An economy that does not grow?

An economy that does not grow?

Mark H Burton

                                                                                                                                     pdf version

cover of S Lange, Macroeconomcs Without Growth - click for the publisher linkThere is now plenty of evidence that economic growth is highly problematic for human welfare and survival. The evidence comes from three domains. 1) The ecological: continual growth uses up the resources that supply and the sinks that take the waste from human activity globally. 2) The social: economic growth does not correlate well with human welfare and its supposed benefits, rather than being shared, become ever more concentrated at the top of the wealth and income pyramid. 3) The economic: economic systems that rely on perpetual growth are inherently unstable, and meet internal and external constraints (or contradictions) that undermine them.

While it may be clear that the wager on endless growth is a bad one, a more difficult question arises: “what would be the characteristics of an economy that does not grow?”.

In his book “Macroeconomics Without Growth1” Steffen Lange attempts to construct a framework for answering this question, rooted in the three main approaches to theorising the economy, hence the subtitle: “Sustainable Economies in Neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian Theories”. The book is a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of degrowth and provides a solid grounding for interventions in the policy arena, including those by political parties that seek to construct a coherent alternative, rather than a mishmash wish list of proposals. A strength of the book is its rigorous, formal analysis of the main theoretical approaches and what they say about the preconditions for growth, and the possibilities of zero growth.

As such the book extends to 583 pages, and the detail, with recourse to mathematical formulae to capture the various models and sub-models, will mean that many will not read it. The aim of this essay review, then, is to summarise the book, emphasising the synthesis reached by Lange, and suggesting a few issues that arise.

In search of the macroeconomics of post-growth.

Lange sets out to answer a specific research question, “which macroeconomic conditions lead to sustainable economies without growth?”, where “sustainable”, refers to environmental sustainability, social welfare and economic stability.

The problem

First, some clarification about the term “economic growth”. In everyday speech, and that includes that of politicians, journalists and other commentators, “economic growth” is typically used without definition. It can generally be assumed to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at national level (and for groupings of countries when added together), or Gross Value added (GVA) when used for sub-national economies. It will generally be corrected for changes in prices over time, and for country to country comparisons, corrections are made for population and for some purposes, for local prices: there are methodological choices made ,and controversies about, such corrections. However, “economic growth” might also refer to growth in incomes, or to growth in the material aspects of the economy, that is to say, the volume of products made or consumed. These distinctions are important since the discussion to follow does concern the relations between GDP growth and change in the volume of materials and energy that flows through the economy, and the extent to which it comes out at the other end as pollution. However, for most purposes, it can be assumed that in most non-technical discussions, it is GDP or GVA that is meant by “economic growth”. GDP does, however, correlate well with the material flows of an economy (as evidenced, for example in carbon emissions). In scholarly work, the terms are more usually defined when used.

Lange begins his book with an overview of the key issues for the macroeconomic dynamics of growth. Central to this is the debate over decoupling of GDP growth from environmental impacts (on resources and sinks). The growth advocates suggest that because GDP measures aggregate value rather than material flows, change in one need not follow the other. Moreover, it is often argued that growth is needed to fund the investments needed to reduce emissions and to substitute for unsustainable resources. The growth critics argue that such decoupling between GDP growth and material flows is unlikely to be achieved at the levels needed to mitigate the damage.

Lange explores these issues in detail, bringing in the relevant economic concepts. He then identifies the existing alternative approaches, broadly Daly and collaborators’ Steady State Economy, the European continental Degrowth literature, Prosperity and Managing Without Growth in the work of Victor and Jackson, and from the German language literature, Postwachstum. While these approaches do use concepts from ecological, Keynesian, and Marxian economics, Lange notes that they are not generally based within a macroeconomic framework, one that seeks to understand how the economy as a whole behaves. They also do not draw on the dominant neoclassical approaches. The result is the “research gap” that he identifies:

… a lack of research on conditions for economies without growth based on well-established, comprehensive, macroeconomic frameworks” (pp. 29-30).

Three theoretical approaches

The heart of the book is a detailed exploration of neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxist economics, asking how they understand economic growth and its drivers, whether a non-expanding economy can be envisaged within each framework. In doing this there is a particular focus on the interplay between technological change, money, investment, profit, expenditures by different sectors, consumption and labour productivity.

Each of the three paradigms, neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxist, is itself diverse and Lange, even in such a long text, is necessarily selective. This is particularly the case with the Marxist contributions where he only focuses on Marx’s classical account and the monopoly capitalism revision associated with Baran and Sweezy and authors associated with Monthly Review (and the Marxist ecological economics also associated with this current)2. Nevertheless, there is sufficient material for him to extract key ideas from the three paradigms and it is these that inform his conclusions, the focus of the next section. The surprising finding is that from each of the three paradigms (and their variants), the preconditions of an economy without growth can be extracted.

A model of sustainable economies without growth.

Where the book is particularly helpful is in the closing chapters. Here, on the basis of his investigation, Lange synthesises an overall macroeconomic model of an economy without growth. Because that is likely to be of most interest to a majority of readers, I’ll set this out here. Inevitably, this misses out many subtleties and steps in the argument. As you will see, the implications of Lange’s review are not a matter of minor tinkering but indicate the need for a major overhaul of the economic system.

Overall description

Design features

An economy that does not grow has the following overall characteristics.

  • Firms are collectively owned: collective ownership discourages large retained revenues which would drive capital accumulation and marketing.

  • Increases in revenues and in labour productivity maintain high wages, and/or improve working conditions and reduce working hours.

  • These firms sell their products within a market that is subject to the following rules and regulations.

    • There are strong environmental policies such as strict limits on the exploitation of natural resources and strong environmental taxes.

    • The government acts to reduce the non-wage costs of employment while increasing the cost of energy, natural resources and physical capital (buildings, production plant etc.).

    • Policies prevent economies of scale and favour diseconomies of scale – for example by increasing transport costs, favouring small firms and local infrastructures.

    • The sales function is strictly regulated, including strict regulation of advertising and built in obsolescence and new features.

    • Policies such as incentives and regulations support the reduction in working hours.

On the supply side of the economy, production levels are constant, gross investments only occur at the level of capital depreciation, technological change is re-directed to clean production, and working hours reduce. Note that firms have no incentives to invest above the rate of capital depreciation because of the pressures to stay small and local (diseconomies of scale). Firms are incentivised to improve resource efficiency. Increases in labour productivity are modest, because energy and other resources are expensive. Any increases in productivity go towards the reduction of working hours: collective ownership militates against dismissals while people prefer increasing leisure rather than increasing income.

On the demand side, private consumption and government expenditure stays at a constant level and shifts from dirty (i.e. environmentally damaging) to clean products. Personal and household consumption stays static because incomes are not increasing and “the sales effort has been largely repealed”. Government spending stays static since it is not needed to expand employment. Private and State consumption shifts towards cleaner products because the ensemble of production factors in this economy makes them relatively cheaper. Moreover, political attitudes favour cleaner products.

With regard to money, there are no savings and no continuous expansion of accumulated assets by any sector or grouping. This is the result of zero net investments. Without growth, asset accumulation by one group would require the accumulation of debt by another. The lack of accumulation is achieved through low economic inequality, redistributive government policies and banking system regulation.


These conditions lead to the following outcomes for the economy as a whole.

  1. Because aggregate demand and supply stay constant over time, there is zero growth.

  2. Pollution (i.e. including emissions) decreases because production stops growing and technological innovation is directed towards emission reductions and due to shifts from low labour, high emission (i.e. dirty) products to low emission, high labour (i.e. cleaner) ones.

  3. Wealth inequality is low because the ownership of firms is distributed, shared, across the population.

  4. Income inequality is low since wages are the only source of income (i.e. there is no accumulation of assets that then generate income as interest, dividends or rent).

  5. The economy overall is stable because employment levels are kept high and there is no instability arising from the money system.


Lange is clear that there are limitations to his work. Firstly, the analysis is for closed economies. We know that the current circuits of extraction-production-distribution-consumption-pollution are global in nature. They involve massive power and wealth imbalances – Western economies have rested for at least 200 years on the exploitation of resources, labour and markets in poorer countries. Moreover, a country attempting to move to a no-growth model would have to deal with the instabilities and pressures arising from the tendency of other economies to grow and the interdependence of national economies in global markets.

This leads onto the second shortcoming: there is, as Lange points out, only sporadic treatment of political economy, the interrelation between power, as politics and economics. The dominant system of power actively maintains the present capitalist growth economy and, as he acknowledges, it has to be confronted and itself transformed if there is to be any real change.

Many of these policies stand in conflict with the interests of strong social groups. In particular, the interests of the capitalist class … or oligarchy.. These groups would lose major parts of economic wealth and income and the ability to accumulate capital…. Strong social movements and alliances between different (in particular the labour, environmental and feminist) movements are the most plausible manner to implement these conditions anyhow.” (p. 537).

Thirdly, and related to the previous point, the policy dimensions are presented in relatively abstract terms rather than as “oven ready policies” that a government might be able to implement. As a macroeconomic account, the book does not concern itself with the vital question of who implements the implied changes to the system: what is the balance between top-down and poplar, bottom-up system reform, for example?

A fourth shortcoming is the limited consideration of land as a unique and finite resource. Countries are, by definition, defined by a delimited geographical area, which is differentially valued and valuable based on relative location (i.e. land in the City of London versus land in rural Yorkshire have different relative values). Indeed, the extent to which the economics of land as a unique factor of production, or as a “fictitious commodity” is lacking in most macroeconomic theories3.

However, these shortcomings do not detract from the achievement of the book which is to produce a coherent and theoretically pluralistic macroeconomic account of the preconditions for an economy that does not (have to) grow.  It puts more flesh on the bones of the steady-state / post growth economy (something we try to explore and promote at the regional scale), showing that it is a feasible option, although it will be very different in almost every respect, from the economic system we know today.  It will be a valuable tool for those working out the detail of the necessary transition to a post-growth society, and economy and for those, in multiple sectors, struggling to bring it about.

I am grateful to James Vandeventer for comments and suggestions on a draft of this review.

This article is now also available at

pdf version

1 Lange, S. (2018). Macroeconomics without growth: sustainable economies in neoclassical, Keynesian and Marxian theories. Marburg: Metropolis-Verlag. See;jsessionid=D57C51C17FAA0E4D72B788EB9B71301C

2 Baran, P. A., & Sweezy, P. M. (1966). Monopoly capital : an essay on the American economic and social order. New York: Monthly Review.
Bellamy Foster, J., Clark, B., & York, R. (2011). The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: New York University Press / Monthly Review Press.

3 To introduce this issue does not mean we are saying that all value stems from land.

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Does ecological sustainability mean the end of growth and capitalism?

FLyer for the eventOn Sunday 4th November, people from Manchester and beyond packed a lecture theatre at the University of Manchester to hear a debate titled “Is Capitalism Unsustainable?”, organised by the University’s Political Economy Centre.  The speakers were local climate scientist Kevin Anderson, MEP and “green economist” Molly Scott Cato, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis and Economist Robert Pollin.  Kallis and Pollin participated by video link from Barcelona and Massachusetts, respectively.  The title was maybe a bit misleading since a lot of the discussion was about the economic strategies for dealing with the climate emergency, but inevitably this is also about the dilemma of green growth versus degrowth and the future of the capitalist system.  It was rather ironic that it took the non-economist on the panel to explain most clearly how the present economic system of endless growth and grossly unequal accumulation must be confronted head on if there is to be any chance of averting this crisis.

Below is an analysis of the debate by Peter Somerville, a Manchester resident and academic at the University of Lincoln.  He and I have also written a longer critique (available on request) of Pollin’s recent article in New Left Review which promotes the green growth idea.
I agree with most of what he says, though I think the debate between growth and degrowth is still relevant.  In a question from the floor, Beth Stratford made an interesting point that perhaps the only way to make green growth work is via resource and energy caps – i.e. legislating to restrict the flow of finite and polluting resources into the economy.  Such an innovation, not a very likely prospect maybe, could transcend the degrowth – green growth debate.  I also disagree with Peter’s final comment on the “who is greenest?” game: people in positions of influence and leadership really do need to take the high moral ground and model actions and lifestyles that are resource-light, such as refusing to fly.
Mark H Burton

Some comments on ‘Is Capitalism Unsustainable?
Peter Somerville

There were problems with both the conduct and content of this debate. On the conduct side, each speaker presented their case reasonably well (although unfortunately, I couldn’t follow what Bob Pollin was saying, at least initially, because of the poor quality of the video link, and they tended to speak too quickly and cover too much ground in the time). After the presentations, however, the Chair tried to get the presenters to ‘debate’ (as she put it), and they responded largely by repeating themselves while also managing to stray away from the question. In the end, none of the speakers managed to define either capitalism or sustainability.

Bob Pollin and Molly Scott-Cato both argued for some kind of green new deal, though from slightly different perspectives (social democratic and environmentalist, respectively). Molly saw ‘sustainable investment’ as the way forward (better than taxes, caps, etc), and argued that this could be done on a non-profit basis. She did not elaborate but, knowing Molly of old, I suspect this will involve co-operatives of some kind. Not only is this approach perfectly compatible with capitalism, but Molly also did not explain how it could possibly achieve a transition to a zero carbon world (or biodiversity or the non-exhaustion of key minerals). So Molly managed to fudge not only the issue of whether capitalism is sustainable but also the issue of sustainability itself – clearly a consummate politician!

Bob was more specific than Molly on the nature of green investment, and on this he made some useful points (which are developed in his article in New Left Review). He was less clear, however, about how his green new deal would keep fossil fuels in the ground. I think probably everyone would agree with him that a just transition must include effective redeployment of fossil fuel workers, but such redeployment presumes that fossil fuel industries will first be decommissioned, and Bob was less clear about how this might be achieved. He believed that capitalism was sustainable but was not so forthcoming on the nature of capitalism and preferred to talk about ‘growth’.

Much of the session was taken up with an old debate on ‘growth versus de-growth’, which sadly were never defined. Consequently, none of the speakers distinguished between material growth/de-growth and value growth/de-growth. Marx taught us long ago that capitalism is based on capital as self-expanding value, and capitalist production exploits labour to produce commodities that have both (abstract) value and (concrete) use-value. In value terms, such production involves an expansion in socially necessary labour time. If this is what is meant by growth, then Bob is right to the extent that all capitalisms including green capitalism involve growth, because green industries are more labour-intensive – under capitalism more labour produces more value. This growth of value, however, is not the same as the growth of material output, which can be measured in terms of increase in the use of matter and energy. Historically, capitalism has indeed been associated with such material growth, but it is by no means clear that this has to be so forever. As Giorgos Kallis said, green industries tend to have lower technical productivity (that is, less material output per unit of labour) than fossil-fuel industries, so a transition to a low-carbon economy could involve real material de-growth. Giorgos seemed to want an end to capitalism, anyway, so it is possible that for him de-growth has both material and value forms.

Kevin Anderson clearly believed that capitalism was unsustainable but his proposed solution, namely the expropriation of global wealthy elites, global redistribution of wealth and income, and more or less permanent austerity, did not seem realistic, at least not on the time scale now required. Unfortunately also, this agenda seemed to get mixed up with a tiresome ‘greener than thou’ game, where people compete to see who can big themselves up the most for their sustainable behaviour (while beating others up for their unsustainable behaviour). This seems a poor substitute for a proper debate on the role of personal behaviour change in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

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Why is the GM Spatial Framework delayed?

aerial view Stakehill area, Middleton

Stakehill area, Middleton. Image capture from googlemaps

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has announced that the launch of a redrafted Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) has again been delayed.  Here’s why.

1) GMCA now thinks 175,000 houses could be built on available land.  Most of this is  “brownfields” sites but some is on Green Belt [see note 1 below].
2) The Office for National Statistics, ONS, now says Greater Manchester will need 140,000 new homes by 2035.
3) Even in the original GMSF, it was tstated that 72% of new homes would be on brownfields. That gave a figure of 163,584.  That’s still bigger than the ONS projection of  140,000. 
This means that on these projections (not forecasts), GMCA could meet housebuilding needs without taking any Greenbelt.  GMCA has since improved its identification of brownfield sites.
4) That means that If ONS are right, there will be no need to build housing on the Green Belt.
5) But government is going to publish a new methodology for calculating house building targets: we don’t know what inflated numbers will be in that [see note 2].
6) So GMCA are both surprised and puzzled, having already quietly reduced their house building assumption from 227,200, the figure published in the GMSF, to 200,000.  That’s why they’ve bounced it back to central government, asking for clarification.  That’s why there is a delay, although there also reports of disagreements between the Mayor (who wants to avoid green belt build as much as possible) and some local council leaders, who want to build more.
Also bear in mind that,
7) Brownfield sites include a variety of spaces.  Some have been unoccupied for so long that nature has re-possessed them; they have become nature reserves, amenity spaces, greenfields in the urban area. Plans to build on these (Pomona Island, Rye Bank Fields, Nutsford Vale, for example) have already produced resistance.  Our view is that when global ecological, climate, economic and social systems collapse, we will need green space close at hand to feed ourselves (see point 9, below).  Rather than increasing the amount of built environment we need to look for a completely different model: one where we retrofit a green, convivial, and economically viable (in our terms, not those of corporate interests) economy into the existing space of the city region.  However, former industrial sites will need careful evaluation, just as they would for housing, schools, and so on, given the history of industrial uses and contamination risks.
8) The GMSF utilised a work of fiction called the Accelerated Growth Strategy, produced, without any transparency as to methodology, by a company called Oxford Economics. This had staggeringly high, and unprecedented figures for economic growth (which we and others refuted at the time), from which needs for housing and industrial (warehouse sheds mainly) builds were derived (we don’t know how).
9) Meanwhile, the IMF is saying there is very likely to be another global recession, the IPCC says that climate catastrophe is on its way (and nothing much is being done to avert it), and Brexit has also reduced “growth” projections (which is why the ONS figures have reduced).  So these grand plans really do need a more humble rethink.

1. The 175,000 figure for available land comes from the “submitted sites” here:… and it DOES include a number of greenbelt sites. The quality of the data on this map (and spreadsheet…/170920-Call-for-sites-All… ) is not high . You have to trawl through a lot of free text comments to see references to Green Belt / Green Fields, so it needs a lot of work, and local knowledge, to make sense of it.

2. Since the government is promoting the myth that the housing crisis is due to a lack of supply (it helps them avoid tackling root causes like benefits-austerity and sky high house prices), and they like a stick to beat local government, we can certainly expect continued pressure to build more.

Posted in Greater Manchester City Region, news | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

For a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth

This letter appeared in the Guardian and in a number of other European newspapers today.  It is signed by people well known in the degrowth/post-growth and steady state community but also by a number of other prominent critical thinkers who have not been associated with the movement.  It is an initiative from the international degrowth network on the occasion of the Brussels degrowth conference: video links to sessions here.

Even when/if the UK leaves the EU, maybe this initiative, which has been widely circulated, could help facilitate a wider de-emphasising of GDP growth in favour of the things that people and their societies actually do need.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth

238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritised over GDP

This week, scientists, politicians, and policymakers are gathering in Brussels for a landmark conference. The aim of this event, organised by members of the European parliament from five different political groups, alongside trade unions and NGOs, is to explore possibilities for a “post-growth economy” in Europe.

Read the  letter here, and do share it:

In French  Liberation
In Spanish El Diario
Other links to publication in most European countries / languages:

You can add your support here:

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Steady State Manchester at the Malmö Degrowth Conference


Three members of the Steady State Manchester collective were lucky enough to attend the 6th International Degrowth conference in Malmö, Sweden, at the end of August (2018), travelling there by trains and boats.  Between us we presented four papers.  The conference was a warm and vibrant space for those working in many ways on alternative economic and social approaches to come together and share ideas, practices and experiences. Far more than an academic conference, this was both a cultural event, taking place in Sweden’s oldest public park, the Folkets (or People’s) Park, and an intervention.  THe immediate context was Sweden’s general election, and the week of events ended with a march and public debate with Swedish politicians: some of whom from the Left and Green parties also joined local activists to participate in discussions at the conference itself.  Maybe we’ll have something similar in Manchester in the future.

We aim to post more information about some of the most interesting debates and presentations at the conference, but for now, here are links to our papers (below), link to other contributions (below),  videos of the plenary and keynote sessions, and a gallery of photos, two of which appear here.

SSM contributions to the Malmö conference:

Carolyn M Kagan:
Women work at the heart of community solidarity: the
intersection of debates about informal networking and universal
basic income.    SLIDES   TEXT
James Scott Vandeventer:
Articulating degrowth as a normative position for alternative organisation.   SLIDES
Mark H Burton:
Degrowth and the British Labour Party.    SLIDES    TEXT
A better collapse?    SLIDES

And you can find the rest of the conference contributions HERE with abstracts and, for some contributions, slides / text or supporting papers.


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Fearless Cities: could we have the new municipalism in Greater Manchester?

Fearless Cities: the new municipalism.

Fearless Cities logo Today it is easy enough to think that people are not interested in politics, or even that they don’t value democracy. But it isn’t so. We want to have an active role in the decisions that affect our everyday lives, our neighbourhoods and our communities; but we don’t believe – and with good reason – that traditional electoral democracy is offering us that. We don’t believe that it is enough to only vote once every four years and that then the elected members – all too often in the service of powers that are not subject to democratic accountability – take all the decisions in our name.

Laura Roth, Brad Lander, Gala Pin. Radical democracy in the town hall. In Ciudades sin Miedo (Fearless Cities), Barcelona: Icaria, 2018. p. 113

We have previously discussed the challenges of governing a city as large and diverse as Greater Manchester1. How can decisions be taken that reflect the interests of the diverse population, distributed as it is in a variety of settlements with different characteristics and histories? How can the maximum involvement of citizens in the democratic process be realised, going beyond the ritual of putting a paper in a ballot box every few years (with pretty low levels of participation). How can representatives at all levels really learn to listen, and (to use a current buzz word) to co-produce solutions with their constituents – not just members of their own party, but with the full diversity of voices, including those whose starting positions might be difficult to understand or accept. How can political, economic and ecological education be integrated within this process, so people are better equipped – have a greater level of consciousness – to take part in shared government?

The answers to these questions are by no means easy. Some good things are happening in Greater Manchester, for instance the live-streaming of council and Combined Authority meetings and the Ask Andy sessions with the GM Mayor in each district. But much more could be done as we suggested to the former interim Mayor, Tony Lloyd in our widely circulated open letter.. A previous post discussed the Heidelberg model of a digital platform for participation. Here we look at the Fearless Cities movement which goes a lot further, and ask whether Greater Manchester could learn from it.

In 2015, a housing activist, Ada Colau was elected Mayor of Barcelona. She was not a member of a political party, but the chosen candidate of Barcelona in Common, (Barcelona en Comú, in Catalan, BC hereafter) an alliance of social movements, many with roots in the 15M movement, the Spanish version of Occupy, a response to the neoliberal austerity policies that were especially pernicious in Spain with its dispossession of people who fell into mortgage arrears. BC have a minority of seats on the council, so govern with support from other parties: the Spanish electoral system does lead to such arrangements.

Book cover: Ciudades sin Miedo

The Fearless Cities book – coming out in English some time in 2019. Spanish publisher:

BC, from the outset, realised the importance of linking up with others attempting similar re-invention of politics, worldwide and last year, 2017, hosted an international gathering of the resulting Fearless Cities movement. A book, building on that event has appeared, in Spanish and Catalan (they say it will come out from Verso in English early in 2019, though there is nothing on the Verso site yet). The book has a lot of material from the Spanish cities, Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, A Coruña, and others but also from Chile, Poland, Italy, Croatia, Canada, USA, Rojava (Kurdish North Syria), the UK (Frome Independents and London’s “Take Back the City”) and elsewhere.

As a new movement, there is relatively more on forms of organising than on forms of governance, and a lot of great policy ideas but so far, not a huge amount of practical experience of implementation. Having said that, administrations such as those of Ada Colau in Barcelona, Jorge Sharp and Alcaldía Comunitaria in Valparaiso (Chile), Manuela Carmena and Ahora Madrid, and Une Ville Pour Tous in Grenoble have moved fast with a variety of initiatives to restore at least some social and economic justice and environmental stewardship in their areas. The popular administration in the Kurdish region of Northern Syria, Rojava, continues to inspire with its radical multi-ethnic, multi-faith, democratic model in the “limit situation” that faces the people there.

I will focus on the principles that underpin the movement, because it is from these that we could devise solutions we could apply in our own distinct political context. Ciudades sin Miedo sets them out as follows.

There are two defining characteristics of municipalism:

1) The way politics is conducted is as important as the content of the politics. So candidate platforms are participative in their construction and practice, and the organisations created for the new municipal politics have the kind of priorities and structures of power that they want to see in the world.

2) The local sphere allows politics to be approached in concrete terms that matter to people: “Although the powers and legal responsibilities of local governments can vary around the world, politics is inevitably centred on concrete issues that affect people’s everyday lives.”

The collective authors of the book consider that there are three dimensions of central importance, and these are used to structure the various thematic discussions:

1) The feminisation of politics, “which implies the questioning of patriarchal models of organisation and power, in order to situate the work of caring at the centre, of both the political agenda and the forms of organisation.”

2) The emphasis on concrete action. The authors write, “We believe that the best political arguments are the small victories that demonstrate that things could be different, both within and beyond the local institutions. Taking note of this, we have included more than 50 practical examples, tools and local transformative policies that can serve as inspiration and guides to action.”

3) International commitment. As much as municipalism prioritises local organisation, action and local solutions, that doesn’t mean that it has a merely parochial outlook. The issues affecting local communities have a global dimension, and they need to be overcome through joined up and joint action. The idea is to create an international network of radical municipalist activists, organisations and administrations, and the book bears witness to the fruitfulness of that aim, albeit in its early stages.

To give an idea of the content of this new municipal politics, here are notes on, and extracts from (translation MHB, Steady State Manchester: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license applies), two of the thematic chapters. One covers process issues and the other one area of policy formulation.

First, on process:

12. Radical democracy in the town hall (pp. 113-121)

The quotation at the head of this piece comes from this section of the book. The authors, from Barcelona and New York, go on to say that they are trying out new ways of taking decisions and that for local democracy this means that it involves more than putting into practice progressive local policies, but implies the decentralisation of power, providing communities with the means to take decisions collectively. But they are very clear that this is work in progress and not a finished work where all issues have been resolved. Remaining challenges include:

How to give voice to the population at large without leaving to one side the social movements and community associations that have more considered views and knowledge?

How to maximise participation without ensuring the quality of decision-making?

How to combine “digital democracy” and democracy based on people interacting face to face?

How to involve people that don’t show interest or who don’t have the necessary time or resources?

How to convince public servants and elected members to cede power to the people on the ground.

Mini Manifesto

Democracy means self-government: delegation and representation are second best options. Treat the communities as the true possessors of the power to decide, not just as sources of information and opinion.

Make institutions less hierarchical, less bureaucratic and more transparent. People can’t make decisions if the administration is too opaque.

Take into account the potentially excluding impact of every tool. There are not single solutions: it is necessary to establish alternative methods so that people with diverse abilities, interests and experiences can decide which means to use.

Facilitate the use of digital infrastructure that can be re-appropriated and ensure that they are accessible and that people can learn to use them. Combine them with methods that involve people being present.

Motivate participation by offering opportunities that are real and effective. Not everyone is a member of an association. Take account of those that haven’t yet been involved, demonstrating to them that their contribution can be effective, that we aren’t just seeking legitimacy but their empowerment and positive impacts on their lives.

Weave together social connections and make participation enjoyable. Radical democracy isn’t just about results. When it’s done well, people discover the joy of acting together, overcoming that which divides them. Participation and enjoyment have to go hand in hand.

Accept conflict and don’t try to falsely resolve the profound differences that are part of our complex societies.

Think in terms of participatory ecosystems and don’t isolate and separate the tools for participation. Find how these tools can work together and reinforce one another.

Pay attention to three classes of impacts of any procedure for taking decisions and find ways to balance them should they conflict:
– Impacts on the quality of the decision – aim for decisions are informed and reasonable.
Impacts on inclusion and equality – aim to even out the power of influence on decisions.
Impacts on participants – people learn to make decisions as they make decisions for themselves. Have confidence in that process and support it.

Promote radical democracy everywhere. Enable democratic culture in local associations, political parties and companies.

Examples follow (not reproduced here) from Barcelona, Belo Horizonte and New York.

Web resource (in English, Spanish and Catalan): decidim

Feminising politics

.But radical democracy has its “dark side”. It uses a lot of time and that means that usually more men than women take part. That means that deliberative democratic procedures need to take account the fact that the opinions of men usually carry more weight than those of women and are more valued due to the prejudices of those that hear them, and that oftne men are more willing to express their opinions by speaking out in public, taking up more of the time available, etc.

And an example of a concrete area of policy:

16. Mobility and pollution (pp. 149 – 156)


Mobility is one of the pillars of the right to the city, especially for those that live outside the big metropolitan areas. A restricted mobility implies a restricted access to employment, education, leisure and services. The problem is that, too often, our cities and regions are designed for the car rather than for people. Public investment has favoured the construction of motorways, tunnels and car parks, instead of public transport and infrastructure for cycling and walking. ……..

We understand mobility, not as a simple technical problem, but as a matter of health, ecological and social justice. More than 90% of the global population live in areas that don’t comply with regulations for air quality. ……..

The people who travel by car are disproportionately white men with above average income; that is to say that the models of urban and spatial development based on the car exacerbate the inequalities of gender, race and wealth. That’s why we adopt an ecofeminist approach to mobility, putting people and planet at the centre of the way we design and connect our neighbourhoods, towns and cities.

Municipalism allows us to confront those unsustainable, carbon-intensive models of urban development and propose healthy and sustainable alternatives, overturning this unjust system that gives greater freedom and mobility to the greater polluters and those with most resources.

We have to question the idea that driving is a right, opposing the motor car lobby and work to change the attitudes of the public and change our transport culture. ….


Oppose the car lobby with the collective right to clean air.

Change the priorities of urban design in order to favour pedestrians and discourage the use of the private car.

Reduce the quantity of public space dedicated to private vehicles, through measures such as pedestrianisation and the conversion of car parks to alternative uses.

Promote public transport through public investment and accessible tariffs that facilitate frequent usage.

Facilitate transit by bicycle, creating, enlarging and improving cycle-ways and offering public systems for shared use.

Penalise or prohibit the use of high emission vehicles, for example by creation of zones where those vehicles are prohibited.

Introduce congestion charges for private vehicles that enter central areas, and increase the cost of parking to reduce car use and finance investment in sustainable transport infrastructure.

Invest in a low emission public transport fleet to reduce both energy use and carbon dioxide emissions per capita.

Create bus lanes to increase the average speed of transit by bus.

Promote shared use of cars to reduce the quantity of cars in the streets.

Fix speed limits to reduce pollution and accidents, for example, 30 kph [18.75 mph] in urban areas.

Examples are given (not reproduced here) from Vancouver, Bologna and Barcelona

Feminising politics

The impact of urban planning and transport policy is not gender-neutral. Our towns and cities were designed thinking of participation in the labour market, with little or no consideration of the labour of reproduction [biological and social – SSM] and of caring. This bias is clearly evident in the systems of transport everywhere, that tend to be defined in terms of the convenience of those that travel to and from workplaces twice a day, sometimes for large distances (the majority of whom are men), in place of the multiple short journeys typical of those who provide care and those that work part time (who are more likely to be women). Frequently the transport infrastructure turns out to be inaccessible for those with restricted mobility or who tavel with dependent persons, and women are at special risk of sexual harassment or assault in those public spaces they cross travelling on foot, cycle or public transport. A policy and politics [política] of feminising mobility implies questioning the privileges of htose who use the private car, giving equal importance to the transport needs of those persons involved in reproductive labour and caring and making it so short journeys, on foot or by public transport, are comfortable, accessible, affordable and safe.

English language resource: Ecomobility SHIFT – htpps://

  1. Radical municipalism, radical democracy in Greater Manchester?

    Could Greater Manchester rise to the challenge of the radical municipalist agenda? Undoubtedly. It would look different here, because it looks different everywhere Nevertheless there is nothing to stop Greater Manchester citizens and political leaders taking up the key ideas of a more engaged, participatory democracy, a different kind of “feminised”, deliberative politics, with policies effectively “co-produced” with citizens. Nor is there anything to stop elected members making themselves more accountable to citizens, improving their reporting back, not just to party members, but to their electors, who have the right to know just what they are doing in their name, and not just through puff pieces put out to gain electoral support. We know that some councillors have got this message (and some clearly haven’t – we and you know which group you are in!); we also know that the GM Mayor, Andy Burnham, has been to Barcelona and discussed the revival of municipalism with Ada Colau and Barcelona en Comú. The tools, the processes, the principles are there, but none of this will happen in the absence of strong, “upward” citizen pressure. There are civil society and social movement groups calling for moves in this direction2 and we count ourselves with them. Their enthusiasm and positive ideas should be welcomed by politicians as an asset for strengthening democracy. That way we could end up with a “Viable Democracy” for a Viable Greater Manchester.

    Mark H Burton

    Steady State Manchester collective

    2These include DivaManc, Greater Manchester Housing Action, Acorn, the Jam and Justice collaboration, the Save Greater Manchester Green Belt coalition, amongst other and more locally-based groups..

Posted in cities, democracy, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Accountability for the Mayor of Greater Manchester: Participatory Governance?

cartoon laughing ironically at the idea that democracy means the people exercising sovereignty.

Mafalda reads the dictionary: “DEMOCRACY (from the Greek, demos, people, and kratos, authority) Government where the people exercise sovereignty”. By Quino, via

Accountability for the Mayor of Greater Manchester: Participatory Governance in the 21st Century

by James Scott Vandeventer

It has been over a year since Greater Manchester elected its first Mayor. Since then, Mayor Andy Burnham has worked to build the Mayor’s office as an institution almost from scratch and within the confines of the devolution agreement with central government. This is no small feat, and the Mayor’s efforts should not be overlooked.

Still, there are deeper underlying issues that exist in Greater Manchester, which the mayor has not sufficiently addressed. These relate to his own accountability to the over two and a half million people within Greater Manchester. Yes, he came to power in a democratic election. But likewise true – and widely known – is that the long-standing Labour majority across the city-region meant his election victory was hardly a surprise (1). More troublingly, with approximately 29% turnout, the mayoral election came nowhere close to capturing the majority voice of eligible voters in Greater Manchester (1).

In fact, low and declining voter turnout rates are evident in many local and national democratic governments around the world. This trend spawns from a simple fact: we do not live in pure, direct democracies. In order to manage the scalar challenge of governing millions of people, representative democracy and parliamentary democracy have become the dominant models. As a result of this, and due to a perceived ‘expert’ bias in decision-making, many citizens feel unconnected with government at local, national, and especially supranational, levels. At the same time, there is a palpable feeling that the decision-makers don’t understand how these outcomes impact individuals.

Among all the causes given to Brexit, dissatisfaction with decision-taking from the E.U. level is an undeniable one. And given the widespread unconnectedness many citizens feel toward government, is it entirely surprising that 7 of the 10 boroughs in Greater Manchester voted to ‘Leave’ when given a chance to have their voice heard? (2) Across the Atlantic, part of Trump’s nationalist appeal draws on the myth of reclaiming a perceived lost ‘greatness’ when control over decision-making rested with the people (or at least when decisions favoured the particular set of people that favoured him). Indeed, both of these exhaustively analysed events can be seen through the lens of dissatisfaction with the endless expansion and subsequent loss of connection to everyday people that results from indirect democracy.

Through its loss of direct connection with the people, indirect democracy can be skewed in favour of certain interests. And, through their lobbying power, financial interests can influence decision-making to favour the interests of further capitalist development. Mancur Olson described this decades ago in ‘The Logic of Collective Action’: the smaller the group, the easier it is to organise and pursue their interests, which can easily come at the expense of a majority’s interests (3). This is certainly evident in Greater Manchester. Take, for example, the way financial actors operate in the housing market: a small group of developers regularly convince the government that they deserve exemptions from mandatory affordable housing and other Section 106 requirements in their buildings (4).

At first glance, devolution seems to be an attempt to counter some of the issues associated with indirect democracy, as it seemingly gives decision-making and responsibility to more localised institutions. Still, the issue of whether any significant power is actually devolved is less clear. After all, the Prime Minister and MPs in the House of Commons still control tax collection and budgetary decisions.

In either case, devolution does involve the creation of new institutions at a more local level, with the potential to get closer to the citizens in a more democratic way. At present, the Mayor has taken some initial steps to engage with stakeholders about issues important to Greater Manchester, including the recent Green Summit (5). However, these steps only scratch the surface in terms of reaching the many concerns of the people of Greater Manchester. A more innovative approach to governance is necessary, one which moves past formal consultation to actually embracing participation in the decisions that the Mayor takes.

In comparison with the business sector, the potential for crowdsourcing as a mechanism for participation is relatively new to governments. However, by using technology-based platforms, some local governments are innovating the ways that elected official engage with their constituents. One particularly promising example is happening in Heidelberg, Germany. Their #GetTheMayor platform, which received the People’s Choice Award at SXSW two years ago when it was first launched, enables citizens to nominate projects they are involved in and concerns that they have (6). After an open period of voting, the top projects are integrated into the Mayor’s schedule and a visit is arranged. While not perfect, and certainly with potential for improvements, this relatively simple process provides a completely new way for the Mayor to listen to and learn from the citizens of Heidelberg, only recently made possible by technology.

A platform like this would not only help address the challenge of indirect democracy faced by Greater Manchester, it would also place the office of the Mayor of Greater Manchester alongside cities like Heidelberg at the forefront of innovative approaches to participatory governance. By ensuring that some activities of the Mayor are decided by the people (not all, of course, which would be a truly revolutionary approach to governance), such a platform blows up the traditional model of government and creates a more participatory form of governance that is relevant in the 21st century (7).

Of course, #GetTheMayor would require adapting to the Greater Manchester context. For one, the potential projects and concerns would need to be filtered based on the specific roles that are within the devolved power of the Mayor. Another change might be the name, which translates imperfectly into English. Perhaps #EngageTheMayor or #MobiliseTheMayor would better capture the spirit of this platform for an English-speaking audience. Finally, access to technology is a requirement for using the platform, part of a deeper issue regarding social equity. Still, this could be partially addressed by placing computers or tablets in public buildings, such as libraries, and directly linking them to the platform, by making available a text gateway to the platform, and encouraging collective submissions.

There is a clear opportunity for this kind of technology-supported approach to build a relationship based on trust between the Mayor and the people, and enhance the legitimacy of the office of Mayor of Greater Manchester as a new institution. In fact, building online platforms that allow people to voice their concerns, based on the model of #GetTheMayor, would make governance more participatory in other places that have reached devolution deals, such as Liverpool City Region or Sheffield City Region. It could also be implemented in the not-so-new, yet still young enough to innovate, institutions of the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Finally, older institutions, such as city councils – and even national governments in the U.K. and elsewhere – would be wise to adapt and creatively approach participatory governance and accountability in the 21st century.

We at Steady State Manchester would welcome this. We would utilise a participatory platform as part of a broader strategy to encourage the groundswell of change we support and encourage others across Greater Manchester to do the same. Strategic localism and democratic decision-making by the people are two pillars of a more viable economy (8). We would be more than willing to work with the Mayor to make this a reality in any way we are able.

However, a technological platform for participatory governance can only be part of a broader vision for a Viable Greater Manchester. The overarching prioritisation of economic growth continues unabated, whilst social challenges and ecological degradation pile up. These issues must be addressed both at the city-regional level, and through national and international changes. Perhaps, a participatory platform is place to start (9). It has the potential to generate greater citizen engagement that catalyses change and places democracy and the common good first. In a forthcoming piece, we plan to outline some of the points in the book Ciudades sin miedo (translation: Fearless Cities), which we understand will be released in English early next year. This powerful book, the result of the international 2017 Fearless Cities gathering in Barcelona, spells out the principles of the new municipalist movement and describes concrete policies and steps that cities can take to restore democracy and prioritise the common good.

The choice is with the Mayor and his office: revolutionise the approach to governance and begin to embrace a new paradigm of democracy in the 21st century, or flail for support until a citizenry increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo looks elsewhere for revolutionary approaches and ideas. Let us hope they make the right choice.


  3. [Accessed on: 12 July 2018]
  7. For a very relevant discussion of ‘blowing up the model’ in existing sectors, and potential for revolutionising others, the author recommends David McCourt’s new book Total Rethink: Why entrepreneurs should act like revolutionaries (2018, RedDoor Publishing).
  9. We made a number of other suggestions in our Open Letter to the interim GM Mayor, Tony Lloyd:
Posted in democracy, Greater Manchester, Greater Manchester City Region, international, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Will UK government commit to real climate change action, or continue to prevaricate?

Dramatic picture of the Sadleworth moorland fire.

The Saddleworth moorland Fire, made more likely and deadly by climate change, releasing yet more carbon dioxide. via Express and Star

As the world experiences record high temperatures, from the Arctic to Africa and India, Steady State Manchester collective member Richard Shirres has written a powerful letter to the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Some key points follow, followed by the full letter (or read as pdf here).  Do consider following his example.

“Quite simply, the UK not only seems adrift from its 5th Carbon Budget objectives but it is
not plausibly on track to meet its implied commitments to the Paris Agreement targets,
an agreement it ratified in late 2016.
“The UK may be responsible for around 1% of global emissions but historically it has a
crucial responsibility, at 5%, for the single greatest component of historical global
temperature rise* since pre-industrial times. Yet the UK’s existing long-term target is
based on the judgment that it should be no more than an average emitter in per person
terms by 2050 on a global 2°C path…….

“There needs to be a relentless series of radical measures promoted now by this
Government, and successive administrations, if it is to conform to a suitable trajectory to
achieve ‘zero carbon’. ……

“A more stringent target, with compressed timeframe, would inject a great beneficial
impetus into all levels of spatial, development and economic planning right across the UK
and would act as a catalyst for the transformation of the UK economic culture. Above all
it would be sending a strong political message, both at home and abroad, about the
imperative of addressing climate change….”

He concludes,

“Any further delay, backsliding, in reviewing the 2050 target simply amounts to politicians
cheating on our future generations and kicking the burden of action down the road; as
were Minister’s promises of March 2016. Needless prevarication, or inaction, will be
rightly judged with utter contempt by those cheated generations….”


pdf version

Richard A Shirres
Address withheld
Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Rt Hon Greg Clark
1 Victoria Street

Dear Secretary of State,
Re: Pending implementation following Energy & Climate Minister’s expression of
intent at CHOGM Meeting, April 2018
The key goal of the Paris Agreement is to pursue efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C.
The minimum aspiration of the Paris Agreement is to limit global temperature rise to
“well below 2°C”. But it would be perverse to equate this with a 66% chance – ie. a 2 out
3 chance – of avoiding “around” a 2°C temperature rise, which was the original basis for
the prescribed 2050 target of the 2008 Climate Change Act.
One can only argue that the current target is technically consistent with the Paris goal to
limit warming to below 2°C IF one has a casual approach to the odds of exceeding
planetary boundaries, lack of concern for intergenerational equity and the UK’s
responsibilities for its major component of global warming to date (See below).
Since 2008, there have been considerable advances in climate science, such as
understanding of ice sheet dynamics and permafrost status, these not only raise the risk
level but also now point towards a more dire prognosis for a 2°C world; even if one
believes we can constrain ourselves to that limit. Whilst the 2013 IPCC 5th (working group
1) assessment report’s scenarios are liberally underpinned by the idea of carbon-capture
and storage (CCS), there is now also a growing appreciation that industrial scale CCS is
infeasible to effect any significant mitigation before 2050.
In recent years the UK Government has made a number of decisions that have impeded
progress even on attaining the current 2050 target. These include reneging on a
commitment to zero carbon development from 2016; failure to support sustainable urban
drainage; cut backs in onshore renewables – notably in the months just before COP21 in
Paris – as well as being slow to implement the green finance initiative.
Consequently, the UK is not currently on track to meet its 5 th Carbon budget.
Furthermore, capacity of central and local government institutions to deliver both
mitigation and climate change adaptation is currently inadequate even for the short-term
challenges ahead.
Quite simply, the UK not only seems adrift from its 5th Carbon Budget objectives but it is
not plausibly on track to meet its implied commitments to the Paris Agreement targets,
an agreement it ratified in late 2016.
The UK may be responsible for around 1% of global emissions but historically it has a
crucial responsibility, at 5%, for the single greatest component of historical global
temperature rise* since pre-industrial times. Yet the UK’s existing long-term target is
based on the judgment that it should be no more than an average emitter in per person
terms by 2050 on a global 2°C path. The intergenerational inequity of that impact alone
behoves the UK Government to exercise global leadership and take action. Meanwhile,
the carbon footprint culture of the UK remains one as if we had three planet earths,
helped by the carbon externalisation in the way we consume.
*[ Matthews, et al. (2014) National contributions to observed global warming, Environmental Research Letters 9]
Manchester Climate Change Agency is already advising Manchester City Council on the
need for a 2040 zero carbon target (Excluding aviation & shipping). And this is likely to be
extended to all the Greater Manchester Authorities. 2018 will see their local councillors
and officers undergoing carbon literacy training.
Meanwhile, this country suffers from some of the greatest levels of ignorance about
climate change in Europe. This comes about not just from its media but is abetted by
organisations such as the Met Office and, notably, the Environment Agency (Nb. I write
with experience as an EA employee) who do not see it as part of their role to educate the
public. The culture needs to change and not just for the public but also across
government (including within the Treasury) where acknowledgement of the challenges is
at best patchy and does not match the systematic appreciation of the CCC’s reporting.
There needs to be a relentless series of radical measures promoted now by this
Government, and successive administrations, if it is to conform to a suitable trajectory to
achieve ‘zero carbon’. The UK Government knows full well the technical contents and
scientific basis of this year’s IPCC 1.5°C report on potential global impacts and has known
for most of this year, which is merely now in the throws of finessing the executive
summary. A revision of the 2050 target, of the 2008 Climate Change Act, is long over due
and there is no excuse for anything other than an immediate review to be expedited.
A more stringent target, with compressed timeframe, would inject a great beneficial
impetus into all levels of spatial, development and economic planning right across the UK
and would act as a catalyst for the transformation of the UK economic culture. Above all
it would be sending a strong political message, both at home and abroad, about the
imperative of addressing climate change. It requires bold political leadership, which
would derive best effect before the COP24, in Katowice this year, in order to help with
leverage for all NDC global ambitions.
Any further delay, backsliding, in reviewing the 2050 target simply amounts to politicians
cheating on our future generations and kicking the burden of action down the road; as
were Minister’s promises of March 2016. Needless prevarication, or inaction, will be
rightly judged with utter contempt by those cheated generations.
Months actually do matter. JFK’s policy determination for the US to go to the moon took
less than five weeks in the absence of an assured technology. Whether our government
is capable of such leadership seems to be the question.
Yours faithfully,
Richard A Shirres
The Rt. Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben, Chairman of Climate Change
Liz Saville Roberts MP
Mary Creagh MP, Chair, HoC Environmental Audit Committee
Lord Teverson, Chair, EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee
Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Posted in Climate Change, economics, energy, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments