This is an expanded version of member presentation for CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) members’ conference, 100 Good Ideas: Sharing Solutions (06-08 10 2017), Machynlleth, Wales.
- The persistence of inequality, the promise of ‘sustainability’.
- Social degradation and environmental politics.
- Digital technology: innovation or domination? Liberation or coercion?
- Co-creativity and alliance.
- BREXIT: A nail in our coffin? Or an opportunity?
I argued at last year’s members’ conference at CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) that in view of the events of the previous 12 months, for environmentalists and progressives it could not be business as usual (see ‘Promoting fair and sustainable co-habitation: exploring grounds for progressive politics as the political landscape implodes’ [1-9 10 2016], in category Presentations 2016, togetherfornow.wordpress.com). A rupture had occurred: a daunting intensification of social, cultural, political and environmental upheaval and challenge, which could no longer be seen as just ‘backdrop’ to the ‘main event’ (lives, species, habitats, ecosystems, sustainability).
Here, I suggest that responding to the further social and political upheaval of the last 12 months requires a recalibration of ‘environmental’ politics, which combines critique with optimism. Recent evidence of intensifying inequality, accelerating climate breakdown, political turmoil and opportunity expose fault-lines in environmental politics and Zero Carbon discourse: the problem of reproducing privilege, disadvantage and social exclusion. But fault-lines can be productive, and in turn prompt a critical rethink beyond environmental politics, in what amounts to a vision of major social and political transformation: strategic and ethical.
Transformation begins in the imagination, but:
“Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. . . . Hope is an ax you beak down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal” (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2004, reprint 2016: 4).
Writing in 2003, Solnit assumes the inextricable entwining of these three issues, which must remain our driving focus, and in 2017 we can agree that this is irrefutably an emergency. Historically, there have been distinct political ‘territories’ or movements: the politics of peace, environmentalism, and equality and social justice politics, such as socialism. Unprecedented social and political disturbance, surprise and violence high-jacked reality in 2017 and could have wiped out hope. The startling result of the UK general election in June 2017 proved otherwise, and suggests that previous demarcations and divisions are open to a political and strategic re-imagining.
The persistence of inequality, the promise of ‘sustainability’.
As long ago as 2010, economist Ha–Joon Chang warned about the acceptance of inequality, and how it rested on “assumptions that ‘free markets’ make us all richer in the end” (‘We lost sight of fairness in the false promise of wealth’, The Guardian, 30 08 2010). But “growth figures tell it differently” (ibid.) He argued that “we have to question an assumption that has dominated economic thinking over the last three decades – namely, the belief that maximizing market freedom is the best way to generate wealth” (ibid.). “After three decades of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich, growth has slowed down, rather than accelerated, in almost all countries” (ibid.).
For environmentalists and social progressives, it is not just a question of wealth creation. In fact, the economistic drive towards ‘growth’ and profit (defined in monetary terms) is seen as problematic, as in itself extractive, exploitative, irresponsible, and producing a power hierarchy of dominance, submission and subjugation, which generates, embodies and perpetuates inequality, injustice, indignity and suffering. Further, if sustainability as a paradigm includes the diminution of inequality and its injuries, such as poverty, malnutrition, ill health, racism, homophobia, misogyny, lack of access to decent housing, education and opportunity, and an overt drive towards their elimination as acceptable or inevitable byproducts of our economic system, this shifts environmental discourse towards social and redistributive justice, equity and human rights as core values.
Ha–Joon Chang concludes that, “if we cannot assume free-market policies to be the best at generating wealth, the British debate on equality needs a total rethink” (ibid.). See also Michael J. Sandel (2012), What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which five years after publication, and post the EU referendum result (‘Brexit’) in the UK and post the election of Trump as president in the US, seems an even more powerful critique and warning. However, as late as the 1980s, environmental issues were focused on ‘nature’, rather than inequality. Social class issues, social justice, sexual politics and gender power relations, for example, were deemed ‘political’ intrusions, as were vocal feminists. This has changed somewhat.
Change happens. Experience comes first: poverty, hunger, homelessness, sexual abuse, floods, devastating storm damage, drought, for example. Over time, under pressure from citizens, activists and academic researchers, experiences can become issues: i.e. subjects for social and political consideration and action, rather than examples of personal failure, crisis, or ‘natural’ disaster. This social and political process may lead these experiences to be identified, on a spectrum of concern, as negligence, avoidable catastrophes, as violations, as social violence: as ‘crimes’.
The concept of public health, originally rooted in critical new awareness of poverty, hunger, squalid housing, insanitary water in the C19, by the first public health inspector, Dr Duncan of Liverpool, redefined previously disregarded, ‘natural’ facts of life, as no more natural than clean water or hate crimes. This process gave us the concept of the social determinants of health (and everything else), and so public health was born and burgeoned in Liverpool, the UK and then beyond. An example of this process of changing public awareness and politicisation, is provided by Professor Joanna Bourke’s recent statement describing her new five year Welcome Foundation project, ‘Sexual Violence, Medicine and Psychiatry’, which aims “to take sexual violence out of the little box called ‘crime’ and into the huge field of public health” (cited Zoe Williams, ‘Why did no one speak out about Harvey Weinstein?’ The Guardian, 10 10 2017). Award-winning historian, Bourke is well known for her work on rape, fear, pain, killing; and the history, science and ethics of weaponry (see Wounding the World: How military violence and war-play invade our lives ).
On a more modest scale, at a very well attended workshop on ‘The Environmental Benefits of Housing Co-operatives’, at CAT members’ conference (06—08 10 2017), ably facilitated by Mim Davies and Rich Hawkins of the Machynlleth Housing Co-operative, it was instructive to witness the efforts of a group of environmentalists to disentangle, isolate and agree a definition of ‘environmental benefit’ as opposed to ‘social benefit’ in relation to a housing co-operative. I suspect this was a valuable consciousness-raising process for the group, as well as exemplifying the experiential and conceptual dilemma of the boundary between environmental values and socially progressive values for some environmentalists.
Environmentalists are more diverse than they were 40 years ago (when CAT was established), and what is understood as an environmental issue or value in 2017, and how it may be best promoted, will be impacted by fast-moving social, political and technological contexts, which position people differently, and about which people may disagree. The concept of ‘family’ (the label) was one such contested term in this workshop.
The initial trigger for my poster presentation at conference, and for this related essay, was reading the various case studies in recent issues of Clean Slate: The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living (2017). Originally trained as an artist and sociologist, and having carried out feminist research into women’s lives, I am fully aware that case studies make important contributions to research and understanding. However, unless they are properly contextualised and theorised, they can risk individualising a situation or issue, instead of illuminating the shadows: the unfamiliar, the ‘strange’, the disturbing, the ‘Other’. The challenge itself.
The Clean Slate case studies are informative stories by/about affluent people improving the environmental footprint of their homes (often situated within a fair amount of ground) variously via renovation and/or installing expensive and complicated gear, or as environmentally-conscious new build. The address is therefore exclusively to home owners or would-be home owners, and the (much) better off. These case studies document middle class aspiration and project management, as do long running TV programmes, such as architect Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs on C4, and architect George Clarke’s various renovation programmes and best sheds series, also on C4.
The latter’s new series (starting on 18 10 2017) is entitled Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke, immediately followed by Grand Designs, in which an ecologist and his partner, a communications manager, “start building their new family home in the Peak District”. In the current national context of poor housing, not enough housing, unaffordable housing, and alarming increases in homelessness and house prices, these entertaining (and usually dramatic) TV programmes, with plotlines as suspenseful as a crime thriller, display and celebrate affluence, not just architecture. Budgets involve eye-watering sums, and often overrun. Maintenance and sustainability are not really addressed: for example, how much these mostly very large houses cost to heat is rarely mentioned; and who will (be employed to) clean the extensive expanses of beautiful wooden floors never comes up for discussion.
As CAT conference, entitled 100 Good Ideas, approached, I started to reflect on what looked like a problem in the light of what was happening in UK society since my previous presentation at CAT in 2016. I noted CAT information officer, Mim Davies’ welcome caution:
“We need to work together as a society rather than split off into lots of individual off-grid households” (Mim Davies, ‘On grid or off grid? Which is greener?’ Clean Slate, The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, No 105, Autumn 2017: 23).
This is not simply a technical assessment, but a political statement. Her words express the original CAT philosophy, not just regarding the practical importance of co-operation and collaboration, mutuality and reciprocity at a personal level, but the spirit that yearns for a fairer, more humane society. The Zero Carbon Britain report expands on this point:
“While changes in individual behaviour are essential, it is vital that they are supported by the broader policy changes that are required at social, industrial, political and international levels” (‘Zero Carbon Britain’ report, ibid.:14).
Social degradation and environmental politics in 2017.
Since 2010, UK society has been exposed to the full force of turbo capitalism: a neoliberal orthodoxy that, in the hands of Tory administrations, has relentlessly punished the most vulnerable and rewarded the already secure and powerful, as an explicit political strategy, described by film maker, Ken Loach, as “calculated cruelty” (see my comments on his recent interview with Jo Coburn in ‘Journalism as entertainment and entrapment’, togetherfornow.wordpress.com, category Letters to the Guardian, 2017). The features and consequences of this onslaught have been gradually documented and analysed during these years, not so much by the MSM (mainstream media), as by individual activists, academics, artists, performers, writers and researchers. By contrast, the MSM have played a decisive role in promoting TINA (‘There is no alternative’) and the neoliberal mindset over the last 30+ years.
Liverpool-based activism, in the form of protest, concerted resistance, community creativity, academic research and artistic production is evidence of a rising, explicit power struggle between very different sets of values and priorities. Liverpool-based film makers, Hazuan Hashim and Phil Maxwell, provide a compelling overview in their documentary film, Austerity Fight, which is currently doing the round of UK and international film festivals, before being made available online. It provides powerful evidence of how active campaigners have been in challenging and exposing government policies and their consequences.
At its Liverpool premiere (15 09 2017) at the packed Plaza community cinema in Waterloo (after its London premiere), it was preceded by a book launch of The Violence of Austerity (05 2017), edited by Vickie Cooper, former LJMU academic, now Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at the OU, & Dave Whyte, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Liverpool. This edited collection exposes the many ways in which Austerity policies harm and precipitate breakdown and death of people in Britain. It brings together a wide range of case studies and analysis, and should be read by everyone, those with and without power and influence, including those who identify as environmentalists.
While Austerity politics has consequences for almost everyone, for example through its attack on essential public services, in their introduction the editors argue that:
“Austerity is a class project that disproportionately targets and affects working-class households and communities and, in so doing, protects concentrations of elite wealth and power. The policies levelled at working-class households have barely touched the elite” (Cooper & Whyte, 2017: 11). Added emphasis.
The Violence of Austerity has the potential to cross that divide. The violence of its case studies stands in sharp contrast to the Clean Slate case studies mentioned, and the TV programmes on housing, which foreground innovation, ambition, agency, personal control and comfort. These buildings are identified as beautiful, secure, even ‘virtuous’ (low carbon) private homes. Such elite case studies badged as TV entertainment, serve to obliterate the inequalities and violence of contemporary UK society, for example the brutal reality of our ‘broken’ housing market. In the circumstances, this is entertainment that fetishises home ownership and property development (two key features of the neoliberal project which have become synonymous). This is thus entertainment as a covert political act.
Historically, the issue of social class was the elephant in the room for the early white, middle- class environmental movement in the UK, which identified it as ‘political’, i.e. belonging to Labour, trade union and socialist politics. Cooper & Whyte’s collection can help environmentalists reframe issues of concern (such as fracking and state violence, environmental degradation, homelessness and the production of hate) within the larger political and economic framework that is Austerity and neoliberal politics. The Violence of Austerity is thus an example of an academic project as an overt political act.
The society and politics pictured in Cooper & Whyte’s collection must surely be taken into account, not left to one side, as something outwith or beyond the social and political consideration of environmentalists. Indifference to what is a moral shift in how society is organized is in itself a political stance. As well as being morally repugnant, inequality and brutality as government orthodoxies (i.e. political choices and practices) are obstacles to social, economic and environmental ‘sustainability’, certainly; but also to survival, as the Grenfell Tower fire in London this year proved so horrifically.
Steven Poole’s review of Peter Fleming’s new book (2017), The Death of Homo Economicus, is entitled ‘Zero-hours contracts, debt and “crap jobs” – a sardonic polemic on C21 capitalism’ (Guardian, 30 09 2017). The book and Poole’s review are indicative of a rising rejection of neoliberal policies and Austerity politics. The Labour Manifesto, For The Many Not The Few, published in June 2017, as part of the general election campaign, is part of this shift. It may be a first draft, but it is substantial, and with its 12 clearly labeled chapters, it has already made a huge difference in helping set the political agenda, inside and outwith parliament.
Environmentalists can check out, for example, sections on ‘Infrastructure investment’, ‘sustainable energy’, ‘environment’, ‘a more equal society’, to see the extent to which sustainability values, zero carbon ambitions, renewable energy technologies and community energy projects are now at the heart of the Labour programme, entwined with its preoccupation with public health issues, such as air pollution, health and safety at work, mental health and social care; food production, job creation, employment rights and practices that do not destroy individuals, communities and our natural world.
“The next Labour government will reverse privatisation of our NHS and return our health service into expert public control” (For The Many Not The Few [June 2016]: 69), “restore the Education Maintenance Allowance (ibid: 40), ban fracking and is “committed to renewable energy projects, including tidal lagoons, which can help create manufacturing and energy jobs as well as contributing to climate-change commitments” (ibid:21).
“The EU has had a huge impact in securing workplace protections and environmental safeguards. . . . A Labour government will never consider these rights a burden or accept the weakening of workers’ rights, consumer rights or environmental protections” (ibid: 26). [Emphasis added.]
As one trade union delegate declared as he finished speaking in support of environmental legislation at Labour party conference in Brighton (23-27 09 2017): “There are no jobs on a dead planet!” (I should have noted his name and his union.)
Also published in 2017, Just Transition and Energy Democracy is a 39 page civil service trade union perspective from PCS (the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union). It draws on a wide range of research and evidence to make the case that “climate change is an issue for trade unionists and workers” (p4) and that they should be active participants in environmental debates and initiatives. It includes a UK energy plan for public ownership (p24, based on Prof. David Hall’s 2016 report, ‘Public ownership of UK energy system – benefits, costs and processes’. It highlights the problem of “conventional market-based solutions of climate agreements” (p13) and the problem of “the transnational corporations and financial elite who dominate the world” (p4). And it argues, with Naomi Klein, that:
“The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system – one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work and radically reins in corporate power” (cited p13).
A further indication of the convergence of environmental activism and progressive politics has been evident in opposition to “the three radical trade agreements being promoted by political elites on both sides of the Atlantic, in an effort to preserve the current economic model (see Nick Dearden, Director of the world Development Movement, ‘The Transatlantic Trade Deal: a project of the 1%’, Clean Slate: The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living, No.93, Autumn 2014: 26-27). Dearden argues, in a statement that enjoins environmental values and progressive politics, that, “Taken together, these agreements represent a massive attack on democracy, public provision and the environment, in the name of transnational capital” (ibid.: 26). Environmentalists should note this triple whammy.
The PCS document argues that:
“Demanding a transition to a zero carbon economy based on energy democracy – public ownership and democratic control of our energy system – is the only way to ensure that the transition will be both just and transformative” (Just Transition and Energy Democracy : 35).
The document concludes with “Our ten demands” (p36), including “A civil service for people not capital” (ibid.). The geographer, David Harvey, “has introduced the widely cited concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’” (cited Cooper & Whyte: 17). He claims that “the transfer of state assets to private ownership always implies a process of dispossession and general loss of rights” (ibid.) and that “the accumulation by dispossession is the driving force of capitalism, and that this process of capital accumulation has become more predatory and violent under Austerity programmes” (ibid.: 18). In line with Harvey’s analysis, the PCS document emphasises “the need to remove capital from the driving seat of energy transition” (ibid: 35) and as a trade union, to make the case across all sectors:
“We will succeed if we are convincing in our arguments, not just on the science, but the politics and economics of climate change” (ibid.: 36).
Environmental politics, to be relevant and responsible in 2017, cannot ignore evidence of the incompetence and violence of the unregulated power of the market economy, including literally life-changing technological innovations:
Digital technology: innovation or domination? Liberation or coercion?
“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended negative consequences” (Justin Rosenstein, cited Paul Lewis, ‘Scroll, refresh, repeat, delete’, The Guardian Weekend, 07 10 2017).
Justin Rosenstein, Tech exec and Facebook ‘like’ co-creator, is one of those who “put in place the building blocks of the digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves” (Lewis, ibid.). Lewis’s report illuminates how digital technologies are reshaping lives, relationships, consciousness, and possibly intelligence itself, as more people move into a world of “continuous partial attention”, in which technological manipulation may be harmful or immoral (ibid.) in its psychological impact, for example in fostering addictive behaviour, i.e. “reward-based behaviour that activates the brain’s dopamine pathways” (Chris Marcellino, cited Lewis, was one of the inventors in his early 20s hired by Apple to work on the iPhone, and is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon).
“It’s not inherently evil to bring people back to your product”, Marcellino says. “It’s capitalism” (cited Lewis). But “if we only care about profit maximisation, we will go rapidly into dystopia” (Rosenstein, cited Lewis). In other words, dystopia is the logical destination for unregulated turbo capitalism and its neoliberal values: which amounts not just to self harm, but to self destruct. (The cliff edge / no deal being contemplated with apparent equanimity by the UK ‘Bexit’ team serves as a one such scenario.) It is the symptoms and consequences of this system that have so preoccupied social progressives and environmentalists over the years, though environmentalists have been reluctant to actually name that enemy, and this reluctance is my concern here.
For example, Alan Cunningham, a Liverpool-based researcher on poverty and low carbon pathways to health, found that, while Liverpool FoE and MET (Merseyside Environmental Trust) had campaigned on health as linked to sustainable living, “other local and national NGOs continued to deal with separate silos undermining the process of decision making” (Cunningham, ‘Low Carbon Pathways to Health in the Liverpool City region’, 12 11 2013).
“When the Transition initiative started we tried to set up a Wellbeing Group but we were told that other Transition towns and cities, other local and national NGOs and local Community Enterprises did not accept the link between sustainable living and health. The Wellbeing Group was in an impossible position because it was sharing structures with Groups which had a different view of health and a different world view” (ibid.). Added emphasis.
These are cognitive, intellectual and political differences, not dissimilar to those noted by Guardian letter writers in response to long term environmentalist, George Monbiot’s recommendations in no less than three recent articles: ‘How do we get out of this mess? (Guardian, 09 09 2017); ‘A lesson from Hurricane Irma, (Guardian, 13 09 2017); and ‘How Labour could lead the global economy out of the C20’ (Guardian,11 10 2017). Monbiot proposes “private sufficiency” and “public luxury” as conceptual contributions to ways forward:
“Private luxury shuts down space, creating deprivation. But magnificent public amenities should be owned and managed by neither state nor market, but by communities, in the form of commons” (Monbiot, 11 10 2017).
However, some Guardian readers think he’s skirting. Dr Patrick O’Sullivan comments that Monbiot “seems unable to acknowledge that the only real solution to the problems he identitifes – climate change, globalization, poverty, overcrowded cities, social fragmentation, mass extinction, destruction of valued habitats – is socialism” (Guardian letters, 14 10 2017). O’Sullivan concludes: “George, now that you are finally slouching towards socialism, it’s time to read [William] Morris’s News From Nowhere” (ibid.).
The convergence of environmental and social progressive/socialist politics may be speeding up inside the petri dish of post ‘Brexit’ and post Trump politics, but new risks and dangers have already ensnared those taking up digital ‘opportunities’. James Williams, 35, an ex Google strategist who left Google last year, sounds a warning:
“The attention economy incentivises the design of technologies that grab our attention. In so doing, it privileges our impulses over our intentions” (Williams, cited Lewis, ibid.) . . . . That means privileging what is sensational over what is nuanced, appealing to emotion, anger and outrage” (Williams, cited Lewis, 07 10 2017.)
A month before Trump was elected to the White house, Williams blogged that the reality TV star’s campaign had heralded a watershed in which “the new, digitally supercharged dynamics of the attention economy have finally crossed a threshold and become manifest in the political realm” (Williams, cited Lewis). Williams explains:
“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will. If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on” (cited Lewis, ibid.).
Capitalism has always been anti-democratic, as democracy does not serve the interests of capital, and latterly, modern turbo consumerism, which of course drives the attention economy. And the neoliberal drive towards deregulation is designed to constrain, undermine and circumnavigate democratic values and accountability. But could this latest twist prove terminal?
Given how central new technologies are to both environmental politics, progressive politics, and electoral process, as both ‘problem’ and ‘solution’, activists and politicians have a struggle on their hands to keep up with the ramifications of the transformations so many of us are already part of, as well as trying to anticipate how to proceed in a future world, for which previous experience may provide little guidance as to what is relevant to the planet and societies’ next steps.
If you have watched any of Jacques Peretti’s hair-raising TV investigations, e.g. his recent 3 part series, Billion Dollar Deals and How They Changed Your World (BBC2, 27 10 2017, 04 10 2017), the last episode (screened on 11 10 2017) on how the concept of work has changed, including the impact and ‘promise’ (or threat) of AI (Artificial Intelligence), may have jolted your awareness of the importance and fragility of all the rights and protections secured and defended by Labour, the trade unions and the EU in the past, and which require our renewed vigilance and collective organization in the face of technological changes with fundamental consequences for lives and employment: uncertainty, insecurity, social control, impoverishment, individualism, feature prominently in the western gig economy, for example, as well as in our increasingly underfunded public services (see Who Deserves a Pay Rise? C4 Dispatches, which investigates the personally life-changing impact of pay caps on public sector employees over the last 10 years [23 10 2017]).
Co-creativity and alliance.
The months since CAT members’ conference in October 2016, have shown us both the violence and entrenched power of those opposing social creativity, collective action, social justice and a multicultural society, as well as people’s potential and power (as seen in the film Austerity Fight), when we are roused to act collectively against violation and injustice. It is a process, not a single, final fix. ‘Victory’, as Solnit understands, will always be a work in progress.
“The absolutists of the old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come” (Solnit, 2016: xxii).
During the 2017 general election campaign, we were told (without let up) by politicians (on all sides) and the MSM, that the Labour party was finished, that Corbyn was a joke and unelectable, and that those who thought otherwise were variously ‘hard left’, ‘Trotskyite’ morons and dreamers. The subsequent Labour vote can thus be seen as an act of non compliance, of bold civil disobedience (for other examples, see ‘Non compliance in the face of affront, bullying, coercion, and violation’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com, in category Commentary 2016). As Solnit notes:
“And then every now and then, the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency . . . ” (Solnit: xxiii).
The political landscape in the UK erupted in 2017, the general election result making the Labour party the opposition party, which can now be viewed as a powerful progressive alliance, rather than the proverbial ‘broad church’. Voter registration soared and young people stepped out of the shadows to register their values, concerns and aspirations, alongside the many older voters who had previously withdrawn their long term support for Labour, returning to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s reinvigorated Labour party; and those who had never voted or chose to switch their vote from other parties to Labour.
“And yet, and of course, everything in the mainstream media suggests that popular resistance is ridiculous, pointless, or criminal, unless it is far away, was long ago, or, ideally, both (ibid.: xxiii).
But, as Josiah Mortimer, editor of Left Foot Forward, witnessed: “Non-political people turning out in droves. Seemingly switched-off friends proud of casting their vote” (‘Talent from Corbyn to Chuka: why I left the Greens to join Labour’, Labour List, 28 09 2017). After being a Green member for 6 years, Josiah voted Labour in June 2017:
“It now feels clear that the changes within Labour are much more than temporary – there has been an internal culture shift. With around 600,000 members, Labour is now the great movement of the left. A broad church, but one that was resoundingly united around an inspiring manifesto this year” (ibid.).
This emergent political conversation is well under way: it’s cross-class and cross-generational, and embraces our cultural diversity as a basis and driver for a renewed democracy. None of these developments were anticipated, predicted or understood by the MSM and neoliberal politicians. The revived Labour party, while not sufficient in itself to do what is needed, has already shown that it can be a vital instrument and catalyst in helping shift values and practices in society and its institutions, in collaboration with others who care, including other EU citizens.
And in 2017, the issue of EU membership and citizenship is not peripheral to environmental or progressive politics in the UK. Nor can those campaigning over the loss of EU citizens’ rights in the UK post ‘Brexit’ be seen, or self define, as a special interest group pursuing ‘single issue’ politics. They are now party to what is a substantive social and political transformation.
BREXIT: A nail in our coffin? Or an opportunity?
The EU referendum vote in 2016 has caused uproar, mayhem, grief and despair in people’s lives and relationships, and across party lines. For many young people in the UK, used to identifying as European citizens, the threat of ‘Brexit’ is alarming and real: their lives will be wrenched out of their control.
Another set of case studies attests to the speed and extent of the consequences of the ‘Brexit’ vote. In Limbo: Brexit testimonies from EU citizens in the UK, was launched at the Croxteth Manor symposium (14 10 2017), ‘What has the EU ever done for the North West region?, organised by the Merseyside branch of European Movement UK, Britain for Europe, Liverpool For Europe and Regional Rallies. It makes harrowing reading. The EU citizens in the UK who tell their stories are from: Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Austria, Greece, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Lithuania, Belgium, Slovakia, Sweden, Ireland and Britain. They variously came to the UK for a week’s holiday, or as a student or for work. They fell in love with UK society and stayed for a lifetime (some as long as 26, 32, 40, 49 and 50 years). In their grief, they speak of their broken hearts, not just broken lives, after the ‘Brexit’ decision. Their testimonies evoke precious features of UK society, alerting us to what we are in danger of throwing away as a society:
“What I have always loved so much about this country is its openness, its acceptance, its liberty” (Andrea Carlo, Italy: 15).
“I came to this country because of its tolerance, its diversity of ethnicity and cuisine, its great music and art, its thriving science and technology and its vibrant multiculturalism” (Professor Bruno G. Pollet, France: 21).
“I soon fell in love with the society’s openness and tolerance, the industry’s meritocracy, the people’s pragmatism, and the loveliness of the English countryside” (Philip, Greece: 34).
The ‘Remaining of Liverpool’ campaign, seen in action at the anti Brexit demo in London in September 2017; in Manchester (outside Tory conference, 01 10 2017); and most recently, Liverpool, at the Croxteth Manor symposium (14 10 2017), emanates from a new grouping LfE (Liverpool for Europe), which brings together previously disparate political actors, from those whose interest in politics (especially party politics) has been previously minimal or conservative, to political activists, practised in campaigning, protesting, resisting. Steve Gavin (LfE) told the London rally that “Brexit will be disastrous for working people”, adding:
“European nationals living as family, friends, neighbours and work mates in our great city are being used as pawns in negotiations that the Government clearly doesn’t understand” (cited ‘”The Remaining of Liverpool!” – Latest mass protest against Brexit gets a Liverpool Twist’. Press Release for Europe, 10 09 2017.
For example: “My family is multi-national, a 3-passport concoction, a mini EU. I’m Italian, of Greek-Italian parentage; my husband is Dutch, our daughter is gloriously, incongruously British; or as she puts it, ‘half-Dutch, a quarter Italian, a quarter Greek – and 100% English’” (Elena Gualtieri, Italy, In Limbo: 76).
And: “It never occurred to me that at the age of 75 and having lived here for 50 years, being Dutch could one day make me ‘the other’. Not because I felt different, but because others might start to see me differently” (Elly Wright, The Netherlands: ibid: 79).
Heartbreakingly: “Until June 2016, English was the language of liberation, freedom, respect and equality” (M.T., Italy: ibid: 4).
Now, as Rafael Behr puts it:
“’In David Davis, Britain has a schoolboy in charge of the moon landings’” (The Guardian, 18 07 2017). A reckless bluffer who is wildly out of his depth. . . His skills are suited to a peculiarly British mode of advancement: the celebration of swagger and bluff over due diligence.”
If only this were ‘funny’ and incidental to the future prospects of UK citizens, but Davis’s every appearance at the EU podium this year bears out Behr’s assessment: the sloppy arrogance of his body language, his near permanent smirk as he tries to ‘look the part’, his rambling ill preparedness. Behr nails the gendered and classed nature of a problematic political culture:
“Davis has benefitted from Westminster’s generosity to men who gamble and busk their way through scrapes born of their own ill preparation – overgrown schoolboys who shirk their homework, then talk their way out of detention” (ibid.).
At the London rally, Gavin nutshelled the disturbing combination of ignorance, arrogance and political incompetence on display (our lives in their hands):
“Brexit is being done by a minister for Exiting the EU who doesn’t understand what a customs union is. A foreign secretary whose negative judgemental views about Scousers are so well known, but who will negotiate with the world in our name. And the lifeblood of trade that runs up and down the Mersey is being ignored by a Trade Secretary who doesn’t understand economics” (LfE press release, 10 09 2017).
A spokesperson from the Europe Movement Merseyside (EMM) declared:
“The Mersey nation was not hoodwinked by the lies of the leave campaign last year and will not be fooled now by a government passing legislation to give itself unprecedented powers to make decisions without meaningful Parliamentary scrutiny” (ibid.) See email@example.com
Behr warns: “When designing a weapon, it is a good idea to imagine it falling into the wrong hands” (‘The EU withdrawal bill is nothing less than an executive coup’, The Guardian, 05 09 2017). Claude Moraes, Labour MEP, who chairs the European parliament civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee, is concerned that “Brexit will be a betrayal of the UK’s fight for equality” (The Guardian, 11 10 2017). And Dr Marcin Barszczewski, an EU citizen, originally from Poland, living joyfully in Northern Ireland for 11 years, says: “I have always felt welcome and accepted here – a place where I could spend my entire life” (In Limbo, 2017: 99). But he notes: “What makes me most concerned is the fact that few people with whom I spoke about this saw the EU institutions primarily as peacekeeping mechanisms” (ibid.). Free to leave Poland after 1989, when the Berlin wall came down, he understands the continuing significance of the EU for peace and non-violent internationalism in Europe.
Similarly, and despite his powerful critique of the EU, Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis “remains convinced that the EU must be confronted from within, rather than through a series of exits” (Varoufakis, And The Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and The Threat to Global Stability : xi). And in his forward, he highlights the importance of seeking out common ground across differences:
“When capitalism’s crisis deepens, as happened in the 1930s and is happening again today, people from opposite ends of the political spectrum find common ground. . . The prerequisite for this precious common ground is a willingness to look for it and build alliances that confront the monsters that have a habit of crawling out of the fault lines in the crisis: the Le Pens, the Golden Dawns, the AfDs, the BNPs, the UKIPs and indeed the bureaucrats, politicians and opinion-formers that insist on business as usual when it is business as usual that is tearing our societies apart” (ibid.: xii). Emphasis added.
This is politics, not shopping: conscientious collective action, not individualistic, competitive consumerism. What distinguishes Varoufakis’ political stance is not just the depth of his analysis and historical understanding, but that he “strives to find common ground when this is possible without betraying my opposition to the hideous dictum, ‘And the weak shall suffer what they must’” (ibid.: xiii). This ethic is what should concentrate minds at this point in our shared history.
So, if the problem is hetero-patriarchal turbo capitalism and its neoliberal practices as threats to democracy, people’s wellbeing and dignity, and the planet, through privatisation, fragmentation, marketisation, commodification, individualism and deregulation, for example, fuelling inequality, human / environmental degradation and (resource) wars, then any serious environmental or socially progressive politics has to identify as non neoliberal and anti Austerity.
As evidence of the full horror of a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ ‘Brexit’ starts to pile up from so many different constituencies, interest groups and corners of society, can we muster the political will to rescue the UK from the Tories’ jaws and their determination to continue to enforce Austerity politics, to wreck meaningful links with the EU, including the lives of EU citizens in the UK, and instead align the UK with Trump’s white supremacist and misogynist vision for the US?
Can we rescue the UK, in order to fulfill an ambitious double role? Shifting the UK government towards anti Austerity politics, informed by socialist and environmental values, as well as helping the EU enact its own transformation from within, recommitting itself to:
“a fundamental territorial expression of the principle of social democracy and of a European social model that advocates reinvestment in people and places facing development and regeneration changes” (Olivier Sykes & Andreas Schulze Baing, ‘The impact of EU regeneration and structural funds’, in Essay series: Does the EU work for working-class people? CLASS [Centre for Labour and Social Studies], June 2016: 21).
Three further questions to conclude:
In aligning with anti Austerity activists, can environmentalists bring nourishment to the Labour movement, via the Labour party and the trade unions, in a genuine peer process, thereby augmenting the environmental count inside the Labour movement, as well as widening the Labour party’s electoral impact at the next general election?
Can anti Austerity politics, led by the revived Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, provide the umbrella of hope and courage about the kind of society we want to be, as a continuing member of a reforming EU, and committed to working together across our differences?
And given that this Tory government has shown that inequality and brutality are not enemies to be vanquished, but weapons to secure political dominium and private profit, can the Liverpool for Europe movement and the Remainers across the UK, find and expose their anti Austerity hearts as part of their pro EU and anti Brexit campaign, and in alliance with Labour help remove the Tories from office?
Michael J. Sandel
Andreas Schulze Baing
val walsh / 25 10 2017