Tuesday, 25 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake – Reflections of a Former Jobcentre Adviser

I watched Ken Loach’s latest film, I, Daniel Blake, over the weekend. I have seen many if not all of Loach’s films, and very good they are too. I, Daniel Blake is no exception to this, and is like many of Loach’s films, Kes and Cathy Come Home spring to mind, a social commentary.

The plot is about a man in his fifties (Daniel Blake) living in the north east of England, who has suffered a heart attack. In the opening scene he is passed fit for work, at a Work Capability Assessment by an American health care company, employed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and so is taken off Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and put onto Jobseekers Allowance (JA). ESA is for people who are too sick, or disabled to be expected to work. Blake’s own doctor has told him that he is too ill to go back to work and would risk another heart attack. Blake submits an appeal against the decision, but has to wait months for a tribunal hearing.

The amount of benefit money paid by both of these allowances is exactly the same, but anyone receiving JA only receives payments if they are ‘actively seeking work.’ Claimants have to prove this, by keeping a record of job applications and job searches, as well as attend any events that their Jobcentre Adviser directs them to do. Attending Jobcentre appointments, on time, is part of the job seeker’s ‘contract.’ Failure to comply, with proof of job seeking or a direction, or being late for an appointment, leads to a sanction, which means that benefit is withdrawn from the claimant, for as much three years in extremis.

Blake befriends single mother Katie and her two children, who have been forced to move from London, three hundred miles away, to find social housing, and who is sanctioned because she briefly got lost on the way to the Jobcentre, and was late for an appointment.

As is usual with Loach’s work, the film displays a positive, affectionate view of the working class. 

The rallying around to help each other in desperate times, a social solidarity and generosity to each other among people who are being ground down by the bureaucratic establishment, but still manage to share what little they have with each other.  

Visits to a local foodbank become a daily occurrence, with long queues of people in the same boat. Katie, after a failed attempt to shop lift a packet of tampons, turns to prostitution to get money to feed her children. Blake eventually refuses a Jobcentre direction and is sanctioned, and is then arrested for spraying graffiti on the outside walls of the Jobcentre.

I spent some time working as a Jobcentre adviser, a few years ago, and the scenes from the Jobcentre are very accurate, and all too familiar to me. The period that I worked as an adviser straddled the end of the Labour government and the beginning of the Coalition government. During Labour’s tenure, many people were forced off ESA and onto JA, but advisers were given discretion as to if they sanctioned claimants. Life is not straightforward, people are fallible, things go wrong, so it is sensible to let advisers, who know their clients, decide not to refer them for sanction. This freedom was progressively removed from advisers under the Coalition government.

I didn’t see my job as making people even poorer, I was trying to help them get back on their feet, and I had a fair bit success of getting people into work. This became increasingly unimportant to the management though, once the Coalition government was elected. Sanctions were the only game in town.

I was as fair as I could be with people, and only sanctioned one person in my time as an adviser, I didn’t like doing it, but it was unavoidable, some other advisers were much more hawkish. This point is made in the film, one hard-line advisor, and one sympathetic (who gets in trouble for this with her manager). The actual decision on sanctions is taken by some remote official, and communicated by post. This diffuses the situation a little at the Jobcentre, but advisors know what the result will be, usually a sanction.

There is pressure on the lower level managers from more senior management, and this can lead to bullying of the staff, but senior managers quickly wash their hands of it. In the same way, the politicians lean on the top civil servants, and the message then goes all the way down the line. That is why the Tory government can claim that it does not set targets for sanctioning claimants. Strictly speaking they don’t set targets.

How it works is that Ministers will make it clear to senior officials that ‘they want the sanctions rules enforced’ or such like. The sanction rules haven’t changed from the Labour government days, although the sanctions themselves have increased. This is then fed down the management chain and ‘local’ targets for sanctions are set. It happened when I was there, doubled overnight. I hear it is much worse now.

Blake eventually gets his appeal date, but whilst waiting for the case to be heard, he has another, fatal heart attack. The statement he was to give at the tribunal, is read out by Katie at his funeral. It is very moving.

At the film’s ending, a burst of spontaneous applause broke out in the cinema, and when the lights went up, I could see people with tears in their eyes. How can all of this be going on in Britain in the twenty first century?

See the film, it has strong acting performances and it is an excellent counter-point to the Benefits Street image that is often conjured in the media.  

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Capitalism Is Doomed — Without Alternatives, So Are We

Written by Jake Johnson and first published at Common Dreams

In 1946, George Orwell pondered the fragility of the capitalist order.

Reviewing the work of the influential theorist James Burnham, Orwell presaged several concepts that would later form the groundwork for his best-known novel, 1984.

In his book The Managerial Revolution, Burnham envisioned, as Orwell put it, "a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production."

"The real question," Orwell adds, "is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy."

While Orwell was wary of Burnham's worldview and of his more specific predictions, he agreed that the relationship between capitalism and democracy has always been, and always will be, a precarious one.

"For quite fifty years past," Orwell noted, "the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy."

Pointing to the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the few and acknowledging "the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state," Orwell was far from optimistic about the future — but he was quite certain that the economic status quo would eventually give way.

Recent events, and the material circumstances of much of the world's population, have prompted serious examinations of the same questions Orwell was considering seven decades ago. And though it appears as if rumors of capitalism's imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated, there is good reason to believe that its remarkable ability to adapt and evolve in the face of frequent (self-induced) shocks has reached a breaking point.

Widespread discontent over stagnant incomes and the uneven prosperity brought about by neoliberal globalization has, in 2016, come to a head in striking fashion; Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of far-right parties in Europe have many questioning previously sacred assumptions.

"Is the marriage between liberal democracy and global capitalism an enduring one?" asked Martin Wolf, a formidable commentator in one of the world's leading business papers, the Financial Times.

This was no rhetorical softball; Wolf is genuinely concerned that the winners of globalization have grown complacent, that they have "taken for granted" a couple that was only tenuously compatible to begin with. He also worries, rightly, that they have downplayed the concerns of the "losers."

Wolf concludes that "if the legitimacy of our democratic political systems is to be maintained, economic policy must be orientated towards promoting the interests of the many not the few; in the first place would be the citizenry, to whom the politicians are accountable."

Not all members of the commentariat share Wolf's willingness to engage with these cherished assumptions, however. Indeed, many analysts have reserved their ire not for failing institutions or policies but for the public, reviving Walter Lippmann's characterization of the masses as a "bewildered herd" that, if left to its own devices, is sure to usher in a regime of chaos.

"It's time," declared Foreign Policy's James Traub, channeling the sentiments of Josh Barro, "for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses."

Apologists like Traub and Barro — just two among many — speak and write as if the leash previously restraining the "herd" has been loosened, and that the resulting freedom has laid bare what elitists have long believed to be the case: To use Barro's infamous words, "Elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person." They point to the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of an intolerable democratic surplus — evidence, in short, of what the masses will do if granted a loud enough voice.

Aside from being conveniently self-serving, this narrative is also false.
Far from loosening the leash, elites have consolidated power to an unprecedented extent, and they have used their influence to undercut democratic movements and hijack public institutions. The resulting concentration of wealth and political power is jarring, and it puts the lie to the farcical notion that elites are a persecuted minority.

But, in the midst of these anti-democratic diatribes, fascinating and important critiques of a rather different nature have emerged.

Instead of urging us to align Against Democracy, to use the name of a recent book by the libertarian political philosopher Jason Brennan, many are arguing that it is capitalism, and not the excesses of the democratic process, that has provided figures like Trump a launching pad.

In his book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason argues that the rapid emergence of information technology has corroded the boundaries of the market; "capitalism," he insists, "has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt." And its attempts to reach beyond these limits have fostered an economic environment defined by instability, crippling austerity for the many, and rapid accumulation of wealth for the few.

According to Oxfam, the global 1 percent now owns as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. CEO pay has continued to soar. And though post-crisis reforms have carried soaring promises of stability, the financial sector is still far too large, and many of the banks harmed by the crash they created are back and nearly as powerful as ever.

Mason summarizes: "According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be 'weak' for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40 per cent. Even in the developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060."

"The OECD's economists were too polite to say it," he adds, "so let's spell it out: for the developed world the best of capitalism is behind us, and for the rest it will be over in our lifetime."

Sociologist Peter Frase, in his new book Four Futures, implicitly agrees with many of Mason's key points, but he then takes up the task of looking further ahead, of contemplating possible futures that hinge largely upon how we respond to the crises we are likely to face in the coming years.

For Frase, not only is the best of capitalism behind us, but the worst of it may lie just ahead.

Central to Four Futures are what Frase calls the "[t]wo specters...haunting Earth in the twenty-first century" — "the specters of environmental catastrophe and automation."

Rather than attempting to predict the future, Frase — guided by Rosa Luxemburg's famous words, "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism" — lays out potential, contingent scenarios. And while Mason's book exudes optimism about the advancement of information technology and automation, Frase is more cautious.

"To the extent that the rich are able to maintain their power," Frase writes, "we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction—if we can survive at all." And, "To the extent that we can move toward a world of greater equality, then the future will be characterized by some combination of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity, depending on where we are on the other, ecological dimension."

It comes down, in short, to who wins the class struggle. "I am a very old-fashioned Marxist in that way," Frase remarked in a recent interview.

None of the futures Frase maps out are inevitable, the result of historical forces that are beyond our control. He is contemptuous of those who cling to "secular eschatology"; capitalism's collapse, he notes, will not likely be the result of a single, revolutionary moment.

In expressing this view he aligns with Wolfgang Streeck, who has argued that capitalism is "a social system in chronic disrepair," and that while "we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it," we can know that a system that depends on endless growth and the elimination of all restraints will eventually self-destruct.

The disappearance of capitalism, though, as Orwell understood, does not necessarily imply the emergence of an egalitarian society, one in which resources are shared for the benefit of the many. But while few agree on precisely how to establish the framework for such a society, there are, Mason and Frase argue, policies that can move us in the right direction.

Both, for instance, support the idea of a universal basic income, which, in Frase's words, would "create a situation in which it possible to survive without depending on selling your labor to anyone who will pay for it," making automation a path to liberation, not destitution. And Mason rightly argues that, in order to avert catastrophic warming, we must radically reduce carbon emissions.

But the usual political obstacles remain, as does the fact that the "winners" are not likely to hand over their gains, or their positions of power and influence, without a fight. We cannot, then, passively rely on amoral forces like technology to bring about the necessary change.

"Technological developments give a context for social transformations," Frase writes, "but they never determine them directly; change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people."

The future is necessarily disobedient; it rarely conforms to even the most meticulous theoretical anticipations, to say nothing of our deepest desires or fears.

But one thing is clear: The future of capitalism and the future of the planet are intertwined. The health of the latter depends on our ability to dismantle the former, and on our ability to construct an alternative that radically alters our course, which is at present leading us toward catastrophe.

Whether the path to which we are ultimately confined is one that leads to a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare is contingent upon our ability to connect the struggles that currently occupy the left — those fighting for the right to organize are confronting, at bottom, the same forces as those working to prevent the plunder of sacred land.

There are reasons to be both hopeful and pessimistic about the prospects of these struggles.

The campaign of Bernie Sanders, and the movements that emerged before it and alongside it, revealed that there is a large base of support for social democratic changes that, if enacted, would move us in the right direction.

The obstacles, however, are immense, as is the arithmetic: As Bill McKibben has noted, "The future of humanity depends on math," and the climate math we face is "ominous."

But, as Noam Chomsky has argued, the debate over the choice between pessimism and optimism is really no debate at all.

"We have two choices," he concludes. "We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice."

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

Friday, 21 October 2016

UKIP – Goodbye and Good Riddance

In March this year, I wrote on this blog a post entitled Will UKIP Cease to Exist after the EU Referendum?’ I speculated that after the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) referendum, whichever way the result went, UKIP would probably fade away from politics in this country. Getting a referendum on our membership and then campaigning to leave the organisation was the party’s raison d’etre and if we voted to stay, the issue would be dead for years to come. If we voted to leave, then they would have achieved their objective and their members could safely (re)-join the Tories.

It should be said, they were successful in forcing the referendum by worrying the Tory government (and MPs) about taking votes from them in the 2015 general election. This made the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promise the referendum within two years of the election. Which, as we now know, was a fatal error from Cameron, who has now left politics altogether.

In the general election of 2015, as it turned out, UKIP took just as many, if not more votes from Labour than the Tories, particularly in Labour's northern heartlands, and the party thought that this trend would continue, with even their leader, Nigel Farage, talking about standing in a Labour held seat at the next general election. UKIP’s stated aim was to replace Labour as the opposition to the Tories, after the 2015 election.

Since the referendum, things have not gone so well for UKIP. Members have started to drift away and join the Tories, you can read about three UKIP activists who have made this journey on the Conservative Home website. The rumours are that thousands of UKIP members have now joined (or re-joined) the Tory Party. The Tories have stolen UKIP’s grammar school policy and appear to be heading for an uncompromisingly ‘hard’ Brexit from the EU, so UKIP seem to be redundant as a political force.

At the beginning of October, UKIP’s newly elected leader, Diane James, resigned after only 18 days in the job, saying publicly that it was for personal reasons (politicians always say that), amid talk of clashes with senior members of the party’s hierarchy. 

Last week, two of their MEPs were involved in what was described as an ‘altercation’, with one, Steven Woolfe, ending up in hospital. Woolfe has since left UKIP, and will probably join the Tory Party now, which is reportedly what the altercation was about. Of course, when we leave the EU, all of UKIP’s MEPs will also be redundant, and the party will be deprived of substantial funding from the EU. Wealthy donors also appear to backing away from the party too.

But UKIP have, by and large, kept their opinion poll ratings in double figures since the EU referendum, until now. A poll by Ipsos MORI published on Wednesday, only gives UKIP a 6% share of the vote, so it looks as though the voters are drifting away as well, and probably to the Tories (who are on 47% in the same poll). It is true though that this polling company has had UKIP lower than the other pollsters for a while now, but never this low, for the last couple of years.

Then we had yesterday’s by-election in Witney, the former constituency of the  resigned Prime Minister, David Cameron, where the UKIP candidate finished behind the Green Party candidate, polling just 3.5% of the vote, down from 9.1% at last year’s general election.

It looks as though my predictions from March about the demise of UKIP are turning out to be pretty accurate. They may not be completely finished yet, but it is just a matter of time, and they will probably have largely disappeared by the time we do leave the EU.

As we know, there is a small constituency vote for the far right in this country, which the BNP have exploited in the past, to some extent, and UKIP could carry on courting these voters, but the high water mark for UKIP has passed. The future looks to be of a terminal decline.

Their brand of xenophobia come racism will not be missed.     

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

WWF - Stop Greenwashing Capitalism, Start Holding Corporations to Account


In the 1970s, the agrochemicals industry was able to evade effective regulation in the UK. Robert van den Bosch, wrote in 1978 in The Pesticide Conspiracy:
“If one considers how dangerous these chemicals are, one would suppose that it would be government policy to minimize their use by every possible means. However, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution notes, ‘there is… no such policy in the UK, nor does the possible need for it appear to have been considered, notwithstanding the great increases in the use of these chemicals.’”
He went on to condemn the UK for aerial spraying:
“What is particularly shameful in this country is the prevalence of aerial spraying. One million acres of agricultural land are sprayed each year, which involves 34,000 flights. Controls on this practice are practically non-existent.”
Four decades on and we are now able to see the consequences in terms of the rising prevalence of various diseases and illnesses linked to the use of these chemicals as well as a continuing loss of biodiversity, so vital for ensuring sustainable agriculture. The State of Nature Report 2016 includes a Biodiversity Intactness Index, which analyses the loss of species over time. One of the report’s authors, Mark Eaton of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says that the UK has lost significantly more biodiversity over the long term than the global average, with the UK ranking the 29th lowest out of 218 countries.
Eaton says:
“It is quite shocking where we stand compared to the rest of the world, even compared to other western European countries.”
Rosemary Mason writes to WWF-UK

In a recent open letter (containing all references to the following reports/sources) to Acting Chief Executive of the World Wild Fund for Nature-UK (WWF-UK) Glyn Davies, campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason states that instead of curbing the use of such chemicals, the agrochemicals industry seems to be under the impression it is the government’s role to maximise their use. She adds that the UK still uses aerial spraying as an exemption from EU recommendations.

Mason argues that around 75% of the UK is managed for food production, and how that land is managed is key to the state of nature. As it stands, however, 165 species in the UK are considered critically endangered and likely to go extinct.

Despite this, most UK farmers are drowning their crops in pesticides and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the Crop Protection Association and the Agricultural Industries Confederation combine to lobby the EU not to restrict the 320-plus pesticides available to them.

Mason is astounded by the complete denial of the NFU and the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of the impact of agrochemical use.

The EU directive on the ‘Sustainable Use of Pesticides 21 October 2009 (Directive 2009/128/EC of the European Parliament) notes that aerial spraying of pesticides has the potential to cause significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment. Therefore, aerial spraying should generally be prohibited with derogations possible where it represents clear advantages in terms of reduced impacts on human health and the environment in comparison with other spraying methods, or where there are no viable alternatives, provided that the best available technology to reduce drift is used.

Mason notes that, however, the UK government response argues that it does not consider that responsible application of pesticides by aerial spraying poses an unacceptable risk to human health and the environment.

Citing a range of sources to show the harmful impact of pesticides, including the fact that the amount and range of pesticide residues on British food are increasing annually, Mason notes that a massive increase in glyphosate between 2012 and 2014 alone.

Although WWF-UK did at one stage appear to be committed to addressing the impact of agrochemicals on health and the environment, Mason asserts that such a commitment has gone by the wayside.

Whatever happened to WWF-UK’s stance on synthetic chemicals?

Mason commends WWF-UK for its previous forthright condemnation of what is essentially an uncontrolled global experiment where humans and wildlife are being exposed to man-made synthetic chemicals. Based on its research, in 2003 WWF-UK concluded that every person it tested across the nation was contaminated by a cocktail of known highly toxic chemicals, which were banned from use in the UK during the 1970s.

But since around 2004, Mason notes a change in attitude within WWF-UK occurred. In 2016, according to Mason, the European Commission no longer cares where chemicals end up, and the EC, EFSA and the UK government are colluding with the pesticides industry. She implies WWF-UK is complicit in this and asks Davies when did WWF-UK finally bow to the pressure of the industry.

She regards the appointment of Robert Napier who took over the running the UK arm of WWF as being pivotal. Since then, the WWF has gradually changed its approach towards big business, having established links with private corporations. WWF says it works directly with companies, especially via industry-specific roundtables and platforms, to reduce the ecological footprint of doing business and to help the private sector be better stewards of shared natural assets.

Despite fine-sounding rhetoric that includes talk about sustainability, biodiversity, protecting the planet and working in partnership with business, Mason argues that the WWF cannot refute the facts gathered by the esteemed journalist and filmmaker Wilfried Huismann, which unearthed the grim secrets behind the fa├žade of WWF.

Huismann argues that WWF greenwashes the ecological crimes of corporations currently destroying the last remaining rain forests and natural habitats on Earth and it accepts their money. Huismann also found several skeletons in the WWF closet, not least it associations with a military unit deployed in Africa against big game poachers – and against black African liberation movements. In the name of environmental protection. Huismann states the WWF has participated in the displacement and cultural extinction of indigenous peoples the world over.

Lurking beneath the talk of corporate social responsibility, roundtable partnerships and positive engagement with big business, Mason cites sources that indicate WWF does deals with the rich and powerful, oil companies and the GMO cartel and has lost its core identity in the process.

Mason also highlights complaints by Survival International which accuses WWF of facilitating human rights abuse in Cameroon. It is the first time a conservation organisation has been the subject of a complaint to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), using a procedure more normally invoked against multinational corporations.

WWF: a willing servant of a corporate agenda?

In her ongoing series of ‘open letter’ to various institutions and officials, Rosemary Mason contends that the financial and political clout of a group of powerful agrochemical corporations ensure that its interests are privileged ahead of public health and the environment to the detriment of both. There appears to be a deeply embedded collusion between powerful corporations and public institutions that civil society should be challenging.

The implication of Mason’s letter to Glyn Davies is that the WWF now displays a mindset that is steeped in corporate culture. There seems to be an acceptance that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be responsible and dedicated custodians of natural assets. And there seems to be an acceptance that they are genuinely committed to reducing their ‘ecological footprint’. WWF appears to have acquiesced to a corporate agenda, which dictates the terms of engagement with civil society and sets out an ‘acceptable’ framework of discourse.

A radical approach to reining in the power of the agrochemicals industry and calling it to account is required. Natural ‘assets’ or biodiversity, whether habitat, living creatures, seeds or soil, belong to everyone. And any stewardship should be carried out in the public interest by local people assisted by public institutions and governments acting on their behalf – and not by private transnational interests that are committed to one thing: the maximization of profit.

In capitalism, a private corporation is compelled to secure control of assets (natural or other) and exploit them for a cash profit, while removing obstacles that might hinder this goal. Concerns about what is in the public interest or what is best for the environment lies beyond the scope of hard-headed business interests and is the remit of governments and civil organisations. However, the best case scenario for private corporations is to have toothless, supine agencies or governments. In other words, managed ‘opposition’ to their policies and practices is exactly what these corporations require.

Behind the public relations spin is the roll-out of an unsustainable model of agriculture based on highly profitable (GM) corporate seeds and health- and environment-damaging proprietary chemical inputs. Transnational agrichemicals/agribusiness companies have sought to displace genuine ecologically sustainable models of agriculture that have seen farmers acting as responsible custodians of seeds and natural resources for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Traditional methods of food production have given way to policies and actions which have resulted in the destruction of habitat and livelihoods and the imposition of corporate-controlled, chemical-intensive (monocrop) agriculture that weds farmers and regions to a wholly exploitative system of neoliberal globalization. Whether it involves the undermining or destruction of what were once largely self-sufficient agrarian economies in Africa or the devastating impacts of soy cultivation in Argentina or palm oil production in Indonesia, capitalism cannot be greenwashed.

It is one thing to challenge such policies and it is another thing to gain acceptance from corporations. 
Colin Todhunter is an extensively published independent writer and former social policy researcher based in the UK and India.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Ecosocialist Imperative

First published at Left Voice

Hannah Holleman is an activist and professor of sociology at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Her work has appeared in numerous publications on subjects including imperialism and colonialism, political economy ecology, ecological justice, feminism, advertising and propaganda, financialization, mass incarceration, and social theory.

She is a featured speaker at a regional socialist educational conference, The Solution is Socialism, to be held at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut on October 22.

David Kiely, a socialist youth organizer in Connecticut, interviews Hannah Holleman on the ecosocialist imperative.

1. You argue in a recent article,“De-naturalizing Ecological Disaster: Colonialism, Racism, and the Global Dust Bowl of the 1930s”, that predominant conceptions of environmental justice are too shallow and that the environmental movement needs at its center a deeper understanding of, and commitment to, real ecological justice. Can you explain what you mean and why this is so important?

Many focus on environmental injustice as the unequal distribution of outcomes of environmental harm. Colonized or formerly colonized peoples are homogenized and described as “stakeholders” in environmental conflicts. Mainstream environmental organizations, those on the privileged side of the segregated environmental movement globally, and more linked to power, are encouraged to diversify their staff and memberships and pay attention to issues of “justice.” However, the deeper aspects of social domination required to maintain the economic, social, and environmental status quo often are denied, minimized, or simply ignored.

Ignoring the systemic and historical injustice that makes current inequalities possible allows environmentalists and other activists, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “to safely put aside present responsibility for continued harm done by that past and questions of reparations, restitution, and reordering society,” when discussing current, interrelated environmental and social problems.[i] Superficial approaches to addressing racism, indigenous oppression, and other forms of social domination preclude the possibility of a deeper solidarity across historical social divisions. However, this kind of solidarity is exactly what we need to build a movement capable of challenging the status quo and making systemic, lasting change that is socially and ecologically restorative and just.

2. In a 2014 article coauthored with John Bellamy Foster, you put forward some of the elements necessary for a theory of ecological imperialism that can guide our work. Why do we need such a theory?

The pace and scale of ecological degradation we confront today is unfathomable without understanding the legacy and persistent realities of ecological imperialism. The rest of the world has not willingly volunteered its resources to the richest countries so that, as one study showed, 16% of the world’s population might consume more than 80% of the world’s resources (the numbers might be different today, but you get the point).[ii] Nor has the rest of the world agreed to host the rich world’s garbage or act as carbon sequestration sites for the effluence of the affluent.

Rather, this asymmetry is the result of the deeply anti-democratic, imperialistic nature of global capitalism from the earliest colonial period to the present. Political and economic elites of the most wealthy and powerful capitalist countries, in tandem with local and national elites around the globe, have imposed a model of economic development worldwide that thrives on the extraction of ecological wealth and the exploitation, as well as the violent dislocation and subjugation, of peoples.

In this system, the investors who own the world’s largest firms profit by extracting resources as cheaply as possible and by externalizing the environmental costs of extraction, of the transportation of goods, of production, and of waste disposal onto the rest of the population. They hire CEOs to increase their profits by minimizing labor costs—paying workers as little as possible, cutting benefits or not offering any, forcing them to work more for less money, and replacing them with machines or even cheaper labor when possible. Companies and their shareholders systematically avoid taxes, thus gutting the primary means through which societies can attempt to address the social and ecological consequences of such an economy. Finally, corporations and the capitalist states supporting them undemocratically intervene in global politics, including militarily, so that business can continue uninterrupted.

These routine practices are at the core of our contemporary social and ecological crises. A theory of ecological imperialism helps you understand the drivers and mechanisms that lead to the intertwined problems of inequality, injustice, and ecological degradation we see today. It also allows us to understand why communities around the world, from the early colonial period to the present, have engaged in active struggle to protect land, livelihoods, and indeed lives in the face of the encroachment capital.

3. What does an analysis of ecological imperialism mean for activism?

Understanding that imperialism is at the heart of our contemporary ecological and social crises points to the necessity of tackling head on the imperial system of capital. The mainstream environmental movement has been hamstrung by disorienting claims that capitalism can solve the ecological crisis, and by misplaced faith in the “good capitalists” that will transform the world with technology and green or fairly traded products, or international climate agreements such as the one presented in Paris in 2015.

Looking toward political and economic elites for salvation, and often relying on them for funding, significant segments of the movement are cut off from those with the greatest interest in transforming the system, the global working and dispossessed class. This means they are not engaged in the arduous task of overcoming the historical divisions imposed by the racialized division of nature and humanity at the heart of the ecological rift of capitalism.

4. Some of your written work focuses on the issue of “unequal ecological exchange.” Can you briefly describe this concept?

Unequal ecological exchange, sometimes written as ecologically unequal exchange, is a concept referring to the ecological inequalities embedded in global trade. Unequal ecological exchange is one form or mechanism of ecological imperialism. It is an important concept for understanding the ecological content and consequences of global economic exchange. Scholars working on these issues have shown that the rules of global trade, which benefit the wealthy countries most, and wealthy areas within countries, facilitate the siphoning of ecological wealth from poor countries and poor communities within wealthy countries.

Because these extractive regions are less powerful economically and politically, they cannot demand compensation for this ecological exchange adequate to fund environmental restoration. And, they do not have the economic might to siphon resources from the wealthy countries in return.

The undercompensated transfer of ecological wealth has many consequences, including trapping extractive regions in a cycle of poverty, debt, and ecological destruction from which it is difficult to emerge. Scholars and activists refer to the sum of this ecological transfer, from the colonial era to the present, as the ecological debt owed the Global South by the Global North.

5. You are working on a new book, Dust Bowls of Empire, and recently published a major reinterpretation of the Dust Bowl as an article titled “De-Naturalizing Ecological Disaster: Colonialism, Racism, and the Global Dust Bowl of the 1930s.”[iii] In this work you show that the 1930s Dust Bowl was not a regional disaster, but the first global environmental problem, linked to colonialism, imperialism, and the expansion of the capitalist economy. What is the significance for activists of this reinterpretation of one of the most infamous social and ecological disasters in history?

The importance of learning from this history cannot be overstated. Today, debates over solutions to global ecological crises like climate change proceed too often as if we have no historical evidence to help us understand what works and what doesn’t work. The case of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which I show was one dramatic regional manifestation of a global social and ecological crisis generated by the realities of settler colonialism and imperialism, illustrates the enormous consequences of relying on imperial “politics as usual” to attempt a change in “business as usual.”

Similar to the ineffective (from a social and ecological standpoint) climate conferences held for decades by the UN, world leaders could not ultimately prevent or resolve the crisis of soil erosion in the 1930s because of their commitment to maintaining the global social and economic status quo—the racialized class system in which we still live today.

The Dust Bowl did not arise because there was a lack of awareness of the issue or the technical means to address it. Like climate change today, the ultimate source of the crisis was social, not technological, thus requiring massive social change to address.

There is a lot more in the book, which brings the story of the Dust Bowl and its impact on the environment, communities, and politics all the way to the present. Research for the book took a lot of work and I think it will interest everyone struggling within movements to transcend what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw as Western society’s “proneness to adjust to injustice” and break free from what Marx called “the tradition of all the dead generations” that in times of change “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”[iv]

[i] Dunbar-Ortiz, R. 2014. An Indigenous people’s history of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
[ii] http://www.cnn.com/US/9910/12/population.cosumption/; https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/american-consumption-habits/
[iii] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150.2016.1195375
[iv] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A Time to Break the Silence. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_beyond_vietnam/; Marx, Karl. (1852) 1987. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, page 15.

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Fight-Back against Brexit began this Week

Since the vote to leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June this year, there has been a slightly unreal atmosphere in the UK, a strange kind of limbo. The feeling of shock has largely passed, but with the government seemingly not having much of a vision of what Brexit will look like, let alone a plan, and Labour and Tory politicians more interested in internal party in-fighting, the public has been left to wonder what the hell is going to happen.

This period was brought to an abrupt end at the Tory Party conference last week, in particular, the Prime Minister, Theresa May’s speech in which she shed a little light on what the government wants. All the indications from the conference were that membership of the European Single Market is expendable, and in the end will be subordinate to limiting immigration from the EU. This lit the fuse wire and this week we saw an explosion of opposition to the government’s approach to this matter.

The announcement by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, that businesses would be required to publicly display the numbers of foreign workers that they employ, likened by some to making these workers wear yellow stars, was heavily criticised by business leaders. The proposal was hastily dropped.

The Labour Party appears to have pulled itself together somewhat, and is acting like a proper opposition, after a summer of attempted coups and general tantrums thrown by Labour MPs, ending with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as party leader, with an increased majority. Most Labour MPs appear to have reluctantly accepted Corbyn is to remain as leader, at least for another year or two, and are getting on with their jobs.

Ed Miliband, ex Labour leader, deserves some credit for holding talks with Tory MPs who are alarmed by what they heard at their conference, and a significant number of them want Parliament to have a part in deciding, when and on what terms Article 50 will be triggered. Even some MPs who voted to leave the EU, are siding with the opposition on the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.

I thought something serious was developing in the week when I read on the BBC website this quote from Tory MP Dominic Grieve, a former attorney general:

Dominic Grieve said the Commons had to be allowed to give its opinion, as this was a "very well-established constitutional convention" involving important treaties.

He added: "If a situation arises that the government at the end of the day is about to conclude a deal for the future of the United Kingdom which can't command parliamentary approval - or at least acquiescence - then it's perfectly obvious in those circumstances such a government wouldn't survive. I would have thought there would have to be an election."  

Pretty strong words, and an indication of the seriousness of Tory MPs unease with the Prime Minister trying to rail-road through decision making on Brexit terms, under the ancient pretence of the Royal Prerogative. Grieve gives the impression of being prepared to bring the government down unless they change course. With only a small majority in Parliament, the government is vulnerable to a rebellion by just a handful of Tory MPs.

Then, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was dragged to the House of Commons to explain this decision, and inform MPs of the government’s broader strategy. All that he managed to achieve, was to push the pound into free-fall, which at one point reached an all time low against a major currencies.

Yesterday, a court case began, brought by UK citizens, to force the government to allow MPs to decide on when Article 50 is triggered. We should get a ruling on Monday, but it is likely this will be appealed, whichever way the High Court decides.

Also yesterday, we had the announcement by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, of her intention to try and hold an independence referendum in Scotland, should she deem the deal served up by the UK government, to be against Scotland’s national interest. Which, it almost certainly will be.

All of this is building into a perfect storm, which has put the government on the back foot, and has the potential to compel a change of track from ministers, and even lead to a general election next spring.

The Prime Minister’s honeymoon is over, and she swimming in deeper and deeper water on Brexit now. May really needs to get a grip of the situation and she should start by sacking those clowns, the three Brexiteer ministers, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, and putting some sensible MPs in charge of the Brexit process and negotiations. The idea that Theresa May was a safe pair of hands with which to handle Brexit, is looking well wide of the mark now, in fact, she is looking more and more incompetent at the job as time passes by. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Scotland be Brave – Demand Indyref2 and Quit the UK

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) conference begins on Thursday this week, and there is one huge issue hanging over the gathering of the party’s activists, Brexit. The SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has set up a commission to look at Brexit’s effect on Scotland, which may well determine the party’s approach when it reports, but it also serves to delay a decision on whether a second independence referendum will be sought. This is handy given the lack of clarity around the intentions of the UK government.

From the noises coming out of the Tory leadership, the UK government appears to be intent on a strategy of ‘hard Brexit’, which ditches the European Court’s primacy over ‘British’ law, if we have such a thing, and withdrawal from the European Single Market. It looks to be clear that no exceptions will be granted to Scotland, whose people voted 62%-38% in favour of remaining in the EU.

Nicola Sturgeon’s caution is understandable, since it is only two years ago the Scots voted to stay in the UK, but of course, the situation has changed considerably now with the Brexit vote. It can be argued, quite convincingly, that the union the Scots decided to stay in 2014 has fundamentally changed, and so a new referendum should be held. But can it be won for independence? If it is not won, it really will kick the issue aside for a generation. High stakes indeed.

Ex SNP leader Alex Salmon, has called for a second independence referendum by 2018-19, and this appears to have some support in the SNP, but there are other voices within the party who are urging caution, worrying about a second loss, with opinion polls indicating the result would be similar to 2014.

Tommy Sheppard, one of four deputy leader candidates, told The Scotsman, “I think it is because everyone is so aware that if we get another chance for this it will be our last and we have to get it right. There is no room for vanity projects. No room for mistakes. Everything has to be thought through and tested to destruction and put back together. Not until all of that has been done do we go forward on this.”

SNP MEP Alyn Smith, another deputy leader candidate told the same newspaper, “There is a ruthless pragmatism among the membership, where everybody is united that we want to see an independent Scotland, but everyone is equally united that we don’t want to lose another independence referendum.”

Angus Robertson, the front runner to become deputy leader said, “I’m going to stick with the timetable the First Minister has set, which is we go through the options, we do that methodically, and we do it on the basis of the best advice that is there. But the Article 50 process has a timetable that is limited and I certainly don’t want to see Scotland outside the EU.”

The SNP’s Westminster MPs are fighting to get Parliament to have a say in the formal decision to trigger Article 50, at the moment, not reasonably, but the Prime Minister, Theresa May appears set on excluding Parliament from the decision, on dubious constitutional grounds.

All of this demonstrates a nervousness on the part of the SNP’s leadership, which is understandable, as I say, but the risk of delaying too long, is that the moment passes, and Scotland will be dragged reluctantly out of the EU. Once Article 50 is triggered, probably early in the new year, the clock starts to tick on Brexit, and it would be easier for Scotland to remain in the EU, rather than try and get back into the organisation once the UK has left. European leaders may be more amenable to making this easier for Scotland, than they indicated in 2014, to stick it to the English, after their rejection of the EU.

The fall in the price of oil recently, makes it more difficult to make the independence case, although Scotland is blessed with potentially vast renewable energy resources. Questions over the currency of the independent nation have not been adequately resolved either. 

I should declare an interest here, not that I am Scottish or even very likely to move to Scotland, beautiful country that it is, but it’s probably too cold and wet for me. I do though want London to leave the UK and become independent, and for this to happen, Scotland needs to lead the way. In 2014, in the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum, the London Evening Standard commissioned an opinion poll on London independence and found 20% in favour. When Scottish independence gets into the news, people start to think, why can’t London do the same, given our much larger economy and population?

It would also force Labour to take a change to proportional voting more seriously in England than they appear to be doing now, whatever happens with London.

The situation is more fertile now after the Brexit vote, so the level of support could rise in London for independence, but Scotland needs to be the catalyst, I think. Far be it from me to tell the Scots what to do, but I hope they will consider whether they want to remain in country that is moving towards becoming an ugly, insular and intolerant one.