Politicising Transition: uniting environmental and social justice through popular education

In this two-part blog, I critique the depoliticised, liberal nature of a disproportionately middle-class-led environmentalism epitomised by the Transition Network. I argue that these movements’ unwillingness to name capitalism as the social system to be overcome is both unsurprising and fundamentally problematic. I argue that this is why Naomi Klein’s latest book is so important since it does exactly this.

In the second part, I point out the limits of the Transition Network’s strategy of ‘localism and resilience’ and argue instead for the need to organise politically to challenge and win state power. I set out ways in which such encouraging social movements might develop an explicitly political dimension through the use of popular education practices.

My central argument is that, as inspiring as they are, most of these movements are classically liberal, i.e. blind (consciously or not) to the exploitative and oppressive social relations of power that really define capitalism. Unless these power relations are identified, named, and challenged, any movement, however dynamic and progressive, will unwittingly maintain the overall system.

Part One: Environmentalism + Capital = Social Injustice

I recently read ‘The Power of Just Doing Things’ by Rob Hopkins, a key figure behind the Transition Network in the UK. The Transition Network has spread from Totnes, Devon throughout the UK and far beyond. It’s an excellent book, full of both inspiring examples and invaluable practical guidance for those tired of feeling powerless in a scary world and wanting to contribute to positive, sustainable change.

Hopkins describes how, through the Transition Network, people around the world are coming together to create new ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food and energy. He also describes how the very act of co-creation rebuilds and strengthens community bonds, and restores individual and collective self-belief. In short, the pro-actively democratic and communitarian nature of the groups and the projects he describes are an inspiring antidote to the currently hegemonic system of authoritarian, environmentally destructive, and socially unjust and alienating neo-liberal capitalism. And yet, my summary of the nature of the Transition Network differs dramatically from the depoliticised frames that Hopkins himself uses. Reading his book, one might never conceive of Transition as being remotely political. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental flaw that has profound consequences.

Naturally, Hopkins talks (liberal) economics. He critiques the concept of infinite growth and the deafening ecological silence of the ‘Austerity versus the New Deal’ debate, arguing instead that this crisis is the ‘new normal’. Against this backdrop, he posits the ‘new Big Idea’ – economic organisation has to be ‘local and resilient’. Economic activity that is maximally local is environmentally far more sustainable; produces far more economic benefits for local people; and facilitates community-building. Resilience reflects the idea that such localised economic units, rather than being ‘hyper-connected’ to the globalised marketplace, should co-exist in a relationship of ‘modularity’ – co-operation, but ultimate independence. The rest of the book offers both practical and refreshingly non-prescriptive guidance and countless inspiring examples of the Big Idea in action. So far, so good.

My problem, as I say, is the absence of politics. There is not a single mention of the words ‘capitalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’. This may be intentional: Hopkins may want to avoid seemingly divisive politically-charged vocabulary. Personally, I doubt this is unconscious. Clearly, Hopkins and the Transitions Network see a system. They just don’t want to name it. Does this matter? Very much.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, sports an unequivocal title. Though I have not read it yet, I have heard her speak about the book. She argues that since capitalism is the driver of both environmental catastrophe andsocio-economic poverty and inequality, we need to bring the struggle for environmental and social justice together within one integrated frame, behind one united movement that advocates ‘system change not climate change’. I wholeheartedly agree. We all have to recognise capital as the fundamental obstacle between us and environmental and social justice. It is vital to make this explicit because capital is a chameleon, a shapeshifter. It finds infinite ways to make itself amenable to progressive causes. I offer an example from my own neighbourhood.

Low Carbon West Oxford (LWCO) has pioneered Transition-style actions that bring people together to drastically reduce carbon-burning activities and to generate renewable energy. LCWO recently launched an attractive campaign to raise investment funds for more solar-panel installations on local buildings. On the front page of its prospectus are ringing endorsements from prominent localcapitalists including Richard Branson. Investors are offered a very healthy return: 5% per annum from the government-imposed feed-in tariff and a further 3% tax break.

Where does this money come from? I tried for an hour in vain to find research on the government’s feed-in tariff (beyond George Monbiot’s work), but I can’t help concluding, on mainly logical grounds, that it is socially regressive. The energy firms clearly don’t pay it out of profits. They pass it on. This additional cost must hit the poorest hardest because energy costs as a percentage of expenditure are higher the poorer you are. Poorer households also pay more per unit of energy because they don’t have the creditworthiness or income guarantees needed for better, longer-term deals. The feed-in tariff must also be regressive because is is disproportionately those with capital who are able to directly install or invest in installations that generate energy that feeds into the grid.

In this LCWO scheme, investors get a third of generated revenue, but the risk they take on is neglible. The government backs the feed-in tariff and also provides the tax break. This must also have another socio-economically regressive effect because it effectively offers a tax break for people with surplus capital to invest, i.e. richer people, and that tax break must be balanced by cuts in public spending elsewhere. Overall, then, we see a prime example of how the incorporation of capital into environmental projects generates socially unjust outcomes. It is great that a further third of the LWCO scheme’s generated revenue is distributed for projects in low income neighbourhoods, but this looks like a classic case of charity: the capitalist class (often via the state) takes away with one hand and gives a little back with the other. Environmentalism + capital = social injustice.

With its greater access to capital, time, space, skills, resources, and networks, the middle class dominates much of the environmental movement, including, I would suggest, the Transition Network. Like anyone, members of the middle class are keen to have their cake and eat it, i.e. contribute to renewable energy generation while enjoying bumper returns on their savings. Incidentally, another example of this cake-and-eat-it phenomenon is Fair Trade. Persuasive recent research has shown that, on average, Fair Trade workers actuallyreceive lower wages than their ‘unfair trade’ counterparts. In reality, wealthier consumers pay a premium to do little more than appease their conscience. Again, ethics + capital = social injustice.

Clearly, the neo-liberal project has been all about ‘depoliticitisation’, i.e. relentlessly attacking the working-class and putting much of economic policy into ‘independent’ technocratic hands beyond democratic control. I think that a combination of the general depoliticisation of British societyand this middle-class capital-rich environmentalism explains the absence of politics in Hopkins’ book and much of this wider liberal environmentalist movement. It is unsurprising to find far more politically conscious and explicit groups in areas with larger student and working-class populations such as Bristol and Brixton.

I finish by re-emphasising the crucial importance of Naomi Klein’s new book in this light. Please buy a copy for any middle-class environmentalist you know!

Please go on to read Part Two of this blog here…

The Choice

The Second Coming by W B Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On Jewish Communists

I am the only socialist in my family. My granddad might still call himself one, but, in reality, his own material struggles and money fetish have left him a socialist of the heart and capitalist of the head. There is no doubt about where his heart lies, however. He met his own beloved wife at a British Communist Party social event in the East End in the late 1940s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish East End was solidly communist. Jews were at the vanguard of the struggle against fascism both at home (against Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’) and abroad (both in Spain and then, of course, in the Allied fight against Nazi Germany).

For many Jews, the ideological commitment to communism ran deep – deep enough to give their lives. For many others, communist affiliation was primarily a strategic position to take in the face of fascism. According to the historians, most Jews at that time seemed to have identified themselves more as ‘Jewish Communists’ rather than ‘Communist Jews’. For them, communism constituted not a means to reach out to the world beyond, but to protect themselves from a threatening world outside.

The dilemma

Seventy years on, and, whilst socio-economic developments have dispersed and diluted Jewish communities and cohesion, a core of religious and/or culturally conservative Jews remain, understandably proud of their traditions and heritage. For them, the parochial East End world remains internalised. Their friends are all fellow Jews, the media and culture they consume reinforce their worldview. However, now a similar combination of capitalist crisis and fascism threatens their world, and, unlike their parents and grandparents before them, the choice they face is not straight-forward.

This past Saturday, the English Defence League held a march in Bournemouth. In response, the anti-fascists, led by trade union Unite, held a counter-demonstration to stop their progress. Ahead of their march, the EDL produced this hate-filled, intentionally provocative video ahead of their march.

The march was planned to go past or near the local synagogue. I suspect that the vast majority of the congregation did nothing other than hurry straight home. However, whilst in the 1930s and 1940s, their affinities would have been anti-fascist, paradoxically, their instinctive self-interest today lies not with the anti-fascists, but with the fascists of the EDL!

The EDL is staunchly pro-Israel. In contrast, the anti-fascists clearly stand in solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinian people against the Israeli state. This amazing video vividly captures this remarkable political dilemma. 3 minutes in, we see a religious Jew making a speech at an EDL rally. 6 minutes in, we see Hassidic Jews standing against the EDL, with the anti-fascists, and denouncing the fascism of the Israeli state!!

‘Dilemma? What dilemma!?’ would be the predictable response of most conservative British Jews, ‘We are in support of Israel, not of the EDL! We can’t help it if these thugs support Israel too!’ That may be true. Yet, as the EDL-aligned Jewish man in this video shows, capitalist crisis can bring together strange bedfellows…

The ‘centre cannot hold’

The British capitalist state, indeed global capitalism, is in profound crisis. While the richest prosper, most people are suffering from historic falls in living standards. Real wages have already fallen around 15% from 2008 levels. Most of the government’s austerity cuts are yet to be implemented. When the next market crash hits, there is the real possibility for a further huge drop in living standards, even for economic collapse.

https://i2.wp.com/www.columnf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Cost-of-Living-Crisis.png

Graph taken from Michael Robert’s blogpost entitled ‘UK: cost of living crisis continues’

The recent rapid rise of extremist parties and politicians across Europe shows again that during capitalist crisis ‘the centre cannot hold’, and that the supposed ‘best’ indeed ‘lack all conviction’.

The choice

Whether they like it or not, the Jews of Europe face a choice. They can endeavour to maintain ever more abstracted ideological, cognitive constructions in an effort to preserve their current worldview and sense of self. These false cognitive constructions are founded on deep-rooted myths about the Jewish people: as a pure race; as ‘chosen’ by God; as the ‘light of the world’; as perennial victims of jealous, godless enemies. Maintaining such constructions will necessitate ‘the worst’ thoughts and acts of ever-increasing ‘passionate intensity’ that will inevitably lead them into alliance with fascists against the supposed enemies of Islam and, ultimately, socialism.

The alternative – one being embraced by ever-growing numbers of Jewish people – begins with challenging and reconstructing one’s ideology, one’s identity, one’s very self. This is a difficult and painful process, but it is one not just of deconstruction, but of ultimate reconstruction. There is an alternative heritage to claim – one of radical, ‘other-regarding’ Jewish history; of the proud and important role that Jewish people have played in human history in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people. What we might call Yad Vashem’s ‘Righteous Among Nation’s in reverse is an awe-inspiring list indeed! It would include such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Naomi Klein, Albert Einstein, Frances Fox Piven…and my new hero, Hedy Epstein!

The Second Coming

We are all born into random places, times, and social groups. We are all told that our god is the true god, that our food is the best food, that our culture is the richest culture. We are all right. We are all wrong.

E F Schumacher once said that ‘everything can be seen directly except the eye through which we see’. The violence of genocide is only possible through dehumanisation of the other, and dehumanisation of the other is only possible through uncritical eyes.

The ‘Second Coming’ is nigh! The ‘rough beast’ in his twenty-first century guise crashes through Bethlehem and on to Gaza. Once more, propelled by capitalist crisis, barbarism looms large.

My call is in no way for any Jewish person to give up their cultural or religious practices. Yet, all Jewish people do now face a choice. We can choose to remain uncritical and, according to a logic of self-regarding self-preservation, ally with the fascists. Alternatively, we can, via a process of self-discovery and reconstruction, proudly recognise the vital role that other-regarding Jewish people have made to the struggle for universal freedom and justice, and to ally with those groups who have always fought, and continue to fight, against anti-Semitism but also against prejudice, oppression, and hate of any kind. In this way, Jewish people can continue to make a major contribution toward building peaceful and equitable multi-religious/ethnic and, therefore, truly socialist societies.

This article was published on the Column F website here

Gaza Q & A – me and ‘them’

Me: Really struggling with the pain of seeing dead, injured, distressed children in particular. It’s intolerable…

Them: ‘But doesn’t Israel have a right to self-defence?’

Yes, it does. And it defends its citizens well from rocket fire. But it recognises itself that it cannot effectively get rid of all sources of rocket attack without mass human destruction.

‘So, what would you do if you were Israel then, huh?’

Well, I wouldn’t have got to this stage by kicking people off their land, treating them like dirt, building a massive wall, effectively imprisoning them, subjecting them to daily humiliations just in the process of their daily lives, taking control of almost all vital resource supplies that people need, occupying ever more of their land, taking control of most water sources. And I wouldn’t have helped build up Hamas out of a desire to always destabilise and disunite Palestinian society.

‘But they broke the ceasefire!’

Which one? The latest one Hamas held to for a long time, I believe, trying also to stop other groups from firing into Israel, but they don’t have the ‘monopoly on violence’ that most normal, mature, functioning states have. The previous ‘conflict’ was started by an Israeli assassination. Ultimately, the ‘who cast the first stone’ question is a red herring. We’re talking about a ravaged and disparate small population in a poverty-ridden open prison on one hand and a modern, disciplined state and army in a wealthy nation on the other.

‘But Hamas is an organisation dedicated to the destruction, the eradication of Israel. How can we tolerate that?’

It’s true that Hamas’ original founding charter of 1988 says words to that effect and is violently anti-Jewish (I won’t say anti-Semitic cos Palestinians are Semitic people too). However, since then Hamas has gradually moved away from that position, particularly when it entered the formal political arena. There’s a well-established history of extremist groups moving toward more accommodating and moderated positions through political participation and dialogue. Those processes tend to isolate extremists and support those with more peaceful and achievable objectives. Also, I’m sure that Israel was still giving support to Hamas way after 1988 in the same way that Israel has also collaborated/cooperated/negotiated with Iranian governments.

‘Look what we did with our piece of desert. We turned it into lush orange groves, olive trees, and a modern economy, whilst they are mired in poverty and corruption’

Well, though the influx of highly educated and capital-rich European Jews helped, it was also largely through US aid and loans and a Cold-War era tolerance of state-directed capitalist development. Also, tell me how Palestinians are to develop their economy in such a situation. As for corruption, people in glass houses – indicted politicians, even presidents; the same political-corporate scandals we see everywhere in post-democratic, neo-liberal Europe and North America. Finally, it’s now a modern economy heavily dependent on violence – security and surveillance and military technology. Israelis lead the world in techniques of social repression and ‘smart’ murder. Is that the elitist vision of being a leading light to the ‘gentiles’ that Zionist Jews had in mind?

What we’re seeing might just be the latest dress rehearsal for the ultimate logical endpoint for Zionism, the ‘ultimate solution’ of the ‘Palestinian problem’ – history repeating itself here not as farce, but as unspeakable and hateful genocide. Thus, it is so heartening to see people all around the world in great numbers speaking out and standing up. They are not anti-Jew, anti-Israel. They are motivated by their profound sense of injustice and are demanding truth, justice, and peace for Palestine. They are demanding an end to imperialism in Palestine and everywhere beyond.

How will capitalism end? – summary of Wolfgang Streeck’s recent NLR article

A summary of ‘How will capitalism end?’ By Wolfgang Streek, New Left Review, May/June 2014

This is a summary of a recent article by Wolfgang Streeck in the latest edition of the New Left Review. Here, Streeck sets out what I consider to be a very persuasive and coherent argument about capitalism’s future.

The New Left Review is a subscription journal to which I personally subscribe. This is why I offer this summary. I would also be willing to send the article to anyone who contacts me about this…

How will capitalism end?

Streeck argues that capitalism is now in a state of terminal demise. The symptoms of this ‘critical trend’ are three-fold and most manifest in its core Western ‘de-industrialised’ economies. They are: (1) Persistent and long-term decreasing growth rates; (2) Increasing and unsustainable levels of public and private debt; and (3) Unrelenting increases in inequality, reaching now historic levels.

Three symptoms of capitalism’s ‘critical trend’ in its core economies:

(1) Declining growth rates

oecd growth rates

(2) Ever-growing debt

US historical liabilities

(3) Ever-rising inequality

OECD gini historical

These three processes are, of course, interrelated and often mutually reinforcing. They are rendering capitalism in a situation in which it cannot keep its social promises of collective progress any longer. At the same time, all the ‘wisest’ sages in the land can offer no remedy for its moribund condition. Finally, Streeck argues that capitalism’s slow death has actually been caused by too much success. Drawing from the work of Karl Polanyi, Streeck argues that the combination of its outright Cold War political and ideological victory and the neo-liberal revolution has hugely eviscerated the previous social and political forces and institutions (trade unions, social movements, left-wing parties) that served to save capitalism from its in-built tendency to push beyond the limits of human, social, and environmental stability and sustainability. Thus, in the absence (or severe lack) of countervailing social resistance, this ‘spectacularly successful onslaught of markets’ is gorging on the life forces that makes capitalism’s very existence as a social system possible.

A mere stopgap

Streeck goes on to argue that the actions taken by Western governments to avert financial and economic collapse in 2008 were a mere stopgap, and, indeed, are setting the scene for a larger, more perilous crash. This view is shared even by capitalist elites themselves such as the Bank of International Settlements and the US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke! Essentially, the world economy has been on a life-support machine of unlimited fiat money for several years now, fuelling asset bubbles in financial, commodity, and property markets, and any report or rumour of the central bankers removing this support provokes fear and disorder on global markets.

Capitalism’s and democracy’s messy divorce

Capital accumulation’s slowdown and stagnation leads it into unavoidable conflict with the ordinary working population who produce surplus-value – capital’s life-blood. Thus, unsurprisingly, what we see now is an increasingly strong-armed attempt to intensify the exploitation of people and nature. At the same time, the rise to political dominance of financial capital has also made a huge contribution to the denigration of democracy. Power over key economic policy areas and political decisions are withdrawn beyond the reach of democratic control, handed to ‘independent’ (read ex-banker) agencies and individuals and supranational undemocratic, executive bodies like the dreaded ‘Troika’ – the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank. At the same time, Western governments are increasing their activity in electronic surveillance of their own citizens, and clamping down harder on industrial action and political protest. Gradually, Western elites are re-developing a disdain for ‘egalitarian’ democracy and remembering their admiration for the efficiency of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.

This is entirely unsurprisingly, since, for most of its history, capitalism has been democracy’s fiercest adversary, and they only really made what seems a temporary peace in the post-war era of the Keynesian social contract. This contract between capital and labour – shared prosperity for higher productivity – could have only lasted as long as corporate profits remained high. The continuous fall in profitability from the 1960s, hitting a nadir in the mid-1970s, heralded a counter-reaction in the form of neo-liberalism. It was Reagan and Thatcher who first violently tore up this social contract.

Five systemic disorders

Moving on, Streeck identifies five ‘disorders’ of the contemporary capitalist system. These are: (1) stagnation; (2) oligarchic redistribution; (3) the plundering of the public domain; (4) corruption; and (5) global anarchy.

(1) Stagnation

Here, Streeck brings more evidence to bear here on how capitalist elites themselves are resigned to very low long-term growth rates. Unsurprisingly, he expects continued low growth (and profitability and, therefore, investment) to provoke ‘ever new ways…to exploit nature, extend and intensify working time, and encourage what the jargon calls creative finance, in a desperate efforts to keep profits up and capital accumulation going’. He notes that low growth will not provide states with the resources needed to appease populations and address social conflicts. With capital accumulation continually reliant on asset markets, the overall prognosis is one of ‘stagnation with a chance of bubbles’.

(2) Oligarchic distribution

The top-heavy financial sectors of many core economies will continue to generate a particularly regressive form of redistribution; in effect, ‘extraction of resources from increasingly impoverished, declining societies’.1

Streeck notes that, with their wealth generated increasingly on financial markets (and via transnational production networks, I would add), ‘plutonomic capitalists’ are caring ever less about their fellow citizens, evading taxes, and shifting their fortunes to safe havens overseas.

(3) Plunder of the public purse

Streeck identifies ‘underfunding’ and privatisation as the dominant mechanisms of public resource plunder. He outlines a historical shift since the 1970s from ‘tax state’ to ‘debt state’ and now on to ‘austerity state’. Regardless of endless evidence of corruption, incompetence, exorbitant cost, and waste, the privatisation game continues apace in the core economies and beyond.

Through this public plunder, Streeck highlights the exacerbation of one of the fundamental tensions of capitalist development described by Marx: on the one hand, you have a system of private ownership and accumulation of wealth in which individuals and corporations endeavour and lobby to minimise their public contributions and maximise what they can extract from the state, yet, on the other hand, their continued capital accumulation depends on the public goods – infrastructure, education, health, etc – that the state provides. This, for Streeck, is one key way in which capital’s triumphant victory is facilitating its ultimate demise.

(4) Corruption

Corruption scandals have grown in number and scale over recent decades, and Streeck attributes this both to the rise of finance – an industry in which the boundaries between legal and illegal, and corporate and political power are blurred or overlapping; and in which the rewards are immense and the punishments comparably minute – and a growing desperation to maintain profits.

Streeck argues that the case for an ethical capitalism lacks popular credibility: ‘public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich’. In short, capitalism ‘has become more than ever synonymous with corruption’.

(5) Global anarchy

In short, Streeck here identifies capitalism’s weakening centre as embodied by the US. US state power is weakening, it is militarily overstretched and almost universally reviled or distrusted, the dollar is under pressure, and this has destabilising effects in the global periphery too.

Conclusion

Streeck’s ultimate conclusion is that ‘capitalism, as a social order held together by a promise of boundless collective progress, is in a critical condition’. You’ve got stagnation, growing debt, and inequality. You’ve currently got the global financial system bubbling on a life-support machine of ‘unlimited synthetic liquidity’. You’ve got the gradual evisceration of democracy. You’ve got the traditional social and political institutions for constraining capitalism’s relentless march in a parlously weakened state.

Instead of more old-fashioned Marxist, modernist views of the only possible death of capitalism as murder by revolutionary proletarian social forces, Streeck here ultimately proposes almost capitalism’s suicide by excess – death after a ‘long and painful period of cumulative decay’.

Brief comment

As I say, I found Streeck’s argument persuasive enough to summarise it here. I understand that the focus of his attention here is on the state of the capitalist system itself. Yet, I think that the necessary complement to this piece would be a sociological overview of counter-hegemonic social and political forces. Though I agree they have been greatly undermined in recent decades, we are undoubtedly experiencing a gradual revival at all levels – from the international to the local. If capitalism remains a weak, wounded animal, flailing around for enemies to repress and blood to suck, this will undoubtedly provoke greater social response and organisation. In short, the future for capitalism will be determined, as ever, by the conflict between threatened elites and angered and disillusioned working people with ever less to lose.

 

Arms, Legs…Limits!

Check out this brief video. It’s at the top of the homepage for the upcoming ‘National Achievers Congress’ in Singapore (where I currently live)…

Now take a look further down the NAC homepage below the video. Here, the NAC introduces its philosophy.

There are big problems in society today, we are told. Some of us can rise above them, but most are ‘stuck down below – working our whole lives meaninglessly and never realizing our full potential’. However, this itself is not the problem, but the symptom. Most of us blame our condition on various things – ‘the government, our education system, foreign talent, the widening income gap’. Nope. None of this is remotely relevant to our circumstances. Instead, we are told in no uncertain terms that the problem is us. We are 100% responsible for the circumstances we find ourselves in: You are the problem, you are the solution. Let’s think about this diagnosis and prescription in the context of Nick’s video.

There’s no doubting that Nick Vujicic is an incredible man. His immense bravery, strength, determination, and charisma are clear to all. I’m sure that he is an inspiration to countless men and women. Yet…and yet…I have a huge problem with his message, with the principles, with the worldview he and this NAC conference espouse

Two observations about the video. First, I think that it’s particularly revealing that the makers of the video did not actually show another human being refusing to come to Nick’s aid. This is a crucial manoeuvre. The whole focus of this event is on the individual. Therefore, Nick’s success, and by extension the success of any human being, has to be portrayed as a sole endeavour. ‘No one is going to help you in your life’ is the clear message we are to take away early on into the film. Yet, since this is as patently untrue for Nick as it is for all of us, it is necessary for the film-makers to abstract from reality. Were they to actually show a fellow human being refrain from helping another in such a desperate and perilous situation they would probably render their plot untenable. This is why we are not allowed to actually see the act of a human being ignoring another’s cry for helpbecause it would virtually never, ever happen.

Second, it’s pretty obvious that the river is there to signify the River of Life. Yet, if this is so, and if we are to believe that whether we sink or swim in the River of Life depends solely on our own attitude and efforts, then pray tell who constructed the makeshift bridge that Nick seeks to cross by? However talented Nick clearly is, I’d like to see him try to build that bridge himself! Finally, it is important to point out that we don’t actually see Nick crossing the river. As an individual, he doesn’t actually attain his goal, or at least we don’t see him doing it. We’re just led to believe that he is now going to make it.

The first point I’m clearly making is that we are not atomised individuals. We are fundamentally social creatures, linked inextricably to a countless number of others by bonds that stretch far and wide, not just through space but through time as well. These bonds are not just direct ones of kith and kin. Just like Nick’s connection to the people who constructed the makeshift path across the river, everything we utilise/consume or produceconnects us with the people who respectively producedor utilised/consumed that very same item, whether we recognise it or not, whether we ever know about those others or not. From this perspective, the whole of human society is linked together through innumerable social bonds.

The second point I wish to make, that follows on from this, is that, since thisinterconnected society is unfortunately structured by different intersecting forms of oppression and hierarchy, the social bonds that constitute our society are expressive of these structural relations. To refer back to my point about consumption and production, for example, it is obvious that social relations of class permeate here throughout. Thinking of who gets to sit in the boardrooms of big companies or the cabinet rooms of government, i.e. in positions of power, it is far more likely to be rich, white, able-bodied men than poor, black, disabled women. Thinking of our education system – an institution which, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are told to believe has no influence on life outcomes – we see a whole system that is reflective and constructive of oppressive structures of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.

Taking these two points into consideration, if I had one question to ask Nick Vujicic, it would simply be this: ‘Do you think you would still be standing there today if you were an Aboriginal woman with the same condition?’

I don’t know what Nick really thinks about the factors behind his incredible achievements. What I do know is this: It’s no coincidence and it’s far from irrelevant that Nick is a white man, and that he comes from a supportive and loving middle-class Australian family. In earlier parts of history or in other parts of the world today, Nick wouldn’t have even been given the chance of life to succeed in the struggle the way he did. I speak with painful honesty when I say that people with significant disabilities were, and many still are, either aborted, did not survive early childhood, forced into freak circus or, may even be killed at birth.

Nick Vujicic deserves all the praise he gets, but to describe his experience as solely the triumph of the individual is a dangerous half-story peddled by those in positions of social privilege who wish to tell the world about their individual success, and whose greater initial endowments make them trumpet the wonders of natural liberty, free markets, and competition.For them, Nick is the ultimate poster boy: ‘Look, so fair and just is this world that you can make it even without limbs! So, you have no one to blame for your poverty or unemployment but yourself!’

The omitted other half of the story is actually far more fundamental. In reality, it was only fortuitous social conditions that gave Nick even the opportunity to live his remarkable life. For every Nick, there are hundreds, thousands of others to whom unjust social structures bequeath a poisoned inheritance. Even with arms and legs, however much they might seek to improve their position, to grow and develop, to love their life, they find themselves borne down by the weight of oppression. The message propagandised by organisations like NAC has a far wider political significance, of course. Currently, many governments (and their supporters in business and the media) are pushing through severe programs of austerity. At the same time, they are telling those in poverty that it’s their fault. The poor, the weak, the oppressed are told by the rich, the strong, the oppressor that the fault for their misfortune lies solely and purely within themselves. This is a myth that has to be challenged and disproved. It is nothing more than a lie.

The real story of Nick Vujicic is that, in terms of one’s life chances,being born with no arms and no legs, but into a privileged social situation, is actually in many ways considerably easier than being born fully able-bodied into a situation of social poverty, oppression and discrimination. Of course, the individual, her/his abilities, efforts, and application matter. They matter a great deal. Yet, I believe that we are, first and foremost, what Marx called ‘social individuals’ – we all have individual preferences, abilities, and dreams, yet we all want and need to satisfy these in harmony and cooperation with each other, and in the service of our society. We want to achieve personal dreams, but we want to achieve dreams that have social meaning and often benefit. I also believe that this can be achieved by the collective creation of a democratic, socialist system. In such a system, we can create the conditions for every one of us to prosper and thrive. Only social individuals, only socialism can create a world for alla world in which every person, regardless of their physical abilities or disabilities, can achieve what Nick Vujicic clearly has.

GET EDUCATED!

I felt compelled to write about this. No thanks to the BBC whose website seems silent on this one (correct me if I’m wrong), but I’ve learned that, since November, the UK government’s (In)Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has stopped prisoners from receiving any parcels that are not urgently needed. Consequently, prisoners are no longer allowed to receive things like new clothes, underwear or books. I want to focus here on books – on education, knowledge, and power. I just want to say that this decision commits an act of true violence on our incarcerated fellow citizens – people who already disproportionately represent the poorest, weakest, and most oppressed sections of our society.

Let’s first take a look at exactly who is languishing in our prisons. I’ve taken all these statistics from the House of Commons Library Prison Population Statistics from July 2013. It’s free to read here. What I found there shocked me. It may not shock the more knowledgeable and cynical amongst you.
The Report’s authors, Gavin Berman and Aliyah Dar, find that England and Wales have the second highest incarceration rate in Western Europe behind Spain. Our prison population has been growing for over a century, but has taken off since 1993, growing at an average of 3.6% since then.

uk prison pop

This chart doesn’t show the sharp increase in 2011, caused partially by the arrest of over 900 (primarily young) people on offences related to that summer’s inner-city riots.
80% of the 88,000-strong prison population are adult men. 40% are under 30 years old. Almost a quarter are under 25. The prison population is disproportionately made up of ethnic minorities.
As you can clearly see, although black people make up just 2.8% of our population, they comprise 13% of our prison population!

prison pop by ethnic group

The number of Muslim prisoners has been growing rapidly over recent years too.

muslim prison pop

Already shocking stuff, but here comes the really, desperately sad and shocking reality of who is living in our prisons. Check these stats out…

  • 24% of prisoners had lived with foster parents or in an institution or were taken into care at some stage when a child.
  • 29% have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. For women, this figure is 53%!
  • 41% have observed violence at home as a child.
  • 59% regularly played truant. 63% were temporarily excluded from school. 42% were permanently excluded.
  • Just a third of prisoners were in a job before arrest. 13% never had a job.
  • 47% had no academic qualifications. In 2003, this was 15%!
  • 35% of our prison population are registered disabled!

So, what can we conclude? It’s pretty straight-forward. We are sending to prison those who have come into this world with the least opportunities, those who have suffered most during their tender, formative years – in short, our prison population is made up in large part of those with physical or mental disabilities; abused and vulnerable children and the adults that these abused and vulnerable children become. There’s no starker example of this I can think of than the incredibly powerful film ‘Stuart – a life backwards’ about the life of an amazing, intelligent, articulate man who suffered so very much. You can watch it here.
Such desperate childhoods create destabilising behaviours and other barriers to learning that deprive sufferers of an education and decent prospects. In the current long depression, with youth unemployment rates at around 20% and vicious cuts being wielded to social services, the prospects of current prisoners are even gloomier.
The cuts are, of course, affecting life within prisons too: overcrowding is rife; resources are cut; programmes designed to educate, retrain, counsel are scaled back or removed. Despite European legal judgments against it, the UK government also remains determined to take away prisoners’ right to vote. And now this…

The decision to ban prisoners from receiving books is an act of violence and fear. It is an act of violence because it sends out a clear message that we should dispense of any lingering hope or belief that prison is meant to rehabilitate. The recent rise in punitive laws and government policies, and the crackdown on those involved in the 2011 riots, reflects the timeless need by the ruling class to maintain order through coercion during times of capitalist crisis. The growing prison population reflects a longer-term trend of deindustrialisation, disinvestment, the demonisation and criminalisation of the poor, and democratic decline. Prof Danny Dorling sums this up when he describes how the UK government’s only investment in social housing seems to be the building of ever more prison cells.
The decision is also an expression of fear. Throughout the five millennia of human civilisation, maintaining control over access to learning and knowledge has been a crucial element in the designs of those in positions of political and economic power. Very often, since political and economic power has been mediated by, and often centred around, religion, religious institutions and the figure of the priest has been central here. We see examples of this throughout human history as far back as the first recorded post-Agricultural Revolution civilisation in ancient Sumer (Mesopotamia). We see this in Hindu India (Brahmans), ancient Israel (Cohanim), and in the Catholic Church. Though far more meritocratic, we see it in the Confucian bureaucratic system of China. Be it justified by religious or political ideology, we see in every society expressions of the natural, innate inferiority of the unwashed masses articulated by ruling elites. Today in the UK we see it in the Etonian-Oxonians who dominate the heights of government of our country and capital city.

The fact that prisons have libraries is important, yet also incidental. The significance of the ban is far more symbolic than practical. It tells us more fortunate ones what young disadvantaged people have known for years – those that rule over us couldn’t care less about us. All they care about is that we produce for the businesses they own and manage, and if, for whatever reason, we can’t do that, they will lock us up, suppress, and, yes, even kill us.

Every post I write will finish on a positive note, a note designed to try to inspire, resist and create. To anyone out there reading this in a prison or excluded for whatever reasons from school or university, it’s not game over. If you can get access to books or to the internet, you can get an education. And I’m not talking about getting  a ‘schooling’. I’m talking about learning about our shared history, about things going on in the world today they don’t report, about learning how to think critically and act ethically – about history, politics, economics, and philosophy. Now that’s a real education – an education that can truly liberate our minds. How did Mandela and so many others in the ANC survive decades in jail? How has Mumia Abu Jamal survived and stayed mentally healthy and free? Education, knowledge, and understanding of self, history, and society – the only way to our individual and collective freedom. We have to resist and come together to educate ourselves and each other. Let’s get educated! I can’t say it better than Akala so just listen to this, but before (or while) you do, just sign this

The Singapore haze – cleverness 1, wisdom 0

singapore haaze

So, here I am in Singapore. It hasn’t rained for over 5 weeks now. It’s hot! To make things worse the air has the subtle taste of acrid smoke. Going outside for more than 10 mins gives me a slight sore throat and headache. What’s the cause? It’s the ‘haze’, stupid! (As Bill Clinton didn’t say).

On first hearing, ‘haze’ sounds kind of pleasant. A summer haze conjures up sweet thoughts and images in my mind – maybe cos it rhymes with ‘lazy days’! But it does sound a bit euphemistic to me.

That said, ‘haze’ does seem to be a proper metereological term for pollution caused by small particles of dust, smoke, or other substances. This is, indeed, what it is that’s hanging over Singapore right now, creeping insidiously and virtually invisibly into every open window, open eye, into every precious child’s mouth and lungs. Not so sweet-sounding now, eh!

It comes from the burning of forests on the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra. Most of this precious rainforest is being burned down by companies involved in palm oil production. In the pursuit of maximum profit, they burn down forest because it is by far the cheapest way of clearing land. No need for heavy machinery, labourers, etc. The scale of this burning is large enough to pollute the air for hundreds of miles around! Local people are suffering greatly.

palm oil fires

Palm oil seems to be in almost everything these days. Go check out the ingredients listed on your cereals or biscuit packets. Apparently, it yields comparatively way more oil than other similar crops. But, the increasing (strongly manufactured) demand for the processed foods consumers crave around the world is driving palm oil producers to greater acts of violence against the natural world. Since we are part of and dependent on our ecosystem, we too are suffering the consequences.

Not even an island of commercial peace and prosperity like Singapore can escape these consequences. The toxic smoke of the ‘haze’ permeates the mouths, throats, and lungs of even the richest Singaporean (though, granted, the richest are most able to jet off out of town).

The response of the Singaporean government is predictable. Its focus is overwhelmingly technical – the provision of masks and the formulation of emergency plans. No one seems to be talking or thinking very much about the root causes of the haze, which I see as the logical consequence of global capitalism. The globalisation of capitalism has meant the formation worldwide of interlinked networks of production, finance, trade, logistics, and consumption leading to the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities on an unprecedented scale. In short, we now have a world market for almost everything. This is how the filthy smog of one industrial town or city (which still, of course, exist) is magnified to become the haze of an entire continental sub-region, and, of course, how we have begun to have planetary-scale effects on our environment.

Back in December, I visited an orangutan sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The organisation running the sanctuary did emphasise protecting the land the orangutans live in. However, just a fleeting mention was made of the reasons behind the devastation of their habitat. Linking terrible consequences to huge impersonal global structures of power and money is neither popular nor attractive. It’s not popular cos it’s not in the interests of those in political power or running the media to highlight them. They’re not attractive cos such meta-analyses don’t lend themselves to the more technical, micro-level policy strategies that charities and NGOs tend to (need to) employ. My buddy Neil Howard just wrote about this. The reality is, though, that sponsoring an orangutan just ain’t gonna fix it!

We can close our eyes to capitalism no longer. Its consequences are genocidal. A recent book by Gary Leech called ‘Capitalism: a structural genocide’ is brilliant here. Leech argues that, though there might not be any obvious identifiable mass-murdering dictator, it’s the structure of capitalism and its relation to humanity and nature that is genocidal. Capitalism is so profoundly entrenched into the foundations of our lives that the vast majority of us don’t really even see it. If the acrid haze became a permanent feature of our lives, would we see that any longer either after perhaps a generation? The forces and systems that fundamentally shape our lives can be, as the saying goes, hidden in plain view.

So, faced with this reality, what can we do? First, we need to make the invisible visible for ourselves – read, listen, learn; second, we mustn’t ignore or despair at what we do learn; third, we can find out about the actions people are taking in the area that interests us; and, fourth, we can take action ourselves. In this case, how about trying to boycott palm oil products and telling others about the consequences of the growing mass market for commodities that use palm oil? No demand = no production = no haze!

The amazing E F Schumacher famously said that ‘humanity is too clever to survive without wisdom’. Clearly, one obvious distinction between cleverness and wisdom can be identified in our relationship to nature. When we suppress, manipulate, exploit nature we sure are clever; when we listen to, observe, imitate, and live harmoniously with nature, we are wise.

At this very moment in my life, as I sit in my apartment in the sky, looking out at this concrete jungle, as the subtle but distinct smell of smoke infiltrates my body, I marvel at our cleverness, but mourn our lack of wisdom.