Monday, 16 October 2017

The Twin Pillars of Survival: What is the Green Party For?

"We cannot tackle climate change unless we address the system that has caused it,"
 John McDonnell, now Labour Shadow Chancellor, writing in Another World Is Possible - A Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism in 2007.

Ten years on, there was the same man, just yesterday, on the BBC Marr Programme, doing his best to reassure the audience that a Labour Government would prevent any post-election run on the Pound by working hard with the City to keep the confidence of the financial speculators, something he has already been busy doing. Marr himself signed off laconically with the observation, "I do like the picture of John McDonnell sitting down with asset managers all the time."

McDonnell's caution is understandable - the precarious situation of the Tory-DUP pact makes a further election far from an impossibility in the coming months. Labour's vulnerability to the fury of the capitalist media and quite inaccurate but well-embedded psychological fiction that greedy Tories are better with public money has lost them more than one election.

Yet, for all Labour's exuberant return to its programme remains inherently social democratic rather than socialist. And for all Mr McDonnell talked about tackling climate change yesterday, his economic plans remain fully anchored in 1940s style Keynesianism, with continued growth at their heart. It may be a welcome shift in emphasis from the grasping privatisation of the Tories (and discredited New Labour), but it is avowedly not a Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism, nor indeed for 21st Century Survival. For, with the climate emergency threatening to overtake us and deep scarcity looming across a range of vital resources in barely a decade from now, traditional economics are no longer fit for purpose, whether touted by the Tories or by Labour.

This conundrum much occupied the agenda of the Green Party conference last week. For the Greens, the General Election was a bitter-sweet outcome: their decision to stand down in upwards of 35 constituencies may have made sufficient of a difference to deprive the Tories of their outright majority, but equally the party saw its vote halve from its 2015 record over over 1.1 million votes and in spite of huge efforts in several seats it failed to advance on its solitary MP, the Co-Leader, Caroline Lucas - though it is worth bearing in mind that this was still its second best-ever General Election performance, both in terms of its national aggregate poll and votes-by-seat.

Under the circumstances, some degree of reflection was both to be expected and very necessary. Corbyn's manifesto had swept up a wide range of Green proposals from 2015 and with them had taken several hundred thousand Green voters - where now, then, for their twin pillars of environmental sustainability and social justice? Time, some suggested, to return to their verdant roots and focus on being an ecological party. Two motions proposed that climate change should be included in every conceivable message. Another called for all talk of alliances with Labour to be closed down. A workshop on campaigning heard demands for the Greens to focus on winning Tory votes and to drop calls for taxing the rich or taking resources into public ownership.

Fortunately, all these were voted down - the Greens were not, after all, so ready to stop highlighting their commitment to social justice alongside tackling environmental sustainability. Indeed, many questioned why anyone would doubt the interdependency of the one with the other - as even a longstanding ecologist argued, a steady-state economy would not be feasible without massive redistribution of wealth.

Yet by itself, this reaffirmation of the twin pillars of their values is far from enough to give the Greens' continued resonance and purpose in the political arena. The ecologists were right to argue that the party needs to highlight its differences with the Labour Party rather than appear like a willing subset of Momentum. The need to campaign on climate change in these days of Trumpian America and a British Government with Brexititis is daily more evidently critical - but far, far beyond raising the threat of global warming, the party needs to focus on what is central to defeating it: economics and ownership.

The cruel fact is this - Labour's social democracy will fail. For all their inspiration and well-meaning, Corbyn and McDonnell inevitably are dragged down by the bureaucracy and incumbency and even conservatism that comes with leading the Official Opposition. Hence the Marxist lamb sits down with the Asset-stripping lions and cautiously pushes change within the contradiction of consistency - a word McDonnell repeatedly used in his interview with Andrew Marr. 

Sooner or later, in a world of systemic collapse, it will not be enough. In a time when politics has never been more volatile, with voters earnestly or even desperately searching for new answers to increasingly challenging questions, only a party or movement convincingly embracing genuine radical change, far, far beyond building new roads and stopping PPI hospital contracts, can offer a positive way forward. All else leads ultimately to ever more pain and chaos.

As we face a world slipping week by week further towards climate chaos, the challenge to the Greens is whether it is they who can fashion a clear, radical and egalitarian economics - one founded on a steady-state economy that brings nearly all resources into common ownership, that embraces the bounty that new technology can bring in freeing people from labour and that stewards our limited resources fairly and sustainably. To do this, they need to address how to remove the market system from large swathes of economic activity and so reduce waste and inequity. They need to develop a clear narrative of how localised economies can work for the benefit of all.

Then they need to show how all of these things would work, day by day, for citizens, for families and communities. In a Green society, how would you get a house, or an education? What sort of jobs would exist and what would your working conditions be like? How would you travel about and would it still cost anything? What would you be able to do with the free time gained from a shorter working week? What new possibilities might open up post-capitalism, post-scarcity, post-rat race?

They also need to get angry: they need to bare their teeth not just to the frackers and tree-cutters, which so many Greens and their allies have very bravely done so well of late, but to all the vested corporate interests that are commodifying everything on our planet - even, it turns out, our individual DNA. Such behemoths will not go gently into the night; Greens need to gird themselves for a harder and longer struggle than Mr McDonnell seems willing to contemplate as he sups with the Futures traders, regardless of the length of his spoon.

And with the imbalance of wealth, nationally and globally, at historically obscene and environmentally unsustainable levels, yes, they need to take on the rich because the rich are not the friends of humanity nor of our planet. They never were, they are not now and, no matter how much charity a few of them dole out, they never will be.

But beyond them, beyond their fetish for accumulation and alienation, the rest of us, the vast, overwhelming majority of homo sapiens can transform our world and share it equitably.

Of all the parties capable of producing a first blueprint of that new world, perhaps only the Greens have the space to dream it into being, to fashion it into something real, meaningful and genuinely transformative. Many good policies are already in place covering everything from citizens' income to a maximum wage to employee ownership - but they have still to be joined up and given a compelling narrative, a true vision of tomorrow. 

It must be one they are open to sharing with other radicals on the left as the dynamics of our politics remain as potently fluid as they are now. They need to stand ready to work with those with shared values from other parties, transcending the tribalist barriers that all too often have frustrated the popular will - and one of these parties, for the foreseeable future by far and away the largest, will be Labour, or at least part of Labour.

Unencumbered by the Establishment weights increasingly affixed to McDonnell and Corbyn, the Greens can be the forge to generate the ideas and build a movement to create the conditions for deep, radical cultural change. Through this we can then finally unleash, in the words of the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin, "the basic sense of decency, sympathy and mutual aid (which) lies at the core of human behaviour."

Murray Bookchin, ecosocialist

Monday, 7 August 2017

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE - The Last Lament of the Liberals

“But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

Perhaps not now a household name, the mid-20th century American writer Sinclair Lewis  has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year. The first US Nobel Laureate for Literature, he came from modest middle-class Minnesotan beginnings to qualify for Yale in 1903. While there, he began a writing career that brought him to co-operative activism with the muckraking socialist Upton Sinclair, to pitching plot lines for Jack London, to marriage with an editor of Vogue, to personal friendship with the Third Reich chronicler William Shirer, and as well as to an ultimately fatal acquaintance with the bottle.

Sinclair Lewis (1885 - 1951)

Lewis initially made ends meet by turning out pulp fiction for magazines and the romance market, but his intent was to map out the contradictions and fallacies of the capitalist American dream, and his breakthrough Main Street in 1920 sold two million copies within a few years. Babbit (1921) satirized American commercialism in a fictitious town that was to host two future novels of his. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925) which highlighted the subversion of medical science by profiteering, but turned it down on the grounds that the prize was meant to be for stories that celebrated the wholesome nature of life in the USA. His did not.

With further works covering the hypocrisy of organised Christianity and the pointless lives of the rich, he did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, noting in his acceptance lecture that Americans were scared of literature that was in any way critical of their society, reflecting the fact that “America is the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring of any land in the world today.

Perhaps little has changed in the eight and a half decades since; a fact sharply reflected by his 1935 It Can’t Happen Here.

Republished this year in the UK by Penguin Classics, this was written in some haste in just a few weeks as Lewis sought to warn his compatriots of the rise of fascism in their midsts as well as in contemporary Europe. Against a real life backdrop of the KKK, Huey Long and the final years of Tammany Hall’s grip on New York, It Can’t Happen Here sends a warning through the years about what happens when morally bankrupt liberalism finally fails.

In Lewis’ story, years of poverty and hopelessness amidst the Great Depression give rise to a variety of movements among the poor (or the Left Behind as the Guardian would patronise their modern day counterparts). The League of Forgotten Men and Great War veterans rise to the radio-bait of the fiery Bishop Paul Peter Prang, a dead-ringer for the anti-Roosevelt Father Charles Coughlan. Like Coughlan, Prang preaches an anti-big business, anti-banker message to the Common Man, soon modified, both in the novel and for real, to a Hitler-approving anti-Semitism as well.

Into this tumult steps Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a Democrat with a populist message who successfully wrests the 1936 Presidential nomination from Roosevelt and proposes a blasé, vague ten point plan to take on big business and “make America a proud, rich land again.” With him comes Corporism, modelled by his Bannon-like eminence grise Lee Sarason on Mussolini’s corporatist state, and essentially Government by Thugs in corrupt accommodation with big business rather than opposition to it. The Constitution is subverted, labour camps are opened for the unemployed, concentration camps for political opponents and violence and murder become State policy implemented by the Minute Men, a paramilitary force modelled on Revolutionary-era militia. The President’s mood darkens as his difficulties mount, leading to him regularly hire and then fire his assistants – and, strikingly, he eschews living in the White House, which he doesn’t like, opting instead for the penthouse of a Washington hotel. Like someone else, he doesn’t live with his wife, seeing her mostly on formal occasions, but Windrip does momentarily dream of becoming Emperor of the Americas (we can only speculate on how prophetic this is, of course...)

Windrip’s platform is clearly shaped on Huey Long, the Governor of Louisiana, who challenged the first Roosevelt Administration (1932 to 1936) on its failure to tame the banking sector and ran from the left with a populist “Share Our Wealth” movement against the predations of the big oil and railway companies. Long's demand to cap wealth and redistribute it via a form of basic income to give every family an estate is replicated in Lewis’ tale by Windrip's promise of a minimum wage of $5,000 per year. Fearing Long's initial successes in mobilising millions of supporters, Roosevelt headed off his threat by making tackling rampant economic inequality central to his 1936 Second New Deal and moving the Democrats a few notches to the left. Notably, when Obama faced similar populist challenges after the 2008 Crash, these came from the right rather than the left, and he fatefully responded accordingly.

Lewis’ point is not anti-redistribution – quite the opposite as his pieces on common ownership and co-operative living late in the story show – but rather how messages appealing to the desperate can be used to subvert genuine democracy and divide rather than unite. Alongside the anti-Semitism of Prang/Coughlan run the denial of civil rights and material equality to black people by Windrip/Long. (Women meanwhile don't figure at all, with Windrip advocating their return to all-American Motherhood and baking apple pie).

Like populism through history, Corporism's appeal is to grievance rather than genuine social transformation and so, while the language may be of anti-elitism, it soon identifies other scapegoats. Contemporary to Lewis of course the tide of anti-Semitism was far from confined to Nazi Germany, while a modern version might as easily focus on Muslims or migrants. If for no other reason, this bigotry is essential for populists to maintain themselves in power as much as obtain it - the continuing malign conspiracies of these social enemies and malcontents being handily used to explain the disappointingly less than bright new dawn for many of the loyal citizens of the new totalitarian society.

Lewis’ protagonist, the progressive and initially very bourgeois liberal provincial newspaper editor Doremus Jessop, reflects how even although many are economically worse of under Windrip, the populist President’s supporters show far less anger at this than his “rational” progressive friends can comprehend, rallying instead to parades, flag-waving and marching-bands.

“They took to it, too, like Napoleon’s soldiers. And they had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The Minute Men saw to that. Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.”

There are some truly jarring passages prophetically lighting up the casual brutality of dictatorship and the craven surrender of the liberal elite to the demagogues of populism, swayed by reassurances of material security. Perhaps the most striking, written several years before the Nazi Holocaust began, is an incident where Jews are locked in a synagogue and gassed to death with truck fumes. A suspected gay man is brutalised by militamen, while nuns are raped and "un-American" books seized for public bonfires. Later, with chilling prescience, Windrip’s regime seeks to bolster public support by manufacturing a border crisis with Mexico to justify it making its neighbour pay for its alleged transgressions. (“It was planned to invade Mexico as soon as it should be cool enough, or even earlier if the refrigeration and air-conditioning could be arranged.”)

It has been noted elsewhere that It Can’t Happen Here isn’t Lewis’ best book; it dwells overmuch at times on Jessop’s domestic life, then leaps more into political discourse than story-telling, and of course was written for a different age. But it moves along and has some powerful resonance today, not only for the USA, but for all of us – of the trumping of cold reason by (apparently) heartfelt passion; of the bankruptcy of an economic system that rewards the few rather than all; and of how the long, slow death of liberal capitalism offers great opportunities for change, but also the grave danger of something even worse.

“As month by month they saw they had been cheated with marked cards again, they were indignant; but they were busy with cornfield and sawmill and dairy and motor factory, and it took the impertinent idiocy of demanding that they march down into the desert and help steal a friendly country to jab them into awakening and into discovering that, while they had been asleep, they had been kidnapped by a small gang of criminals armed with high ideals, well-buttered words, and a lot of machine guns.”

A Windrip for our Time? One Trumpeteer's take.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

No Business on a Dead Planet

London Morning - our carbonated capital
 The Government's announcement today that it is banning petrol and diesel cars on British roads from 2040 onwards has been trumpeted as powerful action to counter both the clean air emergency now affecting all urban and even many rural areas of the UK as well as global warming. Tories have lauded this as a evidence of their concern for the well being of the five citizens who die every single hour from pollution emissions and parts of the lick spittle media have touted it as a bold green initiative. On the BBC, a reporter fretted about how millions of motorists would be angered and inconvenienced over the coming decades.

Yet while it is welcome that the debate has moved from not if but to when we ban carbon vehicles from the roads, this move was increasingly becoming inevitable as public awareness of pollution has rocketed and faith in both car manufacturers and government regulation have plummeted following the growing scandal of cover ups on diesel toxins. It may indeed be one of the last impacts of European Union action on domestic British policy before Brexit, as the EU has played a leading role in bringing the manufacturers to account.

More than this, though, the timescale is appalling. A growing number of climatologists and environmentalists, surveying the exponential increase in the speed of climate change, are now confirming what Greens have been arguing for some years - that we are already at a tipping point and if we have any time left at all to act decisively to stop runaway climate change, it can be measured in single-digit years, not two and a half decades or more (or infinitely in the case of Trump's USA). The 23 year wait speaks much more the Government's being in thrall to the motor vehicle and oil lobbies than it does to Environment Secretary Michael Gove's risible imitation of an eco-warrior.

Not so funny - risible Gove
Norway has set a target to remove carbon vehicles by 2025 and the huge economy that is India is aiming for 2030, alongside its rapid adoption of solar power, which is now seeing many Indian coal mines close. China, plagued by dreadful city smog for much of the year, is now investing more in clean enery than the rest of the world combined and getting carbon wagons off the streets of Beijing is a high priority.

With time running out, Britain's laggardly approach is appalling, especially when the same Tory-DUP regime is slowing down development of clean energy. This leaves the possibility that electric cars could simply remove pollution from the streets and release it elsewhere from racheted-up power stations. It's not just cars that need to be carbon emission free - it's everything and there is little real sign of that happening.

Five deaths per hour equal 45,000 lives lost on the altar of carbon  worship every single year, with cars accounting for as much as a fifth of that. That means over a million lives could be needlessly lost and many millions more degraded in Britain by 2040. To put that in context, that is three times the number of fatalities suffered by the UK in the entire Second World War. Surely, then, we should be treating both our filthy air and global warming at least as great a threat to our future as Hitler was and invoke a national emergency. Just as the state harnessed Britain to survive and strike back at the Nazis, so it can and must direct all its efforts now to creating a nationwide infrastructure of renewable energy production, emission-free transport and clean industry. Public ownership is a must, as it was in World War Two, to ensure that resources are directed effectively and fairly.

This crisis will define not only our time, but the times of the generations to come, if indeed our species survives that long. We will need in this much, much more than the dilettantism of Gove and the vested interests of his party funders. The threat may be invisible and its impact slow and not directly obvious on its victims, but it is the greatest our species has ever faced. There is no time for delay so that shareholders can stop to scoop up their dividends while condemning us to a collective carbon suicide.

Maybe we should appeal to the one thing they might just understand: there will be no business on a dead planet.

The clock is ticking.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Thatcher's Children

Copious lines have been written and video footage aired of the utterly horrendous fire at Grenfell tower in west London. The sights and sounds of people in fear and in death, and the red raw grief of the survivors, their families and the local community are beyond adequate description.

Yet these personal and collective tragedies speak too to a wider truth, one which has been buried away for years by mainstream commentators and media (though covered here), but which is now finally being aired, not least thanks to the outcome of June's General Election and the willingness of the dramatically insurgent Jeremy Corbyn to speak about the things that dared not be mentioned by his neoliberal predecessors. For, more powerfully and tragically than any blog, inspection report or political speech, the Grenfell fire has horrendously illuminated the very human impact of the Great Inequality at the faltering heart of British society and in particular the effect it has on that most vital need of everyone alive – the need for a comfortable, secure and perhaps above all, a safe place to call Home.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, shelter is one of the most primal needs of home sapiens alongside food. That it is unavailable to so many in this, the fifth richest country on a materially prosperous world is beyond a scandal – rather it evidences that we live on a planet ruled by psychopathy, with an economic system founded on essentially psychopathic principles and an elite willing to sacrifice the lives of lessers to enjoy, in the case of Grenfell Tower, a better view.

For let’s be in no doubt – while few people would actively harm others, millions willingly embrace a system that does untold harm to tens and hundreds of millions. Incidents like Grenfell Tower are simply the most striking, the most urgent, most public of the toll taken on those who are on the wrong side of the economic divide. Nero was probably unfairly accused of deliberately setting fire to Rome to turn squalid slum housing into his personal park, but the holocaust of decent housing and safe housing standards across Britain and most acutely in London has been a modern day fiddle of epic proportions. And the Tories and their allies are at the very heart of it.

From small beginnings, and, as with all cons, selling citizens’ ruin as a virtue to their victims, the Thatcher Gang first alienated and then appropriated public housing before their grasping descendants effectively finished it off under Blair and Cameron. In this context, tearless Theresa, while an appalling, craven character in so many ways, is (perhaps unsurprisingly) unremarkable. Her pathological lack of empathy is no aberration but, if anything, the Ideal, representing the Homo Capitalissimus, the Children of Thatcher.
Consider the tack – first of all, selling off council houses to sitting tenants through the 1980s and 1990s, trumpeted in the same way as the sick joke of the “shareholder economy” when the state’s energy assets were being flogged off, was marketed as giving people a security they could not get from council housing. This was in spite of the fact that tenancy of council housing was normally assured and, by law, at a fair rent. Rent controls and assured tenancies also at that time existed in the private rented sector, affording some degree of protection for renters.

Next Thatcher and Major went about dismantling all these controls and protections, supposedly for the benefit of “choice and flexibility”. As tenants became homeowners unable to get a market price for their houses on council estates, many sold on to… private landlords, many of them Tory MPs or their relatives or business partners, mates or simply their elite class comrades. Around one in three homes sold to council tenants are now privately rented, without the levels of maintenance or security of tenure, nor low rents, that people once enjoyed.

Similarly, a slew of other regulations and arrangements were destroyed: for example, the state Property Services Agency with a fund of information and expertise on rent and building controls, including safety, was stripped down and privatised. Councils were barred from using the receipts from council house sales to invest in either new or even their remaining stock. And soon forced transfers to housing associations and the rip-off of “arms-length management organisations” (often the former council housing chiefs running their own “not for profit” company) meant that democratic control of housing was gone. State funding over the decades, under both Tories and Nu-Labour, then conspired to force what had been local or specialist charitable housing associations to merge and develop into ever bigger, remote beasts until now just a handful control the vast majority of “social housing”, as what was once council housing is now known.

Everywhere you look over the last thirty years in social housing, all you can see is a steady stripping away of protection, contracting out of maintenance services, downgrading of tenants voices and underfunding of any redevelopments. And of course, in boroughs like Kensington & Chelsea, Tory leaders have made a virtue of running down their public services, running a surplus and paying a dividend back to their rich residents – the borough is on average the very wealthiest in the UK, but also one of the most grossly unequal. The absence of council staff from the tower area in the days after the fire was probably as much down to the fact that there are so very few of them as to bad organisation.

So here we are now – in the fifth richest society on the planet, in real terms more than twice as prosperous as it was in the 1970s, more and more people sleep in the street; millions more than ever can’t afford to buy any housing; and London and elsewhere boast tens of thousands, if not more, empty properties purchased as “investments” to deliberately lie empty until their owners flog them on to the next property investor. Those who do have places to live may easily end up with insecure tenancies in properties whose landlords the current government decided last autumn to not make legally responsible for ensuring are fit for human habitation. Some may end up, as shown on the BBC by chance the evening after the Grenfell fire, crowded in rented properties three or four to a room, or living literally in a cupboard, or even in a garage with just a tarpaulin sheet for a door.

Or maybe they end up dying in a block of flats, with no fire escape, nor any sprinkler system, with flammable cladding primarily put in place to spare the eyes of the rich across the borough, offended by the site of an ugly tower block full of “little people” as one Tory MP patronisingly called the survivors. While tests show a 100% failure rate on cladding on tower blocks across the country now, it may yet be that they are compliant with fire safety standards - because they too have been compromised in the search for every more profit.

Much is being said about the need to learn from the fire. Corbyn has rightly and radically called for the requisitioning of the empty properties in the borough to house the survivors leading to shudders of outrage from many Tories and their collaborators. 

Mark Bridgen MP fulminated that this was a nonsensical idea when student accommodation could be used instead (the irony of the state of a lot of that being lost amidst his blind arrogance); alleged celebrity Anne Diamond appeared on TV to dismiss the idea on the grounds that many of the owners live abroad so couldn’t be contacted (email stops at Dover since Article 50 was invoked); but most breath-taking of all was the insistence of economist Andrew Lilico, Chairman of the Institute of Economic Affairs, on Radio 4 PM that it would be “immoral” to seize private property and if not doing so meant people were homeless “well, you don’t always get exactly what you want.” (49.30 mins in on - ). Even in a disaster of the magnitude of Grenfell tower, he feels that it is wrong to share property for the common need, never mind the common good.

Andrew Lilico
The lines are drawn. Grenfell is not an aberration. It is not an accident. And Theresa May’s Government by psychopathy should not be a surprise or a shock to us.

Because, ever since Thatcher declared there is no such thing as society, just individuals, this has been our destination. Capitalism is about exploitation – everything is in the end a commodity to be bought and sold and the smartest or fastest or best-protected racketeer gets to walk away with the prize. There is no empathy, no compassion. Self-interest and functioning without conscience or regard for others trumps all.

So, welcome to the future. To Thatcher’s Children and the planet of the psychopaths. This is our world now, but only for as long as we allow it. For, like all “libertarians”, what Mr Lilico sitting in the BBC studio yammering on about property rights forgets is that property rights only exist for as long as society - all of us - continue to recognise them.