By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th December 2016, in the first of a series of columns about possible solutions — explores how commons could transform society and the distribution of wealth
With one breath, the friends of power told us that global capitalism was a dynamic, disruptive force, the source of constant innovation and change. With the next, they told us it had brought about the end of history: permanent stability and peace. There was no attempt to resolve this contradiction. Or any other.
We were promised unending growth on a finite planet. We were told that a vastly unequal system would remove all differences. Social peace would be delivered by a system based on competition and envy. Democracy would be secured by the power of money. The contradictions were crashingly obvious. The whole package relied on magic.
Because none of it works, there is no normal to which to return. The Keynesian measures espoused by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders – in a world crashing into environmental limits and the mass destruction of jobs – are as irrelevant in the 21st Century as the neoliberal prescriptions that caused the financial crisis.
In his brilliant, incendiary new book Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra explains the current crises as new manifestations of one long disruption, that has been ripping up society for 200 years or more. Our sanitised histories of Europe and America allow us to forget that bedlam and carnage, civil and international war, colonialism and overseas slaughter, racism and genocide were norms of this period, not exceptions. He describes how
those left behind by the promises of freedom, stability and prosperity have been increasingly susceptible to demagogues. The many who came late to this new world or were left, or pushed, behind, reacted in horrifyingly similar ways: intense hatred of invented enemies, attempts to re-create an imaginary golden age, and self-empowerment through spectacular violence. It was from among the ranks of the disaffected that the militants of the 19th century arose – angry young men who became cultural nationalists in Germany, messianic revolutionaries in Russia, bellicose chauvinists in Italy, and anarchist terrorists internationally. Today, just as then, the wider embrace of mass politics, technology, and the pursuit of wealth and individualism has cast many more millions adrift in a literally demoralized world, uprooted from tradition but still far from modernity – with the same terrible results
Now the rest of the world is confronting the same disruptive forces, as industrial capitalism is globalised. It destroys old forms of authority while promising universal freedom, autonomy and prosperity. Those promises collide with massive disparities of power, status and property ownership. The result is the global spread of the 19th-century European diseases of humiliation, envy and a sense of impotence. Frustrated expectations, rage and self-disgust have driven support for movements as diverse as Isis, resurgent Hindu nationalism and stomping demagoguery in Britain, the US, France and Hungary.
How do we respond to these crises? Raymond Williams said “to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. I know I have made despair pretty convincingover the past few weeks. So this column is the first in an occasional series whose purpose is to champion new approaches to politics, economics and social change. There is no going back, no comfort in old certainties. We must rethink the world from first principles.
There are many points at which I could begin, but it seems to me that an obvious one is this. The market alone cannot meet our needs, nor can the state. Both, by rooting out attachment, help fuel the alienation, rage and anomie that breeds extremism. Over the past 200 years, one element has been conspicuously absent from the dominant ideologies, something that is neither market nor state: the commons.
A commons is an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights. This could, in principle, include land, water, minerals, knowledge, scientific research and software. But at the moment most of these assets have been enclosed: seized by either the state or private interests and treated as any other form of capital. Through this enclosure, we have been deprived of our common wealth.
Some commons still exist. They range from community-owned forests in Nepal and Romania to lobster fisheries in Maine, pastures in East Africa and Switzerland, the Internet, Wikipedia, Linux, journals published by the Public Library of Science, the timebank in Helsinki, local currencies and open-source microscopy. But these are exceptions to the general rule of private and exclusive ownership.
In his book Land, the community organiser Martin Adams urges us to see the land as something that once belonged to everyone and no one, yet has been acquired by a minority, that excludes other people from its enjoyment. He proposes that those who use the land exclusively should pay a “community land contribution” as compensation. This could partly replace income and sales tax, prevent land hoarding and bring down land prices. The revenue could help to fund a universal basic income. Eventually we might move to a system in which land is owned by the local community and leased to those who use it.
Similar principles could apply to energy. The right to produce carbon by burning fossil fuels could be auctioned (a smaller pool would be available every year). The proceeds could fund public services and a transition to clean energy. Those who wish to use the wind or sunlight to generate power should be asked to pay a community contribution. Or the generators could be owned by communities – there are already plenty of examples.
Rather than allowing corporations to use intellectual property rights to create an artificial scarcity of knowledge, or (like Google and Facebook) to capture the value generated by other people, we could move towards a “social knowledge economy” of the kind promoted by the government of Ecuador. A share of profits could (with the help of blockchain technology) be exchanged for helping to build online platforms and providing the content they host.
The restoration of the commons has great potential not only to distribute wealth but also to change society. As the writer David Bollier points out, a commons is not just a resource (land or trees or software) but also the community of people managing and protecting it. The members of the commons develop much deeper connections with each other and their assets than we do as passive consumers of corporate products.
Managing common resources means developing rules, values and traditions. It means, in some cases, re-embedding ourselves in the places in which we live. It means reshaping government to meet the needs of communities, not corporations. In other words, reviving the commons can act as a counterweight to the atomising, alienating forces now generating a thousand forms of toxic reaction.
This is not the whole answer. My hope is that, after exploring a wide range of potential solutions, with the help of your comments and suggestions I can start to develop a synthesis: a new political, economic and social story, that might be matched to the demands of the 21st Century. Realising it is a further challenge, on which we also need to work. But first we must decide what we want. Then we decide how to get it.
Why is there a worldwide revolt against politics as usual? Because corporate globalisation has crushed democratic choice.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 6th December 2016
A wave of revulsion rolls around the world. Approval ratings for incumbent leaders are everywhere collapsing. Symbols, slogans and sensation trump facts and nuanced argument. One in six Americans now believes that military rule would be a good idea. From all this I draw the following, peculiar conclusion: no country with a McDonald’s can remain a democracy.
Twenty years ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed his “golden arches theory of conflict prevention”. This holds that “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other since they each got their McDonald’s”.
Friedman’s was one of several end-of-history narratives suggesting that global capitalism would lead to permanent peace. He claimed that it might create “a tip-over point at which a country, by integrating with the global economy, opening itself up to foreign investment and empowering its consumers, permanently restricts its capacity for troublemaking and promotes gradual democratization and widening peace.” He didn’t mean that McDonald’s ends war, but that its arrival in a nation symbolised the transition.
In using McDonalds as shorthand for the forces tearing democracy apart, I am, like him, writing figuratively. I do not mean that the presence of the burger chain itself is the cause of the decline of open, democratic societies (though it has played its part in Britain, using our defamation laws against its critics). Nor do I mean that countries hosting McDonald’s will necessarily mutate into dictatorships.
What I mean is that, under the onslaught of the placeless, transnational capital McDonald’s exemplifies, democracy as a living system withers and dies. The old forms and forums still exist – parliaments and congresses remain standing – but the power they once contained seeps away, re-emerging where we can no longer reach it.
The political power that should belong to us has flitted into confidential meetings with the lobbyists and donors who establish the limits of debate and action. It has slipped into the dictats of the IMF and the European Central Bank, which respond not to the people but to the financial sector. It has been transported, under armed guard, into the icy fastness of Davos, where Mr Friedman finds himself so warmly welcomed (even when he’s talking cobblers).
Above all, the power that should belong to the people is being crushed by international treaty. Contracts such as NAFTA, CETA, the proposed TransPacific Partnership and Trade in Services Agreement and the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are crafted behind closed doors in discussions dominated by corporate lobbyists. They are able to slip in clauses that no informed electorate would ever approve, such as the establishment of opaque offshore tribunals, through which corporations can bypass national courts, challenge national laws and demand compensation for the results of democratic decisions.
These treaties limit the scope of politics, prevent states from changing social outcomes and drive down labour rights, consumer protection, financial regulation and the quality of neighbourhoods. They make a mockery of sovereignty. Anyone who forgets that striking them down was one of Donald Trump’s main promises will fail to understand why people were prepared to risk so much in electing him.
At the national level too, the McDonalds model destroys meaningful democracy. Democracy depends on a reciprocal sense of belief, trust and belonging: the conviction that you belong to the nation and the nation belongs to you. The McDonalds model, by rooting out attachment, could not have been better designed to erase that perception.
As Tom Wolfe observes in his novel A Man in Full, “the only way you could tell you were leaving one community and entering another was when the franchise chains started repeating and you spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot.” The alienation and anomie this destruction of place promotes are enhanced by the casualisation of labour and a spirit-crushing regime of monitoring, quantification and assessment (at which McDonald’s happens to excel). Public health disasters contribute to the sense of rupture. After falling for decades, for example, death rates among middle-aged white Americans are now rising. Among the likely causes are obesity and diabetes, opioid addiction and liver failure, diseases whose vectors are corporations.
Corporations, released from democratic constraints, drive us towards climate breakdown, an urgent threat to global peace. McDonald’s has done more than its fair share: beef production is among the most powerful causes of climate change.
In his book The Globalisation Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik describes a political trilemma. Democracy, national sovereignty and hyperglobalisation, he argues, are mutually incompatible. You cannot have all three at once. McDonalisation crowds out domestic politics. Incoherent and dangerous as it often is, the global backlash against mainstream politicians is, at heart, an attempt to reassert national sovereignty against the forces of undemocratic globalisation.
An article about the history of the Democratic party by Matt Stoller in The Atlantic reminds us that a similar choice was articulated by the great American jurist Louis Brandeis. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” In 1936, the congressman Wright Patman managed to pass a bill against the concentration of corporate power. Among his targets was A&P, the giant chainstore of his day, that was hollowing out towns, destroying local retailers and turning “independent tradesmen into clerks”.
In 1938, President Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” The Democrats saw concentrated corporate power as a form of dictatorship. They broke up giant banks and businesses and chained the chainstores. What Roosevelt, Brandeis and Patman knew has been forgotten by those in power, including powerful journalists. But not by the victims of this system.
One of the answers to Trump, Putin, Orban, Erdogan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to defend the crucial political unit that’s under assault by banks, monopolies and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard to peace between nations than a corporate model which crushes democratic choice.
The Pricing of Everything
The Natural Capital Agenda looks like an answer to the environmental crisis. But it’s a delusion.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 24th July 2014
This is the transcript of George Monbiot’s SPERI Annual Lecture, hosted by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. The lecture was delivered without notes, and transcribed afterwards, so a few small changes have been made for readability, but it’s more or less as given. You can watch the video here.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are witnessing the death of both the theory and the practice of neoliberal capitalism. This is the doctrine which holds that the market can resolve almost all social, economic and political problems. It holds that people are best served, and their prosperity is best advanced, by the minimum of intervention and spending by the state. It contends that we can maximise the general social interest through the pursuit of self-interest.
To illustrate the spectacular crashing and burning of that doctrine, let me tell you the sad tale of a man called Matt Ridley. He was a columnist on the Daily Telegraph until he became – and I think this tells us something about the meritocratic pretensions of neoliberalism – the hereditary Chair of Northern Rock: a building society that became a bank. His father had been Chair of Northern Rock before him, which appears to have been his sole qualification.
While he was a columnist on the Telegraph he wrote the following:
The government “is a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world. … governments do not run countries, they parasitize them.”(1) He argued that taxes, bail-outs, regulations, subsidies, interventions of any kind are an unwarranted restraint on market freedom. When he became Chairman of Northern Rock, Mr Ridley was able to put some of these ideas into practice. You can see the results today on your bank statements.
In 2007 Matt Ridley had to go cap in hand to the self-seeking flea and beg it for what became £27 billion. This was rapidly followed by the first run on a British bank since 1878. The government had to guarantee all the deposits of the investors in the bank. Eventually it had to nationalise the bank, being the kind of parasitic self-seeking flea that it is, in order to prevent more or less the complete collapse of the banking system(2).
By comparison to Mr Ridley, the likes of Paul Flowers, our poor old crystal Methodist, were pretty half-hearted. In fact about the only things which distinguish Mr Flowers from the rest of the banking fraternity were that a) he allegedly bought his own cocaine and b) he singularly failed to bring the entire banking system to its knees.
Where’s Mr Ridley now? Oh, we don’t call him Mr Ridley any more. He sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how our system works.
It is not just that neoliberalism has failed spectacularly in that this creed – which was supposed to prevent state spending and persuade us that we didn’t need state spending – has required the greatest and most wasteful state spending in history to bail out the deregulated banks. But also that it has singularly failed to create the great society of innovators and entrepreneurs that we were promised by the originators of this doctrine, by people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who insisted that it would create a society of entrepreneurs.
As Thomas Piketty, a name which is on everybody’s lips at the moment, so adeptly demonstrates in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, what has happened over the past thirty years or so has been a great resurgence of patrimonial capitalism, of a rentier economy, in which you make far more money either by owning capital or by positioning yourself as a true self-serving flea upon the backs of productive people, a member of an executive class whose rewards are out of all kilter with its performance or the value it delivers(3). You make far more money in either of those positions than you possibly can through entrepreneurial activity. If wealth under this system were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.
So just at this moment, this perfect moment of the total moral and ideological collapse of the neoliberal capitalist system, some environmentalists stumble across it and say, “This is the answer to saving the natural world.” And they devise a series of ideas and theories and mechanisms which are supposed to do what we’ve been unable to do by other means: to protect the world from the despoilation and degradation which have done it so much harm.
I’m talking about the development of what could be called the Natural Capital Agenda: the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it.
Sorry, did I say nature? We don’t call it that any more. It is now called natural capital. Ecological processes are called ecosystem services because, of course, they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests, rivers: these are terribly out-dated terms. They are now called green infrastructure. Biodiversity and habitats? Not at all à la mode my dear. We now call them asset classes in an ecosystems market. I am not making any of this up. These are the names we now give to the natural world.
Those who support this agenda say, “Look, we are failing spectacularly to protect the natural world – and we are failing because people aren’t valuing it enough. Companies will create a road scheme or a supermarket – or a motorway service station in an ancient woodland on the edge of Sheffield – and they see the value of what is going to be destroyed as effectively zero. They weigh that against the money to be made from the development with which they want to replace it. So if we were to price the natural world, and to point out that it is really worth something because it delivers ecosystems services to us in the form of green infrastructure and asset classes within an ecosystems market (i.e. water, air, soil, pollination and the rest of it), then perhaps we will be able to persuade people who are otherwise unpersuadable that this is really worth preserving.”
They also point out that through this agenda you can raise a lot of money, which isn’t otherwise available for conservation projects. These are plausible and respectable arguments. But I think they are the road to ruin – to an even greater ruin than we have at the moment.
Let me try to explain why with an escalating series of arguments. I say escalating because they rise in significance, starting with the relatively trivial and becoming more serious as we go.
Perhaps the most trivial argument against the Natural Capital Agenda is that, in the majority of cases, efforts to price the natural world are complete and utter gobbledygook. And the reason why they are complete and utter gobbledygook is that they are dealing with values which are non-commensurable.
They are trying to compare things which cannot be directly compared. The result is the kind of nonsense to be found in the Natural Capital Committee’s latest report, published a couple of weeks ago(4). The Natural Capital Committee was set up by this Government, supposedly in pursuit of better means of protecting the natural world.
It claimed, for example, that if fresh water ecosystems in this country were better protected, the additional aesthetic value arising from that protection would be £700 million. That’s the aesthetic value: in other words, what it looks like. We will value the increment in what it looks like at £700 million. It said that if grassland and sites of special scientific interest were better protected, their wildlife value would increase by £40 million. The value of their wildlife – like the chalk hill blues and the dog violets that live on protected grasslands – would be enhanced by £40 million.
These figures, ladies and gentlemen, are marmalade. They are finely shredded, boiled to a pulp, heavily sweetened … and still indigestible. In other words they are total gibberish.
But they are not the worst I’ve come across. Under the last Government, the Department for Transport claimed to have discovered “the real value of time.” Let me read you the surreal sentence in which this bombshell was dropped. “Forecast growth in the real value of time is shown in Table 3.”(5) There it was, the real value of time – rising on a graph.
The Department for Environment, when it launched the National Ecosystem Assessment in 2011, came out with something equally interesting. It said it had established “the true value of nature for the very first time”(6). Unfortunately it wasn’t yet able to give us a figure for “the true value of nature”, but it did manage to provide figures for particular components of that value of nature. Let me give you just one of these. It said that if we looked after our parks and greens well they would enhance our well-being to the tune of £290 per household per year in 2060(6a).
What does it mean? It maintained that the increment in well-being is composed of “recreation, health and solace”; natural spaces in which “our culture finds its roots and sense of place”; “shared social value” arising from developing “a sense of purpose” and being “able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society” enhanced by “supportive personal relationships” and “strong and inclusive communities”(7). So you put solace and sense of place and social value and personal goals and supportive personal relationships and strong and inclusive communities all together into one figure and you come out with £290 per household per year.
All we require now is for the Cabinet Office to give us a price for love and a true value for society and we will have a single figure for the meaning of life.
I know what you’re thinking: it’s 42(8). But Deep Thought failed to anticipate the advent of Strictly Come Dancing, which has depreciated the will to live to the extent that it’s now been downgraded to 41.
It is complete rubbish, and surely anyone can see it’s complete rubbish. Not only is it complete rubbish, it is unimprovable rubbish. It’s just not possible to have meaningful figures for benefits which cannot in any sensible way be measured in financial terms.
Now there are some things that you can do. They are pretty limited, but there are some genuinely commensurable pay-offs that can be assessed. So, for instance, a friend of mine asked me the other day, “What’s the most lucrative investment a land owner can make?”. I didn’t know. “An osprey! Look at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District where there’s a pair of ospreys breeding and the owners of the land have 300,000 people visiting them every year. They charge them for car parking and they probably make a million pounds a year.”
You can look at that and compare it to what you were doing before, such as rearing sheep, which is only viable because of farm subsidies: you actually lose money by keeping sheep on the land. So you can make a direct comparison because you’ve got two land uses which are both generating revenue (or losing revenue) that is already directly costed in pounds. I’ve got no problem with that. You can come out and say there is a powerful economic argument for having ospreys rather than sheep.
There are a few others I can think of. You can, for instance, look at watersheds. There is an insurance company which costed Pumlumon, the highest mountain in the Cambrian mountains, and worked out that it would be cheaper to buy Pumlumon and reforest it in order to slow down the flow of water into the lowlands than to keep paying out every year for carpets in Gloucester.
There were quite a few assumptions in there, as we don’t yet have all the hydrological data we need, but in principle you can unearth some directly commensurable values – the cost of insurance pay-outs, in pounds, versus the cost of buying the land, in pounds – and produce a rough ballpark comparison. But in the majority of cases you are not looking at anything remotely resembling financial commensurability.
So that is Problem One, and that is the most trivial of the problems.
Problem Two is that you are effectively pushing the natural world even further into the system that is eating it alive. Dieter Helm, the Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, said the following in the same report I quoted from just a moment ago. “The environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.”(9)
There, ladies and gentlemen, you have what seems to me the Government’s real agenda. This is not to protect the natural world from the depredations of the economy. It is to harness the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction. Now, we are told, these devastating processes will protect it.
(Sorry, did I say the living planet? I keep getting confused about this. I meant asset classes within an ecosystem market.)
It gets worse still when you look at the way in which this is being done. Look at the government’s Ecosystems Markets Task Force, which was another of these exotic vehicles for chopping up nature and turning it into money. From the beginning it was pushing nature towards financialisation. It talked of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the return on investment of an environmental bond.”(10) That gives you an idea of what the agenda is – as well as the amount of gobbledygook it is already generating.
What we are talking about is giving the natural world to the City of London, the financial centre, to look after. What could possibly go wrong? Here we have a sector whose wealth is built on the creation of debt. That’s how it works, on stacking up future liabilities. Shafting the future in order to serve the present: that is the model. And then that debt is sliced up into collateralised debt obligations and all the other marvellous devices that worked so well last time round.
Now nature is to be captured and placed in the care of the financial sector, as that quote suggests. In order for the City to extract any value from it, the same Task Force says we need to “unbundle” ecosystem services so they can be individually traded(11).
That’s the only way in which it can work – this financialisation and securitisation and bond issuing and everything else they are talking about. Nature has to be unbundled. If there is one thing we know about ecosystems, and we know it more the more we discover about them, it’s that you cannot safely disaggregate their functions without destroying the whole thing. Ecosystems function as coherent holistic systems, in which the different elements depend upon each other. The moment you start to unbundle them and to trade them separately you create a formula for disaster.
Problem Three involves what appears to be a very rude word, because hardly anyone uses it, certainly not in polite society. It begins with a ‘p’ and it’s five letters long and most people seem unable to utter it. It is, of course, power.
Power is the issue which seems to get left out of the Natural Capital Agenda. And because it gets left out, because it it is, I think, deliberately overlooked, what we are effectively seeing is the invocation of money as a kind of fairy dust, that you sprinkle over all the unresolved problems of power in the hope that they will magically resolve themselves. But because they are unresolved, because they are unaddressed, because they aren’t even acknowledged; the natural capital agenda cannot possibly work.
Let me give you an example of a system which doesn’t work because of this problem, despite high commensurability, simple and straightforward outputs and a simple and straightforward monitoring system. That is the European Emissions Trading System, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by creating a carbon price.
I am not inherently opposed to it. I can see it is potentially as good a mechanism as any other for trying gradually to decarbonise society. But it has failed. An effective price for carbon begins at about £30 a ton. That is the point at which you begin to see serious industrial change and the disinvestment in fossil fuels we so desperately need to see.
Almost throughout the history of the European Emissions Trading System, the price of carbon has hovered around five Euros. That is where it is today. The reason is an old-fashioned one. The heavily polluting industries, the carbon-intensive industries, which were being asked to change their practices, lobbied the European Union to ensure that they received an over-allocation of carbon permits. Far too many permits were issued. When the European Parliament started talking about withdrawing some of those permits, it too was lobbied and it caved in and failed to withdraw them. So the price has stayed very low.
What we see here is the age-old problem of power. Governments and the Commission are failing to assert political will. They are failing to stand up for themselves and say, “This is how the market is going to function. It is not going to function without a dirigiste and interventionist approach.” Without that dirigiste and interventionist approach we end up with something which is almost entirely useless. In fact worse than useless because I don’t think there has been a single coal-burning power station, motorway or airport in the European Union approved since the ETS came along, which has not been justified with reference to the market created by the trading system.
You haven’t changed anything by sprinkling money over the problem, you have merely called it something new. You have called it a market as opposed to a political system. But you still need the regulatory involvement of the state to make that market work. Because we persuade ourselves that we don’t need it any more because we have a shiny new market mechanism, we end up fudging the issue of power and not addressing those underlying problems.
Let me give you another example: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, overseen by Pavan Sukhdev from Deutsche Bank. This huge exercise came up with plenty of figures, most of which I see as nonsense. But one or two appeared to be more more plausible. Among the most famous of these was its valuation of mangrove forests. It maintained that if a businessman or businesswoman cuts down a mangrove forest and replaces it with a shrimp farm, that will be worth around $1,200 per hectare per year to that person. If we leave the mangrove forest standing, because it protects the communities who live on the coastline and because it is a wonderful breeding ground for fish and crustaceans, it will be worth $12,000 per hectare per year(12). So when people see the figures they will conclude that it makes sense to save the mangrove forests, and hey presto, we have solved the problem. My left foot!
People have known for centuries the tremendous benefits that mangrove forests deliver. But has that protected them from being turned into shrimp farms or beach resorts? No, it hasn’t. And the reason it hasn’t is that it might be worth $12,000 to the local impoverished community of fisher folk, but if it’s worth $1,200 to a powerful local politician who wants to turn it into shrimp farms, that counts for far more. Putting a price on the forest doesn’t in any way change that relationship.
You do not solve the problem this way. You do not solve the problem without confronting power. But what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.
Let me give you one or two examples of that. Let’s start on the outskirts of Sheffield with Smithy Wood. This is an ancient woodland, which eight hundred years ago was recorded as providing charcoal for the monks who were making iron there. It is an important part of Sheffield’s history and culture. It is full of stories and a sense of place and a sense of being able to lose yourself in something different. Someone wants to turn centre of Smithy Wood into a motorway service station(13).
This might have been unthinkable until recently. But it is thinkable now because the government is introducing something called biodiversity offsets. If you trash a piece of land here you can replace its value by creating some habitat elsewhere. This is another outcome of the idea that nature is fungible and tradeable, that it can be turned into something else: swapped either for money or for another place, which is said to have similar value.
What they’ve said is, “We’re going to plant 60,000 saplings, with rabbit guards around them, in some other place, and this will make up for trashing Smithy Wood.” It seems to me unlikely that anyone would have proposed trashing this ancient woodland to build a service station in the middle of it, were it not for the possibility of biodiversity offsets. Something the Government has tried to sell to us as protecting nature greatly threatens nature.
Let me give you another example. Say we decide that we’re going to value nature in terms of pounds or dollars or euros and that this is going to be our primary metric for deciding what should be saved and what should not be saved. This, we are told, is an empowering tool to protect the natural world from destruction and degradation. Well you go to the public enquiry and you find that, miraculously, while the wood you are trying to save has been valued at £x, the road, which they want to build through the wood, has been valued at £x+1. And let me tell you, it will always be valued at £x+1 because cost benefit analyses for such issues are always rigged.
The barrister will then be able to say, “Well there you are, it is x+1 for the road and x for the wood. End of argument.” All those knotty issues to do with values and love and desire and wonder and delight and enchantment, all the issues which are actually at the centre of democratic politics, are suddenly ruled out. They are outside the box, they are outside the envelope of discussion, they no longer count. We’ve been totally disempowered by that process.
So that was Problem Three. But the real problem, and this comes to the nub of the argument for me, is over the issues which I will describe as values and framing. Am I allowed to mention Sheffield Hallam? Too late. In response to an article I wrote that was vaguely about this issue last week, Professor Lynn Crowe from Sheffield Hallam University wrote what I thought was a very thoughtful piece(14). She asked this question: “How else can we address the challenge of convincing those who do not share the same values as ourselves of our case?”.
In other words, we are trying to make a case to people who just don’t care about the natural world. How do we convince them, when they don’t share those values, to change their minds? To me the answer is simple. We don’t.
We never have and we never will. That is not how politics works. Picture a situation where Ed Miliband stands up in the House of Commons and makes such a persuasive speech that David Cameron says, “You know, you’ve completely won me over. I’m crossing the floor and joining the Labour benches.”
That’s not how it works. That is not how politics has ever proceeded, except in one or two extremely rare cases. You do not win your opponents over. What you do to be effective in politics is first, to empower and mobilise people on your own side and secondly, to win over the undecided people in the middle. You are not going to win over the hard core of your opponents who are fiercely opposed to your values.
This is the horrendous mistake that New Labour here and the Democratic Party in the United States have made. “We’ve got to win the next election so we’ve got to appease people who don’t share our values, so we’re going to become like them. Instead of trying to assert our own values, we are going to go over to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not really red; we’re not scary at all. We are actually conservatives.’” That was Tony Blair’s message. That was Bill Clinton’s message. That, I’m afraid, is Barack Obama’s message.
Triangulation possibly won elections – though in 1997 a bucket on a stick would have won – but it greatly eroded the Labour vote across the intervening years. We’ve ended up with a situation where there are effectively no political alternatives to the neoliberalism being advanced by the coalition government. In which the opposition is, in almost every case, failing to oppose. It is in this position because it has progressively neutralised itself by trying to appease people who do not share its values.
As George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who has done so much to explain why progressive parties keep losing the elections that they should win and keep losing support even in the midst of a multiple crisis caused by their political opponents, points out, you can never win by adopting the values of your opponents(15).
You have to leave them where they are and project your own values to people who might be persuaded to come over to your side. That is what conservatives have done on both sides of the Atlantic. They have been extremely good at it, especially in the United States, where they have basically crossed their arms and said, “We’re over here and we don’t give a damn about where you are. We don’t care about what you stand for, you hippies on the Left. This is what we stand for and we are going to project it, project it, project it, until the electoral arithmetic our stance creates means that you have to come to us.”
So what we’ve got there is a Democratic Party that is indistinguishable from where the Republicans were ten years ago. It has gone so far to the right that it has lost its core values. I think you could say the same about the Labour Party in this country.
This, in effect, is what we are being asked to do through the natural capital agenda. We are saying “because our opponents don’t share our values and they are the people wrecking the environment, we have to go over to them and insist that we’re really in their camp. All we care about is money. We don’t really care about nature for its own sake. We don’t really believe in any of this intrinsic stuff. We don’t believe in wonder and delight and enchantment. We just want to show that it’s going to make money.”
In doing so, we destroy our own moral authority and legitimacy. In a recent interview George Lakoff singled out what he considered to be the perfect example of the utter incompetence of progressives hoping to defend the issues they care about. What was it? The Natural Capital Agenda(16).
As Lakoff has pointed out, these people are trying to do the right thing but they are completely failing to apply a frames analysis. A frame is a mental structure through which you understand an issue. Instead of framing the issue with our own values and describing and projecting our values – which is the only thing in the medium- to long-term that ever works – we are abandoning them and adopting instead the values of the people who are wrecking the environment. How could there be any long-term outcome other than more destruction?
There’s another way of looking at this, which says the same thing in a different ways. All of us are somewhere along a spectrum between intrinsic values and extrinsic values. Extrinsic values are about reputation and image and money. They’re about driving down the street in your Ferrari and showing it to everyone. They are about requiring other people’s approbation for your own sense of well-being.
Intrinsic values are about being more comfortable with yourself and who you are. About being embedded in your family, your community, among your friends, and not needing to display to other people in order to demonstrate to yourself that you are worth something(17).
Research in seventy countries produces remarkably consistent results: these values are highly clustered(18). So, for instance, people who greatly value financial success tend to have much lower empathy than those with a strong sense of intrinsic values. They have much less concern about the natural world, they have a stronger attraction towards hierarchy and authority. These associations are very strongly clustered.
But we are not born with these values. They are mostly the product of our social and political environment. What the research also shows is that if you change that environment, people’s values shift en masse with that change. For instance, if you have a good, functioning public health system where no one is left untreated, that embeds and imbues among the population a strong set of intrinsic values. The subliminal message is “I live in a society where everyone is looked after. That must be a good thing because that is the society I live in.” You absorb and internalise those values.
If on the other hand you live in a devil-take-the-hindmost society where people, as they do in the United States, die of treatable conditions because they cannot afford medical care, that will reinforce extrinsic values and push you further towards that end of the spectrum. The more that spectrum shifts, the more people’s values shift with it.
People on the right understand this very well. Mrs Thatcher famously said, “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(19) She understood the political need to change people’s values – something the left has seldom grasped.
If we surrender to the financial agenda and say, “This market-led neoliberalism thing is the way forward,” then we shift social values. Environmentalists are among the last lines of defence against the gradual societal shift towards extrinsic values. If we don’t stand up and say, “We do not share those values, our values are intrinsic values. We care about people. We care about the natural world. We are embedded in our communities and the people around us and we want to protect them, not just ourselves. We are not going to be selfish. This isn’t about money”, who else is going to do it?
So you say to me, “Well what do we do instead? You produce these arguments against trying to save nature by pricing it, by financialisation, by monetisation. What do you do instead?”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is no mystery. It is the same answer that it has always been. The same answer that it always will be. The one thing we just cannot be bothered to get off our bottoms to do, which is the only thing that works. Mobilisation.
It is the only thing that has worked, the only thing that can work. Everything else is a fudge and a substitute and an excuse for not doing that thing that works. And that applies to attempts to monetise and financialise nature as much as it does to all the other issues we are failing to tackle. Thank you.”
1. Matt Ridley, 22nd July 1996. Power to the people: we can’t do any worse than government. The Daily Telegraph.
6a. UK National Ecosystem Assessment, June 2011. Technical report, Chapter 26, Table 26.21
15. George Lakoff, 2004. Don’t think of an elephant!: know your values and frame the debate. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, USA.
Neoliberalism has not delivered the meritocratic nirvana its theorists promised, but a rentiers’ paradise, offering staggering returns to whoever grabs the castle first while leaving productive workers on the wrong side of the moat. The age of enterprise has become the age of unearned income; the age of the market, the age of market failure; the age of opportunity, a steel cage of zero-hour contracts, precarity and surveillance.
The political system is not working. Wheover you vote for, the same people win, because where power claims to be is not where power is. Parliaments and councils embody paralysed force, gesture without motion, as the real decisions are taken elsewhere: by the money, for the money. Governments have actively conspired in this shift, negotiating fake trade treatiesbehind their voters’ backs to prevent democracy from controlling corporate capital. Unreformed political funding ensures that parties have to listen to the rustle of notes before the bustle of votes. In Britain, these problems are compounded by an electoral system that ensures most votes don’t count. This is why a referendum is almost the only means by which people can be heard, and why attempting to override it is a terrible idea.
Culture is not working. A worldview which insists that both people and place are fungible is inherently hostile to the need for belonging. For years we have been told that we do not belong, that we should shift out without complaint while others are shifted in to take our place. When the peculiarities of community and place are swept away by the tides of capital, all that’s left is a globalised shopping culture, in which we engage with glazed passivity. Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores.
In all these crises is opportunity. Opportunities to reject, connect and erect: to build from these ruins a system that works for the people of this country, rather than for an offshored elite that preys on insecurity. If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power? Of insisting that companies which operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp?
How will politics in this sclerotised nation change without a maelstrom? In this chaos we can, if we are quick and clever, find a chance to strike a new contract: proportional representation, real devolution and a radical reform of campaign finance to ensure that millionaires can never again own our politics.
Remote authority has been rejected, so let’s use this moment to root our politics in a common celebration of place, to fight the epidemic of loneliness and rekindle common purpose, transcending the tensions between recent and less-recent immigrants (which means everyone else). In doing so, we might find a language in which liberal graduates can talk with the alienated people of Britain, rather than at them.
But most importantly, let’s address the task that the left and centre have catastrophically neglected: developing a political and economic philosophy fit for the 21st Century, rather than repeatedly microwaving the leftovers of the 20th (neoliberalism and Keynesianism). If the history of the last 80 years tells us anything, it’s that little changes without a new and feracious framework of thought. And when it arrives, everything changes. Much of my work over the next few months will be to assess what’s on offer and try to identify and promote the best ideas.
So yes, despair and rage and curse: there are reasons enough to do so. But then raise your eyes to where hope lies.
The Zombie Doctrine
Crisis after crisis is being caused by a failed ideology. But it cannot be stopped without a coherent alternative.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th April 2016
It’s as if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007-8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?
So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions, that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.
Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.
Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.
The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.
In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.
With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal International”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of think tanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.
As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way, among American apostles such as Milton Friedman, to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.
Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Milton Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.
At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The post-war consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarassment, developing new public services and safety nets.
But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Milton Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.” With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the United States and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.
After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Daniel Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”
It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”. But, as Friedrich Hayek remarked on a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.” The freedom neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.
Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.
As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Milton Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.
Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.
Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that, Ludwig von Mises proposed, would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.
Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.
The privatisation or marketisation of public services – such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons – has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.
Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.
Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer points out in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had similar impacts. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort.” As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.
Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.
Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, Friedrich Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course. Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.
The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.
Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.
Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the “losers” who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment.” When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Donald Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.
Tony Judt pointed out that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power. The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.
Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity. Or rather, a cluster of anonymities.
The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his think tanks, noted that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organization is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised.”
The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Andrew Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.
A century ago, the nouveau riche were disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Entrepreneurs sought social acceptance by passing themselves off as rentiers. Today, the relationship has been reversed: the rentiers and inheritors style themselves entrepreneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.
These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism: the franchise model which ensures that workers do not know for whom they toil; the companies registered through a network of offshore secrecy regimes so complex that even the police cannot discover the beneficial owners; the tax arrangements that bamboozle governments; the financial products no one understands.
The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute. Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy or Friedman’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom.
For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.
Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 1970s, there was “an alternative ready there to be picked up.” But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.
Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st-century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 1970s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21stCentury.
George Monbiot’s new book, How Did We Get into This Mess?, Is published this month by Verso.
Theft through excessive rewards: that’s the dominant business model.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 1st April 2015
There is an inverse relationship between utility and reward. The most lucrative, prestigious jobs tend to cause the greatest harm. The most useful workers tend to be paid least and treated worst.
I was reminded of this while listening last week to a care worker describing her job. Carole’s company gives her a rota of, er, three-half hour visits per hour. It takes no account of the time required to travel between jobs, and doesn’t pay her for it either, which means she makes less than the minimum wage. During the few minutes she spends with a client, she might have to get them out of bed, help them on the toilet, wash them, dress them, make breakfast and give them their medicines. If she ever gets a break, she told the radio programme You and Yours, she spends it with her clients. For some, she is the only person they see all day.
Is there more difficult or worthwhile employment? Yet she is paid in criticism and insults as well as pennies. She is shouted at by family members for being late and not spending enough time with each client, then upbraided by the company because of the complaints it receives. Her profession is assailed in the media, as the problems created by the corporate model are blamed on the workers. “I love going to people; I love helping them, but the constant criticism is depressing,” she says. “It’s like always being in the wrong”.
Her experience is unexceptional. A report by the Resolution Foundation reveals that two-thirds of frontline care workers receive less than the living wage. Ten percent, like Carole, are illegally paid less than the minimum wage. This abuse is not confined to the UK: in the US, 27% of care workers who make home visits are paid less than the legal minimum.
Let’s imagine the lives of those who own or run the company. We have to imagine it, as, for good reasons, neither the care worker’s real name nor the company she works for were revealed. The more costs and corners they cut, the more profitable their business will be. In other words, the less they care, the better they will do. The perfect chief executive, from the point of view of the shareholders, is a fully fledged sociopath.
Such people will soon become very rich. They will be praised by the government as wealth creators. If they donate enough money to party funds, they have a high chance of becoming peers of the realm. Gushing profiles in the press will commend their entrepreneurial chutzpah and flair.
They’ll acquire a wide investment portfolio, perhaps including a few properties, so that – even if they cease to do anything resembling work – they can continue living off the labour of people like Carole, as she struggles to pay extortionate rents. Their descendants, perhaps for many generations, will need never take a job of the kind she does.
Care workers function as a human loom, shuttling from one home to another, stitching the social fabric back together, while many of their employers, shareholders and government ministers slash blindly at the cloth, downsizing, outsourcing and deregulating in the cause of profit.
It doesn’t matter how many times the myth of meritocracy is debunked. It keeps re-emerging, as you can see in the current election campaign. How else, after all, can the government justify stupendous inequality?
One of the most painful lessons a young adult learns is that the wrong traits are rewarded. We celebrate originality and courage, but those who rise to the top are often conformists and sycophants. We are taught that cheats never prosper, yet the country is run by spivs. A study testing British senior managers and chief executives found that, on certain indicators of psychopathy, their scores exceeded those of patients diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders in the Broadmoor special hospital.
If you possess the one indispensable skill – battering and blustering your way to the top – incompetence in other areas is no impediment. The former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina, features prominently on lists of the USA’s worst bosses: quite an achievement when you consider the competition. She fired 30,000 workers in the name of efficiency, yet oversaw a halving of the company’s stock price. Morale and communication became so bad that she was booed at company meetings. She was forced out, with a $42m severance package. Where is she now? About to launch her campaign as presidential candidate for the Republican party, where, apparently, she’s considered a serious contender. It’s the Mitt Romney story all over again.
At university, I watched in horror as the grand plans of my ambitious friends dissolved. It took them about a minute, on walking into the corporate recruitment fair, to see that the careers they had pictured – working for Oxfam, becoming a photographer, defending the living world – paid about one fiftieth of what they might earn in the City. They all swore that they would leave to follow their dreams after two or three years of making money. Need I remark that none did? They soon adjusted their morality to their circumstances. One, a firebrand who wanted to nationalise the banks and overthrow capitalism, plunged first into banking, then into politics. Claire Perry now sits on the front bench of the Conservative Party.
Flinch once, at the beginning of your career, and they will have you for life. The world is wrecked by clever young people making apparently sensible choices.
The inverse relationship doesn’t always hold. There are plenty of useless, badly-paid jobs, and a few useful, well-paid jobs. But surgeons and film directors are greatly outnumbered by corporate lawyers, lobbyists, advertisers, management consultants, financiers and parasitic bosses consuming the utility their workers provide. As the pay gap widens – chief executives in the UK took 60 times as much as the average worker in the 1990s and 180 times as much today – the uselessness ratio is going through the roof. I propose a name for this phenomenon: kleptoremuneration.
There is no end to this theft except robust government intervention: a redistribution of wages through maximum ratios and enhanced taxation. But this won’t happen until we challenge the infrastructure of justification, built so carefully by politicians and the press. Our lives are damaged not by the undeserving poor but by the undeserving rich.
The belief that economic growth can be detached from destruction appears to be based on a simple accounting mistake.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th November 2015
We can have it all; that is the promise of our age. We can own every gadget we are capable of imagining – and quite a few that we are not. We can live like monarchs without compromising the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. The promise that makes all this possible is that as economies develop, they become more efficient in their use of resources. In other words, they decouple.
There are two kinds of decoupling: relative and absolute. Relative decoupling means using less stuff with every unit of economic growth. Absolute decoupling means a total reduction in the use of resources, even though the economy continues to grow. Almost all economists believe that decoupling – relative or absolute – is an inexorable feature of economic growth.
On this notion rests the concept of sustainable development. It sits at the heart of the climate talks in Paris next month and of every other summit on environmental issues. But it appears to be unfounded.
A paper published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesproposes that even the relative decoupling we claim to have achieved is an artefact of false accounting. It points out that governments and economists have measured our impacts in a way that seems irrational.
Here’s how the false accounting works. It takes the raw materials we extract in our own countries, adds them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtracts our exports, to end up with something called “domestic material consumption”. But by measuring only the products shifted from one nation to another, rather than the raw materials needed to create those products, it greatly underestimates the total use of resources by the rich nations.
For example, if ores are mined and processed at home, these raw materials, as well as the machinery and infrastructure used to make finished metal, are included in the domestic material consumption accounts. But if we buy a finished product from abroad, only the weight of the metal is counted. So as mining and manufacturing shift from countries like the UK and the US to countries like China and India, the rich nations appear to be using fewer resources. A more rational measure, called the “material footprint”, includes all the raw materials an economy uses, wherever they happen to be extracted. When these are taken into account, the apparent improvements in efficiency disappear.
In the UK, for example, the absolute decoupling that the domestic material consumption accounts appear to show is replaced with an entirely different chart. Not only is there no absolute decoupling; there is no relative decoupling either. In fact, until the financial crisis in 2007, the graph was heading in the opposite direction: even relative to the rise in our gross domestic product, our economy was becoming less efficient in its use of materials. Against all predictions, a re-coupling was taking place.
While the OECD has claimed that the richest countries have halved the intensity with which they use resources, the new analysis suggests that in the EU, the US, Japan and the other rich nations, there have been “no improvements in resource productivity at all”. This is astonishing news. It appears to makes a nonsense of everything we have been told about the trajectory of our environmental impacts.
I sent the paper to one of Britain’s leading thinkers on this issue, Chris Goodall, who has argued that the UK appears to have reached “peak stuff”: in other words that there has been a total reduction in our use of resources, otherwise known as absolute decoupling. What did he think?
To his great credit, he responded that “broadly, of course, they are right”, even though the new analysis appears to undermine the case he has made. He did have some reservations, however, particularly about the way in which the impacts of construction are calculated. I also consulted the country’s leading academic expert on the subject, Professor John Barrett. He told me that he and his colleagues had conducted a similar analysis, in this case of the UK’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions “and we find a similar pattern.” One of his papers reveals that while the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions officially fell by 194 million tonnes between 1990 and 2012, this apparent reduction is more than cancelled out by the CO2 we commission through buying stuff from abroad. This rose by 280m tonnes in the same period.
Dozens of other papers come to similar conclusions. For example, a report published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that with every doubling of income, a country needs one third more land and ocean to support its economy, because of the rise in its consumption of animal products. A recent paper in the journal Resources found that the global consumption of materials has risen by 94% over 30 years, and has accelerated since 2000. “For the past 10 years, not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.”
We can persuade ourselves that we are living on thin air, floating through a weightless economy, as gullible futurologists predicted in the 1990s. But it’s an illusion, created by the irrational accounting of our environmental impacts. This illusion permits an apparent reconciliation of incompatible policies.
Governments urge us both to consume more and to conserve more. We must extract more fossil fuel from the ground, but burn less of it. We should reduce, reuse and recycle the stuff that enters our homes, and at the same time increase, discard and replace it. How else can the consumer economy grow? We should eat less meat, to protect the living planet, and eat more meat, to boost the farming industry. These policies are irreconcilable. The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, whether or not the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.
It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction. Scarcely anyone dares even to name it. It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate. We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction.