Friday, 15 June 2018

Football World Cup – England’s Triumph of Hope over Expectation

“It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” So says John Cleese in the film Clockwise. This quote rather sums up the attitude of England football fans as each World Cup and European Championship comes around. The 2018 World Cup in Russia began yesterday, and England fans and pundits are in familiar territory.

I did think after the team’s last humiliation, knocked out of the European Championships, two years ago, by Iceland (with a population similar to a London Borough), that some realism had been forced on the long suffering followers of the England team. And I did detect low expectations among friends and work colleagues, but all that changed about a week or so ago.

It first surfaced in the English sports media where pundits were lining up talk up England’s chances. The predictions have got steadily more optimistic culminating in the Evening Standard this week, where eight out of ten ex-football players and journalists forecast England will reach the semi finals in Russia. The other two went for a slightly more modest quarter finals exit.

Then I heard a pundit (I didn’t catch who it was) on BBC Radio 5 Live, say that the final was not out of reach for England. He conceded that England wouldn’t beat Brazil, but said they could beat Germany. I laughed out loud.

Germany, the current world champions, consistently do well at football tournaments, usually getting at least as far as the semi finals. England last reached a semi final of the World Cup in 1990, and has actually only got into one final, which they won with a bit of luck, in 1966, on home soil.

Of course things might be different this year, but the omens are not good. England do have some talented young players, but do not look anywhere near as good as the 1966 and 1990 teams, which had some very good players in their ranks. But even this is said to be an advantage to the current side. “They haven’t failed before, so they will be fearless” goes the theory, as though inexperience is some kind of asset.

England start the campaign on Monday with a match against Tunisia, in what looks like an easy group to qualify from for the second round, then it will probably get to be tough going. Pointing out this reality though draws accusations of being unpatriotic, and looks awfully like the magical thinking in many quarters surrounding the Brexit negotiations. Royal Mail is the latest target in the firing line, for banning drivers from flying England flags from their vans, on safety grounds.

All reason at football world cups, and the country’s future prospects of life outside of the European Union (EU) is set aside, and woe betide anyone who takes a realistic position on either of these things. Leaving the EU is of course a shot in the dark where no one really knows what will happen, but all the available evidence suggests that it will not be walk in the park. But with football, we have been here many times before with the England team and should have learnt from that experience. An early exit from the competition is more likely than not.

I don’t know for sure, but this boundless optimism appears to be a uniquely English phenomenon. I can’t think of any other country where such regular failure by the national side, is routinely ignored in favour of blind faith.

Gary Young, writing an interesting piece in the Guardian, has picked up on this too. He says: ‘England rarely exists in a material form apart from as a football and rugby team. (The cricket team can include players from throughout the UK and Ireland.)

This is particularly unfortunate because it concentrates the “nation’s” identity in a sport which, thanks to former glory, promises unrealistic nostalgic pretensions of greatness that are unlikely to be repeated. Sound familiar? The problem is not that we underperform but that we have actually found our level.’

Having succumbed to wishful thinking at some previous world cups, I’m not going to do it again, but I do hope that the football team goes about its business in a less shambolic way than the government’s handling of Brexit.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Would a Republic really be worse than the Monarchy?

A freedom of Information (FOI) request from Republic, the group that campaigns in Britain for abolishing the monarchy and replacing it with a democratic republic, reveals that there is no evidence that the Royal family increase tourism to the UK. The request was made to VisitBritain, the tourism agency for the UK, to provide any evidence of the monarchy increasing tourism, and therefore money, into the country.

VisitBritain could not provide any evidence to support this claim, despite the right wing media constantly saying that this is the case. The Daily Express claimed in 2017 that ‘the royal family brought in £550 million a year for British tourism in the past year alone.’ The Daily Mail also got into the act at the same time, and upping the anti claimed, ‘due to its (the monarchy’s) effect on tourism, the media and other industries, the country's economy is boosted by £1.76bn every year.’

So, it comes as no great surprise that with all of this pro-monarchy propaganda from the media, especially the BBC, opinion polls show a big majority for retaining the status quo. This poll from Opinium shows two thirds of the British public think we should continue with a monarchy. There isn’t much detail of the questions asked on the linked piece, which obliviously tends to influence the answers, but only 19% favoured a republic. One ray of light in the poll shows younger people to be less in thrall of the Royals, though.

Of the FOI response the Republic group commented:

“Apparently reluctant to admit the truth, the agency provided unrelated figures to do with heritage tourism and historic sites 'associated with the monarchy'. But they had no evidence that the existence of the monarchy or the Royal Family has any impact on tourism revenue.”

They continue:

"We're always being told the monarchy is great for tourism, so where's the evidence? If the monarchy is so important for the tourism industry you would think VisitBritain would have done extensive research, yet they've got nothing.

This is desperate stuff from VisitBritain. Rather than admit they have no evidence, they have scraped together unrelated stats about heritage sites around the UK. The real test is this: if the monarchy were abolished would tourism revenue fall. Clearly the answer is no."

Britain and Ireland were briefly ruled as a republic in the 17th century, first under the Commonwealth consisting of the Rump Parliament and the Council of State (1649–53) and then under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653–58). The Commonwealth Parliament represented itself as a republic.

Cromwell effectively had more power than a monarch as Lord Protectorate, since he didn’t need to abide by various statutes, like Magna Carta, and stuffed Parliament with his supporters, whilst keeping control of the army. His army brutally enforced the republic in the Celtic lands.

Cromwell’s country was a miserable place generally. There was a ban on many forms of entertainment, such as public meetings that could be used as a cover for conspirators; horse racing was banned, the maypoles were famously cut down, the theatres were closed, and Christmas celebrations were outlawed for being too ceremonial. No wonder the Restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell’s death, saw a return to partying, which was generally popular. Cromwell fucked it up.

Perhaps on a subliminal level, this long ago and short lived bad experience of a republic in Britain, still puts people off the idea? Certainly the idea of a presidency rather than a monarchy, seems to be unpopular. Talk is of president Thatcher, Blair or these days Trump, as an example of the alternative. But many countries around the world manage perfectly well with elected heads of state, with the Republic of Ireland being a good example.

The country would be a good deal wealthier if we took back the land and palaces from the Royals and put them into common ownership, and really exploited the tourism potential of the crown estate. Buckingham palace as a hotel - I’m sure they would be queuing up to get a room? We really have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. A modern system of democratic government for the twenty first century. Vive la Republic!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Michel Löwy - Joel Kovel, In Memoriam

Written By Michel Löwy and published at Solidarity US

The passing away of Joel Kovel is a great loss not only for us, his friends and collaborators, but for the broad international ecosocialist movement, of which he was a towering pioneer.

I first met Joel at an International Marxist Conference at the University of Nanterre (Paris), convened in 2001 by my friends of the Journal Actuel Marx. We immediately sympathized, and found a common interest: the urgent need to bring together the “Red” and the “Green”, under the aegis of a new concept: Ecosocialism. We felt that the most of the Left had not yet understood the need for an ecological turn, and we believed one should attempt to contribute to such a reorientation. The Fourth International, with which I was associated, had just decided to adopt an ecosocialist program, and Joel felt encouraged by this decision.

Joel tells the story of our meeting in The Lost Traveller Dream, but, in his unassuming and modest attitude, does not tell that the idea of writing an International Ecosocialist Manifesto was his… I immediately agreed with the proposition and we worked out the document together, after several drafts. As he says, it was as sending a message in a bottle thrown into the sea…

Curiously enough some people picked the bottle up, and we were able to gather a meeting at Montreuil (outskirts of Paris) in 2007, with the help of Ian Angus, and the support of the well known Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco, who explained to us: “We, the indigenous communities in Latin America, have been practicing ecosocialism for centuries”.

At this meeting, which was enlivened by Joel’s enthusiasm and energy, it was decided to found an Ecosocialist International Network (EIN) — a short lived experiment, but which had one great success: the Belem Manifesto. This Second International Ecosocialist Manifesto, written in 2008 by Joel, Ian and myself, was signed by hundreds of ecosocialists from 40 countries, and distributed — with the help of our Brazilian ecosocialist comrades — in Portuguese and English to the participants of the World Social Forum in the Amazonian town of Belem do Para (North of Brazil, 2009).

By that time Joel had already published his masterpiece, The Enemy of Nature (2002), one of the most powerful ecological condemnations of capitalism ever written, a classic of ecosocialism for the generations to come.

During all these years we remained in contact, by mail, but also by occasional meetings, in Paris, in Brazil or in New York. A real friendship developed, based on mutual understanding, and a common desire to build ecosocialism as a network of ideas and action.

During the last years he invested his generous energy in developing ecosocialism in the US; his decision to convert to Christianity brought us together in the interest for liberation theology. I remember one of the last times we met: it was when he organized, in a Church, a projection of a film on Monsignor Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, murdered by paramilitary gangs for denouncing the brutal repression of the popular movements.

I have a great debt towards Joel, I learned much from his writings and was inspired by his inflexible anticapitalist commitment. When he wrote his autobiography, I sent him a short notice for the back cover, which summarizes the importance of his contribution to our movement:

Bringing together radical spirituality, Marxist socialism and an ecological cosmovision, Joel Kovel is an unrepentant fighter against “the Enemy of Nature” — and of Humanity: Capitalism. By his thought and action, he is a pioneer of the ecosocialist international movement. His dreams are open windows on a different future.

In an inscription in the copy of the book which he sent me in 2017 he called me “a companion for those insane times”, and signed “Joel the Dreamer”. The times are insane indeed, but with the help of Joel’s red and green message, the hope for a sane future is not lost.

If Life in the planet Earth is saved from the ecological catastrophe produced by capitalist insanity, Joel Kovel will be remembered as one of the first who raised a prophetic call for radical change, a rational and spirited call for ecosocialism.

Michel Löwy is the author of a number of books and co-wrote, with Joel Kovel, the First Ecosocialist Manifesto.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Ecosocialist Horizons.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Anti-Fracking Protests to Continue Despite High Court Injunction

Written by Allan Todd

The ups and downs of struggle

For those campaigning against fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire, last week was very much like riding a rollercoaster: with first the good news, followed - very quickly - by the bad news.

The good news was that the Green Party is to launch a national ‘Climate Change’ campaign (though I think George Monbiot is right to say we should now be talking about ‘Climate Breakdown’) - with a particular emphasis on the increasing dangers of fracking.

Then at the end of last week, we had the bad news: Cuadrilla had succeeded in getting, from Manchester High Court, a 40-day interim injunction against all forms of effective protest against their climate crime. This is intended to allow the UK’s first horizontal frack to take place without any more peaceful disruption during the last month of our 3 months of United Resistance.

How to react to the injunction

The injunction covers all forms of peaceful civil disobedience and direct action: including sit-downs, lock-ons and truck surfing - not just against their PNR fracking site, but also against ALL their contractors. This will inhibit, for instance, our fellow campaigners in Scotland (who’ve acted against Grampian Continental, which transports pipes to PNR) and those in Norfolk Against Fracking (who’ve been taking similar actions against two transport firms in Great Yarmouth, which transport the sand/silica needed by Cuadrilla):

However,... it is CRUCIAL that people do not allow the injunction to frighten them off from coming to protest at Preston New Road: this, of course, is precisely what Cuadrilla - & their Tory facilitators in Westminster - want.

As long as you make no attempt to slow/prevent any vehicle entering/leaving Cuadrilla’s fracking site,


Unfortunately, immediately after the injunction had been granted, there were many posts on social media warning people off going to PNR.

This is COMPLETELY the WRONG response to the injunction!

People are perfectly safe staying on the opposite site of the road, holding placards and waving at all drivers who ‘honk’ to show their support. In fact, we need more people to be doing this than ever before: to show Cuadrilla that we are NOT going away - and to show the public that Cuadrilla and the Tories have absolutely NO social licence to force this dirtiest and thus most dangerous of all fossil fuel industries down our throats!

Green Monday, 4 June

Thankfully, the very first Green Monday - and the first full day of protest - after the injunction showed just how safe it is to continue with protests that fall short of direct action.

Our main keynote speaker of the day was the brilliant Kate Raworth - author of the groundbreaking book, Doughnut Economics (reviewed on this blog here):

She gave a tremendously inspirational speech - from the central island in the road (also a safe space as regards the injunction) - explaining why we should absolutely NOT be ‘fracking with The Doughnut’!! This was just what was needed to lift spirits after the injunction. In particular, she showed the growing urgency of why we should adopt a sustainable economics that allows all sentient beings on this planet to live in the safe social and ecological space that is The Doughnut. It was clear to all those there why fracking was the worst possible fossil fuel industry as regards trying to prevent Planet Earth from ‘overshooting’ the various planetary boundaries:

Kate was followed by our other speaker, John Ashton (former UK Special Representative on Climate Change 2006-12) who also gave an uplifting speech.

The immediate future at PNR

First of all, the Green Party Week, as part of the United Resistance campaign, begins next week, on Green Monday 11 June - speakers for that day are Amelia Womack (Deputy Leader of the Green Party) and Nick Dearden (Director of Global Justice Now!). 

The remainder of the Week will see visits by Natalie Bennett (former Leader of the Green Party), Jonathan Bartley (Co-Leader of the Green Party) and Jennie Jones (The Green Baroness).

There are also some excellent speakers lined up for the rest of June’s
Green Mondays:

·         on 18 June, we have Jamie Peters (Communities Campaigner) and Helen Rimmer (NW Regional Campaigner) - both of FoE
·         then, on 25 June, we have none other than…. George Monbiot! As well as speaking, he will be signing copies of his book, Out of the Wreckage.

In addition, at one of our July Green Mondays, we will be welcoming Jamie Bartlett (Demos’ Director of Social Media, & author of Radicals) - he, too, will be signing copies of his book.

Time for Willie Nelson!

All this is part of our attempt to show that, despite the injunction, we are not going away - and we are not giving in! To make that message as big and as loud as possible, we need more people than ever to show up and give support - even if you can only spare an hour or so.

The kitchen at the Community Hub provides free breakfasts for those who arrive early - and lunch is taken down each day for those protesting roadside. We all need to follow these (slightly amended) words of Willie Nelson:

‘We don’t run, we don’t compromise
‘We don’t quit, we NEVER will!’

More information about the protest here

Allan Todd is a member of Allerdale & Copeland Green Party, an anti-fracking activist and a Green Left supporter

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Have Labour Thrown Away a Chance for a Soft Brexit?

The Labour party’s slight shift towards keeping ‘access to the EU internal market’ has been painted as an opportunity missed of staying in the single market by anti-Brexit Labour MPs, their friends in the media and assorted has been Blairites, like Alistair Campbell. They were quick to brand the change as a way of defeating the government by voting for the House of Lords amendment to the Brexit Bill to remain in the European Economic Area (EEA), when it returns to the House of Commons next week.

By voting with Tory rebel MPs, they say the government can be defeated, causing ructions amongst the hard Brexit Tory head bangers, possibly leading to the fall of government and crucially, keeping the UK in the single market and customs union. 

The charge is that the slight change, of keeping access to the single market, is designed to reduce support for joining the EEA, because the Labour leadership does not want stay in the single market, which along with the remaining in the customs union, would solve the Irish border problem and other issues. For example, the Dutch government advising businesses not use British spare parts, because of EU rules on the country of origin of imports.

The problem with this approach though, is that it is unlikely that the stay in the EEA amendment will be passed anyway. There may be around a dozen or so Tory rebels prepared to vote for the amendment, but there is probably many more Labour MPs in leave voting areas, who will vote against it. This pretty much means that the option of staying in the EEA will be closed off completely, for now at least.

But there is a glaring problem with the Labour leadership’s new approach of having access to the single market, in that we are in cake and eat territory, which the EU has already ruled out, on numerous occasions. In short, a mirror of the Tories fantasy thinking of the last two years, that the EU will give us anything we want, which evaporates on contact with negotiations with the EU.

However, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said the indications he has had from conversations with officials in Brussels, is that they are open to negotiations if the UK dropped some of its red lines. He said:

“If the red lines change, there is a different negotiation to be had. In my discussions with them … it is clear that what they mean by that is: if we signal we want a close economic relationship then there is a conversation and negotiation to be had and it will involve some of the tools in the Norway-style toolbox, we should have that before giving up on it.”

Since Labour is less concerned about remaining under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and wants to keep EU employment and environmental protections, unlike the government, it is plausible to think the EU might move on the issue. Starmer said that some of the provisions of a new status for the UK might be very similar to the EEA, but not identical. Whether free movement of people might be up for negotiation is unclear, but there may be some room for some kind of restrictions on this.

There are fourteen other amendments to the Brexit Bill coming back from the Lords for the Commons to vote on, so there will be other opportunities to defeat the government, especially over remaining in ‘a’ customs union with the EU and perhaps most importantly, on giving MPs a ‘meaningful say’ on the deal that the Tories bring back from the negotiations with EU in the autumn (probably). If this amendment is carried, the EEA option might come back onto the agenda at that stage?

I think this gives us a clue as to Starmer’s longer term strategy here. If the government’s negotiations do not deliver access to the single market, then Labour will be fully justified in voting against it, at which stage all hell could break out in the Tory party. May would be deposed, and we would almost certainly have a general election, at which point Labour could offer its proposals, which focus groups indicate are popular with the voters.

If Labour won the election then I think the EU would be open to new negotiations, and we might well get a soft Brexit that the public, both remainers and some leavers are likely to support. It might even lead to another referendum somewhere down the line on re-joining the EU, as younger voters come onto the electoral register.       

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Grenfell Fire Reports - Catalogue of Errors allowed Cost Cutting on Safety

The release to the public enquiry yesterday, of the reports into the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire last summer, point to a combination of errors and safety standards that were not fit for purpose. As the Guardian reports:

‘Serious fire safety breaches at Grenfell Tower included over 100 non-compliant fire doors, a fire fighting lift that didn’t work and a “stay put” policy that totally failed, the inquiry into the disaster has been told.

There was “a culture of non-compliance” at the tower which contained more combustible material than previously thought, fire safety experts revealed. This included flammable parts to the window frames that spread the fire to the external cladding within 15 minutes of the first 999 call.’

The risers meant to take water to upper floors did not work properly and smoke extractors in the lobbies of the building also failed to work and were in breach of building regulations. Cheaper flammable plastic framed windows, incorrectly fitted in many cases by the main contractor Rydon, also contributed to the spread of the fire. It was clearly done on the cheap.  

The London Fire Brigade also came in for criticism for advising residents to stay put in their flats rather than flee the building which led to more deaths than would have been the case if the building was evacuated sooner. This would have been sensible advice had the tower not been clad with flammable material, but it is not clear that either the fire brigade knew of this in advance or whether routine advice for tall buildings clad with this material had not been updated?

It appears that the type of cladding used at Grenfell Tower (and used in many high rise buildings in the UK), was not properly tested for its resistance to fire, and there appears to be a gap in the regulations which allow its usage. Legally speaking, it seems that there was nothing to stop building firms using these materials, although common sense would suggest that wrapping a tall building in plastic, which has been likened to pouring 32,000 litres of petrol onto the fire, is a dangerous thing to do.

This type of cladding is banned from use in the US for buildings above 15 meters in height. There have been several fires in the US and elsewhere where this type of cladding has made fires worse.

A posting on a blog run by the Grenfell Action Group after the fire said warnings over safety failings at the tower and other properties managed by the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) had “fallen on deaf ears.” In posts dating back four years, the group detailed concerns raised with councillors and officials at Kensington & Chelsea, and senior staff at the KCTMO. 

In 2015, the group reported that London Fire Brigade issued an enforcement notice following a fire at the Adair Tower in North Kensington. The unverified enforcement notice was said to have ordered the KCTMO to improve safety in fire escapes and install self-closing devices to all front doors.

In October 2016 Gavin Barwell, then minister for housing, who lost his Parliamentary seat in Croydon Central at last year’s general election, and who has since been appointed as Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff, announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 that cover fire safety in tall and wooden buildings.

However, the review has yet to be launched. In March 2017, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said the review would be undertaken “in due course.”

The Part B review was due to look at how fire safety measures could be improved following a major fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009, in which six people lost their lives. In 2017 Labour Southwark Borough Council was fined £270,000 and ordered to pay £300,000 legal costs after admitting safety failings at Lakanal House.

Tory Kensington and Chelsea Council decided to approve the use of this cladding at Grenfell on cost grounds, as non combustible cladding would have cost about an extra £2 per square metre, or around £50,000 extra for the whole building. The council held around £800 million in reserves.

Minutes from a 6 January 2016 meeting of Kensington & Chelsea housing and property scrutiny committee about the refurbishment of the building, also noted that the flammable cladding, “improved the look of the building,” according to the Local Government Chronicle (subscription). They didn’t want to spoil the view for wealthier residents of the area!

The council’s response to the aftermath of the fire was woeful too. So poor was their response to the situation that central government took away control of operations from them and handed them to neighbouring Westminster City Council.

I think this whole disaster demonstrates the contempt that social housing tenants are held in by local and central government, and must never be allowed to happen again.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

The emergence of an ecological Karl Marx: 1818 – 2018

Written by Gareth Dale and first published at The Ecologist

Karl Marx was born in Trier 200 years ago on the 5th May. The legacy of the political economist is fiercely contested. The Ecologist was among the first magazines to examine his ecological thinking - in an essay published in 1971. Here, Gareth Dale, an editor of the book Green Growth, examines Marx’s own claims about nature and society - and our original interpretation of them.

In the closing decades of the twentieth century an ecological Marx was unearthed...the upshot has been a radical rethinking of Marx’s project.

Karl Marx’s 200th birthday year is being celebrated today in circumstances he neither desired nor expected: a planet that is governed by, and increasingly shredded and cooked by, capitalism.

The previous such commemorations - in 1918 and 1968 - arrived amidst worldwide upsurges for progressive social-movements.

The Marx for those conjunctures was a theorist of class struggle, revolution and the subjection of the postcolonial world, but was neglectful of nature. Environmentalists found value in Marx, but not in his ecological analysis.

Malthusian pessimism

Emblematic of this was a 1971 essay by G. N. Syer in The Ecologist. It did pay tribute to Marx’s passion for equality and universal human emancipation. It also acknowledged his understanding of the relationship of nature and society - as ’dialectical’ - in viewing humans as part of nature, not rulers of it.

But the charge sheet was long. To begin with, Syer argued that some Marxian predictions had fallen short. That capitalism generates social polarisation and crisis cycles appeared to have been falsified: the wealth gap between rich and poor, Syer observed, had “nearly everywhere narrowed”, while the boom-slump cycle had been overcome thanks to “the application of Keynesian economic theories.”

More significantly, Marx was taken to task for parroting his era’s faith in infinite material progress.

He had failed to recognise the validity of Malthusian pessimism; he was blind to the strains material progress imposes on the planet and the consequent pollution and depletion of resources; and he was - here, in contrast to Engels - “quite unaware of the fragility of much of nature, such as the soil, and of the possibility that the resources of the earth might one day be exhausted".

Core concerns

How different is the world that greets Marx’s bicentennial.

It arrives in an era governed by what Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism” - a sense that there is no discernible alternative to the capitalist system - but in which perceptions of crisis are pervasive, including of the relationship between human society and the natural realm.

In this regard, the discovery of Marx as an ecological thinker has been significant. Of course it had long been known that Marx’s concept of alienation encompassed human society’s estrangement from the natural world.

But in the closing decades of the twentieth century an ecological Marx was unearthed, thanks to the work of David Harvey and many others.

Then, at the turn of the millennium, Paul Burkett - in Marx and Nature - and John Bellamy Foster – Marx’s Ecology - presented Marx as a thinker whose core concerns were ecological.

Mediate, regulate and control

This is a Marx who possessed a meticulous knowledge of technical matters, whether the chemistry of soil degradation or the ecological implications of the discovery of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

These authors, together with the recently departed scholar-activists Joel Kovel and Elmar Altvater, as well as Jason Moore – Capitalism in the Web of Life - and Andreas Malm – Fossil Capital - have ‘brought capitalism back in’ to discussion on nature-society relations, sparking a sustained regeneration of ecological Marxist thought.

Moore - alongside Marxist feminists such as Carolyn Merchant - have helped the renascent ecological Marxism converse creatively with feminist and social reproduction theory.

The upshot has been a radical rethinking of Marx’s project. No longer can ‘nature’ be seen as playing a bit part. His anthropology, after all, is premised on the understanding that human creatures fashion their relationship with the rest of nature through the production of their means of subsistence.

In defining the labour process, Marx, as Reiner Grundmann reminds us, employed the concept of ‘metabolism’: a process by which human beings, through their own actions, mediate, regulate and control the metabolism between themselves and nature—a metabolism the disruption of which could spell disaster.

Permanent conditions

And no longer can Marx be read as a cheerleader for economic growth or material progress. Those who continue to read him in this way should acquaint themselves with his metaphor of human progress under capitalism. It resembles, says Marx, “that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain”.

The newly discovered ‘ecological’ Marx was a sharp critic of the growth paradigm, and in Volume One of Capital he draws attention to the trampling of the natural realm by bourgeois progress.

“All progress in capitalist agriculture,” he intones, “is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the workers, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. …

"Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the workers.”

Cash crop production stands in contradiction to agriculture itself, concerned as the latter is, or should be, “with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life” required by human beings across the ages.

Ecosystem collapse

The natural environment, Marx insists in the same book, should be treated with the understanding that it is “the inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.”

Far from exhibiting a cavalier desire for man to dominate nature in disregard of ‘limits and thresholds’, then, the ecological Marx exhibited a real concern for environmental limits and paid close attention to all sorts of processes through which human society interacts with its environment.

Far from being unreceptive to nature, he found it intolerable that - here quoting Thomas Műnzer - “all creatures have been made into property: the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth.” They too “must become free”.

Now the fish in the water are vanishing. So too the birds in the air. Carbon dioxide levels were 283 at Marx’s birth and are breaching 410ppm on his bicentennial - the highest concentration in twenty million years, prior even to the speciation of the Great Apes.

With a ‘business as usual’ trajectory - even one that bends with the Paris Agreements - the prospect is of a centuries-long feedback-fuelled thermal ratchet, and this, in combination with the array of other assaults on the earth’s biophysical boundaries - capital’s War on Terra - would portend accelerating species extinctions on a gigantic scale, and concatenative ecosystem collapse.

Marx was forty when the prospect of climate change-caused human extinction was first mooted; if global capitalism continues for another century or two, all bets would be off. The ecological Marx, theorist of the alienation of humanity from nature and of the exponential accumulation of capital, will count for nothing if the rudder doesn’t now turn once again to the agendas of 1918 and 1968.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Memo to Labour - Let’s have energy systems integration for the many

Published with permission and written by Gabriel Levy. First published at People and Nature

The UK electricity system needs “radically different forms of grid planning and operation” if it is to stop using fossil fuels, researchers at the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College argue in a briefing paper published in April.

“A whole systems approach is required, in which one single party has responsibility for optimising technical performance across the system”, Richard Hanna and his colleagues say in the paper, entitled Unlocking the Potential of Energy Systems Integration (see p. 24).

The briefing paper outlines the technological potential for moving away from fossil fuels by integrating and decentralising energy systems, using, mainly, smart computers and cutting-edge methods of switching between forms of energy. It summarises, in language comprehensible by a general readership, the findings of a big pile of technical reports and research articles by engineers.

I hope the Energy Futures Lab’s findings will be read by everyone interested in putting together socialist approaches to the transition away from fossil fuels: trade union militants in the energy sector, climate campaigners, eco-socialists, and so on. In particular, I hope they will be taken into account by those discussing energy and environment policies for the Labour Party in the UK.

Only by putting the technological transformation of energy production and consumption at the centre of our discussions will be able to work out how we can best change the ownership of, and control over, the system. We need to challenge the corporate control of the technologies, and make them work for the whole of society – which includes working for the speediest possible decarbonisation – and not for the corporations.

Conversely, if those corporations are left in control, the technologies’ potential for society will never be fully realised.

It’s difficult to summarise the paper’s summary of where the technology is going. But imagine a city where the primary method of producing energy is from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. These resources would supply a host of local micro-grids, linked with each other through larger-scale grids (in electricity, low-voltage networks linked by high-voltage lines). As far as possible, energy would be produced near to where it is used.

Moreover, grids for different types of energy – electricity networks, district heating systems, gas networks for cooking, and transport networks – would be interlinked. When there is too much of one form of energy, other networks can be used to store it, and smart internet-type technology used to manage the process.

So surplus electricity would be converted into heat, or hydrogen to be used as fuel. Surpluses of other energy types might be used to produce electricity, which could be stored, for example, in the batteries of electric cars. Combined heat and power technologies, already in use for the best part of a century, would be developed to become more adjustable, integrated with cooling systems and adapted to run from multiple energy sources.

The Energy Futures Lab team argue (p. 6) that the technologies that matter can be placed in three groups:

■ “Smart operation and aggregation of energy systems”, using “automation, communication and storage technologies”;

■ “Cross-vector integration”, i.e. the adaptation e.g. of electricity, gas and heating networks to complement each other; and

■ “Power-to-X technologies” that use electricity to produce “an energy carrier (mainly hydrogen) as an interface among different energy vectors”.

All these technologies exist now, and some of them have existed for many years. What the Energy Futures Lab paper hammers home is that technological potential can only be realised if holistic approaches are adopted. (If you have read the paper and have the appetite for more, I recommend Integrated Energy Systems, by the “Hubnet” research group.)

As for the control and ownership of the system, the Energy Futures Lab researchers say, in guarded language, that the “challenges involved in realising the potential of greater energy systems integration” include “a need to overcome the fragmented nature of institutions and market structures in different energy sectors” (p. 29).

Such fragmentation is inevitable when different aspects of the energy system – e.g. the provision of electricity, gas for cooking or heat, or fuel for transport – are all controlled by companies motivated by profit, in my view.

The Energy Futures Lab paper calls for “coordinated and integrated planning across supply and demand and centralised and distributed resources” (p. 24). The labour movement can and should develop an argument that such coordination and integration can only be realised with a shift to forms of public and social ownership.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, made the link between forms of public ownership and the fight against climate change in a speech in February. He spoke about the transition to a decentralised electricity network managed by smart technology, and said:

The future is decentralised, flexible and diverse, with new sources of energy large and small, from tidal to solar. Smart technologies will optimise usage […]. There will be much more use of local, micro grids and of batteries to store and balance fluctuating renewable energy. We will still need a grid to match energy supply with demand and import and export renewable energy abroad because the wind won’t always blow where energy is needed. But it will be a smart grid, radically transformed.

Corbyn also spoke about “actively devolving power to local communities, by giving community energy practical support and encouragement”, and about changing the rules governing supply to the electricity grid by small-scale generators.

Such strong support for devolved community energy projects, using renewables, is welcome indeed. The potential of such projects has been convincingly explained by Alan Simpson, the former Labour MP and renewable energy campaigner, in his pamphlet The Transformation Moment – and I dare say his work has influenced Corbyn.

So far, so good. But what the Energy Futures Lab paper tells us is that, to realise fully the technological potential available, a holistic approach needs to be adopted.

Up to now the discussions around Labour’s energy policy have focused almost entirely on electricity, and have assumed that the organisational and corporate separation between generation, transmission, distribution and supply will remain.

The problem of how the system is organised is obviously related to the problem of ownership. Corbyn made very clear in his speech that transmission (i.e. the National Grid) would be front of the queue for a return to public ownership, that local distribution would be overhauled, and that community energy would be strongly supported – but he did not mention specific types of ownership for electricity generation assets or supply markets, where the “big six” corporations are dominant.

Labour’s election manifesto commits the party “to ensure that national and regional grid infrastructure is brought into public ownership over time”, but only to small islands of public ownership of generation and supply; an Energy and Environment document launched by Corbyn in 2016 takes a similar approach.[1] As far as I understand, debate continues in the Labour Party about the extent to which it intends to commit to extending forms of public and social ownership there.

The realities of the technological transition, set out clearly in the Energy Futures Lab paper, mean the discussion has to go further.

The energy systems integration envisaged by the Energy Futures Lab implies that:

(1) the organisational divisions between electricity generation, transmission, distribution and supply would be scrapped; and

(2) the development of electricity networks would be closely coordinated with gas, heating and cooling, and transport networks.

Moreover, the “single party” that, according to the Energy Futures Lab, needs to take responsibility for optimising technical performance, would surely have to be a public body, not a private one.

Those in the Labour Party who want far-reaching policies to make the energy system work for people and not for profit could pick up these arguments and run with them. So could trades unionists in the energy sector who want to break with the false dichotomy of jobs vs climate justice, and want to play a part in the transition to an energy system that doesn’t contribute to global warming.

There are transformations of infrastructure that are more social and economic than technological – shifts towards energy-neutral buildings, away from car-based urban transport systems and away from carbon-intensive industrial production – that are outside the scope of the Energy Futures Lab paper, but would also form part of a serious socialist approach to energy.

Let’s be ambitious. When James Connolly wrote, “Our demands most moderate are, We only want the earth”, he didn’t have this particular discussion in mind. But a similarly bold approach is needed now.


[1] Labour’s manifesto currently commits to “taking energy back into public ownership”: (1) regaining public control of supply networks by altering operators’ licencing conditions; (2) supporting the creation of publicly owned local energy companies and cooperatives [i.e. for electricity generation, distribution and supply]; and (3) legislating to allow publicly owned local companies to purchase regional grid infrastructure. The publicly owned companies in generation and supply would “rival existing private energy suppliers” – which presumably means they would compete with, but not replace, the “big six”.