Submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability. Val Walsh[i] s

Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy:

prioritizing renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region.

  • Governance and leadership
  • Inequality / Inequalities
  • Research and innovation
  • On not speaking for others
  • Health, wellbeing and community
  • Sustainability and non market values
  • Living with individualism: “this storm we call progress”[ii]
  • Quality of place: harbour/port; home/springboard; sanctuary/hive; childhood/livelihood.

Achieving sustainability as a driver within lives, communities, culture and economy in Liverpool city region will not be the result of a series of technical fixes. Embarking on the next stage of the long-term process of cultural change involves an ambitious, qualitative shift, as local researchers and campaigners Pete North and Tom Barker note in their excellent report:

A low carbon Liverpool will have to use multiple approaches. . . . It is obvious that a holistic approach is necessary to make real progress”.[iii] Emphasis added.

 In this spirit, and in response to the invitation to make a submission to the Mayoral Commission on Environmental Sustainability as a member of LFoE, and taking a lead from the key themes flagged up at the Liverpool Green Partnership (LGP) event at Blackburne House (01 07 2014), selected themes are presented here, not as discrete, but to emphasise their interconnections: how they echo, combine and reinforce each other in a tapestry of meaningfulness and practical actions: and always as a work in progress.

Governance and leadership.
These are not technical and/or organisational matters only, but from the outset must exemplify the Commission’s stated/agreed purpose and values.

  • The Commission’s governance must demonstrate due consideration of process and methodology, which embody values, relationships and protocol that explicitly counter, challenge and seek to undo the neoliberal curse: its infrastructure, relational patterns and assumptions, and above all its consequences / outcomes for individuals, communities, society, the built environment, and the natural world. The damage, the despair, the injustice; the violence and violations; the planned deterioration and dismantling of our social fabric and the public sector values that have done so much to sustain this in the years that preceded the Coalition government in 2010, constitute a raft of obstacles to social and environmental sustainability in 2014 and beyond.
  • The challenge of sustainability requires this necessary ethical and practical revolution, rather than various technical adjustments: a heartfelt cultural politics, not ‘polite’ game-playing or timid bureaucracy. And it has to start immediately.
  • By this I mean we have to enact change now in order to achieve change in/for the future. We have to embody remembered and/or imagined values now, first through the Commission’s membership, processes and practices: its own embodied governance.
  • To do this, familiar, conventional patterns of power and control must cede to the ‘experimental’, such as mixed membership and participation: not all (older), ‘powerful’ men in positions of seniority and authority; not all white; not all non-disabled; not all affluent, etc.. Only one woman on the Commission so far: did no-one notice? Did no-one think this an insufficiency, a disadvantage even in 2014?
  • Any sustainable (i.e. just) society / community / city will not be, emerge from, or be realised by, a monoculture. Monocultures are fragile and unbalanced in their exclusivity and narrowness, and unfair in their embodiment of inequalities, dominance and subordination. Commission members and participants must be drawn from the City’s diversity, including young people and community activists, for example.
  • Understanding of the task by the Commission has to be thorough and authentic, as opposed to rhetoric, sound-bite or ‘green-wash’. Commitment to the challenge and change process must be genuine and unrelenting, not spin for tourists and inward ‘investors’.
  • To demonstrate such understanding and commitment, the Commission has to be seen to be connecting with, consulting, drawing on and constituted by, existing expertise (experiential as well as technical and professional) in the city region: its universities, businesses, communities, mental health sector, public health sector, specialist services, cultural and activist organisations, and individuals. Facilitating a peer group of participation, rather than a hierarchy of vested interests.
  • The level and quality of citizen and community participation recognized as key ingredients and outcomes in Bristol and Nantes demonstrate the significance of democratic capacity building and participation as intrinsic to enhancing sustainability consciousness within the city region (they go together), and achieving practical, social and cultural change informed by sustainability values. These examples (presented at ESRC-funded seminars at the University of Liverpool in 2012) of cities working towards, and achieving, EU Green City status, were inspirational as well as instructive for those of us in cities, like Liverpool, aspiring to become a healthy and sustainable City, but with little of the political and economic infrastructure in place at the time. Just years of community activism and action / intellectual efforts / knowledge production / frustration.

    Inequality / inequalities.   

What types of economic actors (workers, taxpayers, shareholders) make contributions of effort and money to the innovation process for the sake of future, inherently uncertain, returns? Are these the same types of economic actors who are able to appropriate returns from the innovation process if and when they appear? That is, who takes the risks and who gets the rewards?[iv]

To be sure, venture capitalists and other private-equity holders take risks, although even then mostly with other people’s (primarily workers’) money. . . . (And) venture capital looks to exit from                   its investments in at most 5 years.[v]

Lazonick & Mazzucato’s framework, called the Risk-Reward Nexus (RRN), studies the relationship between innovation and inequality, and their arguments and theorizing are highly relevant both to the reframing of economics and its role within the economy and within political discourses, as well as the reframing of the relationship between economics, politics and sustainability / the low carbon economy. They note how:

Research is now conducted on the basis of a largely segmented division of labour in which labour              economists work on inequality, and industrial economists on technology – with both these groups        typically ignoring the role of finance in the economy . . . . If we do not have a theory of value       creation, how can we differentiate value that is created and value that is simply extracted (what             some have called ‘rent’)? This is precisely what the RRN approach aims to analyse.[vi]

This segmentation is also an obstacle to sustainability understanding and action. Philosopher Michael Sandel, analyses the relationships at the other end of the market economy, in terms of two objections to markets: fairness, which asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect, and the corruption objection, which asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve.[vii] The fairness objection points out that:

          Market choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to      bargain on fair terms. So in order to know whether a market choice is a free choice, we have to ask    what inequalities in the background conditions of society undermine meaningful consent.[viii]

Or participation more generally. For example, to state the obvious:

              The attainment of gender equality can be greatly affected by women’s lack of participation in decision-making.[ix]

  1. Domain of power: gender imbalance in decision-making remains an important challenge at EU level for all Member States.[x] (Chapter heading.)

The European Institute for Gender Equality reports “low levels of gender equality in political decision-making”, and that “the lowest gender equality score can be found in economic decision-making.”[xi]

I draw attention to these issues, which also raise the question of intersectionality (intersecting inequalities) as it pertains to the membership and work of the Commission, in the light of the opening comments on governance and leadership above. Gender equality is not just about numerical presence, but the qualitative difference diversity brings into decision-making and social action. From the outset the Commission needs to be aware of the consequences of existing and entrenched power imbalances, in society at large, in the city region, and within groups, inasmuch as these have a bearing on the Commission’s remit, and also within the Commission itself. It must not make the mistake of ‘unwittingly’ or willfully reproducing these, as has been the norm in Liverpool.[xii]

  • At the LGP (Liverpool Green Partnership) event (01 07 2014), ‘Shaping our city’s future’, attendees were asked to think about and comment on “What’s missing?”
  • But it is not just a question of what’s missing? But who is missing from this knowledge exchange?
  • For example, how will the Commission attract and involve those communities and constituencies who are routinely ignored and marginalized, and who in turn absent themselves from such civic projects in Liverpool? BAMER communities, economically deprived, working-class communities, people with disabilities, women, for example. (See intersectionality comment above.)

“Community Development is not a service but an approach”, observed a leading Community Development Consultant recently,[xiii] and I suggest this insight is relevant to the work of the Sustainability Commission, as it seeks to develop and model an ethos and practice that is not top-down, authoritarian and controlling, but about engagement, peer process, knowledge exchange and co-production.[xiv] (See below.)

Research and innovation.

 Innovation is a learning process that unfolds over time. . . . Investment in innovation is a direct                    investment that involves, first and foremost, a strategic confrontation with technological, market,        and competitive uncertainty.[xv]

Lazonick & Mazzucato highlight the normatively overlooked roles of both government (representing the collectivity of taxpayers), in relation to high fixed cost investments in physical infrastructure and knowledge bases, and the exertion of individual workers which is “critical to the process of organisational learning that is the essence of the innovation process”.[xvi]

Besides being uncertain, the innovation process is therefore collective, and it is the collectivity of taxpayers, workers, and financiers who to different degrees bear the risk of innovative           enterprise.[xvii]

 Lazonick & Mazzucato argue that:

The collective character of the innovation process provides a foundation for inclusive growth; the            participation of large numbers of people in the innovation process means that inherent in the innovation process is a rationale for the widespread and equitable distribution of the gains of    innovation.[xviii]

 In addition, they point out: “markets do not create value”.[xix]

It is organisations, not markets, that create value in the economy. Historically, well-developed                   markets are the result, not the cause of economic development that is driven by organisations in the forms of supportive families, innovative enterprises, and developmental states.[xx]

 This in turn, highlights the importance of human capital: of investing in human beings and the development of their skills and knowledge base.

On not speaking for others.
In research, as in public health, there is no such thing as ‘people’, just various overlapping constituencies and cohorts, which makes disaggregated data a vital tool in the pursuit of good evidence and equality. Reiterating the importance of critical awareness of power and power relations within research process and knowledge production; developing an equality-aware methodology, sociologically and ethically fit for purpose (i.e. part of the ‘solution’, not perpetuating the problem), depends on the following framing assumptions:

  • human rights perspective and values: we are all ‘subjects’[xxi]
  • to hold rights and to act those rights[xxii]
  • mental health as generally a human rights issue[xxiii]
  • resources as human rights issue[xxiv]
  • supported decision-making. “Decision-making requires support.”[xxv]

Mindful of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 28, in relation to climate change/justice, a rights-based agenda “requires fair and equitable burden-sharing mechanisms”.[xxvi] Similarly, in line with the Expert Group, Commission on the Status of Women, 2008, key messages include:

Climate change policy and financing must seek to promote sustainable development as the          grounding for gender equality, women’s empowerment and poverty eradication. Emphasis added.

Gender analysis, gender perspective and women’s effective participation must be assured at all                  levels of the climate policy and climate change financing architecture.[xxvii]

The quality and relevance of the information base used to inform and justify low carbon and sustainability policies and practices will be a function of such ethical considerations, which actively support inclusion in practice, as opposed to re-enforcing hierarchy and inequality. Reporting on some of the consequences, spin-offs and life-changing experiences arising from time spent at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) during its 40 years, via the oral history project he has been conducting, Allan Shepherd notes that:

 CAT’s open approach was particularly beneficial for many of the women I interviewed, some of                   whom experienced a profound sense of empowerment during their time here, either because the           spirit of CAT encouraged them to participate more fully in jobs that would normally be the                   preserve of men (hard physical labour and practical outdoor jobs such as building and engineering)          or because the flat management structure enabled women to play central roles in a way that               traditional male-dominated hierarchies did not. I remember being the only man on the                 management board with four women. CAT was a socialist feminist enterprise (with a small ‘s’ and      ‘f’, for it was never draconian in either attitude.[xxviii]

And living and working in an environment and organizational culture that disregarded those male-dominated, hierarchical models in the world beyond, must also have had an impact on the men (as well as the children on site). The Critical Voices Network Ireland serves as another example of “a democratic space with no hierarchical structures”:[xxix]

An environment has been created where different and sometimes conflicting voices and agendas            can be heard and respected rather than silenced”.[xxx]

 This kind of sensitivity to power differentials and imbalances can be markedly absent within more traditional working environments, where power bases and territoriality take precedence, to the detriment of a group’s purpose and outcomes. These skills are developed via practice, critical reflection and good will. Harry Gijbels (Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing & Midwifery, University College Cork) and Lydia Sapouna (Lecturer, School of Applied Social Sciences, University College Cork) speak of how “roles within the group are there to serve the group”, and the desire/aim is “to espouse and encourage creativity and spontaneity”.[xxxi] (Emphasis added.) This is an explicit methodology, demonstrating awareness of the politics of knowledge production and epistemology, and as such has relevance for knowledge production generally, as much as in healing and recovery.

Since the 1970s there has been a wealth of research demonstrating the importance of storying, life histories and narrative in/as knowledge production. For example:

  • narrative as research methodology /democratic resource / empowerment / ethics
  • focusing on stories not symptoms = holistic and integrative
  • what happened to you / me?
  • not what is wrong with them / her / him / you / me / it?

This movement has provided qualitative approaches to lives and experience previously hidden, marginalised or stigmatized, so it has democratic relevance. (See Health, wellbeing and community below.) But it has also proved its value in other contexts, where complexity and/or uncertainty are to the fore, and where creativity and innovation are therefore needed.

Vicky Pryce, commenting on the film Erin Brockovich (2000) as an economist, alludes to this problem:

The film highlighted a real economic issue: the difficulty the markets have in putting a price on the impact of a company’s core activity on the wider environment. In economics speak, this is the problem of measuring “externalities”. Pollution, medical consequences, congestion, noise, climate change, community displacement and unrest fall into that category. What isn’t measured tends to be ignored.[xxxii] Emphasis added.

 And, as Tom Barker notes, “it’s what is not counted that tends to matter most”:[xxxiii] those externalities Pryce refers to. Her observation highlights the importance of collecting data in the first place (no data, no collective/public understanding, no subsequent, evidence-based action), but also the importance of qualitative approaches, such as narrative and stories, which don’t measure or count, but rather explore / exemplify / indicate / demonstrate / assess experience and significance. Pryce implicitly alerts us to the problem of markets and neoliberal, wall-to-wall marketization of the last 30+ years, which the Commission now has to confront.

Pete North and Tom Barker’s report (2011), Building the Low Carbon Economy on Merseyside, demonstrates the value of qualitative research, in particular in chapter 4, ‘Supporting new and existing SMEs’ (pp29-56) and chapter 5, ‘Supporting new and existing social enterprises’ (pp57-76). These chapters provide extensive experiential evidence; testimony from those interviewed, not as sound-bites or ticking the interviewer’s question boxes, but as flowing, discursive description, analysis and reflection. Invaluable, rich data for the Commission’s task: not just data collection, but glimpses of conversations about sustainability in our City and beyond, that result in consciousness-raising, knowledge exchange and production; a sense of mutuality and reciprocity that benefits everyone involved. This also effects the culture shift from uncertainty, frustration and despond, to can do. Tim Gee has analysed the importance of this process of mustering the political will needed to achieve environmental transformation: “from cultural preparation to power-shifting”.[xxxiv]

CAT, set up in 1974 in a disused slate quarry in Machynlleth, mid Wales, by a group of environmental and social activists, has always placed dialogue, conversation, knowledge exchange and experimentation at the heart of its relationships and work. A CAT graduate (male) testifies to the impact of this ethos:

I found the attitude of the people at CAT very liberating, which emboldened me to change to a                                                      new lifestyle. . . . I am now utilizing the woodland to engage in environmental education through                    hosting of Forest School sessions, with the aims of developing the social skills of children and                                           inspiring them through nature.[xxxv]

Health, wellbeing and community.
Looking back on the early years of CAT, Paul Allen, long term CAT staff member writes:

The concept of ‘alternative technology’ signalled a huge shift in our socio-technical evolution. . . . as                         technology began to confront the limits of the ecosystem, questions had to be asked about the limits to material growth, damage to natural systems and depletion of resources. . . . CAT’s Peter Harper coined the phrase ’alternative technology’ (AT) (but) more than just harvesting energy from alternative resources, it meant opening up technology to both comprehension and control by citizens and communities, challenging market dominance and focusing on benefits to living things, not just the economy. Emphasis added.[xxxvi]

 So from the off, 40 years ago, CAT was a holistic, creative, multi-disciplinary, co-operative, socio-political project, that became identified as ‘environmental’. In retrospect, this naming can be seen as problematic in that it has produced what George Marshall, founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network (coinet.org.uk), has called “selective framing that creates the maximum distance”.[xxxvii] This new category, ‘environmental’, would face a lot of rejection and denial along the way, partly because it was an unfamiliar, whole new uncategorisable thing, seen as separate from existing categories and politics.

 If we take a step back we can see that the impacts of climate change are so wide-ranging that it could equally well be defined as a major economic, military, agricultural, or social rights issue.[xxxviii]

 Such cognitive and practical complexity presents problems for minds being trained by neoliberal turbo consumerism to demarcate and think in terms of fragments, market segments, etc.. In 1991, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Zygmunt Bauman, judged that:

The central frame of both modern intellect and modern practice is opposition – more precisely, dichotomy. . . . . Dichotomy is an exercise in power and the same time its disguise. [xxxix]

 In 2010, Marshall challenged a senior campaigner with Amnesty international, the world’s largest human rights organization, “to explain why Amnesty did not mention climate change anywhere on its website.”[xl]

He agreed that it is an important issue but felt that Amnesty “doesn’t really do environmental issues”. In other words it was outside their ‘norms of attention’.[xli]

It would take a while, even within environmental circles, for environmental, social justice, health and wellbeing issues, for example, to be understood as intimately entwined. And as useful as the Stockholm Sustainable Development Goals (2013) are, mapping six major and interconnected themes, I see no evidence of gender analysis or awareness of the relevance of feminist issues and feminist theory to the sustainability project. Women are mentioned (obliquely) regarding combatting HIV/aids, and improving maternal and child care’![xlii] So women as wombs/sex/reproductive organs. . . . that sounds familiar. How can we sensibly, fairly and insightfully discuss local or global sustainability issues (including poverty) without gender awareness and feminist (and postcolonial) theory?

With regard to the links between health, wellbeing and community, in 2014 there are many examples of good and best practice in research, knowledge production (including the arts), peer process, community organising and co-creativity, from which we can learn and be inspired by.[xliii] Local examples I have encountered or been involved in recently, which variously exemplify equality awareness, creative process, democratic decision-making and capacity building, include:

  • The Communiversity and the Alt Valley Community Trust
  • North End Writers workshop (26 06 2014) ‘Our Kind.’ INTAR conference
  • VoiceBox Inc – Voices from The BRINK: “our values and commitment to empowerment and ‘Curious Connected Co-Creation”. INTAR conference
  • Mick McKeown, Helen Spandler & Mark Cresswell (25 06 2014) Can we be Spartacus? Solidarity, survivor movements and trade unions. INTAR conference
  • LWN (Liverpool Women’s Network) working together to influence and improve women’s position in the city region, for example working with the City Council to produce dedicated VAWG policies and practices
  • MPHA (Merseyside People’s Health Assembly) inaugural event (30 03 2014) & Report (09 04 2014); part of the international PHM (People’s Health Movement)
  • What Women Want Group, a mix of service users, survivors, service providers, researchers, practitioners, academics, activists, collaborating to improve mental health services for women in Liverpool.

LFoE is party to these broad values and approaches, but as a movement it lacks diversity, being overwhelmingly white. All of the innovative collaborations mentioned above variously embody awareness of the social determinants of health and wellbeing, such as poverty, inequality and social injustice (for example, gender power relations, misogyny, racism, homophobia, ageism); violence and abuse; homelessness and environmental degradation; and the synchronicity between health and wellbeing, creativity, human agency, equality and democracy, for example. The latter are indivisible human rights, not privileges, and fundamental to sustainable communities, societies and the natural world.[xliv]

It is perhaps worth noting that all of these projects and groupings (and there are many more) are ‘uprisings’, rather than top-down, organisational or bureaucratic projects. Their power, vitality and relevance are rooted in people’s lives, relationships, dissatisfactions, hopes and desires: their determination to do things differently and better, rather than wait; to develop and exert personal and social creativity, through collective action, rather than give up in silence or screaming. Trust and hope figure prominently, not as abstract nouns, but as forged realities on the ground. The extent and quality of such gatherings and initiatives testify to the social creativity already prominent in the city region.

The Commission’s work could inspire and draw on similar energy, commitment and creativity in Liverpool’s residents and communities, if it is seen as convincing, urgent and relevant: tackling preventable conditions that people recognise as obstacles to a fair and decent life, and as depleting the planet’s resources further and faster.

Life will be different in 2030 whether we decarbonise or not. The choice is between planned and                              orderly changes designed to limit climate change, or unplanned emergency measures in reaction to                                    unpredictable and escalating climate effects.[xlv]

 This is plain speaking from Peter Harper, and points to the importance of the language used to communicate the nature of the crisis we face.[xlvi] North and Barker highlight this challenge in relation to businesses and social enterprises in Liverpool:

The message needs to be optimistic, a message around efficiency, quality and meeting new                                             opportunities from new markets; not one of control, regulation or austerity.[xlvii] Emphasis added.

 They stress the importance of avoiding “mixed messages”,[xlviii] which create uncertainty and ambivalence, and “strategies that focus on emphasizing doom and gloom”.[xlix] Adrian Ramsay, Lecturer in Environment, Politics and Economics at CAT’s Graduate School of the Environment, has to grapple with these political comings and goings.[l] And this is not a superficial, ‘marketing’ point, but very specifically a problem arising in the wake of these neoliberal years:

Climate change is invariably presented as an overwhelming threat requiring unprecedented restraint, sacrifice, and government intervention. The metaphors it invokes are poisonous to people who feel rewarded by free marker capitalism and distrust government interference.[li] Emphasis added.

These consequences cannot be ignored or brushed aside. Ways have to be found to reconnect with and communicate both the human values that lie at the heart of sustainability, social justice and community, as well as the increasingly urgent ecological imperatives:

 Despite the message promoted by political leaders, economists and the mainstream media, developed world economies are unsustainable economically, let alone ecologically and culturally. They must fully embrace environmental sustainability or face ruin.[lii]

Showing rather than telling will be vital, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre makes good use of visual mapping.

Sustainability and non market values.
In 2009 FoE published a commissioned report as part of its national Get Serious About CO2 campaign, in which it mixed stats and information about practical initiatives across a number of target areas, such as insulation, retrofitting, energy, and transport.[liii] Five years later, examples of other positive strategies that could be effectively promoted and speedily implemented, confirm the potential of this approach, combining information, inspiration and practical action, for example:

  • Making the argument for building on brownfield sites, as British architect, Richard Rogers has done,[liv] and for the City Council to start tackling the issue of land use within a sustainability framework, instead of encroaching further into the countryside and creating satellite towns severed from the cultural resources, employment opportunities and social stimulus of existing city populations .
  • Procurement and divestment are two other potentially fast tracks and long-term approaches to change, that could run alongside other new policies and practices. Putting our money where our sustainability hearts are, City Council and other big budget organisations could deploy their financial clout by favouring those companies and organisations that commit to low carbon policies and practices.
  • The fossil fuel divestment movement offers an additional strategy:

If we want to stop climate change, we have to stop paying for it. At a time when stemming the flow of fossil fuels is ‘do or die’ for the planet we depend on, the call to divest has never been more                                       important. Join us.[lv]

  • And might adaptation “be the fastest path to effective mitigation?”[lvi] Another plank of a low carbon strategy locally, which would also contribute to the development of a sustainability mindset and culture in communities and across the city region?

Discussing adaptation appears to help people see that climate change impacts are real.[lvii]

Such a raft of environmental changes clearly constitute more than tinkering at the edges of the low carb challenge, yet they could be embarked on without triggering a sense of doom and gloom, fear and powerlessness, which immobilise rather than motivate. In fact, such discussions and changes empower participants through the expansion of awareness, understanding and conceptual skills, as words/concepts, such as adaptation, divestment and mitigation, move from being unfamiliar abstract nouns/academic concepts, to practical possibilities, with the potential to change individual behaviour and engender positive, social and collective action. And environmental literacy expands general literacy and articulacy, self-confidence and self esteem, as well as a sense of collective responsibility and benefit. As visible results roll out, people’s understanding of and commitment to the sustainability project would expand, becoming the new ‘natural’, the new ‘right’. Examples of this process abound in, for example, Germany:

It may sound like a utopian dream, but planners and residents in Freiburg, Germany have succeeded in creating a pleasant, liveable space in the midst of the city. Allan Shepherd shows how this district came to be a showcase for co-operation, diversity and renewable energy.[lviii]

 Noting the historical rise of the term ‘incentive’ in the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Sandel has critically examined “incentives and moral entanglements”,[lix] asking whether financial incentives, for example, “will corrupt attitudes and norms worth protecting.[lx] This too applies to the sustainability project, given the importance of values and behaviour change for its realization. Challenging the received notion that economics doesn’t traffic in morality, Sandel argues that:

The more markets extend their reach into noneconomic spheres of life, the more entangled they                              become with moral questions.[lxi]

He considers the “crowding out of nonmarket norms”, and asks: “How do market values corrupt, dissolve, or displace nonmarket values?”[lxii] Sandel recommends we recognise that “marketising a good can change its meaning”.[lxiii]

George Monbiot critiques environmental discourses that, instead of threat and terror, have turned to money to incentivise,[lxiv] arguing that “nothing better reinforces extrinsic values than putting a price on nature, or appealing to self-interest.”[lxv] In other words, you cannot fight neoliberalism and its consequences, with its own motives, values and methods, such as commodification, monetisation, marketization, consumerism and competitiveness. And after 30+ years of the neoliberal project, our heads are full of this stuff: internalized as ‘normal’, ‘natural’, ‘right’ and inevitable.

As extrinsic values are powerfully linked to conservative politics, pursuing policies that reinforce them is blatantly self-destructive. . . . One of the drivers of extrinsic values is a sense of threat.[lxvi]

In a poignant shift, Monbiot has recently admitted the error of his own ways:

For 30 years I terrified people, banging on about threats. . . . The language we use could scarcely be                          more alienating. Environment, even, is a cold word that creates no pictures. . . . Terrify the living                           daylights out of people and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living                        world.[lxvii]

Threat will always be a weapon of the Right, of fascism, militarism, and authoritarianism (Right or Left).

On the contents page of his most recent book, Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity, Andrew Simms, one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, a chief analyst for Global Witness and a Fellow of nef (the new economics foundation), cites writer and cultural theorist, Raymond Williams, who poses the alternative:

 To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.

This is the artist/creative in Williams speaking, as much as the political man. Too few traditional male activists understand this insight, preferring the familiarity of the comfort zone of ‘protest’, blame, sectarianism, and victimhood as heroism. These entrenched positions do not require problem-solving and creativity, do not invite you to rethink power relations in a constructive and ethical way, do not involve learning, and do not help you build social and political alliances at a time when we are all served up and pitted against each other as market segments.

Living with individualism: “this storm we call progress”.[lxviii]

Ours is the era of unadulterated individualism and the search for the good life, limited solely by the                          demand for tolerance (when coupled with self-celebratory and scruple-free individualism, tolerance may only express itself as indifference).[lxix] Emphasis added.

Here, Bauman evokes the consequences of the economic and political changes producing what he referred to as postmodern ethics (in 1993), involving “the substitution of aesthetics for ethics”,[lxx] in what would prove to be in the years since, an overwhelming market driver for neoliberal economies
[lxxi]

Jacques Peretti’s recent TV series, The Men Who Made Us Spend,[lxxii] serves as a reminder of just how extreme and shocking the facts of this turbo consumerist reality are in 2014, how we got here, and the severity of the consequences for both the natural world and for us humans, including children. He mixes stats with interviews with the leading men in this ‘drama’, together with experiential evidence of the visible, social and psychological consequences, for example, built-in obsolescence and disposability, ill health, obesity, poverty. Peretti’s investigative programmes invite us to reflect on what kind of society we are now as a consequence of the hyper capitalism of the neoliberal years, and at what cost has this been achieved. Again, Bauman is relevant here:

Modernity prides itself on the fragmentation of the world as its foremost achievement. Fragmentation is the prime source of its strength. The world that falls apart into plethora of problems is a manageable world.[lxxiii]

Fragmentation means: markets / market segments / ‘choice’ / brands / individualism, managerialism, manipulation and growth via outsourcing and privatization. Excess and surfeit. As Peretti’s investigations show, marketing strategies seek to coerce, seduce and determine: their familiar purpose is to sell us something we didn’t know we wanted or needed, and can’t afford; as well as routinely inculcating fear, shame, stigma, and a general sense of deficit.[lxxiv]

But marketing has also become content, not just the means by which a product is promoted and sold. Perhaps the most disturbing of these investigations is the last, in which Peretti tracks how children have been first targeted, then marketised since the 1980s through the promotion of toys and games, most crucially via the creation of brands; and how adults have been deliberately infantilised, to accentuate, for example, emotionality, impulsivity, instant gratification, greed and disposability, as ‘autonomy’, ‘self-determination’, ‘modernity’. Has ‘femininity’ become the emblematic neoliberal/consumerist identity, posture and target?

These neoliberal years have realised Bauman’s early analysis in spades. At the same time, public communication has been corrupted, media relations and trust in public figures (including scientists) are at an all time low. The sense of manipulation and exploitation for excessive profit by the top 1% (?), to increase sales and market share, is familiar to consumers, and as a consequence, neoliberal values and coercions have become normalised, uncontested, overpowering. It is clear that consumerism stands in the way of sustainability and low carbon practices.

As a consequence, the fact that the neoliberal emphasis on deregulation and growth at all costs was instrumental in bringing societies and the natural world to this cliff edge can be overlooked. North & Barker found that since the downturn in 2008, for some of their interviewees in SMEs and social enterprises in Liverpool city region, “growth is the overwhelming priority. This is mistaken.”[lxxv] Likewise, French economist, Thomas Piketty’s “utter failure to take seriously the ecological limits to growth”[lxxvi] in his study of wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the C18, reflects the reflex of conventional European economists inside their free market, neoliberal box:[lxxvii]

A central component of Piketty’s answer to the crisis is: more of the same. More growth, the                                         proceeds of which can then allegedly be “redistributed”. The truth, however, is that growth is an                          alternative to egalitarian redistribution, an alternative to any serious effort to create a more equal society. The promise of growth is a replacement for the need to share.[lxxviii] Emphasis added.

Learning from the social and environmental disasters of the neoliberal years is vital for survival, sustainability and social justice (including a new economics and new business models[lxxix]), as a recent harrowing example demonstrates.

The common story is one of female emancipation turned horrifically sour in light of corruption and bad governance, multiplied by western corporate and consumer greed.

After the multi-storey Rana Plaza clothes factory in Bangladesh collapsed in 2013, killing 1129 and injuring 2,515 (mainly women), a previously ambitious young manager, with his mind set on getting rich and buying an expensive fast car, found himself utterly changed by the experience. As a result, he set up a co-operative in a single storey building (as one of his women workers said, “nothing above or below”), with an emphasis on high standards of health and safety, respectful relations with his co-workers, and decent pay.

The clothing industry in Bangladesh had been central to economic expansion and jobs for people who moved into the city from their villages, especially girls and women. This new co-op aims to show that together, workers and managers can retain and develop the industry, which supplies exclusively to western countries, while upholding human rights standards and ethical practices in the workplace; what we might call industrial decency. Leaving behind avoidable risks and exploitative industrial practices that dehumanize workers in the rush towards dominance, inequality and profit, creates a more sustainable working environment.[lxxx] Kinder all round.

Lessons here for UK business and industry too.[lxxxi] Citing a range of international, cross cultural examples, economist Ha-Joon Chang makes the case for change: “End this privatization dogma: public ownership is better”.[lxxxii] Economists, Professors Mariana Mazzucato and Carlota Perez, are also making significant contributions to the debate about the relationship between public and private sector policy and practice, specifically in terms of economic growth that is not only ‘smart’ but also inclusive and sustainable.[lxxxiii]

New Internationalist, an award-winning, not-for-profit publisher, and “one of the most trusted publications reporting on poverty and inequality”[lxxxiv] for the last 40 years, provides another relevant case study:

The publisher switched to a co-operative a few years after it had been created, once the employees                         realized they should be practising what they preached. . . . .

Becoming an equal pay co-operative was a difficult decision to take, explains James Rowland [a                                                       member since 1985], as the highest paid had their salaries frozen so that the others could catch up.                                     Ever since, all decisions have been taken collectively, between the 18 members of the worker co-                            op.[lxxxv]

Quality of place: harbour/port; home/springboard; sanctuary/hive; childhood/livelihood.

These are not binary distinctions, but connected ‘places’: emotional, social, economic, imaginative, metaphorical, psychological and physical. Cities are variously viewed as toxic or as hubs of creative entrepreneurial flair.[lxxxvi] Economist, Professor Henry Overman, on a recent visit to Liverpool, took the latter view,[lxxxvii] declaring that cities attract the best people, the biggest talent. Full stop. He clearly meant people like himself, who, he said, grew up in Folkstone, got out, and now lives and works very happily in London as an academic. This stance is a function of the values and politics he has forged on his own auto/biographical journey from childhood to ‘manhood’.

South Korean, Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, however, notes the realities of unemployment for those not like himself, such as the men represented in the film, The Full Monty (1997):

The point is that workers cannot freely move across different jobs, because their experience is specific to their line of work – there are few skills that are equally valuable in all industries. The alternative that most unemployed workers face is to get a new job that does not require much skill – in this case stripping – that pays far less.[lxxxviii]

Overman’s social, economic and professional trajectory is clearly not the norm or even common, especially for industrial workers, and not least in the context of Austerity and cut-throat neoliberalism since 2010. Also countering happy-go-lucky neoliberal individualism and the narrative of associated upward mobility,[lxxxix] economist Paul Mason discusses the joys of the film Some Like It Hot (1959), but also applauds it as a warning:

The movie was made by people who remembered the Depression, so for all its crazy humour it is also a sombre lesson in the futility of boom-time societies in which the sources of income are gambling, speculation and casual sex, but never actual work for wages and production.[xc] Emphasis added.

In the aftermath of Liverpool’s European City of Culture year in 2008, these are real local risks, as tourism has moved up the City’s agenda. North & Barker note how Liverpool has begun to embrace urban theorist, Richard Florida’s [xci] agenda to some extent: aiming to attract knowledge workers and tourists with the increasing emphasis on fun and games and entertainment, cafés, coffee shops, restaurants, cultural and tourist attractions, etc.. (The expanding sex industry in the City will be another feature of this liberated ‘fun city’.) This risks being an address mainly directed at the already affluent, whatever their age, nationality or culture; and in Liverpool, those who are affluent and mobile are still overwhelmingly white and male.

By contrast, George Monbiot has identified the plight and needs of children in our society and in our cities as a modern crisis:

The collapse of children’s engagement with nature has been even faster than the collapse of the natural world. In the turning of one generation, the outdoor life in which many of us were immersed has gone.[xcii]

Enclosure, accompanied by a rapid replacement of the commoners’ polyculture with a landlord’s                                                 monoculture, destroyed much of what made the land delightful to children. . . . and banned them from what it failed to destroy.[xciii]

       The commons belonged, inasmuch as they belonged to anyone, to children.[xciv]

This is a memory and vision of the natural world as a site of surprise and adventure, of wild play, and benefits that may extend beyond the physical. Some studies appear to link a lack of contact with the natural world to an increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD),[xcv] and other studies suggest the benefits of playing out of doors, especially among trees and grass. Monbiot says he would like to see every school take its pupils, for one afternoon a week, to run wild in the woods.[xcvi] But there are not enough woods, so he asks: “Could every new housing development include some self-willed land in which children can freely play?”[xcvii] In 2009 The Cambridge Primary Review found that:

Pessimism turned to hope when witnesses felt they had the power to act. Thus the children who were most confident that climate change might not overwhelm them were those whose schools had decided to replace unfocused fear with factual information and practical strategies for energy reduction and sustainability.[xcviii]

How can we provide this combination for adults in the city region?

 

But can children in the City of Liverpool compete for attention and resources on the neoliberal playing field, with its profit-driven, marketised economy, focusing more and more on the adult interests of knowledge workers, tourists, visitors, and business and industry? Monbiot’s evidence suggests that children are merely the canaries in the mine; but very profitable canaries, as Peretti’s investigation shows.

 

Monbiot’s concerns conjure the vision of a city as sanctuary and solace, rather than emotional and sensuous ‘desert’, pressure cooker or threat. Shared green public spaces, allotments and gardens all have a role to play in this greening of our City, a process that is a far cry from the consumerism and control of the neoliberal engine, which prefers to license for-profit ventures for passing strangers. Might there be opportunities within the more devolutionary process that lies ahead, (post Scotland’s referendum on independence, and post the 2015 UK General Election) for metropolitan areas and urban local authorities to creatively develop economic / community / environmental strategies responsive and tailored to the needs of different local ‘places’, allowing distinctiveness within the overall umbrella of Liverpool city region, rather than top-down control?

 

The latest developments in Liverpool city centre highlight the serious contradiction at the heart of the sustainability project. North & Barker ponder the possibility / desirability of developing Dale and Renshaw Streets as “new quarters”, “as a significant driver of jobs and businesses, and improv(ing) the city visitor’s offer”,[xcix] in particular for “a more up-market clientele”, even if “pioneered by social enterprises”.[c] Such a development would attend to the desires of those already part of the mix, part of the city centre ‘success story’, including the researchers themselves and members of the Commission. This direction of travel therefore risks abandoning one of North & Barker’s key findings:

 

Low carbon restructuring must combine economic competitiveness with social inclusion to ensure that all of the city’s residents are able to take advantage of the opportunities generated.[ci] Emphasis added.

 

This requires concerted action, a proper plan. Peter Harper suggests that inverted tariffs, the opposite of the way bills normally work, could be used to alleviate the burden of decarbonisation on poorer households:[cii]

 

It is possible to provide a basic energy tariff very cheaply up to a particular level as a citizen’s right, after which the normal tariff applies for a while, and beyond that it becomes much more expensive.[ciii]

Harper counters the expected objections that this would ‘distort the markets’, and that it would need government intervention to make it happen:

But something of the kind will be needed to reconcile decarbonisation with social justice, and tariffs can be designed to incentivize both efficiency and frugality.[civ] Emphasis added.

This signals the line in the sand.

 

Similarly, North & Barker’s chapter 6, ‘The potential for low carbon forms of development to connect to socially excluded communities’,[cv] [emphasis added], implicitly acknowledges that there are structural forces at work. In chapter 8: ‘Towards a low carbon 2050 – what is, and isn’t realistic?’ they return to this issue with a biting quote:

 

Communities with reduced aspirations for what they can achieve, poor local leadership, a reputation that means others avoid them, and poor connections to the rest of the city, are a problem for the city as a whole.[cvi]

 

While there is evidence to support such a general statement, this is definitely a speaking about and not by, and as a verdict it flies very close to demonising disadvantaged populations as to blame for their own history and circumstances. The history of poverty, social class disadvantage and division in Liverpool is longstanding, extreme, entrenched, and apparently accepted, perhaps because historically those in power and control did not see it as a/their problem; and those affected by it were too ground down and demoralised, too bereft of social and cultural capital, economic resources, hope and status, to organise collectively to challenge and change their situation. But as North and Barker rightly judge, alluding to a more sinister agenda and scenario:

 

They cannot be just ignored and policed into quiescence, with the focus being overwhelmingly on                            growth-creating sectors.[cvii]

This could be the most telling sentence in their report: a warning shot across the bows of ‘polite’ and indifferent society, and the neoliberal project. Sandel summarises:

 

The economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. . . . . Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously.[cviii]

 

Sustainability can be understood as the maintaining of non market values for living and loving, organizing and making, working and playing.

 

The bridge from destitution, despair and social isolation (from Otherness and subhuman status) is, apart from loving relationships, via the transformatory impact of good quality education, experiential learning, training and the sociability that accompanies these, and lives lived in the context of decent affordable homes, quality neighbourhoods, human dignity and sustaining and sustainable livelihoods.[cix] These are not technical tick-boxes, but in reality a function of the degree and intensity of inequality in a society, in particular the economic and social distance between those at the top and those at the bottom.[cx] Sustainability is unachievable without addressing this disparity and injustice. Key changes/improvements have to be designed in, not left to chance, then monitored and adapted.[cxi]

 

The course changed my life completely. I now have skills in something very different from what I did before, and a completely new group of friends. I’m now self-employed, refurbishing residential                                               property to low energy standards and advising others who want to do the same.[cxii]

This is the experience of one person, another CAT graduate (male), but it also points to what is missing in Liverpool: the mighty scale of the social, educational and cultural deficit, and the urgency of the challenge ahead. Sustainability is about lives worth living, not just economics, technical fixes or the natural world. Our response cannot be piecemeal, inept or grudging.

 

In conclusion.
The process of reflecting on the nature of the challenge of achieving a more sustainable city region has brought into focus four key theoretical, political and practical challenges; not a list to be worked through, but a conjunction to be acknowledged and worked with:

  • the problem of markets and marketization, and how these build in inequality / disadvantage / unfairness, exploitation, and the potential for corruption (in both senses discussed by Sandel, 2012)
  • power and its exercise: power differentials, the equitable distribution of power; the need to resist and mitigate the consequences of dichotomy and fragmentation, for example via non hierarchical relations and organisation
  • casualties: the natural world (including the air we breathe), children, communities and individuals (including those disenabled by age, disability, ill health, unemployment, loss and poverty, as well as prejudice, stigma and abuse); those marginalized and/or exploited by power
  • non market values: how sustainability process is necessarily a social, political, cultural, economic and technological project that uniquely(?) respects, protects and promotes the role of non market values in lives and societies, for example by encouraging awareness and caution regarding individualism and growth as unaccountable, duel virtues and drivers of markets and marketization, in the headlong rush towards greater inequality, inequity and social injustice. Avoidable pain, suffering, damage: ruin. A human rights perspective similarly encompasses and activates non market values.

val walsh / 12 08 2014

[i] Val Walsh is a longstanding member of LFoE and CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology; LWN (Liverpool Women’s Network); and MWM (Merseyside Women’s Movement). In February 2014 she became a founding member of the planning team for MPHA (Merseyside People’s Health Assembly), part of the (international) People’s Health Movement. She is an academic writer, journalist and poet.

[ii] Walter Benjamin (1979) Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn: 260, cited Zygmunt Bauman (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence: 11.

[iii] Pete North & Tom Barker, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool (2011) Building the Low Carbon Economy on Merseyside: future proofing the city for future climate and fuel price uncertainty. In association with The University of Liverpool, Liverpool Vision, Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, Groundwork Merseyside & ESRC: 24.

[iv] William Lazonick & Mariana Mazzucatto (2013) The risk-reward nexus in the innovation-inequality relationship: who takes the risks? Who gets the rewards? Industrial and Corporate Change, Volume 22, Number 4: 1094.

[v] Ibid.: 1111.

[vi] Ibid.: 1095.

[vii] Michael Sandel (2012) What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets: 110.

[viii] Ibid.: 112.

[ix] The European Institute for Gender Equality [EIGE], Director, Virginija Langbakk (2013) Gender Equality Index: Main Findings: 6.

[x] Ibid.: 24.

[xi] Ibid.: 25.

[xii] A public meeting organized by the Heseltine Institute, University of Liverpool, as one of its Policy Provocations series, reproduced this all-too-familiar pattern: a panel of 3 men + male Chair. At least The Guardian’s senior economic editor, Aditya Chakrabortty, was one of the panel, which is why I attended. See footnote lxxxvii below.

[xiii] Alison Gilchrist (27 06 2014) Community development in helping to reshape the relationship between the community sector and mental health services. INTAR (International Network Toward Alternatives and Recovery) conference plenary. The University of Liverpool.

[xiv] The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability: “Feasta (pronounced fasta) is taken from an old Irish poem which laments the decimation of the forests. It means ‘in the future’ and Feasta sees itself as a collective thinking process about that future. It is a leading international think-tank exploring the interactions between human welfare, the structure and operation of human systems, and the ecosystem which supports both. The Risk/Resilience Network is an initiative established in order to understand energy-induced systemic risk, the scope for risk management, and general and emergency planning. It is a network where those persons and organisations with interest in the area can learn from each other and engage with practical solutions.” Emphasis added to highlight its relevance to the concerns of this paper and Liverpool’s sustainability project. Feasta is based in Dublin. http://www.feasta.org

[xv] Lazonick (2010) The Chandlerian corporation and the theory of innovative enterprise. Industrial and Corporate Change, 19 (2), 317-349, cited Lazonick & Mazzucato (2013): 1097.

[xvi] Lazonick & Mazzucato, ibid: 1099.

[xvii] Ibid..

[xviii] Ibid.: 1103.

[xix] Lazonick, (2003, 2011) The Theory of the Market Economy and the Social Foundations of Innovative Enterprise , Economic and industrial Democracy, 24 (1), 9-44, cited Lazonick & Mazzucato (2013): 1105.

[xx] Ibid..

[xxi] Marianne Schulze, Australian-Austrian human rights advocate (25 06 2014) ‘Human rights and mental health’. Plenary, INTAR conference, ibid.

[xxii] Ibid..

[xxiii] Ibid..

[xxiv] Ibid..

[xxv] Ibid..

[xxvi] Climate Justice Briefs 12. (November 2010) Human rights and climate justice. Cancún

[xxvii] Climate Justice Briefs 13 (November 2010) Gender and climate change. Cancún.

[xxviii] Allan Shepherd (Spring 2013) Offshoots: life after CAT! Clean Slate, No.91: 11.

[xxix] Harry Gijbels & Lydia Sapouna, University College Cork (26 06 2014) ‘Critical Voices Networks in mental health: opportunities and challenges’. INTAR conference .

[xxx] Ibid..

[xxxi] Ibid..

[xxxii] Vicky Pryce (16 07 2014) ‘Flickonomics.’ Erin Brockovich (2000): how to measure environmental cost. The Guardian.

[xxxiii] Tom Barker (Spring 2013) Tree-hugging number crunchers. Clean Slate, No.91: 21.

[xxxiv] Tim Gee (2014) From impossible to inevitable: making change happen. Clean Slate No 92: 24-25. See also Tim Gee (2011) Counterpower: Making Change Happen. New Internationalist.

[xxxv] Andrew Price cited Clean Slate; The Practical Journal of Sustainable Living. No 92 Summer 2014: 25.

[xxxvi] Paul Allen, External Relations Department, CAT (Autumn 2012) Editorial. 40 years of ‘alternative technology’. Clean Slate, No 85: 3.

[xxxvii] George Marshall (Autumn 2012) Why we find it so hard to act against climate change. Clean Slate, No.85: 26. Marshall’s article provides a useful analysis of ‘what we do’, ‘why we do it,’ and ‘what we do about it’, with regard to attitudes, beliefs and actions: 26-28.

[xxxviii] Ibid.: 27.

[xxxix] Zygmunt Bauman (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence: 14.

[xl] Marshall (2012): 27.

[xli] Ibid..

[xlii] Stockholm Resilience Centre (27 03 2013) Redefining sustainable development. Available online.

[xliii] Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity brings together existing examples of progressive, eco-aware practices to provide the materials for a mind reset on the part of his readers. Simms’ earlier book (2005, 2009) Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations set out the environmental / ethical / political crisis created by western dominance and economics, and “the steps we can take to stop pushing the planet to the point of environmental bankruptcy”.

[xliv] Susan George (2010) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World “explains with great clarity the forces that oppress us, the choices that face us and the action that needs to be taken. Please read this book: it will equip you better than any other to confront the injustices of a world run for the benefit of a tiny elite” (George Monbiot). Susan George spoke to a well attended, appreciative COMPASS meeting in Liverpool on 17 03 2011.

[xlv] Peter Harper (2014) Living day to day, the ZCB way. Clean Slate, ibid.: 28.

[xlvi] CAT’s (2010) Zero Carbon Britain. A New Energy Strategy must count as the gold standard for reference for cities and governments. See zerocarbonbritain2030 and http://www.zerocarbonbritain.org

[xlvii] North & Barker (2011): 55.

[xlviii] Ibid..: 103.

[xlix] Ibid.: 73.

[l] See Adrian Ramsay (Spring 2013) Crucial carbon target dropped from Energy Bill. Clean Slate No 87: 12-13.

[li] George Marshall (Autumn 2012): 27.

[lii] Barker (Spring 2013): 20.

[liii] Tony Travers, LSE & Political Science & Mark Watts, Director of Arup (2009) Cutting Carbon Locally – and How To Pay For It. How to get serious about climate change.

[liv] See Richard Rogers (02 12 2006) How to build intelligent suburbs. The Guardian. And Rogers (15 07 2014) Forget about greenfield sites, build in the cities. The Guardian.

[lv] Danielle Paffard (Summer 2014) Divestment: the route to a win on climate change? Clear Slate. No 92: 27. Danielle is the UK Divestment Campaigner for 350.org. The Mayor’s recent decision to authorise fracking in/under the city region is a serious cause for concern, both environmentally and democratically.

[lvi] See Ranyl Rhydwen, Senior Lecturer in environment & sustainability for the Graduate School of the Environment at CAT (Summer 2014) Should adaptation be the talk of the town? Clean Slate. No 92: 20-21. For references: ranyl.rhydwen@cat.org.uk

[lvii] Ibid.: 21. See also Ranyl Rhydwen (Spring 2013) Transformational adaptation: a time for big changes. Clean Slate, No 91: 12-15.

[lviii] Allan Shepherd (Spring 2013) Community case study: where low carbon homes meet social innovation. Clean Slate No.87: 20-21.

[lix] Sandel (2012): 84.

[lx] Ibid.: 91.

[lxi] Ibid.: 88.

[lxii] Ibid.: 113.

[lxiii] Ibid.: 89.

[lxiv] See for example, Paul Allen interviews Tony Juniper (Spring 2013) What price nature? Clean Slate, No 91: 32-33.

[lxv] George Monbiot (17 06 2014) Saving the world should be based on promise, not fear. The Guardian.

[lxvi] Ibid..

[lxvii] Ibid..

[lxviii] Walter Benjamin (1979) Illuminations, trans. Harry Zahn: 260, cited Bauman (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence: 11.

[lxix] Zigmunt Bauman (1993) Postmodern Ethics: 2/3.

[lxx] Ibid.: 2.

[lxxi] A jaw-dropping, double spread, full colour photograph of Lucy Neath, a girl of 12, lying down surrounded by her record-breaking collection of merchandise for the online children’s game Moshi Monsters exemplifies this phenomenon. She has more than 1900 items. She is visibly very happy and smiling. Photograph, Paul /Michael Hughes/SWNS.com The Guardian (31 07 2014): 18/19. Individualism, consumerism, marketization of childhood, where do we start?

[lxxii] See Jacques Peretti (12, 17, 24 07 2014) The Men Who Made Us Spend. BBC2.

[lxxiii] Bauman (1991): 12.

[lxxiv] See Peretti (12, 17, 24 07 2014).

[lxxv] North & Barker, ibid.: 27.

[lxxvi] Dr Rupert Read, University of East Anglia, Norwich (01 08 2014) Constant growth can only make most of us poorer. Guardian letter.

[lxxvii] See Thomas Piketty (2014) Capital in the 21st Century.

[lxxviii] Read (01 08 2014).

[lxxix] See the work of economists, Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Sussex University & Professor Carlota Perez, LSE, challenging the freemarket model, cited Paul Mason (28 07 2014) History tells us that the best innovations happen when the state gets involved. The Guardian G2: 5. And Mazzucato (2010) The Entrepreneurial State. Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths.

[lxxx] See BBC2 (21 07 2014) Clothes to Die For. Stories of the people who survived the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in the Bangladesh capital Dhaka.

[lxxxi] The co-operative movement has long embodied distinctive values as a basis for fair and sustainable organisations and businesses. See for example: ‘Worker co-operatives help connect the people’ The Phone Co-op celebrates its 15th birthday in 2013. Co-operative News. The voice of the co-op and mutual sectors: 8. ‘Retail co-operatives spread the word across the UK’. Ibid.: 9. ‘New Internationalist – a trusted co-op for 40 years’. Ibid: 15.

[lxxxii] Ha-Joon Chang (01 08 2014) End this privatisation dogma: public ownership is better. The Guardian: 36. See also Ha-Joon Chang (2014) Economics: A Handbook.

[lxxxiii] See Mariana Mazzucato (2010) The Entrepreneurial State. Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths.

[lxxxiv] (18 06 2013) New Internationalist: a trusted co-op for 40 years. The voice of the co-op and mutual sectors: 15.

[lxxxv] Ibid..

[lxxxvi] See Richard Florida (2004) The Rise of the Creative Class. And how it is transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life.

              [lxxxvii] Speaking in Liverpool (17 07 20140) on an all male panel at a public meeting organised by the University of Liverpool’s Heseltine institute, to                                 discuss ‘Capital Punishment: Is London too big and is it holding the UK back?’ Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool.

[lxxxviii] Ha-Joon Chang (16 07 2014) ‘Flickonomics.’ The Full Monty (1997): the reality of unemployment. The Guardian: 11.

[lxxxix] See also the regular journalism of senior economics editor, Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian.

[xc] Paul Mason (16 07 2014) ‘Flickonomics.’ Some Like It Hot (1959): the trouble with rentier capitalism. The Guardian: 9.

[xci] Richard Florida cited North & Barker: 74.

[xcii] Monbiot (2014) Feral: 167.

[xciii] Ibid.: 168.

[xciv] Ibid..

[xcv] Richard Louv (2009) Last Child in the Woods, cited Monbiot (2014) Feral: 169.

[xcvi] Monbiot (2014) Feral: 170.

[xcvii] Ibid..

[xcviii] Julie Bromilow (Autumn 2012) Knowledge capture and storage: education for sustainability the CAT way. Clean Slate, No 85: 31.

[xcix] North & Barker (2014): 74.

[c] Ibid.: 75.

[ci] Ibid.: 7.

[cii] Peter Harper (Summer 2014) Living day to day, the ZCB way. Clean Slate, No 92: 29.

[ciii] Ibid..

[civ] Ibid..

[cv] North & Barker: 77.

[cvi] E Cox & K Schumuecker (2010) Rebalancing Local Economies: widening economic opportunites for people in deprived communities. Cited North & Barker: 93.

[cvii] North & Barker: 93.

[cviii] Sandel (2012): 130.

[cix] See Val Walsh (23 12 2013) ‘Credible Witness: Hearing, listening, believing, learning from ‘victim /perpetrator’ voices and behaviour.’ Conference paper, BSA Study Group on Auto/Biography conference, Epiphanies. British Museum conference centre. And Val Walsh (15 01 2014) ‘Picking up the pieces: men and masculinity in an outsourced world.’ Critical Research Seminar Series (CCSE) 2013/2014, Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation & Social Exclusion, LJMU. See conference presentations 2014: togetherfornow.wordpress.com

[cx] See Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2010) The Spirit Level. Also Danny Dorling (2011) Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. And Thomas Piketty (2014) Capital in the 21st Century.

[cxi] “Ideas for co-ops may flourish, but few people understand exactly how to make theirs real. The Co-operative Academy is providing answers. Founded in 2009 by Omar Freilla, the academy runs 16-week courses that offer intensive mentoring, legal and financial advice, and help designing logos and websites.” Yes Magazine, s.coop/1kp0c. (May 21- June 4 2013) Co-operative News, ibid.: 22.

[cxii] CAT graduate Andrew Gill (Summer 2014) Clean Slate: 35.

 

end

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Friends, comrades, strangers:especially those feeling apathetic, cynical, confused, disillusioned and/or angry. Pre-election reflections as May 2015 looms.

Introduction

  • Quite simply, a UK general election
  • The economy and social values
  • Health, education, homelessness
  • An unequal power struggle
  • “This Groundhog Day election”
  • In conclusion.

It would be hard to miss the acceleration of discontent with politicians and politics, locally and nationally in the UK since 2010, during a period marked by public scandal after scandal. In 2014, actor and comedian, Russell Brand, made a splash when he urged people not to bother voting. More recently, 27 bishops produced a 52 page report in which they were highly critical of the government’s welfare policies (18 02 2015, The Guardian). Noting the impact of Brand – “we bishops don’t have Russell Brand’s sex appeal – but we must counter his doctrine” – they regretted that:

The election campaign is likely to entrench the apathy and cynicism with which many people approach politics today. To accept such attitudes is a counsel of despair.

Encountering apathy and cynicism at meetings and events in Liverpool, and in conversations and emails beyond, has disturbed and worried me. Not least because others (different ages, backgrounds, situations) have said they cannot face another 5 years of Tory rule: saying they will leave the country, or intimating defeat of a more terminal nature, on the back of their dependence on welfare / unemployment and/or disability benefits.

Recently I found myself round a table with several activist members of Merseyside Women’s Movement (different ages, backgrounds and health status), all bar one of whom were variously undecided about voting at all, hostile to Labour, and/or intending to vote Green. I fell silent, felt defeated, and left early, wondering whatever happened to the feminist imperative to use your vote, given the struggles and sacrifices of early suffrage feminists in the UK to finally secure votes for women in 1928. Here I break that silence, in the belief that this general election process is not just a crisis, but an emergency. Silence is not an honourable option.

Quite simply, a UK general election.
A UK general election is a first-past-the-post system for electing a national government by secret ballot, one vote per voter, voting for one local MP from a list on offer. At the last general election in 2010, the Conservative Party did not win outright, but they were able to negotiate a coalition with the much smaller Lib Dem party, and this gave them the necessary majority in  Parliament. This arrangement produced the most rightwing government in living memory, as the Coalition pursued wrecking-ball policies in their attack on the public sector and social security, for which they had no electoral mandate. See Michael Sheen’s speech at The People’s March for the NHS www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHgqAtmXuHU

 Because the UK does not have a proportional or alternative vote electoral system (such as is used in EU elections), we still have basically a two-party system, and it will therefore be one of the two main parties, the Conservatives or Labour, which will become the governing party in May 2015. It is a stark and significant choice.

The second feature of this system is the question of which party leader will govern the country as Prime Minister. In 2015, the leaders of the two main parties are very different from each other. David Cameron grew up in privileged circumstances, inheriting considerable wealth at an early age, was educated at Eton College, a public school for boys, before going to Oxford University, followed by working in public relations before entering politics. His father was an investment banker. Ed Miliband’s parents were Jewish immigrants escaping the Nazis in Europe, who arrived in the UK where they settled. His father was subsequently a revered Marxist academic in the US and the UK; his mother was also politically active. Ed Miliband and his brother attended a state primary school and a mixed (boys and girls) London state comprehensive school. Ed attended Oxford University, followed by two semesters at the Centre for European Studies at Harvard University in the US. He became MP for Doncaster North in 2005.

When deciding which party to vote for, we are therefore indirectly choosing the leader of one of the main parties as Prime Minister, so it makes sense to compare and evaluate their respective political track records, the values they espouse, their suitability as Prime Minister, including their decency (as far as we can judge) as a human being, and evidence of integrity. The ‘used-car test” is useful: “Would I buy a used car from that man?”

Personally, it also matters to me what kind of a man he is and to what extent he has been positively influenced by the feminist campaigns and knowledge production of the last 40+ years in the UK and beyond. Memorably, in 2014 Cameron chastised senior Labour MP, Angela Eagle, in Parliament, telling her to “Calm down dear”. . . . neatly combining sexism and ageism. I’d say such behaviour makes you unfit for office as PM or MP.

The economy and social values.
What was the great objective behind C19 liberalism? It was, as Marx never tired of pointing out, to separate the economic sphere from the political sphere and to confine politics to the latter, while leaving the economic sphere to capital. (Yaris Varoufakis [18 02  2015] ‘How I became an erratic Marxist.’ The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

We are living with the consequences of this, and the urgent challenge facing us is how to rejoin economics and politics, in the service of sustainability, before we reach meltdown. The outcome of this general election will be pivotal to this process.

On Tuesday 10 February 2015, Dale Vince, founder of renewable energy provider Ecotricity, announced he would donate £250 000 to Labour to fight “the existential threat” of a second-term Tory government. (Heather Stewart & Jennifer Ranking [14 02 2015] ‘The capitalists putting money on Labour’. The Guardian). Simon Franks, co-founder of LoveFilm, followed with declaration of his public backing for Miliband and his team.

Vince cites Cameron’s opposition to onshore wind and even solar power, his indifference to climate change and complying with agreed carbon targets. (Whereas the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, was formerly Secretary of State for energy and climate change.) Vince rages against “the proliferation of food banks”, the “spiteful bedroom tax” and “the hypocrisy of tax breaks and avoidance at the top and the merciless clampdown on benefits at the bottom”. He says he thinks “Cameron has turned out to be Thatcher with knobs on”.

That sense of fairness and social justice motivates Franks too. He thinks “there will always be a divide between those who want to represent the nation as a whole, and those who want to represent a certain group” (cited Stewart & Ranking, 14 02 2015).

Franks says Miliband was right to open the debate about business and its role in society – and understands why many voters are deeply sceptical:

There are absolutely some business people out there who seem not to give a damn about the environment, about fairness, about workers’ rights.

What these two entrepreneurs share is their criticism of the direction our society has taken under Cameron’s leadership, for example, towards increasing inequality and division. Joanna Mack & Stewart Lansley, authors of Breadline Britain: The Return of Mass Poverty (2015), are amongst those who have documented this deterioration and fragmentation.[i] Mack (18 02 2015) reports:

Poverty in the UK is at a 30 year high. The rise is not explained by a sudden explosion of a      culture of poverty, nor by out-of-control benefits. Rather, it is because of a surge in the numbers of working poor. It’s about the way that the politically driven shift in power from the workforce to corporations has shrunk the share of the cake going to the bottom half of the labour force, leaving growing numbers at the mercy of low-pay, zero-hours and insecure contracts. (‘How to eradicate poverty: spend more on wages and strengthen unions”. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

So it’s either premeditated and deliberate, or careless. Mack points out that “no advanced economy achieves a low poverty level with low rates of social spending”. And social spending is funded by taxes. That was the UK’s postwar achievement. Politicians need to accept that “poverty is driven by an accumulated reduction in opportunities, in pay and in life chances”. It follows that poverty is neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable, and the current humanitarian crisis in the UK is no natural disaster, but man-made. Mack argues that the new economic model required means:

confronting corporate interests and reversing the sustained decline in workforce bargaining power in the UK. International evidence shows that the higher the level of trade union membership, the lower the degree of inequality. (Emphasis added.)

And that includes, she reminds us, targeting the persistent gender pay gap by raising women’s wages. According to the UN, the gender pay gap will not close for another 70 years (06 03 2015, The Guardian). Mack identifies the national turning point:

The 1980s decision to embrace the market, union-busting and deregulation, with the accompanying disinvestment in public housing and rolling privatization (was) one of history’s great political blunders.

This is a history that people have lived through or been born into, without necessarily realising that it was such a significant turning point in our society: not a tweak, but an overturning of values and practices that had underpinned it since the advent of Labour politics and government in the postwar period. (See Harry Leslie Smith (2014) Harry’s Last Stand).

Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and chair of the Big Innovation Centre, is also in no doubt about the extent of the transformation required (11 02 2015):

The country needs more innovation, enlarged opportunity, a step change in the quality and quantity of its public infrastructure, higher-quality education, a housing revolution and a new social settlement. These are indispensible preconditions for any mass flourishing and countering inequality. . . (‘British capitalism is broken. Here’s how to fix it’.          The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

Like Mack, Hutton stresses the importance of the role of trade unions in this recovery process:

The trade union, the cornerstone of worker voice, participation and representation, has to be reinvented and relegitimised to rebalance the new brutalities of our labour market  – to become a countervailing force to those generating ever-higher levels of inequality. (Emphasis added.)

This, he argues, means becoming more like guilds – “guarantors of skills and fair wages – rather than confrontational representatives of a shrinking working class”. Zero-hours contracts have increased by more than 100,000 in a year (see Phillip Inman [26 02 2015] ‘Zero-hours Britain: number who rely on jobs with no guaranteed shifts leaps to 700,000.’ The Guardian). Who can doubt the urgency of a revised and renewed role for the unions?

And the Labour Party is the only political party that has the established (if at times fraught) political links to the trade unions, which can provide a basis for productive dialogue and co-ordinated action: for example in the move towards a living wage, set pay rates that mean immigrant labour cannot be exploited and used to undercut other workers’ pay, and due attention to women’s rights / workers’ rights and protections in the workplace. This is a conversation about a renewed political economy that awaits our urgent attention, and we can expect TUC leader, Frances O’Grady, to play her part in this process of change and renewal.

Health, education, homelessness.
The history and fate of the most iconic and fundamental innovation instigated by the first Labour government, the NHS has borne the impact of 30+ years of neoliberalism: outsourcing and fragmentation in the workplace; individualism and competitiveness raised to ‘virtues’ and necessities; and subsequent inefficiencies, catastrophes, profiteering and corruption (of both society and politics).[ii]

Given the number of private health companies that have donated money to the Tory    party or with Tory links that have won NHS contracts, the corporate feasting overseen by Cameron’s coalition can hardly be a surprise. (Seamus Milne [08 01 2015] ‘Corporate feasting will devour the NHS’. The Guardian).

And while Blair’s New Labour government bears responsibility for accelerating this shift on its watch, Milne concludes:

What can’t be seriously doubted is that if Cameron returns to Downing Street in May, the NHS will be dismembered as a national service. . . . . Far from scaremongering, that’s the choice we face. (Emphasis added.)

This stark fact must surely figure in any rational voting decision at the general election, because this will be our last chance to save the NHS from such dismembering. (See Peter Bach’s film, Sell Off. The Abolotion of your NHS. www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvUIobKvXJg)

Remember that before he became Tory Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt described the NHS as “a failed experiment”. And anyone unsure of what the NHS replaced, should read (or watch his 2014 LP conference speech on utube) 91 year old Harry Leslie Smith’s book (2014) Harry’s Last Stand. How the world my generation built is falling down, and what we can do to save it. See: http://harry’s%20Last%20Stand%20Labour%20Party%20conferencewww.youtube.com/watch?v=ultKvnw2h3Q

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu (public health specialists) have studied the impact of austerity programmes administered by western governments in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis (see The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, 2013). Stuckler (16 05 2013) states:

If austerity had been run like a clinical trial, it would have been discontinued. The evidence of its deadly side-effects – of the profound effects of economic choices on health – is overwhelming (cited Jon Henley, ‘Recessions can hurt, but austerity kills’. The Guardian.)

By contrast, Laurence Rossignol, French minister for the family, elderly people and adult care, states in interview (04 03 2015):

France hasn’t entered the age of austerity. We have made the choice to reduce our public expenditure and to encourage growth while at the same time maintaining solidarity and the welfare state . . . . We are reducing other spending but we are not reducing spending on sickness, ageing or education. It is a choice. (Kate Murray, ‘Vive la différence on the welfare state. The Guardian.) Emphasis added.

It is clear that the implementation of rapid-fire Austerity by the Tory-led coalition (their political choice) has reached into the very heart of society, with consequences that go beyond the economic and the production of poverty, including the working poor, as Mack & Lansley (2015) highlight. Like our health service, the education system has been purposefully stripped back and reformed by the Tories. The Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, produced by the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick, and a year in the writing, found that:

Creativity, culture and the arts are being systematically removed from the education    system. (Mark Brown [18 02 2015] ‘Creativity draining away from schools and access to arts too restricted, report reveals’. The Guardian).

One of the commissioners, David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, said that pupils’ involvement in dance, theatre, music and film would enhance their success in other non-arts subjects and “encourage young people to be hungry for equality and democracy” (cited Brown, 18 02 2015). A Tory government has never understood the role of creativity across the board, in life not just entertainment or industry; or creativity as a human right central to health and wellbeing (rather than an elite entitlement). Nor has it ever genuinely enthused about equality and democracy and their interconnectedness. It is not part of their DNA.

Defending the status quo of inherited power and entitlement is the Right’s enduring reflex agenda, and expanding profit-making opportunities for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the population. These historical facts should not be forgotten as we decide which party to elect to government in May 2015. It’s not just about choosing between a clutch of policies, but about what a party stands for; whose interests it represents; who it cares about (based on available evidence); and what kind of society we want to be. Asked to compare France and the UK, Rossignol responds (04 03 2105): “Perhaps we could say France is still a welfare state; we are more at ease with public spending in these areas”.

Will Hutton understands the connection between the arts and sciences and technology, and has long focused his attention on the importance of creating “the smartest economy for Britain”, which “cannot be constructed without enfranchised citizens” (11 02 2015, The Guardian):

The smart economy and the smart society are two sides of the same coin – and smart societies are impossible to create without fairness, justice and enfranchisement.

Fairness, justice and enfranchisement have never been preoccupations of the UK Right. Historically, these are Labour movement values, human rights and social justice discourses, which have sprung from the liberation campaigns of C19 and C20, including anti-racist politics, feminism, gay liberation / LGBTU actvism. But historical forgetfulness, youth and/or ignorance of the facts obscure this reality for many voters in 2015.

The neoliberal years have cultivated cut-throat competitiveness, dominance and submission, where personal greed functions as both means and ends. This is the world of the “apex predator” (so powerfully captured by sociologist, Richard Sennett (2012) in his wonderful book, Together.The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Co-operation), where there is no reciprocity and winner takes all. This produces an unsustainable economy and society, manifesting the “irrationality” Yanis Varoufakis ascribes to (turbo) capitalism (see final section below).

Like Dale Vince and Simon Franks, Hutton supports Miliband’s critical agenda re. business and the economy:

To argue for the reform of capitalist enterprise should not be interpreted as ‘anti-business’; rather it is to be anti-dysfunctional business.

Put another way: “We should not confuse a pro-business stance with a pro-rich stance”. (Ha-Joon Chang [04 03 2015] ‘Leave aside the tired old mantra – here’s what ‘pro-business’ really means’. The Guardian).

Hutton sees Labour as “in transition”, and urges it “to complete its transition, to pick up this programme (see Hutton, How Good We Can Be, 2015) or something like it, and implement the change we need to show how good we can be”. But there are countervailing forces: powerful vested interests, whose influence and affluence have been allowed to soar into the stratosphere on the back of neoliberal marketisation and its rampant inequality.[iii]

Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds (as recent financial scandals since 2007 in particular demonstrate), and like most predators, their lack of remorse, guilt or shame expose the ethical void at the heart of their actions. This makes them dangerous (like the psychopath), not just greedy; and enemies of democracy itself, which they see as an obstacle to their profit-making and their drive for dominance and absolute control. They must be stopped, or at the very least reigned in, and the next general election is a crucial strategic stage in that process. Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang (04 03 2015) contends:

We have allowed the idle rich parading as wealth-creating, rule-breaking business people, and powerful industry lobbies, to abuse the idea of being pro-business for their own sectional interests for far too long.

An unequal power struggle.
Perhaps more than any previous general election, the 2015 general election is a mighty power struggle for a very big prize: democracy itself. Rafael Behr (04 02 2015) notes that:

Labour has the ground troops; the Tories have the media and friendly tycoons. It’s hardly a fair fight. (‘Can Miliband’s foot soldiers withstand Tory air supremacy?’ The Guardian.)

He details the inequality:

(The Tories) have more money, more press support and a simpler message than Labour. Twice in the last week, Conservative-leaning newspapers have given front-page prominence to business barons, one of them a Tory peer, foretelling apocalypse if Miliband is elected.

If the Tories are that alarmed, doesn’t that indicate that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party are, unlike the Green Party, seen as a real threat to Tory vested interests and practices? For example, the dismantling of public sector values and workplace rights and protections; the marketization of health, social care, probation, education and housing; withdrawal of support for environmental protections and green technologies; and their calculated demonization and impoverishing of the poor, the unemployed and those with disabilities.[iv] Alan Quinn, a skilled fitter at BAE and Labour councillor for Prestwich, when asked why he thinks Miliband attracts so much hostility, instantly replies that it’s because he stands up to vested interests, and lists a few examples of Miliband’s initiatives as Labour Party leader.

If Ed Miliband is that useless, why do the press spend so much time vilifying him? I think they see him as a threat, as a man who will stand up for the ordinary people (cited  Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Ready, steady Ed.’ The Guardian Weekend).

Behr (04 02 2015) notes that “the constituents from whom we have heard the least are the ones who feel neither tribal loyalty nor visceral loathing; the ones who don’t even know there’s a war on”. (Emphasis added.) This detachment has political consequences for everyone, and always benefits the Right. “Why we must stand up for the homeless”, says UK comedian Josie Long on the front cover of The Big Issue in the North: i.e. the disenfranchised, those without a vote to cast, because they have no fixed address. Long is clear that Tory policies are “there to service the rich”. “They have no interest in eradicating poverty,” says Long (talking to John Stansfield, The Big Issue in the North. 23 02 2015 – 01 03 2015) and she expands her point:

The government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable people all the time. We   should judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and we’re not doing very well at that.

Seeking election in 2010, Cameron made the same pronouncement, almost word for word. His government’s record since constitutes more than a technically ‘broken promise’, and voters should take this into consideration. It’s hard evidence of venal contempt for those who require society’s support in order to lead a dignified life.

With individual voter registration replacing whole household registration, the Tories can anticipate that many non-Tory voters will have dropped off the electoral register before the 2015 general election; the poorest, the most isolated, those suffering ill health or disability, and/or the young and inexperienced, for example. Those referred to by Behr above as “the ones who don’t even know there is a war on”. So for those of us who will vote, it cannot simply be like a ‘shopping expedition’ involving a feel-good consumerist choice: picking what we want for ourselves as individuals off the political shelf.

Rob Ford, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester, thinks that for a certain proportion of the electorate, voting is an “expressive act. . . . . they are thinking: I want to send a message, make an expression about what sort of person I am”. (Cited Esther Addley [28 02 2015] Guardian profile: Natalie Bennett. ‘Her selling point is strategy – there’s more to leadership than interviews’.)

That the biggest spike in Green Party membership came immediately after Natalie Bennett’s recent media performance, widely described as “the worst political interview in history” (Addley, 28 02 2015), suggests there is truth in Ford’s observation. On the face of it, this spike is evidence of political incompetence or human frailty eliciting support. As coded protest? But Ford fails to make the link between such “expressive” behaviour and the ambient neoliberal consumerism that nurtures it, turning a potential act of political engagement into individualist consumer performance.

Vijay Patel (25 02 2015) has a reason for voting at the next general election. He has a learning disability, volunteers at MENCAP, and got involved with Mencap’s general election campaign, Hear my voice:

Because I think it is important for people with a learning disability to vote. That way the government can understand the issues and challenges we face. (‘Second thoughts’, Society Guardian.

This is the move away from disempowerment towards enfranchisement, from victim status towards social participation and equality. Women’s suffrage campaigns from C18 on were similarly driven by a sense of being marginalized, ignored, disadvantaged and stigmatised (see for example, Amanda Vickery’s exhilarating new TV series, ‘Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power. BBC2: from 25 02 2015). C20 and C21 campaigns against racism, homophobia, misogyny and sexism, for example, have all had an impact on national and local politics and society, partly through exercising suffrage and exerting pressure on parliamentary representatives and process.

However, Patel is still undecided about who to vote for (as are many young students when questioned on camera). Being unaware of the historical record of the main parties with regard to social justice, equality and disability issues, for example, Patel’s uncertainty bespeaks a lack of information and political awareness, as if there were a range of rational options amidst the cacophony of opportunistic spin and rhetoric. This private, ‘consumerist’ approach will dilute the political impact of a defined public constituency, made visible when people act collectively and strategically on the basis of relevant information.

Fragmentation rules in the market place; market segmentation ultimately reduces us all to ‘one’: competing against other ‘ones’ for attention, status, legitimation. In addition, those unaccustomed to thinking politically about their lives and society, may recoil from taking that next step, and continue to define the issues that concern them more simply (e.g. as “wanting better services”). This inhibition can manifest itself in (mental) health groups and among working-class pensioners, for example. The hold of years of internalised deference, subordination and sense of inferiority can be hard to break.

Digital strategists complain that it has proved almost impossible for those who come to politics through a single facet of their identity to subsume themselves in a wider movement: good luck persuading that pro-choice activist to become a Labour party member (Helen Lewis [28 02 2015] ‘Young people don’t vote’. The Guardian).

Single issues do not necessarily provide sufficient contextual understanding and analysis of power and power relations. Referring to campaigning and action on climate change, Bill McKibben realised:

This fight, as it took me too long to figure out, was never going to be settled on the grounds of justice and reason. We won the argument, but that didn’t matter: like most fights it was, and is, about power (cited Alan Rusbridger [07 03 2015] ‘Why we put climate change on the cover’. The Guardian).

Behr (04 02 2015) found that in every marginal seat he visited, “there is disdain for politics in general rather than focused rage against the Tories” (Behr, The Guardian.) Disdain is not a political response, but a kind of inertia. It makes no demands of us to think, to struggle with the issues that confront society, whereas political awareness entails some form of engagement that disturbs our status quo; as well as engendering uncertainty, that most difficult and pregnant of existential states. By contrast, it is certainty that marks out the authoritarian, the fascist, the fundamentalist and the powerful.

MENCAP may have set up a campaign, Hear my voice, to encourage those with disabilities to get registered and vote, but perhaps it has sought to maintain a certain neutrality, and not facilitated access to good quality historical and policy information, because this is indubitably political and seen as out of order for a charity. Cameron has accused charities (and recently the bishops) of overstepping the mark in this regard. Keep out of politics is the message. And charities are more vulnerable to intimidation than bishops.

The political scandals continue to roll out – latterly, a tale of two former foreign secretaries, Malcolm Rifkin (Tory) and Jack Straw (Labour), displaying greed, arrogance and vanity in equal measure in secretly filmed footage from an undercover investigation into cash for access (22 02 2015, ‘Politicians for Hire’, Channel 4 Dispatches). Unfortunately, public disdain may turn to contempt and anger, but not necessarily dissent and votes, and thereby effects a compounding of the neoliberal-induced democratic deficit, as people turn away from the ballot box, letting the powerful through unimpeded. As 91 year old, lifelong Labour voter, Harry Leslie Smith cautions (2014):

Each time we are silent, we encourage those who are more powerful than us or who have a vested interest in the policy of austerity to profit from our silence. If we are tempted to say to ourselves, “I won’t vote, it’s not worth it”, we have to remember who among our numbers will vote, and whose voices will be heard above ours.

His strategic counsel contrasts sharply with that of George Monbiot (28 01 2015) who is sanguine about the fate of Labour in 2015:

Whether it wins or loses the general election, Labour is probably finished. . . . If Labour wins in May, it is likely to destroy itself faster and more surely than if it loses, through the continued implementation of austerity. That is the lesson from Europe (George Monbiot, ‘Follow your convictions – this could be the end of the politics of fear’. The Guardian).

Certainly, if it’s a “dismal choice between two versions of market fundamentalism” (Monbiot), many voters will feel frustrated (myself included). But what are the likely consequences of following Monbiot’s exhortation to vote Green in 2015?

According to Alberto Nardelli (19 02 2015), “Cameron’s best hope of a Tory-led stable government in May is that the Greens will add to their 7% support”. (‘How a Green surge could spell disaster for Miliband.’ The Guardian):

With an outright majority seemingly out of reach for both main parties at this stage in the race, the path to a Tory-led stable government would most likely need to be paved by UKIP receding and the Green surge escalating.

On the basis of a yougov overall voting intention poll, Nardelli reports that “The Greens led by Natalie Bennett, could influence the election results in at least 18 seats, helping David Cameron survive”. (Emphasis added.) This won’t bother Monbiot, who chirpily speculates that:

Whichever major party wins this election, it is likely to destroy itself through the pursuit of policies almost no-one wants. Yes, that might mean five more years of pain, though I suspect in these fissiparous[v] times it won’t last so long. And then it all opens up. . . . Stop voting in fear. Start voting for hope. (Emphasis added.)

Five more years of pain for whom, George? As I said, my friends and others cannot take five more years of this. And that is not an intellectual, ideological or lifestyle choice. How distant you are from the most damaged lives, the newly vulnerable, the working poor, the chronically desperate.

Similarly, lone Green MP, Caroline Lucas, while saying that another Tory government is the last thing she wants to see, admits that “in the long term, it could be the best thing possible for the Greens if Labour lost” (cited Simon Hattenstone [28 02 2015] ‘The only Green in the village. The Guardian Weekend.) So it’s the future prospects of the party (or the careers of individual MPs – Lucas only has a majority of 1,252 in her Brighton constituency) that matter, not the country, not the survival of the NHS, the welfare state and its public sector, and not the swaths of victims of current Tory policies.

The idea of the Green Party as somehow an ethical counter to current politics, concerned with “the bigger issues”, as Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently put it: “the soil, the loss of biodiversity, climate change” (cited Addley, 28 02 2015), would seem to fly out the window at this point.

Monbiot tells us to dump “the politics of fear”. However, there are reasons to be fearful; the evidence has mounted (not least on people’s nerve-endings). But the public schoolboy is trained to see fear as weakness, a lack; whereas fear is also a function of hard experience, of brutality, cruelty and exploitation, a mark of awareness and understanding. It alerts us to danger. Monbiot’s rhetorical flourishes appear to be rooted in his own privilege and experience of entitlement that provide him with intellectual and emotional distance and cover. His customary intellectual flight this time leaves those with clipped wings behind, in the gutter. And some of his previously devoted readers, gutted at his disregard for the expanded numbers of the dispossessed, disadvantaged and damaged created by this government’s policies.

By contrast, Alexis Tspiris, the new Greek prime minister, and Yanis Varoufakis, new Greek finance minister, have been paying close attention to the “humanitarian crisis” of the Greek people. And they recognise the urgency of relief for those who have suffered most from imposed Austerity measures. Recalling his years in the UK as a young man as Thatcher came to power, Varoufakis discloses how he had thought that perhaps her election was a good thing, that it would provide the short, sharp shock to Britain’s working and middle classes that would re-invigorate progressive politics:

Even as unemployment doubled and then trebled under Thatcher’s radical neoliberal interventions, I continued to harbour hope that Lenin was right: “Things have to get worse before they get better”. As life became nastier, more brutish and, for many, shorter, it occurred to me that I was tragically in error: things could get worse in perpetuity, without ever getting better. (Adapted reprint 18 02 2015.) Emphasis added.

Monbiot has clearly experienced no such epiphany.

‘This Groundhog Day election” (Behr, 25 02 2015. The Guardian).
The choice between Labour and Tories at the next election is stark, with great     consequences for the country, yet they are drifting into a campaign that feels in some ways eerily like the last one, only more desperate. (Behr, 25 02 2015. ‘British politics isn’t so much rotten as past its use-by date’.) Emphasis added.

Behr is routinely a perceptive and probing political analyst, but this analogy is glib and potentially dangerous: likely to re-enforce the apathy, cynicism and despair already evident and being talked up by the media (here The Guardian). He deploys neoliberal, consumerist discourse: identifying something as past its use-by date means we throw it out. But this is not a political option at a first-past-the-post, UK general election, as explained earlier. So Behr’s statement has to count as another disappointing, Guardian rhetorical flourish. It would seem to fall into the trap identified by Steve Richards (26 02 2015): “The BBC reports bewildering events but it fails to help us understand them” (The Guardian). Richards expands his point about the lack of analytic depth, insight and courage:

There tends to be a bias in favour of the latest political fashions as long as they cannot be defined as ‘left’ or ‘right’.

Similarly, Martin Kettle (06 02 2015) points to the role played by “the fashionable conceit that the two main UK parties have nothing significant to say about the modern world and that there is no difference between them anyway” (‘Britain is slowly breaking up yet it seems no one cares’. The Guardian). He contends that “Both parts of this claim are false”. Similarly: “the SDP’s recurrent claim that Labour and the Conservatives are joined at the hip – a pair of indistinguishable English parties – is an astonishing audacity”: a political ploy. Yet this idea persists as a reason for either not choosing at all (not voting) or for not voting Labour.

South of the border, the media preoccupies itself with the presumed symmetry between UKIP on the one hand (seen as mainly a threat to the Tories) and the Greens on the other (seen as a threat to Labour). Certainly UKIP is a party of the (extreme) Right (mainly comprising Tories and funded by the same very rich people, bankers and hedge funds). But is it correct to see the Greens as a party of the Left? Suzanne Moore (28 01 2015) demurs:

If the Greens are the protest vote of the Left, then the Left has become a             fairly   meaningless term. Half of them are about as left as the Lib Dems. The innate puritanism of the Greens is in itself conservative (‘Forget the Greens – if the UK wants a truly leftwing party, it might have to grow its own’ The Guardian).

During my years attending CAT (Centre for Alternative Technology) members’ annual conferences, and national FoE (Friends of the Earth) events, I noticed this conservative culture: unlike Labour, these were overwhelmingly white, middle-class participants, many of whom seemed untouched by the liberatory campaigns of the C20 (black activism, gay liberation / LGBTU activism, feminism, etc.), never mind labour and trade union politics. Like all other public spaces during these years, they were male-dominated, with no evidence of gender analysis or understanding of sexual politics, for example. I was aware of being seen as ‘political’ in a way others were not at the time.

Although this has changed for the better, with more women and different men involved, and greater acknowledgement of the connections between environmental and social justice issues, for example, Moore’s critique stands, as the Green party rushes to identify itself as a political party rather than a protest group in time for the general election in May 2015, fielding a hugely increased number of candidates across the country, ahead of having the necessary infrastructure, coherent political reach or enough suitably experienced candidates.

And in the context of Tory-led ‘coalition’ politics, the demise of the Lib Dems, the rise of UKIP and the SNP, this expanded electoral presence constitutes an explicit challenge to one party only: Labour. Moore (28 01 2015) pinpoints the Green Party’s political deficit:

What is missing from the Greens is the actual thing I want from a progressive party. It’s the economy, stupid. A theory of class analysis, an understanding of the mechanism of redistribution and a sense of connection, not with plants but the very poorest. (Emphasis added.)

When you attend Labour Party annual conferences, the party’s diversity is manifest: women and men of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, social class, sexual preference, ability and health status. These gatherings really look like our society, as well as presenting a microcosm of the kind of society we want to be. No other party is as genuinely inclusive; and no other party has been changed by anti-racism, gay rights and feminism, for example, in the way that Labour, particularly since Ed Miliband became leader, has responded.[vi] And with Ed as leader and more women Labour MPs and local councillors, loads of diverse prospective parliamentary candidates in the pipeline (including just selected, Naz Shah, chair of the mental health charity, Sharing Voices Bradford, who will challenge RESPECT MP George Galloway in Bradford, Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is no longer such a lone feminist star.

I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010, in order to vote for Ed as leader: here was the chance to avoid electing an alpha male, a stereotypical, testosterone-fuelled ‘bloke’, prone to gender-blind gaffes, misogynist attitudes, wandering hands, homophobic and racist slip-ups and disablism. This guy seemed intelligent, intellectual, a decent human being; I detected integrity and compassion.

Miliband recently declared: “Don’t mistake decency for weakness” (cited Wintour & Hattenstone). And pertinently, Hattenstone offers his theory (07 03 2015, The Guardian Weekend): “We, the public, hate alpha-male politicians, but we don’t trust them when they aren’t alpha males”. Miiband responds: “I often disagree, but I don’t take delight in being disagreeable. That’s probably where I am like my mum”.

American David Axelrod (16 02 2015) worked as Barack Obama’s aide for his two successful elections, and has been working with Miliband and the Labour Party towards the UK general election in May 2015. He draws a sharp contrast between the Tories and the Labour leader:

The Tories just don’t look at the British economy through the lens of everyday people. They don’t have a kitchen table philosophy of economics and that’s why recovery hasn’t reached kitchen tables around Britain (cited Ed Pilkington interview with David Axelrod, ‘Obama was a once-in-a lifetime candidate. . . Miliband’s a smart, earnest guy’. (Cited           ‘Ed Pilkington meets David Axelrod’. The Guardian).

Miliband, adds Axelrod, “understands a healthy economy is not one where a few people do fantastically well”. Miliband has openly criticised New Labour for failing to tackle inequality, for “failing to narrow the gap between rich and poor. . . It was more that as long as the people at the bottom are doing ok, does the gap matter? New Labour was too sanguine” (cited Patrick Wintour & Simon Hattenstone [07 03 2015] ‘Miliband: Don’t mistake decency for weakness’. The Guardian). Miliband thinks the gap does matter.

In conclusion.
In 2013, Yanis Varoufakis, now the new Greek finance minister, who has worked as an academic economist in the US, Australia and the UK, wrote “a searing account of European capitalism and how the Left can learn from Karl Marx’s mistakes” (‘How I became an erratic Marxist’ [18 02 2015] The Guardian), which was originally delivered at the 6th Subversive Festival in Zagreb. In it he seeks to convince radicals that:

We have a contradictory mission: to arrest the freefall of European capitalism in order to buy the time we need to formulate an alternative.

As Greek finance minister for a ‘far-left’ party in 2015, he is now involved in the complex, practical politics of this mission; and he cites he importance of his time in the UK, as Thatcher took over, as part of his preparation:

The lesson Thatcher taught me about the capacity of a long-lasting recession to undermine progressive politics, is one that I carry with me into today’s European crisis.

Victims (the oppressed) without a politics do not leap to the barricades, do not participate collectively in political struggle, when day-to-day lives are struggle enough. They are more likely to withdraw, fall silent, self harm and/or lash out indiscriminately, as opposed to targeting the political ‘enemy’.

Varoufakis is all too conscious of the likely consequences of the ‘radical’ option: advocating dismantling of the eurozone and breaking up the European union, and asks:

Who do you think would benefit from this development? A progressive Left . . . . ? Or the Golden Dawn Nazis, the assorted neo-fascists, the xenophobes and the spivs? I have absolutely no doubt as to which of the two will do best from a disintegration of the Eurozone.

His analysis is relevant to UK politics, our general election in May 2015, and our continuing participation in the EU. The nature of our participation and which groups we align ourselves with within the EU depends on which of the two main parties is elected to government in May. There is a lot at stake. Varoufakis deploys his “erratic Marxism”:

The problem with capitalism is not that it is unfair but that it is irrational, as it habitually condemns whole generations to deprivation and unemployment . . .

This irrationality breeds inequality, instability, unsustainability. It disenfranchises and disempowers swaths of the population as both citizens and consumers. It is therefore both an attack on democracy as well as capitalism: poor people are less likely to participate socially, culturally and politically in society and they cannot buy enough stuff to keep the economy afloat. So Varoufakis risks advocating his approach, of trying to “save European capitalism from itself”:

Not out of love for European capitalism, for the Eurozone, for Brussels, or for the European Central Bank, but just because we want to minimise the unnecessary human toll from this crisis. (Emphasis added.)

How different this is from Monbiot‘s stance as bystander, contemplating with equanimity the prospect of the pain being allowed to run on for a few years more. . . .

Like Varoufakis, American playwright and gay Jewish activist Tony Kushner (most famous for his brilliant, epic film c25 years ago about the US and Aids, Angels in America) is no bystander with regard to progressive politics. He has refused to go along with the disillusionment in Barack Obama. “Instead, he accuses his Democratic detractors of political narcissism”, declaring that “the Left is shooting itself in the foot”. (Cited Charles Laurence [01 09 2010] ‘It’s a crazy time’, The Guardian):

I don’t want to sound contemptuous, but there is a tendency to see politics as an expression of your own personal purity, a character test. It’s not. It’s about learning to advance a progressive agenda by understanding the workings of democracy. (Emphasis added.)

A progressive agenda is never just individualistic, vested interest politics (that’s for the Right). Kushner feared that as a consequence of this development, his “community” would damage the Democrats’ chances of fending off a rightwing resurrection in the form of Sarah Palin, or worse. And that might send gay rights, his core issue, back to the Regan era (cited Laurence).

Varoufakis’ reflects on the debilitating legacy of the Thatcher years (18 02 2015):

Instead of radicalizing British society, the recession that Thatcher’s government so carefully engineered, as part of its class war against organised labour and against the public institutions of social security and redistribution that had been established after the war, permanently destroyed the very possibility of radical, progressive politics in Britain.             Indeed it rendered impossible the very notion of values that transcended what the market determined as the ‘right’ price. (Emphasis added.)

Overnight, kindness, generosity, mutuality, reciprocity, cooperation, love, for example, were rendered ‘old-fashioned’: signs of weakness, lack of status, ‘beyond their use-by date’ in market language. This change was a gendered shift, as politics and society disparaged these ‘soft skills’ and adopted the ‘hard’ values and practices of the predatory alpha male – Sennett’s “apex predator” (Sennett, p85). Dominance and control have become bywords for ‘success’; exploitation and violence normalised; commodified and sold on as video games and films. Meanwhile the environment is exploited, exhausted and sold off for profit and power. Divisions and sectarianism on the Left have flourished.

Those who lived through Thatcher’s years as adults will remember “the neoliberal juggernaut that crushed all dissent in its path” (Varoufakis), even after she was removed from office. Cameron’s Tories have since taken up where she left off, and cut further and deeper into civil society. In May we can reclaim our dignity and humanity, by making sure this is a one-term Tory government. We can learn from Varoufakis’ retrospective analysis of the UK and the broader, contemporary European challenge. But we also need to prove him wrong about Thatcher’s indelible, irrevocable legacy. A Labour government led by Ed Miliband can facilitate that revival and renewal of our democracy and our society.

In addition, the next climate change negotiations take place in Paris in December 2015. For the UK to be represented by a second-term Tory government would be disastrous, making binding targets and constructive negotiations impossible. Naomi Klein hopes these negotiations can be:

a moment where there is convergence between climate justice, anti-austerity and labour movements. And unless we see that coming together of movements and the convergence – we don’t stand a chance (cited Kim Bryan [Spring 2015] ‘This changes everything: a chat with Naomi Klein. Clean Slate. The Practical journal of Sustainable Living, No.95: 14-16).

So there’s a great deal more than usual at stake when we cast our votes in the May 2015 general election: nationally, internationally, and globally.[vii]

val walsh  / 07 03 2015

[i] See also Stewart Lansley (2012) The Cost of Inequality. Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery. See also Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford the Rich.

[ii] See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (2013) NHS SOS. How the NHS was betrayed and how we can save it). Also Kerry-Anne Mendoza (2015) Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy.

[iii] See Andrew Sayer (2014) Why We Can’t Afford Rich People.

[iv] See Mack & Lansley [2015], and Mendoza [2015].

[v] Fissiparous: C19 word, from Latin fissus (split) + parere (to bring forth). The use of this adjective tells us who Monbiot assumes his readership to be, and/or his attitude to us. Orwell would have cringed.

[vi] But see Val Walsh (10 10 2012) ‘Sexism and activism: What’s the problem?’ Also, ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”: Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others).’ togetherfornow.wordpress.com

[vii] See Val Walsh (10 08 2014) ‘Reflections on climate change, sustainability and democracy: prioritising renewal, equity and justice in the Liverpool city region.’ (Submission to Mayor of Liverpool’s Commission on Sustainability.) togetherfornow.wordpress.com

 

Sacrifice

Not living your life,
not being yourself,
is bad for your health.

Injustice gathers momentum 
over the years. Masking
heart and soul. Life in arrears.

Ageing and degeneration
come early, snatching
time and faculties:
disputing identity
and status.

Unimagined liberty
laid waste.

 

val walsh

COMPASS-NUT Education Inquiry (18 01 2014) Conference follow-up. Extract

 

  • Preamble
  • My educated self
  • Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process
  • 2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities
  • Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.

It is, as several people observed later, a great pity that Tristram Hunt did not arrive in time to attend the introductory session, ‘My educated self’. He would have found out a lot that is relevant to his responsibilities as Shadow Minister for Education, and it would have better prepared him for his subsequent interview, and perhaps helped him respond more convincingly to participants’ questions, comments and concerns. As others noted afterwards: where was the evidence of his passion for education and what it can do for children and adults, and in particular for those disadvantaged by life circumstances not of their own making? He sat in the midst of several hundred attendees (practitioners all?), who all know so much, have so much experience of education in the UK (as ‘products’ and practitioners), and who care so passionately about education and its fate at this time, faced with the wrecking ball of the Tory-led government and its dire Education minister, Michael Gove. We have so much to offer a Labour government that wishes to take the side of the people and salvage something positive from the wreckage the Tories and the Lib Dems will leave in their wake. This day-long Saturday event was part of this process.

Everyone in the room on the day was in considerable part evidence of their education (because education is that powerful and enduring in its influence); and each could provide testimony on reflection, as to its value and its failures; the obstacles and the achievements; the joys and sorrows. Critical self-reflexivity is a well established process / methodology for researchers and practitioners of all kinds now, and it is in this spirit I have made my own contribution to the Inquiry, of which this is an extract, expanding on my brief contribution from the floor in the opening session on the day:

My educated self.
I have been fortunate. My education narrative is a generally happy and fruitful one. I loved school from the off and at all levels: I achieved joy in learning, sharing and helping others at infant and junior school, which further developed into a sense of adventure and intellectual challenge at my grammar school. Here there were opportunities outside the official curriculum, for example for drama, formal debating, music and art. And within the timetabled curriculum, in the later years, there were several non-subject-specific slots allotted for ‘discussion’. So communication, research and creative skills (oral, listening, writing, performing, making, doing, critical thinking and reflection, investigating) were variously fostered, and by teachers who were overwhelmingly stimulating, well organised, good humoured, supportive, and generous with their time and attention.

Learning and memorising were also important across a range of subjects, but always contextualized and relevant, rather than as rote learning as preparation for a test. Education was not just about learning stuff, but about expanding horizons as well as skills; of doors opening on the world of knowledge and culture, and the self.

Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process.
The importance of role models is often over stated, but looking back I see that my years at school provided a number of these, and I benefitted throughout from a culture of encouragement and challenge. My favourite teachers were not just intellectually stimulating, but people with personality and a sense of humour, those I could identify as human beings as well as teachers. As my son would say in 2001, just after his 17th birthday and a month at Liverpool Community College studying music, when I asked him what he thought made a good teacher (he had had brilliant teachers in infants and junior school, as well as at his comprehensive + several duds): “It’s not just that they make their subject interesting. They are interesting.”

Looking back in my twenties, I came to understand my educational experience as a creative process (aided by early American research and writing on creativity that enabled me to recognize myself within its narratives and theory, and get over the binary western split between thinking and feeling that I had been so aware of during my years at grammar school). And there were inspirational writers / theorists / activists (mainly American + Paulo Freire) who helped me forge my own philosophy of education, experiential learning and creativity, and to understand the importance of the social and political contexts of education for all ages, including what we now refer to as the social determinants of education, health and wellbeing.

As a child and young person I had witnessed and benefitted from good practice; I had noted poor or bad practice; I had subsequently reflected on both; and as a creative and politically conscious person, I sought to go further in making a difference as an educationist.

2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities.
Sitting within the embrace of the COMPASS-NUT conference opening session, ‘My educated self’, listening to the stories / evidence of others, and responding to the question posed to us: ‘What would I tell myself then about what I have learnt about education now?’, I found myself reflecting on what was missing from my own very good education, which is even more relevant in 2014 and beyond. Here is my list of priorities (unranked):

  • First and most obviously, I was taught nothing about my own history as girl and woman, in my own country / society and within the larger world. I had to start to piece this together in my twenties through reading and postgraduate study. I would now identify this as an absolute right and necessity as part of the education of all children and young people.
  • Second, I identify the importance of the history of the Labour movement and the trade unions as a right and necessity within the school curriculum for all children and young people. This too I began to piece together in my twenties, although with a Labour and trade unionist father, I was more knowledgeable about class struggle than I was about women’s historical feminist struggles.
  • Both the above open up for consideration a range of social, cultural and political issues pertinent to individual pupils and students, and societies today, contributing to the development of research skills, critical thinking, social and personal awareness, and a basis for understanding the crucial relation between the ‘personal’ and the structural, including concepts such as internalisation, mediation, subjugation, oppression, dominance, empowerment, power. These are essential for personal survival in C21, as well as a healthy, functioning democracy.
  • Third, only in retrospect can I name my worst experience at school in my teens: bullying at the hands of white working-class girls in my own year. This language was not available at the time, and though not religious, I had already internalised the moral imperative of ‘turning the other cheek’ to attack or injury, and this is what I did. I would not fight back. I endured the repeated experiences (bullying always involves repetition) silently and on my own, discussing them with no-one, including my parents. I attempted to maintain dignity and carry on, hoping it would pass. It was only years later that I could identify the name-calling and shoving as bullying. Similarly, today, girls and boys benefit from the availability of the discourses of sexual harassment and (sexual) abuse (of power), which can help them seek help, set boundaries and keep safe. Without the language we remain unable to describe or understand our lives and experience, in particular the negative or traumatic.[i]
  • Today, I hope that the culture in schools, colleges and universities is moving beyond ‘bystander’ culture (itself an important concept), and includes teachers and other staff sufficiently versed in the needs of those who are bullied, to both prevent bullying happening, to notice when it is, and to provide effective support when it does. It must be a whole school / institution commitment and ethos. These are not ‘technical’ skills, and require CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for staff, facilitated not by bureaucrats, but by activists / artists / practitioners in the equalities and child protection fields.
  • Fourth, the social and political movements of the C20 and C21 that have challenged racism, homophobia, misogyny, social class disadvantage and prejudice, for example, have changed UK society for the better in ways that are significant for how we might now identify the function and philosophy of education. To prevent the unravelling of these achievements (which seems to be the aim of the current government) requires understanding, commitment and everyday action on the part of the populace, as individuals and as constituencies. This cannot be achieved and sustained within education without staff who are fully aware of these issues, and confident in their ability to act appropriately in their roles within school, college and university. For everyone, children and adults, this process of understanding (consciousness-raising) is unavoidably a process of politicization that goes beyond subject specialism.
  • Fifth: probably the most significant and far-reaching change over the last 50+ years is that UK society has become overtly hyper-sexualised and an increasingly coercive and violent environment for women and children: gender power relations now loom as a serious pervasive problem; an obstacle to the health and wellbeing of children and young people (the most vulnerable) in particular, producing a high-risk social environment beyond school and FHE. Scantily dressed or naked girls and women, pouting or twerking to camera, are used to sell almost everything, not least sex and heterosexual norms themselves. Girls and women are routinely objectified and commodified for profit. While adverts, the media, films and videos encourage boys and men to be predatory, dominant, even violent. And now their bodies too are up for commodification. These changes distort and undermine mental health, as well as relationships, as the boundary between ‘reality’ and fantasy, private and public becomes crushed by fear-inducing ideologies glossing ‘glamour’, ‘success’ and ‘celebrity’ as the goals. Many girls bypass education for self determination, career goals and life skills, and instead aspire to be WAGS or simply ‘famous’. And it’s all about sex (appeal) and the body. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently noted: “the sexual landscape has changed and under no circumstances can it be called freedom”.[ii]
  • At the moment, young people leave school and even higher education variously unprepared, ill-equiped and disadvantaged in the face of a powerful political economy that positions them in (mainly) binary opposition to each other (as female and male, masculine and feminine), and without the knowledge, skills and confidence to cope with the consumerist, heterosexist onslaught that works to shape and determine them as avid, dependent and sexual consumers: the market the neoliberal capitalist economy requires to make its profits.
  • Sixth: In particular, the perceived problem of sex and sexual relationships, now further complicated by the digital economy and social media and expanding opportunities for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and young people, requires an educational response that goes beyond ‘sex education’. In these charged and disturbing circumstances, ‘sex education’ is not the answer (as Cosslett and others have suggested); whereas Media Studies, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies begin to look like basic educational rights and necessities, rather than subject options. But how do we staff such programmes, when these subjects have been systematically plundered, derided and closed down over the last 20+ years in our universities?[iii]

Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.
The neoliberal, consumerist attack on children and young people (and the rest of us) prioritises sex and sexual identity as all-consuming, overriding concerns, and is part of a process of depoliticisation and distraction from the real issues and enemies; part of the “there is no such thing as society” rhetoric. It is a politics, not just an economic position, and therefore requires a politically conscious response by both the body politic and our education system. To be fair and just and meaningful, education cannot be ‘neutral’ in the face of these forces and the ensuing damage to individuals and to society.[iv] We have for too long had an educational system (and a society) that has left social inequalities in place. In 2014, those inequalities, and the damage and despair that ensue, are being flaunted and re-enforced as ‘natural’, ‘right’ and ‘necessary’, by a government  bloated by privilege, indifference and a venomous sense of superiority. As one academic, who has done more than most to expose the extent, function and consequences of inequalities in societies, has observed:

“We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an élite who can easily come to have little respect for the   majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty.”[v]

In his inaugural lecture this week, as Halford Mackinder professor of human geography at Oxford University, Dorling boldly hit the spot:

“The 1% are disproportionately made up not of people who are most able, but of those who are most greedy and least       concerned about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.”[vi]

From my experience as a mature postgraduate Sociology student in my twenties (while working as an art teacher in two London comprehensives); later as a Women’s Studies student, and as a feminist academic with years of experience teaching Art, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and creative writing for women, I know that these are among the educational opportunities that afford development of the whole person (women, men, transgender),[vii] empowering them to better understand how, for example, they got from A to B as girls / boys and arrived at specific sexual and gender identities, as well as the pressures exerted by society, culture and power, including for example, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and social class.[viii] These academic programmes are among the ‘Studies’ that Thatcher loathed, because she knew they changed lives, put real power into the hands of ‘ordinary people’ disadvantaged and disempowered by society’s arrangements and structures.

In addition, in a democratic society that has signed up to the values and practices of human rights and social justice, children and young people need an education that provides an understanding of democracy itself, its value and distinctiveness, and what it needs for it to be sustained and maintained: i.e. an educated population, willing and able to participate.[ix]

And in a fair and just society that purports to promote an equalities culture, within which disablism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, social class prejudice and other ‘hate’ agendas are both illegal and culturally unacceptable, the education of children and young people needs to openly confront and engage with these issues, in preparation for life beyond school and FHE.

The question of ‘difference’ cannot be left to the media and other vested interests to define, control and foment.

Being a citizen in 2014 and beyond, as opposed to being defined simply as a consumer or subject, means something more complex than before. More political. Education must rise to that challenge. And this too has implications for the CPD of teachers, academics and other staff in education.

  • We must design and implement a state education clear about its core values; an education that supports democracy via human rights and social justice, mutual respect, the encouragement of creative agency, environmental awareness and understanding, and the (mental) health and wellbeing of both individuals and populations.
  • Essential to the process outlined here is the value placed on education itself within and by society and its members, including its governments, and not just a narrow definition of education for employability and the economy.
  • Education should not feel like a joyless imposition, but a creative opportunity, a springboard. For this to prevail, people must feel a sense of belonging and self worth. This is a collective achievement.[x]
  • For many working-class children and young people this is still not the case, and in some of their families and communities, education is perceived as ‘Other’, as inimical and irrelevant to their own class culture and communities.

Governments have a social responsibility towards the education of the people, rather than simply promoting the interests of the rich and powerful, attacking teachers in state schools, and deriding, determining and controlling the work of artists, researchers, academics and other professionals, such as lawyers and journalists (perceived as dangerous intellectuals). The responsibility of the latter must be to be sufficiently dangerous to the prevailing enemies of the people and our society at this time.

val walsh / 07 02 2014


[i] When, on my first visit to France at 19, staying en famille with my pen pal’s family for a life-changing 6 weeks, after writing to each other since the age of 13, towards the end of my stay her father chased me round the dining table when no-else was around, trying to grab and kiss me, again I told no-one, including my parents, until many years later I shared the memory with my adult daughter and women friends, by which time it could be told as an amusing anecdote. He was, after all, in loco parentis for those 6 weeks. How could I tell my friend (his daughter) or her mother (his wife) at the time? How could I tell my mother or father on my return? Or ever. Imagine their horror. I saw the consequences of disclosure/exposure as worse than the incident itself. I was shaken, and perhaps also knew that I might not be believed, and could even be blamed, his word against mine. It felt sordid, but is nothing compared to the experiences we now know children and young people have been subjected to by predatory older heterosexual men in what was (still is?) a climate of sexual laissez-faire.
[ii] Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (28 01 2014) Porn’s influence is real. Sex education is the answer. The Guardian.
[iii] Jake Beckett (01 02 2014) responding to Cosslett’s article (28 01 2014) in a letter to The Guardian shares his concern (as a recently retired science teacher required to teach reproduction but not sex education): “It was obvious that boys had been watching porn by the questions they asked”, and he suggests that what is needed is “an outside agency that employs teachers, actors or other suitable persons . . . to deliver theatre and talks that engage pupils and encourage discussion about a topic that is damaging their ability to judge what are normal relationships”. He notes the difficulty that many older teachers have addressing these issues.
[iv] A similar argument can be made for eco-awareness and environmental values to be embedded within the culture of schools, colleges and universities.
[v] Professor Danny Dorling (04 02 2014) Our education system is designed to polarize people, to create an élite. Guardian Education.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] And I would add Drama, Literature and making music to this list for schools.
[viii] See Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Walsh (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives. London, Taylor & Francis; Walsh (1995) ‘Eye witnesses, not spectators / activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’ in Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies: 51-60. Manchester, Manchester University Press; Walsh (1995) ‘Transgression and the Academy: feminists and institutionalisation’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis: 86-101.
[ix] Attending a Co op Education conference in Cardiff last year, I saw inspiring examples of how cooperative schools practise democracy, as well as talk about it.
[x] See Walsh (1996) ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Morley & Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London, Taylor & Francis:187-207. See also ’What is education for?’ and ‘Differential educational achievement’ in articles & statements section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com. Also, in the photos section of togetherfornow.wordpress.com are several photos of an NUT installation at Labour Party conference in Brighton (09 2013): an ‘apple tree’, where each apple contains a statement from a conference attendee, in response to the question: “What is education for?” Tristram Hunt should take a look at this as part of his research and preparation for his future job.