There must be some way out of here: policies, politics and possibilities in the pancrisis.

There must be some way out of here: policies, politics and possibilities in the pancrisis.

by Mark H Burton

This article was commissioned by the online journal 15/15\15 Revista para una nueva civilización.  The article appears there in Spanish translation / traducción castellana. Also available at Resilience.org.

In July the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to be waning in Britain. A cross party group of Members of Parliament, led by the sole Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, wrote a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the term used for the finance minister, often abbreviated to just “Chancellor”) to propose a “post-growth recovery”. The letter made a number of suggestions that are standard ecological economic policy proposals, common in the post-growth, degrowth and steady state networks. In summary, the MPs argued that a green recovery needed to prioritise well-being above economic growth. They congratulated the Chancellor on the enormous expenditure already made to support individuals and businesses when the economy was mostly closed down in the second quarter of 2020, arguing that it shows it is possible to prioritise well-being above economic performance. They also note the phenomenon of “secular stagnation”, that the trend in the rate of GDP growth across advanced economies has been declining since well before before the great financial crash of 2008. They argue for a reorientation away from the pursuit of growth towards what they call the well-being economy.

The parliamentary group that wrote the letter is the All Party Group on the Limits to Growth. It is supported by the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), based at the University of Sussex. Leading advocate of “prosperity without growth”, Tim Jackson is the director of CUSP and advisor to this parliamentary group. The group’s approach is clear on the impossibility of continued growth, drawing, for example, on Jackson’s review of the Meadows et al. Limits to Growth work from the 1970s, which accurately modelled the likely trajectory of the world system under business as usual, emphasising the resource and energy shocks from the rising costs of extraction. As a cross-party group the group has to present its arguments in a way that appeals to those, still working within the ideology and assumptions of the dominant paradigm, who might be open to exploring their limits and alternatives. However, it is still legitimate to ask whether the package of proposals made by the group is adequate to the combined economic, social resource and ecological crises that beset us all. Having done that, I will take a wider perspective on the main policy responses, not just to Covid-19 but to the global conjuncture of multiple crises. One way to do that is to critically examine each of the proposals made in the group’s letter to the Chancellor.

  • the adoption of new measures of societal wellbeing to replace the inappropriate reliance on the GDP as a measure of social progress;

Alternative measures could be useful in identifying areas for policy emphasis and needed reform and intervention. However, there are already a variety of measures of societal and community well-being available to government. Fundamentally, it is not the measurement of economic and social outcomes that drives the incessant material expansion of production and consumption. GDP is a social construction, an artificial abstraction that has a material force in defining expansion as a priority. Yet, in itself, it is not what drives its own expansion: to understand what does we have to look elsewhere.

  • a commitment to join the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) partnership;

This could have some limited benefits by making an ideological and policy statement of intention and through sharing good practice with other States that are trying to re-orientate their economies towards a well-being agenda. Again, though, it does not address the nub of the problem.

  • the full integration of wellbeing measures into central and local government decision-making processes, and in particular into the Treasury Green Book; and
  • the development of a Wellbeing Budget which aligns Government spending with the needs of a sustainable and inclusive Wellbeing Economy;

This would be helpful in guiding government spending and policy in a variety of spheres toward the pursuit of community well-being. However, It is questionable as to how transformational this would actually be. Again, as I will argue, this is not where the key determinants of the destruction of communities and ecosystems lies. The proposal is a way of mitigating some of that damage but not a means to ending it.

  • the establishment of a formal inquiry into ways in which it may be possible to reduce the ‘growth dependency’ of the UK economy;

This could be interesting insofar as it would bring the many analyses and arguments about the nature of growth and its pursuit more into public discourse. However, its impact would very much depend on the membership of the inquiry team, the evidence it reviewed and the way in which it was then received and acted on by government. The last Labour government commissioned a report from its Sustainable Development Commission into “Prosperity Without Growth”. The report was written by the ecological economist Tim Jackson. It later grew into his influential book of the same title, now in its improved second edition. In the prologue (pp. xxvi-xxix) to that edition, Jackson describes the way the report was received, just at the time the government was hosting a G20 event concerned with the restoration and promotion of GDP growth. The Prime Minister himself was incandescent with anger, the report was sidelined and the Commission that produced it was abolished by the next, Conservative, government in 2010. It was bad timing but it seems unlikely that a government that was explicitly trying to “kick-start growth” would have paid heed to this report. Why should we expect a new inquiry and report to enjoy a different fate?

  • a commitment to explore ways and means to extend the Government’s ability to finance social investment through deficit spending or direct money creation;

This is very much a post-Keynesian idea, that the government has great scope for either borrowing or printing money in order to finance needed areas of expenditure. Debate rages on which mechanism to utilise (to simplify, the choice is between borrowing via the printing of bonds, the creation of money, either by the Treasury or by the Central Bank, or by raising the money through taxation). There are two problems with this. Firstly, a massive expansion of expenditure, even on the green economy, puts money into the pockets of citizens. What they then spend it on is not under the government’s control and in an political-economic system that remains substantially the same, this is likely to include high energy goods. In Keynesian terms, the multiplier isn’t selective: it doesn’t care about the climate. Only if these measures are accompanied by things like diminishing energy and materials caps, and progressive, but carbon and materials-orientated taxation, is there any hope of avoiding this problem. Secondly, while the government has a potentially large “fiscal space”, or flexibility to spend without having to immediately recoup the money, ultimately it does have to do so. To argue otherwise is to confuse money with value. And that requirement to realise greater exchange value from the economy is a potent driver of material expansion – which is broadly speaking what GDP growth is. Actually, much of that value capture has an international dimension whereby the labour of people in the fields and factories of the global South is paid at local prices but the products are sold at profit in the global North, at the prices operative there: a massive global capture of value and a driver of continued labour and ecological exploitation worldwide.

  • the urgent development of a precautionary ‘post growth’ strategy for the UK.

This proposal gets closer to the heart of the problem. Enshrining the precautionary principle in government strategy cannot come soon enough given the multiple threats to human and ecological well-being. It could potentially go beyond mere recommendations to change the way things are measured, or to increase spending in certain areas. Instead, it could offer a strategic framework for re-orientating towards a viable economy and society. However, that would assume the neutralisation of the interest groups that rely on continued material (and financial) economic expansion. It calls into question the essence of capitalism. So again, while hopeful that this could help shift the dominant paradigm, I am intellectually pessimistic.

There must be some way out of here.

The above example of a well-meaning political intervention is, in effect, a microcosm of the present conjuncture. A global pandemic, itself the result of the ever expanding capitalist mode of accumulation, requires a prioritisation of health and well-being. This leads to a massive reduction in economic activity, crudely manifest as work and spending, threatening the livelihoods and well-being of swathes of the population. Mismanagement by governments that have disinvested from public health and welfare, prioritising private capital accumulation, jettisoning the precautionary principle, has exacerbated this crisis. This crisis in the health-economy-wellbeing nexus is situated within a series of wider and deeper crises of planetary and ecological systems, in effect a veritable “pancrisis”, including, 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; 4. and 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.

There are three main responses to this conjuncture, at least the variety of responses being implemented and imposed can be analysed in terms of these three “ideal types”: inevitably a variety of hybrid forms are apparent in reality.

The first type is an intensification of what has been called the neoliberal capitalist model – a continuation of business as usual. So when the right wing British government is faced with the need to test for the virus and to trace the contacts of those infected, it gives enormous contracts to the large outsourcing firms such as Serco rather than to the public health teams based in local government that know their communities and understand epidemiology. Faced with a housing crisis, the result of land speculation, the inward investment by footloose capital in the housing stock, and previous waves of privatisation of public housing, it proposes to further reduce the already weak democratic scrutiny of planning decisions, which will mean further cycles of speculative development and capital concentration in land and housing. Internationally this kind of thinking is manifest in the application of market models to carbon reduction and to forests, which in both cases will have the opposite effect, allowing polluters to continue polluting and converting wild and commons ecosystems to commodities). At its most extreme, this orientation can be seen in the current far right Brazilian government responding to the collapse in global commodity prices by facilitating the further conversion of wild landscape to farmland, with disastrous consequences for the global climate, biodiversity and the people who live in and rely on the forests.

The second type involves a return to the Keynesian and social democratic approach of mitigating the tendencies of capitalism without fundamentally challenging it. The various Green New Deal proposals exemplify this, using government investment to stimulate desired sectors and thereby to restore the process of value creation and hence the revenues of households, firms and government. Similar are neo-Keynesian demands to respond to the Covid crisis, by using the powers of government to borrow and defer repayment indefinitely, or to create money by fiat, and so re-stimulate economic activity. These interventions could be successful, in their own terms, in the short term. But they are doomed to long term failure in a capitalist system that has run out of road for its continual expansion into new markets, new sources of resources, and new reserves of hitherto unexploited labour, while it faces contradictions manifest in the long term decline in profitability, over-production and under-consumption, and the shocks to its supply chains from inexorably rising extraction costs and an inevitable series of ecological and geopolitical shocks. What is more, this model, by failing to problematise the crisis of ever increasing extraction-production-consumption-pollution, instead has no answer to the likelihood that its policy prescriptions will intensify that process rather than mitigate it.

That leaves the third option, that of equitable frugality, variously understood under headings such as the Simpler Way, Degrowth or Post-Development. This is the least popular solution type but the only one that is proportionate to both the scale and nature of the problem. It tends to be ambiguous, or rather divided, in terms of the orientation of its proponents to the dominant capitalist system, with some voices continuing to think that a benign capitalism is possible (usually confusing the existence of private enterprise in a market for exchange with capitalism as a system of endless and expansive capital accumulation resting on expropriation and exploitation). More pragmatically it suffers from its relative under-development, most obviously in not having an understandable policy package to offer to the political debate. However, there are straws in the wind, with these ideas, once entirely marginal, beginning to enter into mainstream discourse and even appearing, still in hybrid form, in policy prescription and even in some government initiatives. It remains doubtful that they will achieve anything like the scale of popular, let alone elite, acceptance in time to avert the nightmare scenario of simultaneous collapse in multiple ecological, planetary and human provisioning systems. Yet we have to continue to act as if this is a possibility, continuing to work, however hard it may be, for a complete change in political, economic priorities, and more than that, a change of system towards one of necessary but frugal production for human need and no more, coupled with the re-affirmation of the joys of a simpler, slower and cooperative way of living as communities.

Returning to the All Party Group on the Limits to Growth, and practical politics, the task is to promote enactable short-range policies that take us towards a post-growth future. These need to be transformational in effect, setting in motion a set of changes, institutional, ideological and material. It is difficult to identify the best options to start such a sequence in motion, since there are many dimensions of uncertainty, and only a fool can predict the future. However, concepts such as ripple-effects, slow-fuse change, stake-holder analysis, non-reformist reforms, transitional demands, and leverage points, can all help to clarify the terrain for action. The reader can consult a list of potential policy innovations, stratified by governmental level. An example of how to think about the immediate Covid-19 crisis transformationally can be found in this piece by the author.

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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Is this the best we can do to Plan for the Future?

Is this the best we can do to Plan for the Future?

The cover of the Wite Paper complete with dystopian housing development.

The cover of the White Paper complete with dystopian housing development.

by Carolyn Kagan

updated 28 October with a link to our consultation response

The UK Government has issued a White Paper intended to reform the planning system in England – Panning for the Future, 20201. This white paper is out for consultation (due October 29th 2020).  Here we identify the main flaws in it: at the end you will find links to make your own consultation response.  Our own full response can be downloaded from this link.

Putting aside the rather bizarre metaphors used in the Prime Minister’s preface, the politicians’ introductory rhetoric contains things we can agree with. We can agree to the pursuit of a society with powerful links between identity and place, between our unmatchable architectural heritage and the future, between community and purpose; communities that are connected to a planning process that is supposed to serve them, with residents engaged over what happens in their areas; the enhancement of local democracy and accountability; and to a system wherein smaller builders can thrive alongside the big players. Whilst the White Paper dodged clarifying the social purpose of planning, the TCPA summed this up as follows:

The new purpose of planning should be “to positively promote the long-term sustainable development of the nation and the health, safety and wellbeing of individuals. Within this, ‘sustainable development’ should mean: a) managing the use, development and protection of land, the built environment and natural resources in a way which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing while sustaining the potential of future generations to meet their own needs; and b) promoting social justice and reducing inequality.2   

This, we can agree to.

We can agree to the building of environmentally friendly homes that will not need to be expensively retrofitted in the future, homes with green spaces and new parks at close hand, where tree lined streets are the norm and where neighbours are not strangers.

However, we do not think the proposals will achieve any of these things – primarily because the wrong answers are being proposed to the wrong questions3. Whilst we agree the planning system needs reform, we cannot agree with the direction of reform proposed, which will reduce democratic accountability, nor will it contribute to climate targets and guarantee energy efficient homes for all, for life.

Of course not enough houses are being built at prices people can afford to buy or rent in the places they want to live: however, this is not due to the planning system. The TCPA report4, a year on from the Raynsford5 review, published in 2019 said:

We have been adding substantially to the stock of unbuilt permissions each year for the last five years. In the year ending June 2019 councils approved around 135,000 more units than were completed by new build and conversion. The Letwin Review6 estimated that there were approximately 107 undelivered sites of above 1,500 units in England with permission for approximately 393,000 homes. The approval of 375,200 units of housing in the year to June 2019 shows that planning is plainly not the ‘problem’ in terms of numbers of consents. The practical delivery of these consents is not within the gift of local authorities. Rather, it relies on what the government has itself has described as a ‘broken’ housing delivery market. Ten years of continuous planning reforms have not achieved the desired ‘step-change’ in the delivery of new homes, while the quality, safety, location and affordability of these units remain a real concern.

The wrong questions being asked in the White paper, which is predicated on the premise that it is the planning system that has led to the housing shortage. Instead, it is land value variations and capture7 that should be addressed, not the planning system if the range of affordable homes are to be built equitably across the country. Furthermore, it is more democratic involvement in the system, not less or restricted, as proposed, that will lead to good and better, places for people to flourish. (Indeed the Letwin Review proposed a stronger role for the public sector, not a weaker one as in the White paper).

The White paper is a shoddy piece of work, failing to provide evidence for the assertions and solutions within, and failing to take notice of the two previous reviews cited above (Raynsford, 2018,19; and Letwin, 2018). These both considered extensive and detailed evidence and made recommendations which, whilst they may not go the whole way to address spatial planning that can embrace the integration of social, economic and environmental place-making that we have promoted8 in the past would at least take us in a direction that encourages more local, democratic involvement in the creation of flourishing and sustainable places. Instead we have what many have called a ‘developers’ charter’9 and a weakening of local democratic involvement that will kill off affordable housing10 – in other words an ideological tract, not a blue print for sustainable, future place-making.

You have until 23.45, Thursday 29th October 2020 to make your response to the White Paper. We suggest that the Friends of the Earth template response is a good place to start, supplemented by the TCPA and CSE response, but do personalise it and submit it as your own response. Use this link to make your response. Our own response is available by clicking HERE.

3 Independent Group, 2020 The wrong answers to the wrong questions. https://www.tcpa.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=f53db0a4-b78d-4898-80e4-647080dad84b

4 TCPA. (2020). Planning 2020 ’One Year On’—20th century Slums? Raynsford review of Planning in england. TCPA. https://www.tcpa.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=7260c5e9-ad84-48a2-92a5-922fa48ba6f7

5 TCPA. (2018). Planning 2020 – Final Report of the Raynsford Review of Planning in England. TCPA. https://www.tcpa.org.uk/raynsford-review

6 Independent Review of Build Out. Final Report. Cm 9720. Letwin Review. Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Oct. 2018. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/752124/Letwin_review_web_version.p

7 UK Government HCLG Select Committee. (2018). Land Value  Capture. HC 766.  Tenth Report of Session 2017-19. Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. House ofCommons,. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/766/766.pdf

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Steady State Manchester’s online shop opens

Now you can buy the printed version of our main pamphlet and a limited stock of unique SSM tee-shirts from this website.

If reading this some months after it was posted, do visit our Shop page to see if we’ve added anything.

Our publications are available free to download but it’s nice to have a properly printed copy. Over time we’ll add to this list but for now we offer,

The Viable Economy … and Society (2020) £3.00 including post and packing within the UK (enquire for international rates). ISBN 978-1-9163858-0-1

Buy Now button

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A Response Guide to the “Our Manchester” Consultation

A Response Guide to the “Our Manchester” Consultation

Manchester City Council is consulting on their core strategy, ‘Our Future Manchester’: the road to 2025. It is via a short web-based survey, which you can access here: https://surveys.manchester.gov.uk/s/OurFutureManchester/

We offer our perspective and some suggestions for your response in this guide. Of course you can respond how you choose, but do take a look at our criticisms of the assumptions involved and our suggestions for issues you might want to highlight.  PDF version of our guide here.
Consultation closes Wednesday 23 Sept.

Below, we’ve reproduced the questions in the Our Manchester survey with suggestions for how you might complete them.

2. Our Manchester will be a thriving, forward-looking place (this is labelled “2” – there is no number 1)

“Our Manchester will be a thriving, forward-looking place, creating good jobs and healthy businesses in new modern industries that all Manchester people have the skills to benefit from.”

Comment: We’d all want Manchester to be a thriving place. As for “forward looking”, it rather depends what that means – it could look forward to the completely wrong kind of future. Good jobs and healthy businesses makes sense, but again the devil’s in the detail. New modern industries – yes they have a part to play but is that all? What about the old, traditional sectors? What about unglamorous “foundational” activities and industries that use existing fairly simple technology to meet basic needs and employ a large number of low to medium-skilled people?

In 2015, you told us that these six goals will help make Manchester more thriving. Rate them in order of how important they are to you:

The following table is problematic since it asks you to place in order things that are not necessarily comparable. The final goal is loaded: to pick environmental and climate saety you are expected to commit to the economic growth that actually feeds environmental and climate damage.

Extremely important

Very important

Important

Not very important

Not important at all

Strong economy creating job chances for all

Strong economy” could be code for the growth-orientated boosterism that has dominated city strategy and which prioritises inward investment (often rent-seeking and unethical, as with the Abu Dhabi schemes) and expansion of material consumption, seemingly at any cost.

Good support for new and established businesses

This needs qualifying – support to do what? Any businesses, or are there criteria and requirements such as Living Wage, local procurement and employment and carbon reduction actions?

Being well connected transport-wise and with technology

We need the right kind of connections – not open veins that channel wealth away. Local interconnectivity is critical.

A leading digital city

X – see our more nuanced comments on digital below.

Rich in culture

Yes, but that needs to be rooted in a strong popular culture not merely the consumption of cultural offerings.

Growth that protects the environment and reduces the impact of climate change

An inappropriately loaded goal. We need ecological and climate safety without the growth that causes the damage.

2. To make Manchester more of a thriving, forward-looking place, what do you think are the most important goals?

(free text box)

Here you get a chance to suggest some alternative goals. These could include

  • greater localisation of production and distribution in the city region and its hinterland,
  • prioritisation of local neighbourhoods and their centres along the lines of the “15 or 20 minute city”,
  • massive reduction of private car use via judicious application of restrictions and levies – the latter being used to support alternative active and public travel,
  • prioritisation of refurbishment and use of existing buildings and a moratorium on high rise buildings with high proportions of steel, glass and concrete,
  • managed contraction of Manchester Airport and a plan for a just transition away from the city’s economic dependence on aviation,

and so on.

3. Our Manchester will be highly skilled

“Our Manchester will be highly skilled – full of talent that is both homegrown in all our local communities, as well as the world’s best, attracted to live and work here.”

This section is not particularly problematic. However, the free text box is a place to suggest the prioritisation of skills for living and working in a low carbon economy and for resilience in the face of the environmental, economic, and climate crisis that will only get more severe in the coming years. The importance of educating in the following areas could be stressed: low-tech (e.g. repair and restoration, growing, useful handicrafts, ….), social (organising and mutual support, conflict resolution) and environmental (minimising ecological and carbon footprints, ecological restoration and protection).

3. In 2015, you told us that these eight goals will make Manchester more skilled. Rate them to show how important they are to you:

Extremely important

Very important

Important

Not very important

Not important at all

Workers earning a real Living Wage

X

Above average school results

This buys into a “zero sum” gain. If we win, who has to lose? Instead, it is more appropriate to emphasise a good quality education that prepares young people for life in an increasingly challenging society. Qualifications are important as an aid for that, not as a primary goal.

People being inspired by opportunities to succeed

Every young person having a good work placement

X

Older people contributing and being valued

X

Residents having the skills to reach their full potential

This is a meaningless platitude but the aspiration to not waste people’s lives and aptitudes is a good one.

Businesses and education together picking up on creative ideas in new, modern industries

Again we see an emphasis on the new and the glamorous at the expense of the basic and fundamental dimensions of Manchester’s economy and society.

Companies developing and training their staff.

Yes…. but for what?

4. To make Manchester more of a highly skilled city, what do you think are the most important goals?

Free text box (see above for suggestions)

Our Manchester will be a fairer place

Our Manchester will be a fairer place where everyone has the same opportunities to unlock their potential, no matter where in our city they are born, or live.”

In 2015, you told us that these ten goals will help to make Manchester fairer. Rate them in order of how important they are to you:

Extremely important

Very important

Important

Not very important

Not important at all

Everyone has the same life chances, no matter where they’re born or live

Obviously

Improvements in health and access to health services

X

Voluntary and community groups able to help communities

Important but beware the dumping of responsibilities and expectations on the VSC sector without adequate support. Also let’s get away from the contract culture.

Children getting the best start in life

Obviously

Older people’s experience and skills being valued and used

X

Supporting people into work

Depends what that means – is this via the government’s regimes of sanctions and benefit reductions? Too vague to rate.

Supporting homeless people

Should read “end homelessness, including hidden homelessness”

Making the cost of heating and cooking affordable for all

X

Increase affordable, low- and zero-carbon energy

X

Building new homes to high standards.

Too vague. Aim for zero carbon (passivhaus equivalent) in operation and full lifecycle transparency and reduction of embodied carbon, as minimum. Minimum space requirements and

6. To make Manchester more of a fairer place, what do you think are the most important goals?

Free text box Do use this!

5. Our Manchester will be a great place to live

“Our Manchester will be a great place to live — with loads to do, leading the way to a low-carbon future that creates new opportunities for work and better living conditions for our residents.”

7. In 2015, you told us that these nine goals will make Manchester a great place to live. Rate them in order of how important they are to you:

See comment beneath the table

Extremely important

Very important

Important

Not very important

Not important at all

A choice of good quality housing in clean, safe, attractive places where people get on and are proud of their diverse neighbourhoods

Investment in walking, cycling and public transport

A cleaner city, with more recycling and less litter,

Better parks and greenspaces

Clean, attractive and well used rivers, canals, lakes and ponds

Using technology to connect us better and improve our city’s future

Investing in sport for residents’ benefit

Being proud of cultural institutions which reflect Manchester’s broad audience

An artistic community that benefits from new art being performed, produced and commissioned.

The above isn’t a bad list but you could add some other suggestions. Radical reduction in motor traffic (it isn’t enough just to encourage the alternatives), increase in the amount of green cover, including tree canopy, wild areas, and reduction in hard surfaces (for water management), and so on, are examples. The cultural dimensions are all consumer-based so you might want to add something on supporting and enhancing “people’s ordinary culture, community arts , protect libraries, and so on).

8. To make Manchester more of a great place to live, what do you think are the most important goals?

Free text box (see suggestions in last comment)

6. Our Manchester will be better connected

“Our Manchester will be better connected with world-class transport and brilliant broadband that put all Mancunians in touch with chances to get ahead.”

The council thinks this is a huge priority. We agree insofar as equitable access to digital resources is important (there is still a huge digital divide in the city and Covid19 has exposed this starkly). However, we are sceptical about the claims for ever faster and “smarter” digital technology which can reduce people’s autonomy, increase the risk of surveillance and manipulation (as seen with the facebook and google scandals recently) and divert attention from the importance of personal , face to face, convivial relationships. We do acknowledge though, that digital technology has a role to play in reducing travel demand, throwing prestige projects like HS2 and the growth of aviation into question.

Do fill in the following sections with these points in mind.

9. In 2015, you told us that these five goals will help Manchester to become better connected. Rate them to show how important they are to you:

Extremely important

Very important

Important

Not very important

Not important at all

An integrated, smart, clean transport network that supports our aim to reduce carbon pollution

More cycling and walking, with the improved roads, paths, street design, cycleways and and signage needed

Having a city at the centre of first class transport networks – locally, regionally, nationally and

internationally

Long-term investment to radically improve transport connections across the North

Using digital technology to transform how we live.

10. To make Manchester a better connected place, what do you think are the most important goals?

Free text box

11. Do you have other goals for Manchester’s future that aren’t mentioned here? We’d love to have your ideas for keeping our city moving on to become the place where anyone can be everything they want to be — and where nobody is left behind.

Free text box

Here’s your chance to re-imaging Manchester as it could be. For inspiration, see this piece where we let our imaginations run freely.

12. Please help us to finish this sentence… ‘Our future Manchester will be….

Their example

Our future Manchester will be a place where everyone can be everything they want to be.

Free text box.

Consultation closes Wednesday 23 Sept.

https://steadystatemanchester.net/

September, 2020.

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Economy and livelihoods after Covid-19

A global on-line symposium of the international degrowth network and the International Society for Ecological Economics.

logo

September 1 to September 4th, 2020.

The sessions will be in the afternoons BST.

Tickets are available for this symposium, co-organised by Steady State Manchester, over four days.  It will also be available as livestream on Youtube: links to follow.  We’ll be considering the implications of the global Covid-19 pandemic for economy and livelihoods. The Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it have had deeply  unequal impacts on lives, livelihoods and well-being across race, gender and class.  At the same time it has opened up the space for new possibilities for building alternative livelihoods and economies that can take us beyond a capitalist economy that requires ever expanding growth.  Will we go back to business as usual with all the ecological, social and economic risks that will bring or take the path towards a new kind of economy that provides for human needs of all while restoring and protecting the natural world that we all depend on?

Programme and registration details now at this Eventbrite Link

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Bigger cuts for Manchester – in its annual greenhouse gas emissions

Manchester now needs to make bigger cuts to its annual greenhouse gas emissions: A commentary on Manchester Climate Change Agency’s Annual Report

A brief Annual Report for 2020 has been issued by Manchester Climate Change Agency. It is not a long report so we encourage you to read it. However, we make the following comments.

A little background

The report is from the Manchester Climate Change Partnership. This is the arms length agency set up, but woefully under-resourced, by Manchester City Council. In principle that distance does give some scope for taking an independent line from the council, but the Partnership also has to keep the council “on-side”. For that reason independent critical voices are vital.

The introduction to the report refers to a letter the Partnership sent to the council. It makes the point that the Covid-19 pandemic gives us the

“… opportunity to reimagine the world we live in; the opportunity for citizens’ quality of life, health and wellbeing to become the overriding aim of politicians, business and community leaders; the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the global economy so it acts in the interests of people, planet and profits, and; the opportunity to ensure we can get on track to meet the 1.5-2°C aim of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.”

We agree. However, the council’s failure to seize the opportunity to put into place emergency and experimental mobility lanes for cyclists and other non-motorised road users, except within the city centre, would seem to indicate a reluctance to really seize the opportunity referred to. We will return to consider why actions are not meeting the scale of the climate challenge below.

The Partnership makes a number of specific suggestions in its letter, and identifies all the right areas. It is, however, questionable whether these largely unquantified proposals amount to the scale of change needed.  See also this response to the letter.

Turning now to the report itself, we have the following comments.

Action! Engage, Influence and Support Manchester Residents and Organisations to Take Action Urgently.

There has been some success in engaging other organisations in making the changes required to reduce the city’s emissions to zero by 2038. A number of organisations, accounting for 20% of the city’s direct emissions, have partnered with the Partnership and submitted outline plans. However, on digging into these plans, and where available the more detailed planning by these organisations, we cannot be confident that sufficient robust, quantified action plans are in place to make the cuts needed.

The Partnership has work that is not yet completed to bring in further organisations. What is missing is an overall picture of where the cuts to emissions are to be made and by whom.

The Partnership mentions a failed bid “to develop a new programme to support residents and communities to take action on climate change”. This programme was something we recommended in our commentary on the Partnership’s current strategy when it was in draft. The failure to obtain funding for this vital work is symptomatic of the pitiful level of funding that the Partnership enjoys. The Manchester Climate Change Agency, the office which supports the Partnership’s work, has just three members of staff. There is energy and enthusiasm from a number of local communities, sadly organised on the basis of city council wards, rather than the real communities and neighbourhoods: a start was made in some places but this has been largely put into abeyance by the pandemic and lock-down. Funding bids have been made locally and we are optimistic that some success will be announced soon. But without proper funding for an infrastructure to engage communities across the city (and the region), climate action will continue to be marginalised.

Operations and Governance

Further down the report we see that,

“The Agency’s Board of Directors have agreed a development plan for 2020-21. The plan is to expand the Agency from three members of staff to 13, subject to funding.”

The council could make a start by seconding more staff to the agency, as could a number of those partner organisations mentioned above: if there were a climate emergency, then this is just what we should expect to happen. It would involve the re-designation of functions: even with the cuts of the last 10 years, the council is big enough to easily do this to the tune of three or four posts. The universities could be particularly imaginative and establish a joint action research and policy team.

Staying within our carbon budgets

This is the core of the report. Things are not going too well. We learn that,

Based on the data for 2018 and projected emissions for 2019, 26% of Manchester’s remaining carbon budget for 2018 to 2100 has been used in the initial two-year period (2018 and 2019). The distribution of the carbon budget can be in a variety of ways, however slower reduction rates must be compensated for by faster reduction rates in the future to keep within the budget.

Put another way,

“The emissions estimated for 2018 and 2019, the first two years of the carbon budget period, show Manchester is not yet following the recommended pathway meaning the carbon budget is being used at a faster rate. Emissions fell in these years by 2% and 4% respectively. This is against the 13% year-on-year reduction in emissions that are set out in the [city’s] Climate Change Framework.”

This increases the rate at which emissions must fall in the remaining years from 13% to 14.8%, close to the 15% figure that Greater Manchester has to achieve, although that will also have to be increased now. It was always known that two contradictory realities are in play here. Firstly, it was going to be harder to make the cuts in the early years, since it requires a wholesale reorganisation of the way we do things. Secondly, there is time to catch up, but that catching up gets harder the longer radical action is delayed. Because of the first reality, the Tyndall Centre broke down the budget into 5 year blocks. Manchester has used up 58% of its first five year sub-budget in two years. This is what the city’s carbon budget now looks like year on year.

Manchester 2 deg budget 15000 ktCO2
Year Actual and adjusted required: annual Actual and adjusted required: cumulative Remaining budget at end of year Reduction achieved / required
2018 2,256 2,256 12,744 2.00%
2019 2,166 4,422 10,578 4.00%
2020 1,566 5,987 9,013 14.80%
2021 1,334 7,321 7,679 14.80%
2022 1,136 8,458 6,542 14.80%
2023 968 9,426 5,574 14.80%
2024 825 10,251 4,749 14.80%
2025 703 10,954 4,046 14.80%
2026 599 11,553 3,447 14.80%
2027 510 12,063 2,937 14.80%
2028 435 12,498 2,502 14.80%
2029 370 12,868 2,132 14.80%
2030 316 13,183 1,817 14.80%
2031 269 13,452 1,548 14.80%
2032 229 13,681 1,319 14.80%
2033 195 13,877 1,123 14.80%
2034 166 14,043 957 14.80%
2035 142 14,184 816 14.80%
2036 121 14,305 695 14.80%
2037 103 14,408 592 14.80%
2038 88 14,496 504 14.80%
Cumulative 15,000   0

All is not yet lost but the challenge is immense.

Note that this is a two degree budget, not a 1.5°C budget, the “aspiration” of the Paris conference. It is more realistic in that the world will continue to warm once emissions stop – the chances of keeping it to within 1.5 degrees are minimal. On the other hand, this Tyndall Centre advised budget does not assume that unproven and probably infeasible “negative emissions technologies” will mean the world can overshoot and then bring the climate back. Finally, these are emissions that take place in the city and those from the city’s use of gas and electricity. They do not include emissions from creating and delivering the stuff we buy nor those from international shipping and aviation. More on this below.

Much of the emissions load is not under the direct control of the city and its organisations. This cuts both ways, accounting to a large share of the success in making reductions up til 2018. Much of this was due to the partial decarbonisation of the electricity supply, taking coal out of the mix. Measures such as a carbon tax, or an effective tax on motor car emissions, would also make an impact. However, there are a lot of things the city could do to reduce its direct emissions, particularly by establishing genuinely transformational partnerships for the areas that need most attention – e.g. for a low carbon warmth offer to drive down emissions from housing while ensuring people stay warm.

The point also cannot be made often enough that though challenging, this budget is unjust. By continuing to emit even at these lower rates, countries like the UK are saying to the countries of the global South – we’ll continue to use your just share of permissible emissions until the point at which the world as a whole has to have stopped emitting. By then it will be nearly another degree warmer on average, so those countries will be increasingly devastated.

The report rightly points out that three areas need to be targeted for Manchester’s direct emissions reductions: buildings (mostly from gas burning) and transport are two. They also mention that a lot more electricity could be generated photovoltaically on our rooftops.

Aviation Emissions

While aviation emissions aren’t included in the Manchester carbon budget, failure to cut these emissions will impact on it, reducing it. Therefore the Partnership has been reviewing options for their inclusion. They propose accounting for those flights taken by Manchester residents. This would mean an aviation-specific budget of 6.6 Mtonnes of CO2 equivalent, just over a third the size of the already adopted carbon budget. While this proposal has some logic to it, we argue instead that the city benefits disproportionately (through revenues) from its share in ownership of the Manchester Airport Group and is thereby economically dis-incentivised to make radical reductions. Setting an aviation-specific carbon budget could help mitigate this but it would be fairer to set it to reflect the financial stake the city has in the airport. This approach would also apply to Greater Manchester as a whole since the 10 local authorities are all co-owners of this climate monstrosity.

Consumption-based Emissions

We have long called for the city to take account of its consumption-based emissions. The inclusion of a section on this is therefore welcome. They refer to the C40 cities report which estimated consumption emissions as equivalent to a 60% addition to territorial emissions although we would caution that they could be higher. Following advice from Tyndall Centre researchers, they suggest focussing on likely “hotspots” for emissions, such as “food and drink, construction, clean and waste water, and non-food manufactured goods”. This seems sound: as the C40 Cities work indicates, there are opportunities for cities to make a significant contribution to global emissions reduction by taking into account their consumption patterns.

In part this comes back to an earlier goal of Manchester climate planning: creating a low carbon culture in the city. There is a very long way to go in doing this.

Resilience to a Changing Climate

A picture of a man on a bike on a tarred track through woodland accompanies this section. There are a number of bitty pieces of a potential strategy identified but are they sufficient? The man on the bike will know that trees mean a cooler microclimate. In coming years there will be dangerous heatwaves, exacerbated in places like Manchester city centre with its tonnes and tonnes of concrete, steel and glass. Hackney aims to increase its tree cover by 30% over the coming years, because, as councillor Jon Burke noted in a recent interview, trees are more effective than air conditioners. In the Netherlands, Arnhem plans to plant trees along its roads and to dig up 10% of its tarmac and send 90% of rainwater into the ground rather than via sewers. Like Barcelona already has done, it will creat “cooling down” spots, in Arnhem’s case with ponds as well as covered areas. Manchester needs a truly ambitious plan to do similar. It is, not just a question of trees – there needs to be a reduction in space allocated to roads and parking to reduce the risk of flash flooding while improving general urban liveability and reducing emissions and the dirtiness of the air.

Inclusive, Zero Carbon and Climate Resilient Economy

As they say, “it’s the economy, stupid”. Economic activity is intimately linked with flows of materials and energy, and hence with climate emissions. Yet, “The Manchester Inclusive, Zero Carbon and Climate Resilient Economy Advisory Group has not been established at the time of writing”. Perhaps it is assumed that the invisible hand of the market will sort things out. After all, we are told that “In 2019, Manchester’s economy produced 104 tonnes of CO2 per £1m GVA (Gross Value Added) which is a reduction of 55% on 2005 levels.”

So Steady State Manchester needn’t worry about economic growth? Well, not so fast! That reduction, is due to a number of factors. Research by Carbon Brief identifies them.

“Decreases in CO2 emissions from electricity production is one of the main drivers economy-wide…, accounting for around 36% of the total emissions reduction in 2017. This was driven primarily by the transition away from coal and towards gas and renewable generation.

Lower non-electric energy use in the industrial and residential sectors has been another major factor …, responsible for 31% of the emission reduction in 2017. Savings in industry was the largest part of this.”

This graph shows the relative shares of each type of electricity generation.

graph showing UK electricity generation by source
Reproduced from Carbon Brief under a Creative Commons License

Note the steep decline in coal use over the 5 years 2012-2017. That is also the period when Manchester’s emissions/GVA ratio declined most steeply. That isn’t the only factor, and the picture is a complex one. However, the implications are, firstly that changes in the carbon intensity of GVA are not largely due to local decisions, but again, depend on factors not decided locally. Secondly, those changes have been due to the picking of some “low-hanging fruit”, such as the retirement of coal-fire power stations, and areas subject to diminishing returns, such as improvements in vehicle efficiency. Continuing to prioritise the growth of sectors such as logistics (lorry freight), aviation and speculative construction, will only serve to stoke up the city’s carbon emissions.

As we’ve said many times, the pursuit of continued expansion of the economy, is incompatible with climate safety and urban liveability. As an aside to our city’s leaders, now that we are in a full blown recession, why not gracefully retire the stupid pretension of endless growth an instead plan to live within our ecological and planetary means, with fair shares for all? “World class cities” like Amsterdam and Paris are giving us some clues as to how to do this. Manchester really could “do things differently” and become the first major post-growth city.

Concluding sections

Towards the end we learn that,

“It had been envisaged that the Partnership and Agency would publish their action plan for this period alongside this annual report. This work is currently on-hold, pending the appointment of a new Chair for the Partnership and a new Director for the Agency.”

This does not inspire great confidence since the climate isn’t hanging around waiting for us to get our act together. However, the report does conclude with a summary of key priorities for the city, because,

“Urgent and sustained action in these areas is needed to ensure we meet our existing climate change commitments.” …

The priorities are,

• Buildings: retrofitting existing and building zero carbon new buildings,

• Renewable energy: working towards 100% as quickly as possible,

• Transport: walking and cycling more; using more public transport; switching to zero emission vehicles,

• Food: shifting to diets better for our health and the planet’s,

• The things we buy and throw away: buying less; only buying products and services with high environmental and social credentials; reusing and recycling more,

• Green infrastructure and nature based solutions: to adapt to the changing climate and absorb CO2 as well as increasing biodiversity, improving health and achieving other benefits.

To support this Manchester Climate Change Partnership and Agency will be working with Manchester City Council during 2020 to embed climate change at the heart of the Our Manchester Strategy reset and associated recovery work. The Strategy is expected to be published in early-2021.”

That is laudable and essential. But unless the Agency is given the resources it needs to do its work, and the city council begins to take its own declaration of a Climate Emergency seriously, then these aspirations will remain just that: intakes of breath.

Posted in cities, Climate Change, Manchester City Council, news | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Job creation after Covid-19: the participatory economy.

by Carolyn Kagan

Is there a different way of creating jobs?

There is no doubt about it, COVID-19 has forced us to rethink not only what, and who, we value most but the purpose, nature and impact of work and worklessness on the kind of society we want to see. Poll after poll reports that the British public do not want more of the same in the post COVID (if there ever is a post COVID) future. The Government’s response to the virus, especially in terms of the consequences for the economy and for people in and out of work, has thrown up even more challenges than usual as we head for levels of unemployment not seen in recent years. Young people are particularly vulnerable to the long term consequences of worklessness along with the dwindling opportunities for meaningful employment. This is one reason why 12 charities concerned with young people have called for a National Youth Corps1. At the heart of this proposal is the idea:

to guarantee at least the minimum wage in a wide variety of work and training opportunities for all those between 16 and 25 who apply. It should extend until the end of 2021. Via the Youth Corps, the government will in effect be offering the guarantee of work to our young people at a pivotal moment in their lives. The Youth Corps should be sufficiently flexible to allow employers (and institutions) to offer a top-up wage for particular skills if they choose. A core part of the plan is to involve young people at a senior level at all stages of the design and implementation and ongoing management.

… British-based employers should pledge a range of job offers depending on their financial circumstances, with the option to opt out if in significant economic difficulty.

… Third sector organisations that specialise in working with young people will be eligible for tailored investment to enable them to build capacity to participate in the programme.

The proposal is, then, for a job (and income) guarantee to young people. The request was for the implementation of the scheme before the end of the school, college and university year.

Well, this hasn’t happened. Instead we have a Plan for Jobs2, wherein, amongst the support for employers to train young people themselves,

The new scheme will see employers able to offer six-month work placements, paid for by the Government, for people aged between 16-24 who are claiming Universal Credit and at risk of long-term unemployment.

The Treasury will cover 100% of the National Minimum Wage for 25 hours a week, with employers able to top up this wage.

All this with the aim of creating jobs with action to get the property market moving, to increase and bring forward infrastructure investment, and to make homes greener, warmer and cheaper to heat.3 This doesn’t sound much like a blueprint for moving forward differently!

Both the proposal for the National Youth Corps and the Government have failed to see the potential in communities for creating jobs of social worth, securing income and employment whilst at the same time building community.

An alternative approach: the participatory economy.

Two examples of community based, participatory economy frameworks show the potential of a community focus. These are the Organisation Workshop and Civic Economy approaches. These are locally based and have, at their heart, participation, enterprise development and community building. Both explore community needs: organisation workshop via community asset scans and civic economy via the people’s interests who come forward to be involved. Both have supports for people who wish to develop enterprises that lead to employment: organisation workshop via workshop learning following a curriculum that includes the nature of organisations and employment regulations, such as health and safety and civic economy via workshops that address support and learning needs as they arise. Organisation workshop4 aims to fulfil community needs; civic economies5 enhance the potential of local resources for development, building on people’s talents.

In Marsh Farm Luton, the Organisation Workshop evaluation6 reported a number of new enterprises had been set up, building on participants’ skill s and interests, including : bee-keeping, a community farm, a building co-operative, a catering business, music related and IT services. It was estimated that the monetary value of the social projects achieved was £1,300,000, which is substantial. The Organisation Workshop has also been tried in Hastings7, where 60 people were involved in transforming the former Observer building as the first step to creating community enterprises.

In Barking and Dagenham, participatory City’s Every One Every Day8 project has focused on bringing people together to explore ideas for project developments and to link people together around project clusters, supported by shop fronts across the Borough and an business incubation space. Literally thousands have been involved across the Borough -, with 70 project clusters formed after 2 years, based in 38 locations across the Borough.

Both projects are too new to see if the enterprises and work opportunities have longevity, or whether the community building has knock on effects, increasing solidarity and well-being. However, they both represent creative and innovative examples of a different way forward, not replacing other National employment innovations, but supplementing them, with the promise of a different future. Both the projects discussed above had financial support, and this is just the kind of thing that Regional or Local Governments, whichever is charged with the youth training funds could promote and support, and give young people not only some hope for the future, but also a belief in their own capacity to contribute to a better, more resilient world.

For a fuller discussion of these and other linked approaches see the following:

http://siba-ese.unisalento.it/index.php/cpgp/article/view/20568

 

Posted in economics, key concepts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking the Imperative out of Growth

by Mark H Burton

This article presents the personal viewpoint of the author rather than the considered position of the SSM collective as a whole.

This article as a pdf.        Our much longer, fully referenced version (pdf).

The report, The Tragedy of Growth (ToG), from the British NGO Positive Money, argues that the pursuit of endless economic growth does not help the enhancement of life satisfaction, poverty alleviation and environmental protection, and more than that it has damaging impacts on all these areas. Rather than calling for better or greener growth, they call for its abandonment as policy goal.

Positive Money is to be commended for its efforts in helping to bring the deep and systemic problem of Economic Growth to the public eye. However, while agreeing with this broad orientation, it is worth taking a close look at the report’s policy proposals and at the economic theory behind them. Central to this is the question of what makes economic growth happen, and what makes it so difficult to construct an economy that does not have to keep expanding. These are the drivers of economic growth.

This article is complemented by a longer and fully referenced paper that expands on the arguments presented here.

Economic growth and material flows

First, let’s look at this concept of economic growth. The fundamental problem threatening human life on this planet is the ever increasing flow of materials, both renewable and non-renewable, via the activities of extraction, production, distribution and use, to eventual disposal or dispersal, into the “sinks” in the plant’s air, soil and water. These flows are linked to what is measured as economic activity, via measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While, in principle, economic activity can diverge from material flows, in practice, such decoupling is at best only relative: the two things are linked and they mostly vary together. Therefore it is reasonable to use the term “economic growth” as a shorthand for the more fundamental problem of growth in material flows, and reasonable to try and tackle the drivers of economic growth as part of a wider strategy for protecting global ecosystems while providing for human well-being. Although “growth” is a system outcome, not a fundamental property of the system (the drivers of growth are more akin to those systemic origins of growth), it does have a material force in determining political and policy priorities.

Growth imperatives under capitalism

Positive Money sees the issuance of money through credit operations as the main growth imperative under capitalism.

We find that a monetary system based on interest-bearing debt is incompatible with a non-growing economy. This shows the need for transformative monetary and financial policies to escape the growth imperatives of capitalism.” (ToG, p. 20)

This causality is actually back to front: growth imperatives lie predominantly in the production system of what Marx, in Capital, called expanded reproduction.

To accumulate it is necessary to convert a portion of the surplus-product into capital. …. The more the capitalist accumulates, the more he is able to accumulate.

Like the exploitation of energy sources, credit facilitates this expansion but does not cause it.

ToG goes on to explore the phenomenon of financialisation. They argue firstly that banks have, since financial deregulation in the 1980s, massively increased their loans to the Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) sectors at the expense of industrial production.

This pattern of financialised bank lending generates a high burden of private debt, without fostering productive, income-generating economic activity that can service this debt. The high private debt burden amounts to a growth imperative starved of growth. (ToG, p. 21).

This, though, is only part of the picture. Firstly, the banks are only one element (maybe 10% of new capital formation): most of the investment in capitalist enterprise is not financed by bank loans but by the creation of equities by companies themselves. Secondly, production itself has shifted to the global South, and the relations between production there, and investment in the multi-layered financial systems of the core capitalist countries like the UK, is to say the least, obscure. To take one example, a large part of the value created in the factories of the global South is captured in the retail and FIRE sectors of the global North, such that John Smith, who has researched this in detail, concludes that the “D” in GDP is a lie.

Capitalism means growth, but why?

ToG argues that capitalism cannot continue without economic growth. I agree, but for a different reason: the true motor of expansion, the growth of capital via the production process, is as intrinsic to capitalism as it is as inimical to a steady state economy. ToG’s argument rests on the notion of “debt-based money”. Specifically, they argue that interest-bearing credit is a growth imperative. Their solution, central to Positive Money’s raison d’être, is a reform of money itself. Several studies, mostly based on simulation studies using post-Keyenesian theoretical models, including the one they cite, by Tim Jackson and Peter Victor, have researched whether interest-bearing credit necessarily makes economic growth inevitable. These studies broadly conclude that so long as the interest is not re-invested in production but is consumed, for example via higher worker wages, then interest payments need not conflict with a steady state economy. Interest rates should also not be “too high”.

This is not surprising from the Marxist perspective: it is the reinvestment of profit (as capital (i.e. into expanded means of production, or into additional labour, or the commodities from which other commodities are manufactured) that allows for expanded reproduction, i.e. the spiral of accumulation. That applies both to profits (the direct result of surplus value extraction) and interest (an indirect result). ToG makes two reasonable points about this work. Firstly, it is misleading to consider interest as independent from the propensity to save and accumulate. Secondly, they argue that historically, the emergence of banking credit (what they call “interest-bearing debt money”) was a distinct development in the “institutionalization” of capitalism and its multiple growth imperatives, so it is simplistic to isolate interest from the entire system of economic and financial relations under capitalism.

That is hardly controversial and is consistent with the more rigorous analysis of money in Marx’s work. However, unlike Marx, this account falls into the trap of characterising money under capitalism as “debt-based money”. This is a huge oversimplification. The money system is not so much debt-based as permeated by credit relations, but it also retains its pre-capitalist aspects, i.e. of a measure of value (the universal commodity), a medium of circulation and an object of hoarding, and during periods of crisis there is typically a rush back to cash, as equities (fictitious capital – whose valuation is based on their potential sale) are converted into cash, or its electronic equivalent).

Money is not reducible to credit (or debt) and contrary to Positive Money’s view that money itself should be reformed, taking credit relations out of money is infeasible. They conclude,

“As a key pillar of the capitalist system, interest-bearing debt is deeply linked to the system’s multiple growth imperatives, and we find no convincing evidence that it could comfortably co-exist with a non-growing economy.” (ToG, p. 25).

But this is to airily wave away at least five studies, and detailed theoretical analyses, that have come to the opposite conclusion. It is unlikely that any of the authors would think that their conclusions should be taken in isolation from a full analysis of the political economy of growth (Jackson and Victor, for example have each written whole books that analyse the whole system, as has Lange who reaches a similar but more clearly anti-capitalist conclusion). The point is important because misdiagnosing the source of growth imperatives (in the subsidiary issue of interest-bearing credit) would mean drawing the wrong conclusions for institutional and political change.

The following table summarises ToG’s problem diagnoses and our evaluation of them.

Diagnosis

Key idea

Evaluation

Growth imperatives

These lie in the nature of money and the credit system, particularly the banks.

Causality is back to front: growth imperatives lie in the production system of expanded reproduction. Credit facilitates this. Banking is only one source of credit for capitalist expansion.

Growth imperatives apply when the system stalls.

Growth imperatives are always there.

Financialisation

Financialisation is a key problem, changing the nature of capitalism. But removing it could mean that GDP growth is re-stimulated.

Financialisation is a phase in the long-term endemic crisis of capitalism. The problem is the capitalist mode of production.

Nature of capitalism

Separation of owners and workers. Workers produce and owners profit. Profit realised in market transactions.

Correct so far as it goes but misses the critical role of expanded reproduction: part of surplus product converted to capital which is re-invested.

Interest bearing credit and a steady state economy.

Unlikely to be possible because credit is intimately bound up with capitalism.

Would be possible if the state of simple reproduction were adhered to, i.e. interest not re-invested (but shared or spent on consumption, or better, social welfare and ecological restoration. However it is questionable that this is capitalism (i.e. system where capital is self-expanding).

Money

Debt-based money is problematic and reform is needed to end it.

Credit is one dimension of money which combines a number of functions, pre-capitalist (universal commodity, means of exchange, store of value) with the credit relations that emerged under mercantilism and matured under capitalism.

Taking credit relations out of money is infeasible.

A further consideration in assessing reform proposals is the geography of production and the role of credit. It has been argued here that credit plays a supportive rather than determinative role in the expansion of production, and hence material flows, under capitalism. Much production takes place beyond the shores of the UK, and this is so for all the countries of the global North. Controlling the expansion of finance capital (a broader category then banking credit) could only affect that outsourced production insofar as the investment is in those industries. So, for example, the measures suggested will have little impact on the capitalisation of Chinese industry, where much of the credit is generated within China. The situation with, say, Brazilian agribusiness is likely to be different, with a greater penetration of UK and other Northern finance capital, but again, credit from bank loans is not a major element. The point is that the specifics are important.

Then all that outsourced production (of food, consumer goods, electronic gadgetry, hydrocarbon fuels, etc., etc.) has to find a market. One large sector is household expenditure. Much of that has been supported by mushrooming consumer credit, and also, especially in the UK, by equity release from housing price inflation. It does make sense to restrict both consumer credit and property price inflation. However, that probably would be best done by specific policy instruments (tightening of the rules for extending credit and property and land taxation) rather than by grand changes to the organisation of the money system.

Policy shopping lists

So far the discussion has been rather abstract. ToG does make a number of concrete policy proposals in the report. Some of these follow from their analysis of interest bearing credit as a growth imperative while others would seem to stem from a variety of influences such as left social democracy and ecological economics. The new proposals fall under three categories: (i) access to public means of payment; (ii) access to credit; and (iii) immediate redistribution of power. They also acknowledge the role of other policy proposals that don’t directly address money and credit relations.

Our longer article evaluates the proposals. While we agree with some of them, we do not see them as adding up to an effective programme for the removal of growth-imperatives. The ToG proposals and our assessment is summarised in the following table.

Proposals

Key idea

Evaluation

1a. Central Bank Money.

Digital accounts for citizens held at the Bank of England

Unclear why this is a counter-growth strategy.

Substitutes a State entity for a private one: that could be two-edged.

1b. Universal Basic Income paid via Central Bank citizen accounts.

Non-discretionary payments to all citizens.

Worth considering to mitigate severe economic shocks (e.g. pandemic impacts). Possibly a counter-growth initiative, if accompanied by highly progressive taxation on income to control consumer spending.

2. Complementary currencies.

Strengthen local economies by raising consciousness of the local economy and “plugging the leaks”.

Worth considering on the grounds indicated (middle column) but evidence for their efficacy is limited. Likely to be of greater relevance as national economies fragment and as part of a system of alternative financial institutions.

Possibly a counter-growth strategy.

3. Direct clearing facility.

Business to business exchange and credit system.

Could become integrated with the dominant systems of finance capital – design and governance would be critical.

Unclear whether it is a counter-growth initiative, though could promote localism.

4. Public banking

New, community-based, citizen-owned and largely not-for-profit financial infrastructure.

Could encourage clean, local, social investments so well worth having.

Could be counter-growth depending on context, design, and governance.

5. Modern debt jubilees

Debt cancellation or provision of money by the State to repay debts.

To be welcomed as a measure to take highly indebted households out of poverty. Would reduce profiteering from personal hardship.

Applied more widely it would be unlikely to be counter-growth in effect.

6. Monetary financing

The State (government / Central Bank) conjures money into existence to fund green and public works.

Given the elasticity between money and the generation of value it is feasible as a temporary expedient but carries macro-economic risks.

Unlikely to be counter-growth in nature since it would stimulate consumption and hence material flows.

7. Tax reform

Increase taxes on high incomes. Wealth, financial transactions and property and land taxes.

Essential measures to shift the economy towards greater economic justice and greener activity.

Done in the right way it could be a serious counter-growth strategy.

In our longer article, we outline an alternative package of measures. These draw upon work by thinkers in the degrowth movement, but they have been considerably amended, adapted and expanded. We present the headlines here: a fuller explanation can be found in our longer piece. Numbers 4, 6 and 13 overlap with certain ToG proposals, while number 5 requires a different approach to credit from that in ToG, i.e. Firstly, impose regulation over bank lending for tight but cheap credit. Secondly, make it a requirement that share offers are for clean production and do not lead to the replacement of labour with technology.

1. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting.

2. Work-and resource sharing.

3. Minimum and maximum income.

4. Tax reform.

5. Controls on credit.

6. Citizen debt audit and cancellation

7. Support the alternative, solidarity society

8. Optimise the use of buildings.

9. Reduce advertising and marketing.

10. Establish environmental limits.

11. Make international trade agreements conform with frameworks on climate change and consumption of nature.

12. Implement ecological footprint product, repairability and service labelling

13. Abolish or augment and qualify the misleading GDP indicator.

Conclusion: the political economy of economic growth

Positive Money is to be commended for its efforts in helping to bring the deep and systemic problem of Economic Growth to the public eye. Their report contains some worthwhile policy ideas but its overall diagnosis of the growth imperative, and hence how to neutralise it, is misguided, relying on a fetishisation of the money system at the expense of the deep structures of capitalist accumulation.

As they stand, both ToG and our own proposals lack a necessary emphasis on the power interests at play, particularly on the part of incumbent firms and corporations. This will require a critical understanding of the role of the State as a guarantor and facilitator of capitalist social and economic relations, not just the money system but the entire set of property relations and the laws that codify and enforce them. This is increasingly so in this neoliberal phase of capitalism but the problem goes beyond neoliberalism as such. Where are the contradictions of the system that can be used by an organised political movement to exert leverage and force system change? A political strategy is needed, linked up with other political and social movements that are engaged in the contested terrain of the State and the other societal institutions, but that will inevitably mean debate and transformation of the policy platform on which to organise. This critique could be seen as part of that debate.

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