Invisible workers, invisible systems.

Invisible workers, invisible systems.

By Mark Burton

This is based on a short talk I gave to an event, What have we learned about work during Covid 19 and what needs to change? organised by Manchester Art Gallery. I am grateful to Clare Gannaway and colleagues for the invitation and for permission to use the two pictures.

I was asked to make a selection from a collection of images at Manchester Art Gallery, which is reviewing what should be on public display from its vast collection, and how what it shows can be made more relevant to our people and our times. I chose two pictures and reflected on what they suggested to me.

Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1941-44

Sprout Picking, Monmouthshire, Evelyn Mary Dunbar, 1941-44

I’ve recently picked up my paintbrushes after a long break, courtesy of the lock-down. So the picture is of interest in its capture of a mundane scene, the play of the light and the rendering of the brassicas that appear to have frost on them. Is it the end of the day or the beginning?

The Covid-19 pandemic, and the experience of the lock-down, has made some things more visible to us. So many of us have had the luxury of slowing down, noticing the natural world, experiencing lower traffic volumes and cleaner air, focussing on the important things, like food and family, and maybe taking part in more creative activities. It’s also highlighted the importance of workers in basic services and provisioning – in social and health care, delivery drivers, supermarket workers for example.

Some things, though, have remained largely invisible and Sprout Picking illustrates that for me. While the picture is of a sprout field, in war time, with members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) hard at work, for me, it also looks like the lettuce fields where I spent summers working as a young man. It speaks of the fundamental importance of food and provisioning more generally, something heightened in times of pandemic and crisis. Early on in lock-down, there was uncertainty, and shortages, then for many a renewed focus on food, cooking and quality. But behind it all there is hidden, hard, manual labour. It is back-breaking and monotonous, but there can also be conviviality and comradeship. In the picture there are also what could have been the greenhouses where we also worked, in the heat, training, side-shooting, and picking tomatoes, and I’m reminded of the modern equivalent, the acres of “los plasticos” the polythene covers in Murcia and other parts of the Mediterranean littoral, where, as in the Netherlands and elsewhere, legions of low-waged migrant workers toil. In the picture though, it is probably cold, adding to the hardship in a different way.

What’s happening here, under the conditions of the pandemic, is that, paradoxically, the possibility of our social isolation, is made possible by that hidden, collective labour, now often the lot of those marginalised and displaced. We can stay at home because they can’t.

But there’s a difference. This is from wartime, when the country focussed on producing its own food. The pandemic and brexit give us a hint about the vulnerability of our supply chains and our national dependency on imports.

In the picture, the WLA went out and worked the land. Could we envisage a return of the rural as the linked crises intensify and likely system collapse looms?

>We are in a pancrisis, a series of interlocking crises: 1. carbon pollution – global warming; 2. ecosystem encroachment and edge-convolution1 – biodiversity reduction; 3. resource exhaustion and peak extraction leading to profitability reduction and extraction frontier expansion; and 4. internal contradictions of capitalism – secular stagnation and financial crises. These wider crises have no satisfactory exit within the terms of reference of the current capitalist world system.

It isn’t just food production that makes isolation possible, but all the areas where key workers work:, and in most of these sectors people are most vulnerable to infection.

We have learned that production for need, and use values, are more important than production for profit, and exchange values, but the two sides have become ever more dis-aligned.

The Hell of Copper Series, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, 2008

The Hell of Copper Series, Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo, 2008

Isolation is also made possible by information technology. In the picture we see some of the consequences of the over-production and obsolescence of computing and communication equipment. It is worth quoting from the display label for this photo.

From dawn to dusk, dozens of young Ghanians, from 10 to 25 years of age, exhaust themselves seven days a week. Their mission is to disassemble the old computers and burn certain plastic or rubber components to cull the precious copper, which will then be resold. Everything is done by hand or with iron bars, makeshift tools found among the refuse. They have neither masks nor gloves. There are not even any functioning toilets. The photographic series The Hell of Copper documents the 10 square kilometre electronic graveyard of the Aglobloshie Market in Accra, Ghana where thousands of computers and electronic goods are shipped from Europe and North America. …….

Using their bare hands, the young workers are exposed to lead, mercury, cadmium, and PVC plastic which are incredibly toxic to the human body. These chemicals have seeped into the nearby canal and also contaminate the grazing land for cows and sheep. Ouedraogo’s imagery of the sprawling landscape filled with computer carcasses and the individuals engaged in this dangerous work demonstrate the profoundly troubling consequence of the constant search for the latest phone, fastest computer or new electronic gadget.

This isn’t just a problem with IT. We rely on an enormous shipping fleet to bring materials, fuels and manufactured products across the world: when the ships reach the end of their life they are taken apart in similarly horrendous conditions on the beaches of countries such as Bangladesh.

It’s not only in the exit of such products as waste for possible recycling that such devastation and super-exploitation happens. It happens in the sphere of production too. Computing and communications technology (and “renewable energy” come to that) relies on the mining of rare metals: there are conflict materials – produced in zones of conflict, often funding warring factions. Artisanal mining (a nice name for a nasty reality) is mining by private individuals who, typically without safety regulations or protective equipment, sell what they pull out of the ground for a pittance. Gold, which does not corrode, so is good for contacts, is extracted with mercury, polluting watercourses. There are concentrations of mine tailings and dam disasters like the two big ones recently in Brazil. Ecosystems are devastated by open cast mining, while habitats are destroyed as well as people’s livelihoods and communities, especially indigenous communities. Those who resist often get murdered, sometimes with the collusion of the extraction companies and governments.

Manufacture and assembly of the products is another whole panorama of injustice and exploitation: 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week at Foxconn, for example, where Apple and other products are assembled. These are what we think of as Victorian levels of labour exploitation.

The nexus of profit, the hyper-exploitation of workers, community and ecosystem devastation, these are the consequences of our mode of living. We are all implicated in ways but it is the capitalist system that is culpable.

The pandemic casts a light on inequality, exclusion and exploitation at home but the wider dimensions of the world of work and the capitalist economy remain largely invisible.

The pandemic is the writing on the wall.

We have to make profound changes to the way we all live, and that includes work. The problem is getting a toehold on the system whose parts are mutually reinforcing and and locks in destruction with its incessant expansion.

But that is another story.

1Edge-convolution is used here as concise way of referring to the increase in the ecological edge between wild ecosystems and human-dominated ones, which, together with industrial agriculture is the source of new zoonoses (pathogens of animal origin). See Wallace, R. (2020). Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of covid-19. Monthly Review Press.

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The Post Growth Challenge entries (1)

We received some interesting entries for our Post Growth Challenge.  There weren’t so many as we’d have liked but, as they are all of interest, it does mean that we can share them all.

We purposely called it a challenge rather than a competition, rather like the Queen of Hearts in Alice, saying that everyone (who took the trouble of entering) was a winner, and as such they all received “our very interesting” mini-book, The Viable Economy and Society.

Nevertheless, we did say that we’d identify the one we liked best.  Four raters, two from Steady State Manchester (who submitted one rating form together), one from The Meteor and one from Systems Change Alliance, used five criteria:

A) Consistency with a degrowth / post-growth perspective.
B) Adequately captures the essence of post-growth thinking, or one or more strands within it.
C) Accessibility to a non-specialist audience.
D) Economy of expression.
E) Usability by ourselves in promoting the post-growth approach – i.e. how likely are we to make use of it?

Inevitably we didn’t agree on everything, with some of the entries liked more by some than others.  However, the overall best rated was the ‘zine, Degrowth in Manchester, submitted by Degrowth in Manchester cover imageMaddy Taylor and Neriya Ben-Dor.  We’ve already featured it on our website and you can download it here.

Two other entries were short videos.  One, from Lucy Jonas is an introduction to Doughnut Economics.  It is beautifully produced although for some the music will make the speech a bit hard to hear.  The other, from Tilman Hartley and colleagues at ICTA, Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona looks at a specific challenge for post-growth, that inequality could increase when the economy stops growing.  They explain the dilemma very clearly and assure us that there are policy solutions ….. we await the next instalment!  So here are the two videos.

Doughnut Economics: Principles for putting it into practice.

In our next post we will share the other contributions.

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Viable Greater Manchester: our new policy collection

Now with summary diagram showing how the policies would work to support each other.

Viable Greater Manchester

Policies for a Socially Just & Ecologically Safe City Region, 2021

Front cover: Viable Greater Manchester, click to download

This is a contribution from Steady State Manchester to the debate about policies for the city region.  In it we suggest some key ways to respond here to,

  • environmental challenges including climate change, resource depletion and damage to the environment,
  • deep-seated social problems including poverty, social deprivation and fragmentation,
  • economic problems including debt, unemployment, austerity and instability.

We published the first edition of this paper1 in 2017 and have updated it for 2021, taking account of

  • New challenges – including the evolution of the global “pancrisis”, of climate change, biodiversity loss, ecological overshoot and (as a consequence the Covid pandemic) continued economic, political and social dysfunction.
    • Changes in our region, including the adoption or progression of some of the things we previously called for (a carbon budget, co-operative development, bus regulation), but also despite ambitions for a green city region with social justice, a continuation of the old economic model that prioritises speculative building, inward capital investment and expansion of the freight and aviation sectors.

Such issues need to be tackled nationally and globally as well as here in our region where we can “take back control” and devise our own solutions.

It’s a huge task and we don’t have all the answers. We’ve borrowed and built on ideas from Manchester and all over the world. We do know that we can’t carry on with business as usual. Economic growth, as conventionally understood, is part of the problem, not part of the solution. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) plans contain some good ideas but will not create the fundamental shifts we need to reduce our massive carbon footprint. Nor will they put local people in control and reduce inequalities.

These practical proposals for Greater Manchester are relevant to the work of the GM Mayor, the GM Combined Authority and the local authorities, but perhaps more so to everyone who lives or works in Greater Manchester. They cover money, work, enterprise, housing, caring for each other, democracy, inequalities and the strengths of communities as well as energy and the environment. We set out specific policy proposals and also refer to other documents we have produced setting out detailed policies, or in some cases those of other organisations. In every case we explain our thinking. We don’t always spell out the detail of policies: those who will have to implement them will want to do that, adapting them to specific contexts and needs. Our role is to point the general direction, especially where a change of direction is needed. We do, however try to provide enough clues and background, as well as sources to aid that process. We do not intend to present an exhaustive list of desirable policies, but a representative set for a Viable Greater Manchester.

Download the full 38 page report by clicking here.

1 As Policies for the City Region.

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Degrowth in Manchester – a new resource

We are really pleased to endorse this initiative from Neriya and Maddy, two second year students at the University of Manchester.  In this guest post they explain their ‘zine idea, which you can download or read online, from the links below.

Since our teens, we have both been involved in various climate activist groups. However it wasn’t until university, studying geography and Politics ,Philosophy and Economics, where we were introduced to the concept of degrowth. We both were drawn to degrowth as it facilitated our critiques of an economic system based on constant growth, and a framework through which to address both the pressing social and ecological issues we face.

Initial ideas for the degrowth zine came from our involvement with the four month programme Resist! led by the International Falcon Movement, Socialist Education International. This international programme is all about climate change and intersectionality, where training each month is accompanied by funding from the European Youth Foundation to create a community based project. The first month was specifically about anti-capitalism and the climate crisis, so we agreed it was a great time to create a zine about degrowth, and what a degrowth system means in Manchester, the city where we have been studying for three years.

We worked with a Manchester based artist, Josie Tothill, who created amazing art inspired by parts of the city. This included using old maps and well as incorporating art about modernity. This combination of Manchester’s history and the future is how we conceive degrowth to be and the incorporation of art within our work was something new but incredibly exciting for us. We wanted to make the zine as accessible as possible for different demographics. In part, the project was aimed at the university community, a demographic which has become increasingly frustrated with the marketisation of education and academia. Also, this zine is aimed towards the general public who are looking for solutions to address the flaws in the economic system as well as governmental failures regarding the climate crisis. We tried to tackle the many misconceptions surrounding degrowth in the zine as well as providing small practical things that people can get involved with or read about to learn more. We hope that by creating this zine, people will not only learn about degrowth as a concept, but also show how acts or organisations of degrowing the economy are already occurring in Manchester and hopefully it will encourage more people to join.

Neriya and Maddy

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Jason Hickel introduces Degrowth – book review

Also republished by MR online, 18.03.2021

Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World.

By Jason Hickel, London: Penguin-Random House, 2020. ISBN 978-1-786-09121-5

Mark H Burton, Steady State Manchester.

Degrowth has arrived. It makes appearances in mainstream newspapers, radio discussions and even the blog pieces of mainstream economists. In the last year several books have appeared, one of them published in the UK, by Penguin no less. This is from the LSE-based economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, formerly known most for his work on global inequalities.

Hickel’s book is accessible and engagingly well written, with a good mix of anecdote, facts and argument. The key issues are identified: ecological overshoot leading to crises in the climate system, biodiversity loss and the overstepping of planetary boundaries, taking humanity into the dangerous territory of potential collapse of the systems that we rely upon to sustain life. Hickel is very clear that the overshoot is the result of the capitalist mode of production, itself drawing on the history of colonisation, of nature, peoples and lands. He identifies the contradiction between use and exchange value and the connection between relentless capital accumulation as an end and the growth problem. He notes that this endless expansion of capital is the distinctive characteristic of capitalism. Perhaps surprisingly, he does not identify its motor, the expropriation of surplus value from the labour power of workers.

The book has excellent sections explaining why economic growth cannot, other than temporarily, be decoupled from the growth in material and energy flows. Economic growth is the monetised realisation of capital’s expansion and the the expansion of material flows is what is causing the devastation of ecosystems, both through ever expanding extraction and as a result of the polluting products of industrial production. As Jason Hickel makes clear, switching to renewable energy requires capping, and probably reducing, the scale of energy use, while the re-circulation of materials within the economy only make sense in the context of a provisioning system founded on the principle of sufficiency.

Hickel makes it clear that never-ending economic growth is not a path to prosperity and well-being for all, rehearsing the evidence from comparative and longitudinal studies that have interrogated the association between the scale of the economy and various measures of health, prosperity and well-being. Students of capitalism as a malign system, where impoverishment is the partner of enrichment, will hardly be surprised.

He similarly rules out the technological fix, showing how improved or new technology will not reverse the growth of the overshoot since it doesn’t reverse the accumulation machine. Work has been done on alternative economic indicators and Hickel salutes this work with the caution that although they give us more appropriate measurement of how an economy is doing in relation to planetary and human welfare, they do not, of themselves change the underlying process of expansion.

The book presents an alternative shopping list of policy interventions. I found myself wondering if these really added up to the kind of radical programme that’s needed, although there is nothing wrong with them in themselves. They are listed as, 1) an end to planned product obsolescence, 2) cutting advertising, 3) a shift from ownership to usership (sharing equipment and resources and shifting from individual solutions like cars to collective ones like cycle lanes and buses), 4) ending food waste and 5) scaling down ecologically destructive industries. Elsewhere he adds ideas such as a caps on energy and material use (a proposal that ‘green growthers’ have never responded to), a job guarantee (State as employer of last resort), reduced working hours, debt jubilee (cancellation) internationally and at the individual as well as household level, and monetary reform, of which more later.

This list could be compared with that in the well researched tome by Steffen Lange, who brought together proposals based on an interrogation of the three major macroeconomic theoretical approaches, and with the list that we have suggested, building on work by Giorgos Kallis and colleagues. There are significant overlaps but also additional areas that do not feature in Hickel’s list such as tax reform, changes to the ways buildings are owned and used, a shift to collective ownership or enterprises or a more comprehensive curb on the whole sales and marketing function. In all cases, it should be noted, and in Hickel’s case this is despite a testimonial foreword from two prominent Extinction Rebellion members, they do not amount to a degrowth programme for emissions reduction. That is work that is still to be done, although there are studies to support it such as the work of the MEDEAS group.

Inevitably, I had some dissatisfactions, and in the spirit of comradely criticism, I’ll outline them.

One omission is a thorough consideration of “the agency problem” Like many of us who promote alternative approaches to economy and society, Hickel is good at identifying the problem and contributes helpful ideas on policy. But how is the change to happen? What, in effect is the political economy, and the politics, of a turn to degrowth? Apart from the vindication of a deepened democracy, which should not be controversial, the book is silent on this, with the author, reasonably enough, pointing out that he is not a political strategist. Yet some idea of the political and social movement priorities, together with the system’s leverage points, is very much needed if we are to go beyond making a contrast between the bad and the good. Are we doomed to recapitulate the history of the socialist movement where for decades utopian ideas were proposed with little articulation of how they might come about? That was something explored with precision by Engels in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”, an analysis that is relevant to the degrowth and sustainability conundrum of today.

By making a strong link between the incessant expansion of material and energy flows and the systemic need for increments in accumulation, Hickel points the finger clearly at capitalism. In identifying capitalism as not merely the free market and private enterprise, but that self-expanding system where exchange value rather than use value is prioritised, his formulation is much more adequate than much of the discussion. However, as I have already noted, he omits the ‘law of value’, surplus labour as the source of value under capitalism. Perhaps this is why, in my view, Hickel presents a rather simplistic analysis of the role of money in creating growth imperatives. If we understand the distinctions between value and money on the one hand, and between exchange value and use value, on the other, then it is clear that the creation of money by banks is not the fundamental issue in the expansion of the material basis of the economy. But the book uncritically repeats the proposals of abolishing compound interest and “debt-based currency”. These ideas are the subject of debate within the ecological economics research community and it is by no means clear that they have much relevance to escaping the growth treadmill, although other reforms, such as nationalising the big banks and making the control of credit and interest follow ecological priorities, could be helpful.

In a final section of the book, Hickel reflects on what living ecologically means. He draws upon alternative world views from traditional and indigenous peoples. As he acknowledges, some of the more animist thinking might seem very strange but he argues that it articulates an understanding of the intimate connection between humans and the rest of the living world. He argues that the break in the dominant Western world view came with Descartes and his dualistic philosophy, which as the liberation philosopher Enrique Dussel argues, was intimately linked with the imperialistic expansion of Western Europe and its eclipse of “the other”. Just as native populations (and often women) were defined as less than fully human, so the privileged humans were put on a pedestal, above and separate from nature, characterised by the autonomous mind, separate from the physical body. To me, though, while we should acknowledge the huge resource of indigenous knowledge of ecosystems and how to live with them, some of the passages about traditional spiritual beliefs come over as somewhat credulous. What is needed is an approach that transcends both Western modernism and traditional world views, by adopting a deep ecological understanding of interdependency and the ethical responsibility of humans as ecosystem stewards, using scientific knowledge and dialectical understanding in that work, while also drawing on the insights of the traditional stewards of the land, especially traditional peoples. That perspective, which Dussel terms “transmodern” is essentially the perspective of a subterranean current in socialist thought, from Winstanley via Engels (whose thinking prefigured systems ecology) and Morris, to recent thinkers such as Rachel Carson and Raymond WIlliams, as explored in John Bellamy Foster’s major work, “The Return of Nature”. I think that is probably the perspective that Jason Hickel also takes, but from the book, it is not very clear.

I strongly recommend More is Less as a thought provoking introduction to degrowth thinking. Its main points are consistent with our Viable Economy and Society framework. It would be too much to expect that it were a finished statement of a philosophy and movement that is still evolving, but it certainly makes a strong contribution to it.

To buy More is Less in the UK, why not support a workers co-op, such as News From Nowhere?

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Andy Burnham urged to act against government’s proposed planning system changes

from the Meteor

There must be a better way.

Open letter calls on Andy Burnham, and the leaders of the conurbation’s ten boroughs, to “intervene” in the government’s plans to change the UK planning system, which the campaigners call an “emergency for communities and local authorities across England.”

Campaigners have written to Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, and the leaders of the city region’s ten local authorities calling on them to “intervene” in the UK government’s proposed overhaul of the English planning system. The open letter says the planning proposals are tantamount to telling developers to “get on with it – do what you like.”

The open letter coordinated by the Manchester Local Plan Coalition, and signed by a diverse range of campaigning organisations, expresses concern about the loss of local democratic control which they say the government’s controversial new planning laws will cause.
……………………. Click to read the full article on The Meteor.

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The Post Growth Challenge

The Post Growth Challenge

Extended deadline midnight, GMT, Wednesday 31 March, 2021.

An initiative in collaboration with the Manchester Meteor and the Systems Change Alliance.

What?

A cooperative challenge to find a better way to present the post-growth alternative.

Why?

Over the last two years, various Green New Deals have become very popular. This demonstrates that a set of policy ideas can be effectively communicated by combining them into one positive package.

In contrast, the ideas and proposals of the degrowth, post-growth and steady state economy movements can appear complex, vague, negative and unattractive. Can we overcome that disadvantage by trying to do what the Green Dealers have done and present a Post-Growth Deal? There’s one way to find out – let’s try it!

How?

We invite you to present your Post Growth Policy package.

It needs to be presented in straightforward, concise, easy to understand, and attractive terms, without denying the real difficulties involved in reducing the material and energy throughput of our economies.

This could be done as,

  • A short policy briefing – of up to 600 words (you can use appendices to go into deeper detail).

Or…

  • You could present it in graphic terms, as an ‘infographic’, a cartoon or a comic strip, for example.

Or…

  • You could make a short video (max 5 minutes) to get your ideas over.

Or..

  • Maybe you’ve an even better idea for how to present it– the choice is yours.

Who?

Anyone who is interested in creating an economy that can sustainably support life on Earth.

We anticipate two classes of entry.

A)   Those focussing on a post-growth future in the specific context of Greater Manchester.

And

B)    Those with proposals for national or inter-state (European Union, ALBA, Mercosur, UN, etc. etc.) implementation.

When?

Send us your entries by midnight, GMT, Wednesday 31 March, 2021. – Extended deadline

How and where?

Entries should be sent to steadystatemanchester[AT]gmail.com

Articles, briefings, stories, or infographics should be sent in the form of an email attachment. They can be wordprocessor documents ( .odt, .doc, .docx), pdf files, or image files (.jpg, .png, ..gif, .svg). Please keep attachments to less than 2 megabytes in size. For anything larger, compress it or send as a file link (e.g. using dropbox, box, spideroak, google).

Videos should be uploaded to a video hosting platform and a link sent to the above email address.

We will acknowledge entries.

Prizes!

“Everybody has won and all must have prizes.”

All participants will receive a printed copy of our pamphlet, “The Viable Economy … and Society”. The entry that we like best in each class will be presented with a tee-shirt with the Steady State Manchester logo1. Wear it at events, or wear it in bed: we don’t mind!

Most important, though will be that we will publicise the best entries, through our various local and international networks.

In addition we might invite the creator of our favourite Greater Manchester entry to jointly nominate a local post-growth organisation for a small grant.

Rights

All entries will be made under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This allows anyone to share the work in its original form, so long as they give proper attribution to the creator.

1  So long as we have your size available.

 

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Systems Change Alliance interview us Wed 16 Dec, 11..00 a.m.

Interview with Mark Burton and Carolyn Kagan – Steady State Manchester

This interview went out live on Wednesday Dec 16 2020.  Watch it below from the System Change Alliance YouTube channel.

Mark and Carolyn talk with Alexander McDonell about their work with Steady State Manchester, how to achieve a steady state society and the Viable Economy.

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