"The route for real change is not via those who are already totally vested in the growth economy. Rather look for power amongst those who are disenfranchised by the system. Give them voice. Look to organisations that care for them and if they do not exist, create them." - Economist Clive Spash
From neoliberalism to ecologism: what needs to happen next?
3rd October, 2016
The alternatives to neoliberalism - including a new community type of agriculture and community-owned green energy, local currencies, peer-to-peer networks and a sharing economy - are already here and unfolding right now. All we need is a revolution writes NICK MEYNEN
Degrowth is an anti-establishment word which is why it gets support from the radicals, so why would you expect the establishment to welcome it? The only way current pro-growth politicians will listen is when cities are under water and towns on fire
TTIP, bargain sales of crown jewels of states, Panama-Paper-scale tax evasions, fast-tracks for dirty mining companies in Greece, expulsions to make place for Special Economic Zones and new zones of extraction: these are the inevitable consequence of one ideology: neoliberalism. This macro-economic blueprint brewed up in the University of Chicago was implemented with violence when Pinochet came to power, reached home turf with Reagan, crossed the ocean thanks to Margaret Thatcher and finally reached the European continent with Boris Jeltsin, later on Barosso and now Jean Claude Juncker. Symptomatic: just this week it turned out that former EU chief Barosso not only works for Goldman Sachs but worked with them while being president of the European Commission.
But look a bit closer and you see that this world is already cracking, puffing and in some parts tumbling down, while alternative macro-economic models are now flourishing. Maybe that's why two articles where the authors radically drop the whole pursuit of GDP growth, the ultimate aim of neoliberals,( published on 1 and 2 September on the Ecologist), sparked a well-participated debate.
Most of us know that science tells us that there are plenty of unburnable fuels and that humanity lives far beyond the regenerating bio-capacity of planet earth. But how do we get to a mainstream economic system that respects planetary boundaries? Neoliberalism doesn't have any answer to that so we put the question to alternative macro-economic professors - a degrowth or décroissance pioneer and a civil society leader in Europe. We basically asked: what needs to happen next?
Clive Spash ranks amongst the top 5% of economists in the world, despite having a rather different macro-economic view than most of his colleagues. When asked for a pragmatic way to get his ideas mainstreamed he started off with some words of caution: "The pragmatic way forward has so far sold the environmental movement to the neoliberals and corporations with stupid ideas like pricing nature being put forward to solve the environmental crisis.
"Degrowth is an anti-establishment word which is why it gets support from the radicals, so why would you expect the establishment to welcome it? The only way current pro-growth politicians will listen is when cities are under water and towns on fire."
Even that is by far a guarantee for intellectual flexibility. Every crisis is an opportunity, but for who? Naomi Klein describes in The Shockdoctrine how "disaster capitalism" works. A hurricane like Katrina is not used to draw lessons about climate change but as an opportunity for the privatisation of housing and education. Milton Friedman, the semi-god of the neoliberals who pushed for this to happen, made one point I do agree with: when disaster strikes, you need to be ready with a coherent set of ideas and policies.
Spash stresses the need for a political revolution. "The route for real change is not via those who are already totally vested in the growth economy and have gained power through it. Rather look for power amongst those who are disenfranchised by the capital accumulating system. Give them voice. Look to organisations that care for them and if they do not exist, create them. Remember that the vast majority are disenfranchised by the current economic system."
For progress on making it happen, Spash also looks at alliances in civil society, new political parties, local democracy and the rule of law. "We need to seek legal redress for the many wrongs e.g. land grabbing, pollution, tax avoidance by corporations, oppression of Indigenous people for fracking, oil shale, tar sands, biofuels. We need to expose corruption, corporate power and the failures and undemocratic processes of the EC, World Bank and WTO."
Giorgos Kallis, professor of ecological economics and political ecology adds a few concrete and radical policy proposals: "First, reduce working hours without reducing wages - this means that instead of unemployment you have more people working less time each. Second, disinvest from dirty or socially useless sectors (e.g. advertising) and invest in clean sectors and the care economy.
"Of course it means you will reduce dramatically the profits. And to proceed with the necessary reduction of debts, it means that some debtors will not be paid back their money and their assets will lose value. But who said that this was supposed to be easy, or implementable with simple reforms and modifications here and there within the existing system?"
These and other ecological economics professors seem to say that slacktivism and the occasional Earth Day with some dimmed lights and woollen sweaters ain't gonna save us from mayhem. A large debt write-off seems politically impossible today but neither economics nor politics is like physics so the unimaginable today can quickly become the inevitable tomorrow.
Even the IMF, the world's credit supplier that doubles as the inquisition for the neoliberals, is openly calling for writing off debt. At this point they're only talking about Greece, but the only reason that this hasn't happened yet is that things could move quick from there. Spain, Italy, Belgium, ... once Greek debt is written off it's very likely that other countries in the EU will soon be in the same position. But according to ecological economists from Herman Daly to Joan-Martinez Alier, with whom I just discussed the issue, a large debt write-off across the board is inevitable and we better get on with it as soon as possible. A quick change is precisely what we need and a debt write-off wouldn't be a unique situation either. In 1953 Greece wrote off 50% of the money it owed from ... Germany. Yes, that was an after-war measure, but if you think today's Georgios's and Maria's are far better off than Hans und Emma Public in 1953, you probably haven't visited Greece for a few years.
To make it happen, the term "degrowth" seems to be more useful for internal use in academia or for preaching to the converted than for external use to the general public. Politicians who participated in the degrowth conference frequently stressed that outside the conference they would never use that word.
Kallis says: "This is fine, in so far as the vision is there, and there is agreement that growth is no longer necessary, possible, or desirable." According to a study done in Spain, 15% of the population is in favour of degrowth, and a further 20% supports the idea that we should ignore growth. Within civil society movements, these percentages are even higher. "So why not talk to a trade union about the folly of growth and the need for degrowth, and then explain what you mean by it and defend it, whilst providing alternatives? Why be afraid to use a term and a set of ideas that 15-35% of the people - and 70-80% of your own political base - are in support of?"
Kallis adds that those in politics who understand the problems with neoliberalism have a certain responsibility that too few have taken so far. "I think the role of politicians, especially those of small parties, is to push the lines of the debate and the contours of what can be said and what not. Note how successfully the far right is doing it. Those politicians enter parliaments and tsay things that are unthinkable. By repeating them they create a new norm, and then the usual right moves towards them.
"I think 'green 'left' politicians should do the same. That's why they have been elected. They should push the limits of the debate - they should criticize growth relentlessly and at every opportunity far right talks about immigration or blasts the EU. They should keep confronting politicians over their hypocrisy when they say that they can both have growth and meet the Paris agreement goals etc".
It's true there are plenty of opportunities to call these politicians out. Last time the G20 met, Chinese host Xi stressed two things in one speech: ratify the Paris Agreement and boost intercontinental trade. It's like saying that yes, the house is on fire and we're all going to work on that (on a voluntary basis) but hey, let's add some more oil to the fire first.
Host and co-organiser of the most recent degrowth conference held in Budpest last month, Vincent Liegey, is both an academic and a degrowth pioneer. His Cargonomia project in Budapest is a vivid example of a different type of economy. Asked him how such ‘nice' niches can become mainstream and he stresses the need to reconnect to rural and older people. "Brexit or elections in Austria show how our societies are divided: these people feel left behind by the cosmopolitic who dominate politics and the economy. At present they mostly seek justice at the right but things are moving at the left as well. The fact that we organise these ever bigger academic conferences on degrowth also attracts attention at policy levels: it gives people like us credibility when we go to Brussels and talk with policymakers."
Within civil society, as in academia and politics, there are those who prefer to look down on or simply ignore the rising degrowth debate and equally there are those who see it as very welcome and much needed. Leida Rijnhout is a civil society leader currently working for Friends of the Earth Europe who falls in the category of the latter, a supporter of degrowth from long before the term became popular in academia. She describes the choice that civil society organisations need to make: "They can chose to go for "green and fair neoliberalism", where social and environmental justice will only exist in their pragmatic minds. The other choice is that they try to achieve a systemic change by pushing innovative new policy changes and by supporting grassroots organisations and communities of people working and living on the frontlines.
"Groups that resist the way this extractive and expansive economic model destroys not just their livelihoods but the global ecosystem - these are the people who want to stop the madness and build new alternatives. This is exactly what the degrowth movement does: academics supporting activists in their groundbreaking work, whether it is a divest movement or a blockade to stop fracking or another tar sand oil pipeline.
"It is the task of civil society organisations to bring these voices, these battles to decision-makers and convince them that a fundamental change in economic thinking and acting is a condition to achieve justice and wellbeing for all."
Leida adds that in this ever more connected world, a strong cooperation between organisations in the Global North and Global South is invaluable. Environmental justice in the South goes hand in hand with degrowth in the Global North. That realisation is growing. Two years ago, at the degrowth conference in Leipzig, world class activists from the Global South such as Alberto Acosta (a former Minister of Ecuador) and Nnimmo Bassey (a Livelihood prize winner) explained the need for such alliances. This year, Ashish Kothari brought a convincing keynote on why ordinary Indians are great allies in a global struggle to bring the destructive economic forces to a halt.
So what needs to happen next? Well, in a way the paradigm shift is already happening. As the widely acclaimed documentary "Demain (Tomorrow)" showed: the alternatives are already here. A new community type of agriculture and community-owned green energy, local currencies, peer-to-peer networks, sharing economy: it's all unfolding and growing right here and right now. It may be that you haven't noticed because the mainstream corporate sponsored media hasn't really covered much of it. But it's here. Google it. Community supported agriculture, energy cooperative, Local Exchange and Trading System, peer-to-peer, ...
Of course it's also true that the destructive forces are also still here and still in full force. They won't last but the question is if they will break down by design or by disaster. Look at the now stalled talks on TTIP or the delay in getting CETA ratified. Look at the fast-shrinking credibility of the European Commission, which boasts of its "jobs and growth" agenda.
The question is not if the neoliberal agenda will fall but when. A more crucial question is: what ideology will replace it? The xenophobic and/or fascist ideology is on the rise but so is social ecologism: the ideology behind a much smaller economy in terms of material and energy extraction but with a much higher level of wellbeing for all. To make the latter happen it's not enough to delegate responsibility by voting right (or rather left and green). Participate.
Nick Meynen is one of the Ecologist New Voices.
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