Monday, 29 August 2011

The Whole Earth delusion

In a recent Guardian article environmentalist author Mark Lynas suggested that the green movement had lost its way. He had apparently experienced a 'eureka moment' reading hostile comments to an article he had written criticising GM foods. This was reinforced when he later read Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline. Like Brand, Lynas now argues that the green movement is actually a barrier to combating climate change and feeding the world. This, in a nutshell, is because we oppose nuclear power and GM technology.

Environmentalists such as Brand and Lynas have 'seen the light' and embraced capitalism as the mechanism to solve the worlds environmental problems. They believe that technology is the answer. I've read Whole Earth Discipline. Its a well argued and well written book, but it left me cold, so much so that I admit I didn't quite finish it, but by then I didn't need to. Of course it is full of hope, telling stories of how mobile phones, for example, have helped the poor to build businesses and make themselves better off. Does this mean that mobile phones are a good thing? Are they going to eliminate poverty? No, just that humans will use whatever tools at their disposal to help them overcome adversity. If it wasn't mobile phones it would be something else.

What Lynas and Brand want is for the green movement to embrace capitalism much like the way New Labour embraced the market. Lynas even talks about the green movement having its "clause four moment". New Labour tried to use market mechanisms to reduce inequality and poverty. It failed because those same mechanisms are the drivers of inequality and poverty. The proof of failure came in the fact that after 13 years of a New Labour government inequality in the UK had increased. Capitalism is the driver of environmental degradation and loss in biodiversity - see this recent example. It is capitalist accumulation that is devouring our planet. You cannot use the same mechanisms which are destroying the world to save it. Not only that but the green movement isn't just about saving our environment, its also about social justice, something which is incompatible with capitalism.

What Brand and Lynas in their naivety have failed to understand is that what GM food and nuclear power are about is profit for the big corporations, and not making a better environment, or feeding the world. There are millions hungry all over the world. They need access to land, cheap loans, basic tools and fair markets for their produce. The key solutions are low tech, not high tech. There would be no hunger if the existing food supply was distributed fairly. The big driver behind GM technology is that corporations like Monsanto can control the food chain and make massive profits - forever. Corporations like Monsanto want to control and monopolise all the food we eat - not feed the world - see here.

If we are going to save the planet for ourselves we need to build a socially just and sustainable society. We can build prosperous sustainable societies without growth. Capitalist accumulation based on endless debt fueled growth is the problem, not the answer. There are alternatives as I've shown in this blog. We have to get on with that task and leave Lynas and Brand to their delusions and play with their technological toys.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Cameron is wrong about the riots

Since last week, when the UK riots came to a halt, apart from the universal condemnation of the looters, there have been two responses: one from the political right; and another from the left. The right have sought to paint the riots as being all about criminality, and about individual bad behaviour. David Cameron has re-iterated this theme a number of times in the past week, also calling for the rioters to be hammered by the courts. Its typical of the right that they should portray the riots in such simplistic terms. Firstly, most right wingers don't want the riots to be viewed by people in a wider context - the context of poverty, joblessness, exclusion and social despair. That's understandable because if people were to see the wider context they would appreciate how damaging and destructive the right's neoliberal ideology is; Secondly, they know that such a response panders to the prejudices of many of our citizens; Thirdly, its crucial for Cameron and the political right that individuals be blamed because the government might not survive if it was widely believed that it was responsible for the troubles. At the very least re-election would be a remote possibility. So, its hardly surprising that Cameron has been seeking to monopolise the media with calls for 'tough' sentencing which amount to revenge, not justice, as two men in Cheshire discovered recently.

Unlike David Cameron, the left have looked for the causes of the rioting. This is not to excuse the behaviour of the rioters, just simply a recognition the we don't live in a vacuum, and that people's behaviour can be affected by the environment they live in. Part of that environment is that people see our society's leaders, including politicians and businessmen, with their fingers in the till, and getting away with it. Cameron himself was implicated in the expenses scandal as were other cabinet ministers. The phone hacking scandal has implicated the police and other senior people in the media, and then we have the bankers who crashed our economy and carried off big bonuses as a result. Naomi Klein has written a perceptive article about the wider global political context of the riots. Its not just here in the UK that people perceive that the rich elites are robbing us and getting away with it. She said:

"Of course London's riots weren't a political protest. But the people committing night-time robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. "

As said in a previous post, there is nothing new about the recent riots and academic research has shown that austerity measures of the kind we have seen in the UK, with £81 billion worth of ideological cuts imposed by George Osbourne on our society, can cause rioting. The researchers, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, concluded:

"Nobody knows where and when social unrest is going to happen again, nor the scale it will take. However, history suggests we should not underestimate the consequences of social chaos. Germans to the present day remember Heinrich BrĂ¼ning, known as the "hunger chancellor", who led the country from 1929 to 1932. He presided over an unprecedented austerity programme. At the same time, the Weimar Republic, Germany's first attempt at democracy, disintegrated amid a wave of social unrest and political violence."

The fact is that David Cameron is wrong about the causes of the riots and wrong with his views on sentencing. Far from being squeaky clean Cameron has soiled hands. He has also flipped on this issue. Do you remember the infamous 'hug a hoodie' speech where Cameron said we should be understanding about young people who commit crime? If not read this. Cameron is the Tory's version of a Blairite poster boy who is not much more than a front for an extremist Tory Party whose favourites include Thatcherite monsters from the crypt like William Hague and Eric Pickles.

If you want to, you can choose to believe that the austerity measures in the UK have nothing whatsoever to do with the riots, or you can choose to say that despite austerity and poverty no one should ever be involved in looting and causing wanton damage to life and property, and that the people who have done this should have acted responsibly instead. So why didn't the bankers, politicians, phone hackers and corrupt cops, who are supposed to know better than the 'feral rats' who rioted, measure up to being responsible? Why didn't they set an example? Is it simply that they are too greedy or is it that they knew they would never properly be held to account and face the consequences of their actions? And don't forget, who was it who sought to excuse the actions of the bankers? Why non other than Mr David Cameron himself at the Tory Party conference.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Our anger should be directed against the real villains

After four nights of looting and violence like many other people in our society I'm angry. Very angry. My anger is directed at the people who are responsible for what has been described as mindless vandalism. Not just those who were directly responsible, but those who are really responsible for the crisis we are in. These real villains are the people I've been talking about in many posts on this blog for the past 3 years or so. The people who have imposed 30 years of Thatcherism on our society. The people who said they were going to make us better off when they knew damn well that most of us were going to end up poorer. These people are the privatisers, the deregulators, the people who have taken our pensions away whilst supporting bankers bonuses, the ones who pocketed the profits whilst the losses were being nationalised, the 'free' market fanatics who worship the winner-takes-all, beggar-my-neighbour capitalist economy which puts us all in thrall to the market.

We used to have a reasonable balance in this society. We used to believe in the public sector and the public good. Not any more. People have been seduced by the glitzy worship of celebrity and consumerism that has been rammed down our throats. Private good, public bad. The wanton destruction of good honest public institutions that served to public good. Those institutions weren't perfect. They had their faults. They needed improvement. But they were a bloody sight better than their profit-driven private sector replacements. I look back with nostalgia at British Rail. Yes it was tatty but that is because it was starved of investment. It was a damn sight better than the crowded 'luxury' cattle wagons we are crammed into nowadays at exorbitant prices whilst the likes of Richard Branson trouser millions of pounds worth profit every year.

The phenomenon we have witnessed in the past few days is the result of the chickens of Thatcherism coming home to roost. The underclasses have learnt the lesson from their betters in society - if its there for the taking - take it. The looting is the mirror image of the behaviour of the bankers and politicians. The bankers have looted our society to the tune of hundreds of billions and now the so called "feral rats" are taking their share from Top Shop and JD Sports to the tune of hundreds of millions. The difference is that the "rats" will end up in gaol. But what about the bankers and their politician chums? The message to society is - "If you wear a suit you can go out and loot" - with impunity.

I have seen some very good comments about what has been happening, particularly in today's Guardian letters and I just wanted to finish by quoting this wonderfully perceptive comment from Rick Osborn:

"While we all must condemn the violence and looting of recent nights, we must not allow those who lead our society to duck their roles in the conditions leading up to it. We find members of parliament fiddling expenses and only some of that deemed illegal. We see bankers plundering the public purse to cover their incompetence and still receiving ridiculous bonuses. Members of the press, that bulwark of our freedoms, pay criminals to get them stories and some of those criminals are members of the police force. Meanwhile what happens to the law-abiding, decent citizens whom we would like our young people to become? They are told that they must pay more for their pensions, have certain health procedures denied to them, pay more for food, fuel and housing, and probably get made redundant to boot. Our young people are not fools. They see quite clearly that in modern Britain, being good brings no rewards; on the contrary, it is punished."

Monday, 8 August 2011

London riots - here we go again!

If, like me, you are middle aged, you will have seen many riots in the UK. Brixton, Broadwater Farm, and Toxteth are some of the the better known examples in the past 30 years or so. These riots are always triggered by an incident involving the heavy handed policing of members of an ethnic minority community, usually black. The Broadwater Farm riot was triggered by the death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, when the police were searching her home. The riots always occur in  communities that are characterised by high unemployment, poverty and poor housing. Tottenham has a history of these problems, Broadwater Farm is just one example, and we still have not heard the true facts about the mysterious death of Smiley Culture, who died whilst in police custody in his own home in April 2011. Allegedly he stabbed himself. A thousand people protested after that incident. What the riots show is the simmering resentment that exists in many inner city communities in the UK.

In the case of the Tottenham riot, which took place on Saturday, supporters of the  family of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by the police last week, staged a peaceful protest. The police failed to respond to requests from the family to speak to a senior officer. The family and their supporters were kept waiting for hours. The police clearly failed to deal reasonably with the family, sparking further anger. After the Duggan shooting incident, we heard that a police officer had been shot, implying that Duggan had fired on the police, now we hear that both the bullets that were fired came from police weapons. Did someone fire on the police? We don't know. But what we do know is that the police have a history of putting out misleading information in the aftermath of incidents of this kind. In the case of Jean Charles De Menezes, in 2005, the police said that he had behaved suspiciously, and had vaulted a barrier at Stockwell tube station. This turned out not to be true. Jean Charles De Menezes was just a man on his way to work. The police killed an innocent man, and eye-witnesses to the shooting later claimed that they had no need to shoot him dead.

There is a clear pattern here. Communities plagued by unemployment, poverty and poor housing. Heavy handed, inept and racially dubious policing. The police putting out misleading statements about what happened. The police being used to keep a lid on the simmering community resentment. The establishment mouthing platitudes and making token gestures about investment and regeneration.  And so it goes on and on and on. This is 21st century Britain, a place where institutional racism and poverty are still being swept under the carpet, where mass unemployment, and four million people needing housing, has become acceptable . Riot inquiry follows riot inquiry but the same old pattern is still repeated. Kack-handed responses by Home Secretaries like Theresa May, who today launched a tirade against the "criminals" who burned and looted. Yes, Theresa, it was wrong and should be condemned, but why did it happen on your watch? Why were so many people involved? Why did it spread so widely? Tell us the answers to that Theresa, instead of mouthing off the usual platitudes about criminality.

The people who really suffer in the end are the people of the afflicted communities themselves. They are the ones whose houses and businesses are destroyed. I wonder what would happen if people took their resentments, arson and riots to Kensington or Mayfair? What sort of police response would we see then? A very different one to one we saw in Tottenham on Saturday night I'm sure. The point is that nothing will ever change until we have an economic system that can provide decent housing and jobs for all, and a police force which is there to protect citizens, instead of helping to keep them under control. Clearly capitalism is not that economic system, and as long as it exists, so will these problems.