Friday, 20 January 2017

May's Brexit Delusions of Grandeur Puts Labour in Turmoil

When Theresa May, the Prime Minister, made her much trailed speech on Tuesday, on her approach to the Brexit negotiations, I was surprised by the positive reaction of both Remain and Leave supporters. It was billed as a outline of the government's plan for getting a deal for Britain with the European Union, once we leave the EU. I suppose it did throw a little light on the British government's approach, but not much, as it continued the fanciful thinking that the EU will cave into British demands for 'access' to the single market, whilst we insist on restricting immigration from the EU.

The threat of Britain becoming a super sized tax haven for corporations and wealthy individuals, on the fringe of Europe has always been likely what we will end up with post Brexit, but at least this is now official. This would cause a problem for the EU, but there is nothing to stop them following suit, and matching Britain's actions.

Indeed Ireland already adopts this strategy in enticing businesses to locate in the country. It would lead to a race to bottom in terms of absolving companies from their social responsibilities, but I have no doubt that a market of 450 million consumers, will win out over one with 65 million.

Tory Remainers like Anna Soubry, welcomed May's speech as did Tory Leavers, like Iain Duncan Smith, both seeing something different in it. Keir Starmer, Labour's Brexit spokesman, also welcomed the speech, saying it was signal that May was aiming for 'Brexit Lite'. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, also appeared content, apart from the tax haven idea. I didn't read it in a positive way, and was surprised that, the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens apart, it was roundly applauded. For me it was a threat of the hardest possible Brexit.

By Wednesday though, the appearance of consensus in Labour was shattered, with first Sadiq Khan, Labour's London Mayor, writing in the Evening Standard, where he said: “A hard-line approach to Brexit may hold the Conservative Party together, but it could rip Britain apart." He went to insist on the importance of remaining in the single market, at least for London, anyway.

A report in yesterday's Guardian said that many Labour MPs, including some in the shadow cabinet, and not just the usual suspects, were planning to vote against the triggering of Article 50, to formally begin Brexit, if the government loses its appeal in the Supreme Court next week. Jeremy Corbyn said in an Sky TV interview later in the day, that Labour would not vote against, but appeared to change his mind later still.

My MP, Catherine West, in Hornsey and Wood Green in London, is said to be one of the Labour MPs who will vote against, not unsurprisingly in a constituency that voted 70% to 30% Remain, and where West gained the seat in 2015, from the Lib Dems.

Tristram Hunt, the departing Labour MP for Stoke on Trent, in a final speech in the House of Commons yesterday, put his finger on the dilemma for Labour MPs in overwhelmingly Remain constituencies when he said:

"The vote to leave the EU has deepened the divide between Labour voters in cities like Cambridge and industrial communities like Grimsby, Redcar and Stoke."

Peter Kolarz writing on the Compass blog, also addressed this issue on Thursday:

"The centre-left finds itself in a conundrum, caught between the old politics of left and right and the new politics of the global, digital age; between a supposed urban, liberal elite on one hand and dwindling support in its former working class heartlands on the other."

All of this writ large in the issue of Brexit for Labour. I suspect that most of the younger, newer Labour members and supporters are pro-EU membership, not just the old guard of the establishment, which is probably why the MPs coup against Corbyn was mounted, almost immediately after the referendum in the summer.

This issue is not going away either, we have two years of it at least, and it will surely shape the result of the next general election, probably in 2020. We know from experience that divided parties do not win general elections, and there was a time in the recent past when I thought the EU referendum held hope of destroying the Tory government. I didn't anticipate it would be Labour that was riven over the result, there again, I thought we'd vote to Remain.

The problem with the Labour leadership's approach here, is that it basically backs the government's, so if it all goes wrong, Labour can hardly claim any credit. In my opinion, the only way the Tories will lose the next general election is if they do muck up Brexit. On the one big elephant trap that the government faces, Labour is looking like following them into the pit below.

Clearly, Labour has given up on Scotland electorally, and risks losing urban areas in England to the Lib Dems and perhaps a Green or two. It is a very strange tactic to take, a kind of muddled form of triangulation where you try to out Tory the Tories, no doubt with a different set of policies, but the damage may be done by then. We need to brace ourselves for untrammelled Tory governments, for as far as the eye can see.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Benefit Cuts Lead to Homelessness Crisis

Analysis by the National Federation of ALMOs (NFA) and the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) finds that almost 90% of Universal Credit claimants are in arrears with their rent. Almost 60% are in arrears for more than one month's rent, and facing the possibility of eviction from their homes.

Universal Credit (UC) is the government's flag ship welfare policy, whereby six different benefit payments are rolled into a single UC benefit, which includes the former Housing Benefit. It was introduced two and half years ago in some areas, and has been bedevilled with IT problems, which were said to be 'teething problems,' but the report says that the situation is actually getting 'dramatically worse.'

John Bibby, chief executive of ARCH, said: "We are extremely concerned with the upward trajectory of rent arrears for Universal Credit households. Not only are the numbers of households increasing as UC is rolled out, but the percentage of households falling into rent arrears and experiencing financial difficulty is critically high."

A report last month by the New Policy Institute (NPI), commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warns reductions in Council Tax Support (previously Council Tax Benefit) in some areas of England, are leading to home evictions. In areas where a minimum payment from claimants is required, of more than 20% of the full amount in some areas, evictions are rising. Local authorities are free to choose how much of the total Council Tax bill, they require claimants to contribute towards.

The report quotes a report by the Child Poverty Action Group and Z2K that found that research they did in London in 2015-16 showed there was an increase of 51% of claimants being referred to bailiffs than in 2014-15. There was also an increase in the numbers of claimants charged court costs and the report says that claimants were cutting back on essentials like food, clothing and heating.

Yesterday, the Evening Standard reported that Shelter, the homelessness charity, predict that 1260 families will lose their homes in the capital in the next month and over 7,370 over the next six months. In July to September last year, official figures show 4,580 families in London being housed in temporary accommodation of whom 40% lost their home at the end of a private tenancy agreement.

This after more general cuts to benefits, the benefits cap, those benefits associated with disability and the 'bedroom tax,' with a sharp rise in jobseeker claimants having benefits sanctioned, for up as much as three years. Where people are in work, wages are low and stagnating with in work benefits reduced. Pay day lenders and other loan sharks prey on desperate people and the situation gets worse.

Lack of genuinely affordable housing, insecure short term private tenancies and benefit cuts, compounded by court costs, all whips up the perfect storm for a homelessness crisis, which is pretty much what we have at the moment. I see it myself around where I work in central London, there has been a marked increase in rough sleepers in the last couple of years.

Some more facts about homelessness:

  • Sleeping rough has serious consequences. On average, homeless people die at just 47 years of age, compared to 81 years for the average UK citizen. A homeless rough sleeper is 35 times more likely to commit suicide that the average person. 
  • Two thirds of rough sleepers surveyed said they had been insulted by a member of the public, and one in ten said they had been urinated on.
  • The streets are a dangerous place to be, homeless people are 13 times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the general public, and 47 times more likely to be a victim of theft.
The government responded today by announcing support for a Parliamentary Private Members Bill, the Homelessness Prevention Bill, which will oblige local authorities to provide accommodation for people without dependent children. The government pledged an extra £48 million to fund the new duty, which councils said was too little. The government needs to change its whole austerity policy if it wants to resolve this situation. It is highly unlikely they will.

The government's drive to cut benefits and the localising of much of the welfare benefit system onto the shoulders of already hard pressed local authorities with central government grants continuing to be reduced, has created this crisis.
It really is a scandal that one of the most basic of human needs, adequate shelter, is getting beyond an increasing number of our fellow citizens.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Survival Is the Question - Review of Ian Angus and Richard Smith's Ecosocialist Books

Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System By Ian Angus Monthly Review Press, 280 pages, $19 paper.

Green Capitalism: The god that failed By Richard Smith World Economics Association,, 115 pages, $21.50 paper.

Michael Lowy reviews two books on ecosocialism, first published at Solidarity US

CRITICAL ECOLOGY PUBLI­CA­TIONS are finding a growing audience in the United States, as is evident in the success of Naomi Klein’s  book This Changes Everything. Within this field there is also an increasing interest in ecosocialist thought, of Marxist inspiration, of which the two authors reviewed here are a part.

One of the active promoters of this trend is Monthly Review and its publishing house. It is this group that has published the compelling book, Facing the Anthropocene by Ian Angus, the Canadian ecosocialist and editor of the online review Climate and Capitalism.

His book has been lauded by the general public as well as by many within the scientific community, such as Jan Zalasiewicz and Will Steffen. Among the principal proponents of this outstanding work on the Anthropocene are Marxist researchers like Mike Davis and John Bellamy Foster, and ecologists on the left like Derek Wall of the Green Party of England.

From the work of such thinkers as chemist Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on the destruction of the ozone layer, geophysicist Will Steffen and many others, the conclusion that we have entered into a new geological era that is distinct from the Holocene (the era of the past 12,000 years) is beginning to be accepted.

The term “Anthropocene” is most often used to identify this new epoch, which is characterized by the profound impact of human activity on the earth-system. Most experts agree that the Anthropocene began in the mid-20th century, when a “Great Acceleration” of destructive changes were triggered. In fact, three-quarters of all CO2 emissions have been produced since the 1950s.

The term “Anthropos” does not mean that all humans are equally responsible for these drastic and disturbing changes — researchers have clearly shown the overwhelming responsibility of the world’s richest countries, the OECD countries, in shaping these events.

We also know the consequences of these transformations, notably climate change: most temperature rise, increasing extreme climate events, elevating ocean levels, the drowning of large coastal cities, etc. These changes are not gradual or linear and can be both abrupt and disastrous.

It seems to me, however, that this part of Facing the Anthropocene is less developed. Although Angus mentions these dangers, he does not discuss in a more detailed and concrete way the threats that weigh on the survival of life on the planet.

What are the established powers doing — especially the governments of the rich countries principally responsible for the crisis? Angus cites the fierce response of James Hansen, the North American NASA climatologist, to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, saying, “a fraud really, a fake…. It’s just bullshit.”

Indeed, even if all the countries present at the conference keep their promises, which is very unlikely considering that not a single sanction is expected to be fully met by the Paris agreements, we still will not be able to avoid an increase in the planet’s temperature past two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Time Running Short

Although 2 degrees Celsius is the officially accepted limit to avoid an irreversible process and unbridled global warming, the true safe limit will be 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as even the participants of the conference have admitted. Naomi Klein’s conclusion: there is already barely time to avoid a catastrophic warming, but not in the framework of capitalism’s existing rules.

Ian Angus shares this diagnosis, and dedicates the second part of his book to the root of the problem: fossil capitalism. If governments and large corporations continue to throw coal into the boilers of this run-away train of development, it is not the fault of “human nature.” Rather, it is an essential demand of the capitalist system itself.

This system cannot exist without growth, expansion, accumulation of profits, and consequently environmental destruction. Yet this growth, which has been founded for almost two centuries on fossil energy, concentrates more of its investments today on further expanding fossil fuel production than any other sector. This doesn’t even touch on the generous subsidies provided by many governments — oil reserves alone receives more than fifty trillion dollars.

We can’t count on the good will of Exxon and company to renounce this mantra. This is not to mention other branches of production — automobiles, planes, plastics, chemicals, highways, etc. — all closely associated with fossil capitalism.

The one percent who control as much wealth as the remaining 99% of humanity carry great economic and political power. This is the reason for the resounding failures of the “international conferences” on climate change, which always end, in James Hansen’s words, in “bullshit.”

What, then, is the alternative? Angus notes that we can no longer return to the Holocene: the Anthropocene has already begun and cannot be reversed. The climate change already underway will last thousands of years. There is an urgency to slow down the suicide race created by this system, through a mass movement that encompasses all those who are ready to join in combat against fossil capitalism and climate change.

We hope for the capacity, in the future, to replace capitalism with a unified society: ecosocialism. The April 2010 Peoples’ Conference against Climate Change and in Defense of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which brought together tens of thousands of indigenous groups, farmers, unionists and workers, is a concrete example of this movement.

What happens to supporters of socialism? Ian Angus notes that the USSR was an ecological nightmare, particularly after Stalin eliminated the Soviet ecologists. (This section also deserves further development.)

Some socialists criticize what they call the “catastrophism” of ecologists, while others think that ecology is a diversion from the “true” struggle of the classes. While it’s true that ecosocialists are not a uniform mass, they do share the conviction that an effective socialist revolution can only be ecological and vice-versa.

They also agree that we need to buy ourselves time. The fight to decelerate disaster, by obtaining partial victories, both against capitalist destruction and for an ecosocialist future, is a part of the same integrated process.

What are the chances of such a struggle? Angus soberly observes that there is no guarantee. Marxism is not a sort of determinism. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the fight of the classes can either lead to a revolutionary transformation of society or to “the common ruin of the contending classes.”

In the Anthropocene, this “common ruin,” the end of human civilization, is a real possibility. The ecosocialist revolution is by no means inevitable. We will need to be capable of bridging the gap between the spontaneous rage of millions of people and the beginning of an ecosocialist transformation. The author of this admirable and stimulating book concludes (with Bertolt Brecht): “If we fight, we may lose; if we don’t fight, we have already lost.”

Green God’s Failure

Richard Smith doesn’t discuss the Anthropocene, except for one telling moment: “Nature doesn’t run Earth any more. We do…It’s time we make conscious and collective decisions.”

Smith’s book is much more than a critique of “green capitalism,” as the title suggests. It comprises a collection of essays in an order that is a little improvised and somewhat repetitive, but on the whole the text is admirable in its coherence and rigor.

One could begin with this diagnosis: in May 2013 the observatory Mauna Loa in Hawaii found that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm. The last time that  levels were this high, the average global temperature was 3-4C warmer than today, the Arctic was iceless, and sea levels were 40 meters higher. The places that we now call New York City, London, Shanghai were all under the sea.

Climatologists constantly issue warnings: if we do not stop greenhouse gas emissions soon, we will inevitably reach uncontrollable and irreversible global warming, which will result in the collapse of our civilization and the possible extinction of our species.

Yet, what’s happening? Business as usual. Not only have we failed to reduce emissions in recent years, but they are continuing to increase and each year break the previous records. We continue to extract fossil energy, and are willing to go far to find more, from the depths of the ocean to the oil sands. In short, the dominant spirit can be best summarized with King Louis XV of France’s remark:
“After me, comes the flood.”

Who is to blame? Like Ian Angus, Richard Smith clearly names a culprit: the capitalist system with its insatiable and irrepressible need to “develop.” This growth is not simply a mania, a fad, or an ideology. Instead, it is the rational expression of the demands of capitalist reproduction.

“Grow or die” is the law of survival in the jungle of the cutthroat capitalist market. Without overconsumption, there is no growth, and without growth there is massive unemployment, crisis and ultimately ruin.

Even an economist as “dissident” as Paul Krugman ultimately resigns himself to consumerism. He writes, “There is a strong element of rat race in America’s consumer-led boom, but those rats racing in their cages are what keep the wheels of commerce turning.”

This is all simply the logic of the system — from the failure of the international conferences, to “green capitalism,” to the exchange of CO2 emission rights, to ecological taxes, etc, etc. As the orthodox, neo-liberal economist Milton Friedman approvingly expressed, “Corporations are in business to make money, not to save the world.”

Richard Smith’s conclusion: if we want to save the world, we must dismantle corporate power over the economy. “Either we save capitalism or we save ourselves. We can’t save both.” Capitalism is a runaway train, which strips the continents entirely of their forests, devours the ocean’s flora and fauna, disturbs the climate, and is advancing rapidly towards ecological catastrophe, and, consequently, ruin.

Hence Smith’s criticism of the delusions of economists and environmentalists who support “green capitalism.” There are many in the United States but also in France  — worshippers of this “god that failed.” Hence the need to reject the rules of the market and of private property.

What to do? The solution does not exist within the structure of the market or in technological advancement. We must drastically reduce, in a rather short period of time, the use of fossil energy, not only for the production of electricity, but also in transportation, heating, industry, production-oriented agriculture, etc.

And as Exxon, British Petroleum, General Motors, etc. have no desire to commit economic suicide — and none of the capitalist governments intends to force them — society has to take control of the means of production and distribution, and reorganize the productive system entirely. This can be done by guaranteeing decent employment to all workers whose businesses are destined to either disappear or reduce drastically.

It is not enough to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. Production and consumption must be substantially reduced (or “de-growth”). According to Richard Smith, three-quarters of the goods produced today are unnecessary, harmful, or suffer from programmed obsolescence.

If, instead of manufacturing products for profit, manufacturing worked to satisfy human needs, then we could produce useful, durable, repairable, adaptable products that could be used for decades — like my own 1962 VW, which is still running.

Smith adds: “Priority could be given to the social and ecological needs that today are neglected or sabotaged, such as health, education, habitat (set to ecological norms), and healthy and organic food. We could work fewer hours and have longer vacations.”

But this implies a radical break with the capitalist system, which would involve depriving private owners of economic control and opting instead to plan democratically. In other words, ecosocialism. Planning committees could be elected at the local, regional, national, continental, and sooner or later, international levels.

Additionally, major decisions could be made by the population itself: Car or public transportation? Ban nuclear energy or use it? And so forth. It is a question of replacing the “invisible hand” of the market — which can only perpetuate business as usual — with the visible hand of society’s democratic decisions.

Such democratic planning is the very antithesis of the sad bureaucratic caricature that was “central planning” under the now-extinct USSR. It was perfectly authoritarian, if not totalitarian. But this is the project of another civilization, an ecosocialist civilization.

Getting There

Richard Smith’s point is perfectly coherent. The only remark I would make is the absence of mediation. How can we move from the suicidal train of capitalist civilization to an ecosocialist society? This question merits further examination.

The starting point here can only be current mobilizations against this system, which Naomi Klein refers to as Blockadia.

These struggles include the commitment of Canadian Native People and environmentalists against the mining of tar sands, the fight in the USA (blocking the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, for instance), those in France who combat shale gas (provisionally victorious), those in the indigenous communities of Latin America who fight against oil and mining multinational companies, etc.

All of these struggles — local, regional or national — are essential in several aspects: a) they slow the race towards ruin; b) they reveal the value of collective struggle; c) they foster anti-systemic (anti-capitalist) consciousness.

Fortunately, in the last paragraph of his book, Richard Smith takes interest in the concrete dimension of the struggle for ecosocialism by welcoming the rise, throughout the world, of struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, pollution, overdevelopment, chemical and thermal power plants, predatory extraction of resources, the imposition of GMOs, the privatization of communal land, water and public services, capitalist unemployment and precariousness.

Today, we have a growing wave of global “awakening” — almost a massive global upheaval. This insurrection is still in its infancy, and its future is unsure, but its radical democratic instincts are, Smith believes, the last and best hope for humanity.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Labour’s New Immigration Stance Sounds the Death Knell for a Progressive Alliance

Having been an ‘in principle’ supporter of an anti-Tory electoral pact at the next general election, I have also always been sceptical that it will ever transpire, in any meaningful way. There was a sort of pact between the Greens and the Lib Dems in the recent Richmond Park by-election, but Labour stood and has shown no real appetite for the concept.

With the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, effectively re-launching his leadership in a speech and a tour of the media studios on Tuesday, I think he buried any faint possibility of a progressive alliance coming into being.

I say that, even though Corbyn’s position appeared to shift almost by the hour on Tuesday, in what we might charitably call a nuancing of his position, on fat cat pay, but more especially on the free movement of people within the (and between the UK and) European Union (EU).

By the end of the day Corbyn, although it wasn’t what the pre-speech press releases had said, was saying that:

"Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don't want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out."

Clear as mud, then. But the whole exercise had come on the back of the weekend comments from right wing Labour MPs, like Stephen Kinnock, that free movement of people would have to be curtailed as part of the Brexit negotiations. It could be Corbyn was trying please everyone in his party by being so vague by the end of the day, but it seemed to me that this was a shift towards ‘managed’ immigration from the EU, since staying in the EU single market almost certainly means accepting free movement. Reform of this it seems, is not an option.

Corbyn is of course mindful of the electoral threat to Labour from UKIP (and the Tories), in the north of England particularly, whilst trying to keep the 70% of Labour voters who voted to remain in the EU behind Labour. He can’t have it both ways though, we are either in the EU single market with free movement, or we are not, and Corbyn seems to be signalling, rather like the Prime Minister, Theresa May, that immigration trumps trade in any final Brexit deal.

Not only does this risk alienating a majority of Labour voters, but it really ends the prospect of electoral cooperation with the other likely participants of a progressive alliance, who all want to retain EU single market access and free movement, and even remain fully inside the EU.

The Lib Dems have of course made a second referendum on EU membership their flag ship policy, and they will be pleased if Labour leaves this ground free for them to exploit. Their leader, Tim Farron said: "This confirms what we all suspected, that Jeremy Corbyn never had his heart in fighting to protect Britain’s place in Europe.” 

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader said: “Underlying signals are pointing towards the UK leaving the EU Single Market - the world’s biggest free trade area. Scotland did not vote to leave the EU and this year the Scottish Government will continue to do all we can to protect Scotland's vital interests.”

Plaid Cymru's leader, Leanne Wood, who said she favoured staying in the single market, was asked if the UK should stay in the single market and keep freedom of movement, replied: "Well I think we'd have to. I've been to Brussels and spoke to officials there and they are very clear about the freedom of movement of goods, trade and people all coming as a package."  

The Green Party co-leader, Caroline Lucas, a very vocal backer of a progressive alliance called it a ‘capitulation to the Tories’ and she added:

"The Labour Party is handing the post-referendum process to the Conservatives on a plate. First they risk throwing Britain off the Brexit cliff edge by voting with them to trigger Article 50 prematurely and now they seem set to sacrifice our access to the single market by joining the Tory blame game on free movement. At a time when we need a real opposition more than ever we're seeing Labour dancing to the Tories' Brexit tune.”

Increasingly, it looks as though on the central political issue of the time in the UK, Labour is taking a position where an alliance with the other anti-Tory parties, is all but impossible. Without Labour (and the Lib Dems), there is zero chance of a progressive alliance winning a general election, which makes it is all rather pointless really.

Progressive alliance – RIP?

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

What will the UK be like in the 2020s?

A report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which bills itself as the UK’s ‘leading progressive think-tank,’ was released at the end of 2016. Entitled ‘Future proof: Britain in the 2020s,’ the report tries to forecast the state of the nation up until 2030. Brexit, of course, features heavily in what the report describes as ‘firing the starting gun on a decade of disruption,’ that will lead to five powerful trends that will drive change in the UK in the 2020s.

These trends are:

A demographic tipping point: As the population grows, the UK is set to age sharply and become increasingly diverse. Globally, the long expansion of the working-age population is set to slow sharply.

An economic world transformed: The economic world order will become more fragile as globalisation evolves, trade patterns shift, and economic power gravitates toward Asia. At the same time, developed economies are likely to struggle to escape conditions of secular stagnation. The institutions governing the global economy are likely to come under intense pressure as the American hegemony that underpinned the post-war international order fades and the Global South rises in economic and geopolitical importance.

Brexit – the aftershock: The economic implications of Brexit are likely to put the country on a lower growth, lower investment trajectory, worsening the public finances, with important consequences for the UK’s economy and living standards. Migration is likely to become more controlled. At the same time, politics – long subservient to a liberalising economic consensus – is likely to become increasingly assertive in seeking to reshape Brexit Britain.

Technological transformation – between Star Trek and the Matrix: Exponential improvements in new technologies – computing power, machine learning, artificial intelligence systems, automation, autonomous vehicles, health and resource technologies, and the Internet of Things, among others – are expected to radically transform social and economic life. These changes have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance, or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power. Which path we take – a future between Star Trek and the Matrix – will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.

The shock of the Anthropocene – instability in an age of natural systems decay: Climate change, biodiversity degradation, and resource depletion mean we will increasingly run up against the limits of the physical capacity of the Earth’s natural systems to reproduce life as at present. The natural constraints of the Anthropocene age – our new geological era in which humans are the primary shaper of the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems – will force us to build a collective, democratic politics of restraint. The alternative is systemic degradation in ecosystems and rising inequalities in the years ahead.

Brexit complicates things more, but these changes would have happened anyway, so this not necessarily an anti-Brexit report, and here I would like to look at the technological changes in particular.

The report forecasts that technology will advance to the point that (in the UK and other western nations):        
  • Developments in automation, machine learning and general systems artificial intelligence could transform the workforce, and create new and as yet unimagined occupations.
  • By 2030 robots or smart machines are forecast to have on average an IQ higher than 99% of humans. The explosion in non-human intelligence has enormous economic potential, while also raising profound political and ethical questions.
  • A surge in autonomous or near autonomous vehicles is forecast by 2030, becoming ubiquitous by the mid-2030s. This will transform transport systems, urban design, and personal mobility.
  • The development of 3D printing will change the economics of manufacturing, reducing role of labour costs in location decisions, and increasing the importance of proximity to the customer. Additive manufacturing will create networks of microfactories akin to craft guilds, but with modern manufacturing capabilities, with radical discontinuities in trade as need for global supply chain eliminated.
  • Emergence of ‘smart factories’ cyber-physical systems and decentralised models of production. 
Although these developments will mean that economic and social change will be massive, it doesn’t need to be bad. In an echo of Murray Bookchin’s book ‘Post Scarcity Anarchism’, the report suggests that if handled fairly, they could lead to an improvement in the lifestyles of all citizens.

Many jobs will be lost, and although new ones will be created, 15 million of our current jobs are at risk of disappearing and there are likely to be less jobs overall. But how this is managed is very much a political choice. Technology is neutral, it is political and cultural forces that will determine who benefits.

As the report says:

This will require new models of ownership, higher wage floors to incentivize automation and boost the wage share, an education system that promotes creativity and skills that complement machines, a shorter working week to fairly share productivity gains, and potentially a universal basic income to supplement labour market income.

The report suggests that a new ‘social’-ism could shape how this change is managed, through democratic ownership of our collective national data. Data being the most precious resource, in the brave new world of the future. Common ownership of this data, will be as important as the physical infrastructure of the nineteenth century and the welfare state of the twentieth century, in policy terms.

The ‘Internet of Things,’ for example, will have a value of $11.1 trillion a year by 2025.Though this could lead to private network monopolies, and be analogous to the enclosure of the commons in the nineteenth century, so it will raise questions around the ownership and control of data and technology.

The report concludes by saying:

It will require building a new ‘common sense’ that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few. This will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.

Monday, 9 January 2017

January's Priority - Stop CETA

If you care about the NHS, railways, schools, colleges and universities, food, water and air quality, regulating banks, pesticides, energy supplies, fracking and the greenhouse effect, then read on. CETA is a seismic shift in corporate power over democracy, and is due for Provisional Application in February. We can act now though.

Like TTIP, the main agenda is not really 'free trade', or 'jobs and growth'. There is plenty of low tariff trade between the EU and US / Canada already. Any magical claims to 'jobs and growth' are based on economic modelling that assumes immediate re-employment when a sector moves away from a country. A more realistic analysis, based on the UN's Global Policy model, predicts a loss of jobs and loss of government revenue (see the conclusions here).

There's a lot in common with TTIP :
  • like TTIP,  the real target is not 'tariff barriers to trade' , but  'behind-the-border' barriers to trade - which means governments ability to regulate and pass laws affecting profits.
  • the ratchet clause will prevent any taking back public ownership and control of railways, NHS services, water supplies etc.
  • CETA will give investors the right to 'early information' about the government's intentions, threatening to sue states, in private courts if necessary, for up to 20 years worth of profits. They will be able to do this even if they breach UK law, if a private judge thinks the government's response is 'excessive'. This is via so called Investor-Court-System, ICS. (ICS used to be called ISDS, but was rebranded ICS in September 2015 - states can now appeal a courts decision, but the text is basically unchanged - see here).
  • all public services are most likely included unless they fall under the definition of 'services in exercise of government authority'. To do this, they must be BOTH (a) not in competition with other suppliers and (b) not on a commercial basis - the Commission has accepted that in practice, this might only mean legal services (prisons, judiciary, policing)
  • the change to a more 'gung-ho' , 'risk based' approach to public health, rather than using the EUs precautionary, hazard-based approach. For example, lead is a known hazard, and is not used in cosmetics in the EU. In the US, however, its possible to use lead in lipstick, if there's a commercial reason to do so. So, it would only be when we can definitely prove that its the dose of lead in the lipstick that's actually causing the harm, and not all the other possible causes, that the lead in lipstick would be regarded as posing an unacceptable risk.  Similarly for Monsanto's use of the carcinogenic glyphosphate pesticide, which is estimated to be present in 1 in 3 loaves of bread..

But it's also worse than TTIP. Its the worlds first ever 'opt-out' deal, casting a net over everything, unless we chose to exclude it. The clue's in the name - the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement - and our government has chosen to exclude very little from the deal in practice. It will include - NHS services (as no longer services provided 'in the service of government authority'), food standards, water, housing corporations, education, transport, energy generation, financial service regulations - you name it.

The wording was finalised last year, so we're now in a position of 'take it all, or leave it all'. Liam Fox has already decided to pass off the deal in secret, bypassing any UK public scrutiny and debate (see here). The European Parliament are voting on whether CETA can be Provisionally Applied in early February, with an indefinite timeframe, and with a view to full application later, when the Investor Court System (ICS) will be applied.  

CETA could threaten environmental protection and worker’s rights. While trade unions, civil society organisations and even our MPs have been largely excluded from negotiations on CETA, big business has enjoyed significant influence throughout the process. If CETA passes the European parliament, it will be ‘provisionally implemented’, which means that even if the UK parliament votes against CETA, we’d still be part of the deal for at least 2 years. If the deal is fully approved, however, leaving the deal could take up to 20 years.

Provisional Application will happen just as we get swamped with news about Donald Trump. Brexit will not stop this vast takeover of UK parliamentary power (so much for 'taking back control').

Forget Trump and Brexit. CETA trumps the lot. We have to act :-

1. Get more informed about CETA - e.g.

Making sense of CETA' Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives https://www.policyalternatives .ca/publications/reports/makin g-sense-ceta-2016

'The Great CETA Swindle' Corporate Europe Observatory ternational-trade/2016/11/grea t-ceta-swindle

2. Take action

(a) The Environment and Public Health Committee (ENVI) is reporting to the Commision this Thursday (12th) to recommend to accept or reject CETA. The draft recommendation to ENVI is to reject CETA on the basis of losing the precautionary principle, climate change considerations, amongst other things see sides/ EP%2f%2fNONSGML%2bCOMPARL%2bPE -595.582%2b01%2bDOC%2bPDF%2bV0 %2f%2fEN 

We need to contact MEPs on ENVI who are persuadable to accept this  draft recommendation, asap before Jan 12th. There is no need to contact Greens, Conservatives, or UKIP whose minds are already made up. The MEPs on ENVI are here: /committees/en/envi/ ml

The most 'persuadable' ones are the S&D block MEPs -

(b) Tell your MP to attend a Commons debate on CETA: debate-ceta

(c)  Stop TTIP's  'CETA check ': ck/

(d)  Tweet using the hashtag #StopCETA

Please share far and wide.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Basic Income: Progressive Dreams Meet Neoliberal Realities

Photo by Eli Christman

Written by John Clarke and first published at Socialist Project

Up until now, the concept of Basic Income (BI) has enjoyed a greater history of being proposed than of being implemented. We may well be approaching a period, however, when this changes. The Ontario Government is holding consultations on setting up a BI pilot project. The Legislature in another Canadian Province, Prince Edward Island, has agreed to test out a version of BI. Pilot projects are also impending in Finland, the Netherlands and Scotland.

Basic Income has been suggested in an exceptionally wide range of forms, often with completely different objectives in mind. In fact, we can draw a line between the models that are concerned with improving lives and raising living standards and those that are focused on intensifying the capacity for capitalist exploitation. Among those in the ‘progressive’ category there is considerable diversity.

There’s the ‘universal demogrant’ that provides an income to everyone and the concept of a ‘negative income tax’ involving some level of means test. BI proposals come from liberal quarters that are responsibly redistributive, reduce poverty and inequality and ease up on bureaucratic intrusion. The above mentioned proposal for an Ontario pilot project would be part of this camp. Then there are the models that have more radical, transformative objectives in mind. These suggest that BI could be used to take from employers the power of economic coercion itself by severing the link between work and income. Often such ideas are tied to the notion of preparing for sweeping technological displacement and a ‘workless future’ by providing secure, adequate and unconditional income. Given the vast extent to which forms of unpaid labour are performed by women in this society, it is hardly surprising that there are also feminist arguments for BI.

I have to say that the one really common thread that I see running through all of the notions of a progressive BI is that they pay great attention to explaining how nice their systems would be but give little if any thought to the concrete prospects of implementation. Before looking further at these deficiencies and proposing an alternative approach, it might be useful to consider more seriously the neoliberal version that is hanging like a sword over all our heads.

Neoliberal Version

The deeply reactionary ideas of Charles Murray have extended to some very sinister proposals for BI. There are two basic elements that shape his system. Firstly, the universal payment, after the compulsory purchase of private health insurance, is set at the dreadfully low amount of $10,000 a year. Secondly, he is utterly insistent that all other systems of provision must be dismantled as a BI is put in place. Canada’s right wing Fraser Institute, recently used its blog to stress the same points as Murray, making clear that the level of provision must not interfere with the supply of low waged workers.

If governments today, as they intensify the neoliberal agenda, are starting to consider the possibilities of BI, I see three factors at work. Firstly, there is the not unimportant issue of legitimacy. Particularly because they are being provided with a generous amount of ‘progressive’ cover, they are able to present their deliberations on BI as a responsible weighing of the common good. The Ontario Liberals stand out as international champions in this regard. Their BI pilot project consultations, have enabled them to put in place yet another round of fake dialogue, with the empty promise of a “better way” diverting attention as they push people even deeper into poverty. The World Bank and the IMF have been worrying out loud about the backlash against their austerity agenda and its devastating impacts. That IMF economists are themselves musing about BI, is perhaps significant in this regard. It advances their agenda but can be dressed up to look progressive. It may be the best thing for the institutions of global capitalism since the myth of ‘poverty reduction’.

The second element of BI that I think is of interest to the architects of neoliberalism is that it can fine tune economic coercion as they create an ever more elastic workforce based on the most precarious forms of employment. The income support systems that emerged out of the Poor Law tradition, stressed intense restrictions and moral policing. Along with horribly inadequate benefit levels, this has been very useful in driving people into low waged work to an unprecedented extent. It may, however, be time to rethink this to a degree. If people are moving between poverty wages and poverty level benefits more frequently in a precarious job market, perhaps they can be more effectively prodded into the worst jobs with less intrusive benefit systems. A less rule bound delivery of poverty income, that gives people a chance of retaining their housing, may be needed to keep them job ready.

Linked to this, of course, is the huge boost to the employers of a BI system that constitutes a form of wage top up. Provided the payment is meagre, it will not impede the flow of low paid workers but it will mean that their employers receive a subsidy that absolves them from having to pay living wages or come under pressure to increase the amount they do provide.

Thirdly, the great advantage of neoliberal BI is that the inadequate and dwindling payment it provides turns those who receive it into customers in the marketplace. In my opinion, BI would be far from the best way to strengthen the social infrastructure at any time but in the context of an intensifying agenda of austerity and privatization, it is a recipe for disaster. It’s really about the commodification of social provision. Your payment may actually be less conditional and somewhat larger but, as you shop through the privatized remains of the social infrastructure, with inadequate means and very few rights, you are dramatically worse off. That, in my view, is what is being prepared by those who will actually implement a system of BI and the hopes and wishes to the contrary of its progressive advocates don’t count for very much.

Progressive Dreams

I said previously that proposals for redistributive or transformative models of BI are generally marked by a tendency to focus on the desirability of what is being advanced while paying much less attention to actual prospects for implementation. I’ve yet to see, quite bluntly, any serious attempt to assess what stands in the way of a progressive BI and what can be done to bring it into existence. It simply isn’t enough to explain how just and fair a given model would be if it could be adopted. In order to credibly advance BI as the solution, there are some questions that must be settled.

Firstly, income support systems came into being because, while employers welcome an oversupply of labour and the desperation that comes with it as something that boosts their bargaining power, the total abandonment of the jobless creates social unrest. Some measure of income support, provided as a reluctant concession, has proved to be necessary. However, the systems of provision that have been put in place have always been as inadequate as possible so as to undermine employer strength as little as possible. A widely delivered or even universal adequate payment would greatly tilt that balance back the other way. What reason is there to think that this is likely to be implemented?

Secondly, over the last several decades, concessions made during the post war years have been taken back. Trade unions have been weakened, workers’ rights undermined and low waged work has increased considerably. The degrading of income support systems has been central to creating the climate of desperation needed to achieve this. Not only have benefits for the unemployed been attacked but other systems, especially for disabled people have been undermined so as to generate a scramble for the worst jobs. This has led to a shift in the balance of forces in society and we are fighting a largely defensive struggle. Given this very unfavourable situation, in which unions and movements are not in the ascendancy, how can it be supposed that those profiting from the present situation are likely to accept a measure of redistributive social reform that is at least as sweeping as anything put in place during the post war boom? What is the plan to make this happen?

Thirdly, as right wing governments and political parties directly linked to the most reactionary business interests consider BI and set up pilot projects that provide meagre payments and focus on how to ensure people on social benefits become low waged workers, what reason is there to imagine that a progressive BI, rather than the neoliberal variant, is being cooked up?

Regardless of these issues, it is sometimes asserted that an adequate system of provision must be put in place simply because we are moving toward a “workless future.” In such a society, it is suggested, masses of people who have been displaced will have to be provided for and the capitalists will have to think like Elon Musk, of Tesla Motors and support BI because it is the only sensible and rational solution. To imagine such responsible provision for the future is to place undue faith in a system based on the making of profit. If they won’t stop building pipelines in the face of environmental catastrophe, there’s little reason to expect them to worry too much about sensible solutions to technological displacement. There simply is no post-capitalist capitalism and no social policy innovation that is going to bring it about.

At a recent panel on Basic Income that I spoke at, the moderator posed a challenge. She accepted that BI might not be a way forward but asked, if that were so, what “bold vision” could be advanced in its place. It’s a fair question but a realistic appraisal of what we are up against is still obligatory, even if that has some sobering aspects to it. The great problem that we have is that the neoliberal years have done a lot of damage. The level of exploitation has been increased and working class movements have been weakened. While what we demand and aspire to is very important, the bigger question is what we can win. What’s disturbing about the left wing turn to BI is that is seems to think there is a social policy end run around the realities of neoliberalism and the need to resist it. There is no such thing.

British Labour Party and BI

With very good reason, there has been considerable excitement internationally around the Jeremy Corbyn leadership in the British Labour Party. His close ally, Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has been paying some attention to adopting BI, as part of a platform that would express a break with the austerity consensus. McDonnell, from a position on the left of a major social democratic party, raises the possibility of a ‘best case scenario’ for progressive BI. For that very reason, the question is posed of whether the ‘bold vision’ I spoke of should be framed around the universal payment concept or devoted to other objectives.

In my opinion, if we are to consider goals we set and demands we put forward in the face of neoliberalism, that are based on the needs of workers and communities and create the conditions for challenging capitalism itself, we sell ourselves well short if we settle for something so limited and inherently conservative as the universal payment. BI, when all is said and done, is a vision for nothing more than the means to be a customer in an unjust society that decides what is for sale. How much bolder and more meaningful to fight for free, massively expanded and fully accessible systems of healthcare and public transportation? How much better to focus on the creation of social housing and try to expand it so that, not only the poorest, but most working class people enjoy its benefits?

There is universal child care and vast array of important community services to pay attention to. Moreover, we can work to wrest as much power as possible out of the hands of the mandarins of state bureaucracy and fight to increase the control working class people exercise over the public services they rely on. When it comes to existing systems of income support, we should not for a moment accept their poverty level benefits, bureaucratic intrusion and forms of moral policing steeped in racism and sexism. There is a fight to be taken forward for living income, full entitlement and programs that meet the real needs of unemployed, poor and disabled people, as opposed to the present ‘rituals of degradation’ they embody. At every point, let’s try to ensure that these expanded services are not paid for by other working class people but by forcing the corporations, banks and those who own them to pay by increasing their tax burden and imposing levies on their wealth.

The struggle to expand and improve public services would have to, of course, be linked to workers’ struggles for living wages, workplace rights and real compensation for injured workers. Beyond this, let’s challenge as much as we can the ‘business decisions’ that deplete resources, pollute and threaten us with ecological disaster.

I am suggesting that our movements need to challenge, rather than come to terms with, the neoliberal order and the capitalist system that has produced it. For all its claims to be a sweeping measure, the notion of progressive BI is a futile attempt to make peace with that system. In reality, even that compromise is not available. The model of BI that governments are working on in their social policy laboratories will not ‘end the tyranny of the labour market’ but render it more dreadful. The agenda of austerity and privatization requires a system of income support that renders people as powerless and desperate as possible in the face of exploitation and that won’t change if it is relabelled as ‘Basic Income’.

John Clarke is an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).