. But the big flaw, is that despite funding environmentally good things like public transport, renewable energy and energy conservation, by boosting the economy it will also boost other activities that will, because they rely on the rest of the economy (extraction, production, distribution and waste disposal), create additional carbon emissions. We know that economic growth is not decoupling from greenhouse gas emissions, (even the optimistic New Climate Economy effectively admit this now), so we have a problem. The only way to resolve this is by combining some kind of Green QE with annually diminishing carbon caps – limiting the introduction of further hydrocarbons into the system. This is exactly what degrowth activists and thinkers have proposed in response to Spain’s Podemos version of Keynesian demand re-inflation. Now this isn’t fatal for Corbyn, but it is an area of policy that can be refined and strengthened over the coming months. Allied to a proposal such as cap and share, it could provide a means for further redistribution too.

  4. But is the struggle worth it Won’t the progressives be defeated, yet again. Hasn’t that happened just now in Greece where the Troika has imposed the austerity that Syriza was elected to end? I’ve begun to think about events like this through the lens of action research. Kurt Lewin suggested that if you want to understand a social reality, then try to change it. In our concept of prefigurative action research, we argue that relatively delimited and parochial projects can help build understanding of three things, in addition to the immediate learning within the confines of the project itself. Firstly they tell us about what is possible within the current system – through their (relative) success. Secondly they tell us what is not presently possible – that is to say, from their (relative) failure, they reveal much about the nature of the forces and structures that oppose principled social change. Thirdly, where they realise a change in social arrangements locally, and in people’s understanding, energy and commitment, then they tell us more about the kind of society that we are working to achieve. Its partial, and fragmentary realisation helps deepen our understanding of what social justice, community, socialism, or right living actually might be. It was Raymond Williams who pointed out that a key contribution of the Labour movement was in its creation of social institutions (unions, co-operatives – but also social institutions like the Workers Education Association, mutual support arrangements, like the forerunners of the NHS in Welsh mining communities, etc, etc) that prefigured a different and more just society. In this he was on the same wavelength as Antonio Gramsci, who in talking about “prefigurative struggle” suggested (like some on the libertarian left) that the process of fighting for social and economic justice creates the embyonic forms of the alternative society that the socialist movement is trying to create.

  5. Where does this leave Syriza? Specifically in relation to the negottiations with the Troika, Syriza politicians have learned that rational argument counts for nothing, that economics is not what the imposition of austerity on the Eurozone’s periphery is about, and also, arguably, they have or should have learned that it will not be possible to make the single currency work for the deficit countries like Greece. But they have also learned about the power of popular mobilisation, about the support for an alternative, and about the difficulties of leading a heterogenous movement. But, most important, the people, and their organisations have also learned these things, and that’s partly a result of Syriza’s openness, their communication of what has been going on behind the closed doors.
    As Paul Tyson put it in an article on Open Democracy, reproduced on Yanis Varoufakis’s blog:
    The complete lack of impact which Varoufakis’ economic arguments achieved leads one to fear that when it comes to economics and politics, we are being conned: the main purpose of economic speak in politics is obfuscation. If that is indeed the case, then having someone point out the obvious elephant in the room – the economic impossibility of the prevailing dogmas governing high finance and domestic politics – is just too much. It looks like our ruling elites do not want a real economist meddling with power.
    Another thing Varoufakis points out is that financial power is now dangerously politically and socially unaccountable. That is, we have political institutions, parties and politicians that are meant to govern by representing the political choices of citizens, thus making power accountable to the people. However, in reality the typical manner in which political power is internally disciplined and externally controlled is a sad mockery of keeping power accountable to the people.

    The outcome is far from certain, but huge gains will have been made in consciousness, building on those that have already come from the experiments, the action research studies, based on dire need, to make an alternative economy and society based on mutual aid and cooperation.

  6. That spirit of prefigurative action research could also inform a renewed progressive movement in the UK. We know that the economy will crash again. We know that there will be another crisis of hegemony (to again use a Gramscian term) and an attitude of learning together, and integrating that learning in new collective understandings of system and power, of action and ideology, will eventually ensure success. Can Corbyn, and his allies, within and outside Labour work in this different way?


I use this word “progressive” knowing that it has unfortunate overtones of a supposed linear process to ever greater civilisation. That’s obviously not what happens, but it is hard to find another word for the liberatory goals of principled social movements.

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