Politics and the New Economy: Speech to New Economy Network Australia conference
This is the text of a speech by Executive Director Tim Hollo to the New Economics Network Australia conference, Brisbane, September 3, 2017.
What role for politics in building a new economy?
I want to start with a slightly provocative question: why are we framing this as an economic exercise instead of a political one? Prioritising the economic frame implies that the organising principles of human society are economic: the production and consumption and exchange of goods and services.
Why not politics instead? Politics, essentially, is the process through which we come together to make decisions that affect the community and the world we live in. It includes the economy, but goes broader, governing all kinds of interactions, how we relate to each other and the world we are part of.
Granted, too often politics is a realm of bitter arguments within a very narrow spectrum; bickering, deceit, failure. But, at best, it can be a critical venue for the constructive contest of ideas.
Politics is the art of the possible, they say. But, when practised with bold vision, it is a creative practice that can make the impossible possible.
If we are to build a new society, a commons-based society that aims for mutual decision-making towards an equitable and ecologically sustainable future, shouldn’t we be discussing and planning a new politics suited to that task? Shouldn’t we be talking about an ecological politics; a politics of the commons?
This presentation seeks to articulate a politics of the commons:
- how its understanding of the role of government differs from existing politics;
- how its practice differs from the existing practice of politics; and
- how it can be built, alongside the new economy, from within the old.
But first, let’s briefly traverse some of the ideas we’ve been discussing this weekend, in the political context now, rather than the economic.
So, we’re at the end point of a millennia-long process of alienation and disconnection, and of homogenisation. Since we first built cities and started leaving the land, we have been disconnecting from nature; losing sight of it, quite literally; losing our vocabulary of it, to the extent that blackberry is no longer a fruit to be plucked and eaten but a device to tie us to our labour when we’re on the toilet.
While this slow severing has been going on for thousands of years, it’s really the last few centuries, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism, which performed the amputation. We have, bit by bit, been alienated from each other, from our labour, from democracy. We are alienated deliberately, by a system which declares we have great choice while turning everything into the same grey goo / Disneyworld / supermarket aisle full of different but identical toothpastes; which insists that we have great freedoms while systematically removing more and more of our capacity to have any real control or influence over, or stake in, anything real in our lives.
And this has led us to the point of crisis. Ecological crisis, obviously. Social crisis: mental illness, family violence, obesity. Democratic crisis: it is very real disenfranchisement that gives power to “Make America Great Again”, “Take Back Control” and other slogans of the extreme right demagogues. They correctly identify that “elites” have taken control of our lives, have bought or stolen or been given our institutions, our democracy. But then they perform the classic fascist bait and switch. They grab the disconnection and bring people together, not in order to cooperate to build better futures, but rather as the mob, primed and ready to incite. They rile people up about unfairness and inequality and lack of control, and then misdirect it, away from the real causes of corporate capitalism and towards some scary other, like Jews, Muslims, blacks, immigrants, gays, the unemployed. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, they use the cover to complete the corporate take-over of the state.
It’s no coincidence that this era of disconnection, of hyper-individualism, is the era which has seen the progressive and systematic enclosure and destruction of the commons. A destruction so complete that most of us no longer understand what the commons is. We think of it, in our disconnected way, as a stand-alone thing – a field, or the atmosphere – when it is in fact a process, a system by which a community agrees to manage a resource, equitably and sustainably.
The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, AND the people, AND the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, prevent free-loaders, share the benefits. It’s telling that Garrett Harding’s complete mischaracterisation in The Tragedy of the Commons sets out how individuals who, for some reason, can’t or won’t talk to each other, can’t or won’t cooperate with each other, will fail to manage commonly held resources. Well, that’s no surprise. But it’s not a description of a commons – it’s a description of capitalism.
If we are looking for a new politics, then, capitalism is a key part of the problem. But is socialism the solution? I would argue that socialism and capitalism are both political tools for managing the economy – the production and consumption and exchange of goods and services – and both frame society entirely within that rubric. Neither has the capacity to deal with the crisis of disconnection, of disenfranchisement, that is at the heart of the many crises we currently face. Both drive homogenisation, steamrolling local cultures of all kinds, failing to appreciate the strength that comes from interconnected diversity – the secret recipe of ecology.
This is critically important in the context of current debates within Green and social democratic politics around the world. I propose it in part as a way through Greens ructions, and a way past Corbynism.
Let me make myself a little clearer: we do not face a choice between the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of centralised control. We do not face a choice between privatisation and public ownership. This is not a binary.
The commons presents another model that is about participatory, deliberative democratic paths, embedded in nature, based on the principle of subsidiarity, or what Ostrom calls polycentricity, putting control into the most local hands possible, and limiting the opportunities for domination and free-riding.
Viewed another way: under capitalism, nothing is connected, everything is atomised, all is abstraction. Under socialism, people are connected, but often excluding the natural world, and not always sufficiently democratic and participatory, due to its systemic tendency towards centralisation. Under commons-based ecologism, everything is connected.
Conceptualise it a third way: for the right, government should get out of the way of business but maintain social order. It’s a rhetoric of freedom with an increasingly obvious undercurrent of hard control.
For the old left, government knows best. It’s a rhetoric of democracy with an undercurrent of paternalism increasingly apparent, for example, in race and gender relations amongst Bernie Bros.
Neither of them gives people back control over their own destiny. Neither of them can deal with the disconnection and disenfranchisement which are at the heart of the crises we face.
For the commons, for ecological politics, government’s role is to enable people and communities to find their own way, within the context of equity and sustainability, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse. This is, of course, a part of the left – a green left. It implies strong regulation of corporations and markets, because they are based on rewarding free-riding. It implies high taxes on the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth because they are the basis of cooperation and trust. It implies true equity, deep equity, systemic equity.
If that’s the conceptualisation of the new politics, what might it mean in practice?
Essentially, the task is to connect people once again with politics, with governance, with democracy. To re-enfranchise ourselves. That has to be done from the ground up, but it can be supported institutionally, rather than undermined. And it can be done through prefigurative politics – demonstrating leadership towards the new politics, showing what it can be, and building around that.
Think about our current system: government no longer has any real presence in our lives thanks to privatisation and corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services. The relationship between citizen and government has become one of customer and service provider, in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role, with the undermining of the power of voting, of protest, of parliaments, even. See the access corporations have to parliaments and MPs. See investor-state dispute resolution in international trade law, where companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often when citizens have no such power themselves.
We need to flip that by making the community, the commons, the focal point of government, by building participatory democratic processes and institutions at every level. I’m not talking about ridiculous things like postal vote surveys, but citizens’ juries for major issues, participatory budget processes, participatory planning in local areas – proactively, rather than only as a reaction to developer proposals – things like co-governance agreements that Bologna is implementing with citizens to deeply involve them in urban projects. Political parties can act on this by being ever more truly grassroots, involving members and supporters in decision-making processes.
Also, remembering that we don’t face a privatisation vs public ownership dichotomy, government and politics can and should support the growing body of local, community-based democratic and participatory initiatives. We can give institutional support to sharing and repairing, for example, from underwriting public liability insurance to giving tax breaks to repair, as the Swedish Greens recently implemented. We can regulate to encourage and support the development of community and worker-run cooperatives, from childcare to fruit packing, from food coops all the way through to large scale energy cooperatives.
Taking coops into the political space, we can be inspired by the truly participatory politics of, for example, the recently elected government of Barcelona. In the wake of the GFC, with Spain deep in recession and government (and EU institutions) driving austerity, a tremendous coop-based people’s movement arose across the country, the Indignados, the movement of the squares, food sharing coops, childcare sharing coops, healthcare coops, housing coops, squatters groups and more. In Barcelona, they powerfully organised into a political movement called Barcelona en Comu – Barcelona in Common. I was lucky enough to travel to Barcelona earlier this year and met with some of the people involved, hearing about the direct line between building those coops, organising them together in grassroots ways, with both practical projects and theoretical thinking, leading to the creation of a political project which won minority government last year. Now, of course, they are struggling with how to create institutional change, particularly with national and global powers arraigned against them. But they have successfully taken back control of water supply, legitimated squats, are working to make energy a public right rather than a commodity, and much more. It will be fascinating to watch their progress.
I also travelled to London and met with the people behind the Participatory City project there. Trialled in south London and now starting a far larger project across the huge and very poor Borough of Barking, they are working with local government to provide institutional support to communities to develop their own urban commons projects, from cooking coops to knitting groups, from pop up shops to creative cafes, partly because of what each project brings, but largely because of the overarching benefits across the community. They have already found that these projects reduce a vast range of social ills from homelessness to drug addiction to family violence. They see it as a different mode of politics: not public, not private, not paternalistic, but participatory.
A vital part of the equation here is to ensure that local community activities are linked to the systemic, political goal. Participating in a local Buy Nothing Group is, I firmly believe, a non-capitalist act, but it becomes a transformative one when explicitly and directly connected to the greater whole.
Similarly, participatory and deliberative political processes at a small, local level effectively prefigure a different way of doing higher level politics. Our adversarial system, where politics becomes a gladiatorial battle rather than a tournament of ideas, contributes to disillusionment and disenfranchisement. By building models of a more cooperative politics, we can show how politics can be, and involve more people in more positive ways.
Very briefly, I want to raise two abstract notions that influence politics and that need to change, and two very practical ideas that I see as powerful strategic interventions.
Firstly, there’s the nonsense of the prisoners’ dilemma that is so all pervasive in politics and policy. The prisoners’ dilemma is a test from within capitalism, designed to ensure there can be no alternative. In supposedly testing human behaviour, it assumes both selfishness and the inability to communicate. It is designed to reject and annihilate the entire concept and capacity to cooperate. We have to ditch the idea and move on.
Secondly, there’s the nonsense of the discount rate. Economists say that we humans value things today more highly than we value things in the future. That may be true. But then, instead of designing approaches which counteract that deeply problematic prejudice, they created the concept of the discount rate, plugging into models of the economy a deliberate reduction in importance of the future. A commons politics must reverse this – if anything, implementing an interest rate, to structurally require us to take the future into account instead of discounting it.
On practical points of strategic intervention, one of my personal passions, which I spoke about at this conference last year, is working to reclaim public space from advertising. This is one of the starkest examples of governments handing over commons to private interests to profit from, and we can and must reclaim it, as cities such as Sao Paolo and Grenoble have done. Other forms of reclaiming public space commons going on include the fun “parking” parties, turning parking lots into guerilla parks, to the more pointed Occupy campaigns. In a sense, occupying a politician’s office is a form of reclaiming the commons, isn’t it? These are practical, commons-based political actions with deep, systemic flow-on effects.
And finally, I want to raise the growing push for a Universal Basic Income. Essentially, all a UBI is is a system where income doesn’t start at zero, to ensure that nobody in our society lives in poverty. Just like we agree that nobody should do without health care, and nobody should go without at least a basic education, nobody should be left in poverty. But, deeper than its redistributive effect, it is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources, time, energy, support they need to take the steps they might want to take in life. It is an enabling policy for the great majority of people, while, through the implied and necessary tax increases on the rich, limiting and inherently devaluing free-loading and greed-based behaviours.
To bring these ideas together, at a recent forum on UBI that I attended, it was suggested that the best way to achieve a UBI is through a broad-ranging participatory, deliberative democratic project, engaging as many people as possible in thinking it through and designing it. I love that idea.
To me, it encapsulates a vision of, and a path towards, a commons-based ecological politics.