A Recession can be Fun (updating my book)

My book was a coherent statement of my philosophy in 2011. A blog can respond to events, but  it becomes jumbled and repetitive. An update can take account of further reading and developments.

I must start by reminding readers that I have set myself the apparently impossible task of persuading both Socialists and Conservatives who want to save the planet for future generations that both sides must accept some initially unpalatable ideas from their former enemies, and that they need to form an alliance against their former friends who still think growth is always good.

An important new influence on me is ‘The Origin of Capitalism: a longer View’, By Ellen Meiksins Wood (verso, 2002). After exposing better known theories, including by Marxists as begging the question, Wood’s thesis is that Capitalism is a major consequence of a more fundamental earlier development: the monetization of contributions in kind. This occurred in mediaeval England, and nowhere else. Among other consequences, such as landless labourers who must find paid work or starve, it opened up novel opportunities, and facilitated innovations which led first to the agricultural revolution, and in due course to the industrial revolution, with capital accumulation as a natural part. Markets and the profit motive had always existed, but they, especially the latter became dominant in a way they never had been before. These developments gave England an advantage, which others, and eventually the world (except for a few corners where no outsiders wish to live) had no option but to copy.

Ellen Wood’s crucial insight is that the opportunities created by the flexibility of monetary exchanges created imperatives, which apply to everyone, and are still driving economic activity. The Tragedy of the Commons is is a sub-set of the problem of the Tyranny of small decisions. But most if not all those small decisions turn out to be opportunities created by entrepreneurial innovations, which in practice become de rigeur. Visiting family on other continents is unsustainable, but who would for example fail to help at the birth of a first grandchild, or not visit at Christmas?

But there is also the tyranny of quite large decisions. Shale gas must remain underground if runaway climate change is to be avoided. But Cuadrilla, for example, is instead trapped by the imperative that if they do not take advantage of a new gas field, someone else most assuredly will.

In my book and résumé, I point out that the dynamics driving the Tragedy of the Commons, are extremely powerful per se, where an individualistic, competitive culture develops because expansion has been possible, but this has ended. The imperatives described by Ellen Wood lock a society firmly into the ‘Tragedy’.

I cite Rapanui, Easter Island, as a real life ‘Tragedy’. However, doubts have been raised as to Jared Diamond’s account. The reason may have been rats, as will be seen from this link. At the time of writing I have been unable to find out whether Professor Diamond has commented on the Hunt/Lipo theory. As a layman I think it improbable that the original islanders tolerated the discovery of rats in their flotilla of canoes. Polynesians do not generally regard rats as food. But even if that is what happened, the Tragedy is still the explanation. If rats were not a problem on the island where the voyage started, it is an example of a species introduced into an alien environment taking advantage of a temporary ability to expand, which ends by wrecking that environment. This red herring leads me into a rather darker insight, that of a new mediaevalism, which I shall discuss later.

I still see the original Green Party project as necessary: to popularize the possibility of living without growth being in many ways preferable to the current competitive rat race. But the difficulties in presenting that option remain formidable. I saw a group purporting to be a political party becoming a real party from the publicity it gained. That strategy was abandoned quite early. But it was inevitable that the party would not only continue to duck difficult references to zero growth, or steady state, but that such an approach would be quietly dropped. It does not feature in the Party’s website. The influx of new members since Blair became Labour Party leader  in 1996, and especially the huge influx in 2014 are largely unaware of the original ‘Limits to Growth’ raison d’être for the Green Party. A small group actually regard environmental policies as a hindrance to the socialist party they really want.

Paradoxically, Ellen Wood’s ‘imperatives’ reinforce this last group’s contention that Capitalism is a major problem. But they also reinforce my contention that attacking it is pointless. We need to approach them more in sorrow than in anger, with something which will help them to escape the imperatives. Not only are the capitalists too strong, with control of the main media outlets, but even if they accepted the IPPC reports (as I believe many of them secretly do), they have no option but to to deny it, and to continue headlong towards the Tragedy with business as usual.

All this reinforces my contention that something is needed to allow whole populations to accept that a recession  on ecological grounds is to be welcomed, not feared, and which will also begin to split the ‘pro-capitalist’ vote. I am aware of only one such ‘something’. Although the Green Party is still not grasping the ‘no growth’ nettle, it remains the brightest hope in a currently dismal political field.

This post will be re-printed as a Page, so that it will remain prominent. Next week I shall continue this update with an exploration of the emergence of a new mediaevalism, ands the problem that no one can allow themselves to be put at a disadvantage.

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