This is a useful reminder of the significance and realities of ‘peak oil’, a phenomenon many short-sighted people foolishly deny, including some who ought to know better:
All too often, trade unions and associated bodies (notably the Labour Party and the Co-operative Movement) are viewed as some sort of homogenous whole, basically of one mind and purpose. This viewpoint perceives the ‘labour movement’ as an essentially progressive army, in which the aspirations of the rank and file filter up through a network of shop stewards committees, trades councils, regional and national committees, plus, course, ‘conference’ … and then flow back again. Thus the movement is seen as almost analogous to the human body’s nervous system.
In reality, trade unions by their very nature tend to be sectional, i.e. advancing a specific group interest. They are also frequently ‘sectionalist’, i.e. putting the interests of own members first, at the expense of fellow trade unionists, let alone the general citizenry. Indeed the first unions, emerging amongst skilled workers, were quite hostile to their unskilled co-workers, particularly with regard to wage differentials and so-called ‘dilution’ (access to skilled work by ‘unqualified’ labour).
Many unions have also defended overtime working, even though it soaks up paid work that otherwise might be made available to the unemployed. Furthermore, union pay claims often take the form of demands for percentage, not flat rate, increases, something that obviously favours higher scale groups over those less well paid. Often workers themselves undermined the struggle against job cuts when they took the redundancy money and ran off into the distance.
At the same time, many calls for ‘solidarity’ have fallen on deaf ears since individual unions routinely look to their own. Indeed trade unions have frequently been vehicles for sexist, racist and, in some cases, religious discrimination. In some countries, notably France, trade union successes regarding job security have in practice made in harder for young people to enter employment.
Sometimes, workplace conflicts are replicated within the union itself, for instance when people like office departmental heads or school headmasters, individuals who may well browbeat their underlings, are one and the same person as the union rep. Trade unions often focus just on short-term too, ignoring what might the best interests of their members in the more distant future.[i] Many craft unions, for example, failed to get to grips with technological development, trying to defend skills and practices that already were passing into history.
Indeed trade union sectionalism can easily slip into straight corruption. Perhaps the most notorious example has been the American Teamsters. In Britain, the print unions exercised such a stranglehold on their workplaces that one often had to be a relative of the ‘father of the chapel’ and his clique to have any chance of getting a job. In places like Fleet Street, stories abounded that people such as ‘M. Mouse’ and ‘D. Duck’ were claiming wages.
Downright reactionary politics and corruption have also characterised some union and Labour Party links. An odious example was the GMWU in the years of Andy Cunningham, later imprisoned for corruption (he headed the union’s northern region, was a town councillor sat on the Labour National Executive and sat on, sometimes as chairperson, several ‘quangoes’, not least his local Police Authority). Much more generally, over manning and all sorts of other unsustainable practices have been defended on ‘union grounds’. In terms of individual case work, unions often have to defend members whose laziness, incompetence and other failings only serve to harm other workers who have to make up for the shortcomings of such individuals.
In broader terms, trade unions often end up defending jobs and indeed whole employment sectors that threaten the collective good, ones that would have to be phased out in the transition to an ecologically sustainable society. Of course such a process does not need to be as brutal as, say, the closure of the coalmines by the Thatcher government (not done, of course, for ecological reasons!). It is right and proper to care for individual well being in any such reconstruction.
Yet trade unions as an entity are likely to feel that their power base is being eroded and therefore oppose the necessary change (e.g. defend coal production, both deep mining and open-cast, when, as an activity, it must be phased out as soon as possible). Or they are likely to advocate alternatives which are, in fact, pseudo-solutions in that they either do not solve the original problem and/or aggravate other ones (huge expansion of public transport, vast housing programmes, giant wind turbine farms, large-scale production of ‘green cars’, etc).
In actuality, in sector after sector, from airport expansion, nuclear power plant construction and arms manufacture to the defence of the status quo in the public services (some of which might well contract in a sustainable society[ii]), trade unions can be found on the wrong side of the barricades.
A microcosm of such issues and potential problems was provided by the dispute in 2010 between British Airways and its cabin crews. The initial support from staff for action suggests that BA management style was largely to blame for the breakdown in industrial relations. Nor were BA’s staff as privileged as widely alleged, though many really poor people might disagree.
What is clear, though, is that their action not only jeopardised a company facing stiff competition but also disrupted the holidays of many working class citizens. More significantly, measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other unsustainable impacts of air travel will reduce job security and perks far more than anything demanded by BA management. So uncritical support for the strike and, by extension, the protection of the status quo for staff is not something Greens can give.
To be fair, there have also been several instances in a number of fields such as silviculture (where mechanised clear-cutting has felled jobs as fast as the forests) or renewable energy plant manufacture (e.g. the Vestas struggle) where there was scope for a positive synergy between the workers’ short-term interests and a long-term programme for ecological sustainability. Perhaps the best example comes from Australia and the ‘green bans’ of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation, led by Jack Mundey.[iii] But this does not change the bigger picture, namely that some trade unions are likely to be the current industrial order’s last ditch defendants and therefore, at best, very wary of bodies like the Green Party, if not downright hostile.
Changing world of work: changing unions
The Labour Movement itself has changed dramatically in recent years. The closure of so much heavy industry and a shift towards employment in the service sector have meant that any strikes and other action such as go-slows tend to hit the general public directly and quickly. In the past, the downing of tools by, say, car or shipyard workers had no such direct effect. One of the miners’ strikes in the 70s in Britain did, of course, lead to significant power cuts but, even then, its effects were not quite the same as a train being cancelled, a benefits office closed, a fire engine not coming to a burning building, let alone bodies not being buried.
Another change in modern times is that the ‘employer’ is less some factory-owning capitalist but rather a chief executive, serving faceless institutional shareholders or, ultimately, a government minister in what, in the case of countries like the UK, is a vastly expanded public sector compared to the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, the spread of the so-called ‘contract culture’ has eroded that base of well-entrenched, long-serving workforces on which strong trade unions could be built. The deduction of union subs directly from wages and salaries has further weakened the link between union structures and the ordinary membership. At the same time, the general trend towards more ‘private’ lifestyles (increased physical separation between work and home, with long distance commuting from one to the other, the lure of home entertainment systems and a host of other distractions, a generally more individualistic culture…)[iv] has further reduced members’ participation in the internal life of trade unions as well as further undermined union membership itself.
Furthermore, many unions now lack a coherent identity, covering a whole range of jobs and workplaces. Indeed they could be seen as conglomerates in their own right. Often they have rather meaningless ‘brand’ names like Accord and Prospect. Many ordinary union members seem alienated from what are sometimes rather remote, even mysterious entities.[v]
Today, many branch meetings struggle to be quorate, while committees often have vacant posts which no-one is willing to fill. Even postal voting in internal union elections, when all members have to do is to seal an envelope and put it in the post, is often characterised by low turnouts.
The notion of the ‘Labour Movement’ owes much to the interaction of the early Labour Party and the unions of that time. The Labour Party was very much the creation of trade unions seeking the removal of anti-union legislation by parliamentary representation, though bodies such as the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and the Fabian Society also played a significant part in its development.
The resulting movement, ‘Labourism’, was based on a division of labour: trade unions dealing with employers, Labour with Parliament, though, of course, certain unions played a major role in formulating Labour Party policies through their block votes at the latter’s conferences. The levy on union members for Labour finances further strengthened that influence.
The notion that union workplace ‘muscle’ might be deliberately used in conjunction with parliamentary action was, however, an anathema (unlike the Conservative Party which will use its connections in its ‘workplaces’, like the Stock Exchange, to trigger a financial crisis, like a ‘run on the pound’, to undermine a Labour government). It might also be noted in passing that, traditionally, trade union leaders have aided the right-wing of the Labour Party.[vi]
There is an old story that tells of the trade union official trying to negotiate a better deal for his members from the boss. Every time he comes back with an improved offer, the workers reject it. Finally, exasperated, he asks them what on Earth they want. ‘Abolition of the wages system’, they shout back. To which he replies: ‘But I cannot demand that: there would be nothing left to negotiate then.’ Trade unionism is a kind of reformism: it works within the institutions of the dominant social order, trying to win improvements within it.
With the exception of revolutionary syndicalism, the mainstream trade union movement has not been about the overthrow of that system. Indeed, during the British General Strike (which started as a protest against wage cuts), the British Worker, put out by the Trade Union Congress leadership, went out of its way to deny any revolutionary intent. As J. R. Clynes, President of the General and Municipal Workers union and subsequently Labour Party leader and government minister, once put it: “I do not fear … to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own.”
Economic struggle and Politics
However others take a more radical view of the potential of trade unionism, ‘bread-and-butter’ struggle is seen as a positive transformational process, a veritable school of socialism that teaches participants the need for a collective solidarity and impresses on them the vision of a new classless society. Some have gone even further seeing the strike — and the launch of a general strike in particular — as the political weapon.
The most enthusiastic were the revolutionary syndicalists such as the Industrial Workers of the World (‘Wobblies’). Others supported the strategy of a ‘knock-out’ general strike, notably the Marxist Rosa Luxemburg in her writings on the “mass strike”.[vii] At the same time, many on the Left viewed events such as the British General Strike of 1926 or the French strike wave in 1968 as potential revolutionary situations.
However some critics, notably Lenin, attacked what they saw as an ‘economism’, one that puts its faith in an almost automatic progression from a (limited) trade union awareness to a full-blooded and comprehensive political one.[viii] Such critics stressed the need for a separate and overtly political party, standing on a comprehensive programme and engaging in a range of activities, of which the trade union ‘front’ would just be one.
Of course, there was the danger that such a party (or, rather, its leadership) would see itself as the very embodiment of the proletariat’s best interests, thereby justifying, post-revolution, the suppression of independent trade unionism as, indeed, was to happen under Bolshevik rule (somewhat ironically, the young Trotsky had warned quite presciently of what he called “substitutionism”).
Greening the trade unions?
Greens have to relate to trade unionism, regarding both its role in the world of today and in the desperately needed transition to a more sustainable society. Central to any transitional strategy will be work-based issues, from training, job-sharing and flexible working to the whole scale and content of production. Indeed the entire issue extends to the very size of the work force and thus public policies regarding population, including immigration.
For all that, the trade unions do represent one of the largest blocks of citizens. Indeed, in some ways, they can claim to speak for the mass of the country – if one counts not just trade unionists but also their partners, children and other directly affected by union members’ wages and conditions. There is something even more important than sheer numbers, however. The unions cover the bulk of people whose knowledge and skills would be vital for the construction of a more sustainable society.
They can construct and furnish homes and other buildings, they do the actual farming of food, they fix the wiring and the plumbing, they operate the machines and production lines, repairing them when they break down, they do the cleaning, they stack the shelves, they process the forms, they operate the various means of transportation and communication, they provide the care and education …Without such work, society would quickly grind to a halt.
Now take the CEOs, board directors, financiers, stock brokers, traders, commodity dealers, marketing gurus, corporate lawyers, big landowners, media ‘barons’, the quango bosses and all their ilk. Take them away and life would go on, even if, initially, there might be some disruption. Indeed, in the long run, life would continue much more sustainably or, at least, there would be a better chance to create a more sustainable society.[ix]
In terms of specific sectors where Greens have a particular interest – the various utilities, transportation, vehicle manufacture, health care, the arms trade, etc. – there is often a significant union presence. Positive co-operation with the unions in such cases is likely to reduce opposition to needed changes and make their implementation more successful. A Green government or a coalition with a strong Green presence could well do without challenges of the sort presented by the Ulster Workers Council strike (1974) which wrecked the then power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. So Greens have good reason to consider very carefully their strategy regarding the unions.[x]
What is most certainly not needed is that knee-jerk politics characteristic of the traditional ‘Far’ Left. It almost automatically and uncritically supports just about every strike or hastily advocates all-out action as the best way forward. Such politics often involves dishonest exaggeration of how much support a given strike has or is likely to get. Worse, it one-sidedly blames ‘sell-out’ leaders when strikes fail.
It has to be underlined just how tenuous is the link between union involvement and political consciousness. Most strikes, for example, come and go without leaving any political trace. No radical left-wing group was able, for example, to build a significant and sustained presence in the NUM during the 70s, despite all the energy released by the two big national strikes.[xi]
Of course there will be individuals whose whole outlook on life might change by their involvement in a union dispute.[xii] Sometimes it can be a whole group of people, a striking example being many miners’ wives during the bitter pit closure disputes on the mid-1980s. It might be further noted that radicalised individuals often conclude that life is better elsewhere and cease to be local trade union activists. In Britain, this has often led to the door of Ruskin College and perhaps a new career as, say, a social worker or FE lecturer.
But the general pattern persists in which trade union struggle yields few long-term political dividends. The huge strikes in France in 1968 led to few lasting gains for the Left, for example. Indeed political parties can be harmed when the general public perceive them to be connected to socially disruptive strikes (e.g. the Labour Party and the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ at the end of 1978).
The ideal scenario might be one in which union power is mobilised to halt environmentally destructive activities. But the likelihood of such a development must be soberly assessed. Yet there are potentially promising areas in which Greens could make a worthwhile contribution to the work of trade unions while the latter – or, more likely, some sections of them – might well play a positive role in the struggle for sustainability.
So it is important to look at the Labour Movement as it is. It is easy to be seduced by romantic images of the toiling masses and their alleged representatives. Whenever someone waxes lyrical about ‘the class’ or ‘the people’, we should take a big pinch of salt.[xiii] Perhaps there are, however, a number of principles and policies Greens can readily support:
Standing up for union rights
The most basic one is that union membership itself should be viewed as a basic right (including the right to strike or else it is meaningless). Peaceful picketing is a legitimate aspect of that right. Certainly campaigns to unionise part-time workers and others afflicted by the ‘contract culture’ should be supported by every Green. More generally Greens should argue that for all their flaws, trade unions are a necessary and often very valuable part of a fair and democratic society.[xiv] Such rights seamlessly connect to demands foer a ‘living wage’ (though Greens look beyond that to the implementation of a Citizens Income Scheme, a untested basic payment to all citizens as of right)
Emphasising non-wage issues
Green trade unionists might encourage a stronger focus on various issues other than wage demands, especially amongst the better-off sections of the working classes, e.g.
- Focus on work flexibility and job enrichment rather than a one-sided focus on pay demands;
- Support for flat rate, as opposed to percentage, wage increases;
- Advocacy of work-sharing against overtime working;
- Demands for more action on health and safety matters;
- Support for plans for ‘alternative’ production (at least, genuinely appropriate ones!);
- Promotion of initiatives in the workplace to reduce car usage, promote recycling schemes & other such environmental measures …
Overall, the trade union world might not be the most fertile one for Greens yet it is one it would be foolish to ignore. Indeed Greens could and should put their weight behind a number of worthwhile struggles in which unions are centrally involved.
In discussing this or that union issue, sight should never be lost of the big picture. Regardless of the merits of specific causes taken up by trade unions, they are doomed to become lost causes without ecological sustainability.
[i] This author was a member of NATFHE when it tried to cling on the old terms & conditions, the so-called “Silver Book”, when it was clear that the status quo was no longer viable. A better strategy might have to put forward a whole new set of proposals for change, giving something to management in return for a decent deal for the members.
[iv] See, for example, Bauman’s ‘The Individualised Society’, Beck’s ‘Individualization’, Lasch’s ‘The Culture of Narcissism’, Miller’s ‘Egotopia’, & Whittle’s ‘Look at Me’. There is also the major study by Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone’, which charted the decline of many mass membership institutions, not least the bowling clubs of his title. The footnotes to this essay either give references, examples or further amplification of a point but anyone wanting to read it quickly can safely omit them.
[v] Such factors have led to a significant decline in the overall membership of trade unions as well as a shift to a unionism based on the public sector & therefore with a vested interest in high levels of government spending. Union membership has fallen from 13 million in 1979 to 7.5 million in 2009. Only one in seven workers in the private sector is a member of a trade union, though it is over 50% in the public sector. There has also been a big decline in the number of strikes, contrary to the impression given by the Tory press. This is particularly true of the private sector, where days lost because of strike action are roughly 25% of the figures for the public sector. Today, employers often have the whip hand & workers behave much more cautiously than in, say, the 1970s. Greens should never tire of stressing that far, far more days are ‘lost’ because of illness & injury caused in the workplace than by strike action.
[vi] For examples, study the activities of Arthur Deakin (TGWU), Tom Williamson (GMWU) & Will Lawther (NUM) in the 50s or the so-called ‘St. Ermin’s’ group of right-wing trade union leaders in the 1980s. Sometimes former trade unionists are used a fig leaf to cover the Labour Party’s pro-business orientation (e.g. John Prescott ‘covering’ Tony Blair). The union-Labour link has significantly declined, with example, comparatively few union branches now sending delegates to the local constituency Labour Party.
[viii] Britain’s one senior Maoist trade unionist Reg Birch made a similar point in his introduction to the 1966 IS (SWP) pamphlet, Incomes Policy, Legislation & Shop Stewards (see http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1966/incomespol/index.htm )
[ix] For a selection of self-serving greedheads, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8598020.stm
[x] It can be imagined with painful ease that Green measures would be actively opposed by not just employers but also workers in fields such as factory farming, road haulage, air transport, centralised power generation, superstore retailing, financial services, & indeed many more sectors. Chris Mullin’s story of the undermining of a radical Labour government, A Very British Coup, could easily be rewritten with a Green government in mind. It might be remembered that the young Bolshevik government in Russia was badly hit by a bank workers’ strike.
[xi] This author once sold over 100 copies of Socialist Worker on a march of striking ambulance crews in Durham. There were also large-scale leaflet distribution and public meetings in support of the strikers’ cause. Yet there was absolutely nothing to show for the activity one year later. The strike leader, however, later became a key ‘fixer’ for Tony Blair & was duly rewarded with a seat in the House of Lords. The author also once got a big donation from a local miners’ lodge for the then Tyneside anti-nuclear campaign yet it meant nothing in reality (his presentation was the last item on the agenda before the Sunday lunch-time bar opened downstairs & he suspects that the generosity was not unrelated to a rank & file desire to close the meeting & get down to the real business below).
[xii] Perhaps the classic description remains the autobiography of Farrell Dobbs, one of the rank & file leaders of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters’ strike. He went on to be a Trotskyist candidate for the American presidency. See his Teamster Rebellion in particular.
[xiii] A sobering & wise treatment of this web of illusions was written by Peter Sedgwick many years ago but the myths remain entrenched in many sections of the radical Left See: http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1971/xx/fifties.htm
[xiv] That last point might need underlining. Not long ago, the author was told in conversation that trade unions are “evil” (sic). This sentiment was voiced by an intelligent & decent-minded individual who, like so many these days, works in a non-union environment. Such people thereby lack direct experience of what unions actually do, leaving them vulnerable to the anti-union nonsense spouted by the likes of the Daily Mail. In reality, a great many problems are sorted out by trade union representatives, often behind the scenes, to the benefit of one & all, including employers, without any recourse to disruptive industrial action.
Lecture by Professor Tim Jackson (author Prosperity Without Growth), Newcastle University, September 2011
Professor Jackson’s lecture was unusually erudite and engaging. Fortunately the big Curtis Auditorium was packed so many people got to hear his words of wisdom. Above all, he conclusively demonstrated that what he called the ‘old economy’ was finished, even though politicians, civil servant and business leaders run around helplessly trying to find some means of reviving it. He outlined the contours of a new economy that can satisfy genuine human needs, whilst not trashing the ecological base on which any form of economy inescapably depends.
The language with which it is conducted however, often befogs debate about these critical matters. Thus Newcastle-Gateshead councils’ One Core Strategy local development plan uses much of the language employed by Jackson (‘prosperity’, ‘sustainability’ and so forth) to justify a concerted attempt to revive the ‘old economy’. The government’s changes to the National Planning Policy Framework have also been presented by ministers as a step towards more ‘sustainable development’.
Elsewhere there are individual commentators like Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand who are using ‘sustainability’ to justify a radical expansion of both genetic engineering and nuclear power. Others like Amory Lovins argue that ‘smart growth’ can do the trick, avoiding any need for more radical change. So there is an unavoidable battle over the very meaning of such language.
Nice one Tim
Professor Jackson could not possibly cover even a fraction of what needs to be said in his allotted time but, hopefully, it may not be too churlish to note one or two absences, ones to do with words not said. First, however, a certain politeness in Jackson’s approach might be noted. Perhaps this stems from his personality, perhaps from too much time Jackson has spent in academia and the (outer) corridors of power (the recently chopped Sustainable Development Commission etc).
However, a bit more anger might be in order, not least to mobilise ordinary people. It might help to denounce more full-bloodedly the rottenness of our socio-economic order: the sheer stench of the present economic structures, the greed and irresponsibility, the breadth and depth of human suffering, the repression of protest, the violence against other forms of life… Indeed a TV show like Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl or the exposés of the ‘City’ in Private Eye might perhaps do more to open eyes about individual profligacy or corporate abuses than the most technically correct economic graph. Certainly we need to pack emotional punches as well as sharpen rational arguments.
What did not come through forcefully enough from Jackson’s lecture was the way certain individuals and groups gain profit and power from ‘business-as-usual’. They systematically deny problems, witch-hunt those who raise alarm (witness the story of Rachel Carson), disown their responsibilities (remember Bhopal), drag their feet when action becomes unavoidable (crawling pace over global warming) and sabotage alternatives that threaten their exalted position (look at how the nuclear industry has tried to strangle solar rivals). We cannot ‘work together’ (as ‘reformists’ so often advocate) with people who, deep down, have no intention of co-operating with us.
Perhaps the biggest word missing from Professor Jackson’s talk was a small five letter one: ‘scale’. It was absent in several ways. One of his slides, for example, featured the conventional economic model centred on the circular interaction between firms and households. But Jackson did not directly address the issue of the very size of some of those firms, something that can make them “too big to fail” (at our collective cost… to their further profit) and which gives them such political ‘clout’ that mainstream politicians quail before them.
There is still more important matter of the ‘scale’ of all those households and the people they contain. But human numbers did not get a proper emphasis. It is not just a matter of their pressure on physical space and resources. The ‘weight’ of each voter in society’s ‘household’, for instance, inevitably goes down with a growing number of voters, not an argument against democracy per se, but still something to be taken into account, not least in gargantuan excrescences like the EU. It might also be noted that some of the world’s worst violence is happening in lands with the most rapidly growing populations: it is no mere coincidence.
Then there is the scale of the total human economy (numbers x. per capita consumption x. type of technology used) in relation to the total ecosystem as well as equivalent local and regional carrying capacities. There must be some proportion or else ruin must follow, as surely as night follows day. Obviously if we have fewer people, the ecosystem could cope with greater consumption per person (not just goods and services but comparative intangibles like ‘privacy’).
But it is total pressures that tell. So we need ways of regulating the quality and quantity of human interactions with the rest of nature. Jackson tended to focus more on the need for new indicators and targets within the human economy (all necessary) rather than measures advocated by the likes of ‘steady-state’ economist Herman Daly to set limits to those total impacts. Daly also stresses the need for limits on economic differentials within society. If we must bake a smaller cake, it is even more urgent to share it out fairly.
Jackson effectively demolished one assumption after another of the ‘old economy’ loyalists, the growth boosters and the snake oil salesmen. Yet, at the end of his talk, the audience was not left with a crystal-clear presentation of the fundamental ‘paradigm’ choice: growth (of any shape or form) or the steady-state. [The latter is not some fixed point: rather it is more like the dynamic balance that a successful cyclist has to maintain] John Stuart Mill recognised this back in the 1840s so it is scarcely a modern insight. But it is still one that needs to be loudly voiced midst all today’s clamour “to get the economy growing again”.
Yet one more word was not heard loud and clear at this point: overshoot. There are, of course, dangers in voicing an excess of ‘bad news’ and, in any case, it must be presented sensitively. But facts are facts. Indeed, it only compounds the crisis if the reality is not faced that humankind – in toto – has already transgressed several ecological safety margins. Pursuit of growth of any kind at that point is like shovelling coal into the boiler of a runaway train heading for a cliff.
The proliferation of all sorts of social ills suggests that, beyond a certain point, pursuit of more growth triggers parallel breakdowns within the purely human community too. Both individuals and whole communities can only be ‘stretched’ so far, before the social fabric begins to tear. Here Jackson did indeed make some excellent points about the absence of any linear correlation between economic growth and increased consumption, on the one hand, and, on the other, personal and social well-being. It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing, let alone bad ones.
Discussion of these matters particularly suffers because of a veritable fog created by vague words like ‘growth’ and ‘development’. Those two in particular have come to mean whatever their users want them to mean. Indeed, they can be used to justify all sorts of unsustainable and unworthy things. The grossly over-praised Brundtland Report thus advocated an expansion of nuclear power, the putting of more land under the plough and a big growth in world trade. Another word is sometimes added: ‘quality’ (as in ‘quality of life’) or ‘qualitative’ (as opposed to quantitative) growth. Then ‘choice’ is also used promiscuously.
It might be wondered if all those heads nodding in agreement with Professor Jackson at the Curtis Auditorium event were actually agreeing with quite different things. In any case, the whole ‘old economy’ was denounced in generalities and, like sin, no-one was likely to stand up and publicly demand more of it. Of course, where it comes down to reducing, let alone banning of, specific activities and products, that unanimity might rapidly disintegrate. Thus calls for something as simple as a lowered motorway speed limit, desirable on many grounds, trigger virulent opposition.
But there are also deeper problems. ‘Personal development’ may be very worthwhile for the individual, while most of us welcome some choice in our lives. Yet all these things do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on physical things. One might develop ‘musically’, for example, but it might help to have musical instruments, hi-fi systems and concert halls, all of which come with ecological price tags.
Furthermore, individuals can only do so much; usually one (worthy) option comes at the expense of another, if only for reason of time constraints. Limits-to-growth and trade-offs apply again… and again, it is something lost in the verbal fog of ‘personal development’, ‘quality’ and ‘choice’.
Professor Jackson’s picture of the world tended to be somewhat lacking in flesh and blood. Real people and real organisations were absent. It sometimes seemed as if the ills he so deftly described were happening of their own accord or were simply due to misunderstandings and misinformation. But forces like so-called Big Tobacco, Big Sugar, Big ‘Pharma’, the Fossil Fuel Barons and their ilk know exactly what they are doing and how much they stand to gain from doing more of it. Have we forgotten names such as Monsanto, Enron, Halliburton, BP, Cargill, Dow, BAE, Goldman Sachs and their ilk?
And we haven’t started on assorted religious fanatics, political crazies (Peru’s ‘Shining Path’, etc.)… not to forget a certain Jeremy Clarkson. Governments too play their malign part (Trident, foreign wars, new nuclear power programmes, support for genetic engineering, a wealth of ‘perverse’ subsidies, tax cuts for the super-rich, blind eyes to tax havens, etc… and, in some countries, economic incentives for large families). Then there are the assorted kleptocrats (Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier and so forth, though it seems unfair to leave out the likes of Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, the Duke of Westminster and their kind too), ‘mafia states’ (Russia, etc.), non-states (Somalia and co.) plus a weird and not wonderful variety of ‘rogue states’: Syria, Iran, Israel, North Korea… oh yes, and the USA
So we need to be frank and forthright about all those vested interests. That includes full recognition of those large sections of the general public who, either as workers or consumers, support, in one way or another, destruction-as-usual (Jackson’s work, it must be noted, is very perceptive about the psychology of consumerism). Many ordinary citizens play a willing, indeed wilful part of the waste and despoliation around us (from ‘litter louts’ to ‘petrolheads’). There is indeed a vast ‘anti-sustainability’ army with many generals and many, many more foot soldiers.
There are plenty of examples of this mass zeal for consumerism. The average wedding cost around £18,600 in 2011. It is not just a conspiracy by retailers to flog more stuff (an average bride’s outfit now costing £1500, for example) but something in which millions enthusiastically participate. The list could go on and on. The point is to be honest about the breadth and depth of opposition to what Professor Jackson called the ‘new economy’. It certainly can be discouraging. But naïveté will lead to even greater discouragement.
It is all very well to call for a ‘national conversation’, a ‘great debate’, and ‘dialogue’. But what if they – the massed ranks assaulting the Earth – are not prepared to listen and will not talk. Look how long it took to take lead additives out of petrol even though the hard evidence was overwhelming. How many died quite unnecessarily in the meantime? Look at the failure to stop the hunters, trappers, poachers, poisoners, forest clear-cutters, ‘wall of death’ commercial fishers, factory farmers … and the consumers of their products who – together – are wiping out biodiversity. Will sweet words of reason stop them? If not, what? We certainly need to talk about that.
Another word might help disperse the fog created by the language of ‘growth’ and ‘development’. It is throughput: in other words, the physical space, energy and raw material passing through the human economy, whatever its actual form, capitalist or otherwise. A comparison might be drawn with the ‘throughput’ of food in the ‘economy’ of the human body: it has to come from somewhere, it creates side-effects as it passes through, and, of course, it has to go somewhere. An excess of even the healthiest foodstuffs does more harm than good.
The actual economy too depends on certain sources (limited by nature) and sinks (their number and assimilative capacities similarly limited) while the use of the actual good and services thus obtained can be disruptive beyond a certain level (e.g. more cars > more congestion > demand for more roads…).
The very title of Professor Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth rightly draws attention to the need to curb growth and strive for greater ‘service’ (fulfilment, contentment and so forth) from lowered impacts on the Earth’s life-support systems. But there does come a point beyond which we cannot keep on squeezing more satisfaction from fewer things. Indeed the disruptive impacts of Peak Oil and so forth suggest that the landing might be a hell of a lot bumpier than the common narrative of a comparatively painless readjustment suggest.
No mention has been so far of that other variable: information. But it too depends on physical ‘holders’ (books, computers, cabling, CDs, DVDs, libraries, and so forth) and is therefore constrained. Human brains and sensory organs too suffer, beyond a certain point, from ‘overload’, i.e. excess throughput. Anyone who attends committees will be painfully aware of the counter-productive nature of excess throughput in terms of overladen agendas. Similarly, excessive throughput of data, targets, instructions and general co-ordination activity bedevils planning processes.
So all claims about smart growth, better planning, more research, the unleashing of human creativity, the construction of a ‘knowledge economy’ (a.k.a. the ‘weightless economy’), ‘dematerialisation’/’postmateriality’ and so forth do contain some wisdom but ultimately it all comes back to the ground: the Earth and the ‘rules’ that have enabled it to sustain life. It might not be a popular thought but perhaps the real challenge is not ‘prosperity without growth’ but ‘sustainable contraction’.
At your service
The ‘new economy’, as presented by Professor Jackson, seemed to depend a great deal on an expansion of the so-called service sector, including health, social care and education as well as opportunities for leisure and what he called ‘creativity’. Now many of these things are very useful. The collective and individual costs of sickness, neglect and ignorance should need no underlining. Most of us welcome the chance to go walking, do some gardening and in all sorts of other ways pursue what might be seen as ‘re-creation’.
But this whole sector of society does not necessarily carry a lower ‘footprint’ than the dark satanic mills of yesteryear. For a start, as noted above, these activities all come with price tags. Nature’s accounts do not distinguish the energy and matter embodied in armoured cars or ambulances, for example. Generally the service sector still depends on extractive and manufacturing industries for the buildings and equipment it uses, even if some of those items might now be made out of sight, in faraway places like China (and thus charged to their, not our, ecological bills). Large-scale transportation, with all its impacts, is central to much ‘service work’ (look at all the car journeys by care workers, for example).
These activities also have their own direct impacts. Hospitals, for example, generate considerable amounts of toxic waste. Education buildings have covered large areas of land with brick, concrete and tarmac. [Professor Jackson’s lecture took place in a building that typifies the hideous carbuncles that many universities have thrown up; indeed much of the central campus at Newcastle University was carved out by destroying working class housing]
Communication systems, not least the banks of servers underpinning the Internet, consume large amounts of electricity and, in some cases, scarce minerals (a cause of war in places like the Congo). Indeed the scale of so-called ‘e-waste’ is now becoming quite unsustainable. Surely little needs be added about the costs of sport and tourism, be it the ‘green cancer’ of golf courses, the environments gouged out by all terrain vehicles of one sort or another, the waters polluted by leisure craft… An increasing number of footpaths have been eaten away simply by the sheer number of walkers.
Limits-to-growth apply to the service sector in other ways. Many of its institutions have grown so big and become so bureaucratised that they frustrate the goals they were created to serve. Well documented cases of abuse, neglect and incompetence in hospitals and social services abound, suggesting that the problem is not just under-investment and poor training.
The incidence of iatrogenesis, for example, should discourage simplistic thinking that more ‘health care’, ipso facto, means more health. Schools, college and universities also suffer from a gigantism that make the whole experience more like a factory production line (one, with hugely rewarded managers at the top, as in the NHS,) than a rigorous and rich education. The inequalities inherent in private health provision, private schooling, private sports facilities and so on need no comment.
More generally, the allegedly ‘weightless’ and ‘placeless’ economy in the making, built on knowledge and innovation, is actually totally dependent on material things. This does not change just because a lot of those things are manufactured in sweatshops on the other side of the world. Many of the new ‘creative industries’, ‘digital hubs’ and so forth often pay poor wages on short-term contracts and offer sub-standard working conditions. Gender equality is often worse than in older businesses while pay hierarchies are often extreme.
So perhaps we ought to be a bit cautious about Professor Jackson’s bright ideas about a new economy resting on an expansion of the service sector. It also has to be stressed that no new economy can be considered truly sustainable if the goods and services on which it rests could not be sustainably generalised across the planet.
In other words, we have to keep asking what would happen if the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China had, say, the same number of computers, hospital beds, or golf gear in equivalent per capita terms as, say, the UK.
In any discussion of economics, words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ soon pop up. Again it is vital not to take them at face value. Thus mainstream economists, agribusiness representatives and many others will, for example, extol what they claim to be the high output from modern farming. Genetic engineers go further, claiming that GMOs are vital to feed the world (they never say anything about the number of mouths nor the hugely wasteful diets but that is another matter)
Such language must be contested. Perhaps Professor Jackson might have tried to find time in his admittedly short presentation to stress the central question of weighing output against total costs (cost of all inputs, side-effects and all other costs). Thus the ‘success’ of high output farming has to be set against not just the energy and raw materials it needs but also the nutrient depletion, soil compaction, aquifer depletion, water pollution, the destruction of biodiversity and so forth. It ought to include other costs like the nutritional decline of many foodstuffs yielded by the system. Full accounting would also include the break-up of rural communities due to the loss of local jobs due to intensive farm mechanisation.
Proper ‘book-keeping’ would also adopt a long-term time frame. Modern farming systems might be yielding – at the moment – an unprecedented amount of produce. But they are fast undermining their own foundations. The impact of ‘Peak Oil’ alone will doom this way of producing food. So in many respects what seem to be lower yield systems actually will produce more and more of better quality, albeit only over the long run.
In reality, genuinely sustainable production systems and associated technologies will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The sustainable cake will cater only for greatly reduced demand. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect, repair and generally maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses.
So an agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials (as advocated by the Kansas Land Institute, for example) would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its yearly food yield would be lower. It is true that there are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence which offer scope for a better use of the existing throughput. Beyond that, increased productivity is possible only at the cost an increase in overall entropy within a system.
This is the absolutely critical point that many ‘anti-austerity’ campaigners seem unwilling or unable to grasp. One may criticise the gross unfairness of current austerity programmes and the things they target. But any government committed to sustainability would have to make deep cuts, ones that dramatically lower the overall ‘throughput’ in the human economy. Those cuts would, in turn, mean less wherewithal for many current goods and services.
Are resources running out?
In his frequent – and obviously important – references to the finite planet on which we all live, Professor Jackson tended to stress resources per se. In doing so, he did not give due attention to the other side of the coin: the side-effects of resource extraction, manufacture, consumption and disposal. To be sure, he certainly was making a critical point. As the ‘low hanging fruit’ model suggests (most accessible and finest fruit picked first), there is an inevitable shift, in a growing economy, from the best resources to lower grade, more distant and less secure sources of supplies as high quality ones are depleted. So the peak of high-grade coal is not far away, even if total reserves of that substance might seem voluminous.
Furthermore, some resources possess special qualities, ones that make the traditional practice of substitution far from sustainable. To be sure, the old ‘biofuel’ economy (wood-burning) was replaced by fossil fuels. Similarly, powered vehicles replaced horses. Uses were found for substances like uranium that were previously ignored.
But past practices may not be replicable in the future as we begin to deplete the cheap and ready availability of all sorts of resources at more or less the same time. Then society becomes locked into a deadly game of musical chairs. We will need to do things differently in the future.
So, often, the problem is not supply per se. Rather it is ‘collateral damage’. There might be mountains of coal: what is more unsustainable is the wreckage wrought by extraction and the equally harmful impacts of burning the coal once it has been mined and transported to the point of use. Indeed, the human economy mobilises all sorts of minerals such as uranium, lead and mercury, ones present ‘naturally’ but not in the locations and concentrations that their extraction, use and disposal create.
Even the most carefully controlled mining, processing, milling and all the other processing will degrade and pollute as well as cause direct harm to people (silicosis, pneumoconiosis, cancers, direct injuries etc.). All such activities deplete wildlife habitat, regardless of the abundance or otherwise of the resource itself. So to do monocultures of any kind. Just look at the biological deserts that are coniferous plantations, compared to unmodified old-growth woodland.
It has to be stressed that the second law of thermodynamics tell us that there will always be unrecoverable ‘losses’ in the throughput of energy and matter. Heat loss, material dissipation, wear and tear are unavoidable. Notions of a ‘zero waste economy’ are absurd, contradicting everything that science teaches us. That is not to say that we should not try to maximise reuse, repair and then recycling. But again there are limits!
Of course Professor Jackson is perfectly aware of much of this. He duly stresses certain instances of such ‘collateral damage’, mostly notably global (over)warming. There is a danger, however, of falling into what has been called the ‘carbon discourse’. In other words, what in reality is a many faceted ecological crisis is reduced largely to one (albeit extremely alarming) manifestation: carbon emissions. This can divert attention from other dangers, both within the threat from adverse climate change and beyond, as well as cast in a favourable but undeserving light certain policy options, ones that often go under the label of ‘low carbon economy’.
For a start, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are discussed so often together that they almost become one and the same thing. As a result, other ‘overwarming agents’ like methane may not get the attention they need. It might be wondered if there may be an element of self-censorship amongst many critics of the status quo. Gases like methane are intimately linked to basic activities like food production and therefore the number of mouths to be fed. That, in turn, leads to that most politically incorrect word ‘population’ (or, worse, the unwelcome thought that there may be too many mouths already).
At the time, there is not just an excessive growth in greenhouse gases from human sources but also a contraction, again to human activity, of balancing ecological ‘sinks’ as well as changes to the albedo of the Earth’s surfaces. The result is further overwarming and an even greater danger of a sudden flip into runaway climate change and resulting catastrophe. Complex and uncertain though these developments undoubtedly are, it is surely critical to use every opportunity to challenge widespread public perception that offsetting a few tonnes of carbon will do the trick.
The same goes for the idea of ‘low carbon economy’. To some extent this idea has roots in an older misperception that the problem is primarily pollution. Instead what humans put ‘into’ ecosystems may be less dangerous than what is taken ‘out’, by way of general degradation and simplification. In other words, many destructive activities are comparatively ‘clean’. One only needs to look at hydro-electricity. This energy source has arguably done more harm than nuclear power (to date!). In some areas it is eve thought to have increased seismic activity due to the sheer weight of impounded waters. But there are many such ‘clean-but-unsustainable’ activities such as overfishing, poaching, wetland drainage, aquifer depletion, salinisation, dredging, river engineering (e.g. replacement of vegetation with concrete embankments), tree felling, monocultural planting, importation of alien plants and animals, and the paving over of land.
A ‘low carbon economy’ would defuse none of these timebombs. Take the ‘green car, for instance. To be sure electric engines have a number of advantages over petrol and diesel ones. But the problem is not just the question of where the electricity comes from. ‘Green cars’ would still consumes vast acres of space for roads and parking as well as infrastructure such as traffic controls and street light. Pedestrians and other forms of life would still be killed and injured in big numbers. ‘Green cars’ would still drive urban sprawl further out into the countryside. There might be a case for some electric vehicles, e.g. taxis and delivery vehicles, but limits still apply.
Another word does not figure prominently in much discourse about sustainability and prosperity: ‘capitalism’. Of course, it is one where, again, there is much debate about its meaning. Some restrict their definition of capitalism to ‘private production for private profit’. Others define it more broadly (as in ‘state capitalism’). Certainly the Occupy movement has given the phrase ‘anti-capitalism’ more resonance. Whatever the vagueness of statements from that source, perhaps its supporters are closer to the truth than those who propose a ‘caring capitalism’, one with a ’human face’, one operating “as if the world matters”, to use Jonathon Porritt’s phrasing.
Whatever definition is used, there seem to be fundamental and irresolvable contradictions between capitalism and long-term sustainability. The growth imperative is fundamental to the system: it cannot be reconciled to the finite nature of the Earth. The ‘cash nexus’ and the market mechanism discounts the needs of those who, for one reason or another are able to bid enough in the market place (the poor, those yet to be born, other species). Market-based systems also tend to destroy competition as the more powerful players gobble up weaker rivals.
So a radical economic restructuring will be necessary. There will still be a role for small and medium size private businesses but they will have to operate within a framework characterised by strong public regulations and a strong public sector, with a large number of activities performed by co-ops and other such associations.
There is not the space to go into detail regarding the systemic shortcomings of capitalism or the alternatives to it (on which, to be fair, much work still needs to be done). The point here is that the ‘plutocrats’ – or whatever one wishes to call them – are a major menace as are all the structures that create and sustain them. This needs to be said loud and clear. There should be no truck with the likes of Will Hutton who seem to think that a few reforms (curbing ‘excess’ bonuses, etc) will suffice. Nor should we make the mistake of blaming just one sector, finance, or a few rogue traders when the real problem is a whole system, of which the banks are but a part.
The Big Plan?
Of course ‘planning’ is not some cure-all. Frank Dikötter’s latest book Mao’s Great Famine documents in grisly detail how planned economies can go disastrously wrong. That was an extreme example. But socialist economists such as Oscar Lange came to advocate a degree of competition because of the very real difficulties encountered in the operation of a planned economy. Clearly Stalinist tyranny and foreign hostility made the problems worse in the case of the Soviet Bloc.
That said, it is hard to create the conditions required for successful planning. Accurate data collection, analysis, projections, co-ordination are all easier said than done. Furthermore, planners do have a habit of treating, people and places as mere units to be moved around at will or least on their charts. Look at the many disastrous urban redevelopments and big housing projects that now scar modern cities.
However, if attempted more modestly and at a human scale, with full transparency and accountability, planning can really serve sustainability. Indeed there have been some remarkable examples of planning, though often it seems to require the stimulus of war (e.g. D-Day) or international competition (e.g. the Apollo programme). The Victorian public health programmes provide a more benign example of what collective action can achieve.
It might be noted that there is a considerable degree of (effective) planning inside big businesses while the introduction of market mechanisms in the public sector has often has been downright harmful. Step forward the NHS! [We will leave aside notions of ‘popular planning’ since it is far from clear how many can really participate in such processes, as, again, limits-to-growth theory warns us]
But, regarding issues of ownership and control, we have to avoid dogma and judge cases individually. Beer production might be best done in private micro-breweries while inherently ‘collective’ things like water utilities and the railways should be in public hands. At times, some half-way house like Land Trusts or Housing Associations might be best. But only the state can attempt an overall limit to the size of an economy. Capitalism can never do that… until it is too late.
Last but not least, we have to avoid the dangers of economic reductionism, of seeing today’s problems only in narrow economic terms. Many problems pre-date capitalism (however defined) and indeed have no necessary connection with any kind of economic order. Mention might be made of sexism, racism, bureaucratism, anthropocentrism and what Professor David Orr has called ‘biophobia’.
Indeed the conservation of non-human species cannot rest upon any kind of economic calculation. It depends upon the ethics of ‘intrinsic value’. Indeed the allocation of ‘shadow prices’ to ecological services, including biodiversity, could actually make things worse since it might show that there could be ‘cost-free’ eliminations of, say, certain flora and fauna.
Conversely there is much more to sustainability than just economic changes (vital preconditions they might be). Professor Jackson is to be thanked for pointing out many things that could and should be done. But perhaps we need to stop talking so much about targets and indicators, with more effort put into the details of what the carrots (and sticks) that will be needed to ensure that they are achieved.
Czech. B. (2013). Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society.
Daly, H. (1992). Steady-Sate Economics. Earthscan.
Dietz, R. & D. O’Neill (2013). Enough is Enough. Earthscan.
Fodor E. (1999). Better Not Bigger. New Society
Greer J. (2008) The Long Descent. New Society.
Hamilton C. (2003). Growth Fetish. Pluto Pr.
Heinberg R. (2011) End of Growth. Clairview Books.
Henwood, D. (2005). After the New Economy. New Press.
McKibben, B. (2011). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St Martin’s.
Ophuls, W. (1993) Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. Freeman
Trainer, T. (1995). The Conserver Society. Zed.
Zovanyi, G. (2013). The No-Growth Imperative. Earthscan.
and of course
Tim Jackson’s own Prosperity and Growth (Routledge, 2011)
. Some of those margins – or, rather, ‘minefields’ – are listed here:
Faced at election time with candidates from blatantly reactionary parties, it is tempting to call for a vote for ones that seem more ‘progressive’ and have the best chance of winning. Yet such political tactics may achieve little and indeed sometimes set back the struggle over the really fundamental issues.
Elections of one sort or another routinely raise the issue of whether to support some lesser evil, voting in the way likely to keep out the most undesirable contestant. So, in the approach to the 2015 General Election, there will be calls to kick out the Tories by voting Labour. Thus the ‘Guardian’ columnist Polly Toynbee was quick off the mark (09/12/14): “cynical tactical voting to keep out the worst… the Cameron Tories”. Anything else, she claimed was “escapism”. As in her previous pro-Labour drum beating, she admits the party’s shortcomings but argues that there is no alternative but to wear a “wooden nose-peg” and vote Labour (the quote comes from her 2005 call in the same newspaper to back Tony Blair).
The tactic might also include the choice by a political party not to field a candidate in order to leave the field clear for someone else.[i] For most members of the broad anti-war, environmental and social justice movement in the UK, the greater evil at national and local election time has indeed been the Conservative Party, though, in some areas in 2015 that might be Ukip. In the USA, the Republicans play that part. Sometimes the enemy has been far worse, most of all Hitler in Germany.[ii]
The situation varies from country to country, of course. In France, for example, there is the possibility of voting for one’s real preference in the first round of Presidential elections, before switching to the ‘lesser evil’ when minority candidates are eliminated and the second round run-off takes place. But that option creates the danger that a vote for a party that embodies one’s principles becomes perceived as some sort of luxury indulgence, to be abandoned when it comes to the ‘real thing’.
That is not the only potential downside in such systems. ‘Big Beast Players’ (politicians such as Francois Hollande and Hilary Clinton) might simply take for granted support from radical elements such as the Greens, therefore giving little in return. Moreover, it assumes that choices between essentially conventional parties are meaningful at a time of very unconventional and dire threats to society that the political mainstream utterly fails to address.
In the UK’s ‘first-past-the post’ systems, the siren song of ‘progressive’ tactical voting is usually one, as noted above, that wants all good people to unite against the greater evil of the Conservatives. The assumption is still made that there are decisive differences between the major parties. It is further taken as read that the traditional left-right continuum of politics meaningfully captures what is relevant to the future.
In the article cited above Toynbee squeezes every drop out of this perspective. “So let’s have no ‘they’ve all the same’”, she says. She cites public spending, taxation, benefits, the BBC, Sure Start, the NHS internal market, local council services, and the EU. As we shall see, it is significant what she omits. She also says she is “alarmed that many… might not vote Labour… because it is not left enough. In other words, politics is a choice between ‘left’ and ‘right’ as if there were no other and now more important dimensions.
The politics of the lesser evil is usually couched in terms of ‘hard-headed’ realism. All else is dismissed as political gesturing, romanticism and other-worldliness. Proponent of tactical voting will claim that they are prepared to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done, with the added assertion that genuine progress will still be the result of the compromises entailed.
There are indeed moments in history when it is time to bury the hatchet and fight together against some Great Evil. The classic instance remains early 1930s Germany. There, the big German Communist Party refused to work with the reformist Social Democrats against the Nazis. Indeed it called the Social Democrats “social fascists” and, at one point, the Nazis “working people’s comrades”. To be fair, the Social Democrats used mirror arguments. Its leader Herman Müller claimed, for example, “red equals brown” (i.e. Nazi brownshirts). Of course, this divided anti-Nazi forces, opening the door to Hitler who promptly destroyed both groups and, later, many more once he had power. He had promised a racial war and he kept his promise.
Yet, those big historical turning points notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is that, more normally, it is a choice — essentially — between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Even that example of the Nazi take-over of Germany is not straightforward. After all, many back then, including the Social Democrats, saw former World War One general Paul von Hindenburg as the lesser evil against Adolf Hitler in the 1932 Presidential campaign. Hindenburg duly won… and then made Hitler Chancellor.
In America, it was the ‘lesser evils’ who most escalated the Vietnam War (Lyndon Johnson) and most weakened controls over the banking and finance sector (Bill Clinton), the latter action being the most direct contributory cause of the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, in the case of Barack Obama, there has been much more continuity than change (see the archives at http://www.counterpunch.org/ for a long list). Painful though it is to note, the greenest American President to date was … Richard Nixon (during his time in office, the most important environmental legislation was passed, even if he left something to be desired in a rather large number of other respects!)
So, ‘Lesser Evilism’ can even mean more evil, not less. Thus the Labour Party routinely takes for granted the votes of ‘progressive’ campaigners in specific fields like poverty relief on the grounds that the Tories will make things worse. But, once in power, Labour then makes concessions but only in the opposite direction: placating big business, rewarding the already super-rich, flirting with Jingoism, ‘cracking down’ on welfare claimants, and so forth.
Indeed, sometimes, ‘Lesser Evils” like the American Democrats and Britain’s New Labour did things that the Republicans and Conservatives would not have dared to do for fear of a backlash. In Britain, it included further privatisation at home, including far more ‘Private Finance Initiative’ rackets, and, abroad, more military aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The largesse given out by Gordon Brown to the banks, plus the paucity of strings attached to this gift, arguably exceeded what the banker’s friends in the Tory Party would have dared do if they had been in power.
Worse still, such policies usually disillusion previous supporters, with the result that, at the next election, what was the Greater Evil gets back into power. Meanwhile potential opposition to it is dissipated. So, there may be some progress, but, overall, there is regress.
Sometimes there are calls for co-ordinated tactical voting action (or GROT, “get rid of ‘them’”, they being whichever party or individual politician is most disliked). So far, discussion has focussed largely on the Labour Party.[iii] In some areas, most often in Northern England and other old industrialised areas, people would indeed be encouraged to vote Labour. That said, in other, often leafier, areas it could be a matter of voting Liberal Democrat since that party might have the best chance of returning a non-Tory to the council or Parliament. [To be fair, Polly Toynbee is consistent, arguing that the aforementioned “wooden nose-pegs” would have to be worn when voting for Nick Clegg’s LDs, despite everything, if they, not Labour, have best chance of kicking out a sitting Tory)
Some might go further, trying to engineer an outcome in Parliament that produces a majority for some desired outcome such as the introduction of proportional representation that, in turn, would boost the prospects of the real first choice, next time round. The Green Party, for example, would clearly stand to gain from such parliamentary reform since it enjoys a great lot of sympathy (but less ‘hard’ support). Under the present system, such positive sentiments are often not translated into actual votes because of that very fear of wasting one’s vote under the present system.
Advocates of tactical voting like to don the mantle of an ultra-realistic hard-headedness. In actuality, such tacticians are more like self-appointed generals without any soldiers. They manoeuvre invisible armies on unknown battlegrounds for clouded objectives. For a start, tactical voting depends on accurate knowledge of what other voters really intend to do. The main evidence comes, of course, from opinion polls. Yet, assuming a valid sample, respondents frequently give answers that do not necessarily reflect how they actually do vote. Political behaviour is bedevilled by contradictions and indeed downright irrationality. The tactical voting strategy assumes a degree of clear-headedness and determination amongst the electorate that, in fact, is often lacking.
In any case, the advice offered by advocates of some tactical voting ploy may well have to change as the fortunes of the various contestants change. A party or politician may be the beneficiary of sudden bubble of popularity. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s ratings shot up following the first TV debate in the 2010 (leading to ‘Cleggmania’). At that point, existing tactical stratagems may need revision. But the bubble may then burst. Perhaps there is a scandal. Perhaps more intense scrutiny attracted by those now riding high might reveal serious gaps and flaws in their policies and candidates. Perhaps opponents might rally and manage to deflate the bubble. Tactical voters might end chasing all over the place, to no great effect, in the wake of changing poll forecasts.
In reality, it is likely that calls upon Labour, Liberals, Greens and other ‘progressive’ forces to ditch their loyalties and vote for someone else could more easily lead to fragmentation rather than a decisive change in voting. Some may respond to the call but others may refuse, sticking loyally to their party. Meanwhile some voters may have changed to other parties. So the ebb and flow of votes may produce a result that is little different to what might have happened without any tactical voting campaign. In the meantime, a small party such as the Greens will have been made to look smaller, probably disillusioning some of its members and possibly compromising the party’s longer term prospects among the wider electorate.
Those poll forecasts may or may not be good guides to voting intentions. Either way, they are considerably less useful when it comes to predicting actual seats in Parliament. An assumption of some sort of uniform national swing will model one outcome, but, if all sort of real world vagaries are taken into account, the connection between the nation’s voting booths and actual parliamentary representation becomes less certain. So it is even harder for tactical voting advocates to give the right advice. Even if it were to be uniformly acted upon by sympathisers, the outcome may be far from what was desired.
Furthermore, tactical voting strategy assumes that those MPs who owe their election to tactical votes will actually return the favour by supporting the policies sought by those voters. In the case of pure protest candidates (celebrity anti-corruption campaigners, local grievance protestors and so forth), it is hard to know what they will do when it comes to issues beyond their original campaign remit.
So, TV ‘personality’ Esther Rantzen may have raised one or two good points about political sleaze in her attempt to become an MP but her policies on global warming and much, much more were not exactly clear. The success of doctor Richard Taylor, independent candidate 2001 in the Wyre Forest constituency protesting against the closure of the local accident and emergency services department, was perhaps more useful. His victory did spotlight the harm being done to the NHS. In Parliament he spoke out about the scandal of the privatised railways and the folly of the Iraq War. But it would appear that, like many independents before such as Eddie Milne in Blyth, it proved impossible to construct a sufficiently strong and coherent political basis, Taylor’s own political tenure being ended in the 2010 election.
For many reasons, then, tactical voting may well yield little fruit. Perhaps it works best in this or that marginal constituency when campaigners around a very specific issue such as fox hunting can threaten to turn a small but decisive number of votes against a candidate who fails to dance to their tune. Yet the Green programme is about broad-spectrum policies put to the entire electorate. As such, it is less suited to the stratagems of constituency-level tactical voting.
As might be expected, there will be exceptions. There may be some burning local issue or particularly odious sitting MP where the case for tactical voting is compelling and likely to lead to the desired outcome. The question is whether tactical voting is a viable national strategy and whether minority groups like the Greens should abandon a truly independent role, reverting instead to some kind of lobbying body (a niche already filled by bodies such as the Green Alliance).
The above argument does not claim that there are no differences between the traditional major parties in modern Britain. Clearly there are significant policy differences as well as different underlying sentiments and instincts. Rather the case is bring made that, on the essentials, there is a basic unanimity. On some things, Labour is closer to the Liberals but, at other times, it is nearer to the Conservatives, not least nuclear rearmament. Labour is, arguably, the most authoritarian and restrictive of civil liberties of all three.
These differences can indeed be significant for certain groups. The ‘Sure Start’ programme was arguably the best achievement in New Labour’s otherwise rotten track record. For all its failings, the establishment of a national minimum wage also helped many in real need. Yet Labour’s tolerance and indeed encouragement of general inequality, coupled to the specific measures such as the virtual abandonment of social housing provision, hit the poorer parts of the community badly. In the thirteen years of power, it is quite remarkable just how little Labour did regarding social justice or durable economic regeneration.
Yet redress of the grievances of particular social segments, legitimate or otherwise, are less significant than the big issue of our times, the ecological crisis. Just because many people fail to see its significance, deny its existence or just look away does not mean that the ‘sustainability crunch’ is any the less real or urgent. Climate change, several coming peaks in cheap resources and all the other gathering storm clouds will make the 2008 financial crisis look like a storm in a teacup. First things have to be put first or else all other goals, no matter how worthy, are doomed, poverty alleviation included. Indeed the poor will usually be hit the hardest as the ecocrisis intensifies. The poor also have the least chance of mitigating its immediate effects.
Yet the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties do not, will not and indeed cannot make the necessary response. They are all too deeply wedded to the dominant social order. In practice, they will sacrifice more and more chunks of ‘Mother Earth’ to keep the system going. Indeed, in such a situation, the allegedly Lesser Evils will, as defenders of industrialised consumerism, act at critical moments such as the financial downturn exactly like the Greater Evils.
From the perspective of the great issues that are the core raison d’être of the Greens – the need to live more lightly, ‘baking’ a smaller economic cake and sharing it out more much fairly – there is little difference between any of the ‘grey’ parties. All of the ‘Greys’ are essentially committed to the old unsustainable goals of open-ended economic growth and indiscriminate technological development. They want few limits, if any, on the growth of differentials within society and, more generally, on human domination of the planet. They may differ over the ‘means’ but they are united over the ‘ends’. Of course they will use phrases like ‘sustainable development’ but this is but a case of so much greenwash to mask the pursuit of business-as-usual.
In terms of demands to unite and “kick out/keep out the Tories” in the UK, there are, of course, two main candidates for the honour of being the ‘lesser evil’, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. We will look at both in turn, though the picture is complicated when nationalist parties and Ukip enter the frame.
Many who see themselves as (well) left-of-centre in terms of the traditional political spectrum will call for a vote for the Labour Party. These days, it probably will be couched, given the rather dismal record of the Blair and Brown governments, in terms of “Vote Labour Without Illusions”. Nonetheless, given the faded appeal of the Liberal Democrats after the experience of coalition government, Labour may pitch itself as the true agent of (progressive) change.
Indeed, now that Gordon Brown has gone and now that some of the old lags, ‘Brownite’ or ‘Blairite’, are no longer in influential positions, there will be claims that Labour has changed its spots: as David Miliband put it, “Next Labour”, not “New Labour”.[iv] A sister argument claims that ‘Blairism’ was some sort of alien parasite in the body politic of Labour; its removal will turn this People’s Party back into a party that actually serves the said People.
Labour loyalists further argue that the best way forward is to be ‘realistic’ and rally behind their party, instead of wasting political energies on what they deride as ‘no-hopers’ like the Green Party. Such Labourites often harbour the naïve view that there was once a ‘golden age’ of Labourism, now waiting has to be reborn. The welfare reforms of the 1945 Labour government under Clement Attlee, are often cited as proof.
In terms of any ‘lesser evil’ coalition built around a rebranded Labour Party, there are three discrete issues: the record of the most recent Labour governments under both Blair and Brown, the historical performance of Labour in and out of power, and, last but least, the ‘reformability’ of Labour. First of all, it is important be clear just how bad Labour performed in office. Fortunately there are some detailed critiques that spell it out.[v]
Whatever the failings of the Blair-Brown years, many still feel that Labour once was a true progressive party, created by and for ordinary people (many would say ‘working class’, though that term begs many definitional problems then and now, ones beyond the scope of this article). What can be said for certain is that its connection to any variant of socialism is tenuous and many of the reforms it introduced were neither innovatory nor radical. Again there are some excellent histories about this, one of the best being Parliamentary Socialism, ironically by Ralph Miliband, father of the latest Labour leader.
Many Labour supporters will concede that they were disappointed by Labour’s performance when last in power. Older ones will admit the disappointments caused by the governments of Jim Callaghan and, before him, Harold Wilson (on the latter, see Paul Foot’s The Politics of Harold Wilson). Yet they glow with pride about Labour’s achievements under Clement Atlee after the war, claiming that they can be repeated.
To be fair, it is indeed remarkable what Atlee’s government did achieve under the most unfavourable circumstances (something that should shame modern Labour politicians). Yet independent historians such as Peter Calvocoressi have shown that, fundamentally, the 1945-51 Labour government was more a matter of restoration than of radical reform since the basic structures of power and privilege were left intact. It might be remembered, for instance, that Labour secretly developed Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and several ministers were reluctant to let go of the old ‘Empire’. British troops also helped to restore parts of the French and Dutch empires as well the Greek monarchy in the face of popular opposition. No wonder Ernest Bevin had said after his party’s election victory that “British foreign policy will not be altered in any way under the Labour Government’
Indeed others such as the then Liberals had advocated welfare reforms such as those enacted post-1945. Politicians as diverse as Churchill and Bismarck had, at times, called for nationalisation of certain industries (basically ones that private capitalists could not run profitably). In any case, the terrible history of the Soviet Bloc shows that there is nothing inherently ‘progressive’ about state ownership per se. The years of Ramsay McDonald must also be remembered alongside those of Clement Atlee. There was never any ‘golden age’ of Labour. Nothing has happened under Ed Miliband’s leadership to suggest that anything much is likely to change. Labour is still decidedly ‘grey’, not green.
Furthermore, all attempts to reform Labour have dismally failed and there is little evidence that such attempts will do any better in the future. The sorry record of the Labour Left is particularly pertinent here.[vi] There is no simply evidence that Labour can be reformed from within. Look what happened to the ‘Militant’ group, expelled and now living some zombie-like existence as the Socialist Party. But its expulsion was only of the later ones in a long history of purges of individuals and groups that sought to change Labour’s ways.
In the past, especially in more prosperous suburban and rural constituencies where Labour is weak, tactical voting has benefited the Liberal Democrat party, not least because of its commitment to electoral reform. However the experience of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has clearly altered perceptions of the Liberal Democrats. Electoral reform is as far away as ever. Other Liberal Democrat pledges, most notably regarding student fees, have been dumped. Many of those who voted for them in 2010 understandably feel duped
There is also a history of Liberal Democrat councils being enthusiastic cutters and outsourcers of public services. At other times, they may be ‘nicer’ than mean-minded and arrogant Tories but it is seldom makes that much difference in practice. The very absence of a coherent ideology renders the Liberal Democrats inconsistent and wayward in not just policies but also delivery.
That said, local Liberal Democrats still claim that, at the local level, they are different to the Tories. Sometimes they distance themselves from the actions of their national leadership. They claim to be getting on with the job of serving local people. Thus they will still wax lyrical about the ‘community’ and about giving voters what they want.
Yet even here Liberal Democrat thinking is befuddled. Most communities are not united entities; they are characterised by internal antagonisms over values and priorities. Often voters are highly divided as a result and where there is unanimity it might be in favour of quite unsustainable goals. ‘Empowerment’ might mean opening the door to some quite ugly ambitions (note the popularity of capital punishment, for example).
Overall, the Liberal Democrat party is devoid of ideological ballast and one therefore doomed to be blown here, there and everywhere. It ought to be remembered that Liberal economics guru Vince Cable MP sticks to the mantra of public spending cuts. It is hard to see how those wanting a fairer and more sustainable society can call for a vote for such people.
2010 Election, Tactical Voting & the Green Party
It is extremely hard to know what tactical voting actually did take place in the 2010 and what effect, if any, it had. Some seats stayed Labour when they were predicted to be ones it would lose. Allegedly ‘safe’ seats were lost. The Clegg bubble did deflate while the Tory bandwagon lost speed. Labour managed to avoid humiliating defeat because many of its past supporters did not vote tactically but stayed loyal.
One might hazard a guess, however, that a majority of tactical voters up and down the country got what they did not want, the Liberal-Conservative coalition government. Meanwhile, proper PR seems as far away as ever. So, as a systematic national strategy, Tactical Voting seems a poor bet, except in a few exceptional circumstances. Overall, there is a huge difference between, on the one hand, a formal united front negotiated by disciplined, identified parties for a limited set of agreed goals and, on the other, a strategy that rests on a myriad of uncertain votes cast by disorganised and anonymous individuals.
It might be the case that the Greens got sufficient tactical votes in Brighton to ensure the election of Caroline Lucas. But tactical voters might have swung from Adrian Ramsay to the Liberals in Norwich, leading to a rather poor result for the Greens there. Overall, the Green Party probably lost more votes on balance, due to lukewarm sympathisers not giving it their support. Many may have simply returned to their original loyalties. The siren song of “Keep Out the Tories – Vote Labour” still seduces many members of the radical urban middle class.
Even if tactical voting did benefit the Greens, it might have a downside. Such a vote would scarcely embody a solid body of support for deeply green policies. The lack of such a mandate might confine the activities of a Green MP or councillor thus elected to comparative trivia like pavement repair or just personal casework (yes it is important but the future of the planet hangs in the balance!). There is a worse scenario, namely that a Green, elected with the aid of tactical voters, really does pursue core policies with due vigour and then loses at the next election because s/he has alienated fickle tactical voters.
The real reason why most voters do not vote Green is because … they are not green. Many of members of the public may assert that they are environmentally friendly folk when interviewed by pollsters yet many of their habits and preferences, not least when shopping or holidaying, reveal that they simply do not agree with what Greens represent.
So the big task is still the educational one of winning the mass of citizens to the green way of thinking about things. Legions of the as yet unpersuaded have to be persuaded about the changes needed in public policy and policy-making structures that would reverse the current slide to ecological ruination. The other side of the coin is, of course, the argument that the stance of the other parties is, by and large, fundamentally wrong. No political game play such as tactical voting, no alliance, no coalition should ever be allowed to obstruct that task.
Anyone can, of course, stand on the sidelines, impotently sniping at the efforts of others to bring about changes in the real world. Indeed the history of the radical Left in Britain is a sorry tale of how easy it is to slide into the dead-end of sectarianism. Greens certainly need to find ‘extra muscle’ by working with whoever may be appropriate. Co-operation, however, should not require a cover-up of real differences nor silence on-going debate. We should never forget that, as Gary Coates puts it in Resettling America, “what appears at first to be merely two paths to shared goals turns out, on closer inspection, to be two separate paths to very different goals”.
Attempts to identify the best options for collaboration may benefit from a distinction between ‘popular fronts’ (unity on the lowest common denominator, sometimes involving organisational fusion) and ‘united fronts’ (unity around certain specific goals, wherein the independence of participants is preserved). The Green Party’s best bet is the latter, with a hard focus on specific policies, rather than getting individual Greens into a seat in one of the outer corridors of power).
Obviously there is no point simply agreeing to some ‘minimum’ programme (which, in reality, solves next-to-nothing). But it is equally futile to demand an ideal ‘maximum’ programme (which attracts too little backing to solve anything). The trick is to tease out a transitional programme that builds a critical mass of support whilst putting into action measures that really will put society on the road to sustainability.
Certainly Greens should consider positively overtures for joint work. They exist in broad campaigns from the Tax Justice and defence of proper health care to the anti-war movement and the shrinking of ‘corporate power’ in public life. Locally, opportunities for such activity are being created by the many threats posed to the green belt and other open spaces by local development plans.
So Greens worked with others in the (to date) successful campaign to stop the proposed national forest sell-off in the UK. They did not demand that the campaign endorse a full-blown policy for ‘ecoforestry’. But participation in the campaign creates the chances to discuss with new audiences that longer-term goal. In the past Greens have worked with supporters of civil nuclear energy against the nuclear weapons programme. In both cases, Greens accept that there is a need to present a common face to unconverted sections of the public, whilst reserve the right to raise within such movements green ideas such as the end of the nuclear energy programme.
Productive areas for collaboration are, perhaps, more likely to be found in the field of extra-Parliamentary campaigns rather than in electoral pacts, though every avenue should indeed be explored. In respect to political pacts, strong organisation and a tight political programme are vital or else deals will yield little of value. Agreements about policies to be pursued are, perhaps, more likely to be productive than ones about individuals getting particular posts.
The latter route is more open to sell-outs, both at a personal level and in terms of policy. The rotten history of the Irish ‘Green’ Party is revealing here.[vii] Certainly tight organisation, with robust systems of internal accountability, are vital to reduce the dangers of councillors and MPs elected in the name of a party going ‘astray’.
The issue is not one about ‘purity’ and a refusal to ever compromise. It is about the maintenance of a forward and continuing progress towards ultimate goals. This is the only thing that makes all the time, money and energy devoted to politics both a worthy and worthwhile activity. Otherwise nothing is left except egotistic ambition.
Ultimately, continued and independent activity by Greens as the Green Party is what matters. But we have to be realistic about our current position. The Greens have made solid progress in some localities. However, in most parts of the country, the task is still to wave the Green flag firmly and clearly. At best many people may have seen Caroline Lucas on TV but otherwise know little about our case.
It must also be stressed and then stressed again: time is running out. Climate change, Peak Oil and other storm clouds do not dwell over some distant horizon: radical action is needed now. Dithering about how to vote to bring about minor reforms is a poor option when what is desperately needed is strong, forceful campaigning about the core issues.
Yes there is scope for temporary deals, especially around specific policies, at certain times in particular places. Yet, overall, the way forward for Greens now is to continue to the work of building its independent strength, membership, voter base and general influence.
There can be no absolutist line on the complex issue of supporting a possible ‘lesser evil’. Each instance has to be assessed according to the specific circumstances. Often, it may be better to stick to one’s guns for the sake of broadcasting an undliluted and distinctive message (not least the critical matter of limits-to-growth, ecological overshoot and steady-state economics). But at other times, there may be a really dangerous evil against which it is indeed vital to form alliances and do deals.
One thing for sure is that, in any such deal-making negotiations, there must be some clear ‘red lines’, ones not to be crossed. Secondly, it is more productive to make deals with cast-ron guarantees about policies what the ‘lesser evil’ will support if successful. There is little useful to be gained by just getting some ‘progressive’ bums on a few seats in the outer offices of power.
[i] Thus independent and white-suited candidate Martin Bell was able to oust sleaze-ridden incumbent Neil Hamilton at Tatton in 1997, thanks to the withdrawal of both Labour and Liberal candidates. Bell seems to have swung one way then another in Parliament, often supporting Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’ but occasionally voting with the then opposition Tories.
[ii] Some of the issues discussed below were also posed in the struggle against the military revolt under Franco against the Spanish Republic. The latter side become split – bloodily so – over the best way to fight what many at the time correctly saw as the opening shots of a more global fight against Fascism in its various guises.
[iii] In trade unions, it is more complicated. Sometimes there is a ‘broad left’ candidate who might be said to be the equivalent of the left-wing of the Labour Party (decades ago, the Communist Party might have been the core supporting group). However revolutionary grouplets such as the Socialist Workers Party sometimes put up their alternative either in the own name or as a ‘rank-and-file’ candidate.
[iv] That said, somewhat amazingly Ed Miliband did bring Tony Blair back as an advisor on the post-Olympics ‘legacy’.
[v] See http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2830 and http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n18/ross-mckibbin/will-we-notice-when-the-tories-have-won , while all of the latter’s articles in the London Review of Books well worth a read
Recycle empty buildings: save green spaces!
An increasing number of empty buildings litter our cities and towns. Typical is the old Odeon building in the centre of Newcastle. Once the proud venue of Paramount Pictures, it became part of the Odeon Cinemas chain. But now the building has been standing abandoned and decaying for years, the cinema itself now part of the ghastly ‘Gate’ leisure complex on Newgate St. Indeed it might be suspected that it is hoped in certain quarters that the building will pass the round of no return and simply ‘have’ to be demolished.
Such empty properties are not, of course, confined to city centres. There is, for example, old World Furniture store just off Gosforth High Street in one of Newcastle’s inner suburbs. Once it was a garage (hence the bollards to stop cars from stolen from the forecourt) but then it went through various guises before ending up as a discount furniture store before it was abandoned (upstairs houses a fitness centre).
In some cases, charity shops have taken over the vacancies. Elsewhere stores of the Poundstretcher variety have filled them. But often the buildings just stand empty, literally and metaphorically a waste of space. In Newcastle, empty units are even beginning to spread in parts of the Eldon Square shopping mall, until recently a consumerist Mecca.
Here and there ‘Business Improvement District’ initiatives have been tried. Often they make little difference. The combined effects of the ‘Credit Crunch’ and its aftermath, the pull of out-of-town shopping malls, extortionate property rents, and the rise of Internet shopping have all dragged down one traditional high street after another. ‘Collective’ activities like cinemas and pubs have further suffered from the shift of many leisure activities inside private homes.
Independent greengrocers and fishmongers have been especially badly hit. The big supermarket chains now sell 97% of all food, some 75% by just the top four. Independent retailers, from bookshops and newsagents to fishmongers and greengrocers, have been ground under, replaced by what has rightly been called ‘Clone Town’ Britain.[i]
In some cases, notably the Post Office, facilities were closed by deliberate acts of vandalism to break up a valued public service. Libraries, local council offices and public swimming pools have disappeared from many High Streets and adjacent areas too, further robbing communities of what should be their heart.
In some areas, chains like Tesco and Sainsbury’s have opened neighbourhood mini-stores, sometimes joined by other types of chains such as Starbucks and Subway. All extend the ‘cloning’, entrench over-powerful monopolies and drain monies out of local economies. In the former case, the trend towards self-service checkouts further reduces employment opportunities. The supermarkets are also directly implicated in the colossal waste of food in Britain (some 8.5 million tonnes each year), not least by their special offers, ‘deals’ that tempt customers to buy far more than they can possibly eat.
Yet as the end of last year, it was reported that the big food retailers aim to increase trading space by almost 50% as biggest store opening programme in British retail history (equivalent in size to 500 football pitches). Tesco alone is already opening new UK shops at a rate of almost three a week. Despite the rhetoric about curbing edge-of-town sprawl, many are scheduled for out-of- town sites. The supermarkets are clearly banking on Britain’s rising population levels to boost overall consumer demand.
It will create even more empty property in town, More than 25,000 shops have closed since 2000 and more will join them. Land ownership patterns, pseudo-liberal trading policies (in practice, very ineffective laws against monopolies), and weak and being further weakened) planning laws have created a situation that the reforms proposed by Mary Portas, TV’s Queen of Shops and advisor to David Cameron, will do little to reverse.
Peak Oil and its growing impacts will eventually curb the above developments. But, in the meantime, we are saddled with large amounts of empty property. It is not just the waste of building resources. It is also the blight cast over entire neighbourhoods. One solution is, of course, is to encourage its conversion to housing, thereby reducing the pressure fro greenfield development.
However, there are other creative solutions. One is to provide public monies to take over key sites like the Odeon building and use them for so-called Community Economic Laboratories. Under one big roof would be gathered a hub of ventures that point the way to a sustainable, human scale and needs-oriented economy: food co-ops, food storage facilities for local growers, a health centre (in the tradition of the famous Peckham Experiment of the 30s[ii]); tool libraries (how many of us own tools we use once every ‘blue moon’?), law centres, credit unions, recycling/ reuse facilities, share schemes (transport etc.), adult education…
The key thing is the bringing together of disparate but directly related activities, some of which already exist but are scattered all over the place into one convenient and very visible location. ‘Iconic’ buildings in central business areas are therefore ideal. Such initiatives surely offer more hope than simply letting rack and ruin spread. [iii]
[iii] Examples include:
The reputation of the media has seldom been lower thanks to revelations about press intrusion, phone hacking, phone-in rip-offs, trivialisation, systemic bias and so forth, even turning a blind eye to sex crimes within their own industry. Such things reveal an industry that is deeply sick. Yet a healthy media are central to the health of democracy.
Certainly developments such as adverse climate change are more serious and more urgent than the wrong-doing of Murdoch and his minions such as Rebekah Brooks. Even in terms of that scandal itself, the track record of the Metropolitan police is far more worrying than that of gutter journalists and editors. [It might be noted here that, though the police now claim that they were too preoccupied by the threat from al-Qaeda to address the issue of phone hacking, they still found the political will and resources to hound ‘climate’ activists and the like]
Yet the News Corporation affair does matter: healthy media are critical to the flow of information and serious debate necessary if the various threats to our collective future are to be properly addressed. A comparison of, say, the Sunday Times in the days when it led the crusade over thalidomide and the paper it became under Murdoch’s subsequent ownership demonstrates the malign effect his ilk have had on the media.
Defend the BBC!
Worse, the war waged by Murdoch and especially his son, the now widely discredited James, against the BBC has threatened a further dumbing down. For all its failings, public service TV and radio in Britain since the founding of the BBC back in the 1920s have set remarkably high standards, widely recognised across the globe. This was certainly true during World War 2 and remains largely the case today.
The advent of commercial TV in the UK, then radio, did initiate a race downwards, with more and more American imports and imitations such as loudmouth ‘shock jocks’. So-called ‘reality TV’ plumbed new depths but, generally, the BBC services maintained an unrivalled blend of choice, quality and reliability (spend a night in an American motel zapping channels and you will visit a multi-channel hell, HBO’s better offerings decidedly the exception to the vulgar and stupefying rule).
So the BBC has to be defended against threats posed by News Corporation and other such conglomerates. Indeed there is an overwhelming case for breaking up such empires. The furore over Murdoch’s hacks and their misdeeds should not take attention away from the poisonous outpourings of groups like the Daily Mail and General Trust or Northern and Shell (Daily Express, OK!, Television X and other trash). The expansion of such organisation in the event of further crises within the Murdoch empire would scarcely improve the breadth, depth and integrity of the media in Britain.
There has been widespread condemnation of the phone hackers in particular and, more generally, of over-mighty media barons like Murdoch. Very, very belatedly, the Labour leadership has begun to make noises about the matter. Radical media critics like Noam Chomsky have long been indicting the bias of Fox TV and similar appendages of media conglomerates such as News Corporation. This begs the question of what stance the Greens might take in the broader debate about the media in society.
For a start, Greens would join with ‘libertarians’ in the defence of free debate, which, in part, depends on a diversity of opinion. It is very alarming that whilst the Murdoch affair was hogging the headlines, a dangerous development took place. It was the proposal from Professor Steve Jones that the BBC should exclude certain ‘unscientific’ points of view.
Jones included climate change ‘denialists’. They might indeed be talking nonsense. Both common sense and the scientific consensus suggest that adverse changes are underway and that they are largely human-driven. Yet, in such tremendously complex processes, there is always the possibility that some sceptics might just have a point. Certainly the notion that a ‘low carbon economy’ is the solution is very misleading since it would not stop and indeed, if pursued in isolation, might even aggravate other ecological threats. In any case it is better to deal with their objections openly rather than drive them underground, something that might actually boost their appeal in some quarters.
Jones also included opposition to genetic engineering especially with regards to genetically modified crops, held out by some as the solution for food shortages. In fact there are substantial objections to this technology. Moreover the ‘scientific consensus’ has been wrong at many moments in history (see, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 150 Years of Expert Medical Advice to Women)
Scientists are not always free from tunnel vision and there is no guarantee that they are taking into proper account possible connections and interactions beyond that fragment of reality they may be studying. Only on-going debate can limit the dangers of reductionist thinking. It might be remembered that many ‘intelligent’ people thought that individuals like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin had lost their senses. So it is vital to keep the debate open, even if dissidents from the dominant view seem utterly mistaken.
There is, however, deeper ideological agreement right across print and broadcast media. Take, for example, discussion in the news about the UK economy and specifically its growth rate. There is almost unanimous reportage across the media that growth is far too low and what is needed was a stimulus to ‘get the economy going’. Yet such growth would accelerate the descent into climate chaos and aggravate every other ecological ill, with the inevitable result that human economy would collapse.
This has been shown in numerous studies (e.g. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth and Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth; see also: http://steadystate.org/). Indeed John Stuart Mill outlined the need for a ‘steady-state economy’ back in 1848. Yet reporters and commentators (Will Hutton, Robert Peston etc) steadfastly stick to manifestly bankrupt thinking about the economy and its ecological underpinnings.
Media disconnection from Earthly reality is even more pronounced when it comes to overpopulation. There is a deathly silence about the matter. Indeed there is often a marked pro-natalism. Thus British tabloid newspapers greeted the birth of the 20th child in early 1999 to a Mrs Pridham, Britain’s current record holder as a matter of great joy. The Guardian gave a story about the Turner family of Oxfordshire (13 children) the headline of “the more the merrier”.
Obituaries of celebrity population boomers normally talk in terms of “lust for life” (the quote is taken from a piece on late actor Anthony Quinn, who fathered his 11th child at the age of 78). Conversely lack of children is bemoaned. So when the Euro crisis moved to Italy in July 2011, the country’s economic woes were widely blamed on a “birth dearth”.
To some extent, such ecological blinkers stem from the fact that the media share a failure across society to think ecologically. However there are also intrinsic biases in the very nature of mass communication technologies that also cause such distorted coverage in both factual and entertainment media. It is something that only a handful of really radical thinkers like Jerry Mander and Neil Postman have explored (to be fair it is worth studying the fake populism in contemporary media, to which Tory MP George Walden’s The New Elites is a surprisingly stimulating guide).
There is an inherent tendency, especially in daily media such as newspapers, radio and TV news, to focus on discrete events, rather than underlying processes. Spectacular accidents like oil spills match media production routines and news flows much more than the slow drip of environmental degradation (most oil pollution actually being from routine drips and dumping). One result is that the ecological crisis is widely perceived in a narrow and one-sided way, as a problem of pollution, ignoring the many other ways in which the Earth’s life-support systems are being eroded.
Furthermore, to fill airtime and column inches, the media not only build up issues in exaggerated ways but then, to get a second bite of ‘the apple’, knock them back down again, perhaps by spotlighting some dissenting voice, again out of all proportion to the merits of the case.
Many ecological issues, especially at the level of values and intrinsic importance, translate badly, especially to media dominated by images and simple sound bites. Pictures of, say, an undisturbed seashore make for less than gripping TV and film compared to dramatic shots of beach buggies and surf boarders. A huge dam tends to look better on screen than a quiet river scene, its costs not that immediately obvious.
The effects of the media on their readers, viewers and listeners, however, need more careful consideration than is common. Certainly they should not be ignored. The media not only influence what issues count as society’s ‘agenda’ but also frame the way items on it are discussed. They play a part in defining what is ‘normal’ (e.g. consumerism) and what is ‘deviant’ (e.g. ‘Luddite’ opponents of some new technology). They can shape fashion, diet and the very language we speak (“oh my god” being but one such media ‘gift’ to everyday English thanks to you-know-what, not to forget the polluted ‘language’ of Gangsta Rap).
Media effects should not, however, be exaggerated. On balance, the media tend to reflect rather than shape public opinion. Common sense also suggests that press barons, film producers, TV managers and the like will deliver what appeals to potential audiences simply to boost sales and rating figures. Sadly, large sections of the public prefer to read salacious gossip about celebrities or watch Top Gear. They don’t want reports about ecology, economics or serious social and cultural matters. Indeed the media routinely receive lots of complaints about too much ‘bad’ news, instead of more cheerful matter.
This begs the question why businesses spend so much on advertising if the media have only limited impacts. Part of the reason is defensive, with adverts commissioned because rivals are splashing out. Normally, it is more a matter of persuading consumers to change brands than a manufacturing of new ‘needs’ out of thin air. Plenty of advertising campaigns, not least the marketing of new movies, flop or are even counter-productive (most famously the ‘Strand’ cigarette marketing).
Audiences tend to pay attention to what they want and interpret what they receive in terms of the own mindset. So, apparently, a majority of readers of that infamous Sun front page attacking Labour leader Neil Kinnock (above) actually went and, contrary to the paper’s ‘instructions’, voted… Labour. During the Falklands War, some 25-33% of the public continued to oppose the campaign despite near unanimity across the media in its favour. In totalitarian regimes like the USSR and Nazi Germany, large numbers persisted in disbelieving what intense and pervasive government propaganda was telling them.
The media, not least advertising, tend to be most influential when they are connecting to existing hopes, fears and general attitudes within their audiences. So they tend to reinforce rather than create beliefs and specific opinions.
The news can certainly be very selective. Yet there are many factors, other than bias and malice, at work: time constraints, a perceived need for balance between different kinds of news stories, availability of suitable photos/film footage, competition from other stories, suitable fit with the news production cycle of a station/newspaper… Certainly Greens should not rubbish the average reporter and other media personnel: it is often unfair and indeed rather counter-productive
It is a fact of life that conflict is more interesting than absence of strife. So days lost to strikes will be over-reported at the expense of days of normal working. Similarly, easily explained one-off stories about things that affect a lot of people will drive out ones lacking such qualities. So a rail strike will be reported rather than years of mismanagement of the railways. There is not necessarily an anti-union conspiracy here.
In any case, for all the (justified) accusations of ownership over-concentration, partiality and indeed downright censorship, there is still a surprising degree of diversity in the media. After all, it is easy to buy books by media critics such as Noam Chomsky or see ‘oppositional’ films by the likes of Michael Moore. Tony Benn has regularly appeared on TV and radio. The Mirror gave much space to both Paul Foot and John Pilger. Yes there are plenty of counter-examples but crude black-and-white stereotypes discredit our overall arguments.
Too much, too fast
There are a much deeper and more serious problems inherent in contemporary media technology, ones independent of actual ownership, to which Marshall McLuhan famously referred when he said that the “medium is the message” (i.e. not its content). These flaws will still be there even if conglomerates like News Corporation were to be broken up (certainly causes nonetheless worth fighting!).
For a start, the sheer quantity of airtime to be filled in round the clock broadcasting leads to a loss of quality, with endless repeats, cheap quiz and chat shows as well as yet more imports from the USA. Even a well-funded public broadcasting system would find it hard to fill such lengthy schedules with high quality programming.
A more serious concern is a decrease in average attention spans, a problem which can be laid at the door of both TV and computers, with their relentless barrage of fast-changing screen shots, shifting camera angles and special effects. [See the work of Baroness Greenfield]. It creates real problems for anyone with complex and lengthy ‘messages’ like the Greens.
At the same time, development like ‘rolling news’ TV, emails and blogging encourage knee-jerk reactions, at the expense of proper investigation and reflection. The anonymity of much ‘new media’ also seems to be inciting often vicious rudeness. Across the so-called ‘blogosphere’ and postings on the Facebook ‘wall’, the utterly inane competes with the innately stupid. Social networking is perhaps more a case of social nitwitting. There is indeed much unjustified hype about the progressive potential about such ‘new media’.[i]
The media regulator Ofcom suggests that the average person in the UK spends 7 hours a day watching TV, surfing the net and using their mobile phones. Actually the total usage is more since often they are ‘multi-tasking’, which, in effect, means they are not really paying that much attention to particular things. How often does one see people in company fiddling with their mobile phones when they are supposedly ’socialising’?
True, the media may spotlight issues such as famine and stimulate flurries of concern. Yet even the best coverage seems to produce few long-lasting changes amongst its audiences. Couch potatoes are perhaps not the stuff of real social change. As McLuhan realised, if people are glued to a TV box or computer console, they are effectively immobilised, more a recipe for inaction than active involvement in real struggle in the outside world. Perhaps it is symptomatic of such problems that the outrage of the British public over scandals like bankers’ bonuses and the like has seemed so short-lived.
Finally, outrage at Murdoch and co should never be allowed to disguise the fact that millions actually like what News Corporation and its ilk offer. No-one is forced to consume their products. Too often radical movements blame their lack of progress on the media, not honestly facing the fact that many people – at present – simply don’t want what Greens and other radical critics of society offer. It is a harsh reality that cannot be ducked.
So when the dust has died down on ‘Hackergate’, Greens need to pose a lot more questions about the role of the mass communication in society and look to a really radical reform of not just ownership of the media. We ought to be asking whether, there is a media surfeit – frequency, speed and volume – and whether ‘less’ might really be more.
The Town Moor is one of Newcastle’s most noted landmarks. It also demonstrates some of the difficulties in developing sustainable land usage to replace present day degradation and waste. The Moor is certainly a sizeable area. When the Nun’s Moor extension is taken into account, it is bigger than London’s Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park combined. Few British cities have such an open area so close to their centre.
Yet from an ecological point of view, the Town Moor is a badly degraded space. Large parts of it are the remnants of an open cast site. The ‘hill’ in the NW corner is largely the product of spoil dumped from the construction of the dual carriageway which not only devoured a large area of land but also divided the remainder of the original Moor into two quite separate sections.
The land itself now provides rough grazing for cattle. It might be compared to the British uplands, large parts of which were described by the great ecologist and land reformer Sir Frank Fraser Darling as “man-made wet deserts”. The pioneer conservationist John Muir was even moved to call sheep four-legged locusts. The uplands are kept in their impoverished condition largely by a combination of overgrazing and excessive muirburn.[i]
From the perspective of biodiversity, the Moor is something of a wasteland. But its potential for human fulfilment is rather restricted too. It comes out poorly in comparison to similar sites in other countries. Think of Paris and the Bois de Boulogne or Vancouver and Stanley Park. New York’s Central Park is both more beautiful and more useful than the Town Moor. Even what are tiny sites by comparison have been developed to provide a richer and more varied experience (e.g. the exquisite Chinese park in Vancouver). Developments such as the Eden Project in Cornwall display more vision too.[ii]
Objectively the Town Moor might, then, leave much to be desired. Subjectively, however, it is immensely popular with many thousands of people. It also hosts the Hoppings fair. It might not be the destination of choice for many Greens, but it certainly entertains an awful lot of local folk. There may well be many individuals who might object to dense planting of new trees and other vegetation on the grounds that it would provide cover for muggers and rapists.
Such conflicts of perception and valuation are replicated elsewhere in the NE of England. Many visitors flock to sites like Rothbury’s Cragside House and gardens, for instance. The acres of rhododendron there are particularly popular. Yet the plant is a virulently invasive alien, which is now requiring expensive eradication programmes in areas such as NW Scotland. More generally, organisations like the Ramblers Association fight to preserve what they see as the open vistas of areas like the North Pennines and Cheviots, yet such uplands would be largely covered in woodland were it not for human deforestation, followed by the herding of excessive stocks of sheep and deer (often subsidised at public expense) plus further blows from pollution.
Alternative Land Use for the Moor
So there may be a strong case for new land use initiatives on the Town Moor. Its very size and location provides much scope for positive change, to act as a model of a more sustainable land use, and to enhance its status in terms of landscape, recreation and nature conservation. Every bit of land is need in the fight to reverse biodiversity losses and habitat decline[iii] as well as respond to concerns like climate change, food security and the poor state of the nation’s health (e.g. expansion of allotments, more woodland and ponds, trim tracks).
Already there are some good schemes in the locality to build upon such as Scotswood Natural Community Garden and the Exhibition Park lake wildlife and biodiversity project as well as various wildlife gardens and community farms across the region.[iv] The city of Leicester has two good examples of what might developed on the Town Moor: the ‘Ecohouse’ in Western Park and the Brock Hill Environment Centre. Then there is the wonderful little wildlife park just before trains enter the hyper-urban world of London’s King’s Cross railway station.[v]
Yet such a vision for the Town Moor risks popular wrath. Many, many people see the Moor – as it is – as part of their heritage and might react badly against those they perceive to be threatening it. So careful consideration is necessary when it comes to such matters but there are pointers to how best to proceed.
For a start, it has to be stressed that there is nothing sacred about ‘tradition’ or ‘heritage’. After all, many cruel, oppressive and destructive practices have long roots in history. Of course there are also a good many things worth conserving from the past as well as old skills to be re-learnt. Certainly we should have no truck with the values and priorities that led to large parts of Britain’s townscapes being wantonly destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Newcastle itself lost many fine buildings to the developers’ bulldozers and wrecking balls.[vi]
A sustainable society will be partly fashioned out of the best of the old. But it would also depend upon radical innovation, guided by the principles of what might be ‘ecodevelopment’. Locations such as redundant factory sites, derelict old warehouses, contaminated former mineral workings, multi-storey car parks and supermarket parking lots would be obvious priority candidates. But given the scale of change needed, sites like the Town Moor might well have be ‘redeveloped’ as well.
Actually the Town Moor is not what it was. Nor is it what was it was once planned. Certainly there is a very long history of pastureland there, perhaps dating back some 800 years, since the previous woodland was cleared. [Of course, in certain past geological era, the land was under the sea or covered by desert and might be again in the extremely distant future… but we can only take responsibility for our own times!]
But subsequent history is quite varied, though it is most certainly a plus that it has not been covered under the normal urban sprawl. Richard Grainger, the famous 19thc. architect, developed a plan for a big park on the Moor but only bits of his scheme were to be realised. In 1966 there was a landscape plan for a big central lake and lots of woodland planting.
Over the 20th century, big bites, amounting to roughly 20% of the original area, have been taken out of the Moor: new sections of the RVI, Fenham Barracks, Leazes Halls of Residence, and the dual carriageway. There have been large-scale open-cast workings on the remaining area while old cattle watering ponds have been largely replaced by pipes and some wetland infilled. Activities such as dog-racing have come and gone. Generally biodiversity is much lower than, say, Victorian times.
So much of the Town Moor’s environment has been significantly altered, even if surface appearance might not appear too different to what it was. The real issue is how it might change in the future since nothing ever stands still. Land ownership and use on the Moor is regulated by Acts of Parliament (the last in 1988). In practice, an unrepresentative clique, the Freeman of the City controls usage, though ultimate ownership still rests with the Council. Allotment users on the Moor’s fringes have frequently complained about the Freemen’s attempts to push them out.[vii]
One way forward might be to propose land use changes, as suggested above, on just part of the Moor, leaving the Hoppings undisturbed. In any case, likely increases in oil prices in the not too distant future may put pay to travelling fairs. Groups such as the Freemen presumably would object to the necessary legislation on the grounds that it is some sort of ‘land grab’. Yet the land on which sat working class communities have long been subject to compulsory purchase orders and other such measures to make way for ‘development’. In Newcastle, this has ranged from railways (the Tyne crossing, for example) to the two central university campuses as well as more general schemes to raise property values (and therefore council income, as in the Going for Growth clearances).
Land tenure reform and changed land use on the Town Mooris certainly a more sustainable option than ‘business-as-usual.
[i] For alternatives, see, for example,
[vi] For a sad general history, see Gavin Stamp’s Britain’s Lost Cities (Aurum Press, 2010)