We are tired of this blindness

Modern capitalism has ignored the lessons of history in the ignorant and short-sighted pursuit of individual wealth. See for example the article Economics for the People by economic historian Dirk Philipsen in Aeon magazine, from which I quote at length, due to its eloquence:

In preindustrial societies, cooperation represented naked necessity for survival. Yet the realisation that a healthy whole is larger than its parts never stopped informing cultures. It embodies the pillars of Christianity as much as the Islamic Golden Age, the Enlightenment or the New Deal. In the midst of a global depression, the US president Franklin D Roosevelt evoked an ‘industrial covenant’ – a commitment to living wages and a right to work for all. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr gave voice to the broader idea when he said that no one is free until we are all free. On Earth Day 1970, the US senator Edmund Muskie proclaimed that the only society to survive is one that ‘will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, … clean air for some and filth for others’. We should call these ideas what they are – central civilisational insights. Social and economic prosperity depends on the wellbeing of all, not just the few.

Cultures that fundamentally departed from this awareness usually did not, in the long run, fare well, from the Roman Empire to Nazism or Stalinism. Will neoliberal capitalism be next? Rather than acknowledge the endless variety of things that had to be in place to make our individual accomplishments possible, it is grounded in the immature claim that our privileges are ‘earned’, made possible primarily by private initiative.

But what a claim it is: where would we be without the work and care of others? Without the food from the farmer? Without the electricity and housing and roads and healthcare and education and access to information and hundreds of other things provided to us, day in and day out, often for free, and routinely without us knowing what went into their existence? Seeing ourselves as seemingly free-floating individuals, it’s both easy and convenient to indulge in the delusion that ‘I built it. I worked for it. I earned it.’

The painful flipside are the billions of those who, through no fault of their own, drew the short end of the stick. Those who were born in the wrong country, to the wrong parents, in the wrong school district – ‘wrong’ for no other reason than that their skin colour or religion or talents didn’t happen to be favoured. The limited focus on the individual can here be seen as nakedly serving power: if those who have privilege and wealth presumably earned it, so must those who have pain and hardship deserve it.

Make no mistake, this is the mistaken direction that the US and UK have increasingly taken since the 1980s, the ideology that has driven tax cuts for the well off and austerity for the public good. This is the ideology driving the right wings of both the Republican Party in US, the Conservatives in UK and similar parties across the Western world.

It is time that the direction of travel changes. Covid-19 and climate change are making this crystal clear; the system has produced these, and they are the necessary corrective. We really are all in this together, and making a good life for everyone really is the answer, and should be the goal.

The pendulum needs to swing big-time. Some call it socialism, with a derogatory tone to their voice. It is basic human dignity and the basis of civilisation.

Featured image is from the article in Aeon magazine.

After Covid-19 – humanity at the crossroads

Following covid-19 humanity has critical choices to make. A return to ‘business as usual’ does not seem to be a viable option to those of us who despair at the effects it was having – environmental, political and social. Matthew Wright gives here a great outline of the options facing us. Obviously, his third option is the only way to go.

Matthew Wright

One of the ironies of the past few months, for me at least, has been the way most western governments have – after two generations of hands-off, market-driven neo-liberal indifference at the plight of the people – suddenly ‘switched on’ old-style Keynesian support systems. The fiscal faucets have opened, and money is pouring into the economies of nations that, one after another, have been forced to lock down their populations against the pandemic.

I confess that after two generations of neo-liberalism, I am cynical about the motives. It is just possible that governments around the world have genuine care for the people in their policy-making. I can think of one that does. But for the rest – well, I doubt it. I suspect the main reason why one government after another has been forced to engage in support packages despite still, for the most part, having an ideological foundation in…

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Chickens coming home

It has long been apparent that free market capitalism, as currently practised, is running into the buffers of climate breakdown, species extinction, pollution and gross inequality. A system that favours profit maximization at the expense of all else, including nature, cannot expect to go on and on without consequence.

Similarly, globalisation of finance, tourism and product supply with consequent massive movement of people, products and living beings around the world is foundering on the sands of the coronavirus panic and the apparent inability of the system to withstand shocks, and the human fears that follow.

Further, the overemphasis on sovereignty of nation states, with the related rise of populism, and with a weak United Nations, means that collective attempts to resolve these problems is easily nullified by powerful actors.

The chickens are indeed coming home to roost. Yet this process seems to be necessary before humanity can build up the collective will to make the necessary changes.

Change there will be, but only when the consequences have effectively forced it. Human nature seems to work that way.

Stakeholders and Davos

It was around 1985/6 that I became aware of shareholder capitalism. Up to that time, our company had been a business that designed, produced and sold computers, and was proud of its contribution to the local economy. Then along came these ideas of shareholder value, and suddenly the accounts became oriented to optimising the share price. My area, software, became ‘capitalized’ and included in the sums.

It was not evident to me at the time where this was headed, and indeed in the early years of the Blair government (late 1990s) I remember quite an excitement at the idea of stakeholder capitalism, whereby the purpose of a company was not just to make money but to be concerned with all its stakeholders – customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and the surrounding society. Unfortunately, this idea gradually seemed to disappear and full-blooded shareholder capitalism resumed – all that mattered was to make money for shareholders.

Since then, the dysfunction of this system has become apparent, in that companies have become global, relocate operations at will, produce obscene inequality, and avoid paying local taxes that enable governments to adequately function in their sphere. And the corporate world does not appear to accept responsibility for addressing the social and climate breakdown they have caused, indeed some actively try to avert action.

Now, the World Economic Forum and the annual Davos gatherings do not have the greatest of reputations, but their founding ethos is undeniably good – seeking to provide a forum where corporations and governments can discuss key issues and the way ahead.

The Davos Manifesto 2020 outlines what I’m sure most of us would like today’s corporations to be like. If only they were, we could all have more confidence that humanity was at last headed in the right direction.

The companion page why we need the Davos manifesto articulates well why such stakeholder capitalism is desirable and why it is better suited to addressing today’s challenges than is either current shareholder capitalism in the West or state capitalism in the East. The thing is, it allows its management to act as moral agents, rather than as self-interested accountants.

It will take a long time to convert all the diehards, but all power to Davos for its annual meeting 21-24 January.

It might help if we each hold them in mind, send positive thoughts, or pray for them!

Their Inheritance

Quotes from Great Thunberg at COP25, Madrid, reported by Evening Standard:

“Greenhouse gas emissions has to stop. To be stable at 1.5 degrees we need to keep the carbon in the ground.”

“Only setting up distant dates and saying things which give the impression that action is underway will only most likely do more harm than good because the changes required are still nowhere in sight.”

“The politics needed does not exist today despite what you might hear from world leaders… I still believe that the biggest danger is not inaction, the real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening when in fact almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR.”

“If there is a child standing in the middle of the road and cars are coming at full speed you don’t look away because it’s too uncomfortable, you immediately run out and rescue that child, and without that sense of urgency how can we, the people, understand that we are facing a real crisis.”

“In just three weeks we enter a new decade, a decade that will define the future, and right now we are desperate for any sign of hope.”

Such young people see clearly. The Emperor of capitalism, with constant unfettered economic growth and inadequate environment protection, has no clothes. Current political leaders have failed. We have to get organised globally to address the problem.

Featured image by Anders Hellberg via Wikimedia Commons.

Polarity

Polarities obey polar logic, which is not the same as having logical opposites. Polar opposites exist by virtue of each other – they need each other. Eg day/night, inner/outer, understanding/imagination, left/right brain, material/spiritual, masculine/feminine, magnetic poles, yin/yang.

Shifts in the relationship between the poles give rise to imbalances that inevitably need to be rebalanced. This is not a logical process but requires imagination and creativity.

If the imbalance is not corrected, stasis occurs, the polarity loses its active, creative, character – the polar system is not working. Eg if we focus entirely on the outer at the expense of the inner, life becomes shallow and without meaning, meaning coming from inner experience. One might imagine a materialist world devoid of inner/spiritual experience to be meaningless (cf Beckett, Sartre) or a surface life of triviality and entertainment (cf today’s popular culture).

Look at politics for another example. There is a clear polarity between the capitalist entrepreneur and the needs of labour – if you like, capitalism vs socialism. Since the 1970s the balance has been shifting away from socialism, a process driven by people who believe that one ‘side’ can win. They are deluded. Inequality gets ever greater. In a dysfunctional system, no one wins.

Or consider integration of UK with EU (remainers) vs UK being totally independent (brexiteers). Full independence is an illusion, just as full integration is probably not desirable. We need the benefits of both. Theresa May seems to be trying to tread that necessary balancing line between the two, as is, probably, Jeremy Corbyn. Good luck to them. A sudden ‘hard brexit’ would simply mean years of hardship, until a new balance of the inevitable relationship is achieved.

The Chinese yin/yang picture perfectly encapsulates the nature of these polarities.

Inspired by Gary Lachman’s book ‘Lost Knowledge of the Imagination’, p122. 

Saving Capitalism

Readers of liberal media know the story. Inequality is getting worse, banks, corporations and rich individuals distort ‘the system’ to their own advantage. Communities are being gradually destroyed, as is the ability of the mass of people to support public services. In short, modern capitalism has become unfair and unsustainable. And then on top of that, increasing automation is destroying ever more jobs, just as education is creating ever more people capable of doing them.

saving capitalismRobert Reich is a professor on public policy at Berkeley and well known author. His book ‘Saving Capitalism’ explains it all, particularly in the context of the US. His subtitle ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ expresses well where he is coming from.

Reich points out that typical public debate between right and left between ‘free markets’ and ‘more government’ actually obscures the real issue. Governments are responsible for designing, organising and enforcing markets, and this is where the focus should be. Particularly in the US, moneyed interests have successfully subverted the process in their own favour. The resulting increased inequality is there for all to see.

As Reich explains, this direction has been supported by both Republican and Democratic establishments from the era of Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, Obama. The countervailing powers to the extremes of capitalism have been gradually eroded, organised labour largely destroyed, ever-reduced and ineffective regulation, lack of control on monopolies, lax bankruptcy laws for big companies, shareholders given preference over other stakeholders, legislation influenced ever more by big money, revolving doors between corporations and government, obscene rewards to chief executives… All of course came to a head with the financial crash of 2008, after which banks were deemed ‘too big to fail’, were bailed out and the American people paid the price.

As Reich points out, this sort of thing has all happened in the US before, and the system has eventually righted itself, notably when ‘big oil’ was dismantled, when Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ came along, when AT&T was dismantled and so on.

The challenge today is to restore suitable countervailing power to the political-economic system, so that the system can again flourish, and democracy itself be renewed. And this in a climate where technology increasingly means that the old ways of mass employment will no longer work.

The ‘rules of the market’ need to be designed anew, and the corporation ‘reinvented’. Reich is confident that this can be done. But to do it people need to begin to care and maybe re-establish some of the grassroots movements that provide necessary countervailing power. The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements begin to show that the impetus is there among younger people, in both UK and US. Indeed on the other side of the spectrum the Tea Party showed similar characteristics.

The populism currently sweeping the world is not the answer, rule by over-blown egos is ultimately non-democratic. Reich highlights the problem and the needed direction with a clarity that is commendable. We all need to be listening and using what influence we might have.

Houston and Harvey

Having family in Houston, the recent hurricane Harvey has been rather on my mind of late. There are two main lessons from this experience, an experience shared across much of the globe.

Global Warming

Of course, climate change and global warming did not cause Harvey – there have been major hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico for many decades.

But it is clear that the raised level of temperatures in the Gulf and ocean waters, caused by rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will have increased the severity of the effects of Harvey. It didn’t have to be as bad as it turned out.

If action is not taken on the lines of the Paris agreement, which itself did not make change fast enough to avoid severe consequences, future hurricanes in Texas will descend with increasing fire and fury on oil state Texas and its neighbours. The havoc caused so far by the current hurricane Irma, approaching Florida, gives a hint of the disasters to come.

Supercharged Capitalism

Houston was a star of unalloyed capitalism, the oil capital, minimal planning regulations, cheap housing, rapid expansion of population, apparently a great place to live.

But within that apparent success lay the seeds of disaster. New industrial and housing developments gave minimal consideration to the increasing demands put on old drainage systems, and the need to retain flood plains. Flood defences such as the Barker and Addicks dams were not kept adequately up to date. There was a lack of zoning of industry and housing, so minimal consideration of pollution effects on people living close by petrochemical works… It all seemed like the free market right winger’s wet dream! Harvey exposed this toxic mix as totally inadequate for a city in Hurricane Alley.

The City of Houston, the US and the world need to step back and get a grip on a more sensible way to manage human affairs, before we become submerged in a never ending chain of disasters. Supercharged capitalism is at best unintelligent.

The featured image apparently shows a waterway, which is a recently taken photo of the flooded Beltway, a major Houston artery. Things are far from being back to normal.

 

Lost our way?

A depressing experience the other day. We stopped off at Sedgemoor services, southbound on the M5 motorway, for a break.

This service station has often provided a refreshing break point over the years – pleasant parking interspersed with trees, albeit rather crowded at busy times. The Tesco-style facility buildings were hardly the height of architectural elegance, but didn’t grate.

Now Sedgemoor has been redeveloped, as the signs proudly announced. The new parking area offers excellent spacious parking spaces, and there the plus points end. The new car park is all tarmac with marked spaces. All trees and bushes removed. Not a living thing remains. Maintenance costs presumably reduced to zero, apart of course from the run-off when it rains – in a part of Somerset recently affected by major flooding. What a testament to our society’s ever-increasing disconnection from the natural world. Had it not occurred to the planners that connection with nature provides refreshment on a long drive just as much as loos, food and drink?

And then there are the buildings. A huge Macdonalds ad defaced the side of the old buildings, which appear to be abutted by breeze block boxes. Aesthetics and any consideration of beauty were clearly not part of the brief, which appears to have been ‘cheapest to make and maintain’. Had it not occurred to the planners that beauty provides refreshment on a long drive just as much as loos, food and drink?

Money was invented as a means to an end. The modern form of capitalism appears to have made money an end in itself. If your sole aim is to make money you will do things in the most utilitarian fashion, unless other values are involved. Costs incurred, such as those due to increased water run-off, more accidents due to less rested drivers, increasingly precarious pockets of nature,… are externalised – someone else’s problem.

We see the resulting loss of connection with nature and with beauty everywhere, exemplified by this development of Sedgemoor.

Mother Nature Bats Last

This Changes Everything

Review of the book by Naomi Klein

this_changes_everythingIt took me a long time to read Naomi Klein’s latest book, published in 2014. Basically, a lot of the material was so depressing that I could only take in so much at a time, and yet it was also deeply encouraging. Naomi Kline has been a leading writer and activist on climate change and the problems of capitalism for many years, and this book shines light in all the dark places she has come across, and that is a lot of places.

Here we see close up the waters of the gulf and Mississippi delta degraded by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; we follow the pipeline, fracking and tar oil battles and spills across the US and Canada; we witness the horrific social and environmental degradation and corruption in the Niger delta, and so on and on… We see how democratic politics has been undermined across the world by the corporate interests intent on continuing this plunder.

Diagnosis

Why has climate change “never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings”?

Klein’s diagnosis is clear:

“A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence…”

Essentially she suggests that the neoliberal consensus with its three pillars  — privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — is incompatible with the actions necessary to bring emissions to safe levels. Corporate interests have systematically exploited this situation, funding the movement of climate change denial and ramming through policies that enrich a small elite. The situation has also been the excuse for crackdowns on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Politicians and regulators have not been up to the job, even “systematically failing to conduct basic research, and silencing experts who are properly tasked to investigate health and environmental concerns”, so that they can suggest that all is well with the oil industry. “The failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.”

Children

At some point Klein became aware that what suffered most from chemical overload in the environment was the foetus and the young, and the worst effects of disasters such as Deepwater Horizon may be felt many years later because it was the young fauna that were most affected. There are moving parallels in the book with her own experiences of failing and then succeeding in having her own child.

“More than three quarters of the mass-produced chemicals in the United States have never been tested for their impacts on fetuses or children…  it was only once humans came up with the lethal concept of the earth as an inert machine and man its engineer, that some began to forget the duty to protect and promote the natural cycles of regeneration on which we all depend.”

Hope

But there are also signs of hope. Klein describes how indigenous movements have marshalled across North America and elsewhere to successfully resist the depradation of their lands. She invents the concept of Blockadia to describe these bottom-up initiatives to block further extraction of fossil fuels.

“What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story… Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe…”

Fossil fuels have always required what Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, such as the Niger delta or the Alberta tar sands, where the unfortunate inhabitants of particular areas are sacrificed so that others may have their fuels. Most people, including the middle classes, were not affected.

But “… the extractive industries have broken that unspoken bargain… the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk… Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where a clear majority of the population has made its opposition unmistakable…”

This is mobilising people as never before, and governments need to respond.

“… if governments are unwilling to live up to their international (and domestic) responsibilities, then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.”

Liberation movements

Klein finds positive evidence in the liberation movements of the past few centuries. The situation on fossil fuels is very similar to that before slavery was abolished – the vested financial interests were eventually forced to change, or bought off.

A similar level of change was achieved by the labor movement in the aftermath of the Great Depression— the massive wave of unionization that forced owners to share more wealth with their workers, and helped create a context for social programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance [this is a US perspective].

There is ‘unfinished business’ with most of the powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to indigenous sovereignty, which are very much related to the climate movement.

Klein suggests that “… climate change can be the force— the grand push— that will bring together all of these still living movements.”

Unwinnable battle

Finally, we are reminded that humankind cannot win the battle against nature that it has appeared to be engaged in. The solutions must involve working in sympathy with nature:

“The notion that we could separate ourselves from nature, that we did not need to be in perpetual partnership with the earth around us, is, after all, a relatively new concept, even in the West.”

At the end of the day, “Mother Nature bats last.”

Should you read it?

This book is certainly not easy to read, and you may not agree with some of Klein’s analysis – many will see her anti-corporate position as too extreme. But you will be better prepared for the battles to come – a generational change in values is no easy task.

 

 

The heart of capitalism?

I am standing on the footpath that threads around a large field in Cheshire. It looks like flattened mud, with rows and row of small young plants, maybe winter wheat? I feel desolate at the barren scene – no variation, no birds, no insects, just that vast cloying mud.

Confined-animal-feeding-operation
Combined animal feeding operation

I am being driven through eastern Texas. We pass seemingly endless cowsheds, enclosures, corrals of cows. Arid flattened earth, not a blade of green to be seen anywhere. A nothing environment for an unlucky cow to live what can hardly be called a cow’s life. My heart cannot grasp the enormity of what is being done here.

I read the story of DDT and Rachel Carson, and how the world stepped back from the brink of massive destruction of natural beings. And now I read again of the new DDT, neonicotinoids, which are being extensively used without due precaution. Not only the bees our life depends on, but other insects, the birds that feed on them, and the thousands of organisms of the very soil itself are being massacred. Ignorance on a grand scale in the name of money. I weep internally.

I drive through the northern French countryside. More huge fields, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy. Yet there is not a hedgerow in sight, so few insects and birds. I grieve for the lost opportunity to maintain the threads of nature.

I observe in my own Cheshire garden the decimation of populations of bees, butterflies, hoverflies, some bird species over less than half a lifetime. My heart tells me something is amiss with the web of life, and it is something to do with the way we farm and the chemicals we use.

And yet through all this there are signs of hope. Part fields of wild flowers in southern France – lost but now re-established. Land set aside for wildlife. Campaigns to keep and extend old forests. The organic and small farm movements. The national parks, scientific areas, conservation movements etc etc. In the hearts of many the connection with nature is still strong.

Does not the problem lie in our hearts? If we cannot feel that empathy with the whole living world, as we do for example with our pets, what hope is there for us? Industrial agriculture with its related chemicals appears to be largely about the pursuit of money at the expense of the natural world. Land ownership should imply stewardship of nature on that land, which means maintaining the connections of nature and should not allow them to be destroyed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the currently manifested capitalist system, that has money as its supreme value, lies at the root of the problem. If decisions are taken based on what makes the most money, rather than what the heart says is right, then does that not inevitably lead to the increasingly denatured world we see before us?

[Of course, similar problems are evident in totalitarian countries, which are either part of or have aped the capitalist money system.]

Featured image of Confined Animal Feeding Operation, from Wikimedia Commons