27 March 2012

The Slow Death of Mother Earth

During my research into bioregional economics I have been struck by the universality of the conception of the earth as our mother. This is our own spiritual heritage in these islands, and is ubiquitous in pre-rational religions across the world. In Latin America, as our colleagues in Liverpool told us, she is Pachamama, the source of fertility and nourishment.

In the rational West we have lost this aspect of reverence towards the earth. We have bureaucratised our relationship with nature and lost the sense of both her mystery and her power. It is not an over-dramatisation to say that the earth is dying. I have never experienced the slow death of a person I love, but friends who have tell me of their feelings of rage and despair. These are the feelings that we share now, but strengthened by the knowledge that it is people just like ourselves who are doing the killing.

For some who are struggling to protect the earth the creation of a new crime of 'ecocide' would lend support. I am unimpressed by this attempt to use the bureaucratic system of legal rights, which seems to be as misguided as attempts to reconceptualise nature as 'ecosystem services'. Both routes contribute to what Wordsworth called the laying waste of our powers, both encourage the escape from the body into the head, from passion to argumentation, which have led us into this mire.

We should remember Mary Midgley's warning about taking the image of mother earth as the wounded mother too literally:

'This medical imagery at once made it much easier for scientists to accept the notion of Gaia. When the point is put in medical terms, they begin to find it plausible that the earth does indeed in some way function as an organic whole, that its climate and oceans work together with living things to maintain a normal balance, and that what gravely upsets any part of the system is liable to upset others. They can see that, for such a whole, the notion of health is really quite suitable. And of course they find the patient Gaia, lying in bed and politely awaiting attention, much less threatening than that scandalous pagan goddess.' (Midgley, Science and Poetry, p. 181)

But none the less the idea of the killing of nature by those who are guiding our policy, as demonstrated in today's National Planning Policy Framework, can help us to explain our own sense of despair and rage, and to realise that what they lack is not evidence but spiritual or moral wisdom. We should not follow them down their bureaucratic roads to nowhere, but rather affirm our shared love for mother earth and reframe our politics so that we use the power of this love to sweep away the nonsense of costing and enclosing the earth.

22 March 2012

Class War

While yesterday's budget could not be considered the launching of the class war, it was surely a new offensive. There was no attempt to conceal the transfer of value from poor to rich which has characterised this government's economic policy. The strategy of using the financial crisis, caused by the elites, to grab more power for exactly that same class was followed with blatant shamelessness.

Duncan Weldon has illustrated the changing shares of the national product between the end of the Second World War and today: his graphic is striking in demonstrating the link between labour organisation and the share going to labour. This is not a hard lesson to grasp: ensuring equity requires struggle or, in the words of the South Wales trade unions, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We have forgotten the need for vigilance and Osborne is the result.

In a classic conjuring trick, Osborne focused our attention on the sideshow of the mansion tax, while the main event was actually the radical cuts to corporation tax. It had already been due to be cut to 25%, but it will now fall to 24% with two further 1% cuts in years to come. This will mean that Britain is following the 'pile them high and sell them cheap' business approach of Ireland, rather than the corporatist approach of our much more successful neighbours Germany and France, where corporate tax rates are well above 30%. This is not an industrial policy but part of a class war, to reverse the advances made in the last century, when those who controlled capital accepted their responsibilities to wider society.

I am a Quaker, so I have to follow my war analogies with care, but I would say that, if we compare Osborne's class war with the Second World War, we are currently somewhere in 1938. The mass of the British people are looking on with fear while Hitler strides across fairly distant parts of Europe grabbing territory, but they are still hoping that he will stay far enough away from them. This strategy of hunkering down and hoping for better times did not work then and it cannot work now. We need to find methods of active and passive resistance.

16 March 2012

Squatting North and South

The Brazilian landless peasansts movement MST ( Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) is well known for its advocacy of land reform to enable people to establish sustainable livelihoods through their own labour, rather than having to engage in exploitative labour-markets and unsustainable economies. I'm glad to see that they now have a website, telling the history of their movement and inspiring similar change in other societies.

In the urban context of Brazil the MST have now been joined by the MTST, the movement of roofless workers (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto). As they say on their website:

Nosso objetivo é combater a máquina de produção de miséria nos centros urbanos, formar militantes e acumular forças no sentido de construir uma nova sociedade. A ocupação de terra, trabalho de organização popular, é a principal forma de ação do movimento. Quando ocupamos um latifúndio urbano ocioso, provamos que não é natural nascer, viver e morrer pobre e oprimido. Não aceitamos a espoliação que muitos chamam de sina.

'Our goal is to combat the production machine of poverty in urban centres, to train militants and gain strength in order to build a new society. The occupation of land by people's organisation is the primary mode of action of the movement. When we occupy idle urban land we prove that is not natural to be born, to live and to die poor and oppressed. We do not accept the dispossession that many call fate.'

As well as their direct action in the form of land occupation, these people of the shanty towns, whose daily life is a struggle against violence and dispossession, communicate their social and political message through a theatre of the oppressed.

I've raised the question recently of why we don't think of the people who live in our deprived communities as 'landless poor'. Since our 'great transformation' to a capitalist economy took place so long ago we accept that without a job you are worthless, whereas in the countries of the South people's first demand is for land so that they can grow their own food, gather fuel, make furniture and so on, rather than having to enter into an unequal contract with an employer.

This demand does not arise often enough in the post-industrialised economies of the West, however the demand for land for housing does. It finds its latest expression in the campaigning group Squash, which is lobbying against government plans to illegalise squatting. This legislation, clearly designed to serve the interests of the land-owning, property-owning class who the Conservatives have always served, will cost £790m. according to research carried out by Squash. More importantly it will deprive the homeless and the landless with the thin vestiges of the right to indepedence that our legal system still respects.

14 March 2012

Nuclear Industry Provides Object Lesson

A year on from the Japanese tsunami I would like to think about how the consequent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant is something of a parable of the problem of increasing scale without rethinking design. This is a story told by Adam Curtis in his documentary : here I apply it to the need to rethink our economic scale.

In its early days the nuclear industry was dominated by scientists; sometimes they were rather over-exuberant and they made claims that they later found it hard to meet, but for the first generation of nuclear developers, science was queen, and their respect for her was appropriate. What they designed was a nuclear reactor for use aboard submarines, to enable them to continue to function without the need for refuelling, a crucial geopolitical advantage in the era of the Cold War.

At the size necessary to power a submarine the reactor could not go into meltdown; there was simply insufficient fuel to enable this to happen. But at this scale nuclear reactors to generate electricity could not be profitable: in order to create a nuclear generation programme the reactors needed to be built on a much larger scale. A difficult conflict arose between the need for safety, which can never be guaranteed when a chain reaction is technically possible, and the need for scale in order to create scale economies and ensure profitability.

The argument was won as soon as the US companies Westinghouse and General Electric moved into the production of nuclear plant on a large scale. They gambled that they could persuade the engineers to move with them, and they sidelined the question of safety by inventing the concept of ‘containment’. Although much of the debate around the Fukushima disaster has focused on this concept, it is in reality an example of discourse manipulation rather than scientific debate. It is of the nature of nuclear energy that it is explosive and cannot be contained: once a chain reaction begins it will generate energy beyond the control of engineering systems. 'Containment' is a concept that makes us feel safe with nuclear power, a PR word and not a scientific concept.

I introduce this example to demonstrate how the gap between scientifico-technical responses and policy can be jumped without adequate democratic debate, especially when matters of survival can be cited as justification. Similar unaccountable decisions are being made right now, in the context of climate change, about the next generation of nuclear power-stations.

The example is also useful in demonstrating that what is meant by ‘economies of scale’ cannot really be interpreted without bearing in mind the economist’s other notion of an ‘externality’. Economies of scale can be achieved by ensuring that the costs of a production process are minimised. In the case of the nuclear industry this meant ensuring that any potential risks could be excluded from the cost curves of the companies engaged in developing the technology: the costs of accidents and decommissioning would not, and never have been, borne by those who built the plant.

9 March 2012

Economics in University: Teaching or Propaganda?

In spite of the utter failure of academic and professional economists to predict, explain or find solutions to the financial and economic crises sweeping the globalised, marketised world they have created, there is still little challenge to the narrow and one-sided way that economics is taught in our universities. In spite of the fact that economics is about complex human relationships, and is therefore bound to be the subject of debate and disagreement, there is no problem with university courses that only teach the neoclassical pro-market approach.

A list of universities that offer 'pluralist' components in their courses, that is to say that they include approaches other than the neoclassical orthodoxy, does exist, but it is short. The Association of Heterodox Economics is doing great work here, but it is unfunded and run by people who know that their commitment to dissent and debate will limit the success of their careers, their opportunities for promotion and publication, and their chances of finding research funding.

In the US, the website Remapping Debate is running a series of articles on the limitations and political bias of economics education in universities. In the latest Martha Starr, professor of economics at American University, makes the obvious point that it is not helpful to teach students about economics as though all the problems have been solved. Not only does this make it less likely that they will come up with new solutions, but given the mayhem they see all around them it is likely to be unconvincing. In any other subject this proposal of dividing up the curriculum between different schools of thought; only in economics could this seem dangerously radical.

This is not an internally focused debate revolving around a bunch of disgruntled academics. Politicians and policy-makers have generally studied one year of economics, which means that they have learned the biased system of thought and the mantras they repeat throughout their lives, limiting options and closing down debate. Teaching orthodoxy rather than reality is dangerous and is against the academic freedom which our universities should set as their highest standard.

3 March 2012

Can't Pay Won't Pay

It was three years ago that I first used this title in an article I wrote for the Welsh left magazine Celyn (it means holly). Back then I argued 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.’

My conclusion was:

‘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.’

Although in Britain the majority have accepted the Big Lie about the public debt being our fault and our responsibility to repay, across Europe a movement for debt relief is spreading like wildfire, and expressing itself in the form of citizens' debt audits. In Ireland the process was rather academic and not political, but resulted in a popular call to abandon expensive attempts to support 'zombie banks'. In Greece the audit committee has become the focus of a nationwide campaign for an alternative economic policy. A civil society movement is building in France where it was launched at a meeting of 700 people in Paris in January.

This is the opportunity offered by the debt crisis: the old route of passivity and Danegeld has broken down in the face of the excessive greed of the owners of capital. What stands before us is the prospect of an economy based on equality and participation. The rest is up to us.

2 March 2012

The Iceman Cometh

I probably should have divided loyalties about Iceland's decision to get tough with its creditors. After all, the council I am a member of still has £2m tied up in the interminable legal process that always follows a bankruptcy, public or private. But I can't help rejoicing about the escape by the Icelandic people from the debts that their Viking traders pushed them into.

According to a recent Bloomberg article, Iceland's decision to allow its banks to default has done it very little harm - and a great deal of good:

'The island’s steps to resurrect itself since 2008, when its banks defaulted on $85 billion, are proving effective. Iceland’s economy will this year outgrow the euro area and the developed world on average, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates. It costs about the same to insure against an Icelandic default as it does to guard against a credit event in Belgium. Most polls now show Icelanders don’t want to join the European Union, where the debt crisis is in its third year.'

Iceland has suffered economically, with a contraction of 6.7% in 2009, but was back to growth last year and is now growing more rapidly than the Eurozone.

The different with Greece is, of course, that it was part of the vast euro currency area, and so could not make decisions in its own national interest. That, and the fact that Iceland is a tiny economy (GDP of £13bn.) and so its people could never have been good for the debt. Greece, by contrast, has a large and skilled workforce who work harder than the Germans. That makes it good for the extraction of value, as do the tasty public assets which are currently being put into a firesale.

1 March 2012

Learning from Latin America

The most common plaint that we hear through the media is that there is no model for how our future might look now that the capitalist dream has burst. This may be because we are speaking the wrong language, because in America south of the Rio Grande a whole range of different economies have been bursting into life in the past two decades. Although what we hear is usually a middle-class whinge about life in Venezuela there is in reality a vibrancy of difference and diversity.

To learn more and to share insights north and south I have been organising a conference exchange together with a colleague at Liverpool University, which you can find out more about at the dedicated blog. The idea is to overcome the language barrier and to bring insights from the Latin American economic model to Europe. The UK leg of the conference will take place next month in Liverpool. There are a few places available for those with experiences to share and a desire to learn and participate in building a shared future that relies on solidarity and co-operation.

A key issue for the future prosperity of both Global North and South is the challenge of reconciling a right to human development with the need to avoid dangerous climate change and the unsustainable depletion of resources. Key to this is the development of resilient and sustainable livelihoods and economic opportunities in economies in which communities and ecosystems can thrive. These seminars will facilitate a North/South discussion about how to develop sustainable livelihood options through a consideration of the experiences of low carbon community action in the Global North, and conceptions of the ‘solidarity economy’ and of low carbon development in Latin America.