Democracy and the US Midterms

Maurice reflects on the US Mid-term elections, and asks if something has changed in the ‘demosphere’.

Donald Trump, with characteristic bravado and disregard for the truth, declared it “very close to complete victory”. 

And even some of those who had been rooting for a ‘blue wave’ election in the States – with the Democrats surging back to power in a rebuke to the President – may have initially been somewhat deflated by the results this week. Though they took the House of Representatives, they failed to take the Senate, and indeed Republicans gained a couple of seats there.

To make matters worse, some promising progressive candidates like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, fell just short in the end.  An out-and-out racist, Steve King, was returned in Iowa, despite a spirited challenge from Democratic newcomer JD Scholten. And of course, the win in the House will do little to draw the sting from the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

In some instances, it appears Republican election victories involved some shady practices. Take Brian Kemp, who has claimed victory in the Georgia Governor’s race. He spent the entire period of the election as Georgia’s Secretary of State – that is, the official charged with overseeing the conduct of an election in which he was a candidate – only stepping down from that post afterwards. Not before he had purged the voter rolls of likely Democratic voters, including a disproportionately large number of people from minority communities.

But on the plus side, the Democrats now have a healthy majority in the House. That’s important because the Trump agenda can’t just be rammed through any more, and it means the Democrats get to chair committees that can investigate, subpoena witnesses, and start to unpick some of the excesses of the Trump Administration – perhaps reverse some of that voter suppression.

In fact, the results in terms of seats don’t give a clear picture of the relative popularity of the parties – something you would think significant in a democratic process.  More people voted for Democrats than Republicans at every level: by around 750,000 in elections for Governorships; around 4.5 million in the House elections; and by a whopping 12.8m in the Senate race – even though Republicans won more seats in the latter. Let’s not forget that though Donald Trump won the Presidential election of 2016, some 2.8m more Americans voted for Clinton than for him.

In another promising sign from this week’s race, there were also victories for women, LGBT candidates and members of minority ethnic groups in record numbers. The first native American women were elected, and the first Muslim women. The US now has its first openly gay man to be elected Governor. And even those progressive candidates who failed to win the seats – like O’Rourke – generated a surge in support, and helped get voters out for the other races held at the same time.  Some 372 seats in individual state legislatures switched from Republican to Democratic on Tuesday night, for example. And incidentally, at the time of writing, one or two more seats could yet go to the Democrats after a recount.

Perhaps just as significantly, many Democratic candidates, it appears, refused to take corporate donations for their campaigns, instead relying on many small donations from ordinary people. This may be a good sign for the health of American democracy.

But to win in 2020, Democrats need to be very clear not just about Trump, but about what caused Trump.

For me, it goes like this.

We’ve had three decades of growing inequality in which Republicans told working class people: “sorry your jobs have been off-shored, but you can’t buck the market, and our share prices just keep growing, which is great for the economy, right? Now don’t let those Democrats raise your taxes and give the money to Welfare Queens”.

And the Democrats said “well, the Republicans are right about the market, we’ve got to have growth; but we’ll redistribute a bit of it, if we can get our rich donors to agree. Now in the meantime, try not to act like dumb rednecks!”

That is, the whole political class, including the party that was meant to represent them, turned their faces away from workers just when they needed most attention. Hammered by the right, abandoned or condescended to by the new centre-left (which was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” in Peter Mandelson’s infamous phrase), it’s little wonder someone who appeared as champion, and gave them permission to voice their anger, appealed to many in what would traditionally have been a left-leaning constituency. No one was out there offering a more positive, constructive vision for that constituency.

But maybe, at last, some Democrats (and democrats) have begun to do so.

For me, if the Democrats want to build a winning combination in the two years before the next Presidential election, they need to move away from reliance on large corporate donations and get out among working people. Door to door from now until 2020. That’s how you build a democratic (and Democratic) movement. It’s how Bernie Sanders changed the conversation in 2016, forcing the ‘safe’ candidate (that is, the one who would not upset wealthy donors) Hillary Clinton to tack left; it’s what has propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from the Bronx to Congress; it’s what saw Beto O’Rourke pick up almost half the vote in Texas. These candidates also ran on a strong, progressive platform of raising the minimum wage, rolling out some sort of public health service – but crucially they were able to meet people and make the case in person.

Something has changed in the democratic political  atmosphere – the ‘demosphere’ you might say. New currents are beginning to flow. It is up to democrats on both sides of the Atlantic to help those currents to combine together, so that they may grow in strength.

Cranks and co-operatives

Maurice considers the crash of a decade ago, and introduces our new series of short films on the theme of sustainable economic democracy.

Maurice at the original Co-op in Toad Lane, Rochdale

Forty years ago a number of political actors on both sides of the Atlantic took political power, then immediately started using it to take economic power away from the workers at the base of the economic pyramid and cranking it to the already wealthy and powerful, the big corporations and those who ran them.  They did it by suppressing unions, deregulating corporations, privatising public assets and offshoring both jobs and potential tax revenues. It was known as the Washington Consensus, or ‘trickle-down’ economics. I call it the crank economy, because much more is cranked up than ever ‘trickles down’.

While the crank is certainly capable of driving up profits and GDP growth, it also drives up inequality – both in terms of wealth and in terms of power. Because those who accumulate sufficient wealth, relative to the bulk of the population, can start to fund political campaigns to ensure those who will look after the interests of the wealthy are elected, and can afford to purchase the media outlets to spread the idea that this is best for the ‘country as a whole’.  Indeed, that ‘there is no alternative’.

The Washington Consensus, then, helped drive up inequality, from the 1970s onward, cranking wealth and power to a relatively small number at the top (say, the wealthiest 1 per cent), while putting pressure down on the rest of the population (perhaps around ‘the 99 per cent’).

Then, on 16 September 2008, the day after Lehman Brothers collapsed, the Washington Consensus died. Or it should have.

The entire globally interconnected financial system, it became clear, was close to collapse. Any thought of relying on ‘market forces’ to save the world economy, as the orthodoxy since the 1970s had it, was patently absurd.

It should have been obvious, from that moment on, that the economic orthodoxy which had governed the global political economy since the 1980s had been shattered.

Yet miraculously, the champions of the crank economy managed to breath a last spurt of life into the corpse of the Washington Consensus, which seems to stagger on, like the Zombies that suddenly seem to have become widespread in popular culture at about the same time.

Conservatives regained power on both sides of the Atlantic by persuading just enough voters that the best cure for the crash was to get the crank turning again as fast as possible – and by persuading them that any problems emerging could safely be blamed not on truly brutal austerity policies but on government overspending, and on foreigners (migrants, Brussels).

So is there any hope we can finally lay the Zombie to rest? Well, there are signs  of life in various global political movements – a whole new raft of progressive democrats have sprung up in the wake of the election and Presidency of Donald Trump, for instance. And it has suddenly become possible to discuss, for example, the nationalisation of the railways in the UK in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Moreover, there are also signs of life in alternative economic models, both theoretical and practical. Which brings me to our new series of short videos…

For the first of these, The Zirimiri, I travelled to Rochdale in northern England, and to Mondragon in the Basque Country to learn more about the co-operative pioneers of both regions. You can watch it here.

In future episodes we will look at the co-operative movement closer to home, here in Northern Ireland, and then at some other interesting and potentially powerful politico-economic experiments going on at the moment.

‘Powerful’ being the key word. Wealth is power – this is not a metaphor. So if we can find ways for people to take economic power back into their own hands, without waiting for some heroic leader to sweep into Westminster or the White House and do it for us, then we will have begun to shift the gears, turning the crank on its side, so that more and more of the forces are directed horizontally, and wealth and power begin to flow and cycle through our own local communities.

Maurice Macartney

22 September 2018




Maurice reflects on a pair of demonstrations he attended recently, and their implications for thinking about democracy

Green Party members dance their way down Royal Avenue at Belfast Pride 2018

I’ve taken part in two demonstrations in recent weeks, one small, the other very large; one tense, the other joyous; both of considerable significance in judging where we are, and where we are headed, in Northern Irish politics.

The first took place on 28 July outside the Ards Leisure Centre (in Newtownards). The fascist organisation calling itself ‘Britain First’, having failed to make inroads in England, had decided to come here to try to exploit the anxieties and anger of disaffected Loyalists. And though there has long been a certain amount of cross fertilisation between Loyalism and the far right, whether they will make any inroads here remains to be seen. That said, we had no intention of sitting around waiting for the data to come in on that one.

‘We’, in this instance, means a group of people from diverse backgrounds and organisations who had quickly pulled together enough of a counter-demonstration to make our point. There were perhaps fifty of us in all. Sufficient to make it clear to the organisers of the fascist meeting that they would not simply be allowed to turn up and claim Newtownards as their own territory unopposed.

There were people from a range of political groups, including the Greens, Alliance, PBP, Socialists, and even one from the Ulster Unionist Party, though he stood initially to one side. If I have left anyone out please forgive me and let me know!

There were also people from Trade Unions, including NIPSA, PSC, and Unison.  And there were, no doubt, other concerns citizens not affiliated with any particular organisation. Again forgive me if I have missed anyone.

The other demo, the larger by a long way, was the Belfast Pride parade of Saturday 4 August.

Here too there were people from a wide range of backgrounds and organisations. There were, obviously, representatives of various LGBTQ groups. There were the aforementioned parties (including the same UUP representative, this time with colleagues) and many more, as well as the Trade Unions. Indeed there were members of a whole range of unions present.

Why bring these demos up? A number of reasons.

First, you can’t spell democracy without the demo.  Demonstrations and democracy go hand in hand, because democracy has to be active. Casting a vote every few years is the veryleast you can do, and still call yourself a democrat.

Equally importantly, democracy is about diversity. This is not just a nice add-on: it is essential to the whole concept of democracy, and this is not widely understood enough.

Take the letter published in the Belfast Telegraph on 16 July, by a correspondent addressing the decision of the Presbyterian church in Ireland to deny full membership to same-sex couples.

His argument was that, as the vote of the General Assembly was democratic, no one can oppose it who claims to be a democrat (“it was a democratic vote and each person should abide by the decision of the Assembly…how true a democrat are you when you do not encourage a democratic decision?”).

This betrays a complete, but symptomatic, misunderstanding of democracy. Democracy is not just a question of implementing the decisions of a majority. First you have to have a society in which each enjoys the same status, where each has the same standing. Then and only then do you have the basis on which democracy can proceed.

If a minority strips a majority of their standing – think of Apartheid South Africa – it’s pretty obvious it is not a matter of democracy. But that’s not because of the relative size of the factions. It is just as anti-democratic if a majoritydecides to strip a minorityof their standing. That’s domination, not democracy.

The drive to dominate increasingly seems to have taken hold at the level of state politics too.

Take the fascists mentioned at the beginning. They exploit the anxieties and perceived marginalisation of working people (and indeed many middle class people) by giving them a convenient foreign scapegoat to hate. Expel these foreigners, the thinking goes, and we would have more resources for ‘our own’ people. But leaving aside the issue of the huge contribution immigrants make, in truth, the unions – those opposingthe fascists – have done more, far more for ordinary workers than any fascist movement – or indeed than right-wing populists, who might claim to be democratic, such as Donald Trump.

Populism can sound democratic, but it isn’t. It is, however obliquely, opposed to democracy.

The populist comes along and says ‘I represent the people, not the elite’. So ordinary citizens cheer and vote for him – or her (Marine, I’m also looking at you).

So far so good. But they don’t stop there. They go on: ‘And I’m going to tell you who the people are’. Or rather (and this comes to the same thing), ‘I’m going to tell you who are notthe people’. The liberal elite. Mexicans, LGBT people, Feminists. Muslims. Or whatever other denomination suits their purpose. Catholics or Nationalists, perhaps. The British, perhaps.

Divide people (in the plural) by first denominating THE people (singular) and their enemies. Now you have two entities, rather than a multiplicity, a shifting, moving congregation of diverse people with diverse views and interests who are obliged to learn to live together.

Populism aims to dominate, not democratise.

Democracy does not aim to suppress difference by casting it in a hostile light. It aims to create a community of others, a community that respects the differences between all of us, between you and I, and attempts to accommodate those as nonviolently as humanly possible.

And it can only do this through a commitment to the principle of nonviolence and the institutions, however imperfect, that represent attempts to embody that principle – i.e., the rule of law, democratically set and adjudicated by one’s peers.

The demos of ‘democracy’ is always plural, a multiplicity, not a homogeneous block. Democracy must always be a movement towards a society of equals – a political system in which I am now in the majority, now in the minority, and my being in the minority does not give you the authority to deprive me of my standing.

Finally, we need to be clear that sometimes the populists show a cunning awareness that democracy involves protecting minority rights. We need to be alert to their attempts to exploit just that essential component of democracy.

Doubtless the fascists who came to Newtownards the other week would claim their aim is to defend, say, ‘the white working class’ as though the latter were an oppressed minority. It is a seductive routine for those who do, in fact, find themselves marginalised, in precarious jobs or out of work in a post-industrial area, and facing austerity cuts.

But their aim is not to defend the poor: it is to divide them, setting neighbour against neighbour, in pursuit of local dominance.

Better, much better, if they were to abandon the aim of dominance and join the Trade Unions and the democracy movement opposing them. Trade Unions have done far more to empower the disempowered – including the ‘white working class’ – than any fascist movement.

And the Trade Unions need to start shouting about that from the rooftops. It is good to take a stand in opposition when the fascists take to the streets, but what we need, I suggest, is a sort of Trade Union equivalent of Pride. Something that starts in opposition, a protest against marginalisation, discrimination, oppression, but which comes to embody the joyous, colourful, energetic and, yes, proud spirit of living, grassroots democracy in action.

Maurice Macartney

21 August 2018







The Propaganda of Peace

To coincide with BBC One Northern Ireland broadcasting Ads on the Frontline (23 May at 21:00 BST) we have published this extract from Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker’s book, The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process. In it the authors argue that a series of advertisements commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office to publicise the confidential telephone number, marked a shift in government thinking, initially about paramilitaries but also about Northern Ireland generally. In the NIO advertisements, the image of loyalists and republicans changed from that of psychotic criminals to ordinary family men and women; and Northern Ireland was transformed on screen from a place of violence and dereliction to a desirable commodity in the global market place, capable of catching the eye of tourists.


The confidential telephone service was set up by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the 1970s to receive anonymous information from the public regarding paramilitary activity. It was publicised through a variety of media but of most interest here are the television advertisement campaigns. The early campaigns were strictly anti-terrorist in orientation and fitted into the wider British propaganda framework. Terrorism had no political content or context and the terrorists themselves were portrayed as ruthless, psychotic criminals. For example, A Future (NIO 1988) features a young man reflecting on the future for his wife and child in a community dominated by paramilitary violence. What, he asks on his odyssey around his troubled city, have these ‘hard men’ ever done for him? ‘They’ve left me with no job and no hope, they’ve wrecked where I live, they’ve hijacked our cars, they’ve fed off our backs, and when I saw their kind of justice, I thought there’s gotta be something better than this.’ This voiceover accompanies images of a war-torn urban environment: bombs exploding, punishment shootings in back alleys and paramilitaries collecting funds in local pubs. The lighting is dark and the atmosphere foreboding, an effect heightened by a crime thriller score.

The NIO continued the service into the 1990s and the period of the peace process but the new circumstances brought a perceptible shift in emphasis in the advertisement campaigns. One only has to note the dramatic visual contrast between the despair of A Future and the biblical message of hope in A New Era, from 1994, in which the traditional symbols of conflict and division are transformed before our eyes into images of peace and prosperity. A paramilitary gun morphs into a starting pistol for the Belfast marathon; security bollards turn into flower displays; a police cordon turns into ceremonial tape for the opening of a new motorway; and two Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) constables reunite a lost child with his mother, confounding the controversial history and nature of the force.7

However, we want to focus here on two adverts from 1993 – Lady and I Wanna Be Like You. This is because they broke most radically from the traditional formal conventions of the confidential telephone adverts shown up until then and since. Far from the usual montage of propaganda images and messages, these ads were constructed as mini-domestic dramas that represented the paramilitary with a more human face, thus situating him in a more ambiguous position in society.

Lady tells the story of two women whose lives are blighted by violence. The ethno- religious identity of the women is not made explicit: they are both portrayed as victims. One is a widow whose husband is murdered by a paramilitary. The other is married to the paramilitary who is imprisoned for the murder. A female narrator intones, ‘Two women, two traditions, two tragedies. One married to the victim of violence, one married to the prisoner of violence. Both scarred, both suffering, both desperately wanting it to stop.’ As with A Future, Lady is about the impact of violence on domestic relations except, in this instance, violence is presented as equally tragic for the paramilitaries as it is for their victims.

I Wanna Be Like You also reflects upon the cost of paramilitary violence to family relations, specifically those of father and son. There is no voiceover narrative to this film. Instead it is accompanied by a version of the Harry Chapin song, ‘Cat in the Cradle’. It presents a man’s journey over a number of years from paramilitarism to his recognition of the futility of violence. In the beginning, he neglects his family, ends up in prison and eventually sees his son grow up and follow in his footsteps as a paramilitary. The son in turn becomes remote from the father and is shown gunning down a man in front of his child, emphasising the cyclical nature of the violence. The son eventually loses his life to violence and the advert closes with the image of his father grieving at his grave.

After the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the NIO commissioned a very different series of public films that moved away from the anti-terrorist message altogether. Broadcast during the summer of 1995, these made no mention of the confidential phone service or of terrorists or terrorism. Indeed, they appeared to have no specific purpose except to show off Northern Ireland as a place where people enjoyed life without fear of violence. Scored with some of the best-known songs of Van Morrison, a native of Belfast, such as ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Days Like This’, and ‘Have I Told You Lately’, the four films have the glossy look of tourist advertisements, marketing peace in Northern Ireland as consumer commodity. In the first film, Northern Irish Difference, babies and toddlers play at a crèche, oblivious to sectarian or cultural difference; in the second, Northern Irish Life, two boys from both traditions play on a beach and innocently exchange what would, in the conflict of the past, have been seen as sectarian badges of identity – King Billy for Glasgow Celtic Football Club! The third film, Northern Irish Quality, celebrates the sporting and cultural achievements of people like Mary Peters, George Best and Liam Neeson, while the fourth, Northern Irish Spirit, reminds people of the region’s stunning coastal and rural scenery. All the films in the series end with Van Morrison’s epithet from ‘Coney Island’, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’ and the on-screen slogan, ‘Time for the Bright Side’. The use of Morrison’s music in this series of films came with his explicit permission and blessing and reveals much about the heady, optimistic mood that gripped Northern Ireland in the hot summer of 1995.

When the IRA ceasefire ended in 1996, with bombs in London and Manchester, the NIO returned to the violent imagery of the early confidential telephone advertisements. However, the restoration of the ceasefires and the negotiations towards the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought a return to optimism. During the referendum campaign in May that year, the NIO distributed to every home a copy of the Agreement document, its cover showing the archetypal nuclear family silhouetted against a rising sun, symbolising the Agreement as a new dawn for the people of Northern Ireland. It was revealed later that the picture was actually of a sunset and was taken in South Africa, perfect dawns being difficult to catch in Northern Ireland. Still, these idealised, post-ceasefire images marked a radical departure from the violent imagery of 1988 and A Future, and even from the more positive advertisements of the early 1990s because they dispensed with the anti-terrorist message altogether and held out the prospect of real peace and a final settlement to the conflict.

Martin McLoone (1993) was one of the first media academics to take a serious look at these government films and spot the subtle change of message in their narrative and photography. As he has argued, they did indeed appear to prepare the public for negotiations with the enemy while at the same time suggest to the IRA especially that they had something to gain by laying down their arms. However, the films may also have had the effect of giving the media licence to explore the ongoing transition from war to peace in ways unthinkable just years before.


McLaughlin, Greg and Stephen Baker (2010) The Propaganda of Peace: The role of culture and media in the Northern Ireland peace process (Bristol: Intellect Books)

McLoone, M. (1993), ‘The Commitments: the NIO anti-terrorist ads’, Fortnight, 321, October, pp. 34–36




Tanya Jones argues that the time has well and truly come to stop investing in fossil fuels – and not just for environmental reasons. 

Exploratory drilling for oil in Woodburn, 2016

In an increasingly polarised and intransigent political atmosphere, locally, nationally and globally, it’s worth celebrating a campaign that uniquely speaks to left and right, unionist and nationalist, conservative and liberal, Brexiteer and Remainer.  Encompassing values of common sense, fairness, rationality, responsibility, compassion and hope, the fossil fuel divestment (sometimes described as disinvestment) movement is an opportunity both to shape the future for the better and to respond to the transformation which is already being made.

Simply summarised, divestment in this context is the process of ceasing to invest in the extraction, sale and burning of fossil fuels, and of encouraging those who invest on behalf of others to do the same.

There are two major reasons to divest, reasons that are interrelated but also independent.  Most people in the divestment movement recognise both, and both impel us to urgent action.  But either path can be taken,  disregarding the other, and the destination will be the same.

The first reason is that fossil fuels aren’t a good investment.

Good (gud) adj. 1. Right, sound, reliable, efficient…

The 2015 Paris Agreement requires governments to ensure that the global temperature rise (from pre-industrial levels) is kept well below two degrees centigrade, with an aim of keeping it to 1.5.  In order for this to be achieved, we need net greenhouse gas emissions of zero by the year 2050.

Such an outcome is simply incompatible with a continuation of ‘business as usual’ by the fossil fuel companies. In order to meet the obligations of the Paris Agreement, over 75 percent of fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground.  But the sector’s business models are based upon assumptions which would create a temperature rise of at least three degrees, while ongoing oil production, if continued, would be compatible with a horrific eight degree rise.

Something has to give, either the profitability of fossil fuel companies, or the hope of maintaining a habitable world, and the commitments of the world’s governments to achieving it.  As government, industry, civil society and individuals take action against the sector, its assets will become stranded and ultimately useless.  That action is already happening, in legislation, regulation, business preference for clean technology and the increasing numbers of legal cases taken against fossil fuel companies, in relation both to the damage caused by climate change and to the companies’ misleading of investors.

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, highlighted the economic risks to fossil fuel companies in a 2015 speech to the Lloyds of London insurers.  He spoke of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’, saying ‘While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.’ Meanwhile within the past month it has been reported that oil companies are maintaining their dividends by increasing debt and that 89 percent of fund managers expect oil company valuations to fall as a result of energy transition issues.

Those who make investment decisions on behalf of others owe a fiduciary duty towards them.  In the case of pension fund trustees this duty is further enshrined in Article 18(1) of the EU Directive 2003/4/EC, which requires that assets be invested in the best interests of members and beneficiaries.

There has been a common misconception that trustees should not take ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors into account when making investment decisions.  It has now been authoritatively shown that this is incorrect.  Where ESG factors are financially material, they can (and arguably should) always be taken into consideration. If there are no such financial effects, these factors may still be considered by decision-makers where the scheme members share the concern and the divestment doesn’t involve a serious risk of financial detriment.

Trustees have a further duty to treat beneficiaries and groups of beneficiaries equally, including those of different generations.  This requirement of inter-generational equity makes it imperative not simply to seek short-term high dividends, benefiting current pensioners only, at the cost of future retirees.

Delaying divestment decisions can also be a breach of fiduciary duty, as devaluations can be much more sudden than expected.  A small drop in demand can create a large drop in prices, as was shown in 2016 when a two per cent fall in demand for coal led to the bankruptcy of several companies.  And once a new technology reaches a ten per cent market share, its rise to achieve a 100 percent share can be very quick indeed.  Fossil fuel companies have consistently underestimated the growth of clean technologies, and renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in most countries of the world.

Divestment is therefore, from the most conservative and financially prudent viewpoint, a necessity if funds are to maintain their value and provide a reliable return for this and the next generation of beneficiaries.

The second reason is that fossil fuels aren’t a good investment.

Good (gud) adj. 2. Kind, wholesome, salutary, morally excellent…

We know that the actions of coal, oil and gas companies are fueling catastrophic climate change, which is already causing hunger, sickness, homelessness and conflict, affecting the most vulnerable and least complicit of the world’s people.  Over four-fifths of the UK’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and, as we have seen, the sector’s business models are based upon climate disaster.

Whether or not government, industry and civil society act effectively to curb the destructiveness of  fossil fuel companies (and they cannot afford not to), many of us feel that we have a personal responsibility to speak and to act.  Anyone who looks honestly at global poverty will recognise the centrality of climate justice; the principle that those who have done least to cause disruptive climate change should not be called upon to bear its terrible effects.  Anyone who, with or without religious faith, acknowledges that humans have exercised a pernicious dominion over the natural world, will want to transform that tyranny into a positive stewardship.  And anyone who looks with clarity at the future for today’s children will want to make that future one of health, peace and wellbeing.

For those of us who hold a vision of a world characterised by compassion and justice, one where people live lightly but well upon the earth, financial decisions must be a part of the journey we take.  The example of divestment from the South African apartheid regime showed how ethical investment policies can be both a powerful symbol of solidarity and compassion and also a significant driver of political and economic change.

It’s sometimes suggested that ‘engagement’, that is, retaining shares in fossil fuel companies in order to try to influence corporate decisions, is a better model than divestment.  Engagement can indeed be a useful tool in nudging organisations in the right direction, notably in the case of the Living Wage campaign.  But it has to be effective: engagement that doesn’t have adequate goals and clear deadlines is little more than a futile gesture.  The only adequate decarbonisation goal in respect of a fossil fuel company would be to persuade it to give up its core business altogether: scarcely a practical use of limited resources.  By contrast, engagement with sectors such as power utilities and transport has immense potential, leading to significant changes in the fossil fuel/clean technology balance without changing the core purpose of the company.

Over eight hundred institutions, with assets of over six trillion dollars, have already divested from fossil fuels, or are in the process of doing so.  They include New York City, the Rockefeller Brothers, the Church of Sweden, Trinity College Dublin, the Woodland Trust and the Catholic charity Caritas.  Reinvestment has been in a range of positive investments, from local projects to large scale funds. Case studies suggest that institutions that have divested are doing well, both financially and in terms of their cohesion and relationships, well-placed to face the future.

Here in Northern Ireland,  Fossil Free NI  is calling upon the Local Government Pension Scheme to divest from fossil fuels.  It is a campaign which, focusing on councils, is able to flourish despite the absence of an Executive and functioning Assembly, bringing a real potential for positive co-operation against the backdrop of division and uncertainty.   For now, and for the future, it may well be our very best hope.

Tanya Jones

5 May 2018


The scene of the tragedy

Exactly five years ago today, clothing workers in Bangladesh were urged back into the Rana Plaza factory, even though an engineer had declared the building unsafe.  Over a thousand were crushed to death when the building collapsed. The death toll would eventually come to 1,134.

That these workers were making clothing for our High Street stores makes this our tragedy. We cannot escape our share of responsibility for what happened that day. Nor can the companies who commissioned work from the factories.

For their part, many, to be fair, signed up to one or other of the two agreements put in place after the catastrophe (see here and here).

Of these, the Accord is the stronger instrument. It is about to come to an end, but a successor agreement (the Transition Accord) has been reached and some 150 companies have signed it. You can check the list here.

In a recent video I drew connections between the struggle to abolish slavery, the civil rights movement and Rana Plaza; you can watch that here.

But for probably the most moving treatment of the topic, the extraordinary site created by the Guardian, here, remains the best resource of which I am aware in terms of the human dimension.

Watch it, remember the 1,134, and let’s urge our High Street companies to uphold the accord. Let’s make Rana Plaza a turning point – by far the best way we can honour the dead.

Maurice Macartney

24 April 2018



Northern Ireland: twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement and the hand of history is elsewhere

A mural in East Belfast, overlooked by the shipyard

On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Stephen Baker looks back at the hopes it kindled, and asks, where do we stand now?

Much to the chagrin of restaurateurs and pub owners, Good Friday is a notoriously tricky time to buy a drink in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless 20 years ago, somehow, I was toasting the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with a glass of champagne. I still have the cork somewhere, stored away as a memento. Sentimental, I know. But I was optimistic. Things were changing. People were changing. The evidence seemed to be all around. There were regular public meetings and discussions on topics as diverse as democracy, policing, women in politics, and more. Refreshing new political voices had appeared – the Women’s Coalition and David Ervine among others. And a telegenic young Labour leader was in Number 10 promising ‘things can only get better’ after almost two decades of divisive, miserable Tory rule.

I had my reservations about the Good Friday deal, of course: not least that its consociational terms might entrench sectarian divisions. But this was trumped by a sense that supporting the Good Friday Agreement was an important step towards copper-fastening peace and the loyalist and republican ceasefires. I was also hopeful that freed from living under the pall of political violence some of us might be able to organise more effectively around issues like health, education, welfare, pay and working conditions. Back in 1998 these issues pressed harder on me than those of national identity and the border.

With hindsight I may have been too sanguine about the opportunities that the deal held out. I still insist that if it contributed to the diminution of violence in Northern Ireland then the Agreement was worth supporting, but it’s hard not to feel that the opportunity to build on the relative peace has being squandered. At present Northern Ireland’s democratic institutions are mothballed with no discernible sign of them being re-established. Indeed, the short history of the power sharing executive and assembly is one of stumbling from one hiatus to another, beset by longstanding enmity, scandals and corruption. Little wonder then that health and education are in need of greater repair now than twenty years ago. And to top it all, thanks to the UK’s decision to leave the EU, the issue of the Irish border has returned in a way few us could have anticipated back on Good Friday in 1998.

Brexit has the potential to change everything. The Good Friday Agreement espoused a post-national ideal that was necessarily relaxed about sovereignty and borders. This was an attempt to accommodate otherwise antagonistic national allegiances. Coincidently it was compatible with a Northern Ireland’s incorporation into neoliberal globalisation. It is worth bearing in mind that the project of liberal peace building – not just in Northern Ireland but in other troubled and war-torn places – was as much an opportunity to subject them to market liberalisation as achieve peace and political accord. Wars, civil conflicts and catastrophes leave behind the sort of ‘blank canvases’ and spaces ripe for ‘regeneration’ and redevelopment that neoliberalism thrives upon. Northern Ireland was no exception.

But neoliberalism’s zeal for the untrammelled, global accumulation of capital has been felt and experienced negatively and as a loss by many people. Their discontent has been harnessed in the US, the EU and Britain by right-wing populists and demagogues advancing nativist politics and promising protectionist economics. It is hard to reconcile this sort of the politics with the ideas enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Its aspirations to partnership and equality, are not compatible with ‘taking back control’ and calls to restore spurious notions of greatness. That might explain why a majority of Northern Ireland’s voters rejected the call to Brexit. Yet despite this the region is setting out on an uncertain course to leave the EU, dragged along in the wake of English nationalism and free-market fundamentalism. If Tony Blair detected ‘the hand of history’ on the eve of the Good Friday Agreement, its divine-like presence was felt again, this time on the shoulder of the Nigel Farage as he declared the 16th June 2016 the UK’s ‘independence day’.

The DUP clearly sees itself as a winner in this new context, propping up an unpopular, decrepit Tory government, urging it on to Brexit with a cry of ‘no surrender’! Its gung ho attitude will delight the English Brexiteers and buccaneers impatient to embark on their bold global adventure to reboot the empire. But in the not so distant future, how will those same buccaneers view ‘our wee province’ that can’t pay its way in the world, with its irksome EU border? Or what if the ‘hand of history’ proves once more a fickle friend and visits Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell at the next general election?

Having effectively abandoned the region it was elected to serve to pursue its own narrow sectional interests and Westminster power-politics, the DUP leaves behind it a Northern Ireland that is deeply, socially divided; politically dysfunctional; suffering a democratic deficit; and economically moribund. All together this should be enough to condemn Northern Ireland to the status of an abject failure. But most damning of all, perhaps, is that too few people actually believe in Northern Ireland – I mean really believe! – believe in a way that would breath cultural and civic life into the place beyond the dry constitutional legislation that recognises Northern Ireland in law.

Something has occurred to me in recent times that twenty years ago I’d have found unthinkable. Northern Ireland doesn’t really exist, not any deep, emotional, imaginative sense: certainly not for nationalists who have no long-term vested interest in the place and whose cultural imaginations and allegiances exceed the six counties. But it doesn’t even really exist for those unionists for whom ‘Ulster’ is a surrogate for Northern Ireland; a province of their exclusivist cultural imaginations that bears no proper relation to the territory upon which they walk or the constitution they claim to defend. Simply put, not enough people care sufficiently about Northern Ireland to build a consensus around how we – all of us – will work, live, love and think here. Indeed, Northern Ireland would die of neglect if it weren’t for the British exchequer and the civil servants who administer it.

Twenty years ago when I toasted the Good Friday Agreement I took Northern Ireland for granted. Its birth in 1921 pre-dated my own in 1968 into a unionist family. Northern Ireland was then the only place I’d ever lived, and I assumed I’d always live in a place called Northern Ireland. But things are changing. People are changing.

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement I no longer take the existence of Northern Ireland for granted.

Stephen Baker

9 April 2018

Distance and democracy

Mural in Belfast, featuring campaigners including Martin Luther King

On 4 April, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Maurice looks at the US Civil Rights movement in this blogpost; and in a companion video piece, considers the legacy of Frederick Douglass, whose 200th anniversary also falls this year. 

How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? Can’t answer? Then you are not allowed to register to vote. Or you wouldn’t have been, at any rate, were you an African American in the Southern USA in the 1950s.

That was just one of the questions asked by white Southern electoral officials of such applicant voters (Manning, 2007). Among all the other, more obviously outrageous things – lynchings, casual racist violence, police brutality, job discrimination and so on – it is little details such as this that seem, somehow, most telling.

The white officials didn’t even have to pretend to be fair. They knew the question was unanswerable; they knew that even if the applicant gave an answer it would be the ‘wrong’ one;  they knew that all this was going through the mind of the African American citizen standing in front of them; and they knew that he or she was, to all intents and purposes, utterly powerless to do anything about it.

That someone could be disenfranchised – and thus have no say in the laws to which they were subject – on such a transparently unfair, patently unanswerable pretext, shows how securely white domination was enshrined in the legal and political system of the South.

Yet it was in this context of apparent powerlessness that one of the most powerful political movements of the twentieth century reached its apogee.

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King on 4 April it is worth remembering that the movement preceded him and was much broader than him.  There were immensely significant African American campaigns and campaigners long before King (think, for instance, of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, A Philip Randolph, WEB Du Bois, Ella Baker and so on); there were countless others in his day, less famous but no less courageous or effective. Think of the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro Four. There have been countless others since – think Black Lives Matter.

But inevitably, and rightly, King will be celebrated this month. We may safely predict that much will be said about him as an icon of civil rights; much will be made of his charisma, his electrifying speeches, and his ‘dream’. Much will be made of his commitment to nonviolence. And again rightly so. There is no doubt that these are all of immense significance.

However, there is a danger that these very celebrations might obscure something still more significant about King: the forceful, radical, even revolutionary trajectory of his ethics and politics.

This was a man who marched many times in the face of violent, racist mobs; a man who was spied upon by US federal authorities, and lied about; who was confronted by institutionally racist law-enforcement officers; who was jailed 14 times; and who, after years of relentless activism, was finally shot dead, still in his thirties, thus cutting short a civil rights career that had lasted only 13 years. This was a campaigner whose views grew more radical as he learned from each experience. This was a man for whom nonviolence was anything but passive.

There is a temptation to absorb the image of King as the ‘dreamer’, and forget about this other side. In an article on King in the Observer of 25 March, for instance, Benjamin Zephaniah praises King’s legacy but says he himself leaned more toward Malcolm X because, as he puts it, “I think without people who were more militant we wouldn’t have the progress we have now. Look at the suffragettes: some of them had to die for what they believed. It was only when they started putting their lives on the line that real change was achieved”. Yet this comes in an article marking King’s assassination. King and others did, precisely, ‘put their lives on the line’.

And their achievements were immense: desegregation of transport, education, voting rights, equal housing legislation, among other breakthroughs, all achieved within the decade and a half of King’s active life.

Moreover, as King came to see the interconnections between the violence of the white supremacist system he battled in the Jim Crow era US south in the 1950s, and the systematic reproduction of economic deprivation in the cities of the north, he became ever more ‘militant’. He was shot, after all, on the eve of a march that formed part of his ‘Poor People’s Campaign’, an “explicitly class-based movement that questioned the verities of American capitalism” as Adam Fairclough puts it (Fairclough, 2001).

The one major failure in King’s vision, arguably, is his failure to make the connection to gender oppression. Whether King would eventually have learned from and accepted the feminist critique is a matter of speculation. It is certain that he should have done so, if only in order to be true to his own philosophy of democracy and nonviolence.

To be clear, there is nothing passive about an ethics of nonviolence. We have to take the full measure of what bell hooks calls ‘killing rage’, and let that justified fury drive today’s grassroots, democratic movements for justice and equality to connect the dots between the issues, and combine to overcome the systematic violence that allows the few to maintain dominance over the many.

There is, alas, still far too much to do – perhaps more than for many decades, given that white supremacists, patriarchs and the oil industry all currently have an ally in the White House.

But there are many movements flowing towards equality, democracy, sustainability, and countless numbers within those movements. We are many, to paraphrase Shelley, they are few.

More, in any case, than the bubbles in a bar of soap.

Maurice Macartney, 4 April 2018


Fairclough, Adam (2001), Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890 – 2000, Penguin, New York.

Marable, Manning (2007), Race Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, University Press of Mississippi (Kindle edition) loc 380.



The business of the neighbourhood

Maurice argues that the economy cannot (and should not) be seen in isolation from the rest of our social, cultural and political lives, but should be seen as embedded in our neighbourhoods.

A local market embedded in a community

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner’, wrote Adam Smith in 1776, ‘but from their regard to their own interest’.

The idea that individual pursuit of self-interest in a free market maximises the welfare of the society as a whole is the founding axiom of the dominant economic paradigm of our era. Question this basic premise and you are likely to be accused of ‘economic illiteracy’.

Take Aditya Chakrabortty. In December 2014 the Adam Smith Institute published a blog post deriding an article Chakrabortty had written for the Guardian about the area of Enfield in north London.

“This is painful”, begins the Adam Smith blog post, “even for The Guardian, even for the history graduate that writes their economic leaders”.

What is so ‘painful’? The sheer economic ‘illiteracy’, it appears, displayed in his article – though it isn’t surprising, the author snootily implies, given that the writer has only a history degree, rather than one in economics.

Chakrabortty’s failing? In the article he had said: “11 Tesco stores [in the area], for instance, provided the PLC with around £8m of its annual profit. And what did the area get back? Not very much, but the highlight included a community toilet scheme and some charitable giving from the supermarket’s corporate social responsibility department.”  He went on to suggest that councils should press big corporations to “give more of their local work to local contractors with local staff”, or press banks to lend more to local businesses.

This is what Tim Worstall, who wrote the Adam Smith blog post, finds so economically “illiterate”. The value, to the area, of Tescos, he says, is the couple of hundred million pounds worth of groceries the chain sold to local shoppers. Nothing more, nothing less. To look outside the products for additional value is “simply insane”. Irrational. Illiterate.

Now, arguably Chakrabortty should have included the groceries in his take on what Tesco contributes. But the Adam Smith Institute’s account is missing something that could be seen as far more important – and doing so deliberately. Ideologically.

It does so, curiously enough, in a way that would have surprised, and possibly dismayed the man whose name it adopts. Think about Smith’s description of the market: this is not an abstract, faceless place of pure exchange between isolated individuals, but a place where there are butchers, brewers, bakers, people with trades and crafts, carts to take their wares to a market where they will meet face to face. Somewhere like Smith’s eighteenth Century Scotland, perhaps, with taverns and ostlers, and coopers, and farriers.  Somewhere, in short, where there is a rough equality of social condition and purchasing power, and where the market is embedded in the local community.

Today’s dominant neo-classical economic paradigm, which is arguably a bare, reductive abstraction from Smith’s rather richer approach, demands selective blindness. It is axiomatic that we must crop out of the picture anything external to the market transaction, anything external to our ‘own interests’ (narrowly conceived) in making the exchange. You get the groceries, the company gets the profit. Anything outside that exchange is immaterial. That’s how we maximise benefit for all.

The problem is, this begs the question: what is external to the exchange? Back to the meal: who made Adam Smith’s dinner? As Katrine Marçal points out, it wasn’t the butcher, brewer or baker. In fact it was Adam Smith’s mother, who cooked for her adult son every day as long as she lived. Yet even in Smith’s text, let alone those of his self-proclaimed intellectual descendants, she remained cropped out of the picture, written out of the story. Not relevant.

In fact, from the moment you leave the house – indeed from the moment you wake up – you find yourself in an evolving world of living interconnections with others, most of which are cropped out of the (reductive, dominant) economic account. From the material in your bed, the carpet, floorboards beneath it, the power that allows you to flick on the light and boil the kettle, you are affected by and affect the lives of others at every stage of your day and throughout your life.

Take the bedsheets. Someone, a living, nameable person, tended the field and grew and harvested the cotton that makes them up; someone else transported it; still another treated it, another spun and wove it. As we saw in Connections and Combinations, cotton drove the industrial revolution, the age of Empire, the growth of slavery, the American Civil War and its long legacy (something we will return to in a later post). And if the cotton industry has a long history, a widespread and long lasting impact, so do the other industries upon which it in turn relies – not least oil. Before you get out of bed you are, in a sense, however minimally, materially connected to climate change and instability in the Middle East.

This is our neighbourhood. These are our neighbours – those we live ‘nearby’, in terms of material, bodily impact, if not in geographical distance.

Let us be clear about this: the way our industries and economies are set up has a material effect politically, socially, and environmentally. Is it really so ‘insane’ to give consideration to these effects on our neighbourhood? Or is it not rather the sanest and most urgent thing a political economist – or a historian – should be doing right now?

Indeed, is the charge of illiteracy not a better fit for the neo-classical economist who so reduces the idea of ‘value’ that it can only be measured in products and profits?

Arguably the illiteracy here is virtually literal. Read Chakrabortty’s article, the one that got Worstall so flustered; of the thousand-plus words, Worstall chose to focus exclusively one aspect of two paragraphs, thus avoiding the problem of dealing with points Chakrabortty raises about, for instance, “massive taxpayer subsidies handed to the corporate sector with fewer questions asked than of disabled people wondering where their living allowance has gone”.

By refusing to read the rest of the article, to engage with the broader issues, Worstall can conveniently focus in on the ‘illiteracy’ of the claims about Tesco.  By making all else illegible one can reduce ‘value’ to the narrow confines of the market exchange.

But this is also to reduce the idea of the ‘economy’ (and therefore economics) in an arbitrary, artificial and tendentious way.

The broader effects of the market – the effects on the environment, the cranking up of power to the wealthy, increasing inequality – are not legible inside the narrow logic of the neo-classical market. But for that very reason the discipline of economics needs to change, precisely to make those broader effects visible.

Adam Smith’s mother can no longer be cropped out of the picture. Nor can the other great chunks of our political, social and cultural lives together be guillotined off and left on the cutting room floor.

There is no business, however far ‘offshore’ it tries to be, that is not embedded in a neighbourhood, a locale, a community or series of communities. The business of that business, then, is very much the business of the neighbourhood. Chakrabortty is right to re-embed economic issues into the community, and right to bring up issues of democracy.

That’s why his new series of articles looking at alternatives to the dominant paradigm is so essential.

Chakrabortty looks at the women who took matters into their own hands in an area of Liverpool left to decline by government, local and national, turning the streets “into a commons for anyone left to protect”.

He looks at how the Council in Preston has adopted a “guerilla localism”, expanding local cooperatives, and adopting policies to make sure what little money there is in the area doesn’t “leak out” to big companies based elsewhere.

The commons and the cooperatives: there’s something of a theme emerging among Chakrabortty’s ‘alternatives’.

Chakrabortty is currently focusing on the UK, but there are many other exciting experiments that have been going on elsewhere – Emilia Romagna in Italy, the Mondragon federation of worker-owned cooperatives in Spain, even the cooperative movement closer to home. You can watch Stephen Nolan of Trademark discuss them at the recent GFI2017 conference in Belfast, filmed by the Combination for the Green Foundation Ireland.

As the damage from the crank economy continues to mount up, it’s surely time mainstream economists, and indeed politicians, stopped cropping these alternatives out of the picture.

Maurice Macartney

14 February 2018

New green shoots

New green shoots, 1 January 2018

For those of us who believe in equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability, 2017 – the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the first calendar year in the aftermath of the UK’s divisive Brexit referendum – had its difficulties.  Here’s hoping 2018 will see some new green shoots emerging!

2018 marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, as well as that of women’s suffrage (albeit partial) in the UK. It is the fiftieth anniversary of the last of the major pieces of Civil Rights legislation in the US, the 1968 Fair Housing Act; but it is also the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King.

Quite what these portents mean for this year remains to be seen. But we at the Combination hope that it will be a happy one, for all our readers.

Maurice Macartney

Tanya Jones

Stephen Baker

1 January 2018