30 August 2009

Anti-Bank Holiday to Remember

Climate camp was a delight. The whole event has been planned and executed with what I hardly dare call military precision, perhaps most of the all the 'swoosh' to the chosen site on Blackheath common, which was completely unexpected by local residents. Apart from the absence of uniforms, hierarchy, and meals-ready-to-eat, of course. Instead we had communally cooked organic veggie fare, available on time and for a nominal (and voluntary) charge. The level of organisation was immensely impressive.

Campers are encouraged to join 'neighbourhoods' which, with the exception of the Thames Valley (an in-joke at the expense of our friends in navy blue) are based around regions of the country. So we had our dinner in Wales and our lunch the following day in the Thames Valley. When our massive saucepan was empty, news reached us that there was still food in Yorkshire. It did begin to feel rather Medieval. Each neighbourhood meets at 10am to plan the day, share out work and raise any concerns about the camp as a whole. It then sends a representative to the spokes meeting so that the whole camp can share planning and decision-making.

I always find camps and festivals the most vibrant source of creative and informed discussion about the world's problems and solutions. The site was well chosen, with an excellent view of the skyscrapers of the city which could be seen beyond the perimeter fence draped with slogans such as 'the planet doesn't do bail-outs', 'soul not coal', and 'capitalism is crisis'.

My own contribution was the Friday night plenary on capitalism and climate change. It began with a camper explaining to a marquee packed with about 500 people, and in pictoral form, Marx's analysis of the crisis of capitalist production. The theory had been brought up do date by the inclusion of 'loadsamoney' and 'shitloads of cash' but otherwise would have been easily recognisable to the man with the beard. Aside from the proliferation of four-letter words, which I probably wouldn't get away with, I might follow this tack in my university teaching next year. As occupation of universities was the theme of one of the workshops over the weekend, I may not need to.

My journey home was chaotic and discordant in contrast to the smooth harmony of the camp. The Blackheath site passed its health-and-safety inspection. My First Great Western train would not have done since there was no water to wash your hands after using the toilet. Given a choice between 'business' and the campaigners I know who I would have running the country, and not just because of the standard of the WCs.

28 August 2009

Tobin or Not Tobin

At first blush we may be surprised to hear Adair Turner, the closest thing to crumpet the City ever produced, supporting a tax which has long been proposed by those who oppose financial speculation, the casino economy, global capitalism and everything the City stands for. But if we dig a little deeper we begin to see that this may be a very cheap way out of a very deep hole for our sharp-suited adversaries.

James Tobin was far from being one of us, and in fact was rather offended that it was the anti-capitalists who picked up on and propagated his idea for a tax on currency speculation. Until he died in 2002, his had been a fairly typical career for an orthodox economist: teaching the bogus ‘science’ at Harvard and Yale, advising the government on same, a seat on the board of the Fed., and a ‘Nobel Prize’ for developing an econometric modelling technique. How disturbed he would be to find his idea working against everything he stood for from beyond the grave.

It should be made clear that the Tobin Tax, which would be levied on all international currency transactions, is proposed at a tiny rate. Tobin originally suggested 1% and even lower rates are now being bandied about. The fact that it is worth introducing a tax at this rate indicates the vast sums of money that move across the international currency exchanges every day. Taxing may extract some of that value to be invested in worthy projects, but relating the tax inversely to the length of time the investor holds their investment would do so more effectively. This principle could then be applied to investments in general, discouraging the short-termism and rapid movement of investment cash that so destabilises the real economy.

The Tobin Tax is Green Party policy and is a good step towards gaining some return from currency speculation for the public benefit. The fact that the financiers are so opposed inclines one to support. The idea for the tax grew out of the last financial crisis – when Nixon unilaterally dismantled the international financial architecture that had been agreed by a group of nations at Bretton Woods, following the Second World War. It may be part of the solution to the current crisis, but only in the context of a new international negotiation, and one in which all countries engage on equal terms.

26 August 2009

Not Earning but Owning

There are two important questions that keep recurring in current debates about the resilience of our economy: 'Can Britain Feed Itself?' and 'Who Owns Britain?'. The first is the title of an excellent study by Simon Fairlie in The Land, which reported his back-of-an-envelope calculations about how we might survive if our post-colonial trading links with the rest of the world were suddenly cut.

As I consider these two questions I am developing a particular fondness for the word 'requisition'. Like the landless peasants of Brazil, we should use the concept of usufruct to prevent the rentier landlords from depriving us of land for homes, growing plots, and useful wastes. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Landshare idea is all well and good, but, as an old Etonian, he is unlikely to challenge the ruling class and - as ever - access to land is not the point. It is ownership that really matters.

Here we come to Kevin Cahill, whose weighty but fascinating book Who Owns Britain?, first published in 2001, is the product of another man's healthy obsession. It is the best account we have of how the land that should be our common treasury is actually parcelled out between us - well between very few of us as it turns out. It is a fairly patchy account, since 1066 and 1872 are the last two dates when a proper cadastral survey of the country was undertaken.

My own county of Gloucestershire is dominated by large estates. I've been somewhat distracted by Cahill's excellent book and have checked out that of Lord Sudeley (Merlin Charles Sainthill Hanbury-Tracy), who I once shared a platform with at the House of Lords. His wikipedia entry fills me with a combination of hilarity and rage. His pedigree truly is Eton, Oxford and the Guards. I can't be sure whether I am pleased or not that he has now had to sell the family seat to Damien Hirst.

Sudeley's peerage arose from the political activities of plain John Hanbury (he adopted the 'Tracy' suffix as his career developed), whose father made his money in the Pontypool Ironworks. My great-grandfather was just down the road in Merthyr, but on the other end of the class system. Hanbury became MP for Tewkesbury and was later given a hereditary seat in the Lords. This is how power, wealth and most importantly land are allocated in our far from meritocratic society.

We don't know what we could grow on our land and we don't know who owns it. These two issues are obviously closely connected. Before the enclosures or 'lowland clearances' as we should really call them took place in the 17th and 18th centuries (these are profiled in depth in the latest issue of The Land), whether or not we could feed ourselves was a question we had it in our power to answer, both as individuals and as communities who shared common land. This made us free in a sense that most of us today cannot even imagine; and that explains why the question about who owns our land today is so difficult to answer.

23 August 2009

A Road Runs Through It

Recently I spent a delightful late summer day on a car-borne pilgrimage to Avebury. Yes, ok, I did drive there, but I was astonished for find that two roads cut right through the sacred circle that was created about 6,000 years ago. It forces you to question what sort of people we have become that we could so blatantly desescrate what our ancestors clearly regarded as a sacred site.

The monuments date from the Stone Age and the relationship of their creators with stone is moving and impressive. We are clearly living in the Money Age, since that is the only thing that touches us so deeply today. Our creations are vast shacks of corrugated tin that have been set up to provide a venue to buy something cheap and sell it expensive. Our greatest monuments are at Canary Wharf - the cathedrals of profit. In Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy projects us into a distant future where they look back at our times and call it The Age of Waste and Greed.

I returned home to hear the news that Athens was burning - the result of fires set deliberately on behalf of property developers seeking to extend the city. The parthenon was lit up by the sacrilegious flames. Only a culture so utterly divorced from its connection with the land could destroy the trees that allow Athens to breathe. Perhaps the tin shacks will be constructed and peopled with privateers who count their piles of money as they suffocate.

19 August 2009

An Economy with Soul

I can't remember who it was who told me that we need to overturn the God of the market: GOD = Grow Or Die. This is obviously a necessary condition for moving our economic life in a sustainable direction, but we need something deeper and more soulful to go along with this: a shift in consciousness.

For a while I've been thinking about a paper to respond to R. H. Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in which he argued that the personal ethics engendered by the Protestant religion were crucial in underpinning the development of the new economic system as it developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. I see a parallel with the growing interest in mystical and anti-materialist religions amongst many of those who are building the new economic and social paradigm.

I spent the nicest three days of my holiday at Druid Camp, handily close in the Forest of Dean and - naturally - blessed with beautifully sunny weather (although we were all quite capable for worshipping mother nature in all her different moods). In contrast to the academic conferences I go to, the workshop conveners all spoke from their hearts and so were constantly enthralling.

From a shaman I learned how the world appears if you believe that every aspect of the material reality has a deeper spiritual reality or consciousness. How could this type of understanding contribute to a new consumption ethic, one which includes reverence for the natural world? Many of us do this to some extent when we give thanks for our food, or recall the spirit of the animal that died if we are meat eaters.

The traditional role of the shaman in animistic societies is to move between the seen and unseen worlds. S/he is also responsible for identifying what parts of the physical world can be taken into our bodies, hence their role in experimenting with mind-altering (because toxic) plants. The deeper relationship with the enviroment we are seeking as we build a sustainable economy can be usefully informed by this sort of wisdom.

14 August 2009

When it Comes to Work, Less is More

How embarrassing that yesterday's data from the European Statistics Office show that France and Germany are surviving the recession better than the UK and the US. The two-pronged approach of disciplining labour and liberating capital that was pursued with such conviction for the past 20 years in the Anglo-Saxon world suddenly doesn't look so clever.

I am depressed beyond measure by the thought that this is a result of France and Germany having got in first with their car scrappage schemes. First, I hate to believe that the automotive sector can provide such a significant contribution to any national economy. But more importantly, the thought that continuing to engage in the perverse alchemy of turning fossil fuels into money can possibly be a solution to the mess we are in is simply untenable.

One real difference between the Anglo-Saxons and the continental Europeans is in the extent to which their 'captains of industry' have abandoned the noble task of production for the fool's gold of money itself. If your most significant exports are all invisible they have a tendency, like the emperor's clothes, to disappear. The almost wilful destruction of our manufacturing industries during the 1980s and the refusal, until recently, to take seriously the need for food security, have left the UK in a precarious state.

Interestingly, the French have achieved a stronger economic position with considerably less effort. Far from continuing to haunt their offices throughout the summer for fear of the email tsunami that will be lurking there if they dare to stray, French workers disappear en masse for a whole month in the summer to toast themselves in the sun or eat cheese or whatever else they enjoy doing.

Please join me in my campaign for a real summer holiday. No work for the whole month of August sounds good to me. Anybody else up for that? Together we can defeat the relentless capitalist treadmill and save those Californian internet servers some work.

10 August 2009

The Courage of Conviction

Central to the myth of progress, what Vandana Shiva has called capitalism’s creation myth, is the idea that you can always have more. The lesson of wisdom, of most of the world’s religions, is that there must always be balance. The joy of new love is always balanced by the pain of opening up to another person; the precious love for children is bought at the cost of the fear of their loss; the thrill of being alive is balanced by the fear of death. Balance is the central lesson of life.

It is because of the refusal to accept the pain that accompanies the joy that we are left with a culture devoid of depth and relationships devoid of meaning. We value the instant karma of the reality TV show or the next gadget, while laughing at those who invest their lives in seeking a deeper, more valuable wisdom. When the entrepreneur tells you there is no such thing as a free lunch, he is thinking that everything must be paid for in terms of money, which we are prepared to work for and offer up. But how many of us still understand the price of a meaningful human life, and are prepared to pay for that?

The managerialist politicians who predominate today would probably argue that in order to change something you need to be able to measure it. A cynical wag recently undercut the purported objectivity of this process with his comment that the Blair government has moved from evidence-based policy-making to policy-based evidence generation. The balancing of costs and benefits in the public policy debate demonstrates clearly the predominance of utilitarianism. The downside of this sort of calculation is that it yields outcomes which are repugnant to many citizens.

This is especially apparent in debates over nuclear power, where politicians have decided on our behalf that the number of lives lost as a result of nuclear irradiation are a fair trade-off for the generation of electricity to power homes and factories. Similar arguments are made when decisions are taken to situate landfill sites or incinerators. The welfare of the average citizen predominates over that of the affected individual, making the cost-benefit analysis an inherently immoral calculus. Utilitarianism is also guilty of species chauvinism since the impact of economic decisions on the non-human inhabitants of the planet are never considered, let alone measured.

It is easy to laugh at the economist or politician who attempts to put a price on human life, or the cost of climate change, or the total annihilation of the planet, or who finds that it is best to encourage Czech citizens to smoke because their early deaths save the government money. It is harder – and therefore more vital – to have the courage of our convictions, and of our intuitions and judgements – when we are in situations where important decisions must be made.

9 August 2009

From Our Own Correspondent

An update from James Beecher on events on the Isle of Wight:

I said I was too busy to visit Vestas, but (un) fortunately for me,
the Big Green Gathering was cancelled at the last minute (seemingly a
political decision based on the links to the green movement, in
particular the climate camp).

Instead a few Bicycology people decided to visit the Isle of Wight
protest camp on the 'Magic' mini Roundabout outside the Vestas wind
turbine factory.

'Vestival' as it became known briefly is now a hodge-podge of the
Climate Camp with it's volunteer vegan kitchen, regular consensus
meetings and up-for-it experienced activists, mixed in with a healthy
dose of factionalist lefty groups (Workers Liberty, SWP, Socialist
Party) all doing a stirling effort to put ideological differences
aside and get down to what they do best (usually writing the leaflets,
rather than occupying the roofs of connected factories, but leaflets
are needed too!)

These elements of course combine with a large presense of Vestas
workers, many of whom have joined the RMT since being forced out of
the factory by the management. Unions were banned during there time
working in the factory, so it is a great symbol of defiance for them
to wear orange hi-viz RMT jackets, fly green RMT flags high, and
discuss unions in all their glory and grit.

Many workers joined the RMT becuase they appreciated it's helpful but
non-controlling approach. Many however, including the 6 remaining
occupiers, still feel no need to join a union - they stood up for
themselves anyway, after all, and are organising themselves very

Of course, there are a myriad of other people at the demonstration.
There are local teenagers and children, enjoying the music, bands,
face painting and craft workshops that take place (including, the
other night, a bunch of boy racers who showed up to toot there horns
in support). There are local people of all ages in fact, up to a 70
year old man i spoke to yesterday about similar underhand tactics when
Enfield left the island years and years ago to mov e production to
china (then, as now, the workers in britain trained those who would be
given there jobs)

Simon Hughes has visited, and the local lib dem candidate is regularly
in attendance.

There are some notable absentees however. I met two green party
members during my time there, both involved in the Green Left bit. No
Green Party elected representatives have turned up, which means the
workers feel let down by the Green Party, despite their good words on
the subject. Similarly, although the local labour party candidate has
turned out and said helpful thing, Ed Miliband still believes the
fight is over, and he cannot do anything. As Seize the Day sing in
their song they wrote for the occupation, "he can come down here and
support us too" whenever he builds up the courage!
Bob Crow attended court, and spoke at the rallies at the factory early
on, but no other union officials have attended (despite many rank and
file members of unions such as the PCS, Unison, Unite, FBU and others
regularly attending, and bringing their banners).

Dale Vince put out a great press release, and I am hoping to get both
him and David Drew to visit, or at least provide me with a spoken word
recording to take to play to the occupiers and their supporters.
Please consider what you can do.

1. Visit the factory. The atmosphere alone is truly inspiring. Better
even that any climate camp i have been to.
2. Contact anyone in any network you are in who you think could
mobilise support or resources to help.
3. Don't fail to phone Ed Miliband every day and let him know what you
think of the government's environmental credentials
4. Send some money to the redundancy fund for the occupiers (who have
been told they will receive nothing, and will "never work for Vestas
5. Be creative and think of your own solutions to the problem! Order a
wind turbine blade (they *are* 40 meters long though!), Ocuppy your
place of work in solidarity, go on strike, leaflet, get on telly -
whatever you can.

There are days of action called for this saturday and next wednesday.
This is the opportunity many of us have been waiting for to turn
climate change and capitalism around. Please be a part of the

Photos and more on Indymedia.org.uk, savevestas.wordpress.com, and
ventnor blog (including interviews with me and videos of the seize the
day song)

Love to you all, I have renewed belief that we can win - but we need
to step up to the plate...


5 August 2009

Time To Declare the Jubilee

As we stagger on through the summer with our ball-and-chain of impossible debt it appears that the accepted view amongst commentators is that we must knuckle down, swallow the unpalatable work-ethic pill, and 'create more wealth' to pay it all back. These people must think that we all suffer from the sort of scale-blindness that makes it impossible to grasp debts of this size, just as we can't really feel compassion when we hear about thousands of children dying in famines or millions being threatened by climate change.

Because if we can maintain some sense of perspective we rapidly grasp that the implications of the public-spending cuts caused by bailing out the banks on such a massive scale are devastating. Borrowing announced in the budget amounted to £175bn. in 2009/10 and a huge £701bn. over the next five years. If you add in our liabilities for bad debts we have ‘insured’ (since they are already bad debts it seems certain that we are going to have to pay these liabilities) then the total we are in hock for is more than twice the value of all the activity in our economy for a whole year. Just the interest on this borrowing is more than £40bn., about a third of total NHS spending in any one year. Following this year’s budget public spending will fall from 48% of national income to just 39% by 2017-18, with the health budget facing cuts of £10.5bn.

The question of the public finances is the major political issue for our generation. Smart government accountants can find ways to shift financial liabilities through time but we should not be distracted from the central political question: why should the poor pay for the mistakes of the rich?

There is nothing new about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a minority: capitalism only increases the efficiency, speed and scope of accumulation. The ancient Hebrews had a way of dealing with this problem: a jubilee, where there was a forgiveness of sins, a wiping out of debts — and universal rejoicing. True to the biblical idiom it occurred every seven-times-seven years. So this can be our political demand: an international debt jubilee to relieve the working people from the slavery of repaying mountainous debts for which they are not responsible.

Not paying your debts can be a little embarrasing, but it is nothing compared to the consumption of energy and resources (and its impact on the planet), the sheer tedious drudgery, and the social conflict that seriously attempting to pay back debts on this scale will require.

1 August 2009

Discounting the Future

'Discounting’ is a clever wheeze that conventional economics uses to balance utility (its measure of what we want to gain through our economic activity) achieved in different time periods, based on the assumption that we would always rather have a bird in the hand than in the bush. This is in itself questionable, of course, but conventional economics is unable to take account of delayed gratification, not to mention concern for our fellow species.

The consequences of many environmental losses and impacts are likely to be felt many years into the future. In the case of climate change we may be talking about 2050 to 2100; in the case of nuclear pollution we are talking about hundreds of thousands of years. Discounting is the method economists use to compare these impacts as though they were all happening in the now.

When working out the costs and benefits of any economic policy or production process over time the outcome depends entirely on the discount rate that is applied. The higher the discount rate, the lower the future costs of current actions. The discounting formula has the effect of diminishing the impact of environmental destruction caused in this present time-period and making our current actions appear less costly to future generations.

The discount rate is made up of pure time preference and wealth components. The ‘pure time preference’ component is a source of much debate since logically it should be zero, jam today and jam tomorrow having equivalent utility value, in the economic jargon. However, experiments and everyday experience suggest that in reality people are impatient and prefer to have things now rather than later, suggesting that they have a positive time preference. Somewhat ironically, the suggestion that we ourselves are undermining the possibility of future life for human on earth may actually greater increase our time preference for present consumption.

The wealth component is based on the assumption that incomes will rise, so that future generations will be richer than the present one. So if we are concerned with equity we do less to protect future generations who we assume will be richer than we are. Again, there is an obvious problem with this line of reasoning, since the idea of ever-increasing consumption is itself based on the economic growth that may be destroying the potential for future generations to enjoy their comfortable lives. In this sense we might reasonable suggest a negative wealth component to the discount rate.

Estimates from the World Bank for discount rates for different countries indicate that for poorer countries the discount rates are negative, meaning that future consumption there should be valued more than present consumption and these countries should have very protective attitudes towards the environment. This is not found in reality – just another proof of the flawed thinking that underlies the concept of a discount rate. The rates for developed countries are high, which, if they were applied to environmental problems, would mean that we would make little effort to protect the environment since the discount rate would suggest that, not so far into the future, the impact of our present behaviour would have been greatly diminished.

While this may seem an arcane and technical discussion, it is one which has an enormous impact on our chances of protecting our environment, which is why I have weighed down my blog with it this unseasonably chilly morning. These discounts rates are applied when future impacts of current policies are calculated, and if the equations are in error then we risk huge future damage to our environment. This is why, following the publication of the Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change, orthodox economists engaged in their usual trick of missing the wood for trees and focused their discussion almost entirely on the discount rate Stern had chosen.

Stern’s conclusion that we need to act rapidly to tackle climate change resulted from his setting what was, for orthodox economics, a very low discount rate. Conventional economists were shocked by the consequences for the economy and challenged this on the basis that it had exaggerated the effects of climate change in the distant future. Stern was basing all his conclusions on statistical models about the probability of events occurring. The possibility that the planet might cease to exist would clearly have a major impact on people’s ‘time preference’, i.e. their preference for consuming now rather than in a (possibly non-existent) tomorrow. Even an economist can grasp that.

As green economists we would argue that the only legitimate discount rate is zero, since all generations’ preferences should be treated equally and the time at which somebody lives should not affect their right to be part of our beautiful and unspoiled planet.