Sunday, 21 January 2018
Book Review: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
Written by Steve Knight and first published at Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
In the 135 years since his passing, many commentators on Marx’s work have maintained that his view of humanity’s relationship to the Earth is “Promethean,” i.e. that mastery over nature is a key step to achieving the communist state. A counter-tendency in Marxian analysis, however, led first in the 1960s and 70s by scholars like Raymond Williams and Istvan Meszaros, then in the past twenty years by a new generation including John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, has maintained that ecology’s conflict with capitalist relations is central to understanding Marx’s political economy.
Kohei Saito, author of Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, belongs firmly in the latter camp. For Saito, associate professor at Osaka City University, Marx is not simply an economist who sometimes refers to nature; he insists that “it is not possible to comprehend the full scope of his critique of political economy if one ignores its ecological dimension…Marx actually deals with the whole of nature, the ‘material’ world, as a place of resistance against capital, where the contradictions of capitalism are manifested most clearly.”
Drawing extensively upon Marx’s “excerpt notebooks” that have been published as part of the ongoing research project Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (aka MEGA), the author paints a compelling portrait of Marx first as a young man with a philosophical conviction of how capitalist relations alienate us from nature, then as a determined student of natural sciences, eager to find scientific verification of the ecological contradictions of capital.
In Part One, “Ecology and Economy,” Saito traces the systematic development of Marx’s ecological critique from the Paris Notebooks of the 1840s through the mature work of Capital. Marx’s Paris work (a portion of which was published in the twentieth century with the title Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts) shows a young scholar still under the philosophical influence of Feuerbach and the Young Hegelian school. He develops his fourfold definition of alienation under capitalist relations: within capitalism, Marx claims, one becomes alienated from the product of the one’s labor, from the labor process itself, from one’s free and creative “species-being,” and from one’s fellow workers.
Marx proposes overcoming these forms of alienation through the abolition of private property (the product of alienated labor), so that humans can relate to nature in a free, cooperative manner. While he arrived at valuable insights in this period that laid the groundwork for later ecological thinking, Marx at this point was still enamored of an ahistorical, Feuerbachian idealism that he would need to transcend in order to make way for the “scientific socialism” informing his later work.
The turning point in Marx’s materialist critique came with The German Ideology (1846), manuscripts he co-wrote with Friedrich Engels. Here Marx shifts from a purely philosophical approach to ecology, into a “natural scientific” one based on a historical understanding of evolving relations between humans and nature. He begins using the term “metabolism”—a concept first used in the nineteenth century by physiologists, later by philosophers—to describe this dynamic interchange, where nature becomes man’s “inorganic body” upon which he depends for survival.
Over the next decade, culminating in his writing of the Grundrisse in the mid-1850s, Marx refined his understanding of the concept to posit a general metabolic tendency of capital: in aiming for continuous expansion, capitalism exploits natural forces--including human labor power--in search of cheaper inputs; but this process deepens capitalism’s own contradictions (deforestation, carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, etc.), all of which have intensified since the time of Marx’s writing. Human civilization will likely become impossible long before capital accumulation ceases due to ecological degradation; therefore, capitalism’s metabolic relations are incompatible with sustainable human development.
Saito’s analysis is also valuable for the emphasis it gives to the concept of “reification” as a keystone of Marx’s ecosocialism. While reification perhaps receives its fullest expression in the chapters on “The Working Day” and “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Volume 1 of Capital, Marx developed it gradually as part of his ecological critique. In brief, reification refers to the process whereby private producers exchange commodities whose value is determined as the sum total of abstract labor used in their production.
Nature’s materials are molded into economic forms, and those forms become ossified into “things,” but these material things can never be fully subsumed under capital. Thus, capital threatens the continuity of man’s metabolism with nature, by reorganizing nature to extract the maximum amount of abstract labor; reification insures that society can be produced—and reproduced—only through the mediation of value. Saito clarifies the point nicely: Marx does not simply claim that humanity destroys the environment.
Rather, his ‘materialist method’ investigates how the reified movement of capital reorganizes the trans-historical metabolism between humans and nature and negates the fundamental material condition for sustainable human development. Accordingly, Marx’s socialist project demands the rehabilitation of the humans-nature relationship through the restriction and finally the transcendence of the alien force of reification.
In Part II, “Marx’s Ecology and the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe,” Saito scrutinizes newly available material from Marx’s natural science notebooks, showing the many writers Marx studied carefully for years to refine his ecological critique of capital. Saito concedes that there is some evidence that Marx’s earlier thinking about nature was “productivist,” i.e., he was optimistic that scientific and technological advances could overcome nature’s limits.
His excerpts from the earlier editions of Justus von Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry and James F.W. Johnston’s Notes on North America, both published in the 1850s, strike a hopeful note that David Ricardo’s law of diminishing agricultural returns could be overcome through improved soil science and land management. Liebig’s earlier work assumed that productivity could be improved through the use of synthetic fertilizers (a convenient position, perhaps, for an agronomist with a sideline capitalist business as a manufacturer of chemical fertilizer!).
The turning point for both Liebig and Marx, however, was the publication of the seventh edition of Agricultural Chemistry in 1862, where Liebig adopted a darker theory of “robbery agriculture” under capitalist relations. Liebig now posited a “law of replenishment,” in which soil needs a mixture of organic and inorganic elements to maintain productivity. While organic elements can be replenished continuously through the atmosphere and rainfall, the loss of inorganic (“mineral”) elements must be minimized as they are much harder to replace under the pressure of capitalist production. Reading Liebig’s seventh edition “deepened his [Marx’s] insight that nature cannot be arbitrarily subordinated and manipulated through technological development.
There are insurmountable natural limits. Marx’s demand for the rational regulation of human-nature metabolism sprang from the recognition of natural limits, as well as that social production must be radically reorganized to achieve sustainable human development. Capitalism, Marx realized, is inherently inimical to this more rational metabolism, as it mediates all relations through reified values.
Liebig’s idea of robbery agriculture became one source of inspiration for Marx’s theory of a “metabolic rift” between town and country in the first volume of Capital (discussed at some length by John Bellamy Foster in his book Marx’s Ecology). But Saito’s access to the MEGA notebooks reveals that following the publication of Capital in 1867, Marx began reading another agronomist, Carl Fraas, whose work—especially his 1866 book Agrarian Crises and Their Remedies—both modified his previously unqualified praise of Liebig, and opened a new scientific window for understanding capitalism’s ecological contradictions.
Fraas espoused an “agricultural physics” counterpoised to Liebig’s “agricultural chemistry”; while he did not discount the importance of much of Liebig’s work, he believed that climatic factors were of more importance than chemical ones to soil productivity. Fraas writes at one point that cultivation can take place without exhaustion in a favorable climate even if nutrients are not returned to the soil in a metabolic cycle by humans.
Fraas also maintained—particularly in another of his studies, Climate and the Plant World Over Time—that deforestation was the primary driver of climate change, as it inevitably led to rising temperatures and lower humidity (i.e., desertification), tracing this as an historical tendency in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece.
The problem, according to Fraas, is that civilization consumes an enormous amount of wood in activities like building ships and houses, as well as producing iron and sugar; therefore replanting deforested land is often not feasible. Saito observes that “Marx, reading Fraas’s work, rightly thinks it necessary to study much more thoroughly the negative aspect of the development of productive forces and technology and their disruption of natural metabolism with regard to other factors of production.”
Much work remains for future scholars to plumb the development of Marx’s ecosocialism. As Saito points out, the MEGA project has to date published Marx’s excerpt notebooks only up to 1868; notebooks that track his developing ecological awareness over his final fifteen years await full publication of the fourth section of the MEGA. Nevertheless, “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” is an indispensable addition to the burgeoning literature on Marxian ecosocialism.
Kohei Saito provides an intellectually rigorous, yet accessible, guide for readers not only as to why healing capital’s ecological rifts was essential to Marx’s socialist project, but also how Marx’s decades-long reading project in the natural sciences informed his analysis from The German Ideology onwards. “Marx did not answer all of the questions and did not predict today’s world,”
Saito writes in his conclusion, “but it is does not follow that his ecology is of no use today. It is undeniable that his critique of capitalism provides an extremely helpful theoretical foundation for further critical investigation of the current ecological crisis, and that with regard to ecology Marx’s notebooks can prove their great importance.” Ecosocialists everywhere should appreciate Saito’s meticulous elucidation of Marx’s evolving understanding of capital’s incompatibility with the earth.
Saturday, 20 January 2018
Written by Ted Trainer, first published at Resilience.org
This is a remarkable and inspiring movement in Spain, now involving hundreds of people in what I regard as an example of The Simpler Way transition strategy … which is primarily about going underneath the conventional economy to build our own new collective economy to meet community needs, turning our backs on and deliberately undermining and eventually replacing both the capitalist system and control by the state.
It is now abundantly clear that a just and sustainable world cannot be achieved unless consumer-capitalist society is basically scrapped. It involves levels of resource use and environmental impact that are already grossly unsustainable, yet growth is the supreme goal. The basic form the alternative must take is not difficult to imagine. (For the detail see TSW: Summary Case.) The essential concept must be mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in which we can live frugally but well putting local resources directly into producing to meet local needs … without allowing market forces or the profit motive or the global economy to determine what happens.
Unfortunately even many green and left people do not grasp the magnitude of the De-growth that is required. We will probably have to go down to around 10% of the present rich world per capita levels of resource use. This can only be done in the kind of settlements and systems we refer to as The Simpler Way. Most of the alarming global problems now threatening our survival, especially ecological damage, resource depletion, conflict over resources and markets, and deteriorating social cohesion, cannot be solved unless we achieve a global transition to a general settlement pattern of this kind.
For some time the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements have been developing elements of the alternative we need to build, and there are impressive radically alternative development initiatives in the Third World, notably the Zapatistas and the Kurdish PKK. But the Catalan Integral Cooperative provides us with an inspiring demonstration of what can be done and what we need to take up.
The CIC response
Although only begun in 2010 the cooperative now involves many hundreds of people and many productive ventures, 400 of them involving growing or making things. Although there are far more things going on than those within the CIC its annual budget is now $480,000! (More on the scale later.)
It is not just about enabling people to collectively provide many things for themselves underneath and despite the market system — it is explicitly, deliberately, about the long term goal of replacing both capitalism and control by the state. These people have not waited for the government to save them, they are taking control over their own fate, setting up their own productive arrangements, food supply systems, warehouses and shops, basic income schemes, information and education functions, legal and tax advice, technical R and D, and even an investment bank. Best of all is the collectivist world view and spirit, the determination to prevent the market and profit from driving the economy and to establish cooperative arrangements that benefit all people, not just co-op members. The explicit intention is to develop systems which in time will “ … overcome the state and the capitalist system.” In other words the orientation differs fundamentally from the typical “socialist” assumption that the state has to run things.
We are in an era in which the conventional economy will increasingly fail to provide for people. What we urgently need are examples where “ordinary” people, not officials or governments, just start getting together to set set up the arrangements that gear the productive capacity they have around them to meeting their collective needs. The remarkable CIC shows that people everywhere could do this, especially in the many regions Neoliberalism has condemned to poverty, stagnation and “austerity”.
Stated principles and practices
Note that this not just a wish list of future goals or ideals, it is mostly a list of the aims and values guiding practices that have already been implemented.
Concern for social justice, equity, diversity, mutual support, cooperation, inclusion and solidarity, and for the common good.
Social transformation here and now, informed by utopianism.
Focusing on transformation of the whole of society, not just on securing benefits for members of the participating cooperatives.
Applying resources directly to meeting the needs of people in the region, as distinct from enabling prosperity for individuals or co-op members, or stimulating economic growth.
People contribute according to their capacity to do so.
Getting rid of materialism. Aiming at satisfaction with “non-material living standards”.
Sufficiency. “Not seeking accumulation as an end.”
…and above all, getting rid of capitalism. Dafermos (2017) says, “The main objective of the CIC is nothing less than to build an alternative economy in Catalonia capable of satisfying the needs of the local community more effectively than the existing system, thereby creating the conditions for the transition to a post-capitalist mode of organization of social and economic life.” The long term objective is “ … to be an organizational platform for the development of a self-sufficient economy that is autonomous from the State and the capitalist market.”
The CIC is not a central agency running everything; it is an umbrella organisation facilitating, supporting and advising re the activities of many and varied cooperatives. Thus it is not like typical cooperatives wherein members focus on a single mutual interest, and work only for the benefit of members.
It is important to recognise the significance of the concept ”integral”. The word “integral” refers to the concern with, “ … the radical transformation of all facets of social and economic life.” That is, they are out to eventually bring about comprehensive social revolution. Simpler Way thinking about settlement design emphasises integration, i.e., the way interconnections between functions that small scale makes possible enables synergism and huge reductions in resource use. For instance backyard and cooperative poultry production enables “wastes” to go straight to gardens, imperfect fruit to be used, chickens to clean up garden beds, and elimination of almost all energy intensive inputs such as fertilizer, trucking and super-marketing.
The CIC is establishing projects which benefit all people in the region whether or not they are members of the CIC or associated cooperatives. “Unlike most cooperatives, the CIC develops structures and tools which are not reserved just for its members, but are accessible to everyone.” For instance non-members can use the arrangements that have been set up for providing legal advice, they can use the technologies developed, and they can use the new local currency. There are about six hundred people who are not in cooperatives but are self-employed and are able to use the services the CIC has created. Similarly the machines and agricultural tools developed for small scale producers are “…freely reproducible”, i.e., their design information is available to all free, giving anyone the ability to build them on their own and customize them according to their needs.
Thus the concern is to prevent goods being treated as commodities produced to make a profit, but to see them as things that are produced to meet needs; “… basic needs like food and health care are not commodities but social goods everyone has access to.”
To be part of the CIC cooperative projects need to practise consensus decision making and to follow certain basic principles including transparency and sustainability. Once the assembly embraces a new project it enjoys legal and other provisions and its income is managed via the CIC accounting office, where a portion goes toward funding the shared infrastructure.
The huge significance of all this could be easily overlooked. In a world where capital, profit and market forces dump large numbers into “exclusion” and poverty, and governments will not deal properly with the resulting problems, these people have decided to do the job themselves. They are literally building an alternative society, not just organising the provision of basic goods and services, but moving into providing free public services like health and transport. Note again the noble and radically subversive world view and values here; people are working to meet the needs of their community, driven not by self-interest or profit but by the desire to build good social systems. This ridicules the dominant capitalist ideology that is conventional economic theory!
Many people in different groups participate in varying degrees. There are about six hundred self-employed members, mostly independent professionals and small producers, who use the legal and economic services made available by the cooperative, such as insurance at less than the normal rate in Spain. There are more than 2,500 who use the LETS system. Many are involved in the Catalan Supply Center (CAC), which is the CIC committee coordinating the transportation and delivery of food and other items from the producers to the “pantries”, i.e., distribution points. In addition there are several co-ops associated with the CIC.
The headquarters of the CIC is in their 1,400 square metre building, which includes space for a library and for rent. The “eco-network” has 2,634 members. The scale and numbers are also indicated by the food distribution system described below.
As noted above the project involves creating an economic system which contradicts and rejects the mainstream economy. It is an economy that is not driven by profit, self interest or what will maximise the wealth of those with capital to invest. There is social control over their economy, that is, there are collective decisions and planning in order to set up systems to meet community needs. People work to build and run good systems, not to get rich.
Non-monetary forms of exchange are encouraged, including free goods and services, barter, direct connections between producers and consumers, and mutual giving. The CIC regulates the estimation of fair prices, and informs producers of consumers’ needs.
There is a LETS-type currency, the ECO, which cannot be converted into euros, and cannot be invested or yield interest. About 2,600 people have accounts. Anyone can see the balance in another’s account. “The currency is not just a medium of exchange; it’s a measure of the CIC’s independence from capitalism.” There is a “Social Currency Monitoring Commission whose job it is to contact members not making many transactions and to help them figure out how they can meet more of their needs using the currency.”
The CIC’s financial operations do not involve any interest payments. No interest is paid on loans made by the cooperative. In this radically subversive economy finance is about enabling the creation of socially-necessary production, not providing lucrative profits to the rich few who have capital to lend. (The US finance industry was recently making about 40% of all corporate income.) The committee entitled ‘Cooperative of Social and Network Self-financing’ deals with savings, donations and project funding in order to “ … finance self-managed individual or collective projects aiming at the common good”. It has 155 members. Contributions to this agency earn no interest, so “… it is truly remarkable that the total amount of deposits made in the last four years exceeds €250.000.”
It is especially noteworthy that emphasis is put on the sustainability of activities, Permaculture, localism, and De-growth. National and global systems are avoided as much as possible and local arrangements are set up. As advocates of the Simpler Way emphasise, unless rich world per capita levels of resource use can be cut enormously sustainability cannot be achieved, and this requires local economies and happy acceptance of frugal lifestyles. Frugality is an explicit goal of the CIC.
The creation of commons is of central importance. There is “Collective ownership of resources to generate common goods.” That is, they seek to develop common properties for the benefit of whole communities. Some lands have been purchased by cooperatives, and some donated by individuals. Included in the category of commons are non-material “assets” such as the LETS system, the software for accounting purposes, and other services made available. Each of these is managed by a committee. “We promote forms of communal property and of cooperative property as formulas that … enhance … self-management and self-organization …” Again the intent is to develop systems run entirely by citizens and that do not involve either capitalism or the state.
One participant says, “I cultivate a garden and I hardly buy any food in euros: I acquire everything I need in the eco-network and through the CIC with the ecos I earn by selling my vegetables.” Fairs and market days are organised. “Going to the markets and the fairs is like recreation, it’s meeting up with friends and family in a spiritual sense.”
Note again the remarkable anti-capitalist element that loans are extended to assist the establishment of new ventures enabling people to begin producing … but no interest is charged. (Kennedy, 1995, estimated that in the normal economy interest charges make up 40% of all prices paid.) Another radical element is the refusal to regard things like food as commodities, that is to be produced and sold to make a profit. In seeing the point of economics as producing to meet needs they are contradicting a central taken-for granted premise of the conventional mentality.
The CIC has two main expenses: the ‘basic income’ paid to the members of its committees and the funding it provides for projects. It pays half of these expenses with fees levied on the 600 member individuals, firms and co-ops (e.g., E25/month from the self employed businesses). Most of the remaining 50% of income comes from tax refunds the CIC’s legal people are able to engineer. In addition donations are received.
“Shops”: The distribution outlets
Many goods are distributed through the “Catalan Supply Centre”, one of the most active CIC committees. It is a network for the transportation and delivery of the products of many small producers across the entire Catalonia region. These are brought to “… the self-managed pantries that the CIC has set up all over Catalonia – twenty of them … Each one of them is run autonomously by a local consumer group that wishes to have access to local products as well as products made (by producers associated with the CIC) in other parts of Catalonia. “This system cuts out middlemen, reducing costs. The CIC currently lists more than a thousand products. “The Supply Centre provides the markets throughout the region with about 4,500 pounds of goods each month, most of which come from the cooperative’s farmers and producers.”
“Of all the initiatives, by far the most successful is the one focused on food.”
Again note the scale of operations.
The technology R and D committee
There is a technology committee responsible for the development of tools and machines adapted to the needs of member producers. They often find that devices on sale are not appropriate for the needs of small scale or commons-oriented projects. They develop machines mostly for agriculture and small firms. These devices, “…exemplify the principles of open design, appropriate technology and the integral revolution – geared to the needs of small cooperative projects.” This committee also organizes training workshops to share knowledge. The agency occupies a 4,000 square metre site, and no longer needs financial assistance from the CIC.
Dafermos sketches several of the settlements and projects whereby people are coming together to set up arrangements to enable communities to apply their productive capacities to providing a wide range of things for each other.
For instance the Calafou village of twenty-two people has a housing cooperative managing twenty-seven small houses. Tenants pay €175 per month for each house. The aim is to become “… a collectivist model for living and organizing the productive activities of a small self-managed community.” It has “ … a multitude of productive activities and community infrastructures, including a carpentry, a mechanical workshop, a botanical garden, a community kitchen, a biolab, a hacklab, a soap production lab, a professional music studio, a guest-house for visitors, a social centre …, as well as a plethora of other productive projects.” There is a general assembly each Sunday, operating on the consensus principle.
Members of the AureaSocial cooperative can choose to live in an affiliated block of apartments in Barcelona or at a farming commune with teepees, yurts and horses, where residents organize themselves into “families”.
Macus is a group occupying a 600 square metre space hosting a close-knit group of modern as well as traditional craft producers of wooden furniture, clothes and herbal medicine, photography, sculpture and digital music, as well as fixing bicycles and repairing home electronics.
Their form of government is a direct deliberative, participatory democracy involving decentralization, self-management, voluntary committees, “town assemblies” … and no bureaucracy and no top-down ruling or domination. Note that “direct” means more than “participatory”; all individual members meet to make (or ratify) the decisions. “Each cooperative project, working commission, eco-network or local group makes its own decisions.” Committees and fortnightly general assemblies work out mutually agreed solutions, decisions are not handed down by executives, CEOs or political parties.
In all meetings the goal is consensus decision making; there is no voting. “ In case of a predicament, the proposal is reformulated until the consensus is reached, thus eliminating the minorities and the majorities. All previous agreements are revocable.” “…the quality of the agreements is a great success, and there hasn’t been any major decision-making conflict in all these years.”
All issues are handled at the lowest level possible, as distinct from being taken by higher or central agencies. This is the basic Anarchist principle of “subsidiarity.”
There are about a dozen main committees, including Reception to handle inquiries from groups wishing to join, an Economic Management Committee, a Legal Committee, an IT Committee, and one managing Common Spaces. The Productive Projects Committee facilitates ‘self-employment’ and the exchange of knowledge and skills and helps job seekers to match their skills to jobs, using an online directory of self-managed and cooperative projects in Catalonia. That is, they have set up their own employment agency, independent of the state, and its focus is on helping people to find opportunities to get into socially useful productive activity.
“CIC committee members receive a kind of salary from the cooperative, known as ‘basic income’, which has the purpose of freeing them from having to work somewhere else, thus allowing them to commit themselves full-time to their work at the CIC.”
Creating public services
No aspect is more remarkable than the concern to set up public services. The intention is “… to displace the centrally-managed state apparatus of public services with a truly cooperative model for organizing the provision of social goods such as health, food, education, energy, housing and transport.” The legal services, the technology contribution and the currency are also in this category. Again these are projects that are not designed by or for the members of specific cooperatives; they are services for the benefit of people in general.
One of these service operations, organized by the “Productive Projects Committee” is the employment facilitation agency mentioned above. It helps people to become “self-employed, and to share knowledge and skills enabling people to increase their earning capacity.” It makes it possible for “ … job seekers to match their skills to jobs posted by productive projects associated with the CIC …” There is “…. an online directory of self-managed and cooperative projects in Catalonia…” in which people can function using the ECO currency. Thus this committee assists people who are unemployed, without many skills and likely to be poor, to find some socially useful activity they can take up in order to earn an income. “…anyone has some abilities that they can offer to people and with that acquire what they need.”
The activities of the above mentioned supply centre constitute another public service. It enables small producers to sell their produce and many to buy what they need, without having to earn normal money.
This public service providing realm is only developing slowly, which Dafermos thinks is because Spain’s service sector is relatively satisfactory.
Problems, questions, doubts?
It is important to look for problems and faults in alternative initiatives because we urgently need to clarify what the best options are. Although I have little information apart from the Dafermos report, I am not aware of any serious problems or criticisms that might detract from its potential. However, following are some of the concerns I have come across.
Does the underlying “theory of transition” lack depth? Does the rationale derive from a comprehensive global analysis of the many alarming and terminal problems consumer-capitalism is generating, (including environmental destruction, Third World poverty, resource wars…) and is the CIC seen as the solution to them all (… I firmly believe it is the beginning of the solution.) The Simpler Way analysis of our situation includes detailed argument on the global scene; does the CIC vision extend far enough beyond setting up coops?
This involves the question of long term strategy for getting rid of capitalism. This question is studiously ignored by the Transition Towns movement …at least my attempts to get them to deal with it have failed. Their strategy is just do something, anything alternative in your town and eventually it will all add up to the existence of a beautiful, sustainable and just world. The red left rightly scathes at this; they want to know how precisely are your community gardens and clothing swaps going to lead to us taking state power and eliminating the capitalist class? Simpler Way analysis has an answer to this question; whether it’s satisfactory is another issue. It could be that CIC people also have an answer but if so it’s important that they should make it clear to us.
This leads to the need for a manual. One would hope that we can all soon benefit from a document designed to assist us to set up similar projects, especially suggesting mistakes to avoid.
Some people believe the CIC was established using funds acquired via questionable financial activities. I am not able to pronounce on this but I think it is irrelevant. What I want to focus on is the fact that the CIC now seems to be an extremely effective movement and model, one that I think could be followed with little or no funds, and that I can see no reason why it cannot thrive in the wreckage neoliberalism has wrought.
There is however an associated issue that I think requires careful thought, i.e., the role and nature of alternative currencies. The CIC uses a basic LETS system and this seems to me to be the ideal. However much effort is going into establishing another system, “FairCoin”, intended to enable new alternative economies. I am uneasy about this; it seems complex, costly to set up, a “substitution” currency (requiring normal money to purchase), and not easily capable of enabling the amount of economic activity that would occur in a whole economy. It seems to be geared to longer distance trade and in the coming world of intense scarcity and localism we won’t need much of that. It seems similar to Bitcoin in being a commodity open to speculative investment and price rises. But a sacred principle on the left is that money, labour and land should not be commodities. Above all it seems to me to be unnecessary; a kind of LETS will do.
I am also uneasy about any focus on currency; I would rather see most attention being given to getting people to understand the goals and to join the co-ops.
It is not clear to me the extent to which the success of the CIC has been due to an initial access to capital. (It is said to be self-funding now.) What we want are strategies that require little or no money to set up, and I believe these are available.
Spreading the revolution
Considerable effort is being put into “spreading the model.” “The members give talks about eco-networks, the cooperative, and social currency in various parts of the country. As a result there are seeds of integrated cooperatives in Basque Country, Madrid and other regions of Spain and France.” In 2017 the Athens Integral Cooperative began.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the CIC achievement. The scale of its activities and the good that is being done are now huge. But what is most remarkable is its subversive focus and power, and potential. To repeat, the CIC is “…an activism for the construction of alternatives to capitalism.” In my view it is one of the leading initiatives in a movement that constitutes by far the greatest threat that capitalism has ever confronted. Along with the Zapatistas, the Kurdish PKK, the Senegalese Eco-villages, and many others it is demonstrating that there is a marvellous alternative way, that it can be built by ordinary people, quickly, and without overt conflict or violence (at least not yet.). It is shredding the taken for granted TINA legitimacy and inevitability of allowing capital, market forces and profit to determine what happens to us. Above all it is showing that ordinary people can and must come together to collectively take control of their own economic and political situation, without having to depend on capital or the state.
Consider the implications for Third World development. The conventional view takes it for granted that “Development” can only mean investment of capital to crank up more business activity, more production for sale into the global economy in order to earn money to enable purchasing from it, and to create jobs. It is taken for granted that profit and the market must drive the process, meaning that it enriches the already rich and the rest must wait for trickle down…while their national resources are shipped out to rich world supermarkets. Thus about four billion are very poor and will remain so for a long time … yet the CIC is showing how quickly and easily they could implement a totally different model of development, a different path to different goals, without approval or assistance from existing state governments. Obviously even a little state assistance would make a huge difference to what could be done. In Senegal thousands of villages are moving in the Eco-village direction, assisted by the government. (St Onge, 2015.)
It is not surprising that the CIC has originated in the Catalan region. That’s where the Spanish Anarchists In the 1930’s performed miracles, establishing an entire economy on worker-cooperative lines. In the Barcelona region containing up to a million people voluntary committees of citizens ran factories, transport systems, hospitals, health clinics etc., strenuously rejecting any role for paid bureaucrats or politicians. The CIC seems to be a text book example of Anarchism … at least the variety I’m in favour of. Consider again the themes noted above; citizens coming together to turn their backs on the market system, the capitalist class and central government, and on any form of top-down rule, and resolving to govern themselves, setting up arrangements for collective benefit, using thoroughly direct and participatory processes that do not involve bureaucrats or politicians of superior authorities, striving for consensus decisions, subsidiarity and spontaneity, thereby “prefiguring” ways they want to become the norm in the new society. This is precisely what The Simper Way vision has been about for decades, and it is the only way the required revolution can come about.
Consider the built-in but easily overlooked wisdom. The inclusiveness and empowerment of all and the prioritising of arrangements that attend to the needs of all generate community morale, public spirit, enthusiasm and willingness to contribute. Thus synergism is increased; for instance giving is appreciated and generates further generosity. Motivation is positive: doing good things like joining a working bee or giving away surpluses is enjoyable, not a burdensome duty. Contrast this with present competitive, individualistic, winner-take-all society which often forces us into situations that do not bring out the best in us.
The power to release resources and spiritual energy is also easily overlooked. My study of an outer Sydney, Australia dormitory suburb (TSW: Remaking Settlements) found that by reorganising space and use of time the suburb might be able to produce a high proportion of its own food and other needs, while dramatically reducing resource and environmental impacts. Consider the fact that if people in the suburb gave only two hours a week to community working bees, rather to watching trivia on a screen, the equivalent input of 150 full time council workers would be going into community gardens etc. And they would be much more happy, conscientious and productive workers than council employees, and community familiarity and solidarity would be generated.
And then there are the consequences for the personal development of citizens. Bookchin pointed out the profound educational benefits the Ancient Greeks saw when every individual had the responsibility of participating directly in the process of government. This means that there is no government up there to do it for us and we had better take responsibility for thinking carefully, discussing ideas, considering the good of all, being well informed, …or w might make the wrong decisions and have to live with the consequences. If we take a long historical perspective it is evident that accepting being governed, ruled over, represents an immature stage of political development; we will not have grown up until we all take part in governing ourselves, in direct and participatory ways.
Also easily overlooked is the significance of empowerment. Ivan Illich stressed the passivity and lack of responsibility characteristic of consumer society. Your role is to obey the rules set by others. If something goes wrong it’s up to some official or professional to fix it. As I see it the crucial turning point in the Transition Towns process is the shift from being a passive acceptor of the system designed and run by unseen others, to seeing it as your system and if it’s not working well it’s a problem you worry about and want to do something about. Good citizens have the sense of owning their communities, of knowing that they share control over what’s going on and willingly sharing responsibility for making things work well. In other words they feel empowered. “This is this my town. I’m proud of it. If there’s a problem that’s my/our problem, let’s get at it.” This seems to be a strongly held orientation among CIC participants.
All this clarifies the distinction between Eco-socialist and Eco-Anarchist perspectives. Both recognise the need to transcend capitalism but the former assumes the transition must come through the taking of state power and then “leadership” by the state. But fundamental to Simpler Way analysis is the fact that when the realities of limits and scarcity are grasped it is clear that the alternative society must be extremely localised, not centralised, that it cannot be established or run by the state, and that it can only work satisfactorily if it is run by communities via participatory means. Although there will always be a role for some central agencies it will be a relatively minor one as most of the decisions and administration will (have to) be handled down at the small community level. Note again that the CIC emphatically rejects the state as a means for achieving or running the new society.
The Simpler Way vision of a workable and attractive alternative society (See TSW: The Alternative) is sometimes criticised as unachievable because it is unrealistically utopian. The existence of the CIC demolishes that criticism. Its significance cannot be exaggerated; it and related movements are showing that the path that has to be taken if we are to get to a sustainable and just world can easily be taken.
CIC website: https://cooperativa.cat/en/
Dafermos, G., (2017), The Catalan Integral Cooperative: an organizational study of a post-capitalist cooperative”, Commons Transition, 19th Oct. https://cooperativa.cat/en/george-dafermos-publishes-his-report-about-catalan-integral-cooperative/
Kennedy, M., (1995), Interest and Inflation Free Money: Creating an Exchange Medium That Works for Everybody and Protects the Earth, Seva International.
St Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal Transforming 14,000 Villages Into Ecovillages!” Collective Evolution: http://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/06/17/senegal-transforming-14000-villages-into-ecovillages/
TSW: Remaking Settlements. http://thesimplerway.info/RemakingSettlements.htm
TSW: Summary Case. http://thesimplerway.info/main.htm
TSW: The Alternative. http://thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm
Thursday, 18 January 2018
Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the party, revealed her three point plan for the UK to remain in the European Union (EU) writing on politics.co.uk this week. Lucas, a long standing campaigner for the country to remain in the EU, laments the paucity of the Remain campaign in the run up to the 2016 referendum on whether or not we should stay in the organisation..
Too much reliance was put on people worrying about their finances, if we left the bloc, and the scare tactics employed by the Remain campaign. This tactic had worked at the Scottish independence referendum two years earlier, but it didn’t in the EU referendum.
Lucas says that the consequences of leaving the EU are only now starting to reveal themselves, with prices rising and shortages of nurses because EU nationals are have more or less stopped applying for these jobs. With the Tory government held hostage to a faction of hard right Brexiteers, hell bent on getting as complete a break as possible with our erstwhile European partners, and even the best possible outcome will be a much worse deal than we have now.
This is all true, but we did vote to leave the EU, although leaving could mean joining the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway style, or being treated as a ‘third country’ like Canada. Lucas favours a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations between our relationship with the EU, or staying in as we are currently. But how is this to be achieved?
Lucas suggests a three stage plan. In stage one, the stay in the EU message would be made by new faces. She is right, I think, that the likes of Tony Blair, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, have no credibility with the voters, as they are seen as symbolising the establishment that many people voted against. She also suggests organising at grass roots level, but this may be easier said than done on a wide-scale basis.
Stage two ‘must be a commitment to seriously tackling the underlying issues which fuelled Brexit,’ Lucas says. This is a key point. Yes, immigration played a part in the motivation of many Leave voters, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also a ‘stick it up the establishment’ attitude, although that should have been directed at the UK government more than the EU. Lucas goes onto make the argument of the EU as a limited, but possibly more powerful buttress against global corporations, who are the real thieves of our democracy. Essentially though, there needs to be repudiation of, and break with nearly forty years of neo-liberal ideology.
So far so good, but stage three looks to be the most problematic of all, getting the Labour party leadership on board. Lucas suggests that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, should sign up to the Another Europe is Possible pan European movement, which seeks to reform the EU, to the benefit of its citizens, as opposed to global corporations.
The ambiguous signals about our future relationship with the EU, coming out of the Labour leadership, must stop insists Lucas, as push comes to shove. Corbyn says we will not stay in the European single market, once we leave the EU, but Kier Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has said we will remain in the single market during a transition phase, ‘for as long as it takes’ to secure a good future arrangement with the EU. Lucas points out that 78% of Labour supporters want to remain in the EU. Fudging this issue has worked out quite well for Labour so far, but I agree with Lucas that they will have to take a side soon.
It is fair point too, that if we are to remain in the EU, it is essential that Labour backs the move, to give such a push credibility, and to tie in with part of stage 1 of this plan, to organise a grass roots movement in support of staying in the EU. Realistically, only the Labour party can do this on the scale that is needed.
Lucas cites the example of the recently formed community campaign unit in the Labour party, and with their membership numbers and general organisational infrastructure, this could be made a success of. It is hard to see a grass roots campaign achieving the critical mass to make it effective without Labour, but will they want to do this?
That is a hard question to answer, different people in the Labour party say different things about Brexit, but as the negative consequences of leaving the EU become clearer, and perhaps if the public shifts sufficiently in the remain direction, this may become a logical pathway for Labour to follow.
My feeling is that there is a long way to go with withdrawal from the EU, and pretty much anything could happen along the way. I am unconvinced that the EU will reform itself into the sort of community that Lucas describes, but maybe we should not discount even that in these volatile times.
Tuesday, 16 January 2018
(PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
The collapse into administration of the construction and out sourcing business Carillion, has caused waves across the political and business establishment. Tens of thousands of employees will lose their jobs and pensions, small businesses will go bust through non payment of debts and shareholders and taxpayers will lose money. Carillion employees will hardly have been cheered to hear that the government had set up a Jobcentre plus helpline, to help them find new work.
The company had 450 government contracts ranging from HS2 to providing school lunches, building hospitals, roads and maintaining 50,000 homes on military bases. They also had several private construction contracts in the middle-east.
The political fall out might lead to resignations from the government, who have plenty of questions to answer on why they kept giving contracts to a company that was known to be struggling financially? The government may also reflect on the irony of Carillion’s chairman, Philip Green, advising them on corporate responsibility. There might also be a re-think on whole practise of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals and the out sourcing of public services.
The government has said that there will be an investigation, where the conduct of directors in charge at the time of company's failure and previous directors will be examined. The Business secretary, Greg Clarke said ‘any evidence of misconduct will be taken very seriously.’ We heard similar noises after the 2008 financial crisis, but nothing really materialised. Whether it will be different this time we will have to wait and see, but I am sceptical.
The first thing that springs to mind, is what was going on with the accounting and auditing (by KPMG) of Carillion, that made it justifiable to be paying out big dividends as recently as last year, to shareholders and bonuses to senior managers, who are no doubt shareholders too?
The company issued the first of three warnings on its lack of financial health in July of last year, why was this not acted on, by the management and indeed the government? Why were they allowed to pay £83 million in share dividends last year, when their pension deficit was £580 million?
The 2008 financial crash was taken very seriously in Iceland, where politicians resigned from their posts, including the prime minister, and directors of the banks involved were imprisoned, which was made possible by the Iceland Parliament enacting new legislation to enable this. Will this happen in the UK over the Carillion affair? I somehow doubt it.
The whole area of PFI’s, Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s) and the outsourcing of public services to private contractors needs to be ended. An idea that originally originated in the US and was first introduced to the UK by the Tory government led by John Major in the 1990’s. The first scheme in the UK was the Isle of Skye road bridge, which has since been taken into public ownership by the Scottish government, after the Scottish Parliament was first established in 1999.
The new Labour UK government, elected in 1997, picked the PFI ball up and ran with it, signing hundreds of deals for the construction of new hospitals and schools, which had the advantage of the spending not being counted against public sector borrowing, but in the long run the taxpayer has paid considerably more than would have been the case with conventional government contracting. It has been quite accurately compared to buying a house on your credit card, with extortionate fees payable for usually 25 years, whether or not the facility is needed or used.
Out sourcing of public services goes back even further to the days of the Thatcher Tory government, and almost always leads to worse pay and conditions for workers, and not necessarily good quality services - think of the railways! These companies tend to avoid paying UK taxes too, by off shoring their headquarters in tax havens. And as we have seen with the Carillion case, the nature of these deals is that the profits are privatised but the risks are nationalised. So much for the entrepreneurial private sector, then.
Although there will always be government contracts for building infrastructure, these type of deals are terrible for UK tax payers and service users alike. These PFI/PPP and outsourcing service provisions should to be dispensed with, and provided without excessive profits for these private companies, and the risks to the public purse. We will likely get better, and value for money public services into the bargain, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. The current system is effectively a corporate welfare state.
Saturday, 13 January 2018
On same day that US President, Donald Trump, announced that he will not after all be coming to London next month, to open the country’s new embassy in the UK, he demonstrated exactly why he is not welcome in this diverse city. The Washington Post reported that Trump, in a speech to US senators, called African nations and others such as El Salvador and Haiti ‘shithole countries.’ He questioned why so many immigrants from these countries are allowed into the US, rather from (white) countries like Norway.
Trump’s remarks drew immediate criticism in the US, with widespread condemnation as being racist in nature. The outburst was also condemned by the United Nations and the African Union (AU), with the AU saying it was ‘clearly racist.’
Trump denied he used these exact words but did admit using some ‘strong language’ but democratic senator, Dick Durbin, who attended the meeting confirmed that the reports were entirely accurate. 'He said those hate-filled things and did so repeatedly,’ according to Durbin.
It doesn’t come as exactly a surprise that Trump would say such things, with his track record of support for right-wing, racist organisations. Trump failed to condemn white supremacists in the US who drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters and his tweeting of praise for the neo-Nazi UK organisation Britain First. He tried to ban Muslims entering the US and of course has promised to build a wall on the US/Mexico border, to keep Mexicans out of the US. I could go on, the list of Trump’s racist diatribes is as long as your arm.
No surprise either then that Trump is not the sort of person that Londoners want polluting the city’s fine record on racial and ethnic integration and openness to the world generally. This is best symbolised by Sadiq Khan, the son of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant London bus driver, who is now the mayor of London.
Khan commented that Trump had ‘finally got the message’ that he was not welcome in London, after hearing of the cancellation of the visit. Khan said that if the visit had taken place there would have been a ‘huge’ demonstration in London, and implied that Trump had been scared off by the prospect of the backdrop a mass demonstration against him. Khan is right, there would have been a big protest had this visit gone ahead, Trump is very unpopular with Londoners.
Khan’s comments were immediately attacked by his immediate predecessor as London mayor, Boris Johnson, now the foreign secretary in the present Tory government. Johnson himself is no stranger to making racist controversial remarks, calling black people ‘pickaninnies with watermelon smiles,’ in the past.
True to form Johnson, using unusual words tweeted, ‘we will not allow US-UK relations to be endangered by some puffed up pompous popinjay in City Hall.’ For those unfamiliar with the word popinjay, the dictionary defines it thus:
‘a vain or conceited person, especially one who dresses or behaves extravagantly.’
This doesn’t sound like Khan in any way, but is a reasonably accurate description of Boris Johnson himself, but he is so vain and arrogant that this probably didn’t occur to him, who is commonly thought to be an upper class twit in the UK, or at least that is the most polite description I can think of.
But the reason that Johnson and the rest of the British government are so desperate for the visit to go ahead, at some point, is that they hope to conclude a favourable trade deal with the US, to replace the likely loss of our access to the European single market, after we leave the European Union. A craven posture for sure, and frankly, embarrassing, but the only thing that seems to matter to this government, is tearing the country away from our closest neighbours. If we have to suck up to racists in the process, then so be it, it appears.
The visit may still take place at some time, and in some way, that avoids widespread protest, especially in London. When George W Bush visited the UK at the height of the Iraq war, the arrangements for the visit were carefully planned. Bush was secretly taken to an ‘old English pub’ in the middle of County Durham in the north east of England, but a demonstration in London did go ahead anyway, but maybe with less impact.
If the visit does happen at some stage, then London will protest, and I will be there. But at least this has saved me having to turn out on a cold February day this year. The message from London to the US President will be ‘Trump, no, no, no.’ Which reminds me of the great, late, London born and Jewish singer, Amy Winehouse’s hit from 2006, ‘Rehab.’ A video of the song is reproduced below.
Thursday, 11 January 2018
With apparent mystery surrounding the true number of members that the Tory party has now, with new Chair of the party, Brandon Lewis, admitting they did not know. He puts this down to records being kept at local level, and not being nationally held, but did not dispute that the membership total had plunged to a rumoured 70,000.
In September last year, Conservative Home, the website for Tory activists, estimated Tory party membership at around 100,000, after a small spike in new members after the EU referendum, which appears to have been more than cancelled out by remain voting Tories leaving the party.
These are the latest available membership estimates for UK (mainland) political parties:
Labour - About 552,000 as of June 2017
Conservatives - About 149,800 as of December 2013
Scottish National Party - About 118,000 as of August 2017
Liberal Democrats - About 103,000 as of September 2017
Green Party of England and Wales - 55,500 as of March 2017
UK Independence Party - 39,000 as of July 2016 (almost certainly less now)
Plaid Cymru - About 8,300 as of 2017
Although membership of all of the main political parties has been declining for decades, there was a surge in the membership of the SNP after the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, followed by a Green surge in England and Wales in the 2015, prior to the general election, and a huge surge in Labour’s membership during and after the party’s leadership election later that year. A yearning for something different, particularly from younger people, it seems.
By contrast, a report by Tim Bale's Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London suggested at least 44% of Tory party members were over 65 and 71% were male.
All of which explains the spin around the recent government (non) reshuffle, with the Tories wanting to ‘look like the nation they seek to represent.’ The facts do not support the hype though.
According to Left Foot Forward, just five of Theresa May’s 22 Cabinet ministers are women, the same number as before the reshuffle. Men still account for almost 70% of ministers. May’s new Cabinet contains also only one ethnic minority minister, and just one who is openly LGBT.
According to the Sutton Trust, 34% of Theresa May’s new cabinet were privately educated – an increase from her first cabinet in 2016 (30%) – while 24% of the new cabinet attended selective state schools.
Clearly, the Tories are trying to spin themselves as in some way diverse, but the truth is nothing much has changed in the make-up of the government, and this is just a public relations exercise.
Meanwhile, Priti Patel, the former International Development secretary, writing on the Conservative Home website says that there is an ‘essential need for us to become a grassroots movement once again.’ The Tories have not been anything like a grass roots movement since the 1950s, when they had around 3 million members, so this looks to be a tad over ambitious.
James Cleverly, the new deputy chair of the party suggests, somewhat bizarrely, writing on the same website, that the Tories can take a leaf out of the online game Candy Crush’s book, because it is popular, especially with younger people. They are truly getting desperate.
But it’s not just new members that the Tories are trying to woo, they are looking for new voters as well. This is what is behind Theresa May, the prime minister, making a speech about the environment today. Michael Gove, the Environment secretary, has been the warm up man in this attempt to soften and broaden the Tories appeal, with a series of speeches and announcements on green issues over the last couple of weeks. They must have been watching Blue Planet 2.
This tactic worked to some extent when David Cameron was Tory leader, when he was trying to detoxify the party’s image. Remember the ‘Go Green, Vote Blue’ slogan, which was immediately dropped when the Tories got into government, and derided as ‘green crap?’ At the same time, this government was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of badgers, making it easier for businesses to get planning permission for fracking, and harder to get for wind farms. The Tories continually break EU limits on clean air and beaches. Will anyone fall for this cynical ploy again?
I’ll tell the Tories what they need to do to attract new and younger support. Drop the hard Brexit nonsense, scrap tuition fees, build some truly affordable housing, fund the NHS properly and reduce the voting age to sixteen.
Of course, they won’t do any of these things but the Tories problem runs deeper, they are just not perceived as ‘cool’ and they never will be. There are pretty good comedians though.