To begin, a reflection on my previous post (feel free to skip to paragraph 3 if you’re in search of this week’s new material…): perhaps ‘Energy in neo-peasant Wessex’ wasn’t among my best, but at least one way or another it underscored the kind of transitions necessary to create a plausible post-fossil fuel future. I guess I’m agnostic on the likely pace and extent of the unravelling of our contemporary industrial ecology, though I very much doubt it’ll stay fully ravelled. And I’m still unsure of quite how to reckon the intermediate economy. But on reflection it was good to get a healthy dose of pessimism in the comments – perhaps indeed the issue is not so much about personal pessimism as making the case for pessimal strategies. So maybe I’ll have a think about devising a more pessimal energy strategy for Wessex on the basis of some of the interesting comments and links that were posted (I also need to get my head around Tverberg’s analysis discussed a while back by wysinwyg). And perhaps I should apologise to Ruben et al for being overly defensive about my projections – everyone has a special somebody in their lives to whom they get inordinately attached emotionally, and in my case it’s my Excel spreadsheets. Though saying that, the debate inclines me to cut short my numerical projections of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex – most models are pretty much nonsense after all, especially ones like mine – and start focusing on the wider aspects of the issue. But I still have a few more spreadsheets up my sleeve – I plan to blow them all, probably in my next post, in one last, giant bonfire of the numbers.
Talking of the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I note that Paul Mason has written an article in The Guardian about the possibility of regional government emerging in a post-Brexit Britain, which actually mentions ‘Wessex’ by name as a regional polity. From Small Farm Future to the The Guardian, and then the world! Or at least a small corner of southwest England. You read it here first.
And talking of Brexit, it appears we now have just 5 days to go before that new world is upon us. I’m not sure if I should really be writing yet another Brexit post right now but it seems a propos at the moment, so I hope I’ll be forgiven one more turn of the crank. And in other important news, I’ve been musing over the issues of neoliberalism, immigration, populism and nationalism that prompted such exciting times on this blog a month or two back. I’ve also just finished reading the German political economist Wolfgang Streeck’s fascinating book How Will Capitalism End?1 which bears on many of these issues. As does Mr Dark Mountain himself, Paul Kingsnorth, in his recent article on ‘environmentalism in the age of Trump’. To write about all this now risks stealing some of my own thunder from the slower historical approach I’ve been planning to take regarding a possible future agrarian populist state. But with Brexit news hot and the works of Streeck and Kingsnorth at my side, I’d like to make a few preliminary points.
There’s a logic of accumulation in capitalist economies which left to its own devices tends to commodify everything, including things that can’t ultimately be commodified, like humans, nature, and money (or ‘labour, land and capital’ – the classic ‘inputs’ of orthodox economics). Governments able to harness some of the awesome wealth-creating power of the capitalist economy can use it to promote social ends and political stability, which involves checking the pure logic of capital accumulation – but it’s not a stable solution, because neither the logic of capital accumulation nor people’s social logics of self-determination are amenable to checking, even if unchecked capital accumulation ultimately undermines the conditions of its own possibility. The turbulent politics of the early 20th century represents one phase of that tension: populist and communist revolutions, fascism, anti-colonial movements, the massive shakedowns of global war, as responses to the first phase of capitalist development. Post World War II, capitalism was reined in with Keynesian welfarism, New Deal regulation, decolonisation and so on – which worked for a while largely because strong economic growth enabled most people to get a piece of the pie. But with the slowing of growth from the 1970s, western governments increasingly faced the problem of how to reward both capital and labour sufficiently to keep the show on the road. The solutions they’ve since followed have essentially been variants on staving off political crisis in the present by displacing it into the future – first by pursuing inflationary monetary policy in the 1970s, then by accruing public debt in the 1980s, and then by fostering private debt in the 1990s and 2000s, a strategy which exploded spectacularly in 2008.
In the later phases of this spiralling debt, governments attempted to get some control of it by creating what Streeck calls ‘consolidation states’ – such as the US under Bill Clinton and the EU’s Eurozone, aided and abetted by various other supra-national organisations – the IMF, the OECD, the World Bank. These consolidation states amount to a growing, globalized, technocratic and anti-democratic form of governance which in some ways return us to the rampant logic of capital accumulation that prefigured the political explosions of the early 20th century.
Hence the inevitable counter-movement of populist nationalisms – Brexit, Trump etc. Streeck is scathing about the EU, particularly the Eurozone, and its anti-democratic, neoliberal character. Various contributors on this blog have argued that the EU is an unreformable vehicle of neoliberalism – a position that I found difficult to dispute at the time and even harder now that I’ve read Streeck. Well then, time for me to swallow my pride as a self-confessed Remain voter, admit the contradiction with my aspirations to a green, localist, populism and throw in my lot with the Brexiteers?
No, I don’t think so. Because, as Streeck also makes plain, the problems that led to the formation of the ‘consolidation state’ aren’t abolished simply by exiting it. The global economy in which Britain is utterly enmeshed now runs on credit, and the elaborate architecture of global fiscal governance has an array of carrots and sticks (mostly sticks) at its disposal to ensure that creditors get their returns. There were no significant voices raised in the Brexit debate, and certainly nothing currently on the political horizon, to suggest that a post-EU Britain will do anything other than play along with those structures. Hardly surprising – who’d want to be the politician at the helm when the cashpoints run out of money? Then again, who’d want to be the politician at the helm as a markedly poorer country tries to struggle on servicing its debts? Well, Theresa May, apparently – though maybe she calculates that she’ll have handed on the baton to somebody like Liam Fox by then. Actually, I think AC Grayling calls it right – someone like Fox would quite happily preside over such a government, because the low tax, low regulation, labour disciplining regime it would need to implement would suit his politics and, in contrast to the majority of ordinary people, it wouldn’t hurt his pocket or those of others in the business oligarchy. But it won’t be plain sailing for a Tory government trying to reconcile the demands of global capital with the demands of local labour – its recent difficulties over national insurance for the self-employed are but a foretaste of what’s to come. Expect much more talk of ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘out-of-touch liberal elites’ (but which liberal elites?) to paper over the contradictions.
So the choice before the British people at the referendum was essentially Yes for neoliberalism or No for neoliberalism. For all the heated rhetoric on both sides about what the (politically) correct choice was, to which I daresay I contributed my own small voice, I’m just not moved by the argument that our votes at the referendum had any great traction on Britain’s dependent incorporation into the global economy.
Well, let me qualify that slightly. I’m certainly not moved by the argument that with Brexit we’ve ‘got back control’ in the sense that we could, theoretically, elect whatever party we please to Westminster. For starters, that argument to me lacks a base plausibility in an electoral system where 16% of the votes (for the Greens and UKIP) translated into 0.3% of the seats – one of those being a Tory defector in the form of the astronomically deluded (in more ways than one) Douglas Carswell. And even that doesn’t begin to capture the irrelevance of backbench or indeed frontbench seats at Westminster to influencing the global political economy, nor to the manifold ideological obstacles to getting anything other than a centre left or centre right party into power. To me, all this ‘getting control back’ rhetoric exemplifies what Streeck breezily dismisses as the ‘voluntaristic illusions’2 in contemporary democratic politics.
No, the only qualification I perceive is that living in the impoverished austerity state of Brexit Britain will be so dreadful that it’ll eventually prompt some kind of radical overthrow of the present political regimen (though, to be fair, that outcome could also have played out had we stayed). Would such an overthrow be a good thing? Well, possibly, but it could also be a very, very bad one – which was kind of my argument in my Dark Mountain piece. I think Brexit may slightly increase the chances of delivering an egalitarian agrarian populist government, but also the chances of an inegalitarian, non-agrarian authoritarian populist government. And so the right choice was…beats me.
Now, I know that use of the ‘F’ word (F for fascism, that is) scares some hares, and I’ll concede that perhaps I overplayed it in my initial responses to Brexit, so I’ll soften up on it and instead invoke the notion of an authoritarian populist alliance between an oligarchic business class and an ‘indigenous’ working-class, of the kind that seems to be crystallising in various countries, including England. This, to my mind, is where the shifting norms around nationalism and immigration are heading in contemporary debate.
So let me say a word on nationalism, with particular reference to Paul Kingsnorth’s arguments. Outlining his frustration after years of environmental campaigning that seemed to make nary a dent in the course of neoliberal globalisation, Kingsnorth describes his exhilaration at the Brexit and Trump election results – not because they necessarily aligned with his opinions, but because they showed that change was possible: “I suddenly realised that for the last decade I had believed, even though I had pretended not to believe, in the end of history. Now, the end of history was ending”. Drawing on the writing of Jonathan Haidt, he goes on to suggest that the old political binary of left vs right is being supplanted by a new one of globalism vs nationalism, the latter understood “in the broadest sense of the term” as “the default worldview of most people at most times…a community-focused attitude, in which a nation, tribe or ethnic group was seen as a thing of value to be loved and protected”.
Kingsnorth then draws out the obvious parallels between ‘nationalism’ thus defined and the agenda of an environmentalist localism, and more generally with a sense of primal human belonging to place, which he has consistently and eloquently explored in his writing. He acknowledges that the nationalisms we’ve now got are a long way from this vision: “Globalism is the rootless ideology of the fossil fuel age….But the angry nationalisms that currently challenge it offer us no better answers about how to live well with a natural world that we have made into an enemy”. Effectively, then, Kingsnorth sets up two nested ethical binaries – bad globalism vs nationalism, and bad nationalism vs good (place-loving) nationalism.
My take on all this diverges from Kingsnorth’s early in the piece, and then the gap keeps growing. I can well understand the frustrations of a sometime anti-globalisation activist, and had the 2016 votes gone Remain-Clinton it would have been reasonable to think despairingly, ‘same old neoliberalism’. But you don’t need to study much history to realise that the notion of an ‘end of history’ is bunk. Things always change, albeit sometimes distressingly slowly within the course of a human life, so there’s little virtue in supporting change for change’s sake.
More importantly, I think Kingsnorth casts his net far too wide in defining nationalism. True, people have always defined themselves in relation to in-groups and out-groups. But that’s not nationalism. Nationalism, I would argue, is an ideology specific to modern mass societies comprising a multitude of strangers which tries to reconcile the contradiction between a nominal egalitarianism of individual rights with individual subordination to the state, essentially by arguing that the state embodies the collective will of the people. In doing so, it often weaponises other and perhaps older kinds of identity – religion, language, history, the beauty of the nation’s landscape or the tenacity of its peasant farmers – to create a plausible story of who ‘the people’ are. But it’s not fundamentally about these identifications and it doesn’t arise out of them. Nationalism is about creating or shoring up the legitimacy of the modern nation-state, often by co-opting subordinate groups within it such as the ‘genuine’ working-class as against fifth columnists like ‘cosmopolitan liberal elites’. The idea that there’s a common will of the people embodied in the sovereign state isn’t old, but very new. It would have been alien to anyone much prior to the late 18th century. But in the last 200 years, it’s powerfully shaped the would-be nation-states of the contemporary world, which with few exceptions are now utterly wedded to neoliberalism, whether they like it or not.
So I don’t see much leverage for Kingsnorth’s project of relating more authentically to place from within nationalism. The places Kingsnorth rightly wants to enchant are definite, material places – the streets you walk, the fields you work. The places that nationalism enchants aren’t – ‘England’, ‘the fatherland’, ‘the community’. ‘Community’ is a problematic concept, but it does kind of work at a local level: my family, my friends, my neighbours, and other people I encounter regularly – like them or not, they’re part of my world and I have to figure out how to interact with them. I don’t think the same applies to the national community. In fact, I don’t think there is a national community – the nation is just a story that nationalism supplies. True, perhaps there are likely to be a few more shared cultural reference points between me and another English person than with a foreigner (if only because of the historic success of nationalist ideology in shaping a ‘national’ culture), but there may not be, and it’s a tenuous thing to hang a polity on. In that sense, I think Kingsnorth proceeds far too casually from the idea of community to the idea of nations and nationalism – and he’s not alone among influential voices in the environmental movement right now. I understand why many in the movement are seeking a safe harbour from the stormy seas of neoliberalism, but I think they’re mistaken to suppose the idea of the nation will provide it.
Nationalism defines membership in the national ‘community’ by criteria of both inclusion and exclusion, which brings us to the questions of immigration that loom so large in the Brexit debate. I’ll gloss over the often complex ways in which nationalist ideologies generate notions of who counts as an undesirable immigrant and who doesn’t. I’ll gloss over too the complex and varied reasons people have for migrating, and the many complex empirical questions over the actual effects of EU (and non-EU) immigration in contemporary Britain: to what extent, for example, do EU immigrants actually bid down the price of homegrown labour, and will their likely absence in a post-Brexit Britain create more secure local employment or, as I suspect, merely alienate it abroad as part of larger secular trends in the neoliberal global economy? Let’s just say that, for good or ill, people in Britain want to see less labour in-migration. What’s the best way to achieve that?
Well not, I think, by ever more vigorous policing of borders. That approach is likely to cost a lot of money for limited results, while inflicting a great deal of human misery (more than 20,000 people have died trying to enter EU countries in the last decade or so3). The issue is reminiscent of the debate over vagrancy in Tudor England. When the roads started filling with homeless folk in search of work, the powers that be responded with increasingly draconian punishments for vagrancy, accompanied by a moral panic about the disreputability of the wanderers. Few considered the effects of government agrarian and economic policies in creating the class of landless labourers in the first place.
The bottom line is this: people try to move away from poverty and towards wealth. In a world where wealth is massively concentrated geopolitically, people will come looking for it no matter what obstacles the wealthier states put in their way. If we want to end mass global labour migration, the best thing to do is to end gross geographic disparities in life chances.
I’ve been accused before of irresponsibly wishing to lower the standard of living in the wealthier countries to the level of common misery experienced by humankind in general in relation to my remarks on immigration. On reflection, I’m happy to embrace that accusation, if I’m allowed a few extra lines of defence. I embrace it because, well, what’s the alternative? Historically, capitalist ideology has justified itself with aqueous metaphors of downward trickling and upwardly rising tides that benefit all. It’s become clear that these are mirages. So the argument against a fair global spread of economic resources then boils down essentially to the devil take the hindmost. I can’t justify that to myself ethically, and in any case I think that road leads to a still deeper mire of global misery.
Here are the extra lines of defence. First, as Streeck shows, the global capitalist economy is bloated with liquidity which we’ve endlessly been borrowing from the future on the basis of an anticipated growth which isn’t going to come. So sooner or later another day of reckoning like 2008 will arrive. Globally, we need to be poorer. Second, as with economics so with ecology – we can’t keep drawing down on planetary resources in the way that we currently are, and the only likely way we’ll stop unless nature forces our hand is if we can’t afford to. Third, if we want to be living any kind of sustainable, localist, nature-adjusted life of the kind construed by Kingsnorth, then we need to dispense with a huge amount of fiscal and fossil capital, and spread out the possibilities for local lifeways globally. Along with capital controls and other ways of keeping money under closer political control we need, in other words, a graduated, global, contraction-and-convergence debt default or jubilee, in which the major losers will have to be the creditors of the capitalist economy. At present, the richest eight people in the world hold equivalent assets to the poorest 3.5 billion4. So here’s my first draft for a global economic plan: take it off them, put it in a sealed vault, and distribute the rest of the world’s assets more-or-less equally among the people of the world. Excess labour migration to Britain, and much else besides, sorted at a stroke. Call it Article 51. OK, so a few details need working out, a few t’s crossed and i’s dotted, the odd implementation question sorted out. But the basic idea is sound, no? And the end result of this I think will not be a common human misery, but actually improved quality of life worldwide.
So in the end I’m not sure that Brexit makes much difference to the unfolding, or unravelling, of the bigger global economic plot. Perhaps I should therefore lay aside my gut opposition to it. I guess it’s just that so far it seems to have fostered more of the ‘angry nationalism’ of which Kingsnorth speaks. I think that might make the unravelling worse.
- Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End, Verso.
- Streeck, p.187.
- Jones, R. 2016. Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, Verso, p.16.